April 7, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf veered away from the Red River, moving inadvertently toward Confederate forces led by Major General Richard Taylor.
By the 5th, Banks’s Federals had joined Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla at Grand Ecore. They were about to continue up the Red River to the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport, which was also headquarters for the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. Taylor’s Confederates opposed Banks near Mansfield, northwest of Grand Ecore near the Texas border.
Banks issued orders to Major General William B. Franklin, commanding XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps, “to force him (Taylor) to give battle, if possible, before he can concentrate his forces behind the fortifications of Shreveport or effect a retreat westerly into Texas.” Franklin was to move “in such order as to be able to throw as much as possible of your force into battle at any time on the march.” A.J. Smith, commanding three divisions of XVI and XVII corps, would follow Franklin. All troops were to carry 200 rounds of ammunition.
Franklin’s men left Grand Ecore on the 6th. Rather than march along the Red River where they had gunboat support, Banks directed them to take an inland route that would supposedly get them to Shreveport quicker. However, the road was so narrow that only one wagon could pass at a time, causing the Federal column to spread out over 20 miles. The road meandered through bayous and brush, taking the slow-moving Federals west toward Mansfield, away from the main water supply. Banks did not know that Taylor was up ahead.
As the Federals started moving, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, met with Taylor at Mansfield. Taylor suggested preëmptively attacking Banks, but Smith preferred that he stay on the defensive. Taylor also wanted to combine his command with Major General Sterling Price’s in Arkansas, but Smith wanted to keep them separated so Taylor could focus on Banks and Price could focus on Major General Frederick Steele, whose Federals were moving toward Shreveport to link with Banks.
Smith suggested that Taylor fall back into Texas, but Taylor strongly opposed this idea because it would leave Louisiana, his home state, entirely under Federal control. Finally, Smith agreed that Taylor should give battle only if Banks left the safety of the Red River and marched inland. Smith only agreed to this because he believed Banks would never “advance his infantry across the barren country stretching between Natchitoches and Mansfield.” But that was exactly what Banks was doing.
The conference ended without Smith forbidding Taylor from taking the offensive. Taylor therefore decided to attack Banks. The recent arrival of Brigadier General Thomas Green’s division from Texas and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s division from Arkansas would give Taylor 13,000 men to face Banks’s 27,000. Banks continued moving along the narrow road, confident that Taylor would retreat to either Arkansas or Texas.
Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Albert Lee advanced as far as three miles beyond Pleasant Hill on the 7th, where they were met by Green’s Confederates. The Federals drove them off, but Lee had not expected such resistance so soon. He called for reinforcements, and Banks sent up an infantry brigade.
Meanwhile, Porter continued having trouble getting his gunboats up the falling Red River. He left his heavier vessels behind as he led the lighter boats toward Shreveport, where he hoped to meet up with Banks’s army. Neither Porter nor Banks anticipated what Taylor had in store for them.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 667-77, 773-94, 822-61; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414-15; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481