April 6, 1864 (Wednesday)
General Richard Taylor had been, in Kirby Smith’s mind, wildly vacillating. Before his small army of less than 9,000 poorly-armed (or completely unarmed) Rebels was a relative Federal Goliath numbering 35,000. Taylor had offered first to attack it, but then suggested he instead make for Arkansas to join Sterling Price in beating back another Federal column. The fear was that the two enemy forces, now 200 miles away, would join.
Kirby Smith, department commander, had a differing take on the situation. Rather than combining the Confederate forces, he would keep them separated, hoping to keep busy as many Union troops as possible. The day previous, Smith informed Taylor that he would make the short trek from his headquarters in Shreveport to Taylor’s in Mansfield.
General Taylor’s army was arrayed a few miles south of Mansfield, while the Federals under Nathaniel Banks gathered forty miles to the east at Natchitoches. He was hoping to draw them in, as this would give him a decided advantage. The road from Natchitoches left the Red River, and would force Banks to leave behind the large fleet of Naval vessels, as well as any reinforcements that might be shuttled up by water. But so far, Banks seemed to be unaware of Taylor’s location.
But vacillation wasn’t something that only Richard Taylor had mastered. Kirby Smith was also a dabbler. Upon his arrival at Taylor’s headquarters, he explained that the overall strategy for the campaign should be to gather all of the department’s forces – it was the only way to ensure a victory over such superior numbers. But when Taylor once more suggested that he should instead attack Banks right away, Taylor countered with the bizarre suggestion of falling back upon Shreveport and allowing the Federal army to besiege the city – apparently forgetting how poorly that had worked in Vicksburg.
Taylor wasn’t incredibly keen on the idea, and so Smith suggested that the army instead move west into Texas in the hopes of getting Banks to follow him. Interestingly enough, Banks had suggested this to General Grant only a few days prior, seeming more than happy to oblige. Richard Taylor, of course, liked this even less. He was a Louisianan (after 1850, anyway) and cared little for giving up his adopted state to the Yankees.
Into the thick of this discussion waltzed General Thomas Churchill, one of Kirby Smith’s regulars. Churchill’s Division had been called from Arkansas to Louisiana by Smith, but kept floundering at Shreveport while Smith made up his mind about what to do with them. On April 3rd, Taylor finally was allowed limited use of them, but they had to remain in the town of Keachi, nestled between Shreveport and Mansfield. The evening previous to this, Smith had almost secretly sent word to Churchill that he was being sent back to Arkansas. Churchill was ordered to ready his command for the trip, and come morning, some were already on the way.
But Churchill’s presence was also requested at the meeting. So as his command began its journey, Churchill learned that the plan to move north was canceled. He would be staying at Keachi, a town that Smith suddenly realized was of strategic importance as a buffer against any move Nathaniel Banks might make. This seemed to satisfy Taylor, though not without some misunderstanding.
Kirby Smith wanted the battle to be fought at Keachi, and ordered Taylor to build up defenses and somehow draw the Yankees into them. But Taylor believed that to be part of some overall plan that Taylor had in his head. Instead, he though it best to defend Mansfield and fall back to Keachi only if ordered to do so by Kirby Smith. In the end, however, neither though it would matter.
Banks, they both believed, would never risk a tramp away from the Red River. He would never “advance his infantry across the barren country stretching between Natchitoches and Mansfield.” What this meant to Smith, however, was vastly different than what it meant to Taylor.
While Smith believed it to mean that the major battle would be fought against the Federals under Frederick Steele in Arkansas, Taylor believed it meant that he must attack Banks as soon as possible. Taylor was further bolstered by the addition of Churchill’s Division, which brought his numbers to near 13,000. In the end, Kirby Smith neither insisted upon anything, nor did he approve any of Taylor’s ideas. Everything was left in a gray, unfinished state, with nobody having any real idea what was supposed to happen next. Smith thought that Taylor would basically stay put, and Taylor thought the opposite. Neither seemed to have any idea of the mind of the other.
Meanwhile, the Federals were moving. The Navy ships, along with a division of infantry packed aboard transports, chuffed their way up the Red River toward Shreveport. For his infantry, General Banks decided that rather than following the windy road along the Red, he would take the more direct (though barren) route leading through the towns of Pleasant Hill, Mansfield and Keachi. If all went well, the infantry and navy would meet in Shreveport. Banks was spoiling for a fight, but figured that since Taylor had retreated nearly 200 miles, he would either fall back upon Shreveport or slide into Texas. He counted on the former, never giving much thought to the idea that Taylor might instead defend Mansfield. Banks never considered for a moment that Taylor had designs upon an attack.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, p480, 485; Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War by Richard TaylorA Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby. [↩]