The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 9

Pursuit and Destruction

Having failed to capture or destroy Taylor’s small army at Fort Bisland and Irish Bend Banks had to content himself with taking up the pursuit and secondary objectives. A vigorous rear guard action by Colonel Thomas Green “keeping almost within gunshot distance of the enemy’s advance” successfully retarded the Federal chase until Vermillion Bayou.* On April 17th after the Confederate column had crossed the bridge here was burned. LT Oscar Gaudet, commanding a section of 6lb smoothbore guns and LT William Smith with a section of the Valverde Battery were placed in over watch positions. At 1400 the Federal column appeared and finding the bridge aflame sent sharpshooters into the nearby buildings. The Confederate artillery “dislodged” the Union riflemen with 13 rounds of spherical case shot. Challenged by the enemy guns, Battery L of the 1st US Artillery and a section of Battery B of the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery were deployed to respond. Portions of the 131st New York and 91st New york were ordered into support. The Union batteries opened at 1500 yards range and continued their barrage until nightfall. The fire proved ineffective as Gaudet’s pieces were “protected by a heavy growth of timber” and they were never correctly ranged. Most of the Federal rounds landed well to his rear. The exchange cost Gaudet only one slightly wounded man and one horse crippled and abandoned. Under the cover of darkness Gaudet retired his guns and the Union forces were forced to wait for a pontoon bridge. The day long artillery duel and delay caused by the destruction of the bridge was significant in that it provided a respite for Taylor’s men who had been constantly on the move since Irish Bend.

While the fight for the Vermillion Bayou crossing was under way Banks dispatched a force under Colonel William Kimball to destroy the salt works at New Iberia. Kimball’s force was comprised of his 12th Maine, the 41st Massachusetts, one company of the 24th Connecticut, and a section of guns from the 2nd Massachusetts Light Artillery. After a march of 12 miles the column arrived at the deserted works on the morning of April 18th. Kimball ordered the 18 buildings associated with the works, all boilers, machinery, tools, and 600 barrels of salt destroyed. They also found one ton of powder in the magazine, a portion of which was used in its destruction. The remainder of the powder and about a ton of nails were eventually transported back to New Iberia for use by the Union forces. With the mission complete Kimball returned to New Iberia without loss that night.

* The Union pursuit was also briefly disrupted when the 1st Louisiana (US) discovered a cache of rum at New Iberia and created a drunken disturbance that had to be quelled by BG William Dwight of the 1st Brigade of Grover’s division.

The First Assault – May 27th (Morning)

On the evening of the 26th Banks summoned his commanders to his headquarters. Apparently feeling the pressure from Washington to match the success that Grant was having around Vicksburg he announced that “Port Hudson must be taken tomorrow.” At least one present* argued that the distance between the Union lines and the Confederate works was too great to offer any hope of success but Banks insisted and orders were issued. Oddly, no specific time was set for simultaneous attacks. Much was left to the discretion of the senior commanders who were told to “…commence at the earliest hour practicable.” An artillery barrage would commence at daybreak and the individual commanders could initiate their attack when they felt their troops were prepared.

The mortar boats spent the night shelling the Confederate positions to little effect. At 0530 the Union artillery began their barrage while BG Weitzel was staging his troops for the assault in the northern section of the line. Unbeknownst to the Federal command, MG Gardner had anticipated an attack and used the previous three days to fortify the very area that was the target of Weitzel’s attack. Additional breastworks, hardened with logs, were built, trees felled to form an abatis, and troops (14th, 18th and 23rd Arkansas) shifted into the area from less threatened positions. The approaches were also covered by interlocking batteries located at Commissary Hill, the Bullpen and the salient known as Fort Desperate. Once the enemy skirmishers were pushed back on the defenses the battle lines were formed. The Union forces were headed for what would later be called the “Great Bushwhack.”

In the wood line Colonel Jacob Van Zandt formed the first line with his brigade comprised of the 1st LA, 22nd ME, 90th NY, 91st NY and 131st NY. No sooner had they marched from the trees then they were greeted with heavy fire from the artillery and infantry in the new fortifications. A combination of the enemy response, the terrain, and confusion created by the difficulty of movement stopped their advance. Colonel Stephen Thomas, in command of Weitzel’s brigade, aligned his men from right to left; 160th NY, 8th Vermont, 12th CT and 75th NY in the second line. Finding their approach somewhat easier they moved ahead of Van Zandt. Struggling to manuever Van Zandt drifted to the right and the gap was taken up by Colonel Hawkes Fearing’s brigade of Paine’s division. Fearing deployed his men in two lines. In the front was the 133rd NY and the 173rd NY. The second line was formed by the 8th NH and the 4th WI. The blue wave inched forward against the difficult terrain and withering fire being sent out by the Confederates in the works. Unable to communicate in the broken ground, only disjointed efforts were made at charging the works. These were beaten back all along the line. Fearing’s front line of New Yorkers disintegrated under the fusillade of rifle and artillery fire. The second line stepped up and Colonel Oliver Lull of the 8th NH gave his last order; “8th New Hampshire forward, smartly and steadily, and follow me.” He was almost immediately struck down by a ball. The attack gained a modest success but without accompanying gains elsewhere could not hold on. The assault ground to a halt.

On the left BG Grover could see the failing effort and sent the 159th NY and 25th CT on a circuitous march to aid the stalled offensive. The two regiments went on the double quick until Major Burt of the 159th decided that his men could take the enemy works alone. The effort quickly failed and the 25th CT troops hustled in and came face to face with “a thousand rifles cracking our doom.” Like every other Union regiment they were brought to a halt. A second effort met the same result, the two regiments suffering more than 80 killed and wounded for their troubles. They remained stationary thirty yards from the enemy works until 2200 and then retreated under the cover of darkness.

On the extreme right of the line BG Dwight, thinking that an attack might relieve some of the pressure on the units in front of the Confederate works, ordered an attack by the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard. A section of artillery was sent across Thompson’s Creek to assist the attack but the accurate fire of a single Confederate gun drove them back. The first combat between blacks and whites proved a one sided affair. As the 1st crossed the creek and delivered a volley they gained the attention of the Confederate river artillery. The flurry of shot and shell broke the line and they rushed back in disorder onto the 3rd as they crossed. Those that remained were cut down by rifle fire. The 3rd hardly got into action but the combined losses for the two regiments was 37 killed 155 wounded and 116 missing. The Confederate defenders on this portion of the line (six companies of the 39th Mississippi) reported no losses. The Federal attack in the northern section of the line died out. Only an occasional exchange of rifle fire broke the uneasy quiet.

* Although unrecorded the dissenter may very well have been BG Thomas Sherman who had 1200 yards of open ground between his troops and the enemy. This represented the greatest distance of exposure. Weitzel could come within 250 yards at the nearest point without exposing his men; Grover – 450 yds; and Augur – 500 yds.

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)






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