The Port Hudson
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks returned to New Orleans in May of 1863 after the series of Union successes on Bayou Teche. There he received reports on the state of the Port Hudson defense that encouraged him. He also collected as many additional troops as the New Orleans defensive force could spare, using every available resource at his disposal.
The information that Banks received led him to believe that the current garrison of Port Hudson had been recently reduced. In fact, it had been almost cut in half. . Gen. John C. Pemberton in Vicksburg had ordered Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner to take 5,000 men from the garrison and proceed to Jackson, Mississippi. Gardner and two brigades marched 60 miles east to Osyka, Mississippi where they waited for the next available northbound New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern train to Jackson. Gardner returned to Port Hudson after his men were on their way.
Previous to the removal of Gardner and his 5,000 men, President Jefferson Davis was providing advice to Pemberton on the geography of the area. “To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with (the) Trans-Mississippi,” he telegraphed Pemberton.
When General Joseph Johnston came on the scene, the Confederate command picture became more confused with Johnson ordering Gardner to “evacuate Port Hudson forthwith.” Gardner ignored the evacuation order and even asked for additional troops.
When Grant’s Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River in late April, Gardner had about 11,500 men at Port Hudson. Three weeks later, he had fewer than 5,800.
Banks hurried back to Simmesport and set his forces in motion. On May 19th, Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s Division crossed the Atchafalaya River and marched 22 miles to Morganza, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel’s Provisional Division, composed of orphan brigades, boarded transports at Simmesport and steamed down the Red River and the Mississippi to Bayou Sara on the east bank, about 6 miles below Morganza.
On May 22nd, Banks crossed his force to the east bank of the Mississippi River to Bayou Sara with no Confederate opposition. By now, Banks and his subordinate commanders had become quite proficient at amphibious warfare and the operation proceeded smoothly. The Union troops marched up the bluffs from Bayou Sara to St. Franceville, turning south to Port Hudson, just 12 miles away.
Gardner was taken by surprise with the appearance of the the Union army who were approaching from the north. He believed that an attack would come from the direction of Baton Rouge to the south. His defensive works did not extend to the northern perimeter.
The Port Hudson defense started at the Mississippi River south of town but stopped before it came to the northern side of the town. The heavily wooded area along Big and Little Sandy Creeks between St. Franceville and Port Hudson was wide open. Gardner realized that if Banks moved quickly, the battle for Port Hudson would be over in short order.
Once he received word that the Union troops were landing, Gardner put every available man to work felling trees and building earthworks to fill the mile-long gap in his line. Fortunately for the defenders, Banks never realized their situation and his unhurried movement gave them the opportunity to construct a line of defensive earthworks, overlooking Big and Little Sandy Creeks.
The town of Port Hudson, Louisiana was located on an 80 foot bluff on the east bank above a hairpin turn in the Mississippi river 25 Miles upriver from Baton Rouge. The hills and ridges in the area represented extremely rough terrain, a maze of deep, thickly forested ravines, swamps, and cane brakes giving the effect of a natural fortress.
The town had appeared and grown as a point for shipping cotton and sugar downriver from the surrounding area. Despite the growing shipping business Port Hudson remained small, consisting of a few buildings and 200 people by the start of the war. The river had shifted south and the docks had been moved a half a mile south. Port Hudson was incorporated in 1832.
Early in the war, it was recognized by the Confederates for its strategic location. The initial fortifications were a line of seven lunettes arranged along a four hundred yard line along the river. By August of 1862, there was a garrison of 1,500 hundred men to work on the fortifications under General Daniel Ruggles command. Ruggles did have a forty-two-pounder smoothbore cannon, which he mounted immediately, manned by the sailors of the CSS Arkansas which had been destroyed in the Battle of Baton Rouge. Two thirty-two-pounders were shortly added from the abandoned wreck of the USS Sumter.
Ruggles’ was ordered to Mississippi with some of his troops and replaced by Brigadier General William Nelson Rector Beall on August 29th. The Union navy began to sporadically bombard the fortifications. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter reported that there were 35-40 guns at Port Hudson, a considerable exaggeration.
Major General Franklin Gardner took command on December 27, 1862. He was a career army officer who graduated from West Point 17th in his class in 1843. The native New Yorker commanded a cavalry brigade at Shiloh and was 39 years old at the time of his arrival. Upon taking command he reorganized the defenses at Port Hudson, concentrating the fields of fire of the heavy guns and setting up more earthworks using packed earth and sod rather than the traditional gabions or sandbags.
On March 14, 1863, the Port Hudson garrison engaged in a ferocious artillery battle with the gunboats of Rear Admiral David Farragut’s flotilla. The Union ships were subjected to a terrific battering by the Confederate batteries. The USS Mississippi was disabled and abandoned by its crew. It disappeared in a terrific explosion, seen in New Orleans nearly 80 miles downriver. Only two of Farragut’s ships were able to pass the batteries while the rest were turned back.
Banks unhurried approach to Port Hudson, allowed the Confederates a crucial five days to prepare their northern defenses for the Union assault. General Gardner chose to reinforce the picket lines shielding the Confederate grain mill and support shops of the areas near Little Sandy Creek because he did not consider a siege probable, and had not fortified that perimeter.
Other Confederate troops remained outside the fortifications, consisting of 1200 troops under the command of Colonel John L. Logan. These represented all of Gardner’s cavalry, the 9th Louisiana Battalion, Partisan Rangers, and two artillery pieces of Robert’s battery. These troops slowed the encirclement of Banks troops, and prevented them from discovering the weaknesses in the defenses.
Due to these delays, the infantry assault was scheduled for the 27th of May, 1863, five days after the encirclement and time enough for Gardner to complete the ring of defenses around Port Hudson. He also had sufficient time to move artillery from the river side of the fort to the east side fronting the Federal forces.