The Red River campaign of March to May 1864 occurred during the Civil War after the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. At that time President Abraham Lincoln authorized a campaign against Shreveport, Louisiana, then the temporary capital of Confederate Louisiana. It was a major supply depot and a gateway to Texas. Though the operation was opposed by generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Nathaniel P. Banks, it was favored by General in Chief Henry W. Halleck. Banks was commander of the Department of the Gulf and was engaged in operations against the Confederacy along the Texas Gulf Coast. Under some pressure from Halleck, Banks concentrated his forces on a campaign to secure the area along the Red River to Shreveport. Objectives for this campaign included preventing a Confederate alliance with the French in Mexico; denying southern supplies to Confederate forces; and securing vast quantities of Louisiana and Texas cotton for northern mills. By 1863 Confederate general Richard Taylor, with his headquarters in Alexandria, was aware that Union operations up the Red River were under consideration as a means to penetrate the Department of Texas. The Red River was navigable by steamship for as many as six months of the year and could provide for cooperative army and naval operations. It could support shifting bases as an invading force pressed into the interior. He made his concerns known to Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, and through him, to President Jefferson Davis. Taylor began to establish supply bases up the Red River; this included the rehabilitation by Walker's Texas Division of Fort DeRussy near Simmesport, Louisiana. He began to warn citizens of the impending operations, and to limit the sale of cotton to speculators who were selling to northern buyers. After failing to stem significantly the sale of cotton, Taylor by early 1864 had ordered that all bailed and seeded cotton be burned.
In the spring of 1864 General Banks began to gather his forces—an army of about 17,000—for a march to Alexandria, Louisiana. In Alexandria, Banks was to join a 10,000-member troop detachment from General Sherman's Mississippi command and a 15,000-member troop detachment under Gen. Frederick Steele. The detachment from Sherman's Army of the Tennessee was under the command of Gen. Andrew J. Smith. Smith's forces, escorted up the Red River by a fleet of ironclads and gunboats under Adm. David D. Porter, disembarked at Simmesport and captured the partially completed Fort DeRussy on March 14. Smith and Porter occupied Alexandria on March 19. Banks arrived on March 25, a week late. Steele was delayed and was too late to take part in the campaign. The movement of the Union forces up the Red River was slowed by unseasonably low water levels, which hampered Porter in getting his ships over the rapids. Gen. Richard Taylor, in command of the Confederate forces opposing Banks, was retreating upriver as he awaited Confederate troops that were on the way to assist him. Taylor's forces consisted of Maj. Gen. John George Walker's Texas Division, Col. William Vincent's Second Louisiana Cavalry, and William Mouton's Louisianans, with a small brigade of Texans under the command of Brig. Gen. Camille A. J. M. Prince de Polignac; reinforcements of cavalry and infantry were coming from Texas. On March 21 the Federals captured 250 of Vincent's men near Henderson Hill after a small skirmish. Brig. Gen. Thomas Green's Texas cavalry joined Taylor at Pleasant Hill. Green was placed in command of Taylor's rear guard and Taylor fell back to Mansfield.
The Union forces had reached the Natchitoches area by April 2, 1864, and remained there until April 6, when they took a road to Mansfield toward Shreveport. Banks was unaware that another road followed the river and would have allowed support from the Union gunboats. The column was led by the cavalry, under Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee; following were a large supply train of some 350 wagons, the Thirteenth Corps, the Nineteenth Corps, and a force under Gen. A. J. Smith. On April 7, three miles north of Pleasant Hill, Lee's cavalry skirmished with Green's rear guard. On April 8 the Union column was strung out single file along some twenty miles of road when it encountered the Confederate force about three miles south of Mansfield. Upon contact with the Confederate forces, General Banks came up the column and assumed command. He ordered reinforcements under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin from the rear, but they were delayed by road congestion. Before the reinforcements could reach the front, General Taylor, with a total force of 8,800, attacked. The Federals, even with Franklin's arrival, were routed. The battle of Mansfield may have been the most humiliating defeat of the entire war. The Union forces of 12,000 had 700 men killed or wounded and 1,500 taken prisoner; 20 Union artillery pieces and 200 wagons were captured, and almost 1,000 horses and mules were lost. The Confederate army of 8,800 had 1,000 killed or wounded. Banks fell back to Pleasant Hill. William H. Emory and the Nineteenth Corps moved up and met with Taylor's pursuing forces at Pleasant Grove. On the late afternoon of April 9, the Confederate forces attacked. They were repulsed and retired from the battlefield. During the night of the 9th General Banks gave the order to retire to Grand Ecore, Louisiana. The expedition seems to have been abandoned at this point, as the retreat continued down the Red River. The Union forces, especially those under the command of Gen. A. J. Smith, looted, burned, and destroyed everything in their path as they moved south. Admiral Porter, under harassment, also retreated down the river, and on reaching Alexandria he was once more slowed by low water over the rapids. Army Engineer lieutenant colonel Joseph Bailey constructed a series of wing dams that permitted Porter and his boats to pass on May 13. That same day A. J. Smith's troops burned the city of Alexandria to the ground. Taylor continued to harass the retreating Union army, with the final skirmishes of the Red River campaign occurring at Mansura, Louisiana, on May 16 and at Yellow Bayou on May 18.