Sabine Crossroads was the first of two battles that ended any chance of Union success in the Red River campaign. This campaign had been launching in mid-March 1864 with the aim of capturing north-west Louisiana and threatening Texas.
It suffered from several serious problems. First, there was no clear command structure. General Banks was in charge of the land expedition, while Admiral Porter had command of a gun boat fleet on the river, General Sherman retained overall (if distant) command of a large part of the army detached from his command at Vicksburg and finally General Steele had command of another army, heading south from Little Rock, Arkansas. The two expeditions were meant to meet at Shreveport, close to the Texas border and well inside Confederate territory.
The second major problem was that there was little enthusiasm for the campaign. General Banks, based at New Orleans, would have preferred to move east towards Mobile. U.S. Grant, who was appointed to overall command of the Union armies at the start of March agreed with him. However, by then the operation was already well advanced, and so Grant let it continue. However, he did put a time limit on it. Banks had until 25 April to capture Shreveport, or he would have to return the troops donated by Sherman.
Finally, the Red River itself was only navigable for a short period in the spring. In 1864 the river rose late and fell early, causing delays at the start of the expedition, and a serious crisis at its end.
Despite these problems, Banks made good progress. By the end of March he had reached Alexandria, where he met up with Sherman’s men and the gun boat fleet. On 3 April the fleet got past the rapids above Alexandria, and the advance towards Shreveport was on.
By the end of 7 April the federal force had reached the vicinity of Pleasant Hill, only two days march from Shreveport. However it was badly stretched out along a single road, with almost a days march between the advance guard and the rear of the army. Thus although Banks had around 26,000 men available on 8 April, only a small part of that force was involved in the days fighting.
His direct opponent was General Richard Taylor. He had a force of around 11,000 men, which on 7 April was at Mansfield, directly in the path of Banks’s advance. His immediate superior, Edmund Kirby Smith, was also in the area. After a visit to Taylor at Mansfield, Kirby Smith gave him orders to avoid battle, but to select a position in which he could fight one. He was also to send out a reconnaissance in force, which Kirby Smith hoped would reveal if Banks’s infantry was vulnerable to attack.
On the morning on 8 April the Federal advance continued. The cavalry was already several miles ahead of the infantry columns. By noon the gap was sufficiently large to convince Taylor that the infantry was not moving at all. By this time Taylor had moved his army from Mansfield to Sabine Crossroads, taking up a strong position at the edge of a rare clearing in the woods.
The first Federal troops to discover this position were the cavalry. They were soon joined by two brigades of infantry from the 13th Corps. Two hours of skirmishing followed, before at about 4 p.m. a Confederate assault was launched, with Brigadier-General Alfred Mouton’s division at its heart. It is possible that Mouton launched this attack without orders. However, Mouton was killed early in the attack, and Taylor later took responsibility of the action. Whoever ordered the attack, it was an immediate success. The Federal line, outnumbered two-to-one, soon collapsed into retreat. That retreat was turned into a near-rout when the retreating men collided with the cavalry supply train, who were far too far to the front. Finally, a rearguard action by Brigadier-General William H. Emory’s division halted Taylor’s pursuit. When darkness fell, Banks ordered the army to regroup at Pleasant Hill.
The next day Taylor launched a second attack on the forces at Pleasant Hill and suffered a serious defeat. However, his victory at Sabine Crossroads was enough to end the Red River expedition. The time limits imposed on Banks meant that he did not have the time to regroup after any significant defeat. The retreat itself came close to turning into a disaster when the falling water levels in the Red River threatened to trap the gun boat fleet above Alexandria. Only a great deal of effort and ingenuity prevented the minor rebuff at Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill turning into one of the worst Union defeats in the western theatre.