April 8, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals unexpectedly ran into Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor blocking their path to Shreveport.
Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in Louisiana, had discussed strategy with General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department. Smith preferred Taylor to stay on the defensive and give battle only if Banks’s Army of the Gulf confronted him. Taylor wanted to take the fight to Banks. When the discussion ended and Smith returned to his headquarters, Taylor asked permission to attack only when Smith could not answer in time to stop him.
Taylor had about 8,500 men in three divisions under Major General John G. Walker, and Brigadier Generals Alfred Mouton and Thomas Green. Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s 5,000 Confederates were on their way from Keachi, but Taylor would not wait for them. Having helped “Stonewall” Jackson defeat Banks in the Shenandoah Valley two years before, Taylor was confident that he could whip Banks, even without Churchill’s help.
Taylor positioned his troops near Sabine Crossroads, three miles south of Mansfield and 35 miles south of Shreveport. Waiting for Banks to come within striking distance, two Confederate divisions held one side of the road and one division held the other. One of Taylor’s officers predicted that Banks would be “most seriously flogged.”
Banks had 27,000 Federals, but they were advancing in a single column on a narrow road. Their line stretched nearly 20 miles, with the wagon train interspersed among the troops. Therefore, only about 12,000 men were available for action on the 8th.
Having moved inland along what Banks thought was a shortcut to Shreveport, the Federal army was no longer protected by Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats on the Red River. But that did not seem to concern Banks, considering that the Confederates had retreated every time his men applied a little pressure.
The Federals began assembling on Honeycutt Hill, opposite Sabine Crossroads, on the morning of the 8th. Federal cavalry tried probing the enemy positions, but the Confederates drove them back. Taylor’s men were partially concealed in thick woods, leading some Federals to speculate that he had been reinforced by Major General Sterling Price’s Arkansas army.
Banks spent most of the day pondering whether to attack. Taylor, fearful that Federal reinforcements would arrive and E.K. Smith would cancel the attack, ordered an assault at 3:30 p.m. His center division, led by Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, rushed forward like “infuriated demons.” Federal gunners and infantry quickly opened on them in what Taylor called a “murderous fire of artillery and musketry.”
Mouton’s Louisianans crashed into Banks’s right, east of the road, forcing the Federals off Honeycutt Hill. Mouton was killed in the attack. His replacement, Brigadier General Camille Polignac, helped secure the victory. As Taylor reported, “The gallant Polignac pressed the shattered division stubbornly and steadily onward after Mouton fell.”
During this time, Taylor received Smith’s reply to his request to attack Banks: “A general engagement now could not be given with our full force. Reinforcements are moving up–not very large, it is true… Let me know as soon as you are convinced that a general advance is being made and I will come to the front.” Taylor told the courier, perhaps prematurely, “Too late, sir. The battle is won.”
Taylor next deployed Walker’s Texas division west of the road. The Texans quickly worked their way around the Federal left, severely wounding XIII Corps commander, Brigadier General Thomas E.G. Ransom, in the process. The Federal line broke and fell back to a second line. Taylor notified Smith around 6 p.m., “We have driven the enemy at this hour 3 miles.”
The second Federal line held briefly but then broke as well, causing panic and sending the Federals fleeing in confusion. Taylor reported to Smith at 7:30, “Since my last I have driven the enemy at least 3 miles farther.” Taylor ordered a pursuit, which resulted in the capture of several men, horses, and guns.
The Federal retreat became disorganized due to the wagons blocking the narrow road, but the Confederate pursuit became just as disrupted because the troops stopped to loot the wagons. Brigadier General William H. Emory’s division of XIX Corps finally regrouped and made a stand at Pleasant Grove. This prevented a complete rout, as the Federals repelled the last Confederate charge near sundown.
The Federals sustained 2,235 casualties (113 killed, 581 wounded and 1,541 missing). This was one of the most humiliating Federal defeats of the war, with Taylor reporting that it “was largely due to the ignorance and arrogance of its commander, Banks, who attributed my long retreat to his own wonderful strategy.”
In addition to the men, Banks lost 20 guns, 200 wagons, and about 1,000 horses or mules. Perhaps most importantly, he had lost the precious time needed to capture Shreveport and return Major General William T. Sherman’s men to Vicksburg by the April 15 deadline.
The Confederates lost about 1,100 killed or wounded. Taylor informed E.K. Smith, “We have captured about 2,000 prisoners, 20 pieces of artillery, 200 wagons, and thousands of small-arms,” but “our loss in officers has been severe, and we have many wounded.” Churchill’s men had come up late in the fight, but Taylor did not deploy them. Taylor told Smith that he would “continue to push the enemy with the utmost vigor.”
Banks held a council of war at 10 p.m. His demoralized men were far from naval support (Porter was stalled in low water at Springfield Landing), and worse, they were far from adequate drinking water. It was decided that the army should withdraw to Pleasant Hill, 15 miles east. The Federal retreat began around midnight, and the drive on Shreveport was ingloriously aborted. But Taylor was not finished with Banks yet.
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