The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 11

by Dan O'Connell on July 6, 2012 · 1 comment

June 11th – Night Action

By June 11th the tedious siege work had established the siege batteries and gained enough ground to justify another test of the Confederate line. Accordingly, Banks ordered a rare night attack by his skirmishers all along the line. Banks established some fairly lofty goals as the purpose for the action. He detailed his objectives in his order as;

– Harass the enemy
– Induce the enemy to “bring forward and reveal and expose his artillery.”
– Acquire knowledge of the enemy position.
– Create a situation where the pioneers could move up and clear obstructions.

The primary and the goal with the most reasonable expectation of success seems to have been the effort against the Confederate artillery. As the Union dominance in guns was established with the placement of the siege pieces the Confederate artillery made itself scarce. The combination of sharpshooter’s ready to reduce the crews, powerful guns ready to engage, and their need to conserve ammunition reduced the Confederate guns to survival mode. Banks was hoping that this feigned assault would cause them to be rolled out and subjected to counter battery fire.

Camp Pope Publishing

At midnight BG Godfrey Weitzel sent seventeen companies of skirmishers forward at intervals of two yards between men. The line advanced “half to two-thirds the distance toward the parapet of the works in front” firing rapidly to provoke a response. The Confederate defenders were more than happy to oblige them. A fire “so hot that they were compelled to lie down for protection” came pouring out of the enemy works. Weitzel complained in his report that the failure of the adjoining units on both sides to advance allowed his end element (75th New York) to be uncovered and subjected to a flanking fire. The 12th Connecticut skirmishers, under Captain Clark, made the furthest advance and a small number actually attempted to seize a foothold on the parapet. They were driven off and found shelter with the rest of the 12th CT in a ravine. Weitzel was forced to the conclusion that “there being no fair prospect of taking the enemy’s works” he should withdraw his forces. The withdrawal proved difficult for some of the units. Two companies of the 22nd Maine became disoriented in the dark; ravine filled terrain and became lost. Sixty-five of them were reported missing but eventually found their way back. The 91st New York was so pinned down by fire “within 75 yards of the enemy breastworks” that the retiring companies were ordered to support them with their fire. They also were eventually retired to their previous position.

The advance was so readily halted by the fire from the Confederate rifle pits that artillery was unnecessary. Only one enemy gun was reported fired throughout the attack. None of the stated objectives was accomplished. The only gain made was a slightly improved position made by the advance of the 131st New York. The poorly thought out operation cost the Federals 2 killed, 41 wounded, and 6 missing.

Planning Another Attempt

On the morning of the 13th Banks ordered an hour long bombardment of the enemy works. The Union artillery and gunboats opened at 1115 hours and rained shells on the works for the appointed time. They dismounted three heavy guns but caused few casualties as the Confederates sought protection in caves and bomb proofs cut into the Mississippi soil. Following the grand display of artillery might Banks sent a flag of truce into the fortress requesting that they surrender “to avoid unnecessary sacrifice of life.” Gardner was unmoved and replied that “duty requires me to defend this position and therefore I decline to surrender.” Failing a negotiated victory Banks at once began planning another military effort to take the stronghold.

The focus of the new effort would be BG Grover’s attempt on the area around “Fort Desperate”. It would be accompanied by a diversionary attack by Augur and a second column, led by Dwight, on the extreme left. Augur would begin his feint at 0245 with an artillery barrage followed a half hour later by an advance of skirmishers to create the illusion that this would be the main effort. In reality Augur’s force had been cut to only five regiments. Lost were the 48th and 50th MA gone to strengthen Dwight and the 161st and the 174th NY sent to reinforce Grover. On the left Dwight, led by two deserters, would try to gain entry into the works near the river. A detachment of the 1st Louisiana Engineers would stand by to improve any success made in the works there.

The main attack was to begin at 0300 with concentrated artillery fire on the objective for thirty minutes. Then skirmishers would move forward in front of the two main attack columns. Each column consisted of about 2000 assault troops preceded by 70 pioneers, a storming party of 300 volunteers, and a 34 man bridging detail. The pioneers were given specific instructions on the distribution of tools that would be carried; 35 axes,18 shovels, 10 picks, 2 handsaws and 2 hatchets. These men would be prepared to cut a path through the parapet so that guns could be rolled in. Behind the pioneers came the storming party, each man carrying a bag stuffed with cotton. These would be hurled into the ditch to form a base for the men carrying the balks and chess to form a bridge for the infantry and the artillery that was ordered into the assault. Still more special details were assigned in the assault units. Men carrying hand grenades fashioned from small artillery shells would fall in behind the main line of skirmishers. The improvised explosives were intended to help clear the rifle pits and then the bearers would join the assault line. It was an elaborate plan (Special Order No. 140) and the headquarters staff struggled to record all the details in the short suspense. The lengthy document was supplemented by the orders of the individual commanders The inadequate allotment of time for the commanders and units to digest the operation would lead to confusion.

As the appointed hour of assault neared the harried Union commanders were scrambling to put all the necessary pieces to the complex plan in place when they were confronted with yet another obstacle. A thick fog settled over the field reducing visibility to almost nothing. The compound difficulties facing the Federal leaders began to unravel the plan before it was initiated. Without a full understanding of the plan and little time to prepare the attack would begin in confusion. The situation would get no better as they progressed.

The primary assault against “Fort Desperate” was detailed to BG Halbert Paine’s division. The works were manned by Colonel Benjamin Johnson and the 15th Arkansas and a small portion of the 49th Alabama. The entire defense according to Johnson’s post war report totalled 165 men. He had spent much time and effort perfecting his defenses and was anticipating the morning attack. As the attacking Union units would discover his preparations put his men in good position to fend off the assault. Paine’s line of skirmishers was formed by the 4th Wisconsin and 8th New Hampshire, followed by the grenade carriers of the 4th Massachusetts and detailed personnel, and then the main battle line formed by the 38th and 53rd Massachusetts fronted by the 31st Massachusetts with the cotton bags and the pioneers. The support brigades of Fearing and Ingraham fell in behind to await their call forward. The men were addressed by Paine and began their move forward at about 0400 under the cover of the fog. The difficult terrain and poor visibility caused the units to intermingle as they approached the jump off point in the last row of trees before the Confederate works. At about 0430 Paine signaled the assault and the 4th Wisconsin and 8th New Hampshire charged into the open field. The Confederate defenders had collected weapons left on the field from the other failed efforts on their line and had them stacked for rapid use. The charge was greeted with a solid wall of rifle fire. Casualties began to mount quickly and some of the key elements of the attack began to abandon their mission. The cotton bags, intended to form the basis of the bridge, became a field expedient breastworks. The carriers were joined their by the bridge party who also threw down their loads to seek cover behind the protective barrier. The main line was stopped almost immediately upon reaching rifle range and they too sought cover in the ravines. Only a small portion of the skirmish line and a few of the grenade carriers made it to the parapet. The grenades proved “a complete failure” as the fuses had been cut too long and those that made it into the enemy rifle pits were simply picked up and tossed back “to make sad havoc” on the already tortured men of Paine’s command.

On Paine’s left Weitzel held off until nearly 0700 before making his effort at the right side of the citadel. His brigade was arrayed as before with the 12th Connecticut and 75th New York in the lead as skirmishers, 91st New York as grenade carriers, 24th Connecticut as bag carriers, then the main attack line and artillery. Moving through the ravines the column approached the Confederate line until the bag carriers suddenly refused to go any further. After a thirty minute delay they were convinced to move on and the attack began with a wild yell. It was stopped almost immediately by a storm of fire from the enemy works. Like Paine’s attack the men sought shelter from the storm wherever they could find it. An improvised barrier of cotton bags was assembled but was set afire by the Confederate fire and had to be abandoned. Reinforcements plowed their way through the ravines that were crowded with wounded and men seeking cover. The 22nd Maine arrived but their commander, Colonel Simon Jerrard, refused to order his men to charge from their cover claiming that it would only lead to slaughter. He was dishonorably discharged without a trial by Banks for his refusal. Like Paine’s men they remained under cover for the remainder of the day and moved back under the cover of darkness.

Augur’s diversionary attack amounted to little more than skirmishers, sharpshooters, and artillery harassing the enemy. The effort, intended to draw the attention of the Confederate defenders away from the primary assault did not even start until after the main attack had been stopped. They suffered few casualties and added little to the overall plan. On the far left Dwight’s supporting attack was also a miserable failure. Listening to the sound of the other attacks Dwight held his assault awaiting some indication of success but none came. Well after sunrise Dwight finally issued the attack order. Two regiments, 6th Michigan and 14th Maine, moved forward in plain sight of the Confederate gunners at the “Citadel” who waited for a juicier target. When the entire force was assembled the Confederate gunners opened with everything available. The column was immediately driven to the ground where they remained until nightfall.

The disjointed and half hearted efforts by some commanders led to a “fearful slaughter” of the lead elements. The 8th New Hampshire and 4th Wisconsin leading Paine’s attack suffered horrible losses for their part in the poorly executed plan. Other units reported nearly a third of their men down in the attack. Union casualties totalled 1792, k,w,and m, while the well protected Confederates suffered only 47. It would be the last effort to take Port Hudson by Assault.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jerry Stough July 6, 2012 at 8:31 pm

The Port Hudson battlefield is an interesting visit although most of the actual battlefield is still in private ownership. When I visited in early June an artillery shell was discovered by one of the owners using a metal detector on his property. I would recommend a visit anytime you are in the West Florida Parishes.

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