The terrain in northwestern Louisiana was thickly wooded and little traveled, with only a narrow road threading its way to the Texas state line. For the past two days, 3,000 blue-clad Union cavalry had been making leisurely progress westward from the town of Alexandria, confident that another Federal army, descending from Arkansas, would draw off any Confederate opposition from their flank. Their overconfidence was rudely shattered on the afternoon of April 8, 1864, when a force of Confederate cavalry, comprised mostly of Texans but with a scattering of Louisianans, Missourians and Arkansans, broke from the surrounding woodland and crashed into the vulnerable Yankee column. In a matter of minutes, months of carefully laid plans for a Union march through the lowlands of east Texas were a shambles.
The campaign that had led the Union troops to this confrontation at Sabine Crossroads was the culmination of mounting pressures — political, diplomatic and military — that compelled Union forces in Louisiana to expand the war west of the Mississippi River. To the politically appointed Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, the lands west of the Mississippi represented little more than a sideshow. His real ambition was the investiture of Mobile, an important seaport on the coast of Alabama. Unfortunately for Banks, French Imperial forces were active in Mexico — under the pretext of protecting European interests against the revolutionary forces of Benito Juarez — and threatened to interfere with American interests in Texas. It was already apparent that there had been stealthy meddling on the diplomatic front; the French consul at Richmond had tried to convince Texan officials to re-establish the Lone Star Republic — and had been summarily rebuffed by Confederate authorities. Nevertheless, the French represented enough of a potential threat for Washington to want Union forces to take action — if not to knock Texas out of the war, at least to discourage further French meddling north of the border.
Banks was told to forget about Mobile for the time being and was ordered to focus on Texas. Major General Henry W. Halleck, the Federal chief of staff, indicated that he would like to see an operation up the Red River toward Shreveport, La., but with the approach of autumn 1863, the river was too low for water-borne transportation, and an alternate strategy had to be developed.
Accordingly, Banks organized a 3,500-man expedition to occupy a number of positions along the Texas coast. Everything went smoothly, including the occupation of Brownsville on November 3, 1863, but the captured ports played a puny role in controlling Texas trade, and the vulnerability of the widely separated Federal units made further reinforcing operations necessary. Rather than sanction operations so far from the main Union base in New Orleans, General Halleck still preferred his original Red River plan for the department’s main military campaign that spring. A drive up the Red River soon became the only practical means for the Union to concentrate its strength with a short supply line from Louisiana. Also, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s 10,400 troops would descend from their base at Little Rock, Ark., to support Banks’ troops as they penetrated the interior.
The only thing working against the campaign was time. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman was planning to march on Atlanta, Ga., that summer and wanted Banks’ forces to reinforce him. To conform to that timetable, Banks would have to ascend the Red River as soon as the water level rose in the spring, cross the Texas border and then create his own swath of destruction through the more populous and productive eastern part of the state in time to join Sherman when needed.
Accordingly, in the early months of 1864 the Union commanders were busily occupied with coordinating the various roles they each would have in the coming campaign. The most crucial elements involved Steele’s linkup with Banks and the level of the water over the falls above Alexandria, which would have to be deep enough to take the gunboats and transports of the Mississippi squadron to support the expedition.
On March 1, Sherman arrived in New Orleans to finalize the plan and to promise 10,000 men, who would march up the Black River to Harrisburg and reach Alexandria by March 17. Banks’ forces, made up of two divisions of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s XIX Corps, two of the XIII Corps, and a division of cavalry and mounted infantry commanded by Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee, would move up from Franklin, Tenn., to relieve Sherman’s troops, freeing them to resume duty with Sherman in the east. Steele, meanwhile, was directed to bring his men south toward Shreveport, a move that did not have his enthusiastic support.
After Sherman left for Vicksburg, the plan went into action. Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith was ordered to take combined elements of the XVI and XVII corps to Louisiana from Vicksburg and start up the Red River for the rendezvous. By March 11 he was in position, with his troops loaded aboard the largest Union armada west of the Mississippi — including brigs of light draft that could be maneuvered over the falls; Ouachita, a paddle-wheel steamer equipped with howitzers and 34 cannons of varying size along her two decks; and an assortment of lightly armored ironclads.
As scheduled, the gunboats hauled anchor on March 12 and led the way up the river, which had risen just high enough to allow the heavily laden transports to pass. Progress was slow, as the gunboats were frequently forced to stop so that troops could clear the river of obstructions left behind by the enemy. They reached Simmesport on the 13th, and the army occupied a camp abandoned by the vastly outnumbered Confederates who had retreated upriver toward Fort de Russy. The next day Smith’s men followed the Rebels, who led them on a 28-mile chase that finally ended when the Federals seized the fort. Unfortunately for Banks, the bulk of the enemy force was able to escape, leaving a rear guard of only 300 men. Disappointed, the army continued its advance, fighting shallow water, obstructions and the nightmarish twists in the river’s course.
On the 14th the Federals were again delayed by an obstruction made of a double row of piles driven deep in the riverbed and anchored near the banks by sunken rafts. In addition, trees had been cut down upstream and allowed to drift down and entangle themselves among the piles. After a frustrating afternoon of ramming and dragging the piles free, a group of ironclads made it through and hurried up the river, where they were greeted by erratic, inaccurate artillery fire. Following a brief engagement, orders were given to move directly to Alexandria, but the message was somehow delayed, and there was a five-hour wait before the final dash up the river was completed. That delay was all Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor and his small force of Texans and Louisianans needed to get their own transports above the falls and escape the Yankee advance.
By the 17th, Smith had completed his part in the plan, bringing his 8,000-man army to the rendezvous as scheduled, but Franklin’s army was not there to meet them. Because he had only received his orders on March 10, there was no way for Franklin to get his men to Alexandria, a march of 175 miles, by the 17th. Furthermore, troops who had been assembled from various spots along the Gulf were without transportation, and the cavalry was still in New Orleans. With all the delays, Franklin’s troops were not able to reach Alexandria until the 25th.
While the bulk of Franklin’s men were still struggling to reach Alexandria, Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower led six infantry regiments, some artillery and a brigade of Albert Lee’s cavalry into the piney fastness of the Louisiana countryside to drive off Taylor’s bothersome Texans. With the help of Rebel deserters, Mower’s men slogged through a night of driving rain and waist-deep mud to a small rise deep in the swamp called Henderson’s Hill, where they surprised and captured 250 of the Confederates, effectively wiping out Taylor’s cavalry and forcing him to hurry along Brig. Gen. Thomas Green’s Texas cavalry.
The ultimate objective of Bank’s campaign, the town of Shreveport, lay 340 miles farther up the Red River. The main supply depot for the Confederate army west of the Mississippi, Shreveport was equipped with docks, machine shops and warehouses. Its defenses were equally formidable, with a line of works that spread up to three miles from the city. To get there, the Union flotilla would have to negotiate a river that twisted and turned through a populated countryside and was dominated by two small rapids, called the Falls of Alexandria. Situated just above the city, those rapids were impossible to cross when the river was low. When the squadron reached Alexandria, the river was still fairly low and seemed likely to be a problem for weeks to come. Little did the invaders know that, for the first time in 20 years, the river would stay low and even begin to fall long before spring ended.
Despite the shallow water, Banks decided to continue the advance, but he also played it safe by keeping part of his naval force below the rapids and hauling his equipment around the falls by land. By April 2, he was 80 miles up river at Natchitoches and had an additional 2,000 men under Brig. Gen. T. Kilby Smith farther up at Grand Ecore.
Aware of Banks’ approach from the south, the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, scrambled to slow the Union advance from New Orleans until he could deal with General Steele’s threat from Arkansas. He rounded up as many regular troops as he could from the department’s depleted ranks while Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder marched his Texans to the Red River. Most of the Confederate soldiers were ill-equiped and practically starving — and they were facing a strong, well-armed foe with superior numbers. It was an inopportune time for a political gesture, but Texas Governor Pendleton Murrah chose that moment to further heighten the tensions on the Texas border. In the midst of a political struggle with Richmond over the allocation of Texas troops to the East when he needed them to defend their home state, Murrah refused to allow state militia units to cross into Louisiana.
Despite all those difficulties, Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price got an army of 5,000 Texans, Arkansans, Missourians and Choctaw Indians between Steele and Shreveport. Steele got as far as Camden on April 15, but constant Rebel pressure on his supply lines ultimately compelled him to withdraw to Little Rock, even though he still held a 2-to-1 advantage in troop strength. The utter failure of Steele’s Camden expedition deprived Banks of his expected support and left the Confederate command free to concentrate its forces farther to the south.
Well before the Union reverse at Camden, elements of Banks’ army above Alexandria, moving by land and water, began to concentrate on Mansfield, only 40 miles from the Texas line. Making their way through the forests and marshy bayous of northwestern Louisiana, the Federals were forced to march along a single narrow road that in some places barely accommodated the supply wagons. Unknown to Banks, he had missed a second road that paralleled the river, and he instead marched ever farther from his naval support. By April 7, 3,300 mounted infantry were probing out ahead of the main army, which struggled along 15 miles in the rear. In the meantime, Banks had left Kilby Smith and had ridden to Franklin’s headquarters at Pleasant Hill, eight miles from where the cavalry was scouting.
Taylor, meanwhile, found himself in a desperate situation. Having done everything possible to delay and harass the advancing Federals, he was determined to give up no more of Louisiana territory and decided the time had come to make a stand. To face the 25,000-strong Union army, he had a hastily thrown-together collection of Southern units. Besides the regulars under Brig. Gen. Alfred Mouton and Prince Camille Armand Jules Marie de Polignac (known to his men as ‘General Polecat), there were volunteers from Missouri, Louisiana and Arkansas, and the veteran Texas Cavalry Division under General Green. Taylor’s far-from-cohesive army still came to only 11,000 men, but his force made up in courage and dash what they lacked in numbers. It did not seem to Taylor that he had a chance, but with Smith’s cavalry detached and out in front of the main army, there was a possibility for him to hand the Yankees a devastating psychological blow.
The first confrontation occurred on the afternoon of April 7 at a place called Wilson’s Farm, where part of Albert Lee’s cavalry was scouting the countryside ahead of the main column. Made up mostly of mounted infantrymen grown cocky from days of chasing Taylor’s retiring foot soldiers, the Yankee cavalry force was unprepared for the surprise appearance of Green’s Texas troopers. At first, there was uncertainty on both sides; then, instead of retreating as had been the case before, the four regiments of Southern horsemen spurred forward, screaming their Rebel yell as the two sides met in a flurry of gunshots and wheeling horses. Breaking away from the bluecoats, the Confederates reached the supply train and engaged in heavy fighting until they were eventually driven back into the forest.
The Union had lost 53 men in the running fight. Worried about more such encounters to come, Albert Lee asked Banks for infantry support and was given most of the XIII Corps’ 4th Infantry Division, led by Colonel William J. Landram.
The next day, the Union march continued toward the little town of Mansfield, brushing up against occasional Confederate horsemen and Louisianan snipers. Three miles ahead, however, Taylor had found the spot to make his stand. At a lonely intersection of local dirt roads called Sabine Crossroads, the Confederate general began to place his men. Outnumbered by the Federals and still waiting for reinforcements from Brig. Gen. Thomas Churchill’s corps of Missouri and Arkansas infantry to arrive from Keatchie, Taylor took full advantage of the open pasture on either side of the stage road, along which the Yankee column would have to pass. A rail fence that bounded the fields was the only protection for his ragged but high-spirited troops as they threw themselves into position.
As noon approached, Lee’s men seized Honeycutt Hill, a small rise of land bordering the open ground at the crossroads, and spotted Taylor’s line of defense. Finding the enemy prepared to stand his ground, the Federal troopers waited as Banks rode to the head of the column with Brig. Gen. Thomas Edward G. Ransom, commander of the XIII Corps, and the rest of the 4th Division. By late afternoon, Ransom had more than 4,800 men arrayed before the Confederate positions in an L-shaped formation facing the rail fences, with Landram’s two brigades — the 1st Brigade under Colonel Frank Emerson and the 2nd Brigade under Colonel Joseph Vance — and some artillery set back on the rise. Two cavalry brigades were stationed near either flank — Lee’s on the left and Colonel Thomas Lucas’ on the right. As the afternoon waned, more men were still struggling up the long supply train, which choked the road, to reach the scene of the action. As a result, Taylor enjoyed numerical superiority on the actual field of battle, and it was to his advantage to start the fight before the Yankees could bring more men to bear.
Taylor had placed three infantry brigades — under Brig. Gens. Horace Randal, Thomas Waul and William Scurry — north and south of the road . Anchoring the right were two of Green’s Texas cavalry regiments, commanded by Brig. Gen. Hamilton P. Bee, supported by two artillery batteries; on the left, covering the length of exposed road across which the Union forces were positioned, were Brig. Gen. Alfred Mouton’s division, including a brigade of Texan infantry under Polignac, a Louisiana brigade under Colonel Henry Gray, and two more artillery batteries. To their left were Colonel William G. Vincent’s, Brig. Gen. Arthur P. Bagby’s and Colonel Walter Lane’s brigades, detached from Green’s Texas cavalry and formed into an ad hoc division under Brig. Gen. James Major. Astride the road between Walker’s and Mouton’s divisions was Colonel Xavier B. DeBray’s 26th Texas Cavalry, which was initially held back in reserve but later moved up the road, ahead of the infantry units.
When Taylor gave the word, the units on the left vaulted the rail fence and began to charge, only to falter in the face of Union rifles and artillery. Urged on by their officers, the Confederates charged again, and once more the murderous fire drove them to ground, forcing them to seek cover in a depression in the field before the Federal positions. The attack cost scores killed, including Mouton, who was allegedly cut down while approaching some temporarily unarmed Union prisoners, some of whom picked up their dropped weapons and fired on the general. Polignac assumed command, but after losing more than 750 men in half an hour, the Rebel charge was spent.
In the meantime, Major’s and Bee’s dismounted cavalry began to work their way separately around the Union flanks. A brigade of Texan infantrymen under Brig. Gen. William Scurry struck the Union center, was repulsed and charged again a number of times. Finally, in a determined effort and amid screaming horses, dying men, artillery shots and hand-to-hand fighting, the Rebel troopers gained the summit of the hill behind the Union positions.
One of Bee’s regiments, Colonel Alexander W. Terrell’s Texas Cavalry, had shifted left to reinforce Major’s division for its assault on the Federal right. The remaining unit on the Rebel right, Colonel Augustus Buchel’s 1st Texas Cavalry, outflanked Landram’s line to the south and threatened to surround the Yankees. Landram was forced to order a retreat to avoid losing his entire command, but in the confusion, some units never got the word and were captured. The retreat quickly became a disorganized rout as some of Walker’s Texans turned captured artillery pieces on the rapidly crumbling Union line.
At that critical moment, having ridden to the sound of the guns, Franklin arrived with the XIII Corps’ 3rd Division and managed to throw up a second line of defense across the path of retreat. Nothing, however, was going to stop the charging Confederates at that point. They quickly outflanked the new line and again drove the bluecoats back in panicky flight.
Franklin lost his horse, received a wound in one shin and witnessed his army’s undignified retreat as his men swarmed over their own line of supply wagons. Unable to have the 150 wagons and 20 artillery pieces turned around in the crowded, narrow road, he abandoned them. He managed at least to get word back to Brig. Gen. William H. Emory to form a line of battle at Pleasant Grove, about three miles south of Sabine Crossroads. Emory’s division had to fight its way through the wildly fleeing cavalry and loose animals to reach the new position. Meanwhile, despite Banks’ valiant attempts to stem the tide of retreat, his men still streamed to the rear and through the peach orchard at Pleasant Grove, while Emory’s men watched in amazement. Delayed somewhat by looting the rich supply train, the pursuing Confederates at last burst from the forest across the main road from where Emory had lined up his three brigades.
Borne on by the momentum of their swift victory at Sabine Crossroads, the Confederates wasted no time in launching themselves at the new Union position. Once again they hit the Union center while their cavalry tried to outflank the Federals, but each attempt failed in bloody disappointment. At last, as night fell, the Confederate attacks ceased, and Banks took stock. The magnitude of the debacle was enormous: 2,200 troops lost, 200 wagons filled with supplies and 20 artillery pieces taken. But Banks felt that once he was reinforced by the XVI Corps, he would be able to overwhelm the Rebels and reach Shreveport on schedule. He deemed it prudent, however, to have his force fall back another 14 miles to the town of Pleasant Hill.
Moving silently through the night, the Union army regrouped at Pleasant Hill. Taylor’s force, reinforced at last with General Churchill’s infantry divisions, caught up with the Federals the next morning. Using the same tactics that had been so successful the day before, the Confederates opened an artillery barrage while their cavalry rode to the Union flanks. Churchill’s infantry emerged from the woods on the Union right flank and found itself facing Colonel Lewis Benedict’s brigade, situated well forward of the Union line. With a yell, the Missourians and Arkansans swept down on the Federal position, killing Benedict and immediately threatening Banks’ exposed position in the town. Unknown to Churchill’s command, however, his troops had emerged from the woods well short of the Union flank and were consequently exposed to a murderous enfilading fire from A.J. Smith’s regiments, located in the forest on the Federal left. In no time, the startled Southerners were swept from the field and back to the ravine beyond the plateau.
The sound of Churchill’s initial attack was the signal for the Confederate units on the Union right and center to charge. First Walker and Green ordered their men forward, but their charge was halted in its tracks and thrown back. Ordered to try again, Colonel Buchel hesitated, knowing the fearsome cost of such an attack. Finally, after receiving the third order to go, he led his men out — and into the deadly flanking fire of Smith’s advancing troops. Buchel lost half his regiment and was himself struck. He died of his wounds days later.
Now it was Taylor’s turn to taste defeat as the survivors of Churchill’s infantry began to break for the safety of the woods. Soon there was little he could do but hold his position until nightfall, then begin his retreat.
The Confederates had lost 1,621 men (to 1,369 Federal casualties), and the exhausted survivors were in wretched condition. Even while the Northern forces were claiming victory, however, Banks ordered a retirement to Grand Encore that soon developed into a full withdrawal. Banks’ army spent the next couple of months trying to assist its fleet’s retirement down a river whose depth was rapidly diminishing in an unseasonal drought, while Confederate units continued to harass them from the riverbanks. Banks may have written off his entire campaign because he felt that progress inland — if opposed as rigorously as at Sabine Crossroads — would delay his campaign past the time that Sherman expected him to help in the east. Whatever the case, the ultimate outcome of the Red River campaign was a victory for Taylor and his Confederates. Their sacrificial stand had defeated an overwhelmingly superior adversary and effectively ended the war west of the Mississippi.
This article was written by Pierre Comtois, and originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!