The purpose of these pages is to provide
an insight into this important Civil War battle, with the intent of including as
many original documents, photos, maps, letters, and personal reports as can be
located. Anyone having comments, suggestions, or new information or
materials relevant to the Port Hudson battle who is willing to share them, please contact
particular interest here is the story of Fort Desperate,
a position on the Confederate lines defended primarily by the officers and men
of the Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry Regiment (Johnson's). My
great-grandfather, John R. Hardy, served there with the Fifteenth and was wounded in
Prelude to the Battle
Control of the Mississippi River was of vital importance to both sides
during the Civil War. For the Confederacy it was the link to
commerce with Europe and the rest of the world via the Port of New
Orleans, essential to the industry-poor South. The Mississippi and
the network of connecting rivers was also the main means for
transportation of supplies for their western cities and armies. The
Federal strategists realized immediately that to crush the Confederacy,
they had to control the Mississippi.
New Orleans fell to the Federals on
April 28, 1862, giving them control of the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Memphis was taken on June 6, 1862, handing the Union control of the
Northern Mississippi south to Vicksburg. Marching north from New Orleans, the Union forces occupied Baton Rouge on May 29. It
was very important for the Confederacy to retain control of the river
above and below the mouth of the Red River, which flowed into the
Mississippi just north of Baton Rouge. The Red River was a vital
conduit for supply from western Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and the other
western regions into the eastern Confederacy, and also for troops and
supplies moving westward. Vicksburg guarded the
river above the Red River mouth.
In August, 1862, the Confederates under
General John Breckinridge launched a
campaign to regain control of Louisiana by attempting to retake Baton
Rouge. This failed, and Breckinridge, seeking another river
stronghold, moved his troops 30 miles north to Port Hudson, where they
immediately set about constructing a river fortress.
Building the Fortress
Port Hudson was a excellent natural location for building a fortress.
The east bank of the river rose steeply in bluffs eighty feet high
(see picture). In addition, the river bends sharply at the bluffs,
making the location even more of an obstacle for ships attempting to pass
upriver. By the Spring of 1863, the Confederates, now commanded by
Major General Franklin Gardner, had built massive parapets with twenty
siege guns mounted along the bluffs to command the river. They had
also built a line of earthen parapets along a perimeter of approximately 4 1/2 miles
surrounding the town of Port Hudson, the ends of the line terminating at the river
Running the Gauntlet
At around 11:00 PM on the night of March 14, 1863, Union
Admiral David Farragut attempted to run a fleet of seven ships by the Port
Hudson batteries. If successful, his fleet could effectively block
Confederate river traffic supplying Port Hudson from the west via the Red River. In a spectacular three-hour battle between the ship's guns
and the Confederate batteries, five of the seven Federal ships were
disabled, with one, Mississippi, running aground and being burned by the abandoning
crew. The remaining two vessels, Farragut's flagship, Hartford,
gunboat, Albatross, were damaged but made it through and continued north.
Although Farragut's effort to run the fort is considered by many to be a failure, the
two ships were able to effectively block the mouth of the Red River, seriously
disrupting the flow of supplies into Port Hudson.
A more detailed account of Farragut's battle with the Port
Hudson gunners can be read
The first sizeable action at Port Hudson occurred on May 21 at Plains Store, a road intersection with a few buildings, located about four miles to the East.
Federal cavalry and infantry units under command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks clashed with Confederate cavalry and infantry,
resulting in the Confederates being driven back into
the Port Hudson garrison, thus completing their encirclement. Banks would eventually have nearly 40,000 troops and numerous
artillery batteries surrounding the garrison. At the end of March, the Confederate garrison had
consisted of approximately 16,000 men, but due to the redeployment of several
brigades elsewhere, the Confederate strength was now at about 6,800.
A full-scale attack was launched by Banks on May 27, which was repulsed after
furious fighting all along the lines, at a heavy loss to the Union. This
assault marked the first major use of black troops as combatants in the Civil
War. On June 14, another massive attack all along the Confederate lines
was also beaten back, again with huge Northern losses, against relatively few
among the Confederates. The Union loss in the two assaults was reported to
be 496 killed, 2,945 wounded and 358 missing. This last failure ended
Bank's plans for taking Port Hudson by frontal attack, and he decided on a siege
to starve out the Confederates.
The siege period was a
progressively miserable period for the Confederate soldiers inside the fortress.
They had no source of outside supply, and food, ammunition, and other essentials
were consumed rapidly. As the siege went on, they ate the horses, mules, dogs, and even the
rats to survive. They were subjected to constant bombardment by
Union artillery ringing the garrison, and from Farragut's ships on the river.
Many were killed or wounded by sniper fire from Union troops, who were
approaching ever closer to their lines by digging trenches, or "saps".
In spite of these hardships,
they held out and kept the Federals at bay. With little chance of rescue
by other Confederate forces, their situation was ultimately hopeless.
The Union troops also suffered greatly during the trench
warfare of the siege. Most were unaccustomed to the summer heat of
Louisiana, and a large number of these men became ill and died, or were
disabled. Over 4,000 Union soldiers were hospitalized due to sunstroke or
disease during the fight for Port Hudson. They were also subjected to
constant sniper fire from the Confederate sharpshooters, which took a terrible
toll. Morale was low among the troops. Many of Bank's regiments were
made up of men who enlisted for only nine months, but they were held over until
Port Hudson surrendered, causing much dissention in those regiments.
This detailed Map of the Port Hudson
Battlefield shows the disposition of the
Confederate and Union forces during the siege, as well as other pertinent
General Banks planned another all-out attack for July 11.
On June 15 he had called for a thousand volunteers to form a storming party, known as the "forlorn hope", which would serve as the
spearhead for the coming assault.
The approximately 1000 volunteers had been pulled from their regiments and formed into a unit, to train for their coming assault.
Union soldiers had dug tunnels under the Confederate fortifications and planted
large mines which were to be exploded at the beginning of the assault, giving
the storming party an avenue to rush into the fortress. But Vicksburg, under
siege since May 22nd, fell on July 4th. Banks received the news on the 7th,
and the Confederates quickly were told by shouts from Union soldiers. But
General Gardner wanted to see proof. When Banks showed him the dispatches
from Vicksburg, he agreed to surrender. The 48 day siege, the longest in
American history, was over. Banks agreed to parole the Confederate enlisted men, but
sent the officers to prison. Of the prisoners, 5,593 were paroled and some
500 sick and wounded were retained in the hospitals. General Gardner
reported his casualties as 200 killed, between 300 and 400 wounded, and about
200 died from sickness. Only about 2,500 men were fit for duty at the time
of the surrender.
The battle was over and the Mississippi River was
in the hands of the Union, and the Confederacy was cut in half.
For a more detailed description of the land battle and
siege, go here.
There are many stories of bitter fighting and
uncommon bravery to come out of the Port Hudson siege, but none overshadow that
of Fort Desperate and the men of
the Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry Regiment who defended it.
Visit the Port Hudson State Historic Site and tour the battlefield and museum.