The Siege of Port Hudson: Part One

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series The Port Hudson Campaign

The Siege of Port Hudson:

Part One

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks and his Army of the Gulf arrived at Port Hudson late on May 22, 1863. Banks had four divisions under his command. Interestingly, his three separate forces came from different starting points and arrived simultaneously, by land and water from Alexandria, Barton Rouge and New Orleans. This reflected a high degree of administrative skill on the commanding general and his staff.

Unfortunately, this would be the last time the Army of the Gulf achieved such a high degree of coordination. Banks was unable to get his division and brigade-level officers to function as a team. During previous campaigns, Banks and his subordinate commanders had performed very well. Perhaps, this was too large a force for him to handle, with four divisions. Or the senior officers who were together for the first time, just did not mesh very well.

Modern Map of the Port Hudson-Baton Rouge AreaInterestingly, Banks’ four divisions in the Army of the Gulf were each commanded by West Point graduates while Banks was a so-called ‘political’ general. Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel and Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover had come with Banks from Alexandria and had landed at Bayou Sara. They formed the right wing of the reunited army.

Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur‘s Division arrived from Baton Rouge. Brig. Gen.  Thomas W. Sherman‘s Division came directly from New Orleans. These two divisions formed the left wing of Bank’s army. With their arrival, Port Hudson was completely encircled.

With the arrival of all of his divisions, Nathaniel Banks had between 25,000 and 30,000 troops at Port Hudson. The precise number of Union troops has been in dispute since 1863. At this stage of the campaign, he had a better than 4-to-1 numerical advantage over the defenders.

Click map to enlarge. You will note that the modern city has spread to the east while the Civil War-era Port Hudson hugged the bluffs on the Mississippi River.

The overwhelming advantage was offset by the difficult terrain and the increasingly stout Confederate defensive fortifications. In addition, the lack of coordination among Banks and his subordinate officers also contributed to an unnecessarily extended siege.

Banks did have an excellent relationship with Rear Admiral David Farragut, the commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Although he should have been out in the Gulf supervising his blockaders, Farragut had a particular interest in the reduction of Port Hudson. At the start of the siege, he hoisted his flag aboard the USS Monongahela,  barkentine–rigged screw sloop-of-war. Throughout the siege, Farragut’s warships, gunboats and mortar boats bombarded the Confederate positions from above and below Port Hudson.

Banks was hoping to capture Port Hudson quickly. There were a number of factors for his haste. The coming summer season would bring extreme heat and humidity. It was also the season for deadly diseases in the South. Enlistments in his nine-month regiments were scheduled to run out. At Confederate fortifications at Port Hudsonleast half of his army was made up of this type of unit.

Finally, he was concerned by the small size of the Union garrison that he had left in New Orleans. Brig. Gen. William Emory had been left with a handful of regiments to defend the vital port. The loss of New Orleans to the Confederates would be disasterous and Banks knew that leaving such a small force there was a calculated gamble.

Facing the Union besiegers was the Port Hudson defense commanded by Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner. Officially known as the Department of East Louisiana, Gardner had 5,765 men under his immediate command. In addition, he had about 1,300 cavalry under Col. John L. Logan, an aggressive commander who frequently raided the Union rear.

Gardner’s force was divided into three wings under the commands of Col. Isaiah G. W. Steedman, Brig. Gen. William Beall and Col. William R. Miles. On the left, facing north and northwest, Steedman commanded about 2,100 Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi troops. In the center, facing northeast and east, Beall had 2,300 men, mostly from Arkansas, although he had troops from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. On the right and facing southeast, Miles had 1,150 Louisiana troops.

Of the Confederate commanders, Gardner and Beall were West Pointers while Steedman was a physician, Miles an attorney and Logan was a merchant. The Confederate artillery contingent at Port Hudson consisted of 14 heavy guns overlooking the river and 40 lighter guns on the landward defenses.

Port Hudson TrenchesAt a council of war on May 26th, Banks proposed a coordinated assault by his four divisions in order to overwhelm the Confederate defenders and end the siege before it began. Apparently not all of his subordinates agreed with this plan and a heated discussion ensued. Banks, as the commanding general, got his way and on the following day the attacks were to commence.

But when, where and how each division commander was to attack was up to them. Banks did not choose a specific time for his intended simultaneous assault however, ordering his commanders to “…commence at the earliest hour practicable.” It was an invitation to disaster with no coordination of among the divisions.


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