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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Red River Campaign

Definition:

Date(s): March 10 to May 22, 1864
Location: New Orleans to Shreveport, Louisiana (Google Map)
Other name(s): none
Campaign: Red River Campaign (March-May 1864)
Outcome: Confederate victory

Summary

The Red River Campaign was an unsuccessful attempt by Union leaders to control Louisiana, destroy Confederate forces in that state, and seize valuable supplies of cotton. It is best-remembered in Wisconsin for an engineering feat led by Col. Joseph Bailey that saved 30,000 troops grounded by low water at Alexandria, Louisiana.

In the spring of 1864, 7,000 Union ground troops marched overland from Arkansas toward the Confederate headquarters at Shreveport, Louisiana. Union naval forces started up the Red River to meet them with 30,000 men on dozens of transport ships, gunboats, and support vessels.

The Union ground troops faced constant guerilla resistance, lost several battles, and were turned back. The naval forces, meanwhile, had carried troops and weapons far upriver into Louisiana. When the ground troops withdrew, this fleet found itself stranded above the Alexandria Rapids by low water. Confederate forces quickly moved toward Alexandria to capture it. Col. Joseph Bailey of Wisconsin Dells proposed freeing the fleet by constructing wing dams of the sort used by Wisconsin River lumbermen to raise water levels when their logs were stuck.

On April 30, 1864, Bailey began supervising lumberjacks of the 23rd and 29th Wisconsin Infantry regiments and African-American plantation laborers. In less than two weeks, they erected a series of dams that raised the water level enough to float the Union troops downriver to safety. According to General N. P. Banks, Bailey’s effort saved the Union a fleet of warships worth approximately $2,000,000 as well as thousands of troops.

The Red River Campaign as a whole, however, was a dismal Union failure that had no important effect on the outcome of the war.

Wisconsin's Role

Wisconsin's 8th, 14th, 23rd, 29th, 33rd Infantry regiments and 1st Light Artillery were all on the ships that travelled upstream during the Red River Campaign. No Wisconsin regiments were with the ground troops that came overland from Arkansas.

Learn more

View a detailed account of Bailey's dam

View original documents about the expedition

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, 1965); History of Columbia Co. (Chicago, 1880); Wisconsin Magazine of History, 25; History of Vernon Co., Mo. (St. Louis, 1887).]
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