Friday, April 23, 2010


By Mike Jones

Pleasant Hill Reenactment 2010
(Photo by Mike Jones)
One of the major events in Louisiana history was the Red River Campaign of 1864. The campaign raged up and down the state from March-May 1864 and resulted in nearly 15,000 military casualties and left thousands of civilians homeless and starving. Vast sections of Louisiana were reduced to utter ruin.

Although meeting with initial success, the Union Army invasion met fatal setbacks at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864 and at the Battle of Pleasant Hill April 9, 1864.

The Red River Campaign was launched by President Lincoln who wanted to bring Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas back into the Union before the

1864 presidential election, confiscate Southern cotton for idle New England textile mills, counter French adventurism in Mexico and satisfy the ''Texas Lobby'' in Congress which had long been pressuring the government to subjugate the Lone Star State.

The invasion was to be mounted by Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks' Army of the Gulf coming up from New Orleans, and Gen. Frederick Steele's Army of the Frontier coming down from Little Rock, Ark. The two armies were to converge on Shreveport and, with a combined total of 44,000 men, invade East Texas.

Banks' army was supported by a powerful Naval flotilla under Admiral David Porter, which came up the Red River.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor
(copy print, Mike Jones collection)

To meet this massive invasion Confederate commander of the Army of Western Louisiana, Gen. Richard Taylor, had just 8,800 men, with another 4,000 later coming from Arkansas to reinforce him. The overall Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department was Gen. Kirby Smith but he stayed in his headquarters in Shreveport through most of the Louisiana phase of the campaign.

Banks met with initial success and won minor victories at Fort DeRussy on March 14 and Henderson Hill on March 21 as the combined army-navy force moved up the Red River Valley.

Taylor, who knew he was greatly outnumbered, fell back in good order waiting for reinforcements and favorable ground upon which to make a stand.

The Union Army brought with it civilian cotton merchants who were to confiscate all the Confederate cotton they could lay their

hands on. Taylor countered by having his men burn all the cotton they could find and they burned thousands of bales between Alexandria and Natchitoches.

One witness wrote, ''In fact the road all the way to Natchitoches, a distance of 18 miles one could say was a solid flame.''

And a Louisiana officer, Arthur Hyatt, wrote in his diary about the frustrating 200 mile retreat. ''During all this march we have not a single tent, and when it rains which is frequently we have to lay and take it.''

He also wrote, ''We have nothing but bull beef, corn bread, dirty clothes and sore feet.''

But the Union troops were brimming with confidence, in fact over confidence. One Union officer scoffed when he heard, ''They said the rebels were boasting that here (Mansfield) was the place they were going to begin to bury the Yankees.''

Banks' over confidence led him into making a critical tactical error when he separated his army from the Union fleet on the Red River in order to take the road going through Pleasant Hill and Mansfield to Shreveport.

Taylor had learned from Stonewall Jackson in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in 1862 how a small army could defeat a much larger one. It was by catching the enemy by surprise and beating him in detail. These were exactly the tactics the Louisiana general employed.

He said, ''The value of the 'initiative' in war cannot be overstated. The 'defensive' is weak, lowering the morale of the army reduced to it.''

Taylor declared Banks would have to pass over his dead body to get past Mansfield. A Texan wrote, ''Fight, fight was the expression of the boys. I never saw men so eager for a chance to try their pluck, and that against overwhelming odds.''

The Northern troops were stretched out along the road with supply wagons mixed in between units, totally unprepared for what was to come.

The first hint that resistance was stiffening was a sharp dismounted cavalry clash April 7 at Wilson's Farm north of Pleasant Hill. After the Union cavalry cleared the way, the advance continued.

On April 8 Taylor had his little army placed in an ideal tactical position three miles south of Mansfield. The Southern army was blocking the road to Shreveport with an open field before them giving a firing range of about 1000 yards.

As the Union Army approached, Taylor rode his horse up to Mouton's Louisiana Infantry Brigade and told them he wanted them ''to draw first blood'' because they were ''fighting in defense of their own soil.''

At 4 p.m. General Alfred Mouton led his men forward in one of the most gallant infantry charges of the war. The Louisianans slammed into the center of the Union line head on and later Walker's Texas Division struck the Union left flank on Honeycutt Hill. Taylor later wrote, ''The charge made by Mouton across the open was magnificent.'' A Federal soldier who was on the receiving end of the charge wrote, ''Masses of rebels, no less than four lines in depth, emerged from the woods and charged with impetuous force, yelling like crazed demons.''

Brig. Gen. Alfred Mouton
(Alexandre Mouton House, Lafayette, La.)

Soon the Northern army crumbled and a retreat turned into a rout, but Mouton was dead along with hundreds of his men.

Falling back to Pleasant Hill the next day, the Federals had recovered enough to fight the now advancing Confederates to a standstill. But Banks, realizing his army was whipped, retreated back to the protection of the Union fleet on the Red River.

Although the campaign continued until May 18 with almost constant fighting, the Union army and navy slowly retreated back toward New Orleans. The Federals became vindictive during the retreat and burned every home, outhouse and chicken coop in their path. Observers said the path of the Union Army could be followed by the flames of all the burning houses and barns.

In Arkansas, Gen. Steele turned his army back toward Little Rock when he heard of Banks' defeat.

Although the Red River Campaign was a victory for the Confederates, the cost in lives and property was enormous. Total Southern casualties in the two month campaign in killed, wounded and missing, were 4,275 in Louisiana and 2,300 in Arkansas.

Union losses were 5,400 in Louisiana and 2,750 in Arkansas. In addition Lincoln's troops lost 187 wagons, 1007 draft animals, nine naval vessels and a minimum of 28 naval guns.

The Confederacy was left in control of most of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas for the rest of the war.

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