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The plan was simple. In the spring of 1864, a combined Army-Navy operation under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks and Admiral David D. Porter would move up the Red River to capture Shreveport, the “capital” of Confederate Louisiana, and open the way to invade Texas. Loads of valuable cotton would end up in New England’s idle textile mills, handing President Abraham Lincoln a winning issue for the upcoming election. But when the Red River Campaign was all over, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman described it as “one damn blunder from beginning to end.”

Banks blundered at Mansfield, La., some 40 miles south of Shreveport. On April 6, he moved his army inland, away from Porter’s protective river flotilla. The XIII, XVI, XVII and XIX corps and Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee’s cavalry division—25,000 men and 1,000 wagons—set out for Shreveport on an old stagecoach road. Instead of ordering the wagons to the rear, Banks allowed them to follow their assigned units in the line of march. Before long, the army was strung out for 20 miles along the narrow trace in dense piney woods.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, son of the late President Zachary Taylor, picked a clearing near Mansfield and positioned his 9,000 Confederates along a three-mile front. Brig. Gen. Thomas Green’s Texas cavalry rode out to harass the approaching Federals. Lee, at the head of Banks’ column, called for reinforcements, but hundreds of wagons blocked the way.

While the Union troops struggled to come up, Taylor unleashed an attack late in the afternoon of April 8. Three separate Confederate waves pushed the Yankees off the field by nightfall, and thousands of men in blue fleeing back down the coach road were met by thousands more still trying to get to the front.

Banks ordered a full retreat. Of the 12,500 Federals who had made it to the fight, 2,300 became casualties; Taylor lost about 1,000 men, but he captured 200 wagons, 1,000 horses and 20 artillery pieces. Taylor chased Banks’ demoralized troops back to the Mississippi. The Red River Campaign had failed.


Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.