‘To Amuse the Fort’ – Largest Federal Fleet in the West Steams Toward Rebs

March 12, 1864 (Saturday)

A.J. Smith's got firsties.
A.J. Smith’s got firsties.

Very little seemed to be going right, which couldn’t have been all too surprising. Three Federal columns were to step off at different times from points hundreds of miles apart to converge on the same spot at the same instance. Throw in the largest Naval fleet ever gathered in the West, and it’s a wonder anything at all went right.

General Nathaniel Banks had conceived of a plan, based upon ideas from then General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, to attack up the Red River, a tributary to the Mississippi. He was then to capture Alexandria, Louisiana, and move on to Shreveport. Banks believed that he would be aided by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Frederick Steele, but Halleck’s orders to both were vague, and nobody seemed to have a firm grasp on what to do or when.

As Banks planned and stalled, Sherman’s column, coming from Vicksburg, was given to Andrew Jackson Smith, as Sherman was now filling General Grant’s old shoes, and James McPherson was filling Sherman’s. Due to rains, nobody was having any luck leaving on time, but Smith’s column left first and arrived at the mouth of the Red River on the date previous to this. Greeting him upon his arrival was a message from Banks explaining that he would be delayed by over a week, and would not be able to meet up with him before the 21st.

A.J. Smith, commanding the Sixteenth Corps, was a hard drinking Pennsylvanian who had spent most of his pre-war career in the West. Though a fair enough commander, he was vulgar and displayed zero enthusiasm for serving under a political general such as Nathaniel Banks. After arriving at the mouth of the Red, he met with Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the fleet.

From Banks’ message, it seemed as if he wanted them to take Alexandria before the Army of the Gulf’s arrival. But it was not as simple as that. Standing between the Federal forces and their quarry was Fort DeRussy, an earthen work now garrisoned with ten pieces of heavy artillery and several thousand Rebels.

Vague map showing approximate Federal movements.
Vague map showing approximate Federal movements.

“It was therefore deemed best to act against it in conjunction,” wrote Smith in his report, “the army in the rear by land and the navy by river.” Smith’s troops boarded transports and both steamed up the Red River.

Admiral Porter’s fleet consisted of well over 100 vessels, including fifteen ironclads, such as the Essex, Carondelet, and the Benton. Before noon the entire flotilla was under way, gunboats in the lead, followed closely by the transports. Though it had rained quite a bit the week previous, the larger boats barely had sufficient water to pass up the river.

The USS Eastport was tasked with “clearing away the heavy obstructions the rebels had placed in the river, and to amuse the fort until the army could land at Simmsport and get into the rear of the enemy’s works.”

USS Eastport
USS Eastport

Where the Atchafalaya meets the Red, nine of the gunboats turned south to escort the transport ships to Simmsport, while the rest of the fleet continued on toward the fort. Around noon, the gunboats preceding the troop transports arrived at their destination, but found Simmsport guarded by a small Confederate detachment about three miles from the shoreline. The Benton made landing and her crew drove back the enemy pickets. The transports carrying Smith’s infantry landed, but the troops didn’t even have to touch dry land before the assembled Rebels made a swift retreat to Fort DeRussy, thirty miles to the north.

Leading the rest of the fleet up the Red River, the Eastport was ordered by Porter to “commence removing the obstruction in the river,” and, if accomplished, to “move up within a short distance of Fort DeRussy, but make no attack until I [Porter] get up with the main force, though, if there is any force at DeRussy, you can amuse them by feints until the army get into their rear.” Lt. Commander S.L. Phelps was warned to “take every precaution against torpedoes, and protect your men against sharpshooters.”

Meanwhile, as Banks stalled, and Smith and Porter plotted, General Frederick Steele was making excuses. Steele was to come in from the north from his base in Little Rock, but reasoned that it simply wasn’t necessary. Steele argued that since Banks had 17,000 men and A.J. Smith had 10,000, his own were redundant. “This is more than an equal for everything Kirby Smith can bring against them,” wrote Steele to General Halleck. “[Kirby] Smith will run.” Steele wanted to, instead, hold his present position so he could drive the Rebels out of Arkansas, and was complaining that Sherman “insists upon my moving upon Shreveport to co-operate with the above-mentioned force with all my effective force.”

He had made some preparations, and vowed to follow orders, though it was “against my own judgment and that of the best-informed people here.” He gave the fairly typical reasons: bad roads, no provisions, etc., and soon devolved into nitpicking over which route his 7,000 men should take. He warned that no matter which roads he used, he would probably be assailed by detached parties of Rebels that would form behind him, and he would be “obliged to fall back to save my depots, &c.”

The following day, Halleck would tell Steele to co-operate with Banks and Sherman, until General Grant ordered him otherwise. Word had not yet gotten around that Grant was now in Halleck’s former position of General-in-Chief.

Banks’ plans weren’t exactly unraveling, but the campaign was certainly off to an inauspicious start.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p197, 304; Part 2, p576, 581-582; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, p24-25, 28; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. []
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