On March 12, 1864, one of the biggest military fiascos of the Civil War begins as a combined Union force of infantry and riverboats starts moving up the Red River in Louisiana. The month-long campaign was poorly managed and achieved none of the objectives set forth by Union commanders.
The campaign had several strategic goals. The Union hoped to capture everything along the Red River in Louisiana and continue into Texas. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln hoped to send a symbolic warning to France, which had set up a puppet government in Mexico and seemed to have designs on territorial expansion. Finally, Union officials wanted to capture cotton-producing regions, as cotton was in short supply in the North.
The plan called for Admiral David Dixon Porter to take a flotilla of 20 gunboats up the Red River while General Nathaniel Banks led 27,000 men along the western shore of the river. Porter’s squadron entered the river on March 12. Two days later, Fort DeRussy fell to the Yankees and the ships moved upriver and captured Alexandria. The expedition was going well, but Banks was moving too slowly. He arrived two weeks after Porter took Alexandria, and continued to plod towards Shreveport. Banks traveled nearly 20 miles from the Red River, too far for the gunboats to offer any protection. On April 8, Banks’ command was attacked and routed by Confederate General Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. president Zachary Taylor. The two sides fought again the next day, but this time the Yankees held off the Rebel pursuit.
The intimidated Banks elected to retreat back down the river before reaching Shreveport. Porter’s ships followed, but the Red River was unusually low and the ships were stuck above some rapids near Alexandria. It appeared that the ships would have to be destroyed to keep them from falling into Confederate hands, but Lt. Colonel Joseph Bailey of Wisconsin, an engineer with a logging background, supervised several thousand soldiers in constructing a series of wing dams that raised the water level enough for the ships to pass. The campaign was deemed a failure—it drew Union strength away from other parts of the South and the expedition never reached Texas.