Worse Than Madness for Us: The 56th Ohio at Sabine Crossroads
By April 8, 1864, General Nathaniel P. Banks' expedition to take Shreveport, Louisiana had advanced 150 miles up the Red River. For the troops of the 56th Ohio, the opening shots of the Battle of Sabine Crossroads (also called the Battle of Mansfield) were the sounds of a heated cavalry skirmish. Oddly enough, the regiment ordered to go into camp. But shortly after lunch, they were called into action and upon getting upon the Mansfield Road, they ran smack into the army's supply train which blocked the road and greatly slowed their arrival on the field.
In a badly botched battle, the 56th Ohio and its comrades in the Third Division of the 13th Army Corps (only 1,500 in number), deployed into line just in time to witness the retreat of the Fourth Division and soon met the charging Rebels head-on. "It was worse than madness for us, numbering only 1,500, to attempt to turn the tide. But with a loud yell which could be distinctly heard above the roar of battle and the exultant shouts of the rapidly advancing lines of Rebels, we dashed forward through a thick wood when soon the falling branches of trees, the bursting shells, and the whistling of grape, canister, and rifle balls plainly told us we were not on very safe ground," one veteran remembered. "All throw blame on General Banks which he undoubtedly deserves. His train was run up within full view of the enemy’s lines, thus giving us no room to fall back and when he engaged them fought their whole force with a brigade or division at a time."
The following account of the debacle at Sabine Crossroads, penned by a soldier of the 56th Ohio only known as "H.," was published in the May 12, 1864 edition of the Gallipolis Journal.
Grand Ecore, Louisiana
April 15, 1864
Since we left Natchitoches, we have been rapidly passing through some of the most lively as well as strangest scenes we have ever witnessed. We are sometimes almost inclined to doubt their reality but a glance at our shattered ranks irresistibly forces the conviction upon us, that it is not a dream, but a hard battle has been fought and we have been defeated and sustained a heavy loss.
At 6 o’clock on the morning of the 8th, we started from Pleasant Hill on the Mansfield Road, the cavalry having moved out the evening before with the 13th Army Corps in front. About 9 o’clock, we were ordered forward on the double-quick to support the cavalry which had been skirmishing heavily all morning, the enemy slowly retiring. At 10:30, to the surprise of all, we were ordered into camp while the firing still continued very heavy. About 1:30, the Fourth Division was ordered forward and at 2:45 the Third Division followed; the skirmish by this time had increased to a warm engagement.
We moved at quick time, but as the train had been run to the front while we were in camp, the road was completely blocked up that we could scarcely pass and by the time we were to the front of train and even before, the Fourth Division was badly cut up, their ammunition out. When we advanced into line, nearly the whole division was in full retreat. This at once convinced us that as the Fourth Division was at least three times the strength of the Third Division, it was worse than madness for us, numbering only 1,100, to attempt to turn the tide. But with a loud yell which could be distinctly heard above the roar of battle and the exultant shouts of the rapidly advancing lines of Rebels, we dashed forward through a thick wood when soon the falling branches of trees, the bursting shells, and the whistling of grape, canister, and rifle balls plainly told us we were not on very safe ground.
Groups of the Fourth Division who had probably collected a few rounds from among the dead and wounded could still be seen bravely trying to maintain their ground against the many thousands who were pressing them from all sides. A squad of the 77th Illinois rallied around their colors and Colonel after their ammunition gave out, and a great many of them were shot after they surrendered. At this moment, the Third Division charged driving them about 350 yards across a corn field. But here we were met by their support and seeing we could drive them no further, we laid down, their fire passing over us. Their lines all this time, notwithstanding the heavy fire of our artillery and the close and deadly range of our little line of infantry, remained as steady as a rock. When they began to move their flanking columns, they faced right and left moving off with arms at a right shoulder shift as cool as if they were only on a battalion drill. So close were the two lines that we could see them falling by files and groups, so close and murderous was our range.
At 5:55, the cry ran along our line for “more ammunition” and with this their whole line charged us. Then commenced a scene that would beggar description. The road was full of teams, which had in the eager haste of their drivers to escape, became entangled in their gearing, and for 200-300 yards on either side of the woods were full of flying cavalry, teams which had been cut loose from their pieces and the infantry rushing pell mell to the rear followed closely by the victorious enemy, presented a scene of the wildest confusion.
“The Rebs were within 75 yards of us, pressing on very leisurely, carrying arms at a right shoulder shift, paying no regard to our incessant rain of bullets in their ranks. Our ammunition became exhausted, I did not have a round left. We were ordered to retreat which we did, every man for himself. It was now sundown and we retreated four miles leaving over 100 wagons and about 22 pieces of artillery. The Rebels were following us closely and calling out to us to halt, but ‘nary halt’ except those who gave out. The 56th Ohio lost 40 men.” ~ Corporal Samuel L. Wood, Co. D, 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
We were pursued thus about two-and-a-half miles when we met the 19th Army Corps which had been ordered into camp at Summer Hill, and as dark was closing in, the enemy was checked. Had the day been one hour longer the whole army would in all probability have been taken. Colonel Raynor collected around him a few of the 13th Army Corps and fell back to Pleasant Hill where we met General A.J. Smith with a part of his force. The 19th Army Corps fell back during the night and about 11 a.m. on the 9th, the retreat was again commenced. General Smith formed in rear of the 19th corps to cover it.
|General Nathaniel P. Banks lived up to his nickname as "Commissary Banks" during Sabine Crossroads as Richard Taylor's Confederates captured 156 wagons and 20 cannon along with more than 1,500 prisoners. The battle was an utter defeat.|
In the evening, he was attacked but repulsed the enemy with great slaughter. Our retreat was continued to this place, where we have fortified and are awaiting an attack. Our loss is estimated at 1,950; the enemy’s is much greater. The enemy’s force is estimated at about 40-45,000 men. All throw blame on General Banks which he undoubtedly deserves. His train was run up within full view of the enemy’s lines, thus giving us no room to fall back and when he engaged them fought their whole force with a brigade or division at a time. We lost all the artillery we had on the field and not less than 100 wagons, loaded with rations, ammunition, and baggage.
Letter from H., 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), May 12, 1864, pg. 1
Letter from Corporal Samuel L. Wood, Co. D, 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), May 12, 1864, pg. 1
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