April 14, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks avoided attacking the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson by instead targeting objectives in western Louisiana.
Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf, was assigned to capture the Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. But Banks did not want to attack such a strong position directly. So, like Major General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, he sought indirect ways to get to his objective. These included finding a way to get to the Red River, a vital waterway for transporting goods to the Confederacy from Mexico and the west.
Federal Rear Admiral David G. Farragut had tried running past the Confederate batteries at Port Hudson to get to the Red via the Mississippi, but his fleet suffered heavy damage, proving that it would be very costly to try again. Banks therefore sent an expedition to see if the Red could be accessed by going up the Teche River, west of Port Hudson. The force consisted of about 15,000 men in three divisions led by Brigadier Generals William Emory, Godfrey Weitzel, and Cuvier Grover.
The plan called for Emory and Weitzel to lead 10,000 men from their camp at Brasher City across Berwick Bay and up the Teche to face a Confederate force in the region. Meanwhile, Grover’s 5,000 Federals would move up the Atchafalaya River, which ran roughly parallel to the Teche, and land at Indian Bend to attack the Confederates from behind.
As the Federals approached, the Confederates fell back to a work called Fort Bisland near the mouth of the Teche. Brigadier General Alfred Mouton directed local slaves to build defenses on both riverbanks and was soon joined by Major General Richard Taylor, son of former U.S. President Zachary Taylor and overall Confederate commander. The fort was defended by 4,000 Confederates and two steamers.
Grover’s Federals landed on the 11th and engaged the Confederates in a three-hour artillery duel that ended at nightfall. Taylor prepared to attack Grover’s left flank the next day with Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Texas brigade; Sibley had the unsuccessful campaign to conquer the New Mexico Territory last year. All that remained of his Army of New Mexico was his Texas brigade and a cavalry regiment under General Thomas Green. Due to either illness or drunkenness, Sibley did not put his men in motion as ordered.
The Federals under Emory and Weitzel soon came up from the south, erecting earthworks within 400 yards of Fort Bisland. This put Taylor’s Confederates between them and Grover to the north. Combat began at daybreak on the 12th, as Federals both north and south advanced. Taylor held his ground, using the captured gunboat Diana until a Federal shell put her engine out of action. Federal artillery drove the Confederates into their earthworks, and the Federals planned an all-out assault on the fort the next morning. This gave Taylor time to withdraw his men upstream during the night.
The next day, the Federals under Emory and Weitzel cautiously advanced and discovered the fort abandoned. Meanwhile, Taylor confronted Grover at a curve in the Teche called Irish Bend, also known as Nerson’s Woods. After an artillery exchange, the Confederates knocked the Federals back as the crippled Diana came up from Franklin.
Taylor took advantage of Grover’s indecisiveness by disengaging and continuing his withdrawal toward the Red River. He burned all the bridges behind him and scuttled the Diana to prevent her capture. Grover did not pursue. Taylor’s force remained relatively intact to fight another day, though he lost about a third of his men to desertion during the retreat. Taylor later charged Sibley with disobedience and conduct unbecoming an officer for failing to attack as ordered.
That same day, the U.S.S. Queen of the West, which had been captured by Confederates and was now employed a Confederate steam ram, encountered the U.S.S. Arizona, Calhoun, and Estrella on the Atchafalaya River. As the Federal vessels closed within three miles, the Calhoun sank the Queen with the first shot from her 30-pound Parrott rifle.
Federals captured the town of Franklin on the 15th, and five days later, they took Opelousas and Washington. Opelousas had been the site of the Louisiana state government ever since Admiral Farragut’s ships seized Baton Rouge last year. Banks’s Federals could now link the Red River to New Orleans. During this offshoot of the Port Hudson campaign, they seized 5,000 cotton bales, several hogshead of sugar, vast amounts of salt and lumber, and some 20,000 heads of cattle, horses, and mules. Meanwhile, Taylor’s Confederates fell back toward Alexandria.
Around this time, Banks received a message from Grant regretting that he could offer Banks no reinforcements because he did not have enough transports. Grant, who was in the process of executing his daring gamble against Vicksburg, had been prodded by Washington to reinforce Banks. In his message, Grant asked Banks to furnish the transports if he wanted the men.
Banks replied that because he expected Grant’s reinforcements, “we pushed with vigor the expedition upon which we were then engaged.” He then informed Grant of his latest expedition: “Our success has been complete. We have utterly destroyed the army and navy of this part of the Confederacy, and made it impossible for the enemy to reorganize his forces for some months to come.”
Banks claimed that he “completely dispersed” the Confederate forces, having “captured 2,000 prisoners, 1,000 stand of arms, ammunition and ordnance stores, etc., 20 heavy guns, demolished his foundries at Franklin and New Iberia, and the salt-works below Iberia.”
Regarding Grant’s request for transports, Banks wrote, “It is a grief on my part that I cannot aid you in this respect. Our transportation is lamentably deficient. I had but one steamer with which to pass two divisions of my corps over Berwick Bay in this campaign.” Banks believed that controlling the Atchafalaya River was vital to capturing Port Hudson, and since the supply line for his army was tentative at best, “by the Atchafalaya all difficulties of this kind are obviated.”
Both Banks and Grant continued conducting their independent operations without cooperating as their superiors had urged.
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