The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 1


When Confederate MG Earl Van Dorn declared in July 1862 that “I want Baton Rouge and Port Hudson” it was for good reason. From the earliest days of the war control of the Mississippi River was seen as vital to both sides. The Union high command saw control of the river as a means to isolate the western states from the remainder of the Confederacy and ensure free commerce from the Midwest. The Confederates also had important reasons to value the river, not the least of which was the requisite defense of territory. The river was also a critical link in their logistical support coming from the west to the armies operating east of the river. Unfortunately the early collapse of defenses at the northern and southern ends left only the middle section of the river to be contested. Van Dorn saw the two river towns not as defensive bastions but as stepping stones to the eventual reclaiming of New Orleans. Defeat at the battle of Baton Rouge on 5 August 1862 ended Van Dorn’s grand scheme but led to the first occupation of Port Hudson. BG Daniel Ruggles’ battered command was directed there after their retreat from the capital city. With the offensive failed the defensive possibilities of Port Hudson came to the fore.

Early Developments

The initial occupation of Port Hudson came not as a result of Van Dorn’s decree but from defeat at Baton Rouge. MG John C. Breckinridge ordered the battered troops of BG Daniel Ruggles to march for the river city as they retreated from the capital. Ruggles’ lead unit, the 4th Louisiana, approached the town on August 15th and established a camp in William Slaughter’s fields. A small detachment of men entered the city and were told by residents that there were also Union sailors about. With the C.S.S. Arkansas gone the U.S. Navy was free to travel up the river as far as Vicksburg and did not hesitate to send the U.S.S. Essex forward to take a look. The gunboat laid off Port Hudson and sent a party ashore to destroy flatboats that were being used to shuttle supplies across the great river from the west. The two small groups collided and the Federal sailors were taken prisoner. The Confederate detail marched their captives back to Ruggles headquarters fully expecting a hearty commendation for their feat. Instead Ruggles, disgusted that their action had revealed their presence, had the men arrested. The incident blew over when the men escaped their guard and returned to their unit. Their names had not been recorded so they avoided any further punishment.

BG Ruggles had his hands full with more important matters. The town was virtually defenseless. Prior to their arrival there had been little reason to construct fortifications. The threat of the Arkansas had prevented any naval foray and the Federal army strength in the area was insufficient to support extensive operations outside of Baton Rouge. The situation was now quite different. Breckinridge issued General Order No. 23 on August 15th granting Ruggles authority to impound any transportation, tools, supplies and labor that he considered necessary to “urge forward” construction of works at Port Hudson. Breckinridge also parted with his chief engineer, CPT John Nocquet, to supervise the work. Ruggles assumed command of the city and construction was set to begin. The first issue at hand was deciding exactly what and where the defenses would be built. Nocquet reviewed the options and settled on a plan that incorporated a series of interconnected lunettes with earthworks that extended more than eight miles around the city. While the fortifications and terrain were believed to be enough to make a land based assault extremely costly there was little that could be done to stop river traffic without big guns. Ruggles had one smoothbore 42lber that was quickly mounted and manned by the crew of the Arkansas. Fortunately for the garrison other events would help alleviate the shortage of guns and prevent a Union attack against the unprepared defenses.

The Union gunboat, U.S.S. Sumter, grounded while guarding the ferry near the mouth of Bayou Sara. Her faulty engines would not free her and when an effort to tug her free with the Ceres failed the crew boarded the steamer and left the disabled ship. The Confederates secured the two 32 lbers and burned the boat before another rescue attempt could be made. These guns were mounted by August 29th. Downriver the Union forces at Baton Rouge were pulled back to New Orleans in a consolidation effort by MG Benjamin Butler. This move removed the immediate threat to Port Hudson and allowed time for additional guns to be brought in overland. It also sapped the strength of the garrison when the 4th Louisiana was sent to reoccupy Baton Rouge.

As Baton Rouge was abandoned the U.S.S. Essex again moved up river and took up station with the wooden gunboat Anglo-American. Becoming low on fuel Commodore Porter sent the Anglo-American to New Orleans for coal and supplies. On August 29th the Anglo-American attempted the return voyage and was pummeled by the growing strength of the Confederate position at Port Hudson. Fearing that they might be caught up river without support Porter decided to return to New Orleans. At 0400 on September 7th the Essex with the Anglo-American lashed along side made their run of the batteries. Despite operating with the current the Federal pair were pounded. The Essex sheltered the Anglo-American as intended but was badly damaged. The increased ability of the Confederates to contest the river was firmly established.

A Change in Circumstances

On the same day that the Anglo-American was pounded as she tried to reunite with the Essex BG Ruggles handed over command of Port Hudson to BG William Beall. Beall’s first act was to declare the works in progress to be entirely too long for the projected manpower. As if to confirm Beall’s decision the garrison at Port Hudson was almost immediately reduced to fewer than 1000 men as troops were ordered away to support the various offensive designs that were being staged. Beall’s concept for the defensive works was based on 4 1/2 miles of continuous parapets and ditches to support the artillery positions. He began the new line but his effort was severely hampered by a scarcity of labor. The surrounding plantations were not offering the needed manpower, in the form of slaves, and the available soldiers showed little interest in manual labor of this type. There were simply not enough workers to accomplish the work. Beall appealed to President Davis for the authority to proclaim martial law as a means to forcibly procure the needed help but was denied. Instead Davis granted authority to request slaves from an extended area around the fortress city.

A slow trickle of troops began to arrive. Several batteries were transferred in by mid September accompanied by a gift from President Davis. A 20lb Parrott captured in the fighting on the Virginia peninsula was sent along with four companies of the 12th Louisiana Heavy Artillery Battalion, under LTC Paul de Gournay. The Confederate red legs had too few pieces to serve and the idle gunners were put to work building emplacements for promised guns. In mid September the collapse of the proposed advance on New Orleans led to another bonanza for Beall. Ruggles ordered Beall to concentrate his entire command, except a tiny garrison that would stay in Baton Rouge, at Port Hudson. Relieved of the responsibility of maintaining a large garrison at Baton Rouge, Beall recalled the 4th Louisiana and another battery. Additionally orders were issued to Van Dorn that regiments then being paroled from the northern Mississippi disasters were to be retained for Beall’s garrison. Throughout the early autumn the circumstances at Port Hudson were being changed by the military realities around them but a distant political result would have the biggest impact of all.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)






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