The Battle of Port Hudson

A More Detailed Account

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The Mississippi River was completely in Federal hands, except for Port Hudson, located just above Baton Rouge [and Vicksburg]. Port Hudson occupied one of the strongest positions on the river, as well as one of the most important. It was thought that no Federal gunboat could pass the guns located on the bluffs, and holding this position would guarantee to the Confederates possession of the Mississippi northward to Vicksburg. On December 2, 1862, the temporary commander, General William N. R. Beall, reported 500 men present for duty at Port Hudson. Late in December, Major General Franklin Gardner assumed command of Port Hudson.

General Nathaniel Banks had 42,074 troops in the Department of the Gulf. Of this number, 38,825 were in Louisiana and the rest were at Pensacola. This army was designated the 19th Army Corps and was divided into four divisions. The first division was placed under Brigadier General Cuvier Grover, the second under Brigadier General W. H. Emory, the third under Major General C. C. Augur, and the fourth under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. With this army, Banks was expected to help open the Mississippi as rapidly as possible. To help General Ulysses S. Grant open up the Mississippi, Banks would have to take Port Hudson. Instead of a direct assault, Banks decided to move inland toward Red River, along the network of bayous, so that he could cut off all supplies for Port Hudson and bypass it.

Lieutenant David D. Porter had been placed in command of the Mississippi Squadron in October of 1862. He was assigned the task of aiding General John A. McClernand in opening up the upper Mississippi. Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had assumed command of the Department of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana. In the same month, General Ulysses S. Grant was given formal command of the opposing army with instructions to operate from the north and open up the upper Mississippi.

On May 18, General Christopher C. Augur received orders from Banks to move the major portion of his troops to the rear of Port Hudson. Early on the morning of May 21, Augur moved toward the junction of the Plains Store and Bayou Sara Roads to pave the way for Banks' landing. As the advance cavalry under Benjamin H. Grierson approached the woods marking the southern edge of the Port Hudson plain, it encountered a detachment of the 14th Arkansas Infantry, led by Colonel F. P. Powers, a small cavalry force, and Abbay’s Mississippi Battery. Brisk skirmishing followed. At noon, General Gardner ordered Colonel W. R. Miles to proceed with 400 men and Boone’s Louisiana Light Battery to relieve Powers, who was being hard pressed by the greater Federal force. Some Federal regiments had bivouacked below Plains Store on the Bayou Sara Road. Soon rapid artillery fire was heard in the front. The Battle of Plains Store began. Later, faced by an overwhelmingly superior force, Colonel William R. Miles withdrew his men to within the entrenchments of Port Hudson. Miles’ losses were 89, and the Union forces reported 100 casualties.

On May 22, 1863, Banks and Brigadier General Cuvier C. Grover had landed unopposed at Bayou Sara and were followed by the rest of the troops from Morganza as fast as transports could be provided. Banks was informed that Major General Christopher C. Augur was at the moment engaged in a new skirmish with the Confederates. Banks pushed forward to Augur’s assistance, only to find his skirmish had ended. Banks and Grover then bivouacked on Thompson’s Creek, northwest of Port Hudson. Colonel Herbert E. Paine soon followed, camped behind Grover, and Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman reached Springfield Landing on May 22 and posted his men to Augur’s left. By nightfall of the 22nd, Port Hudson was virtually surrounded.

On the night of May 26, Banks called together his division commanders to plan the assault of the next day. Brigadier General Richard Arnold was assigned command of the reserve artillery and was to open fire at dawn on the Confederate works. As daylight came, the Federal artillery opened up all along the line. Gardner’s guns answered the cannonade but soon slowed down to conserve ammunition. From the river, the guns of the navy joined in hurling shot and shell toward the water batteries and into Port Hudson itself. Forming his men in columns of brigades, Weitzel advanced through the magnolia forest toward the front. With regimental banners held high, the blue-coated troops marched out of the shadows of the forest into the sunlight.

The ravines and woods in front of the Confederate works were occupied by Isaiah Steedman’s outpost and skirmishers under Lieutenant Colonel M. B. Locke. As soon as the enemy came within range, the fighting became severe. Running, sliding and slipping down the embankments, Weitzel’s and Paine’s men entered the broken ground and maze of fallen timber, forcing the Confederates back. After more than an hour of furious fighting, Locke was forced to retire his men behind the main works. As soon as the skirmishers had reached safety, the four guns on Commissary Hill opened fire on Weitzel’s men. Thomas’s brigade moved ahead of Van Zandt. Deploying his men in a regimental line, Thomas moved forward. Thomas found his advance slowed to a snail’s pace. Inching their way through brush-choked ravines, hills and fallen tree limbs, they found it impossible to keep ranks. Weitzel finally reached and held a ridge some 200 yards from Steedman’s works. Several charges against the works were tried by individual units, but they were driven back with fearful loss. Colonel Fearing of Paine’s division ordered his front line to charge, but their line was soon broken and scattered. The second line swept forward over their fallen comrades and succeeded in driving the enemy skirmishers from their outer fortifications. When support failed to come up, Fearing’s most advanced troops were forced to retreat to a more sheltered position. Here they continued to fire for the rest of the day whenever a Confederate gunner or rifleman showed his head.

General William J. Dwight, who had assumed command over the colored troops on the far Federal right earlier in the day, sought to create a diversion for Weitzel by ordering Colonel John A. Nelson, with his two Negro regiments, to move against the extreme Confederate left where the line bent southward toward the river. This portion of the battle had the distinction of being the first engagement of any magnitude between white and Negro troops in the war. Just a few more than 1,000 Negroes, without support, were ordered to take one of the strongest natural positions along the entire line. The 1st Louisiana Native Guards were made up of free Negroes of French extraction and the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards were composed of former slaves. The 3rd Regiment barely got into action, so about 500 men bore the brunt of the battle. Among these were 308 casualties.

To divert a Confederate concentration on Weitzel’s front, Grover sent his three regiments against the west face of the bastion at the northernmost point of the finished Confederate line (note: this was "Fort Desperate", defended by the 15th Arkansas). Men took cover wherever they could find it, realizing that their isolated efforts were fruitless. A lull then came. Grover joined Weitzel for a conference, and the two decided to wait until Augur assaulted the center or Sherman moved against the left before they renewed their drive on the right. Augur was ready. His men waited for a command which would be issued as soon as Sherman put in his men. Banks was unable to understand the delay, rode to Sherman’s headquarters and found the general and his staff calmly eating lunch. Banks was enraged. By 2:15 p.m., Sherman moved out. Beall, in command of the Confederate center, began to detect signs of an imminent attack. Beall called upon Colonel Miles on his right for assistance. When the Federal advance got within range, Beall’s artillery ran its guns into position and opened up a shower of grape, shot, and canister. One of the first casualties was General Sherman. One of his legs was shattered. When he fell wounded, the command of the left wing should have been assumed by Neal Dow, but before he learned of Sherman’s injury, he himself suffered a similar fate. He was struck by a spent ball, and his arm became so swollen that he could not handle his horse. He proceeded on foot and was struck in the left thigh by a rifle ball and had to be helped to a hospital. Colonel Frank S. Nickerson, next in order of command, inherited the title, but in the heat of battle, no one bothered to notify him. Consequently, for a long period, there was no commander to assume complete control. As the afternoon wore on, officer casualties became heavier.

As soon as Augur had heard the noise of Sherman’s attack on the left, he put forward his division. All was quiet until the advance had completely emerged from the woods along the road. The main columns left the woods and advanced over the small smooth area to broken ground. The Confederates increased their fire and dozens of blue-coated men went down in the dust. The fire became so severe that soon the main line, including the officers, began to drop behind every available shelter in the shallow ravines. The Confederates slackened their fire, and about an hour later, Colonel James O’Brien sprang up waving his sword and ordering his men to charge. Less than a dozen men responded and in a half minute, O’Brien fell dead. This was the last attempt to storm the works on May 27. At five o’clock, all firing ceased. A stick topped with a white handkerchief mysteriously arose from one of the ravines within the abatis [a defensive obstacle formed by felled trees with sharpened branches facing the enemy]. It was soon discovered that the flag had been raised by a colonel from one of the New York regiments who found himself in a precarious position to the front of the rest of the troops. Upon hearing this, the Confederates resumed their fire and kept it up until dark. With night coming, the medical corps and details from various regiments began to roam the abatis and look for the wounded. A fire broke out in the abatis and the wounded who had not been carried from the field were in the danger of being roasted alive. Slipping out of their works, the Confederates extinguished the fires, partly out of humanity and partly to preserve their own abatis. Surgeons worked feverishly all night with the wounded.

The next morning the Confederates opened fire but, soon after, Banks raised a flag of truce and requested permission to care for his wounded and to bury his dead. All was quiet. Immense trenches were dug near the Confederate works, and into each one of these the burial parties piled 100 bodies and covered them over.

At 7 p.m., the white flags were withdrawn and all men disappeared. For an hour, a heavy fire was opened by both sides and periodically through the night the Union batteries continued to throw shells toward the Confederate works. Banks totaled his losses. Out of an effective force of 13,000 men, the Union had suffered 1,995 casualties. By comparison, Gardner had suffered little from the assault. He had lost only 235 out of 4,000.

The bloody repulse of May 27 convinced Banks that he must resort to siege tactics and dig or construct gradual approaches toward the breastworks. By June 1, siege operations were begun in earnest. Night and day, for the next two weeks, regiments were engaged in digging rifle pits and zigzags, constructing breastworks and covered ways, and mounting guns. The Confederates, too, continued to strengthen their works. Gradually the siege works moved forward, forming a tighter ring around the Confederate works.

All day long and into the night on June 10, the gunboats and artillery kept up a relentless bombardment against Port Hudson, indicating to the Confederate garrison that an attack might come at any time. Banks ordered a night reconnaissance all along the line to force the enemy artillery to unmask so that his batteries could knock them out. During the darkness and rain, many of the Federal troops fell back behind their lines. They considered the entire maneuver to be stupid and suicidal. Near dawn on June 11, the Federal troops who remained in the abatis opened fire from the cover of the fallen timber. When the sun finally rose, orders were shouted along the line to retire, but the troops found it difficult to comply. Many of them raised up and were mowed down by the Confederate sharpshooters. This early morning attack had been another mistake, as nothing constructive was accomplished. Banks was thought to have suffered more than 200 casualties.

By the evening of June 12, Banks had completed most of his plans for another general assault. Just before noon on June 13, the gunboats, mortars, and artillery opened a terrific bombardment upon Port Hudson. Farragut, who had complained that his ammunition was running low, was assured by Banks that the general assault would take place the next day. After an hour, Banks ordered a ceasefire, and again a formal request to surrender the post was sent to General Gardner. As expected, Gardner refused. A short time later, the bombardment resumed and a slow fire continued for the rest of the day. Late on the night before the new assault, Banks called his division commanders to his headquarters for final orders. Early Sunday morning, June 14, the artillery opened its fire along the entire Federal line. The main attack had been entrusted to Grover, who commanded the entire right wing. Grover had chosen Paine’s division for the heaviest work, with Weitzel’s brigade acting as support. Paine ordered his columns forward. When they approached within 100 yards of the works, the Confederates opened a heavy fire with their rifles and guns. The advance was driven back to the cover of a small ridge, where the men waited for the main body to advance. Paine had hardly uttered his command for a new charge when he was shot down. He had a bullet in his thigh and could not be rescued. He tried periodically to rally his men for another assault but found it impossible. The main assault had failed miserably. Weitzel’s only approach was through a series of gorges cut by branches of Sandy Creek. Many troops were dropped by the Confederate sharpshooters. A few, when attempting to climb up the breastworks, were shot down or driven back into a ditch, where they lay among the dead and wounded. General Augur, in the center, was under orders to feint an attack to his front in an attempt to draw the Confederate troops away from the right and left, where the main assaults would take place.

In command of the Federal left was General William Dwight. Dwight’s men heard Farragut’s guns on the river open with one of the heaviest bombardments they had yet launched against Port Hudson. A little later, artillery fire opened along the line. When rapid rifle fire joined the chorus of the big guns, the men knew that Paine had begun his assault. When his rifle fire slowed and almost stopped, they knew the assault had failed. Weitzel and Augur had failed too.

After daylight, the 6th Michigan and the 14th Maine were ordered to the extreme Federal left to storm the Confederate works near the river. Colonel Thomas S. Clark, in command of the 1st Brigade of Dwight’s division, started his main column forward simultaneously with the attempt on the far left. Skirmishers moved forward and, as they moved in columns of companies, were sighted by the enemy. The skirmishers advanced to a deep ravine and they froze until the main column came up. With the appearance of the main force, the Confederates opened up every gun, firing as rapidly as possible. All Clark’s men were withdrawn except the skirmishers. Dwight’s assault was so weak, so poorly planned, and so badly executed that it could hardly be considered an assault. As the Federal troops withdrew, they could hear the jubilant Confederates celebrating their victory. The Union losses were 1,792 and Confederates only 47.

Two days after the losses of June 14, Banks called for 1,000 volunteers to serve as a storming party in a new assault; only around 300 men volunteered. To make such an attack easier and to safeguard his men, Banks resorted to every procedure suggested by his commanders. Night and day, work was pushed on the siege fortifications at four main points along the line. While Banks' men were building their siege works, the Confederate troops strengthened their parapets. Night and day, the soldiers remained on duty behind the breastworks.

As the June days wore on, both sides suffered. At several points along the line, an informal truce, which lasted over a week, was arranged on June 16 by the enlisted men. Both the Confederate and Union troops constructed their works in full view of the other without danger of being fired upon. Affairs grew quieter at Port Hudson during late June. There was little firing.

On June 26, Bailey’s cotton-bale fortress on the far left was completed, the battery was emplaced, and the guns began a bombardment of the Citadel, a high well-fortified bluff. Three days later, General Dwight ordered Nickerson to take two regiments and to charge the position. A deep trench led from the battery to the foot of the Citadel hill. Men had begun to climb the hill when the enemy opened with a heavy rifle fire from above. Nickerson’s men lay down after finding shallow depressions in the hillside. Late that afternoon, Dwight ordered the same two regiments to charge the Citadel again. The men charged by twos from their trench and attempted to run up the hill into the muzzles of the Confederate rifles. This charge was halted by orders from General Banks.

A few miles below Port Hudson was Springfield Landing, Banks' main supply depot. On the night of July 2, Colonel Powers with his cavalry and mounted Partisans moved from Clinton to destroy this important post. The Confederates set fire to huge mounds of bales, barrels, and boxes. The 162nd New York Infantry rushed to the scene and killed several of Powers’ men. Now greatly outnumbered, Powers attempted to fight it out, but his men became so scattered, he ordered a withdrawal. The raid had been a great success; over a million dollars worth of stores had been destroyed.

As the siege moved into July, the Federal troops continued to push their saps and zigzags closer toward the Confederate works. Captain Joseph Bailey, Dwight’s untutored engineering officer, began a vast tunnel under the Citadel hill on the far left near the river. Thirty barrels of powder were then placed inside to blow up the Citadel. A second tunnel was started on Grover’s front on the right near the Priest Cap. By July 7, the mine under the Priest Cap was completed and twelve hundred pounds of powder placed inside. At dawn on July 9, Banks intended to explode the mines under the Citadel and Priest Cap, and his forlorn-hope details were to rush into the breach, followed by the main army. Port Hudson would then be his.

His preparations were unnecessary. On July 7, a gunboat arrived at the upper fleet bringing news of the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1864. Colonel Kilby Smith of Grant’s staff carried the news to General Banks. On July 8, Colonel I. G. W. Steedman, commanding the left wing; Colonel W. R. Miles, commanding the right wing; and Lieutenant Colonel Marshall J. Smith; in charge of heavy artillery, were sent by Gardner to meet with Banks' commission, consisting of General Charles P. Stone of Banks' staff, General Dwight, and Colonel Birge. The officers amiably discussed the terms of surrender. An agreement was reached that afternoon, and the Confederate commission returned to Port Hudson.

The next morning, July 9, General George L. Andrews rode into Port Hudson, accompanied by Birge’s group. Next came picked regiments from all the divisions. Various bands, playing lively marching tunes, lifted the spirits of the Union troops even higher. General Gardner waited with his soldiers drawn up in line. The simple surrender ceremonies were soon over.

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