Sitting by my camp fire to await the movement of Churchill's column, I was saddened by recollection of the many dead, and the pleasure of victory was turned to grief as I counted the fearful cost at which it had been won. Of the Louisianians fallen, most were acquaintances, many had been neighbors and friends; and they were gone. Above all, the death of gallant Mouton affected me. He had joined me soon after I reached western Louisiana, and had ever proved faithful to duty. Modest, unselfish, and patriotic, he showed best in action, always leading his men. I thought of his wife and children, and of his father, Governor Mouton, whose noble character I have attempted to portray.
|Brig. Gen. T.J. Churchill|
The village of Pleasant Hill occupies part of a plateau, a mile wide from east to west, along the Mansfield and Fort Jesup road. The highest ground, called College Hill, is on the west, and here enters a road from the Sabine, which, sixteen miles to the east, strikes the Red River at Blair's Landing; while, from the necessity of turning Spanish Lake, the distance to Natchitoches and Grand Ecore is thirty-six miles. The Federal fleet, with accompanying troops, was now many miles above Blair's, which by river is forty-five miles above Grand Ecore. Driven from Pleasant Hill to the latter place, the Federal forces would be widely separated, and might be destroyed in detail. Though it appeared to be the enemy's intention to continue his retreat, as he was known to be moving back his trains, yet if undisturbed he might find courage to attempt a junction with his fleet at Blair's Landing; and I did not wish to lose the advantage of the morale gained by success on the previous day.
Our reconnoissance showed that the Federal lines extended across the open plateau, from College Hill on their left to a wooded height on the right of the road to Mansfield. Winding along in front of this position was a gully cut by winter rains, but now dry, and bordered by a thick growth of young pines, with fallen timber interspersed. This was held by the enemy's advanced infantry, with his main line and guns on the plateau. Separating the gully and thicket from the forest toward Mansfield was an open field, several hundred yards wide near the road, but diminishing in width toward the west. Here the Federal commander had concentrated some eighteen thousand, including A.J. Smith's force, not engaged on the previous day.
My plan of attack was speedily determined. Orders were sent to the infantry to fill canteens at the mill stream, and to the trains to park there. Shortly after midday the infantry appeared, Churchill in advance; but a glance showed that his men were too much exhausted to attack. They had marched forty-five miles, and were thoroughly jaded. Walker's and Polignac's divisions had been heavily engaged on the previous day, and all were suffering from heat and thirst. Accordingly, two hours were given to the troops to lie down and rest.
At 3 P.M. Churchill, with two batteries and three regiments of horse, was directed to move to the right and turn the enemy's left. His route was through the forest for two miles to the road coming from the Sabine. The enemy's left outflanked, he was to attack from the south and west, keeping his regiments of horse well to his right, and Walker would attack on his left. This was explained to Churchill, and Mr. T.J. Williams, formerly sheriff of De Soto parish, and acquainted with every road in the vicinity, was sent with him as a guide. On Walker's left, near the road from Mansfield, Major Brent had twelve guns in the wood, with four on the road, where were posted Buchell's and De Bray's cavalry, under General Bee, and Polignac's division, the last in reserve. In the wood on the left of the road from Mansfield, Major, with two brigades of horse dismounted, was to drive back the enemy's skirmishers, turn his right, and gain the road to Blair's Landing. As no offensive movement by the enemy was anticipated, he would be turned on both flanks, subjected to a concentric fire, and overwhelmed. Though I had but twelve thousand five hundred men against eighteen thousand in position, the morale was greatly in our favor, and intelligent execution of orders was alone necessary to insure success.
At 4.30 P.M. Churchill was reported to be near the position whence he would attack; and, to call off attention, Major Brent advanced his twelve guns into the field, within seven hundred yards of the enemy's line, and opened fire. Soon thereafter the sound of Churchill's attack was heard, which the cheers of his men proved to be successful. Walker at once led forward his division by echelons of brigades from his right, Brent advanced his guns, and Major turned the enemy's right and gained possession of the road to Blair's. Complete victory seemed assured when Churchill's troops suddenly gave way, and for a time arrested the advance of Walker and Major.
The road from the Sabine reached, Churchill formed his line with the two Missouri brigades, General Parsons on the right, and the two Arkansas, General Tappan, on the left. Advancing three fourths of a mile through the forest, he approached the enemy's line, and found that he had not gained ground enough to outflank it. Throwing forward skirmishers, he moved by the right flank until the Missouri brigades were on the right of the Sabine road, the regiments of horse being farther to the right. Churchill should have placed his whole command on the right of the Sabine road, and he would have found no difficulty in successfully executing his orders. In his official report he states "that had my [his] line extended a half mile more to the right, a brilliant success would have been achieved"; and he gives as the reason for not so disposing his force that he judged, from information furnished by his guides, the enemy's left to be already outflanked.
The attack ordered, the Missourians threw themselves on the enemy, drove him from the gully and thicket, mounted the plateau, broke an opposing line, captured and sent to the rear three hundred prisoners, got possession of two batteries, the horses of which had been killed, and reached the village. Here a Federal brigade, left by Churchill's error on his right, attacked them in flank and rear, while their rapid charge had put three hundred yards between them and the Arkansas brigades, delayed by the gully. The enemy's reserve was thrust into this opening and advanced in front. Finding themselves assaulted on all sides, the Missourians retreated hastily, and in repassing the gully and thicket fell into much confusion. Colonel Hardiman, commanding the horse, checked the enemy, and Parsons rallied his men on the line first formed by Churchill. The Arkansas brigades had forced the gully and mounted the plateau as the Missourians retreated, whereupon they fell back, their left brigade (Gause's) running into Walker's right (Scurry's) and impeding its advance. Gause imagined that Scurry had fired on him; but as his entire loss in the action amounted to but fifteen killed and fifty-nine wounded, out of eleven hundred men, there appears little ground for this belief. Churchill's two batteries followed the Missourians, and with much difficulty reached the plateau, where they opened an effective fire. When the infantry retreated three carriages broke down in the attempt to get through the thicket and fallen timber, and the guns were lost. Night ended the conflict on this part of the field, and both sides occupied their original positions. We brought off three hundred prisoners, but lost three guns and one hundred and seventy-nine prisoners from Churchill's command. Out of two thousand men, the Missourians lost three hundred and thirty-one in killed and wounded, and the Arkansas brigades, of equal strength, one hundred and forty-two.
Within a few minutes of the time when our whole line became engaged, an officer came to inform me that General Walker was wounded. Directing Polignac to move up his division and hold it in readiness, I left General Green in charge of the center and hastened to Walker, whose division was now fully engaged in the wood. I found him suffering from a contusion in the groin, and ordered him to retire, which he unwillingly did. Here it was that our right gave way in the manner described. Scurry's brigade of Walker's, disordered by the sudden retreat upon it of Gause, was heavily pressed by the enemy. Scurry and his men struggled gallantly, but required immediate relief; and to give it, Waul and Randall on their left were ordered to drive back the line fronting them. Never was order more thoroughly executed. Leading on their fine brigades with skill and energy, these officers forced back the Federals and relieved Scurry.
Meanwhile, the fire of Brent's guns had overpowered a Federal battery posted on the plateau in front of the road from Mansfield. The confusion attending the withdrawal of this battery, coupled with the fierce attack of Waul and Randall, led General Green to believe that the enemy was retreating, and he ordered Bee to charge with his two regiments of cavalry, Buchell's and De Bray's. Bee reached the plateau, where he was stopped by a heavy fire from infantry, in the wood on both sides of the road. Some men and horses went down, Buchell was mortally wounded, and Bee and De Bray slightly. The charge was premature and cost valuable lives, but was of use in moral effect. I returned to the road as Bee, with coolness and pluck, withdrew. Brent advanced his guns close up to the opposing line, Polignac attacked on Randall's left with his reduced but stubborn division, and Green urged on his dismounted horsemen, cleared the wood from the Mansfield to the Blair's Landing road, and at nightfall held the position previously occupied by the Federal battery.
|Brig. Gen. Camille Polignac|
Severe fighting continued in the dense thicket, where Polignac, Randall, Waul, and Scurry were steadily driving back the enemy. Approaching twilight obscured the wood, but resistance in front was becoming feeble, and, anxious to reach the village, I urged on our men. As Randall and Waul gained ground to the front, they became separated by a ravine in which was concealed a brigade of Federals. Isolated by the retreat of their friends, these troops attempted to get out. Fired on from both sides of the ravine, a part of them appeared on the field in front of Brent's guns, to be driven back by grape. With heavy loss they at length succeeded in escaping through the thicket. A letter from the commander was subsequently captured, wherein he denounces the conduct of his superiors who abandoned him to his fate. However true the allegation, it is doubtful if his brigade could have rendered more service elsewhere. The suddenness of its appearance stopped our forward movement, and a cry arose that we were firing on our own people. The thickening gloom made it impossible to disabuse the troops of this belief, and I ordered them to withdraw to the open field. The movement was made slowly and in perfect order, the men forming in the field as they emerged from the thicket. The last light of day was fading as I rode along the line, and the noise of battle had ceased.
Churchill came to report the result of his attack, and seemed much depressed. I gave such consolation as I could, and directed him to move his command to the mill stream, seven miles to the rear, where he would find his trains and water. A worthy, gallant gentleman, General Churchill, but not fortunate in war.
The mill stream was the nearest water to be had, and I was compelled to send the troops back to it. The enemy made no attempt to recover the ground from which his center and right had been driven. Bee picketed the field with his cavalry, his forage wagons were ordered up from the mill stream, and it was hoped that water for his two regiments could be found in the wells and cisterns of the village. Sounds of retreat could be heard in the stillness of the night. Parties were sent on the field to care for the wounded, and Bee was ordered to take up the pursuit toward Grand Ecore at dawn, to be followed by the horse from the mill stream as soon as water and forage had been supplied. These dispositions for the morning made, worn out by fatigue and loss of sleep, I threw myself on the ground, within two hundred yards of the battle field, and sought rest. The enemy retreated during the night, leaving four hundred wounded, and his many dead unburied. On the morning of the 10th Bee pursued for twenty miles before he overtook his rear guard, finding stragglers and burning wagons and stores, evidences of haste.
In the two actions of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill my loss in killed and wounded was twenty-two hundred. At Pleasant Hill we lost three guns and four hundred and twenty-six prisoners, one hundred and seventy-nine from Churchill's, and two hundred and forty-seven from Scurry's brigade at the time it was so nearly overwhelmed. The Federal loss in killed and wounded exceeded mine, and we captured twenty guns and twenty-eight hundred prisoners, not including stragglers picked up after the battle. The enemy's campaign for conquest was defeated by an inferior force, and it was doubtful if his army and fleet could escape destruction.