The Fall of Port Hudson

The Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, Louisiana, had been under siege for six weeks, enduring an almost constant bombardment from both land and water. On July 1, 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, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf, 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 a force of as many as 13,000 Confederates, and he wanted Banks to send him reinforcements.

Taylor was indeed on the move, but he had no immediate plans to attack New Orleans. His men reached Donaldsonville on the 3rd, where they placed batteries to block Federal traffic on the Mississippi River above New Orleans. Several Federal boats were damaged or sunk. Taylor hoped to cause enough disorder in western Louisiana to force Banks to leave Port Hudson and confront him. Emory took the bait, but Banks would not.

The next day, Emory received reports that Confederates were within 16 miles of New Orleans. He sent a desperate message to Banks: “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.” Banks assured him, “Operations here can last but two or three days longer at the outside, and then the whole command will be available to drive back the enemy who is now annoying our communications and threatening New Orleans.”

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit:

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 gunboats and batteries fired massive salutes in celebration of Vicksburg’s fall, and troops in the trenches soon informed their nearby Confederate opponents. Federal reinforcements began arriving from Vicksburg to break this last enemy hold on the Mississippi. Major-General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates in Port Hudson, had hoped that 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 asked for 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.

A temporary ceasefire was called as Federal and Confederate officers met between the lines at 9 a.m. 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 to take place the next day. Banks shared the good news his wife and boldly added, “We have taken from them the power to establish an independent government. It can never be done between the Mississippi and the Atlantic. You can tell your friends that the Confederacy is an impossibility.”

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. Though the surrender was unconditional, Banks had 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 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 down 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 normal river commerce soon proved difficult because Confederate guerrillas continued to attack Federal shipping from various points along the riverbanks.

Banks now 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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