Report of Col. I.G.W. Steedman of Operations May 22-27.
On May 22, 1863, Colonel I. G. W. Steedman, of the 1st Alabama Regiment, was put in command of the left wing of the Confederate defences, opposed to Union General Godfrey Weitzel.
OFFICIAL REPORT OF COLONEL I. G. W. STEEDMAN, FIRST REGIMENT ALABAMA VOLUNTEERS.
Captain T. Fr1end W1lson, A. A. G.:
Sir,—On Friday, the twenty-second of May, I was ordered with my regiment (First regiment Alabama volunteers), to take position a half mile in advance of the main works of Port Hudson, on the road leading by the commissary depot, grist mill, etc., in the direction of Aberger's held. At this point, Wingfield's battalion of cavalry and one section of the Watson battery was ordered to report to me. The same day I received an order from the Major General commanding, placing me in command of the left wing of the defences of Port Hudson, including the advanced work in command of Colonel Johnson (Fifteenth Arkansas), on the right, and extending to the river on the extreme left.
My orders were to observe the enemy and to oppose his advance upon our works, but without risking a serious engagement. Through the energy of Lieutenant-Colonel Wingfield, commanding cavalry, I soon learned that the enemy had completed the investment of Port Hudson, and was reconnoitering every possible approach to our defences. I at once threw forward a line of skirmishers, consisting of four companies of the First Alabama, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Locke. For two days there were frequent skirmishes with the enemy's advance guard along my whole front.
On Sunday afternoon, the 24th May, I was ordered by the Major-General commanding to determine the enemy's strength, if possible, and drive him from my front. After receiving reinforcements, consisting of a battalion each from the First Mississippi and Fifteenth Arkansas regiments, commanded respectively by Major Johnson and Lieutenant Colonel Lee; also the battalion of the Provost guard, commanded by Captain J. R. Wilson, this force was pushed forward until dark, but only encountered a few of the enemy's pickets or skirmishers. At the first fire these parties fell back upon the main body, and I did not think it prudent to advance further that night, but after placing pickets upon this advanced line withdrew my command to its original position. This line of pickets was not disturbed until about Monday noon, when the enemy advanced in heavy force from the direction of Aberger's fields. I advanced my whole line about five hundred yards to a favorable position and formed line of battle; the section of the Watson battery, Lieutenant Toledano, commanding the road, the infantry ambuscaded to the right and left under cover of the crest of a hill and logs and brush thrown up temporarily for the purpose. In front of this line of battle was an open space of about ten acres, but thickly studded with heavy timber, the undergrowth having been cut down for camping purposes. My force at this time numbered about six hundred. Two companies from each flank having been thrown forward as skirmishers, soon encountered the enemy; heavy skirmishing at once began; the enemy pushed forward boldly, our line slowly retreating until they reached the open space fronting my line of battle, when, in obedience to previous orders, they flanked right and left and took position in line of battle. Lieutenant-Colonel Locke (First Alabama), commanding right wing, and Major Johnson, First Mississippi, commanding left wing, were ordered to keep their men under cover and concealed until orders to fire were received from me. The enemy yelling and shouting rushed forward into the open space selected for the battle-ground. This advance, consisting of a heavy line of skirmishers, soon discovered our artillery, and at once took cover behind the numerous trees and began sharpshooting the artillery horses and cannoneers. Hoping the main body of the enemy would advance I reserved our fire, but soon found that the artillery was suffering too severely. I ordered the line to fire—at the first volley the enemy retreated through the woods in great confusion.
My line of skirmishers was immediately thrown forward, but did not come in contact with the enemy for a half mile. In about two hours the enemy again advanced in heavy force, drove in our skirmishers, came in range of the main line, and engaged it heavily, while two heavy bodies of infantry attempted to flank us on both flanks. All the troops on the flanks, not absolutely needed to repel the attack in front, were deployed to the right or left to defeat this move of the enemy. The battle now raged on the whole line. I received urgent and repeated calls from both flanks for help. I ordered Colonel Johnson, who was commanding the reserve, to send two companies to the right, and two companies to the left, which order was promptly obeyed. The enemy continued to mass his forces at those points, and to press us hard at the same time in the centre. At this time I received reinforcements of two hundred men (five companies) of the Thirty-ninth Mississippi regiment, under command of Captain Collum. One hundred of this battalion I ordered to support the extreme right, the other hundred to the extreme left. Thus reinforced the right repelled every attack; but in consequence of my inability, from want of troops, to extend our line to Sandy Creek, the enemy marched a body of troops around the extreme left and seriously threatened our rear.
At the same time that I received this report from my left, Lieutenant Toledano, commanding section of artillery, informed me that one of his guns was spiked from a defective friction primer, and that the ammunition for both guns was exhausted. I ordered the artillery to the rear to receive supplies of ammunition and to take position on my original line of battle, a half mile in advance of the mill. I gave with great reluctance the order for the infantry to retire. They were troops (excepting my own regiment) which I had never seen under fire, and the battalions were not under command of their habitual commanders, but junior commanders—in several instances captains. I feared the enemy would press us at the moment of retreat, and convert it into a rout, but I was agreeably surprised. The whole line fell back in perfect order, and was reformed promptly on our original line.
The artillery, replenished with ammunition, took position in the centre commanding the road. The enemy showing no disposition to advance upon our new line, our skirmishers were sent forward and met the enemy in force, and the skirmish was renewed. Night being near at hand I determined to hold the position until dark. To do this I was compelled to advance nearly my whole line. The fight became very severe, both parties being under cover of the heavy timber, brush, ravines, etc.
Darkness terminated the contest. After establishing a line of pickets I withdrew the main body to the rear and within the line of fortifications.
The enemy's demonstrations on this day convinced me beyond a doubt that he had determined to attack our lines in the vicinity of our commissary depot, arsenal, etc.
Up to Monday night, the 25th of May, no works of any description had been thrown up to defend this position, extending from Colonel Johnson's advanced work, on the right of my command, to a point within five hundred yards of the river on the left, including a space of three-fourths of a mile. There was not a rifle-pit dug nor a gun mounted on Monday night.
I reported my convictions to the Major-General commanding. The evidence was satisfactory to him, and he ordered all the available tools, negroes, etc, to be placed at the disposal of the chief engineer. The work was promptly laid out by Lieutenant Dabney, and ere the dawn of day of Tuesday, considerable progress had been made. A battery of four pieces had been mounted during the night on the hill in the immediate vicinity of the commissary depot, which, since that, has been called Commissary Hill. The emergency being great, this work was pressed with energy all day Tuesday and Tuesday night, so that, by Wednesday morning, an imperfect line of rifle-pits had been thrown up to protect the most exposed points on the left wing.
Two pieces of siege artillery were removed during Tuesday night from the heavy batteries on the river and mounted on this line—one rifled 24 pounder, under command of Lieutenant Sandford, Company A, First regiment Alabama volunteers, on the Commissary Hill, and another rifled 24-pounder, under Lieutenant Harman, Company A First regiment Alabama volunteers, at Bennett's house. For three or four days previous to this time (Wednesday, May 27th), the enemy had been making active demonstrations against Colonel Johnson's position. Sharpshooters had become so annoying as to seriously interfere with the construction of the heavy earth worths necessary for the defence of this most exposed position. On the extreme left, commanded by Colonel Shelby, the enemy had not been idle while making his approaches in the direction of the mill.
On Monday, the 25th of May, he advanced in heavy force through the plantations of Captain Chambers, Mr. Flowers, and Mrs. Houston, halting at Sandy creek, where they began the construction of a pontoon bridge. By Tuesday night, the 26th, it was completed, and everything ready for an advance in that direction. We had, at that time, learned that the enemy's extreme right was composed of negro troops.
The total casualties on the left wing, up to this time, amounted to about forty killed, wounded and missing.
The left slept on their arms on Tuesday night, the 26th of May. During Tuesday the enemy made no advance, but our advanced pickets could hear them cutting timber, moving artillery, etc., during the day and night. My orders being to act on the defensive, the enemy's operations were not molested, but matters remained quiet all day.
Anticipating an attack on Wednesday morning, I reinforced the line of skirmishers holding the advanced line, by sending a battalion of four companies from the First Alabama regiment, under command of Captain D. W. Ramsay, Company B, to report to Lieutenant-Colonel M. B. Locke, First regiment Alabama volunteers, whom I had placed in command of all the troops of the left wing in advance of the line of fortifications. I was, at the same time, ordered by the Major-General commanding to relieve the battalion of Miles's Legion, commanded by Major Coleman, and to direct him to report at once to Colonel Miles. This left Lieutenant-Colonel Locke's command in the same condition and strength as before. His line of battle was about a half a mile in advance of the Commissary Hill and the main line of works, and consisted of the following troops from right to left: A battalion of the Fifteenth Arkansas regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Lee commanding; Tenth regiment Arkansas volunteers, Colonel Witt; a battalion of the First regiment Alabama volunteers, Captain D. W. Ramsay, commanding; a battalion of the First Mississippi regiment, Major Johnson commanding—making a total of about five hundred men, with no artillery.
At about half past 5 o'clock in the morning of the 27th May, a heavy artillery fire was opened by the enemy upon the centre and right wing of the defences of Port Hudson. This firing continued for an hour with great severity. During all the firing there was a perfect calm on the left wing. The silence was ominous. At halfpast seven or eight o'clock, and without any warning, a heavy body of the enemy, in column of regiments, advanced boldly upon Colonel Locke's line. In a few moments the fight became very severe, and raged with great fury. It resulted in considerable loss to , and a frightful loss to the enemy in consequence of the dense column exposed to our fire, while our men were under cover of logs, trees, ravines, etc. When the enemy deployed his overwhelming force, Lieutenant-Colonel Locke in obedience to his previous instructions, withdrew his command as promptly as possible to the main works. Having taking position in the battery of four guns on the Commissary Hill, as soon as I discovered with my glass that our own troops had left the top of the hill and the enemy was occupying it, I ordered this battery to open fire on them. Colonel Johnson opened about the same time with two guns from his works. Thus began the general engagement and assault upon the left wing.
The troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Locke had scarcely reached their position in the trenches when the enemy's column appeared upon the hill they had just left, pushing boldly forward in columns of regiments. The four guns upon the Commissary Hill, and the two in Colonel Johnson's camp, soon obtained their ranges. After bursting many shells amongst them, they succeeded in breaking their ranks and creating great confusion in the head of the column, but the artillery fire did not stop the advance. Their lines, though in confusion, were pushed boldly forward under cover of the fallen timber and ravines, and until within good range of our infantry in the rifle-pits. The battle now was general on my line and terrific, and was continued for two hours with great fury. The enemy's sharpshooters crept up near our batteries and killed and wounded many of our cannoneers, the fallen timber giving complete protection. After the enemy found us prepared in front, he flanked a portion of his troops to the right and came up fronting our lines, which ran through the field known as ‘Bull Pen.’ Fearing a movement of this kind, I had called upon the Major General for a regiment to reinforce that point. Colonel O. P. Lyle, of the Twenty-third Arkansas, with his command was sent, and reached his position in time to arrest the enemy's further progress in this direction.
Colonel Johnson's position on my extreme right (known since as Fort Desperate) was vigorously attacked simultaneously with the assault upon the other portion of my line; his whole force was less than three hundred (300) men. He was assailed by an overwhelming force, but through the determined resistance and admirable marksmanship displayed by his men, he succeeded in driving the masses back, and compelling them to seek shelter among the fallen timber and ravines surrounding two sides of this work; there they kept up an incessant sharpshooting, as on every other portion of my line where the nature of the ground would permit.
At about 7 o'clock A. M., and simultaneously with the general attack upon the right of the left wing, Colonel Shelby, commanding extreme left of left wing, also sustained a heavy attack. There occurred one of the most important engagements, not only of the siege of Port Hudson but of this war.
It was a battle between white and negro troops, and, so far as I am aware, the first engagement of this war, of any magnitude, between the white man and negro. In order that the facts may be distinctly recorded, I quote the language used by Colonel W. B. Shelby, Thirty-ninth Mississippi regiment, in his official report of the engagement:
Company B, of my regiment, under command of Lieutenant S. D. Rhodes, with fifteen men from Wingfield's battalion-total, sixty men and officers — was ordered to occupy and hold at all hazards a ridge extending from the residence of Mrs. Miller and running parallel with the road above mentioned to within two hundred yards of the bridge over Sandy creek.
This ridge was a strong position and easily held. It was about four hundred yards in length, and on the side next the road it was abrupt and inaccessible. It was deemed of the first importance to hold this position, for the reason above mentioned, and for the further reason that it commanded the line of rifle-pits occupied by my forces, and from which the enemy could easily enfilade nearly my whole line; and, as it ran parallel with the road along which the enemy was compelled to advance to attack the works, it enabled a small force deployed as skirmishers along the length of the ridge to give the enemy advancing along the road a front, rear and enfilading fire. Early on the morning of the 27th of May I was advised by Lieutenant Rhodes, commanding on the ridge above mentioned, that the enemy was crossing Sandy creek, over the bridge, in large force—cavalry, infantry and artillery. Believing, from all the indications, that it was the purpose of the enemy to concentrate his forces, and to attack only the extreme left of my position, I immediately repaired to that point and assumed command in person. Immediately after reaching there, I discovered the artillery of the enemy crossing the bridge. I ordered Lieutenant Sorrel, commanding the gun at the sally-port, to load with solid shot and open at once upon the enemy's artillery. He opened upon them just as they were unlimbering, and so rapid and effective was his fire that the enemy's artillery, after firing one gun, limbered up and retreated across the creek. I immediately sent my Sergeant-Major, F. Watkins, to the batteries of Captains Whitfield and Seawell, commanding 30-pound Parrott and 8 and 10-inch Columbiad, with request to open on the enemy, which was promptly done. The infantry, after crossing the bridge, filed to the right, and, under cover of the willows, formed in line of battle and commenced advancing. Lieutenant Rhodes, commanding on the ridge already spoken of, having deployed his men at intervals, so as to occupy the whole ridge, commenced firing on the enemy, both front and rear, doing terrible execution and throwing them into confusion and disorder. They still continued to advance until they reached to within about two hundred yards of the extreme left, when the artillery opened on them with cannister, and at the same time the infantry (in their anxiety to fire—firing without orders) opened on them, driving them back in confusion and disorder, with terrible slaughter. Several efforts were made to rally them, but all were unsuccessful, and no effort was afterward made to charge the works during the entire day. Before falling back in confusion and disorder, as above stated, the enemy fired only one volley, and not one single man was killed or wounded of my command.
After the engagement was over I ascertained that the enemy's forces consisted of the First and Second Louisiana Native Guards (negroes), and two regiments of white troops. These troops were repulsed by six companies of my regiment and the artillery already mentioned, without the loss or wounding of a single man.
The enemy used one battery against the left, supported by the negroes, one on the hill opposite the commissary depot, and one or more against Colonel Johnston (Fort Desperate). The latter was subsequently exceedingly destructive, disabling or dismounting most of our artillery by night, and with their sharpshooters annoying, killing and wounding numbers of our men, but two of their guns were dismounted by a rifled 24-pounder manned by a detachment from Company A, 1st Alabama Volunteers.
The heat of the sun on this day was intense. In the middle of the forenoon a white flag went up and the firing ceased. Upon inquiry, I found that it had been presented by the major of some New York regiment in front of the 1st Alabama. The officer with the flag made the verbal statement that General Banks desired a cessation of hostilities for the purpose of burying his dead. This verbal statement was sent to General Gardner, who rejected it as informal, and ordered that hostilities be resumed in half an hour. Many of the enemy during this short truce retired to positions of safety. I have no doubt the flag was used for the unlawful purpose of withdrawing the troops to safer positions.