Confederate forces under Major-General Franklin Gardner remained besieged at Port Hudson, one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The Federal Army of the Gulf, commanded by Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, had cut Gardner’s supply line, and while Confederate resistance remained stubborn, the defenders grew weaker by the day. Troops fell out of the ranks due to illnesses such as dysentery and sunstroke, and other diseases ran rampant from drinking stagnant water and eating rats.
The Federals did not fare much better, despite beings the ones laying siege. According to a Federal officer: “The heat, especially in the trenches, became almost insupportable, the stenches quite so, the brooks dried up, the creek lost itself in the pestilential swamp, the springs gave out, and the river fell, exposing to the tropical sun a wide margin of festering ooze. The illness and mortality were enormous.”
Gardner explained his situation to his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston: “I have repulsed the enemy in several attacks, but am still closely invested. I am getting short of provisions and ammunition of all kinds, and should be speedily reinforced.” Johnston replied that he had no troops to spare, and that he should look to the Trans-Mississippi Department (i.e., Major-General Richard Taylor’s District of West Louisiana) for help. Johnston also implored Gardner to hold at all costs to keep Banks from detaching troops to strengthen the siege of Vicksburg.
Taylor planned to divert Federal attention and resources by launching an offensive into the Lafourche district, southwest of New Orleans. His primary objective was the massive Federal supply depot at Brashear City, near Berwick Bay. From there, Taylor could threaten New Orleans and force Banks to pull troops away from Port Hudson to stop him. To deceive the Federals, Taylor also dispatched a Texas cavalry brigade of 650 men under Colonel James P. Major to cut off the Federal line of retreat from the Lafourche district to New Orleans.
Major’s troopers rode through Plaquemine on the 18th, taking 87 prisoners and burning three steamers on the Atchafalaya River. Major captured Thibodeaux two days later and grabbed another 140 prisoners. Major then split his command by sending one force feinting on Fort Butler at Donaldsonville while the other attacked Bayou Lafourche. The Confederates were repulsed, but the attack successfully took Federal attention away from the main assault coming at Brashear City.
Taylor moved up into attack positions on June 22. His force consisted of 3,000 dismounted Texas cavalry, artillery, and a makeshift flotilla of 53 vessels, under the commands of Brigadier-Generals Alfred Mouton and Tom Green (Green had gained fame for his victory at Valverde in the New Mexico Territory). Banks had anticipated a move against his supply depot and had ordered it to be moved, but those orders had not been carried out. Banks’s adjutant wrote, “So slack and indifferent was the performance of duty on the part of the garrison of Brashear… (that on the morning of the 23rd,) the reveille was sounded for them by the guns of the Valverde battery.”
The Confederates attacked at dawn on the 23rd, hitting the Federals in both front and rear and forcing their surrender. Taylor took 1,700 prisoners, 12 guns, 5,000 stands of arms, and two locomotives with their supply cars. His men also destroyed the Lafourche Bridge, preventing supply trains from getting to the Federals at Port Hudson. Taylor estimated the value of the seized goods at $2 million, making this the most successful raid since “Stonewall” Jackson’s on Manassas Junction last August.
On the 28th, Taylor detached Green and 800 dismounted cavalry to attack Fort Butler at Donaldsonville. The Federal garrison numbered just 225 men, but they repelled the attack with help from three gunboats. The Federals inflicted 261 casualties while losing just 24. Banks proudly reported that “the garrison made a splendid defense, killing and wounding more than their own number, and capturing as many officers and nearly as many men as the garrison numbered.”
This stalled Taylor’s momentum, but it did nothing to calm Brigadier-General William Emory, who commanded one of Banks’s divisions guarding New Orleans. Fearing that Taylor might strike him next, Emory reported to Banks, “The railroad track at Terre Bonne is torn up. Communication with Brashear cut off. I have but 400 men in the city, and I consider the city and the public property very unsafe. The secessionists here profess to have certain information that their forces are to make an attempt on the city.”
Emory followed up on the 29th by stating that the approaching Confederates were “known and ascertained to be at least 9,000, and may be more… The city is quiet on the surface, but the undercurrent is in a ferment.” By month’s end, Emory’s panic had reached its peak:
“Something must be done for this city, and that quickly. It is a choice between Port Hudson and New Orleans… My information is as nearly positive as human testimony can make it that the enemy are 13,000 strong, and they are fortifying the whole country as they march from Brashear to this place, and are steadily advancing. I respectfully suggest that, unless Port Hudson is already taken, you can only save this city by sending me reinforcements immediately and at any cost.”
Banks did not heed Emory’s warnings and instead remained focused on his relentless siege of Port Hudson. Federal sappers dug a tunnel under the Confederate trenches, from which they planned to detonate explosives that would blow a hole in the enemy lines. Banks assigned 1,000 volunteers to form an elite attack force designed to exploit that breech. Near month’s end, he addressed the force:
“A little more than a month ago, you found the enemy in the open country far away from these scenes. Now he is hemmed in and surrounded. What remains is to close upon him and secure him with our grasp. We want the close hug! When you get an enemy’s head under your arm, you can pound him at your will. The hug he will never recover from until the Devil, the arch Rebel, gives him his own!”
Meanwhile, the bombardment continued throughout the month, as the Federals slowly demoralized the Confederates by starving them into submission. The meat supply ran out on the 30th, prompting Gardner to direct his men to start slaughtering the army mules. Ammunition was nearly exhausted, and it was clear that Gardner could not hold out much longer.
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