Grant & The Red River Campaign, Part 2

by Ned B. on April 5, 2015 · 5 comments

Continued from Part 1.

In testimony before Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Admiral Porter boasted that “The Red River expedition was originally proposed by General Sherman and myself.”1 Porter’s statement is presumptuous — there was an earlier plan by Halleck2 — but Sherman did raise the idea to Grant’s Chief of Staff in September 1863 when he wrote that “The only real battle needed in the Southwest will be at Shreveport, and for it we want high water in Red River”.3 But the Chattanooga/Knoxville campaign interrupted Sherman’s thinking and from October through December he was otherwise occupied. Then in late December 1863 Sherman brought up the idea again. He wrote to Halleck that “If the admiral will agree, I will myself collect at Memphis and Vicksburg about 8,000 men and go up red River as high as the water will permit, and make them feel their vulnerability.”4

When Sherman traveled down the Mississippi in January, 1864, he informed General Steele in Arkansas that he “believe[d] in the move on Red River and would engage in it at once” but found that the “Red River is too low at this time”. So he embarked on the Meridian campaign, delaying the Red River campaign until when he returned. He told Steele that he expected to be “back on the river by the end of February, by which time I think I can spare you a force of about 10,000 men to ascend Red River in boats, with the gun-boats, to make a concerted attack”.5

Simultaneously, Halleck had also been working with Banks to start a campaign from the south. When Banks contacted him, Sherman responded “The moment I learned that you were preparing for it, I sent a communication to Admiral Porter, and dispatched to General Grant at Chattanooga, asking if he wanted me and Steele to cooperate with you against Shreveport.”6 The dispatch Sherman mentions he sent to Grant contained details about his campaign to Meridian Mississippi and concluded with “Red River is still low, but should it rise by the time we get back from Meridian I will be tempted to help against Shreveport. Steele could move direct by land to Arkadelphia and Fulton; Banks could regain Opelousas and Alexandria; the admiral and I could pass directly up the river to Shreveport.” 7 Uncertain how Grant felt about this, Sherman followed up a week later with “Your orders are not specific that I should go up Red River after the Meridian movement. Please telegraph me, through Admiral Porter, your orders for myself and Steele.”8

Grant replied:

“Whilst I look upon such an expedition as is proposed as of the greatest importance, I regret that any force has to be taken from east of the Mississippi for it. Your troops will want rest for the purpose of preparing for a spring campaign, and all the veterans should be got off on furlough at the very earliest moment. This latter I would direct even if you have to spare troops to go up Red River. Unless you go in command of the proposed expedition, I fear any troops you may send with it will be entirely lost from further service in this command. This, however, is not the reason for my suggestion that you be sent; your acquaintance with the country, and otherwise fitness were the reasons. I can give no positive orders that you send no troops up Red River, but what I do want is their speedy return if they do go, and that the minimum number necessary be sent. I have never heard a word from Steele since his department has been placed in the military division. Do not know what he proposes nor the means he has for executing. The time necessary for communicating between here and Vicksburg being so great, you will have to act in this matter according to your own judgment, simply knowing my views.” 9

There are several interesting features of this message.

Though Grant would later claim to have “opposed the movement strenuously” I find that a review of correspondence shows that though Grant had some concerns about the campaign, he was generally on board with the idea. He objected to detachment of any troops that he hoped to use in the upcoming campaigns further east but he also saw the “expedition as is proposed as of the greatest importance“.

Grant trusted Sherman and recognized the difficulty of overseeing the situation when he had other matters to attend to and the turnaround time of communication to Sherman was problematic. So he allowed Sherman to “act in this matter according to your own judgment”. In his memoirs he wrote “By direction of Halleck I had reinforced Banks with a corps of about ten thousand men from Sherman’s command.” But the communication with Sherman quoted above indicates that Grant left this up to Sherman who made the decision to send the men to Banks according to the plan Sherman had proposed in January.

Grant also seemed fully to expect Sherman to lead the campaign. In addition to informing Sherman of this, he also wrote to Halleck about it a few days before he wrote Sherman: “I expected Sherman, however, to go to Shreveport and form a junction with Steele’s movement if Banks has not the force to send. I would suggest that Sherman himself go in person if a part of his troops go.”10

This was how things stood when Grant was called to Washington to be given overall command. Rather than the Red River campaign being sprung on him in mid-March when he was promoted, Grant had been briefed on the campaign weeks earlier. He had shown reservations about how it might impact his plans to the east, but he had also blessed it as “of the greatest importance” and favored the idea of Sherman leading it (itself an interesting ‘what if’).

At the start of March, Sherman visited New Orleans to nudge Banks into getting the campaign started. To his chagrin Sherman found that Banks intended to lead the campaign in person, so Sherman dropped the idea of going — he wanted to be in charge of it, but Banks outranked him. In addition, Grant has given him instructions about the spring campaign and I think Sherman was starting to realize the tightness of the timetable. A campaign that Sherman had been an early proponent of, he walked away from.

Continued in Part 3.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

James F. Epperson April 6, 2015 at 1:41 pm

My first draft of thinking on this:

1. Grant liked the idea if Sherman was going to do it.

2. Grant didn’t like the idea if it was going to interfere with the spring campaign.

3. Sherman liked the idea, but only if he was in charge.

4. After the fact, nobody liked the idea. (This is hardly surprising, as many folks like to disassociate themselves from failures.)

My problem is that I am not sure what the objective of going to Shreveport would be.

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Ned B. April 7, 2015 at 9:10 am

I will try to get into the objective more in the next post.

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Joseph A. Rose August 27, 2015 at 2:13 am

Sherman proposed ascending the Red River to Shreveport as early as 1862. See Page 339 of Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865 edited by Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin. If the idea was unstrategic, then he bears a large portion of the blame.

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Ned B. August 28, 2015 at 10:27 pm

Thank you. Did not know that. An interesting letter – asking his brother to put in a word for him to replace Butler. I think the role of Sherman in instigating the Red River campaign has not been adequately appreciated.

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Joseph A. Rose August 28, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Yes, Sherman, Halleck, and Grant all deserve more of the blame than they usually receive for promoting this venture, while Banks probably deserves less.

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