The Battle of Pleasant Hill

April 9, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals made a stand after the previous day’s defeat as Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor sought to drive them out of western Louisiana.

Banks directed his Army of the Gulf to retreat to Pleasant Hill, about 15 miles east of Mansfield. There they linked with Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s veterans from XVI and XVII corps arriving from Grand Ecore. Banks now had 18,000 men, but he feared that his demoralized troops could not withstand another Confederate attack. Moreover, his XIX Corps had retreated past Pleasant Hill and could not be recalled if needed.

Meanwhile, the Confederate victory at Mansfield emboldened Taylor to pursue and destroy Banks’s army. Taylor’s force had been bolstered to about 13,000 men with the arrival of Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Arkansas division on the night of the 8th. However, the troops were exhausted from fighting and marching, so Taylor gave them a few hours’ rest before resuming the pursuit on the 9th. This gave Banks more time to bolster his defenses.

Banks reported, “The enemy began to reconnoiter the new position we had assumed at 11 o’clock, and as early as 1 or 2 o’clock opened a sharp fire of skirmishers, which was kept up at intervals during the afternoon. About 5 o’clock the enemy abandoned all pretension of maneuvering and made a most desperate attack upon the brigades on the left center.”

After probing the Federal lines and firing on them with the cannon captured at Mansfield, Taylor launched a furious all-out assault. Major General John G. Walker’s Texans and Brigadier General Camille Polignac’s Louisianans struck the Federal right but could not break it. However, Churchill’s forces penetrated the Federal left and center, killing Federal brigade commander Colonel Lewis Benedict.

Battle of Pleasant Hill | Image Credit:

The Federal left wavered until Brigadier General James McMillan’s brigade attacked Churchill’s vulnerable right flank. A.J. Smith saw this and, according to his report:

“I ordered a charge by the whole line, and we drove them back, desperately fighting step by step across the field, through the wood, and into the open field beyond, fully a mile from the battle-field, when they took advantage of the darkness and fell back toward Mansfield thoroughly whipped and demoralized.”

The Confederates fled in confusion much like the Federals had done the day before. The Federals atoned for their sharp defeat at Mansfield by holding Pleasant Hill. Smith reported capturing nearly 1,000 Confederates and called the enemy’s losses “unusually severe.” He also claimed that Banks came up to him after the battle and said, “God bless you, General, you have saved the army.”

Smith deployed two brigades ahead on the road to Mansfield, expecting “the order to follow up our success by a vigorous pursuit.” However, Smith was stunned when he received orders around midnight “to have my command in readiness to move at 2 o’clock in the morning, and at that hour to withdraw them silently from the field and follow the Nineteenth Army Corps back to Grand Ecore.” Smith advised Banks that the army should not retreat after such a strong victory, adding:

“I represented to him that the dead of my command were not buried, and that I had not the means of transporting my wounded; that many of the wounded had not yet been gathered in from the field, and asked of him permission to remain until noon the next day to give me an opportunity to bury my dead and leave the wounded as well provided for as the circumstances would permit.”

Banks denied Smith’s request and wrote in his official report:

“The rout of the enemy was complete. At the close of the engagement the victorious party found itself without rations and without water. To clear the field for the fight, the train had been sent to the rear upon the single line of communications through the woods, and could not be brought to the front during the night. There was neither water for man or beast, except such as the now exhausted well had afforded during the day, for miles around.”

Banks was also unnerved by the fact that Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals, which were supposed to meet Banks’s army at Shreveport, were still in Arkansas. In addition, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s massive naval squadron was still struggling to get up the falling Red River. But Banks did not consider that Taylor’s Confederates were in just as bad shape as his Federals, or else he could have pushed forward and most likely accomplished his mission of capturing Shreveport.

The Federals sustained 1,369 casualties (150 killed, 844 wounded, and 375 missing) at Pleasant Hill. Nearly all the Federal wounded were left behind in accordance with Banks’s orders. The Confederates lost about 1,200 men killed or wounded and 426 captured; Smith’s report of 1,000 prisoners was exaggerated. Confederate Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee reported that his men spent the 10th “burying the dead of both armies and caring for the Federal wounded, our own wounded having been cared for the night before.”

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Shreveport, learned about the unauthorized fight at Mansfield early on the 9th and rode out to take personal command of Taylor’s men. He arrived at Taylor’s headquarters at 10 p.m., when he learned that the second unauthorized fight had just ended. Taylor pleaded with Smith to let him pursue Banks, but Smith refused. Taylor was to return to Shreveport, and Smith would soon be sending most of Taylor’s command to face Steele in Arkansas.

A bizarre scene unfolded the next day, as both armies that had fought at Pleasant Hill retreated. Taylor reluctantly pulled his Confederates back toward Mansfield, and Banks hurried his Federals back down the Red River to Grand Ecore. Banks had won his greatest victory of the campaign, but he squandered it by retreating. Thus, Shreveport remained in Confederate hands.



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