Because of the French threat (Maximilian) in Mexico, Lincoln wanted military operations undertaken early in 1864 to raise the Federal flag over some part of Texas. Although Generals Grant, Sherman, and Banks were opposed, a line of operations up the Red River was finally prescribed. (Halleck favored it.) Banks, as senior department commander (Gulf), was directed in January 1864 to work out a joint operation with the other two department commanders, Sherman (Miss.) and Frederick Steele (Ark.).
As finally agreed, Banks was to move up Bayou Teche with 17,000 troops and link up at Alexandria on 17 March with 10,000 that Sherman would send up the Red River. Steele was to advance south from Little Rock with 15,000 and join Banks at Alexandria, Natchitoches, or Shreveport, as seemed best. (As it turned out, Steele was so late starting that he played no part in the operations.)
A. J. Smith's command embarked at Vicksburg and was escorted into the Red River by Admiral Porter with "the most formidable force that had ever been collected in western waters": 13 ironclads and seven light-draught gunboats. After leaving Vicksburg Smith learned that Banks had not departed on schedule, and also that the Red River was obstructed at Fort De Russy, LA.
Infantry units which had been landed by the flotilla about 30 miles downstream arrived by fast march and captured Fort De Russy after a brief but heated battle. EASTPORT and NEOSHO arrived just as the Confederates surrendered to the Army, the ironclads having been delayed by obstacles in the river. While most of the Confederates in the area escaped, about 250 prisoners were taken.[See Newspaper Coverage]
Pursuing the fleeing enemy, Porter's fleet and Federal troops arrive at Alexandria jsut as the last of the Confederate transports was clearing the rapids above the city. Having been evacuated by Confederate troops, the city surrenderd without contest.
For the next 10 days, the fleet lay moored at Alexandria while the remainder of Banks' force moved into the area. Admiral Porter found his further passage endangered by low water that made it only barely possible for the fleet to pass the double rapids. General Banks also learned that A. J. Smith's contingent would have to be returned no later than 15 April to participate in the Atlanta campaign.
The first of the light-draught gunboats crosses over the rapids above Alexandria, with several more following in small groups over the next week. Most of the ironclads were forced to remain at Alexandria while HASTINGS and CHOCTAW were sent back to the Mississippi.
With great difficulty, Admiral Porter got thirteen of his gunboats over the Alexandria rapids and proceed toward Grand Ecore followed by the transports. Despite restrictions and his slow start, Banks ordered an advance on Shreveport. Leaving Grover's division at Alexandria, Banks reached Natchitochesthe following day.
The federal fleet arrived at Grand Ecore to find it also abandoned. Just above this point was yet another set of rapids over which only the smallest of Porter's gunboats could pass.
Banks left Natchitoches with all but Kirby Smith's division which would be moved on transports.
Porter started upriver with OSAGE, LEXINGTON, NEOSHO, CHILLICOTHE, CRICKET and FORT HINDMAN, accompanied by some 20 transports, under orders to rendezvous with the land column within three days at Springfield Landing--10 miles by river below Shreveport.
While Banks and his army battled the narrow roads, lack of water, and the Confederates, Porter's fleet was dealing with the Red River. Dr. Harris Beecher, regimental surgeon of the 114th New York Infantry, said he had "..never before seen such a compromise of earth and water as the Red River."
Spring, which normally brings even heavier rains than normal to the bayous of Louisiana was unusually dry in 1864. Making matters even worse was the ingenuity of the Confederates who were dropping the level of the Red by digging channels to divert water out of it. Consequently, the river was at a 20-year low and Porter's boats constantly ran aground on sandbars. Porter managed to scrape by--sometimes literally--as one ship after another ran aground or hit snags and had to be repaired, pulled off or abandoned and destroyed. His most powerful ship, the ironclad EASTPORT with her 11-inch guns, was too large to pass Grand Ecore.
While the Naval task force was working its way upriver, General Banks' forces played a three-day game of "tag" with the Confederates, culminating in the Battle of Pleasant Hill at sabine Crossroads.
[See Newspaper Coverage]
Marking his reduced fleet's farthest point of advance up the Red River, Porter later reported "When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across Red River, 1 mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept."
Thinking no less than four Confederate ironclads may be waiting for him at Shreveport, Porter had deemed it essential that the EASTPORT accompany the fleet at all times and, therefore, halted to await the arrival of Banks' army.
Porter saw Confederate cavalry patrols instead. He said to a staff officer (paraphrasing), "Banks has been defeated and now the enemy is looking for us." Porter was right. He turned his ships about and started back down the river. But already the Confederates had moved guns--many captured from Banks--and scores of sharpshooters to the river's edge. While passing Blair's Landing Porter's lead boat, the HASTINGS, received a hot welcome. The boat was struck so many times by point blank cannon fire that she careened out of control into the opposite bank. The transport Black Hawk [not the naval steamer of the same name, which remained at Alexandria] would receive so many minie-balls that Porter later claimed there wasn't a six-inch section of her sides unmarked.
From this point, the story is best told by the following excerpts from the Official Report of Captain Thomas O. Selfridge, USN.
"The river was falling; its narrowness and its high banks afforded the best possible opportunities for harassing attacks, and the bends of the river were so short that it was with the greatest difficulty they were rounded by vessels of the Osage type. Steaming with the current, the OSAGE was almost unmanageable, and on the morning of April 12th the transport Black Hawk was lashed to her starboard quarter, and thus the descent was successfully made till about 2 p.m., when the OSAGE ran hard aground opposite Blair's Plantation, or Pleasant Hill Landing, the bows downstream and the starboard broadside bearing on the right bank.
While endeavoring to float her, the pilot of the Black Hawk reported a large force gathering in the woods some three miles off dressed in Federal uniforms. I ascended to the pilot-house, and scanning them carefully made sure they were Confederates, and at the same time directed Lt. Bache of the LEXINGTON to go below and open an enfilading fire upon them.
Every preparation being made, the attack was quietly awaited. The battery unlimbered near the LEXINGTON but a caisson being blown up they quickly withdrew. The enemy came up in column of regiments and, protected by the high and almost perpendicular banks, opened a terrific musketry fire, and at a distance not exceeding one hundred yards.
Shellfiring under the circumstances was almost useless. The great guns of the OSAGE were loaded with grape and canister and, when these were exhausted, with shrapnel having fuses cut to one second. Our fire was reserved til the heads of the enemy were seen just above the bank, when both guns were fired.
Everything that was made of wood on the OSAGE and Black Hawk was pierced with bullets. Upon the iron shield in the pilot-house of the latter were the marks of sixty bullets, a proof of the hotness of the fire.
This unequal contest could not continue long, and after an hour and a half the enemy retreated with a loss of over four hundred killed and wounded, as afterward ascertained. Among the former was General Thomas Green, their foremost partisan fighter west of the Mississippi. [Of this action Admiral Porter, in his "Naval History of the Civil War", writes as follows: "Selfridge conducted this affair in the handsomest manner, inflicting such a punishment on the enemy that their infantry gave no more trouble, having come to the conclusion that fighting with muskets against iron-clads did not pay."] The OSAGE sustained a loss of seven wounded. [HASTINGS, at the rear of the transport flotilla, suffered only minor damage.]
15 to 25 April
... found the squadron with its fleet of transports safe back at Grand Encore, not much the worse for their encounters with the enemy and the snags and sand bars of the river. Admiral Porter was called to Alexandria by the affairs of the Mississippi squadron, leaving the OSAGE and LEXINGTON at Grand Encore. The larger iron-clads had with great difficulty been forced over the bar below Grand Encore and sent on toward Alexandria, whither the OSAGE and LEXINGTON followed them.
The EASTPORT (Lt.Cmdr. Phelps), the largest of our iron-clads which had joined the squadron [above Alexandria] for the first time on this expedition, unfortunately struck a torpedo eight miles below Grand Encore, and her bottom was so badly injured that she sank. Captain Phelps was very proud of his ship, and went to work with a will to save her. After the most untiring efforts he succeeded in bulkheading the leak, and, assisted by two steam-pump boats which the admiral had brought to his assistance, succeeded in getting her some forty miles down the river. Here she grounded again, but after strenuous efforts, assisted by the admiral who remained behind, [ed. note: Adm. Porter had boarded CRICKET and gone to Alexandria to bring back two pump boats to aid in saving the EASTPORT. However, when he returned with these--the Champion 3 and 5--the leak could not be found.] she was floated, but after proceeding a few miles again grounded on a pile of snags.
Captain Phelps, one of the bravest and most competent commanders in the squadron, had worked day and night with is officers and crew to save his ship, but the retreat of the army had left the banks of the river unprotected and the low stage of water had compelled the admiral to send his squadron to Alexandria.
There was no longer a chance to save the EASTPORT, and he reluctantly gave the order to blow her up. Hardly had this been done when the little squadron was attacked by a large force of infantry, which was quickly driven off. It was evident that serious work was ahead.
At this late period the low condition of the river had forced him [Adm. Porter] to send the OSAGE and NEOSHO down the river, or the rebels would have suffered as severely as at Blair's Plantation.
The squadron now consisted of the light-draught gun-boats CRICKET (flag-ship), JULIET, and FORT HINDMAN. They had proceeded some twenty miles when the enemy opened upon them with twenty pieces of artillery. Nineteen shells went crashing through the CRICKET, and during the five minutes she was under fire she was struck thirty-eight times and lost twelve killed and nineteen wounded out of a crew of fifty, one-third of whom were negroes. The escape of the CRICKET was almost miraculous, and was largely owing to the coolness and skill of the admiral [ed. note: The crews of both the forward and aft guns were killed or wounded. Porter hurriedly assembled a gun crew from among the contraband slaves that the ship was transporting to the Union lines. Men on the "black gang" were wounded and the chief engineer was felled by the Rebel fire. Porter rushed to the engine room and ordered one of the surviving oilers to open the ship's throttles and get them underway again. Returning to the pilot house high atop the ship, the admiral found the pilot wounded and so took over the helm himself. Escaping the fire of the Confederate cannon, the ship ran aground! Luckily, Porter was able to back his vessel off the mudbank.].
The remainder of the squadron turned up stream, except for the two pump-boats Champion No. 3 and No. 5, which being unarmed were destroyed. Captain Phelps concluded to wait till the next day to run the batteries, which was successfully accomplished under a heavy fire, by the JULIET, sustaining a loss of 15 killed and wounded, and the FORT HINDMAN. [ed note: While the Cricket was running the gauntlet of the Confederate position, the pump-boat Champion No. 3 received a shot in her boiler, causing it to explode. The captain, Stewart, three engineers, and all the crew of some 200, were scalded to death, with the exception of 15]
"Twelve of the squadron were now assembled above the falls [At Alexandria], the rocks of which were bare, while the channel between them was hardly twenty feet wide, and three feet deep. No spring rise had come, and General Banks with the army was anxious to leave Alexandria and the region where no laurels had been gained. At this critical moment Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, cheif engineer of the 19th Army Corps, came forward with the proposition to construct a dam at the falls.
While the work was in progress, the side armor was stripped from the larger iron-clads, taken up the river after night-fall, and dropped in a deep hole, while the lighter guns, 32-pounders, some dozen altogether, were put ashore.
The current was now rushing through the gap in the dam at the rate of 9 miles per hour, and yet upon the falls there lacked a foot of water to float the larger boats. To close the gate, two strong loaded coal-barges were shipped into it, secured by lines from the banks. After all but the largest vessels had descended safely over the falls, it seemed assured that the morning would show enough water to float the whole squadron over. But during the night the lines parted, and the barges were swept away and struck a ledge of rocks below the dam and bilged.
What then seemed a great misfortune, however, proved our salvation, for the LEXINGTON, the first gun-boat to go through, carried against this very ledge and striking the sides of the barges, caromed off down stream when, but for them, she would doubtless have been sunk, most seriously obstructing the channel against the passage of the others. Col. Bailey, as a next resource, proceeded to construct below the upper falls wing dams from each bank, by which a further rise of a few inches was obtained. Hawsers were run out from the gun-boats to the shore, and these manned by a brigade, and the united force of three thousand men, enlivened with a band of music, dragged them over the bottom till they floated in the deeper water below, and both the army and navy breathed more freely in this rescue of the squadron upon seeing them anchored in the stream below Alexandria.
On the morning, I was dispatched to the upper falls to destroy the 32-pounders left behind, the army having already begun its march for the Mississippi.
Just as the last one [gun] was blown to pieces, a rebel cavalry regiment galloped down the road and fired a volley which happily did no damage, and before it could be repeated the swift current had carried the boat our of their range.
[ed note: Lt. Selfridge in Osage was, apparently, the last vessel to clear the obstruction]
During the building of the dam a gallant but disastrous action took place between the small light-draught gun-boats SIGNAL (Acting Master Morgan) and COVINGTON (Acting Volunteer Lt. Lord) at Dunn's Bayou, below Alexandria, while convoying the Warner, a quartermaster's boat, down the river. The rebels, having passed round the rear of our forces at Alexandria with six thousand men and 25 pieces of artillery, established themselves on the river and opened on the Warner when she came in sight. The gun-boats rounded to immediately and opened the fight, but the fire was so severe that the steam-pipes were cut and the boilers perforated. Though virtually disabled, they continued this unequal contest for five hours, when Lt. Lord landed his crew and set fire to his vessel. The SIGNAL had too many wounded to permit her commander to pursue a like course, and she fell into the hands of the enemy, who, after removing the guns,sunk her in the river as an obstruction. [Of this action, Admiral Porter writes: "The brave men in their light vessels, only musket-proof, defended them for four or five hours, and many of the actions heralded to the world during the late war were much less worthy of notice than this contest between two little gun-boats and twenty pieces of artillery, most of which had been captured from the army at Pleasant Hill" (meaning Sabine Cross-Roads.)]
The squadron and transports reached the Mississippi, thus ending one of the most wasteful expeditions recorded during the war.