Tag Archives: Thomas W. Sherman

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

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The Fall of Port Royal

November 7, 1861 – After struggling through a horrific storm on the Atlantic, the Federal naval squadron attacked and captured a vital Confederate port.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

As November opened, Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont’s 77-ship Federal armada carrying 13,000 men continued its journey from Fort Monroe to Port Royal Sound. The weather suddenly turned ferocious as the fleet rounded Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, producing what an officer aboard the U.S.S. Wabash called “one of the severest gales I have ever experienced.”

The crew of the Isaac Smith had to dump their artillery to keep from sinking. The transport steamer Governor went under, with the Smith and the U.S.S. Sabine rescuing all but seven of the 300 Marines on board. The U.S.S. Mohican rescued all but 26 from the sinking transport Peerless. Several other vessels foundered, losing large amounts of munitions.

Small steamers to be used for landing troops had to turn back, thus canceling the original plan for army troops to land and seize the two forts protecting the entrance to Port Royal Sound. The navy would have to take Port Royal alone, just like at Hatteras Inlet and Ship Island. For now, Du Pont struggled to reassemble his scattered fleet.

Meanwhile, Confederates had discovered the Federals’ secret objective, with newspapers warning of a Federal invasion “somewhere” south of North Carolina. Learning more specifics, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Confederate forces that “The enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.”

Still unable to sight most of his ships, Du Pont proceeded southward anyway aboard his flagship, the U.S.S. Wabash, and arrived off the bar at Port Royal Sound on the 4th. He was joined by 25 ships of his fleet, with the rest of the surviving vessels on their way.

Port Royal Sound stood halfway between Charleston and Savannah, guarding a rich agricultural region known for producing long-staple cotton. Its defenses included the 600-man garrisons at Fort Beauregard at Bay Point to the north and Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south; these forts mounted 43 total guns. In addition, a small naval squadron under Commodore Josiah Tatnall consisted of his flagship Savannah and three converted tugboats. Even with 1,000 reinforcements on their way, these defenders were hardly expected to withstand such oncoming Federal power, with or without bad weather.

The Federals surveyed the coast, taking depth readings and identifying the channels the warships could use to enter the sound. Tatnall fired on the U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, but superior Federal firepower drove Tatnall’s little fleet back into the harbor under the protection of Forts Beauregard and Walker. The Federal ships were undamaged. The next day, Federal ships continued assembling, with some crossing the bar to test the forts’ strength. Tatnall attacked again and was again forced to withdraw. The Federals then fired on Fort Beauregard, sparking a massive explosion by hitting an artillery caisson.

Du Pont held a council of war that afternoon, where he determined to attack the forts. Without landing craft, the army troops under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman could not launch their planned attack and would instead serve to take the forts after the naval forces pounded them into submission. A navy lieutenant wrote, “General Sherman says in my hearing that: ‘These ships can’t take the forts without cooperation with the troops.’ I hope we will show him differently.”

The attack was postponed until the 6th when Du Pont’s flagship became grounded and needed help from the Susquehanna to be freed. The next morning, Du Pont postponed the attack another day because high winds made it “too fresh” to attack.

On the morning of November 7, the flagship Wabash led 14 Federal warships into Port Royal Sound and opened fire on Forts Beauregard and Walker. Du Pont employed a tactic suggested by Flag Captain Charles H. Davis by moving the ships in a large oval pattern while firing. This allowed each ship to bear all her guns on the forts and deprived Confederate artillerists of fixed targets. Most of the inferior Confederate artillery could not reach the attacking ships. Tatnall’s Confederate fleet, too small to intervene, dipped its pennants and fell back up the Beaufort River.

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

A correspondent witnessing the bombardment reported that “the rising of the dust on shore in perpendicular columns looked as if we had suddenly raised… a grove of poplars.” General Thomas F. Drayton, commanding the Confederate defenses, watched this “magnificent armada… vomit forth its iron hail, with all the spiteful energy of long-suppressed rage and conscious strength.” Drayton’s brother, Percival, commanded the U.S.S. Pocahontas within the attack fleet.

Federal gunboats enfiladed Fort Walker, methodically disabling its guns and firing an average of 60 shells over the defenders per minute. The Confederates in the fort finally began evacuating around 2 p.m., aided by Tatnall’s ships. Fort Beauregard was abandoned 90 minutes later. The Confederates sustained 62 casualties (11 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing). White residents joined them in fleeing from the sea islands to the mainland, leaving behind some 10,000 slaves.

The Wabash landed Marines to take Fort Walker, and army forces took over Fort Beauregard. Commander John Rodgers, acting as Du Pont’s aide, obtained the formal surrender of both forts. At 2:20 p.m., he received the honor of raising the U.S. flag over Fort Walker, the first U.S. flag to be hoisted on South Carolina soil since the state seceded.

General Robert E. Lee arrived from Richmond that evening and conferred with General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the former Department of South Carolina. The men could do nothing except move their forces farther inland and try strengthening the defenses of Charleston and Savannah. Lee sadly noted, “There are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on the water, that there is but little rest.”

The Federals sustained just 31 casualties (eight killed and 23 wounded) in securing the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast. This was the greatest Federal victory of the war to date, and it greatly boosted sagging northern morale.

Federal occupation forces at Port Royal and Hilton Head rounded up the abandoned slaves and put them to work as servants and laborers. They all worked to make the site a prime base for refueling, supplying, and servicing the blockading squadron. It also provided an excellent staging area for an attack on Charleston, one of the Lincoln administration’s prime targets. Du Pont wrote, “It is not my temper to rejoice over fallen foes, but this must be a gloomy night in Charleston.”

Sherman’s troops advanced from Hilton Head toward Beaufort the next morning, as residents of Charleston and Savannah received the tragic news that Port Royal had fallen. Many people packed their belongings and fled inland. Percival Drayton, a former resident of the area, wrote, “Such a panic as seems to have existed through the low country can scarcely be described.”

An editorial in the Charleston Mercury defiantly exclaimed, “Let the invaders come, ‘tis the unanimous feeling of our people. Our Yankee enemies will, sooner or later, learn to their cost the difference between invaders for spoils and power, and defenders of their liberties, their native land.”

On November 9, Sherman’s Federals and gunboats captured Beaufort on the Broad River, effectively cutting off the flow of communications and supplies via water between Charleston and Savannah. Lee wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin from his new headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South Carolina:

“The enemy having complete possession of the water and inland navigation, commands all the islands on the coast and threatens both Savannah and Charleston, and can come in his boats, within 4 miles of this place… We have no guns that can resist their batteries, and have no resources to meet them in the field.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 189; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13314, 13339; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 91-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77-81; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133-38; 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. 370-71; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 38-42; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 217-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32, 34

The Port Royal Campaign

October 29, 1861 – A massive Federal army-navy expedition left Hampton Roads to capture Port Royal, South Carolina, located between Charleston and Savannah.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, considered various locales to establish a refueling and servicing port for his Federal naval fleet. After weighing the options, Du Pont informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Port Royal would be the most useful site for that purpose. Port Royal was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, guarding the important harbor of Beaufort, South Carolina, and possessing formidable defenses.

After months of planning, the Federals organized a joint expedition. Du Pont assembled an attack fleet in New York, while Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman gathered 13,000 troops in three brigades at Annapolis. These combined army-navy forces arrived at Hampton Roads on October 21. Storms delayed the launch, which actually helped the commanders by giving them more time to plan and prepare.

The armada consisted of 19 warships with 157 guns, 25 supply vessels, and 33 transports. It was the largest joint operation ever attempted up to that time, even though several ships were not suited for oceanic navigation. President Lincoln had promoted Du Pont to flag officer, which equaled a major general in the army, so he would outrank Sherman. However, neither commander could “assume any direct command, independent of consent, over an officer of the other service.”

No one but Du Pont and Sherman knew that Port Royal was the ultimate destination. As the fleet left Hampton Roads on the 29th, the captain of each ship held sealed orders from Du Pont revealing the objective, to be opened only if the fleet became separated at sea.

Captain Charles H. Davis, secretary of the Blockade Board and Du Pont’s fleet captain and chief of staff, wrote that “the sea is covered with lights at every point of the horizon… I think of similar expeditions that have figured in history… and as I looked abroad on the ocean covered with our ships and transports… I participated in the glow and ardor and elation of heart inspired, no doubt, by the armada of Spain.”

A lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Wabash noted, “Never did such a heterogeneous squadron venture upon the waters, nondescripts ad infinitum; vessels without shape before known to the maritime world… Had some homeward bound vessel haplessly got within our lines, surely would the bewildered skipper have imagined that ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane’ had come against him.” Although the Confederates were not yet aware where the fleet was headed, they alerted all coastal defenders that the ships had departed.

By early morning on the 31st, Du Pont’s fleet began rounding Cape Hatteras in warm waters. When a troop transport ran aground on the shoals, the rest of the fleet adjusted their course by moving further out to sea. This dissatisfied Flag Officer Du Pont, who felt that the Cape could be rounded closer if navigated properly. He later wrote that the land was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second-and-third class merchantmen.”

Heavy gales would soon turn the sea violent as the armada progressed down the coast.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 127, 132; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 37-38; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597