Throughout the campaign, the Texas Sibley Brigade (aka the Bagby Brigade) distinguished itself by fighting in both conventional battles and successfully engaging in modern partisan warfare against the Union naval task force (the Red River Squadron) that took part in the Campaign. Their success made them, arguably, the most effective Confederate force in the campaign, but their story has been largely forgotten. They are unsung Texas heroes who have inspired a series of articles to bring their deeds to light and ensure that they will be remembered in the future. However, before their story can be told, the circumstances surrounding the brigade things need to be understood. More specifically, an overview of the Red River Campaign, the Red River Squadron, and a history of the Sibley Brigade will be discussed. These subjects are far too large to be combined into a single article, so each will be discussed separately, starting with an overview of the Red River Campaign.
The Red River Campaign was waged by Federal units taken from all sectors of the Trans-Mississippi Front. The Red River squadron took the bulk of the Union Navy's muscle on the Mississippi, while the land contingent was made up mainly of General Nathaniel Banks' 15,000 man strong Army of the Gulf. An additional 10,000 troops were siphoned from General Sherman's army in Vicksburg, 15,000 troops under General Fredrick Steele were taken from Little Rock, and a brigade each of Marines and colored troops were combined to form 45,000 armed effectives. Supporting this army was the newly formed Red River Squadron, made up of over 50 ships. The crews of these ships, combined with the ground forces, added up to nearly 50,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines.
The Campaign was the plan of General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and was led by General Banks, who selected General William Franklin to replace him as commander of the Army of the Gulf. Admiral David Porter commanded the Red River Squadron. Halleck's strategy called for two Federal troop bodies. The first would include 30,000 troops, plus Porter's fleet, and would advance straight up the Red River towards Shreveport, while 15,000 men under Steele would move South from Arkansas and meet up with the first group at Shreveport. Steele would then provide an occupying force while the rest of the Union task force would move into East Texas.
Fort De Russy
On March 14th, 1864, the troops granted to Banks from Sherman, under command of General A.J. Smith, fought the first major battle of the campaign with a surprise attack on Fort De Russy. The battle was much lighter than either side had anticipated, with only two Confederate fatalities, and less than fifty Union dead. Still, over 300 rebels were taken prisoner, and the only heavy artillery the Confederates had in the region were captured. This was the only obstruction preventing Union access to the Red River and the loss of the fort's garrison meant that no other rebel force existed that was large enough to attempt to stand and fight. River obstacles had been placed to block Porter's ships, but these were removed in a day once the fort had been neutralized.
Commanding the Confederate troops in the region was General Kirby Smith, who was in charge of the Trans-Mississippi Department. He was the direct superior of Richard Taylor, the son of former president Zachary Taylor, who actually led the rebel defense. Both Smith and General Magruder, of the East Texas Department, sent troops to reinforce Taylor, however, Texas troops were slow to arrive. Smith offered only 4,000 troops to meet Taylor at Shreveport, far from where they were actually needed. With only 7,000 men actually at his disposal, Taylor was forced to abandon Alexandria and retreat towards Shreveport. Despite orders to allow Federal forces to advance deep into Louisiana before counter-attacking, Taylor resolved to stand and fight as soon as he could gather a more sizable force.
Smith captured Alexandria on the 17th, and was met by Banks on the 24th. However, Banks was traveling separately from the main body of troops who didn't arrive for another day. From the 21st on, minor cavalry skirmishes were the only resistance offered by the rebels. Taylor continued to retreat towards Shreveport until he met up with the lead elements of the Texas reinforcements on April 6th. From his camp on Pleasant Hill he redirected most Texas units North to Mansfield, however, elements of several Texas brigades, including the bulk of the Sibley Brigade, heavily engaged Union cavalry on April 7th at Crump's Corner near Pleasant Hill. While the skirmish was inconclusive, it signaled two things. It told the Federals that the Confederate resistance was stiffening and that heavier fighting was sure to follow, while also marking the beginning of the Sibley Brigade's involvement in the campaign. General Franklin did not believe that the Confederates would stand and fight, and when Taylor abandoned Pleasant Hill on the 6th, Banks was likewise convinced.
The Battle of Pleasant Hill was not the total victory that Mansfield had been, but it still resulted in Banks abandoning the field after heavy fighting, and ended any hope for success in the Red River Campaign.
With Texas reinforcements now under Taylor's command, he had a total force of less than 10,000 men. Cavalry skirmishes continued until the 8th, when Taylor made a stand with 8,800 of his men at Mansfield, only 25 miles from the Texas border. Back and forth skirmishing was replaced that afternoon with a major Confederate charge that broke the Union line and overran their wagon train, along with 20 artillery pieces. By the end of the day, some 3,000 Federal soldiers were dead, wounded, captured, or missing, while only around 1,000 Confederate casualties were suffered. It was a stunning military success by an outnumbered but daring rebel force. Taylor quickly moved to press his victory and struck Banks the next day at Pleasant Hill. Here the Federals held, but retreated the next day, leaving their dead on the field. Each side suffered some 1,600 casualties. Banks abandoned the campaign at this point and retreated to the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, General Steele's 7,000 men had been advancing south and had fought several skirmishes, but due to critical supply shortages and after losing nearly 2,000 men in the Battles of Poison Spring and Marks' Mills, he quit the campaign and retreated to Little Rock. However, he still played a critical role in the campaign when General Smith ordered half of Taylor's troops to move north to face Steele's men. This decision may have helped crush Steele's task force, but it had weakened Taylor's main force when it had Banks on the run. As a result, Banks was able to escape, and fight off Confederate efforts to destroy his rearguard.
Both union battle groups would fight successful rearguard actions on land, but the haste of Banks' retreat without proper communication to Admiral Porter, resulted in many ships being isolated on the Red River which became vulnerable to enemy action. This will be the subject of later articles.
In all, General Taylor drove Union forces out of the Red River area, thanks largely to reinforcements from Texas. It would be the last great Southern victory of the war, but because of Kirby Smith's decision to split Taylor's forces after Pleasant Hill, the victory could not be completed. Some wonder if the destruction of Banks' army and the destruction or capture of Porter's fleet as a result, might have changed the course of the war. This is almost certainly not the case, but it could have added as much as a year of life to the Confederacy.