Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell — Battle of Sabine Cross Roads & the Red River Expedition

Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell, Surgeon (Image courtesy of Lyon Camp #10, (Vineland, NJ) Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.)

Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell, Surgeon (Image courtesy of Lyon Camp #10, (Vineland, NJ) Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.)

On the morning of April 8th, 1864, I was at the Headquarters of the Cavalry Division at that time leading the advance of Gen. Banks’ Army. I learned that the commander of that Division was dissatisfied with the order of march which had been followed up to that time, and, his verbal messages of the preceeding day having elicited no favorable response or change of orders, had remonstrated sharply in a written message, with the significant remark that it was “written for the purpose of record”. The purport of this message I understood to be that the Enemy were evidently in considerable force in our immediate front and might give battle at any time, and that to provide for this contingency, the body of the Army should be brought up and kept within supporting distance. Gen. Franklin, who commanded the march is understood to have remarked that it was Gen. Lee’s duty to report what he knew, but not to say what should be done. So the march was resumed that morning in the same order as before, with a wagon train seven miles long between our little body of Cavalry and the head of the column of Infantry following.

I think it was about noon that I found myself on a little rise of the ground in front of which our division was then in line of battle confronting a line of Confederates apparently prepared to dispute our further progress in that direction. The Department Commander and Staff came up and was in consultation with the Division Commander at that point. After waiting there some time and getting hungry, I rode back to where our wagons were halted, a mile or so, to get a cup of coffee. Before I had swallowed my coffee, a roar of artillery notified us that the action had commenced, and almost immediately some wounded men were brought in. Near at hand was a low building, a rural church, of which I took immediate possession for hospital purposes. But my possession was very brief. Very soon shot and shell began to fall around us. Our wounded were replaced in the ambulance from which they had been just taken, and forwith [forthwith] we found ourselves participants in a general movement to the rear. The road was narrow through heavy timber and soon became blocked, so that it was impossible to get out the wagons or the artillery. One of my ambulances with a load of wounded, by the skill and pluck of the driver did get out, very much to my surprise. All the rest were lost.

At no very great distance, perhaps a mile or two, we that were retreating met the first of the infantry which, of course, had been hurried up. At the moment of my passing, they were being deployed to meet the coming Confederates in the midst of a body of dense timber. I stopped a moment a little in the rear of their line, but in almost no time I found that place unsafe. The rush of the Enemy was impetuous and our line was too thin to resist it. It was broken at the first onset and melted away like a dream. A little farther back, I think about five or six miles from the point where the rout began, we met the second body of infantry, the 19th Army Corps under Gen. Emery. The place was an isolated clearing of some extent, probably a single farm; the ground slightly ascending in the direction of our retreat. As I emerged from the timber, I saw the line a good musket shot distant. As before, I stopped just behind the line anxious to see the outcome. Gen. Banks who arrived just as I did, rode along the line and reminded the men that the 19th Corps had never met defeat, that if it gave way now the day was lost, etc. such things as the General knew well how to say. Some artillery which had been placed in position in rear of the infantry, was presently limbered up and driven off, probably because it was not thought to be needed, or not available in the kind of conflict now expected.

We had not long to wait. Close upon the heels of our own routed and retreating soldiers there appeared at the edge of the timber the foremost of the Graybacks. They halted a few moments till others came up in sufficient number, and then, just a little before night-fall they advanced to the charge upon our line. Our men awaited them in silence till the order to fire was given. Then came a roll of musketry from the left to the right with such effect that the Confederate advance was checked. But they rallied and started forward again to be met by another roll of the same kind, which ended the battles of the day. The enemy retired and at the close of the day the field was ours.

I can see now better than I could then reasons for the decision said to have been reached at the council there was held on the field which was notwithstanding our success in repulsing the last attack, to continue in the line of retreat instead of resuming the advance the following morning. This decision was of course, an admission of the failure of the expedition. Of the cause of that failure, I have something to say directly. Our division was not in the fight of the following day at Pleasant Hill, concerning which therefore I have nothing to say further than that at the close of the day our forces held the field, retiring afterwards to Grand Ecore.

The disaster of the day (the 8th) was undoubtedly due to the separation of the parts of our army, stretched out as it was over many miles of a single narrow road, much of the way through timber, and with long wagon trains between, permitting Gen. Taylor to bring his whole force to bear upon much smaller bodies, and defeat them in detail. The responsibility for this order of march and the resulting defeats of the earlier parts of the day, Gen. Franklin admitted to be his in his testimony before the Committee of Congress on the Conduct of the War. Being therefore a matter of public record there can, I think, be no wrong in my thus alluding to it here.

But the causes of the failure of the expedition were altogether different and of a different kind. Chief among them was the very low stage of water in the Red River. For twenty years at least, that stream had not failed of abundant water in April, till in 1864 the spring freshets failed to come. But our army depended upon the navigation of the river for the transportation of its supplies and for the co-operation of the Navy. Both of these functions were rendered difficult and dangerous by the low water and were becoming more so every day. This was a condition of things that could not have been foreseen when the expedition was projected nor remedied when found to exist. Possibly there were other causes of a recondite character for the failure of the Expedition. Yet it seems hardly necessary to search for such. The departure of nature from her usual and ordinary courses, in the absence of the spring flood in the Red River was cause enough since the easy and free navigation of that stream were essential to success. I doubt not Gen. Franklin had good grounds for his opinion when he said on that morning almost at the moment of the impending attack, “there will be no fight”.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A. (Image Library of Congress)

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A.
(Image Library of Congress)

Probably his information and his judgment as a military man both led to the conviction that Gen. Kirby Smith did not purpose giving battle at that point. What he did not know, or did not fully appreciate, was Gen. Richard Taylor’s capacity for disobeying orders, and of his own motion precipitating the event which his superior officer was more wisely reserving for a later date. It is a question perhaps, whether we are not indebted to the precipitate action of Gen. Taylor for saving our army from a worse disaster. We know that he was relieved from his command in disgrace in consequence of this affair. Why? Because his action had brought to naught the deeper plans of his superior officer, the Department Commander. If we can bring ourselves to consider the situation judiciously and dispassionately, as we ought after so many years, and in light of subsequent developments, I think we may look upon our repulse at Sabine Cross Roads as a blessing in disguise. If we had gone on two days march further, more or less, in that  inhospitable region, getting that much farther from the base of our operations, we should have found ourselves in the presence of a force nearly, if not quite equal numerically to our own; at home, on its own ground, its location chosen, and dispositions made deliberately and no doubt skillfully.

In the pitch battle which in all probability would have followed promptly on our arrival at the spot of our Enemy’s choosing we cannot well claim that our side had more than equal chance with the other. Nor so much as equal in the sequences. Success or failure would have had quite different meanings for the two parties in that conflict. To us, defeat in the supposed situation would have meant destruction. Our retreat from Sabine Cross Roads was accomplished with much difficulty and much loss. From that more advanced point, it would have been impossible.

On the other hand, if the victory had been ours, the enemy would have been routed and scattered probably, but not destroyed. In their own country, on familiar grounds, among friends and with ample supplies, they would certainly be able still to do us a great deal of damage. We would have had no second chance, if defeated at first; they would have had many. We would have been literally “off our base”. We could have no effective support from the Navy. We could have no water transportation. Half our army was only lent to us for thirty days or some such time. Hence an early return at least for the borrowed half was in the program. With facile and safe navigation i.e. high water in the Red River as far up as Shreveport, everything would have been different. In the situation as it was, the withdrawal of our army even after victory by the route of our advance or any other road open to us would have been disputed at every step and attended with perils much greater than those we did encounter, Cane River, and Yellow Bayou etc. would have been duplicated and more. So, thus canvassing the conditions of the situation and the probable outcome of those conditions I conclude it was fortunate that we got no farther than we did. Moreover, had the expedition fully succeeded, supposing its object to have been to reach Texas and to set up the national flag within the limits of that state with reference to possible diplomatic complications with France and Mexico, it would have been a fruitless achievement. The occasion for the diplomacy never arrived.

From the adverse conditions which I have attempted to describe above, it appears to me, first, that our regiment may well hold itself free from blame or discredit for the repulse of April 8th, and second, that the army and its commanders cannot justly be held responsible for the failure of the expedition. Whether that will be the verdict of history may be a matter of doubt. I presume it is not the opinion of the world at the present day.

The damage to us from the low stage of the water in Red River did not end with defeating the expedition, but followed us in our retreat. At Alexandria, we were detained several weeks to build a temporary dam by means of which to float the gunboats over the shallow rapids at that place.

On resuming the march below Alexandria, our regiment was again placed in the post of danger and responsibility, that of covering the rear of the retreating army. It was a matter of course that we should sustain some casualties in that perilous duty. At the close of the first day of this march we had some wounded men in an ambulance. The following morning I hurried forward to catch the Hospital boat, some miles ahead of us, to secure transportation for the wounded. I arrived in time, that is, before the boat had started, only to be denied admittance by the little gentleman who was just then in command of the boat. He said to be sure that he was full, which might have been true in a technical sense. But I could see that it was not so very full that a humane man might not have found at least, deck-room for badly wounded men rather than condemn them to the jolting and constraint of the ambulance over rough roads, in heat and dust, in the wake of a moving army, all day long, and indeed so far as depended upon him for many days. I asked him if he proposed to compel me to transport these men in ambulances all the way to New Orleans; to which he replied in an air of profound indifference that that was my affair and nothing to him.

My men were entitled to places on his boat. It was there for the relief of just such as they were. His refusal therefore was a breach of official duty no less than of common humanity. I did not prefer charges against him, wherein possibly I failed of my whole duty. I have never forgiven the martinet, but the indignation of the occasion has been so far tempered by the many years that have since elapsed, that I’m content now to leave his identity in shadow, rather than bring reproach upon the honorable patronymic which he bore. Indeed, I think I would not have mentioned the incident, but that I am able, as a sequel of the same affair, to mention an act as creditable as this was discreditable.

When my application was thus rudely refused I started at once for Headquarters to report the wrong and procure the remedy. But Headquarters were already in the saddle and some miles down the road, and I turned back to find that in my brief absence my assistants had made the situation known to the Captain of the “Hindman” (whose name I regret to say I have forgotten) the little gunboat doing then on the river just what we were doing on land, i.e. covering the rear. With some remarks more forcible than polite, the Captain took our wounded men on board his craft, declaring that though he had not an inch to spare, they should have all possible attention. The promise was amply fulfilled.

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