The Union campaigning season of 1864 got off to a rocky start with the defeat of the Union army under Major General Nathaniel Banks at the battle of Mansfield in Northwestern Louisiana, bringing to an end Bank’s abortive Red River Campaign.
The Red River campaign, which began in mid-March 1864, had as its objective the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana, in northwestern Louisiana, the largest city still under the control of the Confederates in the Pelican state, and the capture of hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton on plantations along the Red River. The bales of cotton were eagerly eyed by Union speculators and the entire campaign had an unsavory plundering feel to it. In any case the campaign ended in disaster for the Union.
The Confederates were commanded by Major General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor. Here is his account of the battle from his memoirs Destruction and Reconstruction:
My troops reached the position in front of Sabine cross-road at an early hour on the 8th, and were disposed as follows: On the right of the road to Pleasant Hill, Walker’s infantry division of three brigades, with two batteries; on the left, Mouton’s, of two brigades two batteries. As Green’s men came in from the front, they took position, dismounted, on Mouton’s left. A regiment of horse was posted on each of the parallel roads mentioned, and De Bray’s cavalry, with McMahon’s battery, held in reserve on the main road. Dense forest prevented the employment of much artillery, and, with the exception of McMahon’s, which rendered excellent service, none was used in the action.
I had on the field fifty-three hundred infantry, three thousand horse, and five hundred artillerymen – in all, eight thousand eight hundred men, a very full estimate. But the vicious dispositions of the enemy made me confident of beating all the force he could concentrate during the day; and on the morrow Churchill, with forty-four hundred muskets, would be up.
The forenoon of the 8th wore on as the troops got into position. Riding along the line, I stopped in front of the Louisiana brigade of Mouton’s division, and made what proved to be an unfortunate remark to the men: “As they were fighting in defense of their own soil I wished the Louisiana troops to draw the first blood.” But they were already inflamed by many outrages on their homes, as well as by camp rumors that it was intended to abandon their State without a fight. At this moment our advanced horse came rushing in, hard followed by the enemy. A shower of bullets reached Mouton’s line, one of which struck my horse, and a body of mounted men charged up to the front of the 18th Louisiana. A volley from this regiment sent them back with heavy loss. Infantry was reported in the wood opposite my left. This was a new disposition of the enemy, for on the 6th and 7th his advance consisted of horse alone; and to meet it, Mouton was strengthened by moving Randall’s brigade of Walker’s from the right to the left of the road. To cover this change, skirmishers were thrown forward and De Bray’s regiment deployed in the field.
The enemy showing no disposition to advance, at 4 P. M. I ordered a forward movement of my whole line. The ardor of Mouton’s troops, especially the Louisianians, could not be restrained by their officers. Crossing the field under a heavy fire of artillery and small arms, the division reached the fence, paused for a moment to draw breath, then rushed into the wood on the enemy. Here our loss was severe. General Mouton was killed, as were Colonels Armand, Beard, and Walker, commanding the 18th, Crescent, and 28th Louisiana regiments of Gray’s brigade. Major Canfield of the Crescent also fell, and Lieutenant-Colonel Clack of the same regiment was mortally wounded. As these officers went down, others, among whom Adjutant Blackman was conspicuous, seized the colors and led on the men. Polignac’s brigade, on the left of Gray’s, also suffered heavily. Colonel Noble, 17th Texas, with many others, was killed. Polignac, left in command by the death of Mouton, displayed ability and pressed the shattered division steadily forward. Randall, with his fine brigade, supported him on the right; while Major’s dismounted men, retarded by dense wood, much to the impatience of General Green, gradually turned the enemy’s right, which was forced back with loss of prisoners and guns.
On the right of the main road General Walker, with Waul’s and Scurry’s brigades, encountered but little resistance until he had crossed the open field and entered the wood. Finding that he outflanked the enemy’s left, he kept his right brigade, Scurry’s, advanced, and swept everything before him.
The first Federal line, consisting of all the mounted force and one division of the 13th army corps, was in full flight, leaving prisoners, guns, and wagons in our hands. Two miles to the rear of the first position, the 2d division of the 13th corps was brought up, but was speedily routed, losing guns and prisoners; and our advance continued. Near sunset, four miles from our original position, the 19th army corps was found, drawn up on a ridge overlooking a small stream. Fatigued, and disordered by their long advance through dense wood, my men made no impression for a time on this fresh body of troops; but possession of the water was all-important, for there was none other between this and Mansfield. Walker, Green, and Polignac led on their weary men, and I rode down to the stream. There was some sharp work, but we persisted, the enemy fell back, and the stream was held, just as twilight faded into darkness.
Twenty-five hundred prisoners, twenty pieces of artillery, several stands of colors, many thousands of small arms, and two hundred and fifty wagons were the fruits of victory in the battle of Mansfield. Eight thousand of the enemy, his horse and two divisions of infantry, had been utterly routed, and over five thousand of the 19th corps driven back at sunset. With a much smaller force on the field, we invariably outnumbered the enemy at the fighting point; and foreseeing the possibility of this, I was justified in my confidence of success. The defeat of the Federal army was largely due to the ignorance and arrogance of its commander, General Banks, who attributed my long retreat to his own wonderful strategy.