The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 10

by Dan O'Connell on July 3, 2012 · 0 comments

The First Assault – May 27th (Afternoon)

Concerned about the lack of activity in the other sectors of the line Banks approached MG Augur. Augur argued that his men were prepared but that no word had been had from Sherman to coordinate their actions. Banks rode to Sherman’s headquarters and found him having lunch with his staff. Irked by the nonchalant attitude of his subordinate Banks issued a severe dressing down and rode back to his headquarters. When arrived he was still angered by Sherman’s failure and dispatched his chief of staff, BG George Andrews, to relieve him. Andrews rode to Sherman’s headquarters to carry out the awkward task of taking over Sherman’s command on the verge of battle. When he arrived he found Sherman mounted and ready to start the assault. Probably relieved that he was being spared such a disagreeable duty Andrews said nothing and watched as Sherman led his men off.

The Union delays again served the Confederate purpose. BG Beall, commanding in the center of the Confederate position, had clear view of the prearations and called for reinforcements. As Sherman started his long march across the fields of the Slaughter Plantation the Miles Legion arrived to strengthen his line. Sherman’s line was fronted by 300 black engineers carrying large poles (6″ x 25″) and a group of volunteers from the various regiments followed carrying boards 2″ x 12″ x 5′. This group was to bridge the ditch believed to be at the base of the Confederate works. The movement across the wide field continued until the Federal lines came into range of the Confederate artillery. Once in range Beall’s guns began a severe barrage that flattened the would be bridge builders halfway across the field. No amount of prodding could make them continue on. Minus the means to span the ditch the Union lines continued forward over several rail fences that threw the troops “into considerable confusion and disorder.” The attack was losing heavily at every step. Even more importantly one of the first to go down was Sherman. His replacement fell and then others until eventually there was no recognized leader on the field. The “perfect shower” of artillery was so intense that the Confederate gunners began to run out of canister. They improvised rounds by stuffing shirt sleeves with any suitable material that could be found. Still the Union line came on. When they reached rifle range the colorfully attired Zouaves of the 165th NY became favorite targets of the enemy riflemen. They went down by the dozens. Units waivered then rallied only to be halted again. Finally they could take no more and “were compelled to seek cover behind stumps , logs , etc.” They would remain there until nightfall when they would retire in the darkness.

North of the Plains Store Road MG Augur had skirmishers from the 21st ME lead Colonel Edward Chapin’s brigade (21st ME, 48th MA, 49th MA, and 116th NY) and the 2nd LA from Colonel Nathan Dudley’s brigade out onto the field. They were followed by a “forlorn hope” column of 200 men led by LTC O’Brien of the 48th MA. Each man carried a fascine bundle to be used to fill the ditch allowing the others to cross. As the Confederate defenders opened on them they found that the awkward bundles made it impossible to negotiate the abatis in front of the enemy works. The fascines were discarded and the men found what cover they could. The main body closed on the abatis and found it impassable as well. Chapin was shot through the head and the leaderless men began to drop in search of cover. O’Brien attempted to rally his men but a call to charge got him only a dozen brave souls and a deadly bullet. Fire from the Union troops became negligible as they scurried to protect themselves from the outpouring of fire from the Confederate works. Gradually the fire from both sides subsided and by 1700 the field was quiet. No Union troops came near the Confederate works. Those that could found their way back. Hundreds of wounded lay entangled in the abatis and were threatened with a brutal death when the fallen timber caught fire. Confederates came out of their works and extinguished the flames and helped themselves to the weapons of the fallen. The next day Banks requested and was granted a flag of truce to recover the wounded and bury the dead. His loss in the poorly executed attacks totaled 1995 casualties (293 Killed, 1545 wounded and 157 missing). Confederate losses revealed the value of their improved works; 235 killed, wounded and missing.

Cavalry Operations

The miserable failure of the May 27th assaults left Banks no choice but to enter into a conventional siege. He summoned the heavy artillery and siege train and began the work necessary to take the fortress by gradual approaches. On May 30 the engineers and contrabands began the tedious process of building breastworks, making roads capable of handling the heavy guns, laying out positions, reinforcing strong points, constructing batteries, and digging towards the Confederate works. He also ordered the eight regiments left on the Teche, detached units and troops remaining at Baton Rouge and New Orleans, including several USCT units to Port Hudson. Another reshuffling of the command structure was also accomplished. The wounded Sherman was replaced by Dwight, units were returned to their original commands and the cavalry strengthened. The three mounted companies of the 41st MA merged with a battalion of the 2nd MA Cav to form the 3rd MA Cav, 300 mounted men from the 4th WI, three companies of the 14th NY Cav, and the 1st LA Cav supplemented Grierson’s two Illinois regiments (6th and 7th)

As the long process of the siege developed another military threat gained the attention of the Union forces. Colonel John Logan with his force of about 1200 Confederate troopers became the target of Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry. Wanting to avoid any disruption in communications Grierson was sent out on June 3rd to investigate Logan’s strength and intentions. The Federal column (1200 men) consisted of the 6th IL, 7th IL, two companies of the 3rd MA, two companies of the 4th WI (mounted), 2 companies of the 1st LA Cav, and a section of guns. After dispatching a 200 man column under Captain Godfrey to clear Jackson, Grierson continued on. About six miles from Clinton he encountered Logan’s pickets and drove them across the Comite River using the 7th Illinois Cavalry as dismounted skirmishers. Once across the bridge they discovered Logan’s “whole force was posted in a strong position” at Pretty Creek. The 4th Wisconsin dismounted and joined the 7th Illinois along the bank of the creek and engaged the enemy while the artillery was posted on either side of the road. The Smith carbines of the 7th Illinois quickly used up their available ammunition and they had to be relieved by the 1st LA Cav. While they could hold their own against the force he thought was “far outnumbering us”* Grierson’s men could not dislodge them. When the Confederates attempted to flank the Union line the 6th Illinois Cav was called up from their trail position to secure the flanks. As ammunition grew dangerously low and the prospect of victory dimmed Grierson opted to withdraw back to Port Hudson. The order to move back was missed by one company of the 1st LA and they accounted for many of the missing as they were overwhelmed before they could make good their escape. The episode cost Grierson 51 casualties (8k,28w,and 15m). Confederate losses were a total of 20 killed and wounded.

Stung by the rebuke Banks strengthened the cavalry with a brigade of infantry and determined to try again. Four days of marching in the steamy early summer weather proved fruitless. Logan escaped detection and the Union troops and horse returned exhausted. Their only accomplishment being the destruction of a cotton mill, railroad depot, and railroad bridge at Clinton. Logan could proudly and accurately say of his enemy that “I have annoyed him a great deal.”

* Actually the sides were roughly equal in strength

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)

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