April 23, 1864 (Saturday)
The Union cavalry to the front saw them first. Through the dim grays of the predawn, figures across the Cane River held the bluff overlooking Monett’s Ferry, Louisiana. Nathaniel Banks’ retreating army had no recourse but to push its way through to make it back to Alexandria. Banks himself rode forward, hearing artillery, and as he scouted the position, a fragment of shell hit his boot, bouncing harmlessly away. After ordering a staff officer to snatch it up as a souvenir, he sent word to General William Franklin, commanding the Nineteenth Corps, to attack.
Franklin, however, had been wounded several days back and handed over the reigns to one of his division commanders, William Emory. Emory pushed forward his cavalry, and “they skirmished handsomely and briskly, driving in the enemy’s pickets until they got to the line of battle occupied by the enemy, which was very strong and defended by two batteries of eight pieces each, which crossed their fire on an open field, through which it was necessary to pass before we could reach the enemy’s position.” He also noticed that the Rebels held ground easily 100 feet higher than his own.
General Banks called up A.J. Smith, commanding a corps and a half from the Army of the Tennessee, but Smith replied that he could spare not a regiment, as Confederate cavalry had fallen upon his rear. Nobody had any idea at all that they outnumbered the Rebels six to one.
Emory, seeing the defenses of the enemy before him, ordered his cavalry to scout to the left, and sent General Henry Birge’s three divisions to the right. Somehow or another, they would cross. Before long, Birge came across a local black man, possibly a slave, who led his command to a river crossing three miles upstream from Monett’s Ferry, so heavily defended by the Rebels.
The Confederates seemed to be wholly ignorant of this upper crossing, and defended it not at all. Birge’s troops made the crossing with nobody being any the wiser. After crossing, Birge gathered his troops and moved to hit the Rebels on their left flank.
Meanwhile, General Emory had ordered his artillery forward, and they hammered away at the Confederate position, as two brigades of infantry opened fire upon the enemy. The cavalry sent to the left were to cross and threaten the Rebels’ right flank. They were to keep an eye on Birge’s progress. If he should outflank them and throw them back, the cavalry was to give chase.
But Birge was having no easy time at it. “The ground over which Birge had to pass was exceedingly difficult,” wrote Emory in his official report, “traversed by muddy bayous, high and sharp ridges covered by a dense growth of pink, and other topographical difficulties. His progress was necessarily very slow and tedious, and he did not get into position until late afternoon.” And though it took hours, Emory soon heard the crackle of musketry on the Confederate left. Birge had struck.
And the Rebel skirmishers struck back. The Confederate left was holding tight to a small bluff. A brigade was sent forward, and with mounting losses, the Federals seized the hill, pushing the enemy back. The Rebels, now out of sight of the Northern troops, fled to the next bluff. This one was higher, and the Confederate flanks were anchored to the Cane River and a swamp. What Birge’s men in pursuit could not see was that the Rebels were waiting in ambuscade. As they crossed an open field with the cavalry in front, The Southern troops opened fire, routing the cavalry.
The battle grew, and from across the river, General Emory ordered artillery to aid in Birge’s attack. He also ordered his infantry at the Monett’s Ferry crossing to throw out skirmishers, hoping to convince the Rebels of an impending attack upon their front. Rather than wait, however, the Confederates struck for the battery, attacking across the river. This strange assault was quickly denied by Emory’s command, and his attention was turned back to Birge on the Rebel left.
Birge, with little choice but to continue, charged the hill as Emory’s artillery added to the din. With more than a bit of blood, the hill was carried, and the Rebels soon began to doubt their main position.
The Confederate commander, General Hamilton Bee, was now convinced that both his flanks were turned. Emory’s cavalry demonstration had played its roll perfectly, even though not a single Federal had crossed. Bee also believed that Emory was about to hit his front as well. With his left obviously turned, his right probably turned, and his front to be assaulted by a vastly superior force, Bee decided to retreat, leaving the crossing open for General Banks’ entire army.
“This was in fact the turning point of the battle,” wrote General Emory, “and it was here our principal loss was encountered. Colonel Davis, commanding cavalry brigade, did not succeed in gaining the enemy’s right flank and rear, but as soon as the enemy broke I sent forward Colonel Chrysler, supported by Colonel Crebs, both cavalry commanders, supported by General Cameron, to pursue the enemy and capture his artillery, of possible.”
But Bee’s main force took the road northwest to Fort Jesup, while a small detachment of Rebel cavalry retreated south. The Federals followed the latter, believing it to be the former. Even so, General Banks was able to cross his command over a pontoon bridge. By 2pm the next day, all were across and would soon be back in Alexandria. 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p314-316; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. [↩]