Following the Union victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson on July 4 and 8, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant focused on Mobile as the next major target in the West. However, before a campaign could be launched, President Lincoln authorized an expedition against Shrevesport, Louisiana--the headquarters of Lt. Gen. E. Kirby Smith, the temporary capital of Confederate Louisiana, and a major supply depot and gateway to Texas. Politically, Lincoln hoped to win pledges of loyalty from the planters along the river in exchange for the military's willingness to purchase cotton.
The plan called for a large combined naval/military force under Adm. David D. Porter and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks moving up the Red River to Shreveport. Porter's gunboats would provide artillery support and serve as troop transportation for a 10,000-man contingent sent by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and commanded by Brig. Gen. Andrew J. Smith. An additional 15,000 men under Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, coming from Little Rock, were to join the main force before the attack on Shreveport. Neither Grant nor Porter was optomistic about the plan, and Porter felt concern over the falling level of the Red River, which could adversely affect his fleet of 12 ironclad gunboats, 2 large wooden steamers, and 4 smaller steamers.
The campaign began early in March and brought initial success for the Federals. After removing the obstructions that the Confederates had placed in the river, Porter's and Smith's force captured Fort DeRussy, which the Confederates had depended on to defend the river. The Federals continued upriver to Alexandria, Louisiana, which they occupied on the 19th. Banks, having missed the scheduled date of departure, caught up with Porter and Smith at Alexandria on the 25th, a week late. At Alexandria, dispatches arrived from Grant, ordering Banks to return to New Orleans as soon as possible after Shreveport was taken, to participate in the campaign against Mobile. Grant also ordered Smith to return his command to Sherman by April 25 for participation in the Atlanta Campaign. Frustrating delays put the Federals still further behind schedule. Not until April 3rd did Porter get Smith's division past the rapids above Alexandria for rendezvous with Bank's force, which was traveling overland to Shreveport. In the process, Porter lost his hospital ship on the rocks.
After arriving at Grand Ecore, most of Smith's command left to rejoin Bank's army at Natchitoches for the planned assault on Shreveport. But the situation changed abruptly on the 8th when Bank's was defeated at Mansfield by 8,000 Confederate troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor. The following day, the retreating Federal army made a stand at Pleasant Hill and won, but Bank's continued his retreat nonetheless. Any further move against Shreveport was now out of the question, and Smith's command rejoined Porter. The gunboats retraced their course down the Red River, subjected to artillery and rifle fire from Taylor's men following along the banks. At Blair's Landing, dismounted Confederate cavalry, supported by artillery, attacked the Federals but withdrew after suffering heavy losses. Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas Green was among the slain.
Porter's situation was becoming critical. The Red River continued falling, while Confederates intensified their harassment from the banks. Porter's squadron was the target of their well-aimed shells, and Porter was compelled to destroy one of his gunboats and a pump steamer after both were severely damaged. A second pump steamer was captured by the Confederates. When the squadron reached Alexandria, porter was dismayed to find that the water at the rapids had fallen to 3 feet, while his vessels required at least 7 feet to pass. He was faced with the agonizing decision of whether or not to destroy his own squadron to prevent its capture, as there was little likelihood of a rise in the river.
Fortunately for the federals, one of the engineer officers with the army was Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey. He proposed building a dam to back up the water to the required 7 foot level. Porter accepted the plan, and work began on the 30th. After 8 days of hard labor, the almost completed dam broke as 2 stone-filled sunken barges gave way under pressure. Although the water fell rapidly, 4 of the light-draft gunboats managed to pass over the rapids. Bailey and his men then renewed their work, and by May 13, the remaining vessels of the squadron had succeede in passing the rapids through 2 wing dams.
A week later, the gunboats were back on the Mississippi River, and the ill-fated Red River Expedition was ended. It had accomplished nothing and had even antagonized most of the planters the Federals had encountered along the river. Porter's officers had seized cotton without reimbursement, causing other planters to burn theirs rather than have it taken. Moreover, the expedition had delayed the more important campaign against Mobile that Grant had planned.