Thunder in the Piney Woods: Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill

By Scott Dearman, Mansfield SHS

April 8 and 9 marked the 158th anniversary of the Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, respectively. While these were not the largest battles of the war, they were no small affairs either, and represent two of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi.

For perspective, Dyer’s 1908 Compendium identifies over 10,000 military encounters during the war, from large to very small (Dyer was obviously a bookish individual). Of these 10,000, Dyer ranks only 76 as rising to the level of “battles” (ranked second only to campaigns in size), of which Mansfield and Pleasant Hill rate.   

Including reserves, the battle of Mansfield involved over 28,000 troops. Factoring in the Missouri Division of Churchill’s Corps (CS), which entered the battle area at 6 p.m. (to form, along with Churchill’s Arkansas Division, a vital part of General Taylor’s tactical reserve), some 31,000 soldiers operated within the immediate area of operations during the Mansfield battle. Including units tactically available, Pleasant Hill would see over 30,000 troops involved, with almost 40,000 soldiers operating within a 5-10 mile radius of the battlefield. 

The matter of reserves is particularly relevant for Mansfield, which saw a fluid, north-south battle movement of four miles and three successive battle fronts. Each retrograde movement of the Union’s battle line brought supports moving up from the rear closer to the nearest front; specifically, these were mounted reserve units of the Army of the Gulf’s Cavalry Division and artillery batteries of XIII and XIX Corps, many of which were rushing forward in support. Likewise, regiments of XIII and XIX Corps (portions of 24 IA and 29 WI; 153 NY) performing guard duty for the forward trains (wagons) were certainly tactically involved, being only minutes from the nearest front.

For the Confederates, General Taylor’s immediate reserve, Tappan’s Arkansas Infantry Division, is often left uncounted though Tappan specifically states that he was placed by Taylor himself to support the left and rear of Taylor’s line. The Arkansas Division, along with Mosby Parson’s later-arriving Missouri Division (Parson would arrive in the battle area just as the Army of Western Louisiana began its assaults on XIX Corps at Chapman’s Creek), would form the critical rear and flank security for Taylor’s army as he rapidly advanced down the Stage Road, engaging the Army of the Gulf at successive positions.

Tactical supports or reserves referred to in the context of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill are defined as units within real and actual supporting distance of the nearest battle line—there are no randomly-counted troops with regard to these battles; none from local garrisons miles away, on detached service, or just passing through. Both armies and every soldier and unit in them were in the area for one purpose: to engage the opposing army in the only large-scale combat operations within 150 miles.

The size of battles aside, the ferocity of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill rank as intense and bloody as any of the War, a dubious and sad distinction to be sure. Union Colonel James Brisbin was in almost every large Eastern engagement from First Manassas to the Gettysburg Campaign, yet wrote of Mansfield, “We have had a great battle….The fighting was dreadful, and we lost terribly…. [I] thank God my life is spared.” James Tappan led the 13th Arkansas in repeated assaults on the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, but found his experience at Pleasant Hill even starker, stating flatly, “For an hour and a half my division was as warmly engaged with the enemy as it has ever been my experience to witness on any battlefield.” Veterans of the 14th Iowa, also heavily engaged in the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, agreed with Tappan, telling newcomer William C. Littlefield that Pleasant Hill “was a harder fought battle than the battle of Shiloh…my prayer is that I may never witness another such sight.”