April 8, 1864 (Friday)
Almost immediately after General Kirby Smith left Richard Taylor’s headquarters in Mansfield, Louisiana, Taylor enacted his plan, which was in contrast to Smith’s own in almost every way. Smith had wanted Taylor to remain on the defense, falling back toward Shreveport if pushed by the Federals under Nathaniel Banks. Taylor, however, wanted to attack. He had dealt with Banks two years ago in the Shenandoah Valley, and knew he was, at best, a paper tiger.
In the 7th, he sent out the newly arrived Texas cavalry under Thomas Green to scout the road leading to Natchitoches, where the Federals had concentrated. The weather had turned the roads to mud, and the bogged down Union Army of the Gulf had hardly made it to the small hamlet of Pleasant Hill when Green’s cavalry fell upon their Norther counterparts. The skirmish lasted most of the day, with the numerically superior Union troops calling for more reinforcements and pushing the Rebels back toward Taylor’s main line.
Before the day was through, he was certain that this wasn’t just Union cavalry, but General Banks’ entire force. All he had to do now was attack before the enemy could bring forward his entire command. His scouts and patrols had caught sight of the long Federal column, stretching nearly twenty miles. This might not be so impossible.
Nathaniel Banks had his heart set upon capturing Mansfield. From there, he could move by parallel roads to Shreveport – his ultimate objective. He hardly believed the Rebels strong enough to resist him, let alone mount an offensive. Thus far in the campaign, whenever pushed, the Southerners had fallen back. And throughout the 7th, the same seemed to ring true.
Believing it was Mansfield that needed to be held, General Taylor decided that a defense would end in failure. The Federals would not attack until their entire was was up, and by that time, he would be grossly outnumbered. And so he chose the ground and concocted his plan – the wishes of Kirby Smith be damned. He, of course, requested permission to attack, but purposely sent the message too late for Smith to deny it.
The message to Smith arrived before dawn on this date, but he decided not to immediately reply. In the meanwhile, General Taylor deployed his men along the edge of a woodlot, and mostly hidden. Arranged so that three divisions – two on one side of the road, one on the other – would create a vortex of fire into which the Federal column would wander. Shortly after dawn, the Federals came into view, and began to gather on the opposing Honeycutt Hill, refusing to give battle.
By noon, the enemy host still growing, Taylor began to worry. He was bringing on an engagement against orders. If he was victorious, it could be forgiven, but if he allowed the Federals to overpower him, what might then be his fate? Two more hours passed with only the briefest of skirmishing. Union cavalry came bounding across the open space between the two armies, but were quickly dispersed.
At this point, Taylor was relying upon hopeful deception. His hidden position seemed to be tricking Banks into believing that the Rebels had more than 9,000 troops at hand. In fact, many in the Union ranks now believed the true numbers to be doubled – that Sterling Price had joined with Taylor for one final battle. Just how far the Rebel lines stretched was simply speculation. But this ruse was working too well. Banks hesitated, fearful of attacking an entrenched force of 20,000.
At 3:30, Taylor could wait no longer. Daylight would not be long lasting, and the longer he waited, the greater the enemy’s number would be. Also figuring into the equation was Taylor’s certainty that Kirby Smith was cancel the offensive. Best to hit them now. And so he ordered the center division under Alfred Mouton to attack.
These men were Louisianans, and Taylor spurred them on, urging them to drive the Yankees from their own soil. They advanced, and the Federal artillery opened upon them, creating what Taylor described as a “murderous fire of artillery and musketry.” The Union right descended Honeycutt Hill to get a better shot, taking positions along a fence. Seeing this, Mouton’s men charged, pouring over the fence and tumbling the Federals back up the hill and then over, with the Confederates flowing after them like rushing water.
It was then that Kirby Smith’s message was received. “A general engagement now could not be given with our full force,” wrote Smith, suggesting that Taylor fall back to a better defensive position before Shreveport. Taylor made no written reply, but to the messenger, turned and spoke: “Too late, sir. The battle is won.”
This wasn’t completely true – at least not yet. To follow up the success held by Mounton’s Division, Taylor dispatched Walker’s Texas Division, which ranged across the open ground, screaming as they went, and the Union line before them disintegrated. But at least a half hour had passed between the two attacks. This allowed the Union troops to maul each in turn.
Atop the newly-won Honeycutt Hill, the Confederates were victorious, but bloodied. Numerous colonels were dead or wounded. General Mouton himself lay dying on the field. And still this was no conclusion. It was after 5pm, and the Union lines had reformed. Around 6pm, Taylor finally replied to Smith’s dispatch. “We have driven the enemy at this hour 3 miles.”
Taylor’s Confederates assaulted once more, and then again, with Nathaniel Banks’ troops falling back, each time closer to Pleasant Hill. At 7:30pm, he wrote once more: “Since my last I have driven the enemy at least 3 miles farther.”
And this macabre repetition echoed until dark when neither side could see the other.
Finally, at 10:30pm, after the fighting had ceased, he wrote again. “We have captured about 2,000 prisoners, 20 pieces of artillery, 200 wagons, and thousands of small-arms,” Taylor reported, giving Smith the grim news that “our loss in officers has been severe, and we have many wounded.” Two additional divisions under Thomas Churchill had not been called upon in the day’s battle. Taylor ordered them to the front, promising Smith that he would “continue to push the enemy with the utmost vigor.”
This was somewhat more optimistic than was deserved. Though darkness had ended the battle, the last action was a rousing defense and repulse by Banks’ troops. They had finally reformed at Pleasant Grove, a division from the Nineteenth Corps holding a ridge. Through the dim, the Rebels had become more of a mob than an organized army. Many had broken ranks to loot the Union wagons, and by the time they attacked the Federal position at Pleasant Grove, they were no match for the fresh troops Banks had throw in.
General Banks, like Taylor, was optimistic, deciding to form a new line at nearby Pleasant Hill. The battle would be renewed the following day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p527-528; 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. Hollandsworht, Jr.; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby. [↩]