In the spring of 1863, General Nathaniel P. Banks, who had over 40,000 soldiers in his Department of the Gulf, invaded the Red River Valley. Troops left Opelousas and marched up Bayou Boeuf to Alexandria, which was surrendered May 9th. Meanwhile, with an agreement between Admiral Farragut and General Banks to destroy public works and machinery at Alexandria. The Red River Campaign was the Union's attempt to establish firm control in Louisiana through occupying the temporary state Capital at Shreveport and to begin occupation of Texas. Objectives for this campaign included freeing slaves, 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. Delays and unforeseen difficulties turned it into a two-month long movement that backfired on the Union strategists.
Henry Robertson is a history professor at Louisiana State University at Alexandria. He is also coordinator of the Red River Civil War Symposium for 2004. He says, "Confederate General Richard Taylor, a son of President Zachary Taylor, commanded a much smaller force that put up resistance as Union Forces made their way up the River."
"Confederates made a bold attack at Mansfield and another at Pleasant Hill, where more troops were engaged than in any Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River."
"Taylor drove Banks back and the campaign turned into a dismal route," Robertson says. "Fighting took place on the way to Alexandria where the whole Union fleet was nearly captured had it not been for the ingenuity of Bailey's Dam which raised the Red River's ebbing current."
"Alexandria was burned during the retreat and civilians along the way would suffer the ravages of war. Yet for thousands of African-Americans, that spring would be one of liberation as Union forces marched into one of the untouched plantation regions of the South," Robertson says.
About nine-tenths of Alexandria was burned between the hours of 8 and 9 o'clock, A.M. on May 13, 1864. This burning was called the Red River Campaign. During the Civil War, the town twice suffered the ravages of Federal occupation and was virtually burned to the ground by Federal troops during their retreat in May 1864. The first building fired was a store on Front Street. The Court House was the only building on the square that did not burn. It remained uninjured. It was then fired from the inside and was consumed with every record of the Parish. The Episcopal and Methodist churches were also burned, and every building upon twenty-two blocks. Many libraries, plantations, businesses and residences were also destroyed during the campaign. The only church that was left standing was the Catholic church that is downtown at present.
Since every public record had been destroyed, Louisiana granted the town a new Charter in an Act dated September 29, 1868.