March 7, 1864 (Monday)
William Tecumseh Sherman’s thrust to Meridian, Mississippi was over, and his men returned to Vicksburg. Though destructive and rather perplexing to the Confederates, more than anything, it seemed more like something to do while waiting for the next campaign. All along, Washington had wanted Sherman to worth with General Nathaniel Banks on the other side of the Mississippi to wash out the Confederate army under Richard Taylor from Louisiana. Now that Sherman’s men were back, it was time to look at this idea once more.
Both Banks and Sherman had eyed Mobile, Alabama as a much more interesting target, but soon Banks was the banging the drums of war against the Red River Valley. This was General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s doing. Halleck’s plan was for Banks’ 15,000-storng Army of the Gulf, to march north along Bayou Teche, while 10,000 men from Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee were floated up the Red River. They would meet in Alexandria and fall upon Shreveport. A third column under Frederick Steele would move out from Little Rock, Arkansas for the same destination. To make things more interesting, Halleck insisted that Sherman’s troops be returned to Vicksburg by April 10. This was apparently to be another side show.
Orders were issued to the three commanders, as well as to David Dixon Porter, whose naval fleet would be accompanying Sherman’s men. The orders, however, were vague and almost disinterested, and could easily have been construed for mere suggestions. Additionally, nobody seemed to want Nathaniel Banks to be their commander. Even Porter wanted little to do with Banks, remembering his horrible botching of the Port Hudson campaign.
Undaunted, General Banks was optimistic, and wanted to start off as soon as possible. Though Banks was ready in January, nobody cared enough about it to join in his enthusiasm, and all waited for Sherman’s Meridian Expedition to come to an end.
The reason Sherman considered accompanying Banks was to keep an eye on his own troops. General Grant warned him that if he did not, the troops would be “permanently lost from his command,” as they would be snatched up by Banks and never returned. And so on March 2, Sherman arrived in New Orleans to discuss the details in person. He offered 10,000 men, and promised Porter’s reluctant support. Sherman also vowed to be at Alexandria by March 17. This delighted Banks, who then explained that he (Banks) would personally oversee the expedition, and that Sherman was more than welcomed to stay in New Orleans for the duration. This was his sly way of telling Sherman that he wasn’t wanted.
Sherman was disgruntled, and reminded Banks that his troops had to be returned by mid-April. To oversee his men, Sherman selected General A.J. Smith. Banks still outranked him, but Smith wouldn’t much care. During the meeting, Banks went on and on about the inauguration of the Unionist governor for Louisiana, which was to take place March 4. Such planning went into the details, and Sherman wondered if Banks gave even a fraction of the thought to the Red River Campaign.
Nevertheless, the troops would step off on this date. From Franklin, Louisiana, 5,000 cavalry under the command of General Albert Lee trotted north towards Alexandria. The infantry was to move the following day, but a deluge of rains held up the column until the 15th. Sherman’s men would also leave late. Though they were supposed to shove off on this date, they would not start until the 10th. In Little Rock, General Steele had never planned to leave on time. It was an inauspicious beginning to what would become an inauspicious campaign.1
- Sources: For this brief overview, I stuck to secondary sources – my apologies. Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]