The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 6

Into the Teche

With the preliminary operations out of the way Banks set the main thrust of his offensive into motion. Banks was working under an increased sense of urgency because of the expiring enlistments of the bulk of his available troops. The overall objective of the proposed campaign was a drive on Alexandria in an effort to secure the Bayou Teche region and isolate Port Hudson from the surrounding area, including the salt works at New Iberia. On April 8th MG Banks left New Orleans and established a headquarters at Brashear City. The following day the forces meant to accomplish this objective were gathered and the missions assigned. Banks envisioned opening the campaign with a hammer and anvil type move against the Confederate strong point at Fort Bisland. The main body or hammer consisted of BG William H. Emory’s division, minus one brigade and support left to secure Baton Rouge. To supplement the weakened division BG Godfrey Weitzel’s brigade of MG Christopher C. Augur’s division with three batteries and two sections of artillery and three companies of cavalry was attached. This task force was to cross Berwick Bay and land near Berwick for a march toward Fort Bisland. Banks expected that the power of this thrust would convince the enemy at Fort Bisland to evacuate. The retreating Confederate forces would then be pushed into a waiting secondary force. This secondary force was comprised of BG Cuvier Grover’s division. They were to move up the Atchafalaya River to Franklin and establish a blocking position along the expected route of retreat to serve as the anvil to BG Emory’s hammer.

The movements began on the 9th and continued until the morning of the 12th as the main body was shuttled across the bay without incident. The movement of BG Grover’s command, however, got off to a poor start. Grover found that the available transportation at Brashear City ” so limited that it was found necessary to embark all my artillery, the horses of one battery, and a great portion og our necessary stores upon flats picked up along the bay,” The time lost gathering the transportation resources delayed the movement “until late in the evening of the 11th.” Grover wanted the move to begin at 0200 on the 12th but “a heavy fog settled over the bay” and the move was put off until 0800. Grover’s problems did not end with the departure from Brashear City. As the convoy sailed around Cypress Island the gunboat Arizona grounded and could not be freed. Unwilling to be delayed further Grover, after four hours of fruitless effort to free the vessel, left her to her own devises and moved on. The flotilla dropped anchor off Porter’s Plantation at 1930 and sent a reconnaissance party consisting of 1st Louisiana Volunteers (US) ashore. The scouts were landed by the ship’s boats and spent two hours examining the area for serviceability. On their return LTC Fiske reported that the roads were “utterly impassable for even infantry, the lake from some cause having overflown” the area. Grover opted to seek out another landing site and moved six miles further up to the McWilliams Plantation were a scout by members of the 6th New York found the roads “practicable.”

Although the roads were passable the landing site posed yet another obstacle to Grover’s progress. The shallow waters near shore did not allow a “transport of any considerable capacity”
to approach closer than 100 yards from shore. The difficulty of landing the troops was overcome by forming a bridge/wharf of flats extending into the deeper water. The construction was aided by two small shallow draft “tow-boats.” The troops finally began disembarking on the morning of the 13th. The 1st Louisiana (US) was again the first unit put ashore and immediately came under fire from a single artillery piece and Confederate skirmishers located in a “thick wood.” LTC Fiske “advanced rapidly upon their position” and “forced the wood.” The Louisiana troops pushed forward about 3/4 of a mile with the enemy “leaving in a hasty manner” before them. By 0900 they were reinforced by two regiments and the beach head secured. The combined effect of the various delays prevented Grover for marching toward his blocking position until late in the afternoon.

The Union movements had been closely monitored by the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers and MG Richard Taylor supplied with detailed information regarding their strength and dispositions. He sent BG Alfred Mouton to Fort Bisland to prepare for the inevitable Federal assault while he turned to face the threat of Grover’s force in his rear. Taylor had about 4500 men facing the combined total of nearly 15,000 Union troops.

Fort Bisland I

The fortifications at Fort Bisland were a collection of shallow earthworks that extended across the dry stretches of land around the Bayou Teche, which ran through the right center of the Confederate line. When BG Mouton arrived and evaluated the defenses he found that the works were complete on the western shore but none had been started on the east bank. He understood the necessity of continuing the works and collected a large body of slaves from the surrounding area and put them to work in an effort to complete the works. The crews worked nonstop until the arrival of the Federal troops forced Mouton to man the incomplete trenches. The troops did what they could to improve the defenses during the artillery battle on the 12th but the works never reached completion. Each side did contain a strong redoubt and the flanks of the short line were protected by swamps. Any assault on the line would be restricted by the surrounding terrain and have to be made across cane fields and drainage ditches creating ample kill zones for the defenders.

Knowing full well the extent of the Federal advance MG Taylor deployed his available forces into the defenses. On the east bank a line 900 yards long was held by 1500 members of Mouton’s Louisiana Brigade supplemented by the 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers. From a command post in the redoubt Mouton surveyed the field and decided the best use of his troops. The dismounted Texans were thrown forward on the extreme left in a cluster of trees while his brigade manned the works. On the west bank BG H.H. Sibley filled the trenches with a mixed command of approximately the same number of men. Colonel Thomas Green’s cavalry was sent to maintain an eye on the developing threat in the Confederate rear formed by BG Grover’s late deploying division. The recently captured Diana stood by waiting to assist from the river.

While BG Grover was trying to overcome his difficulties getting into position Wietzel conducted a cavalry reconnaissance that located the Confederate line only four miles away. The delays caused MG Banks to become impatient. Despite the fact that his blocking force was not yet in position he started Weitzel’s brigade forward about noon on the 11th. The advance met little opposition other than some light skirmishing with cavalry pickets. The advance was spearheaded by Company B of the 12th Connecticut and they gradually pushed the pickets back until the “line of defense was revealed.” Here they halted and were joined by the follow on units. MG Banks, unwilling to hazard an assault until all his troops were present and Grover was set, encamped them for the night. The first major action at Fort Bisland would wait until the 12th.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)






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