Prelude to the Battle
By the spring of 1864, Confederate Louisiana had shriveled to the northwestern area of the state. The capital had moved to Opelousas in 1862 and then to Shreveport in the spring of 1863. At the urging of Union Army Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck, President Abraham Lincoln approved an offensive against the remaining Confederate forces in Louisiana in the spring of 1864.
Red River Campaign
Named the Red River Campaign, Halleck’s plan comprised a three-pronged assault.
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would march 20,000 troops from the area around New Orleans across southern Louisiana and occupy Alexandria, Louisiana near the center of the state, before moving on to Shreveport.
- Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter would ascend the Red River and join Banks at Alexandria with over thirty warships and an accompanying supply fleet. A detachment of 10,000 soldiers from William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith would protect Dixon’s flotilla.
- After Banks and Porter joined forces and continued upriver toward Shreveport, Major General Frederick Steele would lead another 10,000 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, Arkansas and approach Shreveport from the north or east.
Early Federal Success
The campaign began on March 12, as Porter’s fleet entered the mouth of the Red River from the Mississippi River. Events went well for the Federals initially. On March 14, Smith’s soldiers overran Fort DeRussy and captured a Rebel garrison of about 300 men.
The next day, Porter and Smith moved upriver and occupied Alexandria unopposed. Banks was behind schedule, and the forward elements of his army did not reach Alexandria until March 23. Banks himself did not arrive until the next day. At last united, the combined federal forces moved upriver to Grand Ecore.
Banks Leaves the Red River
On April 6, Banks left the Red River and the protection of Porter’s fleet to travel up an inland road toward Shreveport. As the Union cavalry, led by Brigadier General Albert L. Lee, approached Sabine Crossroads on April 8, they encountered about 14,000 Rebels, commanded by Major General Richard Taylor. Throughout the morning, Lee probed the Confederate lines, while Taylor hoped for a Union assault.
April 8, 1864 — Rebel Victory at the Battle of Mansfield
When Lee did not attack, Taylor’s men advanced. The Battle of Mansfield (also called the Battle of Sabine Crossroads) was an astonishing Confederate victory that sent the Yankees reeling back down the road. After inflicting heavy casualties on the Federals and capturing vast stores of supplies, Taylor called off the assault at nightfall to rest his men and to prepare for battle the next day.
April 9, 1864 — Clash at Pleasant Hill
During the night, Banks ordered his army to fall back nearly fourteen miles and to regroup at the village of Pleasant Hill. Taylor pursued the next day, hoping to destroy the Union army. After marching to Pleasant Hill, Taylor rested his men before engaging the Federals.
Rebel Evening Assault on All Fronts
At approximately 5 p.m., Taylor attacked the Union center as he simultaneously tried to flank both ends of the federal line. The flanking movement on the Union left succeeded, but the right held. What Taylor did not know was that Banks had more infantrymen at his disposal who were not engaged the previous day.
Federals Counterattacks Regain Lost Ground
Union counterattacks gradually regained the ground lost during the early stages of the battle. Four hours of bloody fighting resulted in little more than high casualties for both sides.
Aftermath of the Battle
Tactically the Battle of Pleasant Hill was a Union victory because the Federals repulsed the Confederate attack and because the Northerners inflicted nearly twice as many casualties on the Rebels as they suffered. Estimated casualties totaled 3,100 men for the Union and 2,000 soldiers for the Confederacy. Still, the battle was a strategic success for Taylor, because Banks lost his nerve, abandoned his plan to capture Shreveport, and began a full-fledged retreat down the Red River and back to southern Louisiana.
Sensing an opportunity to destroy the retreating Union army, Taylor requested reinforcements from his commanding officer, General Kirby Smith, along with permission to pursue the fleeing Yankees. Smith, however, had other concerns. Rather than sending reinforcements, Smith reassigned approximately one-half of Taylor’s army to Major General John George Walker, with orders to check Major General Frederick Steele’s federal army, which was moving south toward Shreveport from Arkansas.
Denied of his opportunity to defeat a large Union army, Taylor settled for harassing Banks for the rest of the campaign. Smith’s decision created everlasting rancor between the two Confederate generals.