The Fifteenth Arkansas Regiment at Port Hudson
Fort Desperate was the name given to the Confederate position sitting at the top of an exposed ridge on the northeastern corner of the Port Hudson defensive line (see Port Hudson Battlefield map). It was so named by the men serving inside it - primarily the officers and men of the Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry Regiment (Johnson's), commanded by Colonel Benjamin W. Johnson. They withstood the ferocious Union attacks of May 27th and June 14th, along with continuing artillery barrages and sniper fire without giving an inch during the entire 48-day siege.
A good many of the men of the Fifteenth Arkansas Regiment were veterans of the Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson, Tennessee battles of February, 1862. The majority who were there had been captured when the Confederates surrendered and spent seven months in Union prison camps, most at Camp Butler, Illinois, where more than half died of illness and disease. After they were released in September, the unit was reorganized and was sent to Port Hudson, arriving on November 1,1862.
After arriving at Port Hudson, men of the 15th participated in several actions in the vicinity, including the battle at Plains Store, as part of General William Beall's command. On May 21st, When the garrison was near investment and a Union attack appeared imminent, the Confederate forces were reorganized and Johnson was assigned to Colonel I. G. W. Steedman, who was given command of the entire left wing of the defenses.
Johnson was ordered to move his men from their position at the center of the lines to a new position farther to the left, just six days before a massive Union attack took place. When he was given this order, no defensive fortifications existed at the location, and a frantic effort began to construct earthworks in anticipation of a coming assault. The men built a formidable parapet surrounding their camp on three sides. with an exterior trench running alongside it. A fortification in this shape is called a lunette. The ground dropped off steeply all around the wall, giving the fort a natural advantage. The timber was cut outside the wall, and the tangle of tree branches and brush covering the ground made the uphill approach very slow, difficult, and dangerous. Throughout the siege, work continued on the fortifications, mostly at night. Improvements were made, and damage caused by the continuous Union artillery bombardment was repaired.
In the defense of Fort Desperate, the 15th Arkansas was joined by two gun detachments of Company B, First Mississippi Artillery Regiment, with their two twelve-pounder guns and about twenty-five men. These two guns were Johnson's only artillery. At the beginning of the battle, Johnson had a total of 262 enlisted men and 31 officers. At certain times small detachments of several other units were also under Johnson's command, and were used as a reserve, seeing little action. The men of the 15th Arkansas were at the front without relief throughout the siege.
To describe the activities at Fort Desperate during the battles and siege, it is best to present the original account written by it's commander. Two months after the surrender, while a prisoner in New Orleans, Colonel Johnson wrote a detailed and absolutely fascinating account of the action at Fort Desperate. You can read it here in it's entirety, and see images of the original report pages:
See a collection of photographs and maps relating to the defense of Fort Desperate.
After the Port Hudson surrender, the enlisted men were paroled but the officers were sent to various Northern prison camps, including Johnson's Island, Ohio. Read Col. Johnson's description of conditions at Johnson's Island.
John R. Hardy, a Confederate corporal who served in Company C, 15th Arkansas Regiment (Johnson's), wrote a letter from his Port Hudson camp to his sisters and other relatives in Arkansas, over the period of March 8th through March 11th, 1863. This was at a time just a little over two months before the start of the battle and siege, and his words reflect his doubts as to whether he would ever see his relatives again. See the letter and read a transcription here. John was wounded twice and captured at the surrender. Also see John R. Hardy's Confederate Service Record.
The remnants of Fort Desperate can still be seen at the Port Hudson State Historical Site. Although the area is now overgrown with timber and looks completely different, the earthworks and trenches are clearly identifiable, and you can easily understand it's advantageous position of being on high ground. Informative displays, including pictures, drawings and descriptive accounts, are provided at the site. Some of the materials presented here were obtained at the park.