Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf, continued his siege of Port Hudson, one of the Confederacy’s last strongholds on the Mississippi River. The Lincoln administration had long expected Banks and Major-General Ulysses S. Grant to join forces and capture both Vicksburg and Port Hudson together. However, the slow trickle of information from the west indicated that the two commanders were conducting separate operations, with Grant besieging Vicksburg and Banks besieging Port Hudson.
On June 3, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck finally wrote Banks, the ranking commander over Grant, asking him to confirm this revelation: “The newspapers state that your forces are moving on Port Hudson instead of co-operating with General Grant, leaving the latter to fight both (General Joseph E.) Johnston and (Lieutenant General John C.) Pemberton. As this is so contrary to all your instructions, and so opposed to military principles, I can hardly believe it true.”
This was confirmed to be true later that day when Halleck received a bundle of letters from Banks indicating that he was indeed advancing southeast from Alexandria to attack Port Hudson. Banks responded to Halleck’s reprimand the next day:
“If I defend New Orleans and its adjacent territory, the enemy will go against Grant. If I go with a force sufficient to aid him (bypassing Port Hudson), my rear will be seriously threatened. My force is not large enough to do both. Under these circumstances, my only course seems to be to carry this post as soon as possible, and then to join General Grant…”
Banks’s Federals spent the next week strengthening their siege lines surrounding Major-General Franklin Gardner’s Confederates at Port Hudson. Banks had enjoyed strong naval support from the Mississippi River since his campaign began, but Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut, commanding the naval fleet, warned him on the 11th that “we have been bombarding this place for five weeks, and we are now upon our last 500 shells, so that it will not be in my power to bombard more than three or four hours each night, at intervals of five minutes…”
During this time, Confederate deserters coming into the Federal lines claimed their former comrades had “about five days’ beef” left to eat, and although there was “plenty of peas, plenty of corn,” there was “no more meal.” Banks decided to use the remaining naval ammunition to launch a massive bombardment and then, if the Confederates refused to surrender, overrun their supposedly weakened defenses.
The gunboats began the bombardment on the 13th, firing a round per second for an hour. The Confederates, also low on ammunition, offered little response. When the firing stopped, Banks sent a message to Gardner under a flag of truce: “Respect for the usages of war, and a desire to avoid unnecessary sacrifice on life, impose on me the necessity of formally demanding the surrender of the garrison at Port Hudson…”
Gardner shared the message with his commanders and said, “What do you think? Why, Banks has notified me that to avoid unnecessary slaughter he demands the immediate surrender of my forces.” Gardner sent his reply: “Your note of this date has just been handed to me, and in reply I have to state that my duty requires me to defend this position, and therefore I decline to surrender.” When Banks read Gardner’s response, he ordered a resumption of the massive bombardment and made plans to launch a general assault the next day.
At 1 a.m., Banks issued orders for what was to be a coordinated attack by all his forces. The Federals advanced at 4 a.m., but the vague instructions and heavy fog quickly undermined the coordination. Brigadier-General Cuvier Grover’s men hit the Confederate defenses first, but stiff resistance and harsh terrain drove them back. Brigadier-General Halbert E. Paine’s division struck Priest Cap and made a temporary breakthrough before being repulsed with heavy losses, including Paine, who lost a leg.
Major-General Christopher C. Augur’s division was supposed to demonstrate against the center of the Confederate line, but Augur did not arrive until after the main attacks were repulsed. Another piecemeal Federal assault on the southern trenches was easily repulsed, and the Federal commanders decided that any further attacks would be futile.
The Federals fell back to their original positions, having suffered one of the worst defeats of the war. They sustained 1,792 casualties (203 killed, 1,401 wounded, and 188 missing) while the Confederates lost just 47 men (22 killed and 25 wounded). Since the Federals had arrived at Port Hudson, nearly 11,000 men had dropped from the ranks, with 4,000 killed in combat and another 7,000 dead or sick with various diseases.
The next morning, Banks announced to his troops, “One more advance and they are ours!” But the sharp defeat the previous day had demoralized them, and the commanders refused to try another assault. Thus, the siege continued without Banks’s “one more advance.”
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Thomas, Emory M. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.