Battles of Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill; Battle of Fort Pillow; Confederates Capture Plymouth North Carolina: April 1864
April 1864 in the Civil War
Action was picking up as spring arrived, with skirmishes, cavalry actions, and minor fighting occurring more frequently throughout the south, although movements of the major armies would have to wait until the muddy roads were dry.
On the Red River in Louisiana, Union and Confederate cavalry skirmished throughout the first week of April as the Federal advance upriver continued. The Union forces were confined to a single road and were stretched out for 20 miles. On the morning of the 8th, the Union cavalry commander, Brigadier General Albert Lee, confronted Major General Richard Taylor’s 10,000-12,000 man Confederate army arrayed in line of battle near the town of Mansfield. Lee requested reinforcements from Major General Nathaniel Banks, commander of the expedition. But with only one road, reinforcements were slow to arrive. As they trickled in, Taylor spent some time rearranging his troops, hoping Banks would attack.
But Banks did not attack, and Federal strength was increasing as the afternoon wore on. Taylor decided he would have to atack before Banks could get all his troops up. The battle opened with Brigadier General Alfred Mouton leading his brigade in an attack on the Union right. The assault by Mouton’s Louisiana troops was costly–Mouton himself was killed, and a third of his men were casualties–but they, along with some reinforcing Texas cavalrymen fighting dismounted were successful in pushing back the Union right flank. Taylor ordered the division of Major General John G. Walker to attack the Union left, and that flank was obliterated. The Federals were in full retreat. The battle of Sabine Cross Roads, or Mansfield, was a Confederate victory.
Banks set up his defense at the town of Pleasant Hill, about 17 miles from the Sabine Crossroads battle field. Taylor’s forces attacked this position the next day and had some initial success, but were stopped when reinforcements from Brigadier General A. J. Smith’s 16th Corps arrived. The Federals won the Battle of Pleasant Hill, but the damage had been done. Banks continued to withdraw back down the Red River.
Taylor wanted to continue attacking Banks, but General Kirby Smith, overall Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi, detached three divisions north to counter a threat from Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals who were marching south from Little Rock, Arkansas, on a campaign that became known as the Camden Expedition. The plan had been for Steele to join up with Banks at Shreveport, but after harassment from guerrillas and defeats in the battles of Poison Spring and Marks’ Mill, Steele turned back on the 26th of the month, pursued by Smith’s Confederates. At a river crossing on the Saline River, Steele defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Jenkins ‘ Ferry on the 30th of the month. Steele then crossed the Saline and reached Little Rock on May 3rd.
Meanwhile, Banks and the Naval flotilla of Admiral David Porter that had accompanied the expedition continued to retreat back down the Red River. The pursuing Confederate force had been reduced in size, but was large enough to harass the retreating Federals at several points throughout the rest of the month. All in all, April was a terrible month for for Union forces in the Trans Mississippi.
In Tennessee on April 12th, a division of cavalry under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow, a former Confederate earthwork on the Mississippi River that was occupied by 600 Union troops, about evenly split between African American soldiers and white Tennesseans who had remained loyal to the Union. At one point, Forrest demanded the garrison surrender, but was refused. Forrest renewed the attack and drove most of the Union men out of the fort and towards the river with the fighting continuing along the way to the river, where it was thought a Union gunboat New Era would provide cover fire. But the gunboat had withdrawn its cannon from the gun ports, closed the ports, and gone farther out in the river to escape Confederate fire. With no way out, the Union soldiers attempted to surrender. Reports and eyewitness accounts told of executions by shooting, clubbing, and bayoneting of African American troops as they tried to surrender or after they had surrendered. This was hotly denied by both Forrest and the Confederate government, charges and counter charges flew back and forth, and there was debate within the Lincoln Administration as to what retaliatory action should take place and how prisoners of war should be handled. It’s likely that at least some killings were conducted by individual soldiers who were enraged at fighting African Americans and who were not acting under orders, but it is also possible that officers simply looked the other way or otherwise allowed the killings to happen without ordering them. The controversy continues to this day, especially in regard to Forrest’s role in all this. The “Fort Pillow Massacre” as it became known, helped to firm up northern resolve to win the war.
Most of coastal North Carolina had been in Federal hands since early 1862, but in April of 1864, the Confederates tried to take it back. On April 17th, a 7000 man force under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke attacked Union held Plymouth, North Carolina, on the Roanoke River just east of Albemarle Sound, Plymouth was occupied by 2800 Federals, and had support from Navy gunboats. Fighting continued for two days, with Hoke’s troops making some progress, but unable to carry the position. On the 19th, the newly built ironclad CSS Albemarle steamed down the Roanoke and went into action against the USS Miami and USS Southfield. Albemarle sunk Southfield, and damaged Miami enough that the union ship retreated into Albemarle sound. Under attack from both river and land, the Plymouth garrison surrendered on April 20th. After Plymouth surrendered, Union forces abandoned Washington, North Carolina at the end of the month.
At the end of April the roads were drying out in Virginia and the Union’s General in Chief, Ulysses S. Grant, prepared to begin the spring campaign against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. At Chattanooga, Tennessee, Major General William T. Sherman was ready to begin his campaign to capture Atlanta, Georgia, and there were other simultaneous movements against the south in Grant’s plans. The relatively peaceful times of Winter Quarters would come to an end for hundreds of thousands of men on both sides as the calendar turned to May.
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