1864: No Way Out, continued
Fort Montgomery on the Rio Grande. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
With Brownsville and much of the Texas coast under Union control, the great trains of cotton wagons now made their way to Laredo and Eagle Pass, 300 miles upriver. The change was costly and inconvenient for the cotton trade, but the actual flow of cotton out of Texas was barely disrupted. Union troops were determined to change that and strangle this critical source of Confederate cash and supplies. The Confederates were equally determined to retake Brownsville.
But the fighting that took place on the border in early 1864 had as much to do with long-standing hatreds and animosities as it did with the war between North and South. Dating back to 1859-1860, Mexican and Tejano guerillas under Juan Cortina had been fighting against Texan rule of the border. Cortina was a Robin Hood-style figure to many of the poor Hispanics of the Rio Grande Valley. Now he quickly allied himself with the Union, and was seen walking the streets of Brownsville arm-in-arm with Union general and expatriate Texan Andrew Jackson Hamilton.
However, not all Hispanics were Union men. On the Confederate side, Colonel Santos Benavides and his men made the critical difference in protecting Texas cotton as it made the long and perilous trip down the river from Laredo to Matamoros. Benavides, a former mayor of Laredo, sided with Texas because he believed in local rule both for Laredo and northern Mexico and thought Texas could stand as a bulwark against the Mexican central government.
Confederate leadership was provided by Colonel Rip Ford, the famous Texas ranger and Indian fighter. Ford’s cavalry consisted of some veterans, but mostly boys, old men, and those who had been exempted from the draft for various reasons. Indeed, neither the Union nor the Confederacy could be said to have fielded a professional fighting force along the border. Both sides were plagued by a lack of discipline, rampant racism, and the participation of rough characters who were hard to control and answered to no one.
The result was guerilla war at its most brutal. With the encouragement of Union officers, Cortina and his guerillas raided ranches all along the border, stealing cattle, horses, and mules for the Union army. Confederate forces raided right back. In January 1864, some 300 men were killed in the fighting between the factions.
In March 1863, Benavides successfully defended Laredo against 200 invading Union cavalrymen under Edmund J. Davis. It was the high-water mark of the Union campaign on the coast. Soon word came from Nathaniel Banks, the Union commander in New Orleans, that he was ordering a troop withdrawal. Except for a few troops left on Brazos Island at the mouth of the Rio Grande, federal forces would be redeployed in a planned invasion of Texas by way of Arkansas and Louisiana.
Over the next months, the Confederates nipped at the heels of a disgusted and demoralized federal force. In April, Ford’s men retook Ringgold Barracks at Rio Grande City. In June, they defeated several companies of federal troops at Las Rucias near Harlingen; in July, Ford’s forces reoccupied Brownsville.
While the Yankees looked on from their treeless, mosquito-ridden duty on Brazos Santiago, the Confederates resumed the arms and cotton trade at Brownsville and Matamoros as if nothing had ever happened. In the meantime, a full-blown civil war had broken out in Mexico between the forces of Benito Juarez and French forces and their allies (called imperialistas). In August, the French landed 400 marines at the mouth of the Rio Grande and seized control of tiny Bagdad. Juan Cortina took them on and opened fire on Brownsville.
The cotton trade faltered until late autumn, when the imperialistas drove Cortina from the area. Ford, whose troops were very poorly supplied, had been careful not to become embroiled in the fighting. He established a good relationship with the imperialist commander, Tomas Meija, and the cotton trade once again got underway.
The Red River campaign was the largest and most formidable military campaign that the Union ever conducted against the Trans-Mississippi. As it turned out, it was also one of the most disastrous Union campaigns of the war.
In January 1864, planning began for a massive invasion of Texas by way of the Red River. This invasion would secure Shreveport and western Louisiana and seize the cotton lands of East Texas and the Confederate military supply centers in Marshall and Jefferson. Though these were sound military reasons for the invasion, Civil War historians regard the campaign as primarily a political gamble to boost President Lincoln’s chances for reelection. Indeed, Union commander Ulysses S. Grant opposed the plan as unsound and a distraction from the principal battlefields of the war.
The invasion got under way on March 12, 1864, when General Nathaniel P. Banks took a 58-boat flotilla of gunboats and cotton barges up the Red River from Alexandria, Louisiana, with an invading force of 35,000 men. From the beginning the federals were plagued with terrible weather, but other problems were self-inflicted, including poor coordination and communication and a lack of commitment from top brass to sustain the campaign.
As soon as he got wind of the invasion, Trans-Mississippi commander Kirby Smith made desperate preparations to stop it. He stripped Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas of all available manpower, rushing them into the Shreveport area. Smith ordered noncombatant troops into combat duty, and ruthlessly impressed into service older men, young boys, and every draft dodger and deserter he could roust out of the thickets.
Smith’s haste and ironfisted ways paid off with more than 50,000 fighting men. However, due to confusion about where Banks would strike, the Confederates were never able to mass their troops together. Nonetheless, at the first major battle of the campaign at Mansfield, Louisiana, 11,000 Confederates under Richard Taylor administered a terrible beating to the federal force. Two days later, the two sides met again at Pleasant Hill, a battle that marked the start of an ugly and nightmarish federal retreat. From the Union perspective, the Red River campaign was a tragic waste of time and lives.
On the Confederate side, the outcome was celebrated as a triumph; yet again, the Lone Star State had escaped a massive federal invasion. However, military historians rank Smith’s failure to consolidate his forces and pursue Banks’ army and the Union fleet as a significant blunder.
Page last modified: August 25, 2011