The Siege of Port Hudson
Vicksburg was not the last remaining Confederate bastion on the Mississippi in the summer of 1863. Some 120 miles south of Vicksburg and 25 miles north of Baton Rouge, as the crow flies, sat Port Hudson, Louisiana. In many ways, Port Hudson was a mirror image of Vicksburg. Situated on high bluffs overlooking the east bank of river, and above a hairpin turn, Port Hudson was the last major obstacle between the Federal navy and its dominance of the mighty Mississippi.
A naval foray in March 1863 headed by Rear Adm. David G. Farragut from New Orleans came to grief, illustrating the necessity for a combined Army-Navy effort against the stronghold. Farragut, who was one of the most capable officers in the United States Navy, was joined by one of the least capable Union army commanders, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. A political general through-and-through, Banks was bullied so much by Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley that his Rebel counterparts dubbed him “Commissary” Banks because of all of the supplies the southern forces captured from him.
On May 11, Banks learned that a significant portion of the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson had been transferred to support the southern forces defending Vicksburg. Hoping to take advantage of this southern manpower shortage, “Commissary” Banks drove his forces toward Port Hudson. Banks divided his forces into two columns: one column of three divisions approached Port Hudson from Alexandria, Louisiana, to the north, and a second column of two divisions advanced north from Baton Rouge. By May 21, the columns had combined, and Banks's force numbered nearly 40,000 men. The Federal army at Port Hudson enjoyed a four-to-one manpower advantage over their enemy, yet Banks delayed nearly a week organizing his forces for an assault.
Banks’s opponent was a New Yorker and graduate of the West Point class of 1843, Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner. The experienced Gardner was up to the task before him, and he and his men worked hard to improve their defenses before Banks unleashed his assault.
Boasting five division of infantry, an oversized brigade of cavalry, and a navy, Banks failed miserably to coordinate his assaults on the Confederate fortifications when he finally attacked on May 27. Two Federal divisions assaulted the north side of the rebel works near dawn, which was repulsed after nearly three hours of fighting. At noon, two more Federal divisions thrust themselves upon the rebel works from the east. For another three hours, fighting raged on this front. The Confederate works were so impressive and their fortifying moats so deep that Federal commanders ordered forward volunteers and engineers—including the 1st Louisiana Engineers Corps D’Afrique to fill the dry moats with bridging materials.
In a desperate attempt to break the Confederate lines, Union Brig. Gen. William Dwight ordered the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards into action. The units consisted of newly freed Black troops and were acting as pioneers (construction troops) during the battle, but were nevertheless pressed into action. The Guards’s attack route was perhaps the deadliest, as it skirted the river that ran along their right flank and, on their left, was an enfilading line of Confederate infantry and artillery. This attack, too, failed.
Another Union attack on June 13 was beaten back, so Banks settled in for a siege. Soon the defenders exhausted their food and ammunition, and fighting and disease greatly reduced the number of men able to defend the trenches. The disease and famine that pervaded the Confederate lines at Port Hudson was perhaps worse than what the Vicksburg garrison endure during its 47-day siege. When Gardner learned that Vicksburg had surrendered on July 4, he realized his situation was hopeless and surrendered his garrison on July 9. The Mississippi was open to Union navigation for the rest of the war.