Lt. George E. Dixon Camp 1962
Sons of Confederate Veterans
Ah yes, the arrival of spring: warmer temperatures, trees start filling out, birds sing their songs and earth is renewed (and yes, that’s about as poetic as this installment is going to get). For both the Confederate States of America and the United States, the onset of April 1864 did in fact bring something of a renewal, including renewed hope for the future of the South. However, while the Confederacy managed to score a few notable victories during the month, the North used the month to set in motion forces and events that would culminate in the demise of the CSA in 12 months.
With Lt Gen U.S. Grant now in overall command of the US Army, the North abandoned several years of “On to Richmond!” planning and started moving forward both tactically (short-term) and strategically (long-term). For example, 0n 5 April, Maj Gen Phil Sheridan – formerly commander of the 2nd Division, IV Corps, Army of the Cumberland – arrived at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac to assume command of its cavalry corps. This one move would have long-term, highly negative consequences for the Confederacy.
Four days later, General Grant issued orders to Maj Gen George Gordon Meade: “Wherever Lee goes, you will go there.” Grant assigned similar directions to Maj Gen William T. Sherman, ordering him to run down the Army of Tennessee. On 17 April, Grant ended the procedure of paroles and prisoner exchanges with the Confederates, as he felt the process of allowing Southerners to return home and possibly fight again prolonged the war. Other initiatives followed.
On the Confederate side, the onset of spring brought rare good news from the battlefield. On 8 April, Maj Gen Richard Taylor – son of former general and President Zachary Taylor – and his 7,000 troops occupied defensive positions in the vicinity of Mansfield, Louisiana, at Sabine Crossroads. The Maj Gen Nathaniel P. Banks’ Army of the Gulf approached, consisting of two corps (XIII, Maj Gen Thomas Ransom and XIX, Maj Gen William B. Franklin) and a division of cavalry led by Brig Gen Albert Lee, totaling about 12,000 men. While under orders from his superior, Gen Edmund Kirby Smith, to defend, Taylor estimated he could beat Banks.
At 4 PM, following some initial clashes with Union cavalry, Taylor ordered his troops forward; they quickly collapsed Banks’ first line of soldiers and then pushed back the second line. A third line, held by the division of Brig Gen William Emory, managed to hold back the Southerners, giving Banks’ survivors a chance to evacuate the battlefield towards Alexandria as night fell. The Army of the Gulf sustained about 2900 casualties to the Confederates’ 1500; according to historian John D. Winters in The Civil War in Louisiana, the Northerner’s retreat was marked by “…burning wagons, abandoned knapsacks, arms and cooking utensils. Federal stragglers and wounded were met by the hundreds and were quickly rounded up and sent to the rear.”
The following day, Taylor hit the retreating Banks again at Pleasant Hill; this time, one of his flanks – Brig Gen Thomas Churchill’s Arkansas Division – collapsed during the fighting and Taylor was forced to pull back. Banks managed to save his Army and, after a period at Grande Ecore, successfully pulled back to Alexandria. His Red River Campaign, which had started with all sorts of cheers, flourishes and lofty pronouncements the previous month, was over, save for a number of clashes between the Confederates and the US Navy’s riverine fleet.
On 12 April, an encounter of lasting controversy occurred north of Memphis. That day, approximately 2500 Confederate cavalry under the command of Maj Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow and its Union garrison, roughly half of which – 262 men – consisted of US Colored Troops. Forrest’s men quickly seized the outer earth fortification (ironically, built by Confederate troops early in the war) and then set upon the Northern soldiers in the inner redoubt led by Maj Lionel Booth. Southern sharpshooters on the surrounding hills started putting rounds into the redoubt and killed Major Booth; Maj William Bradford then assumed command.
At 11 AM, with the redoubt fully surrounded, Forrest demanded Bradford’s unconditional surrender. Bradford asked for an hour to think it over; Forrest allowed 20 minutes. Bradford then refused surrender and Forrest’s troopers overran the fort. Per the National Park Service summary of the battle,
“Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetuating a massacre of the black troops, and that controversy continues today. The Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow that evening so they gained little from the attack except a temporary disruption of Union operations. The ‘Fort Pillow Massacre’ became a Union rallying cry and cemented resolve to see the war through to its conclusion.”
One final battle took place out west prior to the end of the month of April. Perhaps mirroring Banks’ problems during his Red River Campaign, Union Maj Gen Franklin Steele’s “Camden Expedition” in Arkansas had run into similar trouble. On 29 April 1864, while his forces were attempting a retreat from Camden back to Little Rock, Steele ran into a buzzsaw on the banks of the swollen Saline River, in the form of Southerners led by Gen Kirby Smith, Maj Gen Sterling Price and cavalry under Brig Gen John Marmaduke.
Outnumbered, all but out of supplies and desperate to get across the river, the Northerners put up a good fight in the swamps into the 30th, buying time for them to escape. Northern casualties totaled about 700 with the Confederates losing nearly 1000; the Southern losses included Brig Gen William Scurry and Brig Gen Horace Randal, while the Union contingent lost Brig Gen Samuel Rice.
Thus ended the month of April 1864, with the Confederacy holding its own in the Trans-Mississippi. However, in the east the Union armies were finally leaving their winter camps. This included the Army of the Potomac, which prepared to cross the Rapidan in search of a confrontation with Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. A major battle would follow soon enough.