The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 3

by Dan O'Connell on June 8, 2012 · 0 comments

Cooperation Confusion

By mid-March 1863 it was clear that Union forces had the opportunity to achieve one of the strategic stepping stones laid out by the war planners in Washington as a path to eventual victory; control of the Mississippi River. With the Confederate Navy a nonfactor only the land based defenses at Vicksburg and Port Hudson stood in the way of dominance over the vital waterway. Although the forces of Banks and Grant were well poised to accomplish this goal, what was not clear was exactly how this would be done. There were three visions of how the base strategy would play out and many obstacles to each of them.

In Washington General in Chief Henry Halleck desired a coordinated effort. He pelted his two western commanders with telegrams espousing unification and joint action. He did not recognize that the distance between Grant and Banks and the intervening enemy forces made that kind of communication and coordination extremely difficult. Messages between the two men often took so long to reach their destination that their contents had become irrelevant. Furthermore the exact nature of the coordination was not fully explained and caused the commanders on each end to view it in their own way.

Banks, operating under the belief that Port Hudson was defended by 18,000 – 20,000 Confederates, wanted no part of a direct assault. In an effort to appease Halleck’s wishes Banks started a move up the west side of the Mississippi River in an attempt to bypass the fortress . He assured Halleck that “control of water communications and approaches to the Red River” would be of “great importance” when operations against Port Hudson finally began. He wanted to link up with Grant above Port Hudson and thus be reinforced for a effort at Port Hudson from the north. Dated communications from Grant indicated agreement with this plan. In a message written on March 23 Grant assured Banks that he would send 20,000 troops if the Lake Providence bypass of Vicksburg proved capable of allowing the necessary transports below the batteries. Banks did not receive this until April 10th. He responded that he would be at Port Hudson by May 10th. Grant did not receive this until after he had crossed at Bruinsburg. In the meantime, on April 14th, Grant sent another message promising to send the troops via the Bayou Sara by the 25th. Banks received this on May 5th and sent word that he would be at Port Hudson waiting for the troops.

Halleck became distressed at the apparent lack of cooperation and suggested that the “eccentric movements” along the Mississippi might lead to a “serious disaster” if the two armies were not united. In an effort to entice Banks toward movement he even suggested that Banks would have “entire command” upon unification. Before any major movement could be contemplated the confusing criss-cross of messages suffered a serious change in tenure. On May 10th Banks received a message from Grant requesting that Banks come north with his troops to join in the move on Vicksburg. This was the end of any hope for unified action. Believing he was the one to be reinforced Banks declined to move north. He cited two very valid reasons;

1. He would have to move without open communication lines to his primary base.
2. Such a move would put two strong enemy locations in his rear; Port Hudson and Mobile.

On May 12th he wrote to Halleck stating that “it is plain that he (Grant) has abandoned all idea of cooperating with me upon Port Hudson.” The two campaigns would remain separate. Banks would have to reassess his options.

Planning the Passing of the Batteries

While negotiations were being conducted by the Army commanders concerning unified action on the Mississippi another proposal was raised from a different quarter. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, asked Banks for cooperation in an attempt to pass the Port Hudson batteries with a portion of his fleet. Banks was expected to provide a diversionary attack on the fortress to help cover the upstream move of the selected boats. Anxious to recover from a disaster at Galveston, Farragut wanted to restore some luster to the reputation of his fleet. Encouraged by the passage of the Queen of the West into the waters between Vicksburg and Port Hudson Farragut saw a chance to cut off supplies from the Trans-Mississippi. In his instructions to his commanders Farragut stated;

“…that the object is, to run the batteries at the least possible damage to our ships, thereby secure an efficient force above…”

Once past the Port Hudson fortress, and in the absence of any Confederate naval threat, the boats would;

“… proceed up to the mouth of Red River and keep up the police of the river…capturing everything they can.”

Farragut had little to chose from for his move. The U.S.S. Essex, his sole iron clad ship was immediately discounted because Farragut did not trust her faulty engines in a run against the current. From the remaining available vessels he selected:

Hartford – 2900 ton screw sloop, Flagship
Richmond – 2604 Ton screw sloop
Monongahela – 2111 ton screw sloop
Albatross – 378 ton screw gunboat
Genesee – 803 ton screw gunboat
Kineo – 507 ton screw gunboat
Mississippi – 3220 ton side wheel frigate

The odd mixture of available craft lent tself to the implementation of a novel idea. Each of the larger sloops would have one of the gunboats (all being screw driven) lashed to the port side “as far aft as possible” during the voyage. The reasons for this unusual configuration were fourfold. First the combined power was thought to be more capable of overcoming the current. Traveling upstream against the 5 knot current would slow the ships significantly.* It was also thought that if either vessel got into trouble the other could provide navigation power or possibly pull the deep drafted sloops free in the event of grounding. Furthermore, the wooden gunboats were not considered capable of standing up to the guns at Port Hudson. By lashing them to the port side (or away from the guns) of the sturdier sloops some protection might be gained. Farragut also believed that the combined steering ability of the coupled vessels would help making the severe bend in the river just above the batteries thus allowing them to move out of range. The side wheel configuration of the Mississippi necessitated that she would make the run alone.

Additional measures were taken to protect the ships. All unnecessary rigging was removed from the sloops and splinter netting hung on the starboard side. Barricades of cotton or hammock bags were established around the boilers. Chains and cables were hung on the starboard side in hopes that they might provide some protection from incoming rounds. Some boiler plate was arranged around areas were the crew would be more exposed, this was particularly true on the Hartford. The Hartford was also fitted with a speaking tube so commands could be more readily relayed to the engine room. Preparations were complete on 13 March and the run upstream was to begin with some preliminary actions by the Essex and a small fleet of mortar schooners.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)

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