Colonel Francis Fessenden’s Report on His Brigade’s Action at the Battles of Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill
The Union Army advance up the Red River in Louisiana during the spring 1864 Red River Campaign came to a halt at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads , also known as the Battle of Mansfield on April 8th. After being defeated by General Richard Taylor’s Confederates, the Union 13th and 19th Corps pulled back a few miles to the village of Pleasant Hill. On April 9th, Taylor attacked the Federals at Pleasant Hill. After initial success, Taylor’s men were stopped by reinforcements from the Union 16th Corps under Brigadier General A. J. Smith. Though the battle was a tactical victory at best or a draw at worst, Major General Nathaniel Banks, the overall Union Army commander in the campaign decided to continue the retreat back down river.
One of the brigade commanders in the 19th Corps was Colonel Francis Fessenden. Fessenden was the son of U.S. Senator William P. Fessenden of Maine, who would become President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury later in the year. Francis Fessenden was the commander of the 30th Maine Infantry, part of the Third Brigade of Brigadier General William H. Emory’s First Division of the 19th Corps. Fessenden took over brigade command following the death of Colonel Lewis Benedict at Pleasant Hill. The brigade, which also included the 162nd, 165th, and 173rd New York regiments, was heavily engaged at both Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill. A few days after the fighting, Fessenden filed this report of his unit’s actions:
HDQRS. THIRD BRIG., FIRST DIV., 19TH ARMY CORPS,
Grand Ecore, La., April 13, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the movements of the Third Brigade of this division during the six days from the 6th to the 11th instant: On the morning of the 6th, at 9 a.m., the brigade moved with the division on the Fort Jesup road, south of Spanish Lake, 15 miles from Natchitoches, and camped at [Sand Hill]. On the morning of the 7th instant the brigade marched with the division 20 miles to Pleasant Hill, and went into camp at 4 p.m. on the open ground in front of Pleasant Hill, and near the woods. The Thirtieth Maine Volunteers was on this day detached as a rear guard to the army trains, and did not move till 10 a.m., and went into camp at 10.30 p.m. 7 miles in rear of Pleasant Hill, the trains being stopped by the bad condition of the roads and the darkness of the night.
On the morning of the 8th, at 9 a.m., the brigade, then consisting of the One hundred and sixty-second, One hundred and sixty-fifth, and One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, moved with the division 7 miles on the road to Mansfield, and camped on Ten-Mile Bayou at 1.30 p.m. At 3 p.m. the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers joined the brigade. At 4 p.m. the regiments were ordered to take two days’ rations and be prepared to march at once. At 4.30 p.m. the brigade, being third in the division column, marched 6 miles to a position near Sabine Cross-Roads to the support of the Thirteenth Corps, which was then engaged in a severe action with the enemy. The brigade, on arriving near the field of battle, passed through a demoralized mass of retreating cavalry, infantry, artillery-men, and camp followers, crowding together in the midst of wagons and ambulances, and entered the field to the left of the road. The troops were immediately deployed in line in the following order: The One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers on the right of the brigade, resting upon the left of the Second Brigade. The One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers deployed upon the left of the One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers, both regiments being upon the crest of a hill with a ravine in front, and the enemy behind a similar crest beyond. The Thirtieth Maine Volunteers were deployed in rear of the One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, and the One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers upon its left and a few rods in advance. The brigade was immediately subjected to the fire of the enemy, which was returned with effect by the One hundred and sixty-second New York, One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, and One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers. The enemy speedily disappeared. In this action the One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers were subjected to the fire of the enemy while forming in line, and fell to the rear in some confusion, running through the left company of the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers. They soon rallied and were deployed as skirmishers on the left of the line, while the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers was moved to the left of the last line of battle while the enemy were yet firing. The enemy having been repulsed, the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers was placed in reserve in line of battle behind the line, its right resting upon the main road. The brigade was under fire about one hour, during which time it repulsed an attack of the enemy upon the left of our line. The attack was mainly repulsed by the One hundred and sixty-second and One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers. It is not surprising that the One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers was thrown into confusion in this action, as they were attacked while forming in line, and their only field officer present, Lieutenant-Colonel Carr, severely wounded in the wrist and compelled to leave the field. With that exception the brigade behaved with great steadiness. Maj. Royal E. Whitman, of the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers, was severely wounded while in front of his regiment, and had to be carried from the field. The loss of the brigade on this day was as follows: One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers, 1 killed, 5 wounded; One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers, 1 killed, 13 wounded, 43 missing; One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, 4 wounded; Thirtieth Maine Veteran Volunteers, 2 killed, 9 wounded, 44 missing; total, 4 killed, 31 wounded, 87 missing.
The brigade lay upon its arms until 10.30 p.m., when it retired to Pleasant Hill, marching all night and arriving at Pleasant Hill about 9.30 a.m. of the 9th instant. The enemy showing themselves in rear of the division, the Third Brigade was drawn up in line of battle upon the front of road under the direction of Colonel Peck, One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, then commanding brigade, but was soon after moved to its camping-ground, on the night of the 7th instant, in the skirt of the woods at the lower end of the open ground in front of Pleasant Hill, and companies deployed from each regiment as skirmishers. The men passed the day till 3 p.m. in cooking, sleeping, and finding water. At 3 p.m. the brigade fell into line and prepared to move at a moment’s notice. At 3.30 p.m. our cavalry skirmishers were driven in upon our left flank, through our infantry skirmishers, and reported that they were attacked by infantry. The skirmishers in front of the brigade in the woods were strengthened, and the line of battle of the brigade was changed from its position in the skirt of the woods to a position 300 yards to the rear, behind a deep ditch, the edges of which were overgrown with reeds and underbrush, which partially concealed the troops from view when lying down. The ground sloped toward the ditch from the woods, and ascended again to the rear. The regiments were posted in the following order: The One hundred and sixty-fifth New York was on the right of the brigade, the One hundred and seventy-third New York on the right center, the One hundred and sixty-second New York on the left center, and the Thirtieth Maine Veteran Volunteers on the extreme left of the brigade, the brigade being the left of the front line of battle. The right of the brigade was near the woods on the right of the open ground, while the left of the line rested on open ground and was entirely uncovered. The companies of skirmishers were directed to remain in the woods. Shortly after 5 p.m. a company of colored soldiers, deployed as skirmishers between the skirmishers of the brigade and the skirmishers of the troops of the Sixteenth Corps, who were in line in echelon some 400 yards to our left rear, in the woods beyond the slope in our rear, were driven in across the open ground on my left. Shortly after the skirmishers of the brigade in the woods were driven in, and had not yet joined the battalion when the enemy appeared in the edge of the woods, in front and beyond the left of the line. They advanced rapidly in two lines obliquely upon the left and across the front of the brigade, extending well toward the right. They advanced at a charging pace, delivering a very heavy fire as they advanced.
Two companies of the Thirtieth Maine deployed in the ditch, one in front of that regiment and the other between that regiment and the One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers, opened a sharp fire upon the enemy, but without checking them in the least. These companies fell back, one upon its own regiment and the other toward the One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers. The enemy charged swiftly from the slope and commenced crossing the ditch, striking at some of the skirmishers in the ditch with the butts of their muskets. So rapidly did they advance that Lieutenant-Colonel Blanchard, who had gone to the front of his regiment to the ditch for the purpose of seeing the position of the enemy, had not time to place himself behind his regiment before the brigade line commenced retiring in confusion. The regiments fell back, beginning with the One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers on the right, followed by the One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers on the left center and the One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers next, the regiments delivering their fire as they fell back in disorder to the rear. On that day I commanded the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers upon the left of the line, and had received orders from Colonel Benedict, commanding brigade, to retreat when the other regiments fell back. I held my regiment in its position behind the ditch, firing upon the enemy, until I perceived that the other regiments were retiring over the brow of the slope and myself enveloped on both flanks and severely pressed in front, when I gave the order to retreat. The regiment retreated up the slope under a severe fire, halted and partially reformed, and fired again upon the enemy, and retired in some confusion into the woods, where they were rallied upon the right of General Smith’s troops, who were in line in that position. Having rallied the regiment on the right of General Smith’s troops, in which I was greatly assisted by Captain Wilkinson, of General Emory’s staff, I ordered a charge and advanced with the regiment formed on the right of General Smith’s troops in a charge upon the flank of the enemy, who had this time penetrated the line as far as Battery L, Fifth [First] U. S. Artillery. The enemy retreated to the low ground, when they received support from another line then advancing from the woods. They attempted to reform and resist our advance, delivering a heavy fire. General Smith’s troops, however, continued to advance from the left, and, aided by another line, the Second Brigade of First Division, Nineteenth Corps, advancing between General Smith’s troops and Battery L, Fifth [First.] U.S. Artillery, completed the discomfiture of the enemy in that quarter, and they were speedily driven beyond the open ground and through the woods. In’ this movement the brigade became much scattered, portions of the different regiments advancing with other brigades until the battle ceased.
The reports of the One hundred and sixty-second and One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers do not say what portions of their regiments advanced. Part of the One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, with its colors, fought the remainder of the battle in the Second Brigade. Four companies of the Thirtieth Maine Volunteers, mistaking the colors of General Smith’s regiments for their own, advanced with that brigade until the battle ceased. The company of skirmishers that fell back after the One hundred and sixty-second New York on the first attack advanced with the troops that charged on the right of General Smith’s troops, leaving the colors and four companies with the field officers. Having advanced until the enemy were entirely repulsed from that part of the field, I halted to reform the regiment. Finding that Colonel Benedict had been killed, and that Colonel Peck was not on the field, I assumed command of the brigade, and endeavored to collect it together, which I succeeded in doing about 9 p.m. The brigade bivouacked in the field on the ground where it was first attacked. Here the troops were supplied with ammunition. At 11.30 p.m. I received orders to hold the troops in readiness to move at a moment’s notice, and at 1.40 a.m. the brigade took up its line of march to the rear, reaching its original camping-ground, 15 miles from Natchitoches, at about 12.30 p.m. April 10. The troops rested here till the following morning, when the brigade moved at 6 a.m. to its present camping-ground at Grand Ecore. Its loss in the last engagement of Saturday, the 9th instant, was as follows: One hundred and sixty-second New York Volunteers, 13 killed, 44 wounded, 48 missing; One hundred and sixty-fifth New York Volunteers, 2 killed, 10 wounded, 61 missing; One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, 5 killed, 37 wounded, 147 missing: Thirtieth Maine Veteran Volunteers, 9 killed, 50 wounded, 28 missing; total, 29 killed, 141 wounded, 284 missing. The total loss in both actions was as follows: 33 killed, 172 wounded, 371 missing.
The losses of the brigade in this action of the 9th, as has been seen, were heavy. Colonel Benedict was instantly killed early in the action. Lieutenant-Colonel Green, One hundred and seventy-third New York Volunteers, was severely wounded, and was compelled to be assisted from the field. A number of officers were killed, wounded, and missing. The staff officers of the brigade were greatly exposed during the action, and behaved with coolness and bravery. The battle was a short one, and the number of killed, wounded, and missing in the brigade bears testimony to the severity of the conflict in which they participated.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Capt. DUNCAN S. WALKER,
—Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXIV, Part 1.
At one point during the Battle of Mansfield, Fessenden’s brigade was on the left of the 32nd Iowa Infantry, one of A.J. Smith’s 16th Corps regiments. The 16th Corps was on loan from General William T. Sherman’s army, and neither Smith nor many of those under him had much respect for the 19th Corps, and they were especially disdainful of most of the top commanders in the 19th. Colonel John Scott (pictured at right) commander of the 32nd Iowa, was no exception. “Some of the official reports made by their officers are obscure, some of them are misleading, and some of them are viciously untrue” he wrote after the war, singling out the reports Generals William Emory and William Dwight as being flat out wrong.
Scott, however, did have respect for Fessenden and his men. “The report made by Col. Fessenden, 30th Maine Infantry, is not open to this criticism, and bears on its face many evidences of candor and frankness” Scott wrote, who cited Fessenden’s report in which he stated “I commanded the 30th Maine, upon the left of the line, and had received orders to retreat when the other regiments fell back”. Scott continued: “This is quoted to illustrate a notable difference between the orders of the officers as well as the conduct of the men of these two Army Corps. Commanders of Brigades in the 16th Corps said ‘You will hold this position at all hazards!’ Those in the 19th Corps said ‘Retreat when the other regiments fall back!'”
“It is proper to note that under these adverse circumstances Col. Fessenden and many of this men fought bravely to the end of the action; at first retiring in some confusion, and them reforming on Gen. Smith’s troops, charging the enemy, and following him up his mad flight” Scott concluded.
Scott’s analysis has merit. Overall, the 19th Corps was poorly led, beginning with Nathaniel Banks himself, a political general with no military background prior to the war who was in over his head. But individual units and their commanding officers could and did fight well despite poor leadership and tactics. This was evident in the high number of casualties suffered by 19th Corps regiments in the fighting at Port Hudson in 1863.
One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864
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Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War
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Story of the Thirty Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers by John Scott