Tag Archives: Nathaniel P. Banks

Banks Initiates Reconstruction in Louisiana

January 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Gulf from New Orleans, issued orders calling for the election of Louisiana state officials and delegates to a convention that would rewrite the Louisiana constitution.

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

The state officials were to comprise “the civil government of the State under the Constitution and laws of Louisiana, except so much of the said Constitution and laws as recognize, regulate, or relate to slavery, which, being inconsistent with the present condition of public affairs, and plainly inapplicable to any class of persons now existing within its limits, must be suspended.”

Banks had been prodded by President Abraham Lincoln to implement his “Ten Percent Plan” in Louisiana. Banks resolved that “the only speedy and certain method” to do this was to hold a special election for state officials under the current Louisiana constitution while declaring that the provisions in that document regarding slavery were “inoperative and void.”

Most Unionists opposed Banks’s plan because they wanted to amend the constitution to not only abolish slavery but to abolish other alleged injustices that favored planters over the masses. Banks responded by also calling for the election of delegates that would revise or replace the Louisiana constitution at a later date.

Those eligible to vote in the elections for state officials and delegates were white men who swore allegiance to the Union and adhered to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the proclamation exempted many areas of Louisiana from abolishing slavery. Also, the election would be held when Federal occupation forces controlled only 17 of the state’s 48 parishes. Regardless, Banks had the 10 percent of 1860 voters he needed to call for the election, and it was set for February 22.

Some objected to the notion that only white men would be voting to revise Louisiana’s constitution. A petition was sent to Washington, signed by over 1,000 men, calling on the Federal government to grant the “free people of color” in New Orleans the right to vote. The signees included 27 veterans of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the relatives of many men currently serving in the military. Radical Republicans in Congress applauded the delegates who delivered the petition, and Lincoln invited them to the White House.

But while the Radicals favored granting black men the right to vote, many opposed Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.” Congressman Henry W. Davis of Maryland introduced a resolution stating, “There is no legal authority to hold any election in the State of Louisiana; … (and) any attempt to hold an election… is a usurpation of sovereign authority against the authority of the United States.” Politics played a part in Davis’s opposition, as Lincoln had not supported Davis’s bitter struggle against the Blairs’ political machine in Maryland.

Despite the opposition, Lincoln directed Banks to “proceed with all possible despatch” to install a Unionist state government in Louisiana. He reminded Banks that, as department commander, he was “at liberty to adopt any rule which shall admit to vote any unquestionably loyal free state men and none others. And yet I do wish they would all take the oath.”

—–

References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16850; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 359; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10346-58, 10391; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388-89, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 454, 459; 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. 707; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Advertisements

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.

—–

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 Battle of Sabine Pass

September 8, 1863 – A Federal army-navy expedition to the Texas-Louisiana border met with embarrassing defeat by less than 50 Confederates defending Sabine Pass.

With Louisiana under Federal occupation, the Lincoln administration sought a military expansion into eastern Texas. Cotton-starved New England mill owners applied political pressure to invade the cotton-rich region. Also, Mexican arms shipments to the Confederacy through this region provided another reason to invade. Moreover, a Federal presence in eastern Texas could threaten the French puppet regime in Mexico and prevent France from recognizing the Confederacy.

Both President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck favored a Texas invasion via the Red River. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf, favored an attack on Mobile, Alabama. However, his army shrank drastically after capturing Port Hudson, when the enlistment terms of many of his regiments expired. This made a Mobile expedition impossible without reinforcements.

Banks ultimately agreed to target Texas, but he opposed the dangerous Red River plan because the summer had lowered the water level, making it difficult for Federal gunboats to pass. Also, as a former politician with questionable command ability, he did not want his future political aspirations damaged if the expedition failed. Banks instead favored a safer amphibious attack on the Texas coast. Lincoln and Halleck approved.

Banks selected multiple targets, with Sabine Pass being the first. The pass was at the mouth of the Sabine River, which forms the Texas-Louisiana border. Once the Federals controlled Sabine Pass, they could seal it off from blockade runners and continue upriver to Sabine City. From there, they could advance on Beaumont, Houston, or Galveston.

For the army part of the operation, Banks selected Major General William B. Franklin to command. Franklin had failed to save Harpers Ferry prior to the Battle of Antietam, failed to press his advantage at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was transferred out of the Army of the Potomac for conspiring against Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. He was given 5,000 troops for this mission.

Admiral Henry H. Bell, acting commander of the Federal West Gulf Blockading Squadron, assembled four ironclad gunboats (the U.S.S. Clifton, Arizona, Granite City, and Sachem) to support the army troops. These vessels were converted side-wheel river steamers and the only available ships that had drafts shallow enough to get over the sandbar and enter the Sabine River.

According to Banks, the gunboats had “decayed frames and weak machinery,” and were “constantly out of repair.” Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, the official squadron commander currently on leave, informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles when he learned of the plan that “you may expect to hear of disaster.” Lieutenant Frederick Crocker would command the navy part of the operation, which included not only the gunboats but 22 transports to convey Franklin’s troops.

The Federal armada arrived off the bar at Sabine Pass late on the 7th. Franklin planned to seize the pass the next day, then move inland to Beaumont and capture the Texas & New Orleans Railroad. This linked Houston to New Orleans and represented the last rail connection between Texas and the eastern Confederacy. In the meantime, a Federal division under Major General Francis J. Herron would divert the attention of Confederates in Louisiana so they would not interfere with the operation.

Fort Griffin guarded the pass about two miles up the Sabine River, but only 47 Confederate artillerists of the Texas Jeff Davis Guards, which had been merged into the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, manned the fort. Led by 20-year-old saloonkeeper Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, the Confederates had been posted at Griffin partly as punishment for misbehavior.

The fort had just six smoothbore cannon, but they were on an elevated platform from which the artillerists could see several miles around them. The men had placed range markers in the river and practiced firing their guns every day. Dowling observed Federal signal lights off the pass on the night of the 7th and notified Major General John B. Magruder, his department commander. Magruder advised him to spike the guns and retreat, but Dowling prepared to defend the fort instead.

The Federal gunboats began bombarding Fort Griffin at dawn the next day. The Confederates held their fire until the vessels crossed the bar around 4 p.m. and came within range. Then Dowling’s men used their range markers to open a deadly cannonade. Within a half-hour, the Sachem had taken a shot through her boiler and the Clifton took one through the steam drum. The crews of both gunboats surrendered, while the remaining vessels quickly withdrew.

Federal gunboats entering Sabine Pass | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

In addition to 315 men captured from the Clifton and Sachem, the Federals sustained 65 casualties (19 killed, nine wounded, and 37 missing). Crocker was among the wounded. Franklin also reported that 200,000 rations had been dumped overboard to lighten a grounded transport, and 200 mules had been dumped to lighten a steamer.

As Farragut had predicted, Franklin relied solely on the gunboats to neutralize the fort rather than provide infantry support. Franklin aborted the attack and ordered a return to New Orleans. Thus, the first Federal attempt to invade Texas ended in humiliating failure. The next day, Confederate Captain F.H. Odlum issued his report on the battle:

“I have the honor to report that we had an engagement with the enemy yesterday and gained a handsome victory. We captured two of their gunboats, crippled a third, and drove the rest out of the Pass. We took 18 fine guns, a quantity of smaller arms, ammunition and stores, killed about 50, wounded several, and took 150 prisoners, without the loss or injury of any one on our side or serious damage to the fort.”

This small engagement greatly boosted Confederate morale. President Jefferson Davis called it “one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of warfare,” and labeled the battle the Thermopylae of the war. Dowling and his gunners became southern heroes, later receiving an official vote of thanks from the Confederate Congress. Houston residents also contributed to produce special Davis Guard medals for the men, the only official Confederate awards for military valor.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15814; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 322-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 774-75; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 523-533; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 346-48; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-47, 50; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 404-07; 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. 171-72; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 650

Grant’s Wild Ride

September 4, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant suffered a serious riding accident while witnesses claimed he was drunk.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant headed down the Mississippi River on the 2nd to confer with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Gulf, at New Orleans. Two days later, Banks honored Grant with a large military review at Carrollton that featured Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Federals marching past with the names of Grant’s recent victories inscribed on their banners. Grant, Banks, and other high-ranking officers next attended a lavish dinner in New Orleans that featured “music, wine, choruses, etc.”

After the festivities, the officers left and Grant mounted an unfamiliar and stubborn horse. As Grant rode ahead of the others, the horse reared and bolted at the sound of a nearby locomotive whistle. The animal collided with an oncoming carriage and fell, knocking Grant to the ground. The horse returned to his feet uninjured, but Grant suffered a dislocated hip and a possible fractured skull.

Unconscious, Grant was taken to the St. Charles Hotel, where he awoke to doctors tending to him. Rumors quickly spread that Grant had been drunk; these were corroborated by Banks and Major General William B. Franklin. In constant pain from the hip injury, Grant stayed in bed for a week.

Grant returned to Vicksburg on the 16th, but he had to be carried aboard a steamer because he still could not walk or sit upright. Nine days later, Grant finally began moving around on crutches, and on the 28th, he reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he was “ready for the field.” Fortunately for the Federal high command, the major operations taking place at that time were all outside Grant’s department.

—–

References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 322; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 773-74, 780; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 346; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 86, 88; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 404-05

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

——

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