Friday, July 5, 2013

Fighting goes on at Port Hudson, Louisiana - July 5, 1863

Confederate Fortifications at Port Hudson
150 years ago today, as Union troops consolidated their hold on the newly captured city of Vicksburg, the fighting and misery continued down the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

With the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Port Hudson became the last remaining Confederate
stronghold on the Mississippi. The siege there is remembered today as the longest in American history.

Inside the fortifications that ringed the little river community, Confederate general Franklin Gardner and his force of fewer than 5,000 men defied a Union army more than three times the size of their own along with the firepower of some of the most powerful warships of the U.S. Navy. It was a battle against overwhelming odds unlike any other ever fought on the North American continent and it went on for 48 days.

Confederate flag that flew over Port Hudson
After the fall of Memphis to the north and New Orleans and then Baton Rouge to the South, the Confederacy was in serious danger of being split in two. The loss of a way to move men and supplies from the states west of the Mississippi River to the armies battling east of the river would be a disaster from which the Southern nation likely would not recover. To attempt to preserve this tenuous lifeline, Confederate engineers fortified the high bluffs of Vicksburg to the north and Port Hudson to the South.

Located on the east side of the river just south of its confluence with the Red River, Port Hudson was an ideal position for defenses that would protect the southern approach to the stretch of the Mississippi that ran from the mouth of the Red up to Vicksburg. This would enable supplies coming by steamboat down the Red to continue to flow up the Mississippi to Vicksburg from which they could be shipped out by rail to all points east.

Port Hudson Peace Monument
The position was occupied by Confederate troops after they failed to retake Baton Rouge in 1862. Located at a sharp bend of the river, its high bluffs offered the ideal position for the emplacement of heavy guns. Work on the batteries continued through the winter of 1862-1863. Major General Franklin Gardner arrived late in December of 1862 to assume command of the position. His selection would prove to be an inspired choice.

Major General Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Union''s Department of the Gulf, was under pressure from Washington, D.C. to push north up the Mississippi, reduce Port Hudson and join forces with Major General Ulysses S. Grant for a final move on Vicksburg. Banks tried to accomplish this by swinging west into the bayous and driving north up the Atchafalaya River to its junction with the Red. He hoped this would enable him to bypass Port Hudson and force its evacuation. When he reached the Red River, however, expected troops and transports were not there. Grant had changed his plans and gone ashore near Port Gibson with his full army.

Gun taken from USS Merrimac and used at Port Hudson
Since he had no way to get his army north to join forces with Grant, Banks decided to move against Port Hudson with his own 17,000 man force. Orders were issued on May 18, 1862, and troops began to march north from Baton Rouge, rapidly covering the dozen or so miles between that city and the Confederate position at Port Hudson. Other parts of Banks' army came down the Red into the Mississippi and were landed at Bayou Sara near St. Francisville just north of Port Hudson.

Fighting broke out on May 21, 1862, as a miniscule force of Confederates opposed the oncoming Federals at the Battle of Plains Store west of Port Hudson. Resisting fiercely, they inflicted worse casualties than they received and then fell back into the trenches at Port Hudson.  By the night of May 22nd, the Confederate position was surrounded by Banks and his converging army.

Confederate earthworks at Port Hudson
General Gardner and his men dug in at a furious rate, extending and strengthening their defenses. They watched as the Union navy formed in the Mississippi and the Union army moved into position around them from all directions. They knew they were outnumbered and outgunned, but they determined to put up the fight of their lives.

The Southern soldiers got their first chance on May 27, 1863, when daylight broke over the woods and fields to the east and Union cannon opened fire on them from all directions. They responded furiously at first with their own cannon, but then slowed their rate of fire to conserve ammunition. They knew a massive infantry attack was coming and they got into position and ready to welcome it.
Union troops were trapped in this ravine during the first assault.

When the huge attack came, it was carried out by more soldiers than there were Confederates in the entire Port Hudson lines. Gardner was ready, however, and his skirmishers alone held back the attacking columns for more than an hour. Fighting from a tangled mess of felled trees and the ravines and ridges outside the main works, the Confederate skirmishers fought fiercely against overwhelming numbers.

When they finally withdrew into the main lines and the Federal troops tried to push forward, they found themselves wading into the fire of dozens of cannon and thousands of rifles. The fighting went on all day and all night. When the Confederates opened fire again the next morning, Banks decided his men had suffered enough and raised a flag of truce. Gardner granted the Union general's request for a ceasefire so his dead and wounded could be removed from the field.

The first attempt to storm Port Hudson left 1,995 Union soldiers dead, wounded or missing. The Confederates lost 235 men. The attack had been a bloody disaster for the Union army. There may have been only 4,000 Confederates at Port Hudson, but they were prepared to fight.

I will post more about the Siege of Port Hudson tomorrow.  You can read more about the battlefield at

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