Federal army and navy forces continued surrounding Port Hudson, the last Confederate bastion besides Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut, commanding the naval branch, informed Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the army branch, that the Confederates were holding firm under a steady bombardment, but the naval guns would continue firing until the fort was destroyed. Meanwhile, Banks continued advancing his 30,000 Federals against the fort’s land sides north, south, and east. Farragut’s fleet would prevent any Confederate escape or reinforcement from the Mississippi.
The Federals marching from Bayou Sara to the northwest and Baton Rouge to the south converged and encircled Port Hudson. From left to right, Banks positioned the divisions of Major-Generals Thomas W. Sherman, Christopher C. Augur, Cuvier Grover, and Godfrey Weitzel. A smaller division of U.S. Colored Troops, consisting of free blacks and former slaves from Louisiana, was used for manual labor, scouting, and guard duty.
The Confederate garrison, commanded by Major-General Franklin Gardner, held strong defenses that included heavy guns on the bluffs to guard against either a ground or naval attack from any direction. The one weak spot northeast of Port Hudson was quickly shored up with breastworks built by Confederate troops and slaves.
As the Federals assembled outside Port Hudson, Banks received a letter from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck written three weeks ago. Unaware that Banks had decided to attack Port Hudson, Halleck wrote, “I regret to learn that you are still pursuing your divergent line to Alexandria. If these eccentric movements, with the main forces of the enemy on the Mississippi River do not lead to some serious disaster, it will be because the enemy does not take full advantage of the opportunity.”
Halleck told Banks that “the Government is exceedingly disappointed” that he and Major-General Ulysses S. Grant were “not acting in conjunction… If Grant should succeed alone in beating the enemy and capturing Vicksburg, all will be well,” but if Grant failed, “both your armies will be paralyzed and the entire campaign a failure.” By this time, both Vicksburg and Port Hudson were surrounded, making Halleck’s letter somewhat irrelevant.
By May 25, Banks had linked two Federal divisions from the south and three from the north, a military maneuver that Napoleon Bonaparte had called the most difficult to execute. Banks had 90 guns against Gardner’s 31. Skirmishing soon ensued, resulting in the capture of the Confederate steamers Starlight and Red Chief on the Mississippi.
With all his men in place, Banks began planning to take Port Hudson by frontal assault. He held a council of war on the 26th, during which his commanders expressed reluctance to move so quickly. Augur argued in favor of reconnoitering the Confederate defenses a few more days, while Sherman said that since the Confederate supply line had been cut, the enemy could just be bombarded and starved into submission.
Banks countered that Major-General Richard Taylor’s Confederates in western Louisiana could attack them at any time, or Taylor could try regaining New Orleans, which was guarded by a skeleton occupation force left behind after most troops came to Port Hudson. Banks announced that the attack would take place the next day, with the object being to destroy the Confederates, take Port Hudson, and then drive north to join forces with Grant at Vicksburg.
The plan called for the Federal artillery on water and land to begin a heavy bombardment at dawn. Sherman on the left and Augur in the center would then get their troops into position and “take instant advantage of any favorable opportunity” to attack. Weitzel and Grover on the right and right-center were to follow suit, but only if they saw Sherman and Augur making progress.
Coordinating movements between the Federal divisions would be very difficult because Banks failed to specify a time to begin the infantry attack. Banks also did not consider the harsh terrain, which included dense brush, thick woods, and deep ravines. This could easily break up even the most coordinated attack before the troops reached the enemy. Moreover, in the five days between the Federals’ arrival and their pending assault, Gardner had fortified weaknesses in his line and prepared his Confederates for defense. Banks’s orders simply concluded, “Port Hudson must be taken tomorrow.”
At Banks’s request, Farragut’s gunboats bombarded the Confederates at various times throughout the night to keep them awake. Farragut’s fleet consisted of the U.S.S. Hartford, Richmond, Genesee, Essex, and Monongahela. The land batteries opened fire on the Confederate works at dawn as scheduled, joining the naval cannon already bombarding the enemy. Banks proclaimed, “Port Hudson will be ours today!”
The infantry assault began at 6 a.m., when Weitzel advanced without waiting for Sherman or Augur to go first as planned. The Federals were slowed by the ravines and brush. They attacked a Confederate salient, but they were quickly pinned down in a deadly crossfire.
The black troops of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards (i.e., the Corps d’Afrique) came up to rescue them, with their captain hollering orders in English and French before being killed by an artillery shell. The men advanced under heavy enemy fire; they sustained horrific casualties but did not waver, thus disproving the theory of many Federal officers that blacks lacked the mettle for combat duty.
Grover tried to relieve Weitzel by sending his troops against the northeastern sector of the Confederate line, but the attacks were piecemeal and ineffective. During this time, Banks questioned why Sherman and Augur had not attacked farther south yet. He rode to Sherman’s headquarters, where he learned that Sherman had deployed guns to bombard the Confederates but would not order something as suicidal as an infantry attack. Sherman finally relented when Banks threatened to relieve him of command.
As Sherman’s Federals advanced, Augur would not commit his men unless directly ordered by Banks. All Federals under both Sherman and Augur finally began advancing around 2 p.m. Sherman led a charge to within 70 yards of the works, but the Confederates opened with deadly canister, and the troops used both their own guns and those of the sick and wounded to fend off the attackers. Sherman was wounded and carried from the field.
The assault ended around 5 p.m. when a New York officer raised a white truce flag to collect the dead and wounded. The Confederates agreed, and the Federals withdrew, their attacks having been a complete failure. Although Banks did not properly coordinate or commit his entire 35,000 men to the engagement, he announced, “My force is too weak for the work it had to do.”
The Federals sustained 1,995 casualties (293 killed, 1,545 wounded, and 157 missing). The Confederates lost only about 235 killed or wounded. Black troops saw their first combat action and performed valiantly; Banks reported to Halleck, “It gives me pleasure to report that they answered every expectation. In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring.”
The next day, Banks informed subordinates, “We shall hold on today, and make careful examinations with reference to future operations.” He requested “a suspension of hostilities until 2 o’clock this afternoon, in order that the dead and wounded may be brought off the field.” Gardner agreed, then allowed a five-hour extension to finish the work. This enabled Federals pinned down by Confederate rifle fire to pull back to their original positions, out of harm’s way.
Banks would ultimately decide to surround Port Hudson from land and water and try starving the Confederate garrison into submission.
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