April 1864: Union is turned back at Mansfield

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Richard Taylor (Library of Congress)

A full-scale Yankee invasion was underway in the spring of 1864. Supported by Adm. David Porter's naval fleet, Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks' army was sweeping up the Red River toward Shreveport. Banks' ambitious goals included confiscating much needed cotton, destroying Gen. Richard Taylor's small Confederate army, capturing Shreveport, and ultimately invading Texas.

Badly outnumbered by the 30,000 Yankees, Taylor retreated, and Banks and Porter reached Grand Ecore with little difficulty. There Banks made a serious blunder by leaving the protection of Porter's gunboats and taking a narrow woods road that snaked west and north from Natchitoches to Shreveport through what one cavalryman called a "howling wilderness."

As he retreated, Taylor slowly gathered reinforcements to increase his army to about 9,000 men. Now ready to fight, he repeatedly requested permission from his superior, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, to attack. When Kirby Smith hesitated, Taylor seized the initiative and blocked the road to Shreveport near the town of Mansfield.

About 4:00 p.m. on April 8, Taylor attacked Banks' vanguard as it entered a large field. Gen. Alfred Mouton's Louisiana division led the attack and came under a murderous fire from the Union infantry and artillery. Mouton and all three of his regimental colonels were killed, but Gen. Camille Prince de Polignac, a French prince serving with the Confederate army, snatched up a fallen flag and pressed on the attack.

The Confederates finally overran the enemy and forced them back to a second position. When the Rebels drove them from there, the Yankees panicked, and the orderly retreat became a rout. A Union reporter who was caught up in the confusion wrote, "Suddenly, there was a rush, a shout, the crashing of trees, the breaking down of rails, the rush and scamper of men. . . .[W]e found ourselves swallowed up, as it were, in a hissing, seething, bubbling whirlpool of agitated men." Only darkness stopped the retreat, three miles from where the battle began.

The Battle of Mansfield was a stunning Confederate victory and one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River. Besides stopping Banks' invasion, Taylor inflicted 2,200 Union casualties (while suffering 1,000) and captured 20 cannons, hundreds of rifles, and nearly 200 wagons filled with supplies. That night he received a note from Kirby Smith ordering him to avoid a general engagement. "Too late, sir," Taylor replied, "the battle is won."

Banks retreated to Pleasant Hill, and Taylor attacked again the next afternoon. This time, Banks successfully defended his position and inflicted about 1,600 casualties on the Rebels while losing approximately 1,400 men.

Having not expected a fight until he reached Shreveport, Banks was rattled by the ferocity of the attacks and decided to abandon his wounded and fall back to Grand Ecore. Taylor was prepared to pursue and attack again, but Kirby Smith took away most of his infantry and sent them to Arkansas to stop another Union army that was advancing from Little Rock. This left Taylor with so few men that all he could do was follow Banks and harass his rear guard. Taylor fumed over Kirby Smith's decision for years and called him "stubborn" and "obstinate" in his memoirs.

Meanwhile, Porter was having difficulty moving up the Red River because of low water. His fleet was finally stopped at the mouth of Loggy Bayou by a large steamer the Confederates had sunk across the channel. Porter wrote, "[It was] a sight that made me laugh; it was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. . . .An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept. . . ."

Unable to proceed farther and learning of Banks' retreat, Porter turned around and headed back toward Grand Ecore. Along the way, hidden Rebels on the river bank constantly attacked his ships with rifle and cannon fire. At Blair's Landing, near Coushatta, a strange battle occurred when 2,500 dismounted Confederate horsemen charged out onto a sandbar and engaged the ships.

The Rebels withdrew when a cannon ball killed Gen. Thomas Green, but they continued to harass the gunboats. A Union soldier who saw the ships arrive at Grand Ecore wrote that "the sides of some of the transports are half shot away, and their smoke-stacks look like huge pepper boxes."

The Union retreat meant northwest Louisiana was now safe. Central Louisiana, however, was about to feel the full fury of the Yankee invaders.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.