The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Conclusion

by Dan O'Connell on July 10, 2012 · 0 comments

Springfield Landing

Following the second failed attempt at storming the works at Port Hudson activity returned to tedious siege operations. On the Confederate side the supply situation began to get desperate. The food supplies began to run short and fresh water was difficult get. Coupled with the developing sense of the hopelessness of their situation the morale of the defenders began to fade. Desertion became a problem, particularly amongst the Louisiana troops. The Union logistic situation, although difficult was more firmly established with a supply depot at Springfield Landing as the hub. Steamers came up from New Orleans fully loaded and the cargoes were unloaded and transported by wagon train to Bank’s encircling forces. In an effort to disrupt the supply chain Colonel John Logan decided to make an effort on the enemy logistics with his outlying Confederate forces.

Just before sunrise on July 2nd Logan mounted a raid with Colonel Frank Powers cavalry and partisans on the depot. The Federal pickets were caught by surprise and mounds of goods and wagons were set ablaze by the raiders, who were equipped with turpentine for that purpose. The sudden appearance of enemy troopers in their midst created panic among the forces on hand. Many of the 16th New Hampshire dashed for the safety of the boats leaving the workers behind. The civilian crews, mostly contracted contrabands with some USCT soldiers, joined in the mad rush for the boats but the crush of men there pushed dozens into the water. In the darkness and panic twenty-one were drowned.

Finally the 162nd New York managed to recover from the disorganization created by the collapse of their pickets and advanced into the area at the double quick to counter the incursion. At about 0830 they opened fire on the enemy troopers with the help of a small number of the 16th New Hampshire that had taken position behind a levee. Several enemy riders were unhorsed, either killed or wounded. A brief effort was made by the Confederate troopers to battle with the Union infantry before they realized it was time to make a get away in the face of superior numbers. There would be one more obstacle to their departure.

Nearby LTC Augustus Corliss and 103 men of the 2nd Rhode Island Cavalry abandoned a mission of responding to an erroneous report that the Federal mail had been captured and rode to the scene. As they approached the area the Confederate videttes fired “a scattering volley” into his ranks and retreated. Corliss arranged his men into a column of fours and made a dusty charge into the main body of the enemy but Powers had reassembled his scattered men and quickly drove the Rhode Islanders off. The chased after the retreating Federal troopers for about three miles before disappearing. The short fight cost Corliss one man killed, six wounded and six missing. Total loss for the Confederates was 4 killed and 10 wounded. They left behind over a million dollars of destroyed Union supplies, wagons, and equipment.

Finis

The final weeks of the Federal siege of Port Hudson were low lighted by four events. First as the saps approached the Confederate works and the final artillery positions were completed MG Grover got impatient. When his line pushed to within 100 feet of the Confederate line Gardner responded by sending the 18th Arkansas and 23rd Arkansas, under Colonel O.P. Lyles, to oppose the approach. On the 29th they managed to set fire to the cotton bales being used as sap rollers. Grover answered by sending out two details to sweep the ditch in front of the main enemy works clean of Razorbacks. These efforts were defeated partially by rolling 12lb shells down a wooden gutter. The second travesty occurred at BG Dwight’s end of the line. A June 29th effort by the 165th New York and 6th Michigan failed to to take the Confederate position at the “Citadel”. A drunken Dwight then ordered the two regiments to try again. True to their orders the two regiments stormed up the hill to the same result. Fortunately the “Whiskey Charge” was cancelled by Banks before any further damage could be done. Dwight slurred curse words at the survivors as they returned. Third, BG Neal Dow was recovering from his May 27th wounds at a nearby plantation when he was taken by a party of Powers cavalry. The capture of the hated Dow was applauded by many in the Federal ranks.

Finally, the end of enlistments created a serious problem with several units. The 4th Massachusetts led the ranks of the disgruntled short timers. Trying to maintain some control of the expiring regiments Banks had their colors taken, officers defrocked, and the men disarmed. All but 100 returned to normal duty. One company of the 48th Massachusetts actually marched armed on Banks headquarters where they were surrounded by others. Eventually the mutiny was quelled by a thoughtful Paine, who removed the soldiers from group mentality by calling them out individually to announce their intentions. All but three changed their mind. Other short time units also demonstrated their displeasure. One, the 50th Massachusetts, was convinced to accept a two week extension of their enlistment. One company, however, remained mutinous and was shipped off for a term of hard labor at Ship Island.

Banks also grew impatient and probably envious of Grant’s success to the north. In a last attempt to win the fortress by force of arms he called for another assault. This operation was centered on two mines that were being progressed under the Confederate works and a “forlorn hope” assault force of 400 volunteers led by Colonel Birge. On July 7th 1200 pounds of explosive powder were placed in the shaft under “Fort Desperate” with the intent of exploding it on the 9th. Fortunatley, for all involved the last attack became unnecessary as word was received that Vicksburg had surrendered. Gardner; his men now reduced to eating their mules, horses, and rats; saw the fultility of further resistance. After a grand entrance of the Union army the order of “ground arms” was given and the garrison unconditionally surrendered. The siege at Port Hudson had cost Banks 4363 casualties (708 killed, 3336 wounded, 319 misssing). Confederate losses were estimated at 6963 (176 killed, 447 wounded and 6340 prisoners surrendered). The Mississippi now ran unvexed to the sea.

Conclusion

The surrender of Port Hudson should not completely overshadow Banks reluctance to force a military showdown there. He did everything he could to avoid a direct confrontation with the Confederate defense. While he was circumventing a direct approach, hoping for the assistance of Grant, he missed chances to take on the enemy bastion at better odds.

Forced by the failure to link with Grant, tactical necessity dictated that he spend seven weeks in front of a well entrenched enemy with no other options but frontal assault and eventual siege operations. While ultimately successful and with casualties not wholly disproportionate to what should have been expected under the circumstances, Banks had passed on better circumstances. Given extra time to prepare and call in scattered forces Gardner presented a much more formible target in June than he would have earlier. The indirect approach failed Banks and significantly added to his losses. While willingness to spare his troops a projected hard fight can be commended his failure to take advantage of better opportunities can be condemned.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)

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