Red River 2.0: Canby tries to revive the campaign

by Ned B. on August 30, 2012 · 0 comments

Books about the 1864 Red River campaign typically end in late May, when U.S. forces reached the Mississippi.  But there was a final act.  The following is the epilogue missing from existing campaign books…

Since the beginning of the campaign, Gen. Grant had felt uneasy about Gen. Banks and about the fractured command structure along the Mississippi.  On April 29th he wrote to Gen. Halleck proposing that the whole region be put under one commander; he even suggested that Halleck go himself and leave Gen. Canby, Halleck’s assistant, to oversee affairs in Washington.1  Halleck decided to flip that suggestion and on May 7th Canby was ordered to head west and take charge of operations along the Mississippi.2  Canby traveled by way of Louisville and Indianapolis to Cairo, Illinois, then down the Mississippi, stopping at Memphis and Vicksburg, until he reached the mouth of the Red River.3  He found the army “in better condition than I supposed from the accounts that had reached me, and will soon be ready for offensive operations.”4

Halleck’s orders to Canby directed him set aside any plan for a campaign toward Mobile and instead to continue operations west of the Mississippi.5  After he assessed the situation, Canby provided Halleck with his view of the options:

“No new expedition by the line of the Red River should be undertaken. Its navigation has always been treacherous and unreliable, and even when good the character of its banks is such that gun-boats can be but of little service in keeping it open. It would require a force equal to the operating army to keep open its communications. Any combinations having this river as one of its elements will, in six cases out of ten, result in disaster. The Washita is a better route, but liable to many of the same objections. Shreveport can be reached by land from several points on the Mississippi, by a shorter line than that by which the army marched from Alexandria, [emphasis added] and an army operating by this line will possess the great advantages of having its actual base on the Mississippi and its flanks mainly secured by the Red and Washita Rivers, and that of covering by its movements the line of the Arkansas and the frontiers of Missouri. My opinion with regard to these rivers was formed ten years ago, and was the result of an official examination, made with reference to military operations on an infinitely smaller scale than those now contemplated. The character of the rivers has not changed since then, and the reasons why they should not be relied on now are materially the same, but of magnified importance.” 6

Back in January, Gen. Banks had requested Major D.C. Houston, his chief engineer, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a campaign against Shreveport.  In his report, Houston recommended that the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Texas Railroad be rebuilt and extended to link the Mississippi with Shreveport.7  The Vicksburg, Shreveport & Texas Railroad had been started in the early 1850s but by 1861 it was only operational for the segment from the Mississippi to Monroe, LA.  The 100-mile stretch from Monroe to Shreveport had been surveyed and graded but no track had been laid. 8  Banks forwarded Houston’s report to Halleck, where it was shelved.9  Almost four months later Canby embraced the idea of re-launching the campaign along the line of the railroad.

As soon as he had arrived at the Red River, Canby wrote to Gen. Slocum, in command at Vicksburg, that “the railroad from Vicksburg to Shreveport should be examined as soon as possible.” 10  Slocum was also ordered to have his staff make preparations to supply an army of 40,000 from Vicksburg.11  In addition Canby requested that the army quartermaster and commissary at St. Louis establish a depot for operations at Vicksburg12  and requested that Quartermaster General Meigs provide the needed track and equipment. 13  Canby then created an engineer brigade based at Vicksburg to be commanded by Brig. Gen. Bailey, recently promoted for having been the brains behind the dam which saved the navy on the Red River.14  Canby also sent his chief quartermaster to Vicksburg to assess the supply situation and support Bailey.15

Initial analysis of the railway line showed problems.  The portion between Vicksburg and Monroe had been torn up several times and a lot of work needed to be done on bridging and trestles.16  The gauge of the track was also different than most rail lines in the north.  However, on a visit to New Orleans, Canby found that he could obtain all the necessary locomotives and rolling stock there. 17  In addition Canby had all railroad iron in the Department of the Gulf impounded for his use.18  Meanwhile Bailey began making progress repairing the track westward from Vicksburg.19

But Grant, his attention turned to affairs along the Mississippi, shut down Canby’s plan.  Despite Halleck’s orders to Canby, a new campaign against Shreveport was not what Grant wanted.  On June 24, Halleck wrote to Canby that Grant wanted all available troops sent to Virginia and on June 29 Meigs wrote to Bailey that Grant did not want the Vicksburg and Shreveport Railroad repaired. 20  Canby received the change of plan on July 1, bringing to an end his planned campaign west of the Mississippi.

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