© 2018 Steven D. Shepard
The Army of The Gulf
Commanding Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was having dinner in the officers mess tonight. He and his officers convened to sit at a U-shaped arrangement of tables with pressed, clean white cotton table cloths and napkins. The silverware was not Army issue. It was real silver, confiscated from a fancy cat house in New Orleans and brought along on the Red River Campaign precisely for the purpose of celebrating victories. Crystal glasses were empty, but would be soon filled with the best wine and whiskey the General could find considering their remote location in the foggy, steaming jungles of South Louisiana. But he did alright. Banks could have dined in comfort in one of the Alexandria mansions vacated by retreating rich Southerners. He probably would before the Army of the Gulf left the City. But this was a night for celebration and congratulating his command officers for a job well done. They had taken the City without firing a single shot. His armada rode into Alexandria on the south side while the bare bones Southern militia and the Army of Western Louisiana was riding out of the City on the north side. With this militia, most of the affluent citizens also fled town after they boarded up their houses. These fleeing, frighted, upstanding citizens joined a Southern militia and retreated without offering any resistance. The affluent citizens and politicians of the community packed up what they could carry and ran northwest to Shreveport with the Confederates. Abandoning their own people, their retreat left the poor and working class to fend for themselves when the Yankee Army took charge of the City. So General Banks issued a standing order to treat the native population with courtesy and restraint. Mostly that order was followed.
General Banks tried to keep order the best he could. After all, there was some advantage in coercing the local populace into cooperation. Even with his orders, nearly every house in Alexandria was pillaged and robbed by Union soldiers. There were also one or two episodes where some of the enlisted men dragged young women into the woods and had their way with them. That was to be expected. After all, boys will be boys and it was war. Young men can be hard to control sometimes. Banks had the men arrested and turned over to the JAG for justice. But typically all JAG did was have the man tied to a wagon wheel and beaten. Then it was back to the rank and file with him if he survived and recovered.
Of greater interest to Banks and his command was, if any of the remaining citizens and farmers had any cotton baled and stashed away. If so, that cotton had to be surrendered of course. Cotton was gold in the South. Banks and his officers confiscated the white property and shipped the precious bales northeast where the price per bale had escalated wildly due to scarcity. It was handy that the U.S. military just happen to have so many ships. Their steam powered boats could maintain a regular shipping schedule going north and south carrying cotton up and weapons and supplies back. In fact, one of the reasons the Confederates offered no resistance was, because Federal gunboats were able to sail the Red River right into Alexandria. Bringing along considerable artillery and infantry support right up the River. Just like they did at Baton Rouge. There was also a minor conflict and competition between the Army and the Navy. About which branch of service was actually going to do the cotton confiscation and reap the profits. Admiral David Dixon Porter brought this competition with his gunboats. Because the Admiral had just as many mercenary interests as anyone. But the Army easily addressed this competition because Banks had over thirty thousand men in the field. Infantry in the field could locate more far more cotton on farm land than Porter could near the Red River. Porter and his sailors had tried to take bales away from the Army enlisted and label them USN property. General Banks quickly figured out that scam and put a stop to it. Meanwhile, General Bank's personal bank account back home swelled from his victories so far on his invasion of Louisiana and the Red River Campaign. Banks looked forward to a successful conclusion to the campaign that would either take him west invading Texas, or back home with honors. With the profit he was making and his military officer's pension, it was unlikely he was ever going to have to work again after the war. That was how a politician General had to think.
There were still some problems the General had to work out. There are always problems in war. The main problem was, the Red River just seemed to peter out right there in Alexandria. The Winter rains had not swelled the River like they expected and had been told it would. As it was, it was unlikely Union gunboats were going to be able to navigate much further up the River at all. The Red River was so shallow in some places now, his men could wade across it. This was a real concern. General Banks had no desire to continue the campaign without the big guns the Navy carried. Admiral Porter may be a competitor and a pest, but the man knew how to shell a defenseless town or an opposing army. Porter had made the Union Navy a force to contend with ever since they invaded New Orleans. Union forces didn't wound New Orleans that bad. They didn't have too. Confederate defenses, such as they were soon buckled and ran. It was almost easy to run them into the swamps west of New Orleans. Baton Rouge was different. Naval guns came close to tearing Baton Rouge apart in that battle. Fortunately, Confederate forces were forced to retreat out of reach of the cannons. But their retreat left them unable to defend the city. Yes, Baton Rouge was different. It showed a Rebel resistance level the Yankees were not expecting.
In Baton Rouge, the Confederate Army of Western Louisiana under General Richard Taylor stopped and put up a fierce resistance. It turned into a bloody mess. Had the Union gunboats not been able to shell the Confederates from the River, it was likely the Rebs could have held the City. When Rebels finally retreated, Banks got a chance to walk the battlefield and inspect the damage. What he saw was a carpet of blue and gray dead and mangled wounded bodies laying and writhing one on top of the other in a gory red horror that rivaled any battlefield he had seen in the east. He made his inspection quickly before medics and doctors had made much of an impact. The screams and cries of the wounded rattled him. He had never seen so many bloody, mangled and shattered human limbs laying displaced on the ground before in his entire life. His aide threw up twice at the sight and the smell of it. Banks only discontinued his inspection when his boots got so caked with red blood mud that it made walking difficult. And nearly made him sick. So he quit. It was relief to get back to the rear command of and out of the horror. He ordered his sick aide to clean the blood off his boots.
The road north was another problem General Banks and his officers were going to have to consider in the morning. It could barely be called a road. The River Road attempted to follow the Red River northwest where the jungle would allow. But it was a red dirt clay road not much wider than a wagon. Full of ruts when dry. Full of sticky, clay mud when wet. On either side of this road grew a nearly impenetrable wall and tangle of ancient tall trees and brush that had defiantly stood there since the beginning of time. This tangle of vegetation would have to razed and moved aside before it would allow heavy troop and weapon transport through it. There seemed to be no way around it. The Army didn't bring any heavy equipment to deal with it. The trees were a mesh of immense hardwoods and pines with massive trunks that supported ponderous branches that loomed over the road like a vegetative canopy. It was common to find a tree nearly as big around as a Conestoga wagon. The lofty limbs of the hardwoods swung low towards the ground, laden with Spanish Moss and stinging insects. From the ground, thick vines grew up into their heavy canopy. These vines were so strong that a full grown man could swing on them if there was clearance. The evergreens stood tall above and around hardwoods to block out the sun, moon, sky and any available breeze. Both types of trees grew so close upon one another that they fought in the wind for space and territory. In many places the tree trunks were so thick a man couldn't walk through them. The brush beneath the trees blocked passage and any attempt to wander these woods. The only way to navigate a trail at all was to hack away a hole through it with a machete. This was hard, slow labor and along with the heat and humidity this work put a full grown man down in just a few hours. The damned jungle seemed to respond with mosquitoes, snakes and ticks. There were some clearings and piers along side the Red River where farmers loaded their goods on passing barges or boats. But these clearings were few and far between and not helpful. If anything, these clearings were good place for Confederate snipers to pick Union sailors off a boat. The snipers didn't take a heavy toll on his men, but they were a damned dangerous nuisance.
Traveling these poor roads was going to force the Army to proceed in long thin lines. In fact, it was unlikely they could march six men across. General Banks was told by his staff, this mode of travel would stretch out Union forces, supply line and medical staff north and south in a column line so long it would take half a day to ride the length of it. Pulling heavy cannons through this mess was also going to be an issue. All the cannons were going to have to be pulled single file and probably require an additional team of mules to do the pulling. If the damned jungle were not so dense, Banks would have been more concerned about ambush. But the forest was just as much an obstacle for the Confederates as it was for the U.S. Army.
The final problem that worried General Banks was the lack of reconnaissance. Even after the battle in Baton Rouge, Banks had no idea how many Confederate forces he was actually facing. He also had no idea where those forces were going or would be at this time. The enemy had shown an incredible agility to quickly attack then disperse hundreds of armed men where they melted into the jungle nearly disappearing. Trying to follow these gray jungle spooks and attack them in return at a run proved to be suicide. Early in the Campaign, when his infantry had tried to pursue the spooks west of New Orleans they got cut to ribbons by an enemy that would run, take cover in the trees, fire and run again. The Rebels knew where they were going. His infantry did not. Attempts at pursuit lost men to enemy fire and jungle dangers. Some of his men were lost falling into bamboo traps laid by the enemy. These dangers and traps enraged his infantry, but they saw enough of the risk that there was no ordering the men go back into the jungle under fire again.
Banks knew the citizens of this hell hole routinely provided food, aid and comfort to the Southern militia he faced. That issue was going to have to be addressed also. Even as they supped, General Banks had already assigned a team to interview and bribe locals for information. Mostly what they got in response were lies. As Banks gazed around the tent waiting to be served, it was going through his mind that he could send several recon teams north to try to locate the body of enemy forces. If he could just catch Taylor on an open battlefield, he would finish him and smash the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. That would put an end to this campaign and open up Texas for Bank's invasion. With any luck, he would end this war a conquering hero.
But tonight was not the night to consider casualties and problems. His officers needed a morale boost and congratulations. That was precisely what he was going to give them. If an Army ran on its stomach, officers ran on their egos. A great leader knew he had to stroke their egos to keep them going. As the liquor poured, General Banks rose from his seat and declared a toast, “To the officers and men of the Army of the Gulf.” In unison the officers stood and responded with a, “HERE, HERE!” They all raised their glasses and toasted their victory at Alexandria.
Far down a row of white bivouacked tents, campfires and cones of stacked rifles Captain Dean Ivey was busy. He finally got a break from the day's engineering duties and was able to sit in his tent, drink some coffee and write a letter. His body ached from being in the field all day and he would have had a drink if he had one. He knew where to get a drink in Alexandria. He knew the country very well. He had grown up here. He was from here. But it was not his country anymore. His blue uniform would have made him unwelcome anywhere in town. Nobody really knew him in Alex. But it was possible he might see someone who had met him before. Getting in a fight that might get a civilian killed and him injured. It just wasn't worth the trouble.
Captain Ivey scratched ink on paper with a feather tipped pen and inkwell on a bare wooden field table. He had already finished his dinner alone at that table. He was grateful that Lieutenant Caley, the officer he was sharing his tent with, had not yet returned from open mess. This gave him some privacy and time to think and write. His military school handwriting was nearly impeccable, but to keep it steady and clean he had to concentrate and not rush. His writing was made a little more difficult because of the poor light from a coal oil lamp. Ivey had always got good marks for his handwriting. Since school, Ivey had become obsessive that his handwriting had to be clean, neat and precise. Ink stains on the page were absolutely unacceptable. In the unlikely event he might get a spot on the page out of place, he would trash the entire page and start all over again. Ivey tried to be similarly meticulous about himself and most things he did. In fact, he was almost obsessive about his appearance and work. Disorder in his private habits drove him nuts and he would not tolerate it kindly. The irony to his life now was, that he was engaged in one of the most disordered endeavors of human existence – war. The irony was not lost on the fussy, prissy officer.
Most of his day had been spent out in the sun at the river. He was sure glad he had a broad brim hat. He knew from experience that the hot sun mixed with the Louisiana humidity was dangerous. Even in March. Heat stroke was common. He and the engineering team got to lift their hats often. They were still scratching their heads and wondering what they hell they were going to do to get the Navy gunboats up river to Shreveport. Captain Ivey had an idea, but he had not shared it yet. He had seen it done before. When he was young, the river had pissed out just like it was now. That was years ago when he was in military school there in Pineville. Some old man from up north had come down with the idea to dam the river. This dam would raise the elevation of the water up stream and while they were building the dam from either side, a riverboat could run the water gap between the dam arms where water rushed through. This rush of water would be like water through a Weir. It would have a strong current, but it would be deep enough to accept a boat and allow the craft to continue sailing up stream if the boat had the power. The idea had worked back in the day, but it had never been used again. The dam the City built back then was mostly made up of logs like a jam, because that was the most plentiful material they had available. But those logs and that dam had washed away a long ago.
Most of Captain Ivey's work had been like this since he had left home and joined the Union Army. The U.S. Army recognized his academy degree and gave him a commission as an engineer. He didn't asked to be stationed back home in Louisiana. It had just worked out that way. He made it a point to not mention he was a Southerner, or where he was from. It rarely led to anything good. Sometimes his Southern accent was noticed. So it was known. If and when he thought about it, he was grateful he was an engineer and not on the battle line with the infantry and cavalry. Not that he didn't get shot at. He did. Engineering work often took him to the front lines where he and the survey team would study obstacles and develop solutions over, under or around them. Sometimes it was engineering on the run. When they had to duck Confederate bullets and snipers. He shot back when he had to, but he never knew for sure if he hit anybody or not. He was not inclined to hang around and find out. The infantry soldiers assigned to him hated and resented being ordered to do manual labor for the engineers. It was often necessary to turn battle squads into workers to build roads and bridges or take out trees. Sometimes it was necessary for Ivey to pitch in, supervise and help with the work, but that didn't happen often. This Army was laden with manpower. They didn't absolutely need Captain Ivey or the blacks assigned to him who built what he designed or destroyed. And no matter the color, if enlisted labor made the mistake of putting up any protest or or showing any sloth, Ivey would let the Sergeants take care of it. And they did so cruelly.
So there were casualties on the Union labor squads. Sometimes the men would get shot doing unarmed labor and building breastworks at the front. Some of the workers dropped dead working in the dead air, heat and humidity. Sunstroke had killed more than one man not from the South and not accustomed to working in these harsh conditions. Malaria and other diseases were also a problem. These virulent diseases had already taken out nearly ten percent of the force they landed in New Orleans when the invasion began. When Captain Dean Ivey started this assignment, he had favorite workers he knew and liked and came to rely on their dependability and their strength. By now, all of those men had got themselves shot or died from disease and labor. Ivey made a point not to get to know the dark men who served under him today. The blacks were of no concern and Ivey really didn't care if they lived or died. It seemed like whenever the engineering team lost a man, there was always a replacement sent. The soldiers seemed to come and go these days.
Captain Dean Ivey had been with the Army of the Gulf during the entire Red River campaign. The invasion of New Orleans and the battle in Baton Rouge didn't concern him too much. He really didn't know many people from in or around southeast Louisiana. When his duties forced him to come to the front and into contact with any carnage or suffering, he was glad he didn't have to stay with it very long. Ivey had already seen enough dead bodies and screaming civilians. Sometimes he felt a streak of sympathy for the dead and suffering, but it was the path of least resistance to just get away from it and concentrate on his duties. Or his dirty fingernails.
It was obvious to the entire command and Captain Dean Ivey that so far, the Army of Gulf was making good progress and its way northwest successfully. At the rate they were going, Shreveport would fall in less than a month. He wasn't sure how he was going to feel about it when Shreveport fell. He hoped his mother would be OK. It was unlikely she would leave her home for any reason. Even if they shelled it. She and his brother Doug would probably hide out in the basement until the town surrendered. The thought had occurred to him that he could send them some warning. Ask them to get out of the City until after the invasion was over. But if he got caught doing that, it would be considered treason and he would probably get Court-martial and shot for it. Dean Ivey was concerned about his relations in Shreveport. But he did not yet have any idea what to do about it. He hoped something would come to him.
Writing in his tent tonight, Ivey made the decision that if he had time, he was going to ride out to the old academy and take a look around. He wasn't sure how long the Army was going to stay in Alexandria before they resumed their march north. He still had a few good memories of the place. But he wasn't being honest with himself. If he was, he would have remembered the school was mostly a boring place of drudgery, orders, intensive study and bad treatment. His degree from the school got him the Captain's bars he wore on his shoulders now. They seemed heavy tonight.