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Red River Civil War


The construction of the dam at the Alexandria Rapids in Louisiana, brain child of Union officer Joseph Bailey, saved General Nathaniel Banks's fleet from possible destruction by confederates. The dramatic engineering feat was captured by Harper's Weekly for an 1864 article (LOC).


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Red River Reconstruction


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The Trans-Mississippi region saw a multi-pronged approach by the Union to invade Texas. Neither the Union's Camden Campaign, Bank's Red River flotilla, nor the dispersed skirmishes in Indian Territory led to a successful take-over of Texas. While its neighbors suffered in stopping the Union armies from entering, Texas itself left the Civil War relatively unscathed.

Journey with the Red River Historian on a trip to discover the events, the historic sites, and the Civil War landscape of the Red River Valley.

By July 1863, the Confederacy was not doing too well. It had been cut in two by Grant's forces after the Siege of Vicksburg, and Lee's armies were retreating from gains made into Union controlled states. The Union claimed the capitals of Arkansas and Louisiana, but the local governments in the western areas of the states refused to acknowledge the occupation. Because Indian Territory was not a state, it had never officially seceded, but sectionalism within the tribal nations contributed to chaos and anarchy. The lone exception was Texas.

Texas proved itself to be a juggernaut in the war. In May of 1861, Texas Confederate William C. Young invaded Indian Territory and took over several western forts. By late 1861, Texas troops, led by John R. Baylor, took over towns in New Mexico Territory. In 1862, John Sibley's troops took possession of federal forts in New Mexico and Arizona Territories, but lack of supplies and men forced a retreat. In 1862 and 1863, Texas successfully repelled the Union navy from Galveston and Sabine Pass. Until 1865, Texan Samuel Bell Maxey commandeered the Indian Territory. Throughout the war, Texas merchant ships exported cotton and imported munitions from Cuba, much to the chagrin of the Union.

The Red River region, with its cotton, access to federal territories, and viable shipping ports, proved to be the one area that the Union army had failed to penetrate. According to chroniclers of the period, Abraham Lincoln believed taking Texas, which during the Civil War was the Confederacy's biggest supplier of food as well as the Confederacy's largest holder of slaves, would bring a swift end to the conflict. Besides, the Union feared that Mexico, under the government of Emperor Maximillian of Austria, might use this period of chaos to invade the United States through Texas - or even be recruited to do so with confederate Texas's help.

With the Union having taken control of Little Rock and New Orleans, the next step was to invade Texas... and since the Union couldn't do it by sea, it saw its opportunity in breaching the Red River Valley. By targeting the Red River, the Union could of course approach Texas, but it also could cut off the pockets of rebellion throughout the western region of Arkansas and Louisiana. The Confederacy surmised the strategic importance of the Red River Valley, too. Edmund Kirby Smith of the Trans-Mississippi Department explained to Jefferson Davis that "... the only true line of operations by which the enemy can penetrate the department is the valley of the Red River, rich in supplies, with steamboat navigation..."

In the Summer of 1863 to the Spring of 1864, three Union campaigns descended almost simultaneously upon the Red River Valley, in the hopes of eventually invading Texas. None of the campaigns were successful for the Union.

The Confederate victories at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill were decisive. The Confederate troops effectively stopped the take-over of Shreveport and an impending invasion of Texas. In fact, the Red River Campaign is still used in naval academies to demonstrate military blunder. Still, the victories did not matter. By May of 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman (who had been a university president in Alexandria before the war!) had started his Georgia and Virginia Campaigns, which eventually led to the capture of Richmond and to the surrender of Robert E. Lee in April, 1865. Though it took Texas until May of 1865 to concede that it lost the Civil War, and until June of 1865 to concede that it had lost its slave labor system, the wins of the Trans-Mississippi Department did not effect the outcome of the Civil War.

The Confederate victories nonetheless had a major impact on Texas nonetheless. Because the state had seen little to no damage thanks to the efforts of troops from the surrounding states, Texas readily acclimated itself to the post-war economy of "cotton, cattle, and crude" while still maintaining a quasi-slave labor system in a segregated society. The South may have lost the Civil War, but Texas won Reconstruction in the social, political, and economic senses.

Arkansas in the Civil War
Arkansas's secession in May of 1861 was not unanimous. The state's wealth had always been concentrated in the hands of relatively few men who owned cotton plantations and slaves. These men and their families were not full-time Arkansas residents, either. Most owned several plantations in states throughout the South, and saw Arkansas - especially southwestern Arkansas- simply as an outpost to their vast holdings. They nonetheless held the power in the state and federal legislatures, even going so far as prohibiting free blacks from living in Arkansas at all.

The people in Southwestern Arkansas in particular were much more populist and had a strong free-soil expansionist base. Its newspaper editors and local politicians (such as Augustus Hill Garland) were Whigs or Unionist Democrats. For a long time, this portion of the state was also an international boundary between the U.S. and Spain/Mexico/Texas, and therefore leaned towards a more industrialized economy that relied on free, not slave labor. Locals even pushed for a transcontinental railroad route through Fulton. Their economic and political interests tended to mirror the Arkansans in the northwestern region, who relied on coal mining, not cotton farming.

The vote for secession was therefore very contentious, and secessionists, fearing that Unionists would win a popular vote, confined the vote to the legislature only. So while the state did secede, it seems that the men who fought for Arkansas during the Civil War did so to protect their fellow inhabitants, and not for any philosophical difference in the United States.

In September of 1863, the capitol of Arkansas fell into Union hands relatively easily. While the Confederates simply moved their archives to Washington, the damage was done - the U.S. considered Arkansas to be back under federal control. This led to the belief that the southern part of the state would be the staging area for the run-up to the Red River Campaign in Louisiana, led by Nathaniel Banks. In March of 1864, Union troops under the command of Frederick Steele were ordered to move south from Little Rock, Arkansas into the Confederate-controlled Ouachita River Valley.

The Confederates refused to allow Steele's men any passage. They stopped advancement at Elkin's Ferry along the Little Missouri River north of Washington as the Union marched southward to Washington in Hempstead County. To avoid disruption in the state government, citizens removed the state archives further west to little Rondeau (Rondo) in Miller County. Confederates also destroyed roads, bridges, and ferries to halt Union movement, and built a dirt fortification around Dooley's Ferry on the Red River to prevent Union access. Due to the destruction and Confederate maneuvers, Steele could not obtain adequate supplies for his troops. In April 1864, Steele attempted to seize the supply depots at Camden. The Confederates built Fort Southerland and Fort Lookout around Camden to defend the town from the attack.

The main objective of the Confederates, led by Sterling Price, was to defend Washington. To get Price away from the Washington and Camden road in order to take Camden, Steele and his troops engaged Price and his troops, among them Choctaw regiments led by Texans Maxey and Gano, at Prairie d'Ane in Nevada County (near Prescott) in early April, 1864. The battle lasted several days, and included a night battle. The Union army, which substantially outnumbered the Confederates, included a Unionist Arkansas infantry. Steele's army gained control of Camden. However, there weren't many provisions in Camden, forcing him to look to look elsewhere.

Price continued to patrol the area to keep Washington out of Union hands. Steele, while occupying Camden, searched for supplies throughout the region. Confederate forces engaged Union supply trains at Poison Spring (Ouachita County) and Marks' Mills (Cleveland County). Many of these battles were considered "skirmishes" as they consisted of surprise ambushes and left bloody messes in their wake without much of a resolution. Steele had no choice but to render the Camden Campaign a failure, and dealt with one final, bloody battle at Jenkin's Ferry (Grant County) before bringing his troops back to Little Rock. Ultimately, the result was that the Red River Campaign in Louisiana would not gain the reinforcements it needed to invade Texas.

Indian Territory in the Civil War
Technically, Indian Territory could not vote for secession as it was not an admitted state (and had no constitution). The tribal governments within the territories could act independently, however, and they independently signed treaties with Albert Pike, who represented the Confederacy as its commissioner on Indian Affairs, in 1861.

Why would the tribal governments even want to be part of this conflict? The reasons were as individualistic as the tribes themselves. For example, the Choctaw and Chickasaw national governments were led by powerful men with both Southern white and Indian heritage. They had brought slave-holding into Indian Territory during the removal years of 1824 to 1842, and demanded protection of the slave system as they counted their prosperity in the amount of land they held and the amount of enslaved people who could work the land.

Other tribal leaders, such as those who led the Caddos and Wichitas, were rightfully wary of the newly elected Republican Party, which supported "free soil expansion" by non-Indian homesteaders within areas designated for the tribes. Lincoln was known to not be a friend to the Indians, and much of his politics disregarded native rights completely.* By 1861, Union soldiers had abandoned the federal forts in Indian Territory. While neither tribe trusted the Southerners nor the Texans, they were left with no other option but to join the Confederacy for protection against criminal gangs and tribal enemies.

The re-taking of forts in Indian Territory was one minor focus of Grant's Vicksburg campaign. To protect the Confederate forts, such as Fort Washita and Fort Towson (resurrected as "Camp Phoenix" by Confederates) in the Red River Valley, Albert Pike commissioned the building of Fort McCulloch in today's Bryan County in 1862. Situated along the Blue River and named for General Benjamin McCulloch, the fort also protected the road between Fort Washita and Fort Gibson - which by this time, was under Union control. However, the Battle of Honey Springs in 1863 in today's McIntosh County (Creek Nation) effectively removed any semblance of order in Confederate protections in Indian Territory. The Confederates, which included Chickasaw and Choctaw regiments under the command of Douglas Cooper, were defeated by James Blunt's forces, which included the all-volunteer First Kansas Colored Infantry.

The Confederate defeat allowed the Union to gain control of supply stations and forts in northern Indian Territory. Plunder by roving criminal gangs who sold cattle and supplies to the Union army threatened the civilian inhabitants. Thousands of civilians sought refuge around Fort McCulloch, Fort Washita, Fort Towson, and nearby Boggy Depot. Those who could afford the trip sent their families and slaves into northern Texas to wait out the war.

The Union army still had its sights on Texas, and planned several attacks in the Red River Valley in February 1864 as the first prong (simultaneously with the Camden Campaign in Arkansas) of the Red River Campaign that was gearing up in Louisiana. The Union troops, led by Charles Willet, engaged Confederate forces, led by Adam Nail, at Middle Boggy Creek. The Union wanted to take a "slash and burn" approach all the way to the Red River, but fell short of its goal when its troops simply left the battle site after executing the Confederate wounded. Though neither side prevailed in this short altercation, it had a fairly major impact: the Union stopped its attempts of penetrating into Texas from Indian Territory. This may have been to support a new tactic: going through Arkansas.

*Republican legislation passed during the Civil War paved the way for the brutal plains wars from 1862 to 1890 and the devastating tribal Reconstruction Treaties of 1866.

Louisiana in the Civil War
Like Arkansas, Louisiana had come under Union control by 1863. Also like Arkansas, not all Louisianans had been keen about secession. Louisiana had one major connection to the Union that all other southern states lacked - New Orleans. New Orleans was the largest city in the South and also its banking and trading center. The city controlled traffic on the Mississippi River and comprised the largest slave market in the nation. Each year, northern speculators sent thousands of shackled men, women, and children into the human trafficking nightmare that was the New Orleans slave market. The victims would be then sold to bidders throughout the Southern states to be put to work in the cane, rice, and cotton fields.

This economic connection to the North marked Louisiana politicians as particularly conservative. Throughout the state's history, Louisiana lawmakers opposed any radicalism (state's rights or human rights) that could hurt the market. Lincoln's election in 1860 changed that, however. Like the rest of the South, Louisiana cast a wary eye on the Republican party, which it considered radical and revolutionary. Though by no means unanimous - because secession was considered treasonous and anarchic - the Louisiana legislature endorsed secession in January, 1861.

In April 1862, the Union navy and army took New Orleans with very little trouble and the city was placed under martial law. By May of 1862, the state's capitol, Baton Rouge, came under Union control. Within a year, Grant's forces had taken Vicksburg, the famed Mississippi River port north of Natchez, and effectively cut the Confederacy in two. Creole (mixed race) soldiers, who had formed Louisiana home guards, quickly enlisted as Union soldiers.

Many Louisiana men had volunteered or were drafted to fight east of the Mississippi River. When its capitol and largest city came firmly under Union control and the state was set for the country's first Reconstruction Plan, western Louisiana descended into lawlessness. Guerrilla war tactics were not just used on Union troops, but also on citizens - roving bands of criminal gangs terrorized defenseless women, farmers, and enslaved people, and fought both Confederate and Union forces.

With its fairly easy victories on the river - and the criminal troubles in the Louisiana hinterlands - the Union realized that its best strategy to get to Texas would continue to be water-based. Thus, Nathaniel Banks initiated the Red River Campaign. This plan would send the Union navy, commandeered by David Porter, up river to Shreveport, the Confederate capitol. There, Porter's navy and Banks's army would meet up with Steele's troops from the Camden campaign. Then, the large army would march into Jefferson, Texas.

Banks's troops captured Fort DeRussy in Avoyelles Parish in March of 1864, thus allowing for Porter's navy to drive up river to capture the Red River's largest southern port, Alexandria. Banks did not want Porter to just chug up river to Shreveport, however. He needed to defeat Richard Taylor's Confederate army that was guarding Shreveport on its western side. One of Taylor's defenses was building dams at Toneville, Bayou Pierre, to drain the water from the Red River to halt Porter's advancements, and stationing troops at the Grand Ecore by Natchitoches. Thus, unable for Porter to continue to Shreveport, Banks's troops and Porter's troops proceeded on foot, burning plantations and cotton crops with impunity. Apparently, a local farmer told Banks that the best road to take to Shreveport was the stagecoach route through Pleasant Hill - it's believed that this anonymous man didn't want Banks to pass, and possibly burn, his own farm. Along this road (today's LA 175), Banks' army engaged with Taylor's men outside of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill in early April, 1864. Despite heavy casualties, Taylor's army defeated the Union troops.

The Union army returned to Alexandria with Taylor's troops in hot pursuit. Banks decided to flee back to New Orleans with its flotilla, seasonal drought and Taylor's preventive river diversions built up river had kept the Red River shallow above the Alexandria rapids, which halted the Union's river progress. Joseph Bailey, a Union officer, proposed building several dams to raise water levels above the rapids. Three dams made of trees, logs, and stones, were quickly constructed. These dams allowed the ships to ride the rapids down river with enough force to propel them southward. Though the Union navy was met all along the river with shrapnel, gun fire, and whatever else the locals could throw at them, the Union troops ultimately made their way back to New Orleans. After the debacle, the Confederate army built forts Randolph and Buhlow at Pineville to counter further Union attacks, but the forts were not ever needed for that purpose again. Within less than year, even with the victory at Mansfield, the Confederacy capitulated at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

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