April 9, 1864: Pleasant Hill

Nathaniel P. Banks
Nathaniel Banks

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In an excerpt from Banks’ report on the Red River Campaign, he takes up where he had left off after the battle of Mansfield to describe the battle of Pleasant Hill. Taylor attacked Banks’ forces again the day after Mansfield, with some initial success. Banks exaggerates the Confederate losses compared to his own in this report; the Union lost nearly as many men as they did. The Union troops held, though, and at the end of the day were in possession of the field. Although this makes the battle tactically a Union victory, Banks gave up on the Red River campaign at this point, retreating back down the river. Banks devotes considerable space in this report to justifying that decision, and it is fair to say that he was under pressure from Grant to wrap it up promptly, while the fears about the falling water level preventing the naval gunboats from descending the river were very well founded. In any case. the Red River campaign would be a near-total disaster for the Union.

I’ve appended at the end Banks’ dispatch on this date to Adm. Porter, telling him of the decision to fall back to Grand Ecore.

Official Records:


From Pleasant Grove, where this action occurred, to Pleasant Hill was 15 miles. It was certain that the enemy, who was within the reach of re-enforcements, would renew the attack in the morning, and it was wholly uncertain whether the command of General Smith could reach the position we held in season for a second engagement. For this reason the army toward morning fell back to Pleasant Hill, General Emory covering the rear, burying the dead, bringing off the wounded, and all the material of the army. It arrived there at 8.30 on the morning of the 9th, effecting a junction with the forces of General Smith and the colored brigade under Colonel Dickey, which had reached that point the evening previous.

Early on the 9th, the troops were prepared for action, the movements of the enemy indicating that he was on our rear. A line of battle was formed in the following order: First Brigade, Nineteenth Corps, on the right, resting on a ravine; Second Brigade in the center, and Third Brigade on the left. The center was strengthened by a brigade of General Smith’s forces, whose main force was elf in reserve. The enemy moved toward our right flank. The Second Brigade withdrew from the center to the support of the First Brigade. The brigade in support of the center moved up into position, and another of General Smith’s brigades was posted to the extreme left position on the hill, in echelon to the rear of the left main line.

Light skirmishing occurred during the afternoon. Between 4 and 5 o’clock it increased in vigor, and about 5 p. m., when it appeared to have nearly ceased, the enemy drove in our skirmishers and attacked in force, his first onset being against the left. He advanced in two oblique lines, extending well over toward the right of the Third Brigade, Nineteenth Corps. After a determined resistance this part of the line gave way and went slowly back to the reserves. The First and Second Brigades were soon enveloped in front, right and rear. By skillful movements of General Emory the flanks of the two brigades, now bearing the brunt of the battle, were covered. The enemy pursued the brigades, passing the left and center, until he approached the reserves under General Smith, when he was met
by a charge led by General Mower and checked. The whole of the reserves were now ordered up, and in turn we drove the enemy, continuing the pursuit until night compelled us to halt.

The battle of the 9th was desperate and sanguinary. The defeat of the enemy was complete, and his loss in officers and men more than double that sustained by our forces. There was nothing in the immediate position or condition of the two armies to prevent a forward movement the next morning, and orders were given to prepare for an advance. The train, which had been turned to the rear on the day of the battle, was ordered to reform and advance at daybreak. I communicated this purpose at the close of the day to representations subsequently received from General Franklin and all the general officers of the Nineteenth Corps, as to the condition of their respective commands for immediate active operations against the enemy, caused a suspension of this order, and a conference of the general officers was held in the evening, in which it was determined, upon the urgent recommendation of all the general officers above named, and with the acquiescence of General Smith, to retire upon Grand Ecore the following day.

The reasons urged for this course by the officers commanding the Nineteenth and Thirteenth Corps were, first, that the absence of water made it absolutely necessary to advance or retire without delay. General Emory’s command had been without rations for two days, and the train, which had been turned to the rear during the battle, could not be put in condition to move forward upon the single road through dense woods, in which it stood, without difficulty and loss of time. It was for the purpose of communicating with the fleet at Springfield Landing from the Sabine Cross-Roads to the river, as well as to prevent the concentration of the Texan troops with the enemy at Mansfield, that we had pushed for the early occupation of that point.

Considering the difficulty with which the gun-boats passed Alexandria and Grand Ecore, there was every reason to believe that the navigation of the river would be found impracticable. A squadron of cavalry, under direction of Mr. Young, who had formerly been employed in the surveys of this country and was now connected with the engineer department, which had been sent upon a reconnaissance to the river, returned to Pleasand Hill on the day of the battle with the report that they had not been able to discover the fleet nor learn from the people its passage up the river. (The report of General T. Kilby Smith, commanding the river forces, states that the fleet did not arrive at Loggy Bayou until 2 p. m. on the 10th of April, two days after the battle at Sabine Cross-Roads.) This led to the belief that the low water had prevented the advance of the fleet. The condition of the river, which had been steadily falling since our march from Alexandria, rendered it very doubtful, if the fleet ascended the river, whether it could return from any intermediate point, and probable, if not certain, that if it reached Shreveport it would never escape without a rise of the river, of which all hopes began to fail. The forces designated for this campaign numbered 42,000 men. Less than half that number was actually available for service against the enemy during its progress.

The distance which separated General Steele’s command from the line of our operations (nearly 200 miles) rendered his movements of little moment to us or to the enemy, and reduced the strength of the fighting column to the extent of his force, which was expected to be from 10,000 to 15,000 men. The depot at Alexandria, made necessary by the impracticable navigation, withdrew from our forces 3,000 men under General Grover. The return of the Marine Brigade to the defense of the Mississippi, upon the demand of Major-General McPherson, and which could not pass Alexandria without its steamers nor move by land for want of land transportation, made a further reduction of 3,000 men. The protection of the fleet of transports against the enemy on both sides of the river made it necessary for General A. J. Smith to detach General T. Kilby Smith’s division of 2,500 men from the main body for that duty. The army train required a guard of 500 men. These several detachments, which it was impossible to avoid, and the distance of General Steele’s command, which it was not in my power to correct, reduced the number of troops that we were able at any point to bring into action from 42,000 men to about 20,000. The losses sustained in the very severe battles of the 7th, 8th, and 9th of April amounted to about 3,969 men, and necessarily reduced our active forces to that extent.

The enemy, superior to us in numbers in the outset, by falling back was able to recover from his great losses by means of re-enforcements, which were within his reach as he approached his base of operations, while we were growing weaker as we departed from ours. We had fought the battle at Pleasant Hill with about 15,000 against 22,000 men and won a victory, which for these reasons we were unable to follow up. Other considerations connected with the actual military condition of affairs afforded additional reasons for the course recommended. Between the commencement of the expedition and the battle of Pleasant Hill a change had occurred in the general command of the army, which caused a modification of my instructions in regard to this expedition.

Lieutenant-General Grant, in a dispatch dated the 15th March, which I received on the 27th March, at Alexandria, eight days before we reached Grand Ecore, by special messenger, gave me the following instructions:

Should you find that the taking of Shreveport will occupy ten or fifteen days more time than General Sharman gave his troops to be absent from their command you will send them back at the time specified in his note of (blank date) March, even if it should lead to the abandonment of the main object of the expedition. Should it prove successful, hold Shreveport and Red River with such force as you deem necessary and return the balance of your troops to the neighborhood of New Orleans.

These instructions, I was informed, were given for the purpose of having “all parts of the army, or rather all armies, act as much in concert as possible,” and with a view to a movement in the spring campaign against Mobile, which was certainly to be made “if troops enough could be obtained without embarrassing other movements; in which event New Orleans would be the point of departure for such an expedition.” A subsequent dispatch, though it did not control, fully justified my action, repeated these general views and stated that the commanding general “would much rather the Red River expedition had never been begun that that you should be detained one day beyond the 1st of May in commencing the movement east of the Mississippi.”

The limitation of time referred to in these dispatches was based upon an opinion which I had verbally expressed to General Sherman at New Orleans, that General Smith could be spared in thirty days after we reached Alexandria, but it was predicted upon the expectation that the navigation of the river would be unobstructed; that we should advance without delay at Alexandria, Grand Ecore, or elsewhere on account of low water, and that the forces of General Steele were to co-operate with us effectively at some point on Red River, near Natchitoches or Monroe. It was never understood that an expedition that involved on the part of my command a land march of nearly 400 miles into the enemy’s country, and which terminated at a point which we might not be able to hold, either on account of the strength of the enemy or the difficulties of obtaining supplies, was to be limited to thirty days. The condition of our fores, and the distance and difficulties attending the further advance into the enemy’s country after the battles of the 8th and 9th against an enemy superior in numbers to our own, rendered it probable that we could not occupy Shreveport within the time specified, and certain that without a rise in the river the troops necessary to hold it against the enemy would be compelled to evacuate it for want of supplies, and impossible that the expedition should return in any event to New Orleans in time to co-operate in the general movements of the army contemplated for the spring campaign. It was known at this time that the fleet could not repass the rapids at Alexandria, and it was doubtful, if the fleet reached any point above Grand Ecore, whether it would be able to return. By falling back to Grand Ecorce we should be able to return. By falling back to Grand Ecore we should be able to ascertain the condition of the fleet, the practicability of continuing the movement by the river, reorganize a part of the forces that had been shattered in the battles of the 7th, 8th, and 9th, possibly ascertain the position of General Steele and obtain from him the assistance expected for a new advance north of the river or upon its southern bank, and perhaps obtain definite instructions from the Government as to the course to be pursued.

Upon these general considerations, and without reference to the actual condition of the respective armies, at 12 o’clock midnight on the 9th I countermanded the order for the return of the train, and directed preparations to be made for the return of the army to
Grand Ecore. The dead were buried and the wounded brought in from the field of battle and placed in the most comfortable hospitals that could be provided, and surgeons and supplies furnished for them. A second squadron of cavalry was sent, under direction of Mr. Young, of the engineer department, to inform the fleet of our retrograde movement and to direct its return, if it had ascended the river, and on the morning of the 10th the army leisurely returned to Grand Ecore. The wounded were immediately visited by Dr. Sanger, who took with him clothing, rations, medicines, and other supplies, and reported them in comfortable condition. The fleet sailed from Grand Ecore on the 7th and reached its destination at Loggy Bayou on the evening of the 10th, one day after the battle at Pleasant Hill and two days after the engagement at Sabine Cross-Roads. General T. Kilby Smith received a verbal message the evening of the 10th, and on the morning of the 11th written orders to return. The transports were in a crippled condition, rudders unshipped and wheels broken. The enemy attacked the fleet on its return near Pleasant Hill Landing on the 12th, with a force of 2,500 cavalry, a strong reserve infantry, and a battery of six guns, under General Green but the troops, protected by cotton bales and bales of hay, with the gun-boats, kept up a deadly fire, and drove the enemy from the river.

For two miles the bank was strewn with the wounded and dead.

Banks to Porter:

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF,
Pleasant Hill, April 9, 1864.
Rear-Admiral D. D. PORTER,
Commanding Mississippi Squadron:

The land column that was intended for the movement against Shreveport encountered a superior force 4 miles this side of Mansfield, and, being unable to communicate with the forces from the river, has been compelled to retreat. It is now our expectation to fall back to Grand Ecore. You will make your dispositions accordingly. the fighting was very sharp, but, from the situation of the country, it has been impossible to bring but a portion of our forces against the entire strength of the enemy. The loss of the enemy has been very severe; ours serious. General Ransom has been wounded.

If possible, send a communication to General Steele.

I am, &c.,
N. P. BANKS,
Major-General, Commanding.

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