The Fall of Port Hudson

July 9, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf captured the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, opening the waterway to Federal commerce and cutting the Confederacy in two.

The Confederates at Port Hudson, Louisiana, had been under siege for six weeks, enduring an almost constant bombardment from both land and water. On the 1st, the Federal mortar flotilla commander on the U.S.S. Essex reported to Rear Admiral David G. Farragut: “From the 23 of May to the 26 of June… we have fired from this vessel 738 shells and from the mortar vessels an aggregate of 2800 XIII-inch shells.”

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Banks stayed focused on strangling Port Hudson into submission despite more panicked messages from Brigadier General William Emory, commanding the Federal occupation forces at New Orleans. Emory feared that Major General Richard Taylor would attack him with 13,000 Confederates, and he wrote Banks on the 4th, “It is a choice between Port Hudson and New Orleans. You can only save this city by sending me reinforcements immediately and at any cost.”

By that time, Taylor’s forces were at Thibodaux and Bayou des Allemands, and Taylor had no immediate plans to attack New Orleans. But he hoped to cause enough disorder in western Louisiana to force Banks to leave Port Hudson and confront him. Banks would not take the bait.

During the siege, Banks directed Federal sappers to dig tunnels under the Confederate defenses. Banks planned to detonate heavy mines in the tunnels and then attack with 1,000 troops, but most Federals considered it foolish. In fact, many questioned Banks’s competence as a commander. He had pushed the Confederates to the brink of surrender, but he had also sacrificed many Federal lives in costly failed attacks. Disease had killed or incapacitated thousands of others. Only news of Vicksburg’s surrender, which arrived on the 7th, revived the sagging Federal morale.

Federal reinforcements began arriving from Vicksburg that day, and Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates in Port Hudson, learned that night that the city had fallen. He had hoped General Joseph E. Johnston’s “Army of Relief” would rescue his garrison after breaking the siege of Vicksburg, but this news only added to Confederate demoralization already caused by the bombardment and dwindling rations.

Still, some Confederates believed that the Federals were just trying to dishearten them by falsely claiming that Vicksburg had fallen. On the 8th, Gardner sent a courier under a flag of truce to ask Banks to confirm the rumors. When Banks supplied sufficient evidence to prove the claim, Gardner requested surrender terms. His Confederates had withstood nearly seven weeks under siege, during which time they repelled three major assaults and were nearly starved to death. Gardner now saw that any further resistance was futile.

Federal and Confederate officers met between the lines at 9 a.m. Under the temporary ceasefire, soldiers on both sides came out of their trenches and socialized. Some Confederates, knowing they would be surrendered, took the opportunity to sneak through the Federal lines and desert. The surrender agreement was finalized by 2 p.m., with a formal ceremony taking place the next day.

The surrender was unconditional, but Banks agreed to parole the 5,935 soldiers if they pledged not to take up arms against the Federals until properly exchanged. The 405 officers were sent to New Orleans to be either exchanged or sent to a northern prisoner of war camp.

The Confederate troops stood at attention as the Federals marched into their fortifications at 7 a.m. on the 9th. A Federal band played “Yankee Doodle” as Gardner ordered his men to lay their arms on the ground. Banks designated Brigadier General George L. Andrews to accept Gardner’s surrender. Gardner handed Andrews his sword, but Andrews returned it to Gardner “in recognition of the heroic defense” of Port Hudson.

A band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Federals raised the U.S. flag over the works. The tune was followed by “Dixie.” The Confederates marched out, leaving the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi to Federal occupation forces. The Federals toured the enemy works as the Confederates received their paroles on the 10th.

The Federals sustained nearly 4,363 battle casualties during the siege (708 killed, 3,336 wounded, and 319 missing), along with another 4,500 due to various diseases or sunstroke. The Confederates lost about 7,200, including the 6,340 officers and men surrendered. The Federals also seized 51 cannon and 7,500 stands of arms. Despite his questionable leadership, Banks stated, “The siege will be remembered not only for its important results, but also for the manner in which it has been conducted.”

Farragut notified Rear Admiral David D. Porter, who had led the naval forces against Vicksburg, that the Federal navy now controlled the entire length of the Mississippi, all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico. Farragut planned to return to the Gulf Blockading Squadron. He wrote his wife about the campaign: “My last dash past Port Hudson (in March) was the best thing I ever did, except taking New Orleans. It assisted materially in the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson.”

On the 16th, the unarmed cargo steamer Imperial docked at New Orleans bearing the U.S. flag after leaving St. Louis eight days before. The Imperial was the first vessel to travel between these two port cities in over two years. However, the resumption of river commerce soon proved difficult because Confederate guerrillas continued attacking Federal shipping from various points along the riverbanks.

Banks soon shifted his attention to ridding western Louisiana of Major General Richard Taylor’s Confederates. President Jefferson Davis wrote Johnston, desperately expressing hope that the Federals “may yet be crushed and the late disaster be repaired by a concentration of all forces.” This hope, like further Confederate resistance in the Western Theater, was becoming increasingly dim.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 68; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 298, 304-06; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 599-600, 614-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 324, 326; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159, 168; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 206; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-82, 386-87; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 637; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 162; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 298; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 596-97; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 242

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