The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 5

Rethinking the Campaign

The demonstrated power of the guns at Port Hudson caught the attention of Banks. Following Farragut’s run on the batteries Banks moved his men back to Bayou Monte Sano. The administrative move started in a disorganized fashion when rumors circulated among the first troops to move that the forward units had been crushed. The thought of possibly being captured pushed the men into a near panic and a mad rush to the rear. Order was restored when the forward troops, not subject to the rumors and aware that no real threat was present, moved back in an orderly manner. Camp was established and a period of intense foraging was conducted before the troops were ordered back to Baton Rouge. Once at the capital Banks drew up plans for an advance up the Bayou Teche in search of a route to connect to the Mississippi River above the Port Hudson fortress. He intended on cutting off the fortress while he awaited the promised reinforcements from Grant. Before the main move Banks ordered two preliminary operations to isolate the target area.

On March 21st, BG T. W. Sherman, on orders from Banks, sent Colonel Thomas Clark with his regiment , the 6th Michigan, along with two companies of the 177th New York, and a company each from the 14th and 24th Maine to destroy the railroad bridges over the Ponchatoula River. Also dispatched were five companies of the 165th New York along with a rifled gun manned by a detachment of the 9th Connecticut. Their job was secure the passage of the main body while they moved to the bridges. On the 22nd the 165th New York (Duryea’s Zouaves) steamed to the head of Jones Island where they disembarked and marched forward on the railroad, leaving the artillery. After a short march they captured two schooners full of cotton and then continued on for a short distance until they found a suitable defensive position to await the signal to enter Ponchatoula.

The 6th Michigan and the other units did not move until the afternoon of the 23rd due to inclement weather. The steamer Savary and small iron-clad gunboat Barataria took several schooners in tow and moved up the Tickfaw River. On the morning of the 24th the troops were put ashore at Wadesborough and after leaving two companies to guard the boats advanced against light skirmishing to Ponchatoula. Once the town was secured Captain Chapman, of the 14th Maine, was sent with four companies to the bridges. Finding an enemy barricade o at the far end Chapman requested reinforcements and Clark sent LTC Bacon and four companies of the 6th Michigan to assist the destruction. Bacon quickly flanked the enemy from their position and the destructive work was begun. Company C, 6th Michigan, under CPT Spitzer, fired the bridge, under heavy guard, in three locations and axes were used the chop away the strength of the support timbers. Another small bridge (40 feet) was also demolished. The detail then secured the site overnight to ensure the fires were not doused and that the work was completed. At noon on the 25th a detachment of the 165th New York marched out to relieve them and they marched back to Ponchatoula. What they found on their return shocked LTC Bacon (later regimental commander of the 6th Michigan).

The town was thoroughly looted by the troops that remained there during the mission to the bridge.
Bacon would recall:

“Here lies the ravished town. I pick up in the street a love letter from a Confederate officer to his lady in a distant rebel city. All kinds of papers, books, daguerreotypes, articles of household furniture and female wearing apparel, are scattered here and there on the ground. Doors and windows are wide open, most of the people having fled…”

Everything of any value had been seized, stolen or confiscated. Teams were sent out for several miles in every direction looking for cotton, turpentine, resin, horses and mules. Bacon concluded that;

“The Zouaves, in their Turkish costumes are in every way worthy of being thought true Turks.”

On March 26th the Confederates moved to retake the town. LTC Bacon attempted to organize resistance but the strength of the Confederate force becomes too large and he ordered a retreat. Before they depart the local QM, LT Clement Stone, asked for permission to fire the confiscated goods at the local depot. Bacon approved the measure and the turpentine fueled blaze made quick work of the structure. Without orders someone also set fire to the hotel but the fire was put out by the Confederate troops entering town before it could do any significant damage.

Capture of the Diana*

In another probe of the Confederate defenses BG Weitzel sent the gunboat Diana and two companies of infantry into Grand Lake on March 28th. As the expedition examined a channel of the Atchafalaya, near Pattersonville, they were harassed by a small detachment of enemy cavalry. A shot from one of the Diana’s five guns scattered the horsemen but not before the ship had been led into a trap. A line of Confederate infantry (members of Sibley’s Texas Brigade and the 28th Louisiana) and five well hidden artillery pieces (Valverde Battery) opened on the ship at close range. They continued to shower the ship with fire for three hours as she attempted to make good her get away. The infantry and gun crews were forced below deck and the enemy fire took its toll on the Federal ship. The tiller lines were shot away and a steam line was severed making the Diana unmanageable. In her disabled state she “drifted ashore” where she lay dormant under a murderous fire “unable to bring a gun to bear” as a result of her position. The commander, Captain Peterson, was among the first top fall with a minie ball through the heart. The senior mate also fell mortally wounded leaving control of the ship to Acting Master’s Mate Henry Weston. As casualties mounted and no relief was in sight Weston had no choice but to surrender the vessel. The Confederates accepted the surrender of the boat and 120 prisoners. The killed and wounded added up to an additional 33 men.

A rescue effort by the Calhoun, alerted by the noise of the engagement ended prematurely when that boat got hung up on sunken logs. By the time they had arranged to free themselves from the snag three survivors of the Diana arrived to announce that the boat had been given up. Weitzel had no choice but to report to Banks that the “gunboat (is) in possession of the enemy.” He blamed the dead Peterson for failing to obey his orders in regards to the route to be used. The enlisted men were paroled the following day but the three Army officers were held until July 1864 and the four navy officers until February of 1865 when Weston made his report of the affair. The Confederates quickly made repairs to their prize and prepared her for service against her former owners.

*USS Diana (1862-1863)
USS Diana, a 239-ton side wheel propelled gunboat, was built in 1858 at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, as a civilian steamship. She was captured at New Orleans, Louisiana, in April 1862 and employed by the U.S. Army as a transport for the next several months. In November of that year Diana was transferred to the Navy.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)






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