April 9, 1864 (Saturday)
“Our forces silently retired during the night,” wrote Union General Nathaniel Banks following the previous day’s battle outside Mansfield, Louisiana, “and in the morning took up a position on Pleasant Hill, joining the forces of General [A.J.] Smith.”
Confederates under Richard Taylor had launched an attack against Banks’ Army of the Gulf, which threw the Federal column back upon itself. “He attacked the line at every point with demoniac energy,” recalled Banks. And though he claimed that he had won a victory by finally stopping the last of the Confederate charges, he ended up retreating nearly sixteen miles, falling back upon reinforcements – A.J. Smith’s troops, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps from the Army of Tennessee, which were a day’s march behind.
Banks had been uneasy about staying. A.J. Smith’s troops might not reach him in time for morning, and water was becoming scarce. Before calling an end to their attack, the Rebels had captured a creek, and though Banks held the ridge above, the men and animals needed the water.
And so he established his lines, which consisted mostly of Smith’s men, and waited through morning. “The enemy began to reconnoiter the new position we had assumed at 11 o’clock,” wrote Banks in his report, “and as early as 1 or 2 o’clock opened a sharp fire of skirmishers, which was kept up at intervals during the afternoon.”
The ground leading west, toward the coming Confederates, sloped slowly away from Pleasant Hill, robbing Banks of any lofty view of the enemy. Additionally, there was, as he put it, “extensive tracts of woodland” throughout. Though he could not see the advancing Rebels, it was clear by the skirmishers that he was soon to be assailed. Here and there, the artillery boomed – most likely shells sent by one of twenty or so guns overrun and captured by the Confederates in yesterday’s battle.
“About 5 o’clock the enemy abandoned all pretension of maneuvering and made a most desperate attack upon the brigades on the left center.”
The Confederate army, commanded by Richard Taylor, had been reinforced late the previous night. Two divisions under the reigns of Thomas Churchill bolstered the Southern numbers to over 12,000. But they were worn, having marched forty-five miles in the last day and a half. When they arrived at the front, Taylor gave them two hours to rest.
By the original plan, Churchill’s men were to hit the Federal left, but due to a faulty guide, their attack fell upon the center, funneling close to the strike dealt by John Walker’s Division. And while the center was hit, and the line wavered and began to break.
But due to the Rebel misstep, their right flank was left exposed and dangling, though because of the woods, they did not know. If Churchill had scouted his position, he might have easily learned that nearly all of the Sixteenth Corps was crouching behind a line of trees and a breastwork hastily constructed.
Col. William Lynch, commanding a brigade in Smith’s Corps, was behind these abattis when the fighting commenced. [You can see two Illinois regiments in the left on the first map.] “Soon the enemy advanced from the woods,” wrote Lynch, “driving before them a brigade of Eastern troops which had occupied a position in the ravine or ditch on the opposite side of the field. Pursuing this brigade, and flushed with victory, the rebels continued to advance with yells that carried terror to many a stout heart.”
General A.J. Smith, seeing that the targeted brigade would soon be enveloped, ordered it to fall back upon his right. “In the mean time,” wrote Smith, “the enemy’s right had advanced beyond my extreme left.” Without express orders to do so, Col. Lynch attacked.
“Still pressing on,” continued Lynch, “they [the Confederates] drove our troops back and even had possession of one of our batteries, when on a sudden the Fifty-eighth Illinois Infantry, which had been advanced to the left and front, appeared in the edge of the woods on the enemy’s right flank. The order was given to charge, and with the unearthly yells and with lightning-like rapidity they were on the enemy. Fierce was the struggle, and nobly did the brave Fifty-eight do their work.”
The enemy was taken by surprise. “Seizing the opportunity,” continued Smith, “I ordered a charge by the whole line, and we drove them back, desperately fighting step by step across the field, through the wood, and into the open field beyond, fully a mile from the battle-field, when they took advantage of the darkness and fell back toward Mansfield thoroughly whipped and demoralized.” In the counter-thrust, Smith’s men captured nearly 1,000 Rebels, calling the enemy’s losses “unusually severe.”
This was the victory that had alluded Banks the previous day. The Confederates were driven from the field in confusion, thrown back toward Mansfield. According to Smith, Banks rode up to him following the repulse of the enemy, shaking his hand and exclaiming, “God bless you, general; you have saved the army.” All that was needed was the final thrust.
“Anticipating the order to follow up our success by a vigorous pursuit,” Smith wrote, he sent forward a brigade two and a half miles along the road taken by the retreating Confederates. Meanwhile, he fell back to the newly reformed line with the rest of his command and awaited Banks orders for the next day.
At midnight the orders arrived, and Smith could not believe it. “I received orders from General Banks to have my command in readiness to move at 2 o’clock in the morning, and at that hour to withdraw them silently from the field and follow the Nineteenth Army Corps back to Grand Ecore.” After such a stunning victory, Banks was going to retreat.
“I represented to him,” Smith continued, “that the dead of my command were not buried, and that I that I had not the means of transporting my wounded; that many of the wounded had not yet been gathered in from the field, and asked of him permission to remain until noon the next day to give me an opportunity to bury my dead and leave the wounded as well provided for as the circumstances would permit.”
But Banks refused. Smith left the wounded in the care of medical officers, and followed the Nineteenth Corps back the way they came.
General Banks explained his decision in his official report: “The rout of the enemy was complete. At the close of the engagement the victorious party found itself without rations and without water. To clear the field for the fight, the train had been sent to the rear upon the single line of communications through the woods, and could not be brought to the front during the night. There was neither water for man or beast, except such as the now exhausted well had afforded during the day, for miles around.”
The Federal Army still outnumbered the Confederates nearly two-to-one (though the former had only about 12,000 engaged during this day’s battle). The Rebels were broken and demoralized, another push or two might wind up with the Union troops in Shreveport. The Southern troops lost around 1,200 killed and wounded with just over 400 captured (not the 1,000 anticipated by Smith). The Federals also suffered, losing 150 killed and 844 wounded – nearly all left on the field.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p182-184, 309, 340; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. [↩]