Mansfield. Louisiana: "War"
October 28, 2008
Have you ever felt the ground vibrate beneath your feet?
I don't mean the sensation you felt when you were window-shopping at Bloomingdale's on Lexington Avenue in New York, and you heard the subway train rumble up towards The Bronx.
I don't mean the sensation you felt when you were sipping a latte in Union Square in San Francisco and the workmen nearby were using noisy pneumatic drills to repair the cable car tracks.
What I mean is something like the vibration I felt when I was walking the streets surrounding the Great Synagogue in Budapest. In 1944, Hungarian Jews, by the thousands were herded into this small area, barely able to survive, until, they knew not what awaited them, they were transported to their final destination. As I wandered these same streets in the summer of 2000, I could feel the earth shudder.
Once more I felt the earth come alive as I strolled the Civil War Battlefield at Mansfield, Louisiana.
Here's what happened there in April, 1864:
"With the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863, the Mississippi River was entirely controlled by the Union. President Lincoln and his staff decided that the capture of Texas and the Trans-Mississippi headquarters at Shreveport would be the next objective. The Red River was chosen as the best approach into Texas, and a navy-army advance was planned with the army (38,000 troops) under the command of General N.P. Banks and the navy under the command of Flag Officer D.D. Porter.
"Following the course of the Red River, the Union army and navy progressed with little opposition through Alexandria and reached Natchitoches by early April 1864. At Natchitoches, the army veered away from the Red River, going toward Shreveport by way of Mansfield, which left them without the support of the navy. This and other tactical blunders on the part of General Banks, as well as a series of successful maneuvers by Confederate commander General Richard Taylor (son of President Zachary Taylor), decisively influenced the final outcome of the battle.
Confederate Victory at Mansfield
"Like many important battles, the Mansfield-Pleasant Hill engagement was actually a series of encounters taking place over several days. After a two-hour cavalry fight with Union forces near Wilson's farm on April 7, General Taylor elected to defend a site about four miles south of Mansfield, now the location of the state historic park. General Banks did not expect the Confederates to fight until he reached Shreveport, so the Union army became stretched out along the narrow road leading to Mansfield. This allowed Taylor to deal with his opponents on more equal terms since the Confederate troops were badly outnumbered.
"At noon on April 8, the head of the disorganized Union army (6,400 troops) was confronted by the Confederate army (10,500 troops), in battle formation. The Union troops quickly formed a line of battle along a rail fence and a ridge known as Honeycutt Hill. On orders from Taylor, General Alfred Mouton's Division charged the rail fence. Mouton was killed leading the attack, but French-born General C.J. Polignac, along with other Confederate forces, continued the attack an overwhelmed the Union Line.
"A fresh unit of 2,000 Union troops formed another line of battle about a mile south of the first. After a brief encounter, Taylor and the Confederates routed the Union forces, taking many prisoners and seizing guns, small arms and wagons abandoned by the fleeing soldiers.
The Battle of Pleasant Hill
"Two miles south of the second line, another 6,500 Union troops formed a defensive position at Chapman's Bayou and held this location until dark. During the night the defeated Union forces fell back to Pleasant Hill. On Aril 9, the fierce Battle of Pleasant Hill was fought, with both sides taking heavy loses and withdrawing from the field after dark.
"The Union army rejoined the navy at Natchitoches and began a long retreat down the Red River. The river had dropped to an unusually low level, trapping the navy in a series of rapids near Alexandria. Union engineer Joseph Bailey solved the problem by having wing-dams built in the river to raise the water level. The navy finally floated free and the combined Union forces left Alexandria. Confederates opposed the Union retreat first at Mansura and then at Yellow Bayou.
"On May 19, 1864, the Union forces crossed the Atchafalaya River, ending the disastrous Red River Campaign. By turning back these large Union forces, the Confederates were able to prevent complete Union control of Louisiana and stop progression of the war into Texas. In fact, the confederate victory at Mansfield may have prolonged the war by several months." *
If eventually, the Confederate States of America had succeeded, in my opinion, the world would be unrecognizable. (e.g. Who would have sent soldiers "over there" in World War I? The Union? The Confederacy? Both? Neither? Would there also be a Republic of California?)
Today, the Mansfield State Historic Park is a broad green field, a quiet meadow with an old canon or two. This well-tended lawn belies what is hidden beneath. I can hear the call of the bugle. I can feel the thuds of the canon. I can sense the roar of the troops.
Several tall obelisks honor the Confederate officers. There are no individual markers for the hundreds of foot soldiers, on both sides, who perished here.
Whether one well-equipped army decimates a population of unarmed children, women and men, or whether two well-trained armies slaughter each other in the woods or on a field, it seems to me that in combat, the results are always the same. The quick die in their beds. The dead disappear.
One of the flags flying over the Mansfield Park seemed odd to me. It was surely a Confederate flag, but the colors were different. Instead of the usual diagonal stars and bars on a white background, the stars and bars lay on a deep blue background. It may have been the Texas design. In fact, I found this flag to be quite attractive. I bought a small one at the gift shop. The flag is displayed in my new apartment.
I surely don't agree with the issues or the ideals of the Confederacy. But as an American, I acknowledge the events and I pay tribute to all the citizens who took part, especially those who "gave their last full measure of devotion."
*State of Louisiana
Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism
Office of State Parks
Baton Rouge, LA