As Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals continued trying to get at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf worked to capture Port Hudson, Louisiana. The effort against these two strongholds had initially been envisioned as a joint operation between Grant and Banks of the army, and Acting Rear-Admirals David D. Porter and David G. Farragut of the navy. But by this month, they had become two separate and distinct operations.
In early March, Banks assembled his army at New Orleans and advanced north to Baton Rouge. This would be the launching point for his drive on Port Hudson, a fort atop a bluff facing the Mississippi River, with the land side shielded by woods, undergrowth, swamps, and ravines. The Confederates at Port Hudson protected the Red River, which flowed into the Mississippi and was used to transport Confederate supplies from the west.
Banks’s army consisted of 15,000 men in three divisions. The Port Hudson garrison contained four Confederate brigades. Banks did not have the strength to attack Port Hudson directly, so he agreed to stage a demonstration in front of the fort while Farragut’s warships steamed past on their way north to Vicksburg. Getting Federal naval vessels between Port Hudson and Vicksburg could at least prevent the Confederates from using the Red River.
Farragut arrived at Baton Rouge aboard his flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, on March 12. There he finalized plans to run past Port Hudson and join forces with Porter at Vicksburg. The Hartford would lead the effort, followed by the U.S.S. Monongahela and Richmond, with a gunboat lashed to the port (Port Hudson) side of each ship. The U.S.S. Mississippi, flagship of Commodore Matthew Perry during his historic visit to Tokyo Bay, would follow along with two gunboats and six mortar schooners.
By the 14th, Farragut was ready to send his fleet past the batteries overlooking the river. Banks had agreed to be in position to create the necessary diversion by dawn, but his troops were still six miles away from Port Hudson. Banks informed Farragut that he could expect no army support. Farragut, believing that Banks should have been there already, fumed, “He had well be in New Orleans or at Baton Rouge for the good he is doing us!” Consequently, nothing would divert the Confederates’ attention from the passing vessels.
At 9:30 p.m., the Hartford flashed two red lights below her stern, signaling the rest of the fleet to begin the run. The current was strong, the river was illuminated with train lights, and the strongest Confederate batteries covered the trickiest turn in the waterway. The Federal gunboats and schooners opened fire, and the Confederates waited until they came within range to respond. Gun smoke made visibility impossible, and the Federals quickly found themselves on the wrong side of a one-sided fight.
The Richmond and the gunboat lashed to her, the U.S.S. Genesee, were both knocked out, with the Richmond taking a shot in her steam plant and requiring the Genesee to pull her downriver to safety. The Monongahela took eight shots directly through her, destroying the bridge and wounding Captain James P. McKinstry. After taking direct fire for nearly half an hour, her partner, the U.S.S. Kineo, helped pull her downriver out of the fight.
The Mississippi ran aground in a sandbar under direct fire, forcing Captain Melancthon Smith to order the crew to set her on fire and abandon ship. She exploded at 3 a.m. Survivors included Lieutenant George Dewey, conqueror of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War 35 years later. Only the Hartford and her consort, the U.S.S. Albatross, made it past the guns. The Federals suffered 112 total casualties (35 killed and 77 wounded or missing), including 64 from the Mississippi alone.
The passage of two ships made the mission partially successful, but Farragut was now separated from the rest of his fleet, which remained below Port Hudson. Unaware that all the ships except the Mississippi could be repaired and returned to action, Farragut reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles the next day, “It becomes my duty again to report disaster to my fleet.”
However, Welles applauded Farragut’s effort to get vessels between Port Hudson and Vicksburg; Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox responded that “the President thinks the importance of keeping a force of strength in this part of the river is so great that he fully approves of your proceeding.”
The Hartford and Albatross continued upriver to Natchez, Mississippi, where Federals cut the telegraph lines to Port Hudson. The ships reached Grand Gulf, Mississippi, on the night of the 18th. By that time, Banks’s Federals had returned to Baton Rouge, 20 miles below Port Hudson, looting the countryside along the way. Banks dispatched expeditions to try to find Farragut, thinking that he was waiting for the army just above Port Hudson. But Farragut was now 150 miles north.
Farragut ran the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf, sustaining several hits and losing eight men (two killed and six wounded). This enabled his two vessels to advance to the mouth of the Red River. They reached Warrenton, Mississippi, by the morning of the 20th. From there, he contacted Grant and Porter offering to support their operations and requesting coal for refuel. A coal barge was sent downriver past the Vicksburg batteries.
The Federals now had warships between Port Hudson and Vicksburg to stop Confederate river traffic. However, the engagement at Port Hudson proved that capturing Port Hudson itself would require a much stronger effort from both the army and navy.
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