Battle of Irish Bend
While the other two Union XIX Army Corps divisions comprising the expedition into West Louisiana moved across Berwick Bay towards Fort Bisland, Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s division went up the Atchafalaya River into Grand Lake, intending to intercept a Confederate retreat from Fort Bisland or turn the enemy’s position. On the morning of April 13, the division landed in the vicinity of Franklin and scattered Rebel troops attempting to stop them from disembarking. That night, Grover ordered the division to cross Bayou Teche and prepare for an attack towards Franklin at dawn. In the meantime, Confederate Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor had sent some men to meet Grover’s threat. On the morning of the 14th, Taylor and his men were at Nerson's Woods, around a mile and a half above Franklin. As Grover’s lead brigade marched out a few miles, it encountered Rebels on its right and began skirmishing with them. The fighting became intense; the Rebels attacked, forcing the Yankees to fall back. The gunboat Diana arrived and anchored the Confederate right flank. The Confederates were outnumbered, however, and, as Grover began making dispositions for an attack, they retreated leaving the field to the Union. This victory, along with the one at Fort Bisland, two days earlier, assured the success of the expedition into West Louisiana. (NPS summary)
As they landed Grover's forces easily pushed back the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry skirmishers and marched toward Franklin. The possibility of having his escape route close Taylor had no choice but to weaken his already inadequate force. The 4th Texas Cavalry and two 6lb guns from the St. Mary's Cannoneers covered the nineteen miles to Franklin in only ninety minutes. The combined force attempted to destroy the bridges over the Teche but the Federals managed a bridgehead and crossed the river. Unable to delay the Grover significantly the two regiments retreated. What they had failed to do militarily Grover now granted them by halting his command. Although Grover knew that "the enemy at this time held a strong position in the wood in our front" he decided to make his move on the following morning. He planned on seizing the crossroads at Franklin to block the line of retreat for Taylor's forces, but first his men would have a good night sleep.
BG Grover's rest proved just the break that Taylor needed. His primary goal was to prevent Grover from severing the escape route for the men and supplies that were moving back from Fort Bisland. Facing the real possibility of combat with Grover's forces Taylor, angry at Sibley's snub of his attack order at Bisland, reduced him to command of the supply train. He then ordered a phased withdraw before rushing to Franklin to assess the situation. The first units to leave were the 28th Louisiana and the rest of the St. Mary's artillery. The rest of BG Mouton's command followed. Finally the rear guard of COL Thomas Green and the other units of Sibley's Brigade with a battery of 3" rifles moved off.
At Franklin, Taylor consulted with COL W. G. Vincent (2nd LA Cav) and COL James Reily (4th Texas) and decided to conduct a delay action in the area of Irish Bend. The effort received a boost with the arrival of the 12th Louisiana Battalion from nearby Avery Island. With fewer than 1000 men Taylor deployed a line in Nerson's Woods. He anchored the right of his line on the Teche with the 12th LA Bn, the center was held by the 4th Texas, and the left was held by the 2nd LA Cav and the left on a swamp. Each end was supported by two guns of CPT Florian Cornay's battery. Near dawn 40 men of the 28th Louisiana arrived and extended the left to a impassable swamp formed by Bayou Yokely. On the Teche the Diana, which had accomplished emergency repairs, was available to add her firepower. At dawn the 3rd Brigade troops of COL Henry Birge led Grover's division out of camp with a "strong line of slirmishers" out front. A two mile march met the enemy "strongly posted" in a dense wood sheltered by a rail fence.
Early on the morning of the 14th Grover ordered his division forward. They were led from camp by Colonel Henry W. Birge's 3rd Brigade troops. In front of his column Birge had five companies of the 25th Connecticut deployed as skirmishers. They were followed in order by the 26th Maine, one section of the 2nd United States Artillery, the 159th New York and the 13th Connecticut. The remaining 5 companies of the 25th Connecticut were held in reserve. After a march of about two miles the skirmishers on the far right "discovered the enemy posted in the edge of the woods." The two sides exchanged "brisk firing" while the rest of the skirmish force changed front and advanced against the Confederate line. At 200 yards the men were ordered to lie down and engage the enemy while the main body was deployed. The 26th Maine filed into the filed and formed on the left of the 25th. They also found cover in the deep ruts of the muddy field. LT Bradley's section of Battery C 2nd US manuevered into position to fire between the two regiments. They immediately focused their attention on the two guns that had opened from the far left of the Confederate line. The 159th New York joined the line and they were also driven into the prone by the volume of fire that was coming from the Confederate line. Undeterred Colonel Molineaux stood and urged his men forward. As he shouted out "Forward, New York" a ball struck him in the face.
On the far left the 13th Connecticut moved steadily forward, using the Spencer armed men of Company A as skirmirshers, to gain an early fire superiority. The other members of the regiment followed using an "advanced firing" method to maintain their firepower advantage and gained the edge of the woods. The Confederate troops in this section of the line, the 12th Louisiana Battalion and two 6lb guns of the St Mary's artillery, now in close contact and badly outnumbered by the enemy fled. The unexpected departure of these men uncovered the right flank of the 4th Texas. The Federal troops wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation. They started working up the Confederate line and gobbling up prisoners and creating confusion. In a desperate attempt to save the disinegrating situation COL Henry Gray ordered an attack by his 28th Louisiana. Before the order for the 159th New York to attack could be carried out the Gray's men surged out of the woods with a yell in "a dashing charge". The other units along the Confederate line joined in the impromptu attack. Low on ammunition and momentarily leaderless the 159th broke for the rear. The panic spread through the 26th Maine and the 25th Connecticut as the New Yorkers left the line. The entire right of the Union line collapsed onto the 1st Brigade troops "forming to come to their support." Grover had no choice but to recall the 13th Connecticut before they were left dangerously exposed in their advanced position.
The passage of the retreating men from the Union right created disarray in the ranks and no forward movement was made while the lines were dressed. During the pause Taylor got word that the trains and Bisland troops had passed Franklin about 0930. He was free to begin his withdraw. An uneasy Grover cancelled further action until 1400 when he ordered the 12th Maine (2nd Bde) to feel for the enemy. When they enetered the woods they found the Confederates gone. Grover had waited so long that even the rear guard had made an uncontested get away. He pushed on toward Franklin but encountered only BG Emory coming up in pursuit of Mouton's men from Bisland. Against all odds and despite command failures Taylor managed to save his small army. The coordination necessary for success had eluded Banks. The only great loss for the Confederates was the Diana. She had been used to cover the Confederate right but her faulty machinery caused CPT Oliver Semmes to burn her at the conclusion of the fight.
- ↑ In another failure Sibley had left the supply train and was traveling on another route. Without a command presence many of the Louisiana troops wandered away and returned to their homes. The column was in complete disarray. Taylor would bring charges against Sibley. At least one source states that Sibley would never hold another combat command.