‘We Ought to Beat Him’ – Confederates Prepare the Red River

March 11, 1864 (Thursday)

Dick Taylor might be ready-ish.
Dick Taylor might be ready-ish.

As Union troops under General Nathanial Banks gathered to the south, more, under A.J. Smith were about to leave Vicksburg. To the north, from Little Rock, Arkansas, still another column under Frederick Steele was poised to step off. These machinations did not go unnoticed by Confederate General Richard Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, headquartered in Alexandria, Louisiana.

Since the fall of Vicksburg, Taylor’s small band of perhaps 7,000, which he had dubbed the Army of Western Louisiana, had been on the defensive, waiting for the Federals to make their move. Expecting a stab up the Red River in early 1864, he was surprised that instead General Sherman plunged into Mississippi, capturing Meridian. All believed that Sherman’s next move would be upon Mobile, Alabama. When Sherman’s men returned to Vicksburg, Taylor figured that they would be rested until the spring campaign season.

In the meantime, Taylor busied himself by almost literally scorching the earth on the approaches to Alexandria. Wagons were confiscated, as were horses, mules, and slaves. Males of fighting age who were of questionable loyalty to the South were rounded up and imprisoned. Any who had actually taken up arms against the South were not to be arrested, but simply shot.

General Taylor realized that if he was attacked, he would probably have to retreat to Shreveport, where General Kirby Smith held court as department commander and a sort of military governor. Along the distance between the two cities, Taylor placed supply depots so that the retreat might not become a route. But before Alexandria, Taylor, upon instructions by Kirby Smith, fixed up Fort DeRussy on the Red River, using both soldiers and confiscated slaves in the construction. Taylor wasn’t too hopeful about the fort, being but a small earthen work and vulnerable to land assaults.

And attack was coming – that both Taylor and Smith agreed upon, but how to face that attack was becoming contentious. While Smith wished to wage a defensive war and wanted the troops to fall back to Shreveport, Taylor wanted the little army to make an attack toward Baton Rouge, which he hoped would force the Yankees to turn around, or at least wait long enough that the water levels in the Red River would recede enough to prohibit Union gunboats from entering.

Here's a very large and very approximate map of the overall plan/situation.
Here’s a very large and very approximate map of the overall plan/situation.

Taylor’s spy network within New Orleans was impressive, having learned near the turn of the year that the Federals were planning some sort of campaign up the Red River. By the end of February, they had uncovered that Federal troops had been brought in from Texas, and more had been shipped in from Washington. In early March, with Kirby Smith suspecting that an attack was imminent, Taylor dispatched 3,500 troops under John Walker to Fort DeRussy. Some were placed inside the fort, but most were held in nearby defensive positions to protect the works.

This was mostly done to appease Smith. Taylor still clung to the idea that the Federals were gunning for Mobile. On March 6th, Taylor was still not convinced that he was to be assailed. “I am more and more disposed to think that Banks will be forced to move Mobile-ward,” he wrote to Smith, and planned to “throw everything forward to the Mississippi, and push mounted men (if I can concentrated enough of this arm) into the La Fourche.” He assured Smith that until he knew for certain one way or the other, he would maintain his defensive posture near Alexandria.

Three days later, Taylor was still working it out. “It can hardly be supposed that Grant will permit any forces under his command to leave the principal theater of operations,” wrote Taylor to Smith, “yet common sense forbids the idea that Banks would move from the [Bayou] Teche as a base with his entire force without Sherman’s co-operation.”

A.J. Smith - I'm not Sherman.
A.J. Smith – I’m not Sherman.

His spy networked had uncovered Sherman’s trip to New Orleans and he deduced that it was to meet with Banks to co-ordinate some sort of attack somewhere. Still, he couldn’t quite believe that it would be upon him. He decided to give it a few days to see what further news would bring him.

On this date, two days later, Taylor was convinced that Banks was on the move, and even welcomed it. “Should Banks move by the Teche and Red River,” he reasoned, “we ought to beat him, and I hope, will.” Sherman, however, was a different story. “I shall not believe that he will send a man this side of the Mississippi until he is actually in motion.”

But if Sherman did move, Taylor was sure he would come by land from the north, not from the east via the Red River. If he came from that direction, moving through the town of Monroe, General Theophilus Holmes, commanding troops at Camden, Arkansas, might be able to dive down and frustrate Sherman’s intentions.

The next day, Taylor would know for sure Banks’ intension, and called upon Smith to hurry along any reinforcements that could be gathered. He also learned that Sherman was working with Banks as “difficult as it is to credit.” He still believed that Sherman would come from the north. By this time, Sherman’s men, led by A.J. Smith, had been aboard Admiral David Dixon Porter’s ships, floating south down the Mississippi and ready to charge west up the Red River.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p488-489, 490-491; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign of 1864 by Samuel W. Micham, Jr.; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin. []
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