May 21, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf finally began advancing on Port Hudson, Louisiana, after conducting a series of ancillary operations.
Port Hudson, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi besides Vicksburg, was located on a sharp bend in the river about 147 miles above New Orleans and 22 miles above Baton Rouge. The heavy guns defending Port Hudson had nearly destroyed Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s Federal warships as they tried passing the stronghold.
Since then, Banks had turned away from Port Hudson and instead tried gaining control of the Red River, the principal waterway that Confederates used to transport supplies from the west. Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck called these movements of “secondary importance,” and the Lincoln administration had been pressuring Banks to turn his attention back to Port Hudson.
Banks argued that he could not advance on the stronghold until he received the reinforcements that Major General Ulysses S. Grant had promised him. But now that Grant had invested Vicksburg, he could not send Banks any men. Banks finally began arranging to confront Port Hudson when he received word that the Confederate garrison had been weakened by the transfer of some troops to Vicksburg.
Federal mortars began bombarding Port Hudson on May 8. Five days later, Banks requested that the gunboats stay above Port Hudson to support his army. Banks feared that without the gunboats, Confederate supplies would continue flowing west from the Red River, across the Mississippi, to Vicksburg.
Banks sent 2,000 wagons filled with captured supplies south and began moving out of Alexandria on the 14th. The 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment, began building bridges for the Federals. Banks planned a two-pronged advance on Port Hudson, with two divisions approaching from Baton Rouge to the south and three divisions approaching from Bayou Sara to the northwest.
As Banks prepared to move, Confederate cavalry raided Federals on the west bank of the Mississippi, taking prisoners and large amounts of supplies that Banks planned to use for his campaign. Banks continued preparing nonetheless. Farragut, commanding the Federal naval forces supporting Banks, wrote to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:
“We are again about to attack Port Hudson. General Banks, supported by the Hartford, Albatross and some of the small gunboats, will attack from above, landing probably at Bayou Sara, while General (Christopher) Augur will march up from Baton Rouge and will attack the place from below… my vessels are pretty well used up, but they must work as long as they can.”
Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, saw that the Confederate armies defending Vicksburg and Port Hudson were in danger of being destroyed by the Federals approaching them. Johnston sent an urgent message to Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates at Port Hudson, on the 19th:
“Evacuate Port Hudson forthwith, and move with your troops toward Jackson to join other troops which I am uniting. Bring all the fieldpieces that you have, with their ammunition and means of transportation. Heavy guns and their ammunition had better be destroyed, as well as the other property you may be unable to remove.”
In the two days it took Johnston’s message to reach him, Gardner reported that he had an “aggregate present” of 5,715 in three brigades, as well as roughly 1,000 artillerymen, to face Banks’s 30,000 Federals. Gardner positioned his men behind defensive works and fortifications. Three Confederate batteries lined a bluff along the river. Above them was a marsh providing a natural defense, and Confederates lined the land side with four and a half miles of entrenchments and rifle pits.
Gardner dispatched part of his force to stop the Federal advance from Bayou Sara, and then another part to stop Augur’s advance from Baton Rouge. But after a heavy skirmish with Augur’s Federals, the Confederates had to retreat due to low ammunition. A running fight ensued, with the Federals chasing the Confederates back to Port Hudson and clearing the road for the rest of Banks’s men to arrive. Gardner’s last escape route was closed.
Gardner strengthened defenses at Port Hudson as he told his men, “The enemy are coming, but mark you, many a one will get to hell before he does to Port Hudson.” He finally received Johnston’s order to evacuate and recalled that the last time Johnston ordered him to leave, President Jefferson Davis ordered him to “return to Port Hudson with 2,000 troops and hold it to the last.”
And now, with Banks approaching, Gardner could not leave even if he wanted. He replied, “Positive information that the enemy has a large force, and is moving down to cross at Bayou Sara against this place. His whole force from Baton Rouge is in my front. I am very weak and should be rapidly re-enforced.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18700; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 283-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 394, 396; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 294, 296-98, 300; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 101-05; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 353, 355-56