The Battle of Port Hudson



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 me.

Of 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 the battle.

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 banks.

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, and one 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 here.

The Battles

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

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 features.

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.

  Search the Site
Find the information you are looking for using the new Google search engine customized for this site:

   Search Database of Confederate Soldiers at Port Hudson (contains approx. 9,550 names, with service records)

   Union Soldiers at Port Hudson

  Fort Desperate

  Port Hudson Photos and Maps

  Confederate Units at Port Hudson

  Union Army Units at Port Hudson

  Union Naval Forces at Port Hudson

  Confederate Commanding Officers

  Union Commanding Officers

   Colonel Steedman's Report to HQ for May 22 to 27, 1863 (Action on the Confederate left wing during this period)

   Colonel Miles' Reports to HQ for May 21 to July 7, 1863 (Defence of the Confederate extreme right positions)

   Colonel Shelby's After-Action Report (Defence of the Confederate extreme left positions)

  Fifteenth Arkansas Regiment (Johnson's)

  Soldiers of the Fifteenth Arkansas Regiment who died at Camp Butler, IL

  The Escape of Captain Joe and Lieutenant Dock Daniel (Fascinating account of their escape from Union captivity)

  A Union Officer's personal account of the siege (by Captain John W. Deforest, 12th Connecticut)

  Recollections of Captain Joel A. Stratton (of 53rd Massachusetts Volunteers)

  Colonel B. W. Johnson's account of the conditions at Johnson's Island Prison

  Regimental histories of units which served at Port Hudson (Links to histories found on Google Books site)

   Arkansas Units Which Served at Port Hudson

  A biographical sketch of Admiral David Farragut describing his naval career (Complete book)

  A detailed account of Farragut's run at Port Hudson

  Port Hudson State Historic Site

  A more detailed description of the Port Hudson battle and siege


Last revised:  11-Mar-2016

| Revisions