Confederate Battle - Central Louisiana

April 1864

Alexandria' Way Down In Dixie
Harry G. and Elizabeth Eskew

The Cities of Louisiana Book Services
P.O. Box 170
Alexandria, LA
Southern Publishing Company of New Orleans - 1950
Pages 53 - 64

  • Early in 1864 ominous reports reached Confederate General Richard Taylor, President Zachary Taylor's son, at his head­quarters in Alexandria. General W. T. Sherman was in New Orleans which was in Union hands, holding a series of con­ferences with General N. P. Banks. And Admiral Porter of the Mississippi Squadron was present!

    Sherman, who at the outbreak of the war had resigned his position as president of the first Louisiana state university or seminary, situated on the present site of the U. S. Veteran's hospital in Lee Heights, knew Central Louisiana perhaps better than any other officer in the Northern army. Especial­ly he knew the behavior of the river at the rapids above Alexandria-or thought he did.

    Rumors had been rife all winter of a push up Red River to clamp the Union vise upon Louisiana and East Texas. Here was something to substantiate those rumors!

    But Taylor's informants did not learn the full story and he did not guess it-that the Union brass in New Orleans was mapping "one of the most elaborate episodes in the river war." This was to be a huge land-and-water enterprise in­volving some 31,000 Union ground troops and a score of iron­clads and lesser gunboats in addition to a large number of transports.

    Porter's fleet that had helped humble Vicksburg and Port Hudson the year before-"the most formidable force that had ever been collected in the western waters"-entered the mouth of Red River on March 12, 1864, escorting a detachment of Banks' army. In this command were 10,000 men loaned by Sherman for the subjugation of Red River country, who would later rejoin Sherman in his "war is hell" march through Georgia to the sea. These troops, com­manded by General A. G. Smith, and another corps of 18,000 under General Franklin, then at Franklin, Louisiana, were to join forces at Alexandria. Thence they planned to con­tinue up the river to the capture of Shreveport and the occupation of Northeast Texas.

    This is the story of what befell Banks' army above Alex­andria and of the Confederacy's golden hour-when the boys from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri though outnumbered nearly three-to-one licked the pants of the Federal "political general" and sent his Yankee legions reel­ing back from hammer blows delivered against them at Mansfield and Spring Hill. Red River cooperating gleefully delivered up the mighty Mississippi Squadron in a trap above the falls at the upper end of Alexandria.

    After the route at Mansfield Federal General Emory with orders to form a holding line for the fleeing Union corps would report meeting "crowds of disorganized calvary, wagons, ambulances and loose animals." Next day his own troops would be scurrying south from Spring Hill for the cover of the guns of the fleet at Grand Ecore, four miles from Natchitoches, "leaving 400 wounded and the dead un-buried."

    Admiral Porter, even as the boats he'd sent to Springfield Landing 110 miles upriver from Grand Ecore for the pro­posed rendezvous with the land forces fought their way back down after losing the supposedly-invincible ironclad Eastport and several lighter gunboats and troop transports that became veritable "slaughterhouses" beneath the shore batteries, would make this confidential report to the Sec­retary of the Navy:

    Flag-ship Crickett,
    Grand Ecore,
    April 14, 1864
    "The army here has met with a great defeat ... I am convinced the rebels would have attacked this broken army at Grand Ecore had we not been here to cover them. I do not think our army would be in a condition to resist them ... I could not leave this army now without disgracing myself forever; and, when running a risk in their cause, I do not want to be deserted. One of my officers has already been asked, 'If we would not burn our gunboats as soon as the army left?' speaking as if a gunboat was a very ordinary affair, and could be burned with indifference. I enclose two notes I received from General Banks and Stone. There is a faint attempt to make a victory of this, but two or three such victories would cost us our existence."

    This concern on the part of the Admiral for his fleet would be but a prelude to the black days to come down­river when his ships would be trapped at the falls. Un­fortunately for the cause of the South at least, this is also the story of a monumental blunder on the part of the near­sighted Confederate commander of the "Trans-Mississippi Department" who let the legitimate fruits of this great military victory slip through his fingers.

    To understand better the importance of that Red River campaign in the late spring of 1864-and what the loss of the army and river fleet would have cost the Federals in determining the outcome of the war-take a glimpse at the national scene through the eyes of Professor James G. Randall, of the University of Illinois history department, who wrote in his book "The Civil War and Reconstruction" as follows:
    "As the weeks dragged on during the summer of 1864, with their increasing military disappointments and sense of Union discouragement culminating in the Early raid and the narrowly averted capture of Washington, the clouds of depression, defeatism and political opposition thickened and darkened . . . Whether viewed from the angle of Greeley's pacifism or of Wade's aggressive­ness, the national prospect under existing management seemed, in the dark summer of 1864, nearly hopeless. Grant seemed to be accomplishing nothing; Lee appeared invincible; three years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties had gone for naught; Sherman was ap­parently getting nowhere; Early had almost seized Washington. . .

    The government's financial credit was ebbing; further calls for troops but emphasized the futility of Union effort; and meanwhile the people were made to believe that the South was anxious to negotiate but was rebuffed by a stubborn administration at Washington." Now here follows a Confederate general's viewpoint, written after the war when he was in possession of most of the facts, of what the victory in Louisiana might have meant to the cause of the South:
    "In all the ages since the establishment of the Assyrian monarchy no commander has possessed equal power to destroy a cause. (That of the South) Far away from the great centers of conflict in Virginia and Georgia, on a remote theatre, the opportunity of striking a blow decisive of the war was afforded. An army that included the strength of every garrison from Memphis to the Gulf had been routed, and, by the incompetency of its commander, was utterly demoralized and ripe for destruction. But this army was permitted to escape, and its 19th corps reached Chesapeake Bay in time to save Washington from General Early's attack, while the 13th, 16th, and 17th corps reinforced Sherman in Georgia. More than all, we lost Porter's fleet, which the falling river had delivered into our hands; for the protection of an army was necessary to its liberation, as without the army a dam at the falls could not have been con­structed. With this fleet, or even a portion of it, we would have at once recovered possession of the Missis­sippi, from the Ohio to the sea, and undone all the work of the Federal since the winter of 1861. Instead of Sherman, Johnston would have been reinforced from west of the Mississippi, and thousands of absent men, with fresh hope, would have rejoined Lee. The Southern people might have been spared the humiliation of defeat, and the countless woes and wrongs inflicted on them by their conquerors."

    The Union jaugernaught commenced to move up Red River valley on March 13, capturing Simmesport almost without a shot and knocking; out Fort de Russy the next day before sundown. The commander, N. P. Banks, was a story­book general who never missed a parade, a party or a civil function where his presence would be noted. The troops under him, especially those of General A. G. Smith from Sherman's command, were arrogant and mean to the non-combatants in their path. Perhaps no army in history ever deserved more the roll of "hunter-hunted" that eventu­ally befell them. Indeed, they'd be some of the happiest soldiers in history when again they saw the mouth of the "treacherous, crooked, narrow, and turbid stream, whose high banks furnished the most favorable positions for artillery and for the deadly enemy sharp-shooters."

    Dick Taylor's boys were going to make them pay a price for their mischief--- for setting the torch to the countryside and in the end sacking and burning Alexandria out of pure devilment.

    The Confederate General Walker, leaving token resistance at the half-completed breastworks at De Russy, had hastened away to join Mouton and Polignac on Bayou Boeuf when the Union forces struck there. The combined Confederate forces retreated along a course probably running through Camp Claiborne. Taylor ordered the military stores at Alexandria loaded on river steamers and moved above the falls.

    The Mississippi Squadron moved into the waters before Alexandria on the evening of March 15 and the town be­came the base of supplies for action directed against Shreveport. Union General Franklin came on from Franklin by Opelousas. Banks' strength now amounted to over 30, 000 ground troops for the next stage of the advance.

    The general presented himself in Alexandria on the 26th and looked the situation over first hand. He'd been temp­orarily delayed by an election victory celebration in Baton Rouge.

    He saw nothing to be alarmed about and much to be optimistic over. The river was acting contrary. The slope from Shreveport to Alexandria at high water is a little over a hundred feet, but immediately above Alexandria two small rapids, then called the Falls of Alexandria, interrupted navigation when the water was low, as has been noted elsewhere. Usually the spring rise came before this-for twenty years before 1864 it had only failed once to rise, in 1855. This year it was exceptionally backward, but the awkward situation of the navy would last at most a few days and then the heavy gunboats could go over the rapids and proceed upriver.

    Sherman's corps under General Smith had skirmished with Confederate cavalry skulking in the vicinity of Bayou Rapides and on the 21st, on a cold rainy night as the Con­federates hugged their camp fires near James' store over­looking Red River valley, some 200 of them with four guns had been taken. Crediting even the most exaggerated ac­counts of his scouts and informants, Banks could not visualize an army before him capable of giving anything more than token resistance.

    So the advance was ordered and Banks marched with his army by land to Natchltoches, eighty miles away. Smith's command went forward in twenty-six transports convoyed by gunboats and were landed at Grand Ecore. United again, the army marched out of Natchitoches on the 6th and 7th, directed upon Mansfield.

    In the woods and along the bayous ahead of Banks' on­coming horde were some of the fightingest men who ever wore uniforms, and right now they were spoiling for a scrap. There were Green's wild Texas cavalry and Mouton's infuriated 18th Louisianans who'd begged every day during the long retreat from the banks of the Atchafalaya for the chance to stand and fight the enemy on Louisiana soil.

    And the strongest heart among them was that of their commander, General Taylor. Here was a Louisianan who'd served Lee valiantly in the early years of the war in Vir­ginia. Wounded, he'd been sent to Louisiana as soon as he was able to travel to organize resistance to the Federals west of the Mississippi in this state.

    Taylor was at home in the woods and used to fighting against great odds, and not unused to the feel of a hot weapon in his own hand,' In these respects he differed somewhat from Banks who dealt only with the strategy of his campaigns and thought his own strategy in this one was a brilliant piece of work accounting for Taylor's continuing withdrawal. Concerning this his reports to the War Depart­ment were not in the least modest.

    Banks probably expected Taylor to continue to fall back until he reached the strong works of Shreveport. Taylor had his choice from the commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department of doing that and running the risk of being cooped up there, or--- and this seems not to have occurred to Banks--- of standing for a fight.

    Informed of Banks' advance on the 6th and 7th, Taylor rode forward to see the shape of things--- and learned some­thing that caused him to hasten back toward Mansfield to select ground for a battle the next day which would be the 8th.

    Taylor's forces totaled 8,800, excluding 4,400 infantrymen from Arkansas and Missouri then making forced marches for Mansfield but who could not possibly reach there in time for a fight the next day. Banks, on the other hand, had 25,000 men in his main movement, having left three thousand troops at Alexandria to watch the stores there and at Natchitoches.

    Banks' plan of march was 5,000 mounted men in the front, followed by their wagon trains and much artillery, and then the infantry followed by more wagons and artillery. This vast army was traveling a single, narrow road that ran through dense woods between Spring Hill and Mansfield, so that the front and rear of Banks's column was separated by twenty miles---a good day's march!

    Taylor selected a site at Sabine Cross Roads, three miles in front of Mansfield, and ordered Walker and Mouton to take battle positions on either side of the road along which the Federals were advancing. Then he notified the com­mander of the Trans-Mississippi Department in Shreveport that this was it!

    Next morning Green pulled in everything but a screening force of cavalry and took a position covering Mouton's flank. A regiment of cavalry covered Walker's right flank. The Confederate army, in battle array, settled down to wait.

    Nothing happened, other than a report arriving from Liddel, north of Red River with 500 horses, saying that Admiral Porter had left Grand Ecore that morning, prob­ably heading for Springfield Landing above, with 2,500 troops and six gunboats and twenty transports. Shortly after mid-day was passed, mounted troops, im­mediately recognizable as part of the advance screening force, came rushing through the woods with Federal cavalry in hot pursuit. Before they knew it the Federals were upon the men of the 18th Louisiana, and were paying a stiff price to the Confederate sharpshooters.

    Then two hours after the cavalry had been driven off infantry appeared in the woods before Mouton. After that nothing more happened. Around four o'clock in the after­noon Taylor decided that the enemy would not attack that day, choosing to wait for the main body of his army to come up. So at 4 p. m. he ordered the whole Confederate line forward.

    The rebel yell shattered the quiet of the North Louisiana woods. The white-hot fury of the Louisianans seared a way through the opposing troops. Brave Mouton was killed as he led the charge, and the ISth's beloved Colonel Walker also went down mortally wounded. Losses among the men like­wise were great. But the charge carried.

    The Federals turned and ran for their lives, leaving prison­ers, guns and wagons. Two miles in the rear the 2nd Division of the 13th Federal corps hastily dug in their heels to try to slow the route but the Confederate onslaught rolled over them almost without a pause.

    Toward sunset the Confederates came upon General Emo­ry's corps, drawn up on a ridge overlooking a little stream. Here some of the bitterest fighting of the day took place before the Federals gave ground. Nearly exhausted, Taylor's army fell down on the banks of the stream as twilight fell. Green's cavalry pursued the Federals to the outskirts of Spring Hill.

    Next day the Confederate forces drove General Smith's fresh corps from Spring Hill, and now the entire Federal army was in a general route, running for the cover of the gunboats they'd left at Grand Ecore. The navy, learning of the disaster on land, began a costly retreat down the river from Springfield Landing, attempting to reach Grand Ecore.

    That night after the Federals had been beaten at Spring Hill, General E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississipppi Department, came to Taylor's camp and stopped the pursuit. He ordered the infantry back to Mansfield.

    His superior's decision was a bitter dose for General Taylor, and one that he could never understand. Federal General Steele was in Arkansas but not yet as close to Shreveport as was General Banks at Grand Ecore. Perhaps even General Smith could not believe that the Confederate army had won such a staggering victory. His decision that night in Taylor's camp was a weighty one and as pointed out may have been decisive in the outcome of the war, or at least in the peace bargaining.

    Banks licked his wounds at Grand Ecore and then started for Alexandria. Now the army that on its proud march northward had not seen fit to use the torch set fire to the countryside. Clearly this was an act of vengeance.

    The men from the 19th corps (Eastern Troops) did all in their power to prevent these outrages, which were com­mitted by Sherman's corps loaned for the campaign.

    At Alexandria the river had suddenly run out on the navy and eight ironclads, the strongest in the fleet, with four other gunboats and many transports, were unable to get over the rapids. Banks' expedition faced calamity that promised to be even worse than that of the army's defeat. Indeed, in the words of a Federal officer, it promised to be "the worst thing that has happened this war!"

    Admiral Porter dispatched an urgent secret message to the Secretary of Navy, saying: "If General Banks should determine to evacuate this country, the gunboats will be cut off from all communication with the Mississippi. . . If left here by the army, I will be obliged to destroy the fleet to prevent it falling to the hands of the enemy. . ."

    Admiral Porter is pleading for the very life of his fleet as he writes again more urgently than ever: "We have fought hard for the opening of the Mississippi and have reduced the naval forces of the rebels in this quarter to two vessels. If we have to destroy what we have here, there will be material enough to build half a dozen ironclads (for the Confederacy), and the Red River which is now of no further dread to us, will require half the Mississippi Squadron to watch it. "Our prestige will receive a shock from which it will be long in recovering; and if the calamities I dread should overtake us, the annals of this war will not present so dire a one as will have befallen us."

    Taylor, now with barely 5,300 men at his disposal, kept Banks' pickets driven in, and downstream he cut off all river communication with the Mississippi for fifteen days. Supplies were commencing to run low, the troops were jittery and morale within the Federal ranks was so bad Confederate couriers slipped in and out of Alexandria almost at will.

    In this dark hour for the Navy, as is usually the case, American ingenuity came to the rescue. A young Federal officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Bailey, proposed an amaz­ing piece of engineering-amazing, that is, if it worked. Most doubted that it would and many jeered. The Con­federates, when they learned about it, laughed. Their pickets and prisoners alike ridiculed the Federals for at­tempting anything so foolish. But Bailey had the faith that moves mountains and the high brass was willing to try any­thing that promised to rescue the fleet.

    What he proposed was no less a task than to dam the Red River below the falls, thus raising the water level so the gunboats could float downstream! Even in this day and time it sounds a bit preposterous, but---

    For the next fifteen days an estimated four thousand men worked feverishly at the monumental task. Time was now running very short. Supplies were nearly exhausted and the boats attempting to go downstream were quickly driven back or knocked out by the Confederate shore batteries. The loss of life on these downstream expeditions was terrific.

    The falls, since blasted out of the riverbed, were about a mile in length. Below at the point where the dam was to be built the river was 758 feet wide and the current was then between nine and ten miles an hour.

    A great forest of giant pines on the north bank was cut to build a "tree dam," formed of the large trees laid with the current, the branches interlocking, the trunks down stream and cross-tied with heavy timbers. On top of this was piled brush, brick and stone, and the weight of the water as it rose bound the fabric more closely down upon the bottom of the river.

    Then from the south bank, where the bottom was more stony and trees not so plentiful, great cribs were made of logs and pushed out and sunk with stone and brick. Several brick structures in Alexandria were pulled down for their material, and stone was brought down the river in flat-boats. On the south side, a mile away, was a large sugar-house which was torn down and the whole building, ma­chinery and kettles went to ballast the dam. Between the cribs and the tree dam on the other side a length of 150 feet remained open. Now Bailey filled four large coal barges with brick, and sank them in this opening, sealing the river's flow.

    This first dam had taken eight precious days to complete, and even on the eighth, three of the lighter vessels, the Osage, Neosho, and Fort Hindman, passed the upper falls and waited just above Bailey's dam for the chance to escape from the trap. The heavier vessels could not make it in that depth of water but the Federals saw that there was a chance of success in their mad undertaking. Then suddenly two of the barges in mid-stream were swept away as the pent-up river broke lose!

    Admiral Porter ordered the Lexington to try to get over the upper rapids before the water should fall, and to proceed through the 66-foot gap in the dam. Her steam was ready and she went ahead, passing the upper falls and steer­ing straight for the opening. There the furious rushing of the waters seemed to threaten her with destruction.

    She entered the gap with a full head of steam, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three heavy rolls, and then sweeping into deep water with the current, round­ed to at the bank, safe. An eyewitness reported, "One great cheer rose from the throats of the thousands looking on, who had before been hushed into painful silence, awaiting the issue with beating hearts."

    The Neosho, Hindman and Osage came through, but the Mound City, Carondelet, Pittsburg, Ozark, Louisville and Chilicothe were still in the trap. Now Bailey decided not to try to rebuild the dam but to construct two wing-dams on the upper falls. These, ex­tending slightly down stream, took part of the weight caus­ing a further rise of the water that allowed all the remain­ing ships to pass over the upper falls, and through the gap in the main dam to safety.

    To build the wing dams and a bracket-dam a little lower down to help guide the current, Bailey asked for all the brick and metal ballast he could get. Buildings were pulled down in Alexandria and Federal troops scoured the country­side as far as they dared go, gathering machinery from the cotton gins and sugar mills. Central Louisiana's "infant industry" was thus dealt a fatal blow.

    The "stone cribs of the dam soon were swept away but the tree-dams were still to be seen as late as 1883, according to a report of a visitor that year. The main dam's position forced the channel gradually over to the south shore, en­croaching seriously upon the solid land and thus causing a large part of the front of Alexandria, at the upper suburb, to wash away.

    Many years later, in our own times, the U. S. Engineers built a huge levee partly to eliminate this threat to the city caused by Bailey's dam.

    The army marched out of Alexandria on April 14, 1864. They sacked and fired the town as they departed. Scarcely a building was spared. On the 16th Banks's army reached Simmesport and the war was over in Central Louisiana- and the shining hour of opportunity to deliver the Federals a crushing blow, perhaps even a blow that would have de­cided the outcome of the war, had passed!

    Alexandria burns