Tag Archives: Army of the Gulf

Red River: Federals Target Alexandria

March 15, 1864 – Federal army-navy forces followed up their capture of Fort DeRussy by continuing up the Red River in Louisiana.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The next objective for Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval squadron and Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s Federal troops was Alexandria. The Federal gunboats pursued Confederate vessels fleeing over the Alexandria rapids but could not overtake them. One Confederate ship, the Countess, was grounded while fleeing; her crew burned her to prevent capture.

Once Porter and Smith reached Alexandria, they were supposed to meet Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf coming up from New Orleans. But Banks was helping to install a new Unionist Louisiana government and still had not yet left New Orleans. Banks received a message from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that began in part:

“I have not fully determined upon a plan of campaign for this spring, but will do so before the return of our veteran troops to the field. It will, however, be my desire to have all parts of the Army, or rather all the armies, act as much in concert as possible. For this reason I now write you…”

Grant wrote that although he regarded “the success of your present move as of great importance in reducing the number of troops necessary for protecting the navigation of the Mississippi River,” Banks was to “commence no move for the further acquisition of territory” beyond Shreveport. Grant added, “It is also important that Shreveport should be taken as soon as possible,” so that A.J. Smith could go “back to Memphis as soon as possible.”

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Regarding the timetable, Grant warned that if capturing Shreveport took longer than expected, Banks was to send Smith’s troops back to Major General William T. Sherman, who was planning a drive on Atlanta. Banks was to return these men “even if it leads to the abandonment of the main object of your expedition.”

If Banks accomplished his mission, he was to “hold Shreveport and the Red River with such force as you may deem necessary, and return the balance of your troops to the neighborhood of New Orleans. I would not at present advise the abandonment of any portion of territory now held west of the Mississippi, but commence no move for the further acquisition of territory unless it be to make that now ours more easily held.”

Grant explained that he was writing this to Banks because he considered “the conquering of the organized armies of the enemy as being of vastly more importance than the mere acquisition of territory.” Grant then advised Banks on supplying his army:

“There is one thing, general, I would urge, and don’t know but what you have already, and that is of supplying your army as far as possible from the country occupied. Mules, horses, forage, and provisions can be paid for, where taken from persons who have taken the amnesty oath prescribed by the President (if the oath be taken before the loss of property), with both economy and convenience.”

It was implied that supplies and property taken from civilians who refused to pledge loyalty to the U.S. would not be compensated.

Grant then wrote Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal Army of Arkansas at Little Rock. Steele had been ordered to move south and join Banks at Shreveport, but he had protested due to lack of forage in southern Arkansas, and because Banks already had sufficient resources. Grant wrote, “Move your force in full cooperation with General N.P. Banks’ attack on Shreveport. A mere demonstration will not be sufficient.”

Major General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces at Alexandria, had hoped that the garrison at Fort DeRussy would hold out long enough for him to establish defenses. But the fort had surrendered almost immediately, leaving Taylor no choice but to abandon the town. The Confederates evacuated all the supplies they could, and their last steamer left Alexandria on the morning of the 15th. The leading nine vessels of the Federal squadron arrived a half-hour later.

Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge of the U.S.S. Osage led a party ashore that occupied Alexandria without opposition. Porter and A.J. Smith’s 10,000 Federals arrived later that day. The troops seemed unimpressed with Alexandria; one called it “rather a big village than a city.” Porter later wrote, “The inhabitants were respectfully treated, and everything was as quiet as a New England village.” But at least one resident disagreed:

“Immediately on disembarking, they were permitted to rush through the streets of the town, unrestrained by the presence of their officers. They made an indiscriminate onslaught upon every private residence, appropriating to themselves everything valuable upon which they could lay their hand–and the depositories of food were at once forced open and their contents borne away.

“The drug stores, three in number, were among the first places taken possession of. These were at once despoiled of their contents, which were used in furnishing their hospitals in town, and one devoted to the reception of cases of small pox, two miles below town. Forty-four cases of this disease were landed from the transports on the day of their arrival.

“The stores of all descriptions underwent a similar spoliation; the iron safes forced and emptied, the ledgers, promissory notes, and accounts destroyed. Private residences were entered at night; writing desks, bureaus and armoirs rifled, and the occupants insulted and abused in the grossest manner, despite the efforts of the provost marshal, Captain Wolf, who evinced every disposition to afford protection to those applying to him for guards about their premises.”

Another resident claimed that the Federals especially wanted cotton, writing that after Porter’s flagship arrived–

“… her crew entered Rachal’s warehouse, rolled out the cotton, all of which was private property, and marked on one end C.S., and on the other U.S.N., thus endeavoring to make it appear the cotton was captured property of the Confederate Government. Rear Admiral Porter was present, witnessed the fraud, and seemed in high glee at the adroitness with which his rascally ingenuity could outwit Banks, and appropriate the spoils of the expedition. The same thing was repeated in every yard, barn, and cuthouse where they found cotton. They seemed to believe it was hidden everywhere.”

A few days later, Federal Quartermaster D.N. Welch corroborated this account: “The navy is seizing all the cotton they can get hold of. Every gun-boat is loaded with cotton, and the officers are taking it without regard to the loyalty of the owners. It looks to me like a big steal.”

Banks’s chief engineer, Major D.C. Houston, later testified before Congress that sailors “were seizing cotton in the vicinity of Alexandria, and bringing it in there and putting it on board barges and other vessels as prize, as I understood at the time.” Houston did not know if Porter directed such activity, but “it was all in plain sight; I should think he could not help seeing it.” Houston also testified that it was “rather demoralizing to the soldiers to see the navy seizing the cotton for prize on land, while they did not get any.”

Federal forces continued their occupation of Alexandria while they waited for the rest of Banks’s army (XIX Corps and two divisions of XIII Corps) to join them.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20604; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 321-41, 1334-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 409; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 475

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The Red River Campaign Begins

March 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Rear Admiral David D. Porter embarked on the largest army-navy expedition ever conducted west of the Mississippi River in hopes of seizing the vital cotton crop in western Louisiana and eastern Texas.

The Lincoln administration had long urged Banks to move into Texas to confiscate the cotton harvested there and to stop the importation of supplies from Mexico. Banks’s Army of the Gulf had gained a foothold on the Texas coast last November but achieved little else. Banks would now finally do what the administration had urged since the beginning: advance toward Texas via the Red River.

The Federal high command wanted Banks to work in conjunction with both Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron and Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas. The mission had four objectives:

  • Destroy all remaining Confederate resistance in Louisiana
  • Capture the vital cotton producing city of Shreveport and then continue west into eastern Texas
  • Confiscate as much cotton as possible, which could then be sold to starving northern markets for windfall profits
  • Form Unionist state governments in Louisiana and Arkansas according to President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”

Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg, met with Banks at New Orleans and agreed to loan him 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith. But Banks had to return them by April 15th because Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wanted them to participate in Sherman’s drive on Atlanta in the spring.

Sherman was skeptical of Banks’s abilities, but he trusted Porter. When he returned to Vicksburg, Sherman ordered A.J. Smith to “… proceed to the mouth of the Red River and confer with Admiral Porter; confer with him and in all the expedition rely on him implicitly, as he is the approved friend of the Army of the Tennessee, and has been associated with us from the beginning…”

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Porter, who acted independent of Banks’s command, sent gunboats to reconnoiter the Black and Ouachita rivers on the 1st. Confederate sharpshooters fired on the vessels on the Black until they were driven off by grape, canister, and shrapnel. The next morning, the flotilla passed Trinity and bombarded Harrisonburg. Confederate shore batteries responded with heavy fire, disabling the starboard engine of the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.

After silencing the batteries, the ships continued upriver to Catahoula Shoals and then turned back. The Federal crewmen seized cotton and guns before anchoring at the confluence of the Red and Mississippi rivers. The reconnaissance was successful, but Porter worried that the low level of the Red might upset the timetable. He wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I came down here anticipating a move on the part of the army up toward Shreveport, but as the river is lower than it has been known for years, I much fear that the combined movement can not come off without interfering with plans formed by General Grant.”

By the 9th, Porter had nearly every ship in his squadron at the mouth of the Red. The armada included 13 ironclads, 13 tinclads, two large steamers, four small paddle-wheelers, Brigadier General Alfred W. Ellet’s Marine Brigade, and various other transports and supply ships. At 60 ships and 210 guns, this was the largest flotilla ever assembled in the region. Such a large squadron would struggle to navigate the low, winding Red River, but Porter needed the ships to grab as much cotton as possible along the way.

Banks relied on Porter for success, but he also needed Steele, whose 15,000 Federals were to march from Little Rock to join the Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck had urged Steele to get moving, but Steele was not optimistic about his chances for success. He wrote Halleck that he would obey orders “against my own judgment and that of the best-informed people here. The roads are most if not quite impracticable; the country is destitute of provision.”

Steele also notified Halleck about the problem of Confederate partisans organizing in northern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri: “If they should form in my rear in considerable force I should be obliged to fall back to save my depots, &c.” Steele recommended that his army simply demonstrate against Arkadelphia or Hot Springs to divert Confederate attention from Banks. Despite Steele’s objections, the expedition would proceed:

  • A.J. Smith’s Federals would move to Alexandria to join Banks’s XIX Corps under Major General William B. Franklin.
  • Banks would lead the rest of his army from New Orleans via Bayou Teche to join Smith and Franklin at Alexandria.
  • Porter’s squadron would move up the Red River to support Banks’s forces advancing along the waterway.
  • Steele’s Federals would move south from Little Rock to meet Banks and Porter at Shreveport.
  • Banks and Porter would proceed into eastern Texas while Steele held Shreveport.

The vast Confederate spy network in New Orleans quickly informed Taylor, commanding the District of Western Louisiana, of the Federal movements. Taylor directed his men to destroy all approaches to Alexandria while he established a line of supply (and possible retreat) from Alexandria to Shreveport. Taylor also used troops and impressed slaves to strengthen Fort DeRussy on the Red. The fort was garrisoned with 3,500 Confederates.

Taylor discussed strategy with his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department from Shreveport. Smith wanted Taylor to stay on the defensive and fall back to Shreveport if necessary, but Taylor wanted to assume the offensive and drive toward Baton Rouge, thus forcing the Federals to detour their drive up the Red.

But then Taylor received indications that Banks might turn back and instead move east toward Mobile, Alabama. He wrote E.K. Smith on the 6th, “I am more and more disposed to think that Banks will be forced to move Mobile-ward.” If so, Taylor would “throw everything forward to the Mississippi, and push mounted men (if I can concentrate enough of this arm) into the La Fourche.”

Three days later, Taylor wrote, “It can hardly be supposed that Grant will permit any forces under his command to leave the principal theater of operations, yet common sense forbids the idea that Banks would move from the (Bayou) Teche as a base with his entire force without Sherman’s co-operation.”

On the 11th, Taylor once more concluded that Banks would indeed move up the Red: “Should Banks move by the Teche and Red River, we ought to beat him, and I hope, will.” As for Sherman at Vicksburg, “I shall not believe that he will send a man this side of the Mississippi until he is actually in motion.” Taylor concluded that if Sherman did invade Louisiana, he would come from the north, via Monroe. He did not know that part of Sherman’s army under A.J. Smith was coming to reinforce Banks at Alexandria.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-82, 384; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963-64; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 552-62, 580-600, 1324-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 405-08; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 473-74; 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), p. 722; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 192-93

Banks Targets the Texas Coast

November 2, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks embarked on a campaign to conquer eastern Texas by seizing control of the Rio Grande River and the Texas coast.

The Lincoln administration wanted control of eastern Texas, not only for its extensive cotton but to stop illicit trade between that state and French-controlled Mexico. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had originally ordered Banks to move his Army of the Gulf up the Red River and invade Texas from Shreveport, Louisiana. However, Banks was a politician, and he feared that failure would damage his political career. Thus, the Federal high command agreed to allow Banks to take the safer route along the Texas coast.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Banks had sent a force to capture Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border, but it suffered a humiliating defeat in September. He had also launched a force from Fort Bisland that was stopped at Opelousas in October. So Banks personally led this third effort, which consisted of a 3,500-man division under Major General Napoleon J.T. Dana. The troops left New Orleans on transports and steamed west, intending to capture Brazos Santiago at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The gunboats U.S.S. Monongahela, Virginia, and Owasco escorted the troop transports.

The Federals landed unopposed as the Confederate defenders retreated. Banks triumphantly reported, “The flag of the Union floated over Texas today at meridian precisely. Our enterprise has been a complete success.” From this foothold, Banks moved inland and quickly occupied Brownsville as well. The Federals were now positioned about 30 miles from inland opposite Matamoros (spelled “Matamoras” then), as well as Point Isabelle. Banks notified Texas’s Unionist governor, Andrew Hamilton, who had awaited the Federal arrival near Texas’s southern tip.

Ten days later, Banks expanded his occupation zone by capturing Corpus Christi. The Federals then continued moving east along the coast. On the 17th, about 1,000 troops and two sailor-manned artillery batteries landed on Mustang Island at Aransas Pass from transports supported by the Monongahela. The Federal howitzers bombarded the Confederate garrison into surrender. The U.S.S. Granite City seized the Confederate schooner Amelia Ann and the Spanish bark Teresita.

Banks next targeted Fort Esperanza on Matagorda Island, which the Confederates abandoned after a one-week bombardment. Federal gunboats now controlled about 300 miles of the Texas coast, from the Rio Grande to Port Lavaca. But Banks would not risk another defeat by approaching Galveston or Sabine Pass.

Meanwhile, a portion of Banks’s force moved overland about 100 miles up the Rio Grande and captured Rio Grande City. These Federal victories restricted the contraband trade coming through Mexico via Matamoros. However, since the Mississippi River was already in Federal hands, it only restricted trade with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, which was insignificant compared to the east. Also, trading continued farther inland at Laredo, and the operation did nothing to scare the French into leaving Mexico.

The Federal presence in southern Texas merely kept Banks’s army busy when it could have been more useful elsewhere, such as Mobile Bay.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338-39, 341-42; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 871; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 543-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-69, 372-75, 380; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 428-31, 434; 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), p. 683; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 172

The Fall of Port Hudson

July 9, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf captured the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, opening the waterway to Federal commerce and cutting the Confederacy in two.

The Confederates at Port Hudson, Louisiana, had been under siege for six weeks, enduring an almost constant bombardment from both land and water. On the 1st, 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 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Banks 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 13,000 Confederates, and he wrote Banks on the 4th, “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.”

By that time, Taylor’s forces were at Thibodaux and Bayou des Allemands, and Taylor had no immediate plans to attack New Orleans. But he hoped to cause enough disorder in western Louisiana to force Banks to leave Port Hudson and confront him. Banks would not take the bait.

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 reinforcements began arriving from Vicksburg that day, and Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates in Port Hudson, learned that night that the city had fallen. He had hoped 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 requested 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.

Federal and Confederate officers met between the lines at 9 a.m. Under the temporary ceasefire, 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 taking place the next day.

The surrender was unconditional, but Banks 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 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.

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 south 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 river commerce soon proved difficult because Confederate guerrillas continued attacking Federal shipping from various points along the riverbanks.

Banks soon 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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 68; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 298, 304-06; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 599-600, 614-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 324, 326; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159, 168; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 206; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-82, 386-87; 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), p. 637; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 162; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 298; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 596-97; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 242

The Second Battle of Port Hudson

June 14, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks launched another doomed assault on the Confederate defenses at Port Hudson, Louisiana, but the Federal siege continued.

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. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck finally wrote Banks, the ranking commander, 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 Federal Army of the Gulf spent the next week strengthening its 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.

Federal bombardment of Port Hudson | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 next assaulted the enemy center, and then another Federal attack took place on the southern trenches. Both piecemeal assaults were easily repulsed, and the Federals 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 suffering from 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.”

Confederate resistance remained stubborn, but the Federals had cut their supply line, and 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.

Major General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in western Louisiana, tried diverting Banks’s attention by threatening Donaldsonville. However, the U.S.S. Winona scattered the enemy cavalry near Plaquemine and kept Donaldsonville secure. Taylor next targeted the Federal depot at Berwick Bay, where Banks stored supplies for his planned expedition up the Teche and Red rivers after capturing Port Hudson.

Taylor advanced on the Federal garrison with 3,000 dismounted Texas cavalry, artillery, and a makeshift naval flotilla of 53 vessels. 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 pulling supply cars. His men also destroyed the Lafourche Bridge, preventing trains from going east to supply Banks 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 Brigadier General Thomas Green, who had gained fame for his victory at Valverde in the New Mexico Territory, 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.

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 five days later 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 remained focused on his relentless siege of Port Hudson instead. 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. By the end of June, it was clear that Gardner could not hold out much longer.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18674-83; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 294; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 400-04, 598-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 309-10, 313-14, 316; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 166; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 366, 370, 372-73; 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), p. 637; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 596-97

The Battle of Port Hudson

May 27, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks directed his Federal Army of the Gulf to attack the strong Confederate defenses at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

Federal army and navy forces continued surrounding Port Hudson, the last Confederate bastion besides Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Rear Admiral David G. Farragut arrived from New Orleans and informed Banks that the Confederates were holding firm against the naval 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.

Federal General Nathaniel Banks | Image Credit: Flickr.com

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 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 the 25th, Banks had linked two Federal divisions from the south and three from the north, a military maneuver that Napoleon 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.

Fighting outside Port Hudson | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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 relieving 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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18700; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 288; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 395-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 300-02; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164, 166; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 206; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 357-59; 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), p. 637; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 596-97

Port Hudson: Federals Close the Escape Route

May 21, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf finally began advancing on Port Hudson, Louisiana, after conducting a series of ancillary operations.

Port Hudson, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi besides Vicksburg, was located on a sharp bend in the river about 147 miles above New Orleans and 22 miles above Baton Rouge. The heavy guns defending Port Hudson had nearly destroyed Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s Federal warships as they tried passing the stronghold.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Since then, Banks had turned away from Port Hudson and instead tried gaining control of the Red River, the principal waterway that Confederates used to transport supplies from the west. Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck called these movements of “secondary importance,” and the Lincoln administration had been pressuring Banks to turn his attention back to Port Hudson.

Banks argued that he could not advance on the stronghold until he received the reinforcements that Major General Ulysses S. Grant had promised him. But now that Grant had invested Vicksburg, he could not send Banks any men. Banks finally began arranging to confront Port Hudson when he received word that the Confederate garrison had been weakened by the transfer of some troops to Vicksburg.

Federal mortars began bombarding Port Hudson on May 8. Five days later, Banks requested that the gunboats stay above Port Hudson to support his army. Banks feared that without the gunboats, Confederate supplies would continue flowing west from the Red River, across the Mississippi, to Vicksburg.

Banks sent 2,000 wagons filled with captured supplies south and began moving out of Alexandria on the 14th. The 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment, began building bridges for the Federals. Banks planned a two-pronged advance on Port Hudson, with two divisions approaching from Baton Rouge to the south and three divisions approaching from Bayou Sara to the northwest.

As Banks prepared to move, Confederate cavalry raided Federals on the west bank of the Mississippi, taking prisoners and large amounts of supplies that Banks planned to use for his campaign. Banks continued preparing nonetheless. Farragut, commanding the Federal naval forces supporting Banks, wrote to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“We are again about to attack Port Hudson. General Banks, supported by the Hartford, Albatross and some of the small gunboats, will attack from above, landing probably at Bayou Sara, while General (Christopher) Augur will march up from Baton Rouge and will attack the place from below… my vessels are pretty well used up, but they must work as long as they can.”

Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, saw that the Confederate armies defending Vicksburg and Port Hudson were in danger of being destroyed by the Federals approaching them. Johnston sent an urgent message to Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates at Port Hudson, on the 19th:

“Evacuate Port Hudson forthwith, and move with your troops toward Jackson to join other troops which I am uniting. Bring all the fieldpieces that you have, with their ammunition and means of transportation. Heavy guns and their ammunition had better be destroyed, as well as the other property you may be unable to remove.”

In the two days it took Johnston’s message to reach him, Gardner reported that he had an “aggregate present” of 5,715 in three brigades, as well as roughly 1,000 artillerymen, to face Banks’s 30,000 Federals. Gardner positioned his men behind defensive works and fortifications. Three Confederate batteries lined a bluff along the river. Above them was a marsh providing a natural defense, and Confederates lined the land side with four and a half miles of entrenchments and rifle pits.

Gardner dispatched part of his force to stop the Federal advance from Bayou Sara, and then another part to stop Augur’s advance from Baton Rouge. But after a heavy skirmish with Augur’s Federals, the Confederates had to retreat due to low ammunition. A running fight ensued, with the Federals chasing the Confederates back to Port Hudson and clearing the road for the rest of Banks’s men to arrive. Gardner’s last escape route was closed.

Gardner strengthened defenses at Port Hudson as he told his men, “The enemy are coming, but mark you, many a one will get to hell before he does to Port Hudson.” He finally received Johnston’s order to evacuate and recalled that the last time Johnston ordered him to leave, President Jefferson Davis ordered him to “return to Port Hudson with 2,000 troops and hold it to the last.”

And now, with Banks approaching, Gardner could not leave even if he wanted. He replied, “Positive information that the enemy has a large force, and is moving down to cross at Bayou Sara against this place. His whole force from Baton Rouge is in my front. I am very weak and should be rapidly re-enforced.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18700; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 283-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 394, 396; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 294, 296-98, 300; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 101-05; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 353, 355-56