The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 2

by Dan O'Connell on June 5, 2012 · 1 comment

The Union Offensive Operations Begin

The 1862 mid-term elections in the North were a disaster for Lincoln’s Republican party. The Republicans lost 23 seats in the House of Representative. The Democrats captured a majority of seats in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and made gains in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The disaster prompted Indiana Governor Oliver Morton to write the President with advice concerning the disappearing support in the west. He suggested “that the Mississippi River is the artery and outlet of all western commerce” and to regain the confidence of the western states the administration should focus on “the complete clearing out of all obstacles of the Mississippi River.”

Wasting no time in reacting to the negative political climate Lincoln sought an immediate change to the military situation in the west. On November 8th he appointed MG Nathaniel Banks to replace MG Benjamin Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Banks mission was clearly spelled out in a November 9th letter from General-in Chief Henry Halleck;

“The first military operations which will engage your attention…will be the opening of the Mississippi River.”

To ensure that Banks had the resources to make the order a reality an expedition of 39 infantry regiments, 6 field batteries, and a cavalry battalion was assembled at Fort Monroe for shipment to New Orleans. Banks arrived on December 14th and the change of command was conducted the next day. The promised reinforcements began to arrive and continued arriving until early February, but Banks did not wait. On December 16th he dispatched BG Cuvier Grover with about 10,000 men to reoccupy Baton Rouge. The tiny Confederate garrison evacuated and the city was reclaimed on December 17th. The Confederates also sought a change in the command authority at Port Hudson. On December 27th MG Franklin Gardner assumed command and Beall was pushed down to brigade command. Gardner, the accomplished engineer, immediately reinvigorated the construction of the defensive works. Unaware of the change in enemy leadership but nevertheless flushed with success Banks wrote Halleck on the 18th that “whatever may happen we shall not be idle.” The promise, however , was more easily made than it was kept. Banks began a long series of wires that featured excuses for inaction.

January 7
“The troops that accompany my expedition are not in condition for immediate service.”

January 24
“The rebel force at Port Hudson and its vicinity is larger than I can bring against it …and still defend New Orleans and La Fourche District.”

Banks continued by offering up an alternative;
“I intend to make an immediate movement with all the force I can spare in direction of Red River.”

Feeling that he had insufficient strength to challenge the bastion at Port Hudson directly* he was going to attempt to cut off supplies to the garrison. Halleck was none to happy at the delay and told Banks on February 2;

“Nothing but absolute necessity will excuse any further delay on your part.”

On February 13th another convoy of troops arrived but still Banks hesitated. He continued to complain about the lack of land and water transportation, cavalry, and the onerous nature of his administrative responsibilities. Halleck would have none of it and wrote to Banks on February 27th.

“It is hoped that your operations up the river will be pushed with vigor…there is much dissatisfaction here at the delay.”

Banks had no choice but to make an effort of some sort. He selected a single regiment to raid the communications of Port Hudson.

River Raids and Reconnaissance

Banks had been forced into action but he would not rush hastily into major movements. He was still convinced that he would receive significant reinforcement from Grant and started his campaign with a move to isolate the projected battle zone from outside influences. In order to safeguard movements against Port Hudson he intended to prevent Confederate supplies and reinforcements from reaching the area by cutting the main overland routes into the city. He ordered a raid by the 41st Massachusetts, one company of cavalry, and 2 guns of Nims’ Massachusetts battery to destroy the bridges on the Comite and Amite Rivers.

The raiders departed New Orleans at 0300 on March 9th. A six mile march brought them to Pierces Crossroads where Col T. E. Chickering sent four companies of the 41st (A, D, H, and I) along with the cavalry as escort to destroy Bogler’s Bridge. At 2200 the detachment returned and reported that the bridge had been successfully fired but the secondary target, the Strickland Bridge remained intact because they “met with such opposition from Confederate pickets and it being very dark and rainy.”

Another attempt at the Strickland Bridge was mounted at 0400 on the 10th when Chickering dispatched three companies of the 41st (B, C, and H) and the cavalry. The march of four miles was complicated by a thick mud caused by the heavy rains. Chickering reported that the “detachment sent to destroy the Strickland Bridge returned at 8:30 this A.M. after five hours trial to reach said bridge.” After breakfast the whole moved toward the Comite Bridge.

At 100 the advanced guard (Co. A) approached the bridge and drew fire from the Confederate guard. A brash rush was made at the span but was stopped when they discovered the decking removed. A volley from the far side sent the raiders scurrying for cover. Chickering ordered the whole party into line supporting the two guns. The two pieces fired 13 rounds into the underbrush on the opposite bank but received no response. Emboldened by the idea that the enemy had “skedaddled” a team was sent forward to fire the bridge. Considering his mission to be accomplished to the best of his ability Chickering sent word to Banks at 1130 that once the destruction of the Comite Bridge was complete he would march his “very much exhausted” men back to the city.

On March 12th, as a grand review was being conducted on the site of the Battle of Baton Rouge, a second small movement was made when the 53rd Massachusetts and a small cavalry detachment was moved up the river in two steamers. Under the watchful eye of the gunboat Albatross the troops were disembarked on the east bank of the river several miles upriver from the capital. The expedition then marched north for Port Hudson and experienced only light skirmishing before returning to the city. This seemingly insignificant operation proved that the way Port Hudson was clear. There was only one thing left to do.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ned B. June 5, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I find this essay to be misleading.

Banks was not idle when he got to Louisiana, and he did not just select “a single regiment to raid the communications of Port Hudson”. In addition to immediately sending the first part of his force to Baton Rouge, one of his first moves was to reinforce General Weitzel’s command west of New Orleans so it could engage the rebels forces on the flank at the beginning of January. The rest of his command trickled in over the next 8 weeks. He had a large department to organize and manage, raw troops, and a host of civil affairs issues associated overseeing a large occupied city. But as his force came together he developed a plan of advance.

The essay does quote from Banks on January 24th that “I intend to make an immediate movement with all the force I can spare in direction of Red River” but then the ignores the intended movement that followed. Banks plan was to move Emory’s division along the waterways west of the Mississippi to get past Port Hudson; Weitzel would disperse the enemy on the western flank and move to aid Emory; meanwhile the force at Baton Rouge would move to the east of Port Hudson to cut it off. However, Emory’s force found the terrain impassible – flooding over what land there was and rivers found to be choked with trees and debris. In addition to the natural difficulty of the terrain, the Confederates cut the levee across from Port Hudson, adding to the flood waters, and a small confederate force held a defensive line near Rosedale Louisiana. After Emory and some ships from the Navy probed the possible routes and found them impractical, Banks called off the plan.

This is comparable to what Grant was doing at the same time. Grant had portions of his command exploring routes into the waterways west of the Mississippi at Lake Providence and east of the Mississippi at Yazoo Pass both in an effort to get around the defensive position on the bluffs near Vicksburg. Grant would find these routes impractical. He eventually figured out a turning movement closer to Vicksburg.

After iving up his first plan, Banks decided on a route even further west – he would ascend the Bayou Teche, which was bordered by firmer ground, in a wide turning movement to get above Port Hudson. However, Admiral Farragut wanted to make a run past Port Hudson and requested Banks to cooperate so the move up the Teche would be delayed for a month while Banks moved the army in support of Farragut. The blog post claims that at the beginning of the year Banks was “still convinced that he would receive significant reinforcement from Grant”. Banks only came to reinforcements from Grant after Grant suggested it at the end of March.

As an aside, Confederate strength at Port Hudson fluctuated, so in evaluating the comparative force strengths it is important to compare the right numbers. In December Port Hudson was reported to have about 5,500 . Reinforcements were sent in early January and the department commander, General Pemberton, visited after which it was reported that there 10,000 there. At the end of January departmental strength report gave a total of 15,802 present. In February and March more reinforcements were sent, bringing it to peak strength of 20,388 present. In April it began to decline as Pemberton recalled units to Vicksburg.

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