The Civil War – The Red River Campaign and the Death of a Union General

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

March 10, 1864 marked the beginning of the Red River Campaign. “As part of an overall Union strategy to strike deep into various parts of the Confederacy, a combined force of army and navy commands under General Nathaniel Banks begins a campaign on the Red River in Louisiana,” according to the National Park Service.

“The campaign had several strategic goals. The Union hoped to capture everything along the Red River in Louisiana and continue into Texas. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln hoped to send a symbolic warning to France, which had set up a puppet government in Mexico and seemed to have designs on territorial expansion. Finally, Union officials wanted to capture cotton-producing regions, as cotton was in short supply in the North.

The plan called for Admiral David Dixon Porter to take a flotilla of 20 gunboats up the Red River while General Nathaniel Banks led 27,000 men along the western shore of the river. Porter’s squadron entered the river on March 12. Two days later, Fort Derussy fell to the Yankees and the ships moved upriver and captured Alexandria.

The expedition was going well, but Banks was moving too slowly. He arrived two weeks after Porter took Alexandria, and continued to plod towards Shreveport,” stated History.com.

It would turn out to be “one of the biggest military fiascos of the Civil War” in the opinion of History.com. Goals would not be met and the campaign would be declared a failure.

In another part of the War, Union General James Birdseye McPherson assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee, following the promotion of General William T. Sherman to commander of the Mississippi, making Sherman the overall leader in the Western theatre of the War.

McPherson was a West Point graduate and joined the engineering corps as a second lieutenant. When the War Between the States broke out, he was transferred to Boston Harbor and promoted to Captain. Unhappy with this assignment, he contacted General Henry Halleck, a connection he made while posted in California.

Halleck brought McPherson to Missouri, where Halleck was commander of the Department of the Missouri, and assigned McPherson to help establish recruiting stations and inspect defensive installations.

From there, McPherson was transferred to Grant’s command in early 1862, as Chief Engineer, in time to be part of the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson engagements. At Donelson, he earned Grant’s respect. At the battle of Shiloh in early April, McPherson was recognized for his role and was promoted to colonel.

Just two weeks later, McPherson was promoted to brigadier general, and following his efforts at the battle of Corinth in late 1862, he was promoted again, to major general. By year-end, he was in command of the XVII Corps of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. During 1863, McPherson led his men at Vicksburg and Chattanooga.

When General Grant was promoted to General-in-Chief over all Union forces, in early 1864, Sherman became commander in the West, and McPherson took over the Army of the Tennessee.

During the Atlanta campaign, at the Battle of Peachtree Creek, McPherson was “mortally wounded, becoming the highest-ranking Union general killed in the war,” according to History.com.