April 14, 1864 (Thursday)
Following General Nathaniel Banks’ retreat from Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, things were not exactly going well. The victorious Union troops had left the field to the defeated Rebels, returning to Grand Ecore on the Red River. Aiding Banks in his stab toward Shreveport was the naval fleet under David Dixon Porter. Once Porter received word that Banks was falling back, he had to do the same, turning around for Grand Ecore on the 11th.
After battling Texas cavalry under the now-late Thomas Green, Porter’s vessels struggled to float, skid, tow, and drag their way down the Red. With the fleet was an infantry division under Kilby Smith, who was growing more and more worried that the Rebels who apparently defeated Banks would make their way to the river to deal with him. And so he ordered his transport ships to move to the town of Campti, which he reached on this date.
When he arrived, he found a brigade of infantry under Col. William Shaw. Col. Shaw had covered the retreat of Banks’ army from the field of battle, returning to Grand Ecore on the 11th. All through the 12th, he could hear the sounds of gunfire, and wanted to move upriver to aid Kilby Smith’s division. General Banks, however, would not allow it. Turning to his immediate superior, General A.J. Smith, Col Shaw informed him that unless he strictly forbade him to go, he was going to move on Campti, even without Banks’ approval. A.J. Smith said nothing, and so Shaw built a bridge across the river and began to cross.
Banks did not find out about this until Admiral Porter arrived at Grand Ecore later that day (the 13th). He came requesting reinforcements for Kilby Smith. Banks, just now noticing the bridge, played it off as if he was already filling the request, even ordering General Smith to send another brigade. In the end, it was all for naught, as Kilby Smith’s troops were able to make it unmolested to Grand Ecore, which they would reach on the 15th.
And so by this date, all of Banks’, A.J. Smith’s and Porter’s commanders were at or nearing Grand Ecore. General Banks began to fear that the Confederates that he defeated a few days previous would regather themselves with possible reinforcements and attack. But in reality, the opposite was happening.
Confederate General Richard Taylor’s army had been defeated, and they limped their way back to Mansfield. Still, the Federals were in retreat. More and more this was looking like a victory. General Kirby Smith, commanding the department from his headquarters in nearby Shreveport, thought so as well. With Banks at bay, he turned his attention to the Union troops in Arkansas under Frederick Steele. He was convinced that “to win the campaign his column must be destroyed.”
“Banks is certainly so crippled that he cannot soon take the offensive,” wrote Kirby Smith, forgetting that Banks’ army had actually won the day. “Great results are to be reached in that direction [Arkansas] if Steele can be reached. Arkansas will be saved politically and the reoccupation of the Arkansas Valley accomplished.”
Taylor, of course, disagreed. If Banks was so crippled, wouldn’t it be best to attack him? But this was not Kirby Smith’s train of thought. “Were Steele in retreat,” Smith explained, “the prompt pursuit of Banks would be wise, and might result in inflicting still greater losses upon him.” As it stood now, however, the campaign in Louisiana presented too many obstacles and did not “offer the permanent results that would follow the defeat of Steele alone.”
Kirby Smith believed that either Arkansas or Louisiana could be saved – he seemed to have given up hope for rescuing both. In order for Arkansas to be brought back into the fold, the smaller army under Steele needed only to be defeated. Then, the state would once again be in Confederate hands. For Louisiana to enjoy the same fate, however, would mean that New Orleans had to be taken. “Their naval superiority make this result impossible,” he concluded. “Prepare your command and organize your trains for rapid movement.” From Taylor, Smith wanted four brigades.
Though Taylor was hardly left with any choice but compliance, Kirby Smith visited him in Mansfield ont he 13th, just to make sure. They argued once more, rehashing the same reasons for and against their particular plans. Finally figuring out that Smith was immovable, Taylor volunteered to lead the column moving northward. Smith would hear nothing of it, deciding instead to go himself.
Rather than taking with him four brigades, Kirby Smith decided that what he needed was actually three divisions. The unbelievably disgruntled Taylor was left with a single small division. Nevertheless, as most of his army marched north on this date to Shreveport (and then toward Arkansas), his remaining division began their march toward General Banks’ force, crossing the battlefield at Pleasant Hill.
Taylor was also left with the cavalry, which he spread out toward Campti and Grand Ecore, with other units skirmishing near Natchitoches. On this date, Taylor optimistically vowed: “The enemy will be pressed to the end.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p382, 358, 531, 533-534; Part 3, p186, 191; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. [↩]