The Red River Campaign
Cavalry re-enactors pass the Mouton/dePoulignac monument
Scott Dearman photo
One-hundred-fifty years ago Lincoln was stewing about Shreveport. He wanted it eliminated, with its infernal foundries, shipyard and downright annoying roles as the capitol of Confederate Louisiana and military headquarters of the CSA’s Trans-Mississippi Dept. Oh yes, and the Red River city would make a dandy staging area for an invasion of Texas to end the existence of the Confederacy west of the Mississippi. And so was planned the Red River Campaign, whose sesquicentennial months are March and April 2014.
By March 10, 1864, Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commander of the Dept. of the Gulf (former speaker of the U.S. House who needed a big military victory to launch a run for the presidency) had sent his 20,000-man army up Bayou Teche and on to Alexandria under Gen. William Franklin, while Adm. David Porter’s armada, 26 ironclads and other gunboats plus countless transports, steamed to the mouth of Red River to join forces with 15,000 veterans of recently defeated Vicksburg led by Gen. A.J. Smith. Their primary adversary would be Gen. Richard Taylor of St. Charles Parish (son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor), whose detailed recollections of the campaign are contained in his Destruction and Reconstruction (Longman’s, 1955).
Porter and Smith’s first target would be Fort DeRussy on the Red near Marksville, but those who follow the campaign trail will actually see the last battle site first. Start by having some False River catfish in New Roads, then take La.1 to Simmesport. Once over the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, an observation tower and highway marker will soon appear on the left, indicating the May 16 battle of Fort Yellow Bayou, Taylor’s final attempt to prevent the defeated, southbound Banks from crossing the Atchafalaya to safety. Continue north to Marksville and, just past the Tunica-Biloxi Museum, take Preston Street north and M.L. King east to the ancient Indian mounds and museum of the Marksville State Historic Site (SHS) where park manager Doyle Jennings will gladly bring out his Fort DeRussy map and recount the story of that March 14 battle. On rare occasions he can send a staff member to open the future DeRussy SMS’s gate (pure luck; impossible to arrange in advance), just a short drive up Main Street with a right fork on Hwy. 1192 and right turn on Fort DeRussy Lane. Significant fragments remain of the earthen fort, and a large stone marker pays tribute by name to the slaves who constructed it.
To surprise the fort, Smith’s army marched all night to strike from landside, but the real surprise was that Taylor, learning the numbers of his attackers, had evacuated the incomplete fort with only 380 desperate men left to delay its capture long enough for Taylor to evacuate his forces from Alexandria. DeRussy was an Alamo and nothing less. Fighting was fierce but hopeless, and 317 prisoners were being led away as Porter arrived to blast the empty fort.
From Marksville take La.1 north and La.3170 west to U.S.71 at LSU-Alexandria, where a left on 71 and two lefts into the campus on Marshall Drive and Acorn Drive lead to the Epps House. Edwin Epps was overseer of Oakland Plantation, where LSU-A now stands, and the cottage was built in 1852 about 3 miles away on Bayou Boeuf by Solomon Northup, whose story is told in the 1853 book and 2013 film titled 12 Years a Slave. Flattened by a tornado in the 1990s, it was rebuilt here using its original central wall and cypress beams (open noon-4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday). Now, following 71 north to Alexandria, cross the Jackson Street Bridge to find the Forts Randolph-Buhlow SHS up Riverside Drive from the bridge in Pineville.
Officers and men could earn real money “liberating” Southern cotton, and Porter arrived in Alexandria on March 19 with many bales aboard his transports. Banks arrived late, also by river (traveling with his own transports and cadre of cotton speculators), taking his cotton-pickin’ time. Forts Randolph and Buhlow were not yet constructed when Banks and Porter passed through, so the soldiers they left to guard Alexandria were relegated to many days of tenting … and boredom. Someone found a baseball, though, and Richard Holloway of the Randolph-Buhlow SHS has dug up an account, in the memoirs of George Putnam of the New York 176th, of a game with the 13th Connecticut that was interrupted when Rebs struck from the outfield, capturing the centerfielder. We “lost not only our centerfielder but our baseball,” Putnam lamented, “and it was the only baseball in Alexandria.”
Built in anticipation of a second invasion, the two forts were completed in February 1865 and manned by survivors from Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Today the visitor center is filled with military and personal belongings of the men of both armies, with many display items matched with letters, diaries and photos of their owners. Life-sized plaster figures depict battle scenes and slaves digging fortifications, and a boardwalk encircles newly excavated Fort Randolph. Buhlow’s walkway is temporarily closed due to adjacent highway/bridge work.
On April 2, Banks and Porter reached Grand Ecore bluff, east of Natchitoches at the La. 6 bridge, where the Corps of Engineers Welcome Center (whose films and displays tell stories of regional history and of Red River’s modern lock-and-dam system) now stands adjacent to breastworks that protected both armies alternately. On April 6, as Porter headed for Shreveport, Banks ignored the advice of other officers and detoured inland, without naval protection, on the Shreveport-Natchitoches Stagecoach Road. He arrived in the Pleasant Hill/Mansfield vicinity on April 7, although fireworks had begun between units merging on the region as early as April 2 when Gen. Tom Green’s Texas cavalry briefly engaged U.S. Gen. Albert Lee at nearby Marthaville in the Battle of Crumps Hill.
Local lore holds firmly that the “Unknown Confederate” buried on the grounds of Rebel SHS, 3 miles north of Marthaville on La.1221, was a young neighbor of the local Barnhill family who had enlisted that very day. Searching Crumps Hill after the battle, the family found his body, buried him at their home and tended the grave for 98 years until the SHS was established there. Crumps Hill Military Museum, 1.8 miles west of Marthaville at 11389 Hwy. 120, stands at the battlesite and houses owner Terry Waxman’s lifetime collection of battle relics. Visitors are welcome 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday and 1p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, but call ahead: (318) 472-9033.
For a visit to the main war zone, exit I-49 west on U.S.84 (Polk Street) to Mansfield and turn left on La.175 (Louise Street) – the infamous Stagecoach Road to the battlesite chosen by Taylor because it would offer Banks no sideroads or open lands for flanking or retreat.
As for Banks’ march, imagine 35,000 infantry and cavalrymen crowded between 1,000 wagons with six mules apiece – a 20-mile-long convoy – on a dirt road more narrow than today’s La.175 and utterly walled in by dense pine woodlands. Orderly retreat would be impossible, and Banks’ only hope lay in his conviction that there would be no Rebel attack in force before Shreveport. Despite an April 7 cavalry strike at Wilson’s Farm about 7 miles above Pleasant Hill, the procession resumed at dawn, suffered guerilla-type cavalry attacks all day, and at 4 p.m. came abruptly upon the entire Confederate force blocking the roadway. The men in gray were arrayed in three battle lines, two parallel to the road with one right-angle line forming an “L.”
The first Union division formed an “L” of its own and Taylor, hoping for an unwise Union attack, waited till 4 p.m. when the gallant Alfred Mouton of Lafayette, determined to strike before more Feds arrived from the rear, charged the Union right flank with his Louisiana Infantry regiments. He was killed in the effort, and a daring French prince, Gen. Camille Armand Jules Marie dePolignac, took command of the charge, collapsing the Union right and flanking its center as Taylor’s Texas units destroyed the Union left. A secondary Union line, to the rear at Sabine Crossroads, also quickly fell, and by then Union survivors from the front were in wild flight down the stagecoach road, zigzagging past abandoned wagons, disabled artillery, human casualties and deceased drays. The Rebels pursued, but a ridgetop line at Chapman’s Bayou 2 miles farther down held its ground till fighting ceased for the night, Taylor with 1,000 casualties and Banks with 2,500, plus the loss of his artillery and wagons of munitions and provisions.
Stagecoach Road - Frank Leslie Illustration
A statue of Gen. Mouton, son of Gov. Alexandre Mouton, now stands in Lafayette, and an obelisk at Mansfield marks the spot where he fell and dePolignac earned a place in history.
Mansfield’s museum offers a very helpful film and displays of soldiers’ personal items and weaponry, some guns and artillery pieces quite rare, and a walkabout following the park’s printed Battlefield Guide will clarify the story of this last major Confederate victory of the war.
The old Allen House about three miles below stands as a symbol of dozens of homes and churches that served as field hospitals, and gravestones of those who died on the field or in such hospitals can be found as far away as Keachi, Shreveport and even Minden. Just above Pleasant Hill on 175, an old cistern and historic markers surrounded by modern tombstones mark the site of a long-vanished stagecoach stop where many casualties of both armies were temporarily interred, the cemetery now doubling as a tranquil roadside rest area.
Banks’ army marched off well before dawn on April 9, and when Taylor discovered the departure he followed in haste, the battle beginning at 4 p.m. and raging till dark. It was a draw in terms of casualties, but Banks, now without provisions, immediately retreated to Grand Ecore.
Meanwhile Porter had dutifully arrived below Shreveport, but blocked by a sunken vessel across the river and concerned by the Red’s mysteriously falling water level (unaware of the Confederates blasting a dam at Tones Bayou to divert much of the Red’s flow to Bayou Pierre), he turned back toward Grand Ecore. But things were tough all over. Back at Pleasant Hill, Gen. Taylor was suddenly shorn of three infantry divisions, ordered away to Arkansas by Trans-Mississippi commander Kirby Smith. Now unable to deal Banks a final blow, he could only hope to dog the heels of the Yankees on their retreat and set out to do so, also dispatching 2,500 Texas cavalry with Tom Green to intercept Porter’s retreating fleet at Blair’s Landing, near Coushatta in the immediate vicinity of today’s Red River Lock & Dam No. 4.
When Green arrived on April 12, Porter’s flotilla had passed except for two gunboats and a transport. The Texans charged, with Green actually leading his mounted men into the river intending to board the vessels, but he was killed by Naval artillery and the boats escaped. Porter was shelled again on the 13th at Campti, but his ragged flotilla survived to rejoin Banks.
From Pleasant Hill, to catch up with Banks yourself, head south on 175 to Belmont, east on La.120 to the Crumps Hill Museum and Rebel SMS at Marthaville, then La.6 to Natchitoches.
Banks and Porter spent April 10-22 at Grand Ecore pinned down by Gen. Hamilton Bee’s 2,000-man force (believed to be much larger), then risked a quick march down Cane River hoping to avoid Taylor. Bee responded by mounting artillery on bluffs at Monett’s Ferry, a crossing on the Cane 6 miles below Cloutierville, and lining his force along the west bank above his guns – keystone of Taylor’s plan to trap Banks on the island between the Cane and the Red.
Fighting along the Cane began April 23, stretching 15 miles from Magnolia Plantation (Cane River National Heritage Area) through Cloutierville to Bee’s position (the best access from Natchitoches being La.1 south and La.493 east to Melrose Plantation, then La.119 down the Cane to pick up the battle trail at Magnolia Plantation. Farther down 119 take La.1 to Cloutierville and La.495 to the Cane River bridge at La.114, the area of Bee’s fiercest fighting.)
Banks himself, convinced he was trapped, seriously considered surrender, but Union Gen. Henry Birge found another ford near Monett’s and led his brigade on a west bank flanking maneuver that convinced Bee his own escape route was threatened. Bluffed off his bluff, he evacuated, opening the way for Banks to depart the island and burn his way to Alexandria.
Porter arrived in Alexandria to realize his worst fear: His convoy was stranded by low water at Rapides Parish’s namesake rapids, but Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, an engineer, stepped forth with a plan to raise the water level with a “wing dam” and mid-stream chute for passage of the ships. Pestered by daily Confederate raids, 3,000 men worked for 16 days to complete the span and a smaller wing dam below it, and the armada escaped on May 3. Porter departed as A.J. Smith’s 16th Corps burned the city to the ground (as they had attempted unsuccessfully at Natchitoches and Cloutierville), and Banks set forth on his 120-mile retreat from Alexandria to the Mississippi.
Confederate strikes continued along today’s La.1, with a major artillery duel at Mansura on May 16 and that final battle at Yellow Bayou on May 18, where Bailey stepped up again, created a bridge from barges and ushered Banks’ army across the Atchafalaya. The Red River Campaign, an abysmal failure called “one damn blunder from beginning to end,” was history.
Re-enactments and Special Events
Through March 9: Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Gallery presents “Occupy New Orleans, Voices of the Civil War.”
March-May: Alexandria Museum of Art, “Dueling Visions of Liberty: Art of the Civil War,” diverse artistic media compiled by guest curator Charles Chamberlain.
March-Oct.: Fort Randolph’s Sesquicentennial Exhibit – permanent collection enhanced by such special displays as Louisiana unit flags, silk flag of the 159th NY Infantry (which helped build Bailey’s Dam – courtesy of R. Holloway), Bailey’s own sword (courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society) and his Tiffany silver punch bowl presented by captains of the boats saved by his dam.
March 6-9: Bailey’s Dam sesquicentennial, Fts. Buhlow and Randolph SHS, with re-enactments of that “interrupted” baseball game and of a well-armed priest saving his church from the torch.
March: Central Louisiana Civil War Roundtable events: March 6 at Fort Randolph, “Taste of the Old South” food sampling, and “Alexandria, Most Important City of Civil War Louisiana” talk by Dr. Donald Frazier (author of 4-volume study of Louisiana and the war).
March 7: at Kent Plantation House, Dr. Gary Joiner of LSU-Shreveport, author of One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End, speaking on that blunder.
March 22-23: LSU-Alexandria and Fort Randolph host the National Conference on Women in the Civil War.
March 14-16: Dr. Joiner speaks again as part of Civil War Super-Symposium in Shreveport.
April-May: West Baton Rouge exhibit, “Lincoln, the Constitution and Civil War,” Port Allen.
April 4-6: Battle of Pleasant Hill re-enactment – seven engagements and three night camps. Representing Union’s night retreat and CSA pursuit to Pleasant Hill, 19th Louisiana Infantry re-enactors depart Mansfield at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, walk the 16.5 miles and arrive for 2 p.m. town battle (following a 10 a.m. parade). Sunday’s open-field battle begins at 2 p.m., and Friday and Saturday nights bring eerie beauty of nighttime artillery barrages.
April 8: 150th anniversary Battle of Mansfield observance – speakers, plus wreath-laying and rifle salutes (with small contingent of Union- and Confederate-clad re-enactors).
April 26-27: Battle of Mansfield re-enactment, with 500 to 800 re-enactors greeting visitors at encampments and portraying the units and characters of both armies in battle.
May 2-3: Cane River Creole National Historical Park hosts symposium at Northwestern State University on Red River Campaign’s impact on Natchitoches and Cane River, followed on the 3rd by a living history event at the park’s Magnolia Plantation complex.
Nov. 1: Huge in-town battle with re-enactors from many states, Natchitoches.