Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, USA
Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, CSA
The city was defended by the forces locally available, about 7,000 men, and besieged by a corps that eventually totaled 40,000.
Banks lost about 5,000 men, but captured the garrison of about 7,200.
In cooperation with Ulysses Grant’s offensive against Vicksburg, Banks’ army was moving upriver. His objective was the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson; even if Vicksburg withstood Grant’s latest attack, Union control of Port Hudson would be a major victory because it would severely reduce Confederate supply shipments from the Trans-Mississippi.
That was the plan as early as March 1863, but Banks felt he had to sweep through parts of Louisiana west of the Mississippi to clear out Confederate troops – a diversion which pleased Kirby Smith (Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi theater) as much as it dismayed strategists in Washington. They couldn’t understand how heading so far away from Vicksburg would speed up the campaign.
It wasn’t until mid-May that Banks brought his men back, but then they moved fast and by May 21 Port Hudson was isolated. Banks suspected the Confederates only had brigade in the fort, and thought he could overrun it without much trouble. So he started a bombardment, probed the defenses in one place, and then launched an attack on May 27. The Confederate defenses were too long for the garrison they had available – they were designed for about twice as many men – and also in the wrong place. The expectation was attacks on the southern end of the defenses, but Banks wrapped all the way around, and the Confederates were frantically digging deeper and moving guns to new positions.
It was enough; the attack was a disaster. Banks wrote long orders, but neglected vital parts, like setting a common time for the attack and making sure his subordinates would all work together. The attack on the left-center started first, with 6,000 men aiming at only 1,200 Confederates. Confederate outworks were pushed back, but the initial fighting, difficult terrain, and oppressive heat and humidity sapped the attacking Union troops. They reformed for phase two of the attack, where they had to go down through an obstacle-choked ravine, then up the far side to reach the trenches – all the time under fire. They started bravely, but only a few men reached the Confederate trenches and they were ejected by a counter attack. 14 regiments had failed; next the Union commanders tried with dribs and drabs of men. Two regiments charged, then another two, then three. A few men got as close as 50 yards before falling back – or being felled by the intense fire. Several hours later Banks finally started an attack on the Confederate right; another 5,000 men attacked, and they made good progress. But the Confederates were holding their fire; at 200 yards the artillery fired and checked the assault. Renewed efforts only raised the casualty total: about 1 in 5 of the attackers fell.
Banks had achieved next to nothing, except kill a lot of his men (about 2,000 casualties against under 250 Confederate losses). But the attack had proved something. Two of the regiments thrown carelessly forward were African-American troops, and it was the first test in battle of any African-American units. Whites hadn’t really trusted them, mainly used the volunteers as laborers, and paid them less than their White comrades. How would they react in battle? They charged through a thicket, against an intact Confederate defense. It was an invitation to suicide, but they didn’t hesitate and charged. They didn’t capture the position, but they proved to themselves, their officers, and through newspapers to the country and the world that African-Americans would fight just as bravely as anyone. There were still doubters (North and South) but most accepted the facts. It was a tremendous boost for African-American recruitment, and meant that a number of other units would have their opportunity for combat, to fight for the liberation of their race.
That was important for the future, but Banks still had the problem of Port Hudson. After a few days rest for the men, he started the siege in earnest, digging batteries and trenches, starting a constant bombardment, and continual sniping. He also pled with Grant for reinforcements, and also stripped his own Department of minor garrisons; he was enough of a strategist to know that if he bagged the Confederate forces at Port Hudson he could easily recover any particular post that was temporarily abandoned. He pulled in nine further regiments, and his strength reached 40,000, although with water short and the weather hot, the sick list meant many fewer were available for duty.
The Confederates were doing what they could to raid the Union lines. Clearly the outnumbered garrison could spare few men for sorties – especially against Banks’ sturdy siege lines. But Confederate cavalry outside the fortifications harassed foraging parties and raided camps. Banks lost 1,200 men in May and early June, which prompted him to send Benjamin Grierson out with 1,200 horsemen to sweep away the Rebels. Grierson was bushwhacked, and galloped back reporting the rebels were stronger than he was. Banks had enough of that, and sent Grierson back with an infantry division in support to smash the Confederate base at Clinton, Louisiana. They duly tore up Clinton, but a few weeks later the raids resumed with the burning of $1 million of stores at a river landing a few miles below Port Hudson.
Meanwhile the siege was wearing down the Confederates. They were short of food and short on drinking water, in the middle of a drought. Sickness and hunger led to desertions, and by mid-June Banks had excellent intelligence about the Confederate positions and strength. He decided to launch another attack, but didn’t plan this well either. Orders were sent out at the last minute, which essentially guaranteed that coordination would be bad. And it was: the first two attacks were side by side, but four hours apart. The Union infantry ran into fierce resistance, and reinforcements wouldn’t advance through the stragglers of previous attacks. There was a distinct lack of leadership – division and brigade commanders weren’t leading their men, they were ordering them forward. And the soldiers resented it. Another attack, again isolated in time and place, on the south end of the Confederate line also failed. So Banks had lost another 1,800 men and achieved nothing: the Confederates lost barely 50.
It was back to siege warfare, this time pressed with more vengeance than before. The infantry dug and sniped, the artillery dismounted every Confederate gun at least once. Engineers dug mines below rebel salients, preparing to blow them to kingdom come as part of a final assault. The only Confederate hope was Joe Johnston, who was hovering east of Vicksburg trying to save the day there. If he could get down to the Port Hudson area he probably could have beaten Banks’ weakened (and ill-led) army. But Vicksburg was a higher priority, and the supply routes down to Louisiana were terrible – that was part of Grant’s objective in capturing Jackson Mississippi before encircling Vicksburg.
Banks planned his final attack for July 11, but Vicksburg fell on the 4th. News arrived on the evening of the 7th, and the Union cheers and bands playing told the Confederates what had happened. But Gardner was made of stern stuff, and wanted to see proof; Banks showed him Grant’s dispatches and it was enough. After 48 days of siege, the longest siege in America, the Confederate flag was lowered. Banks paroled all the enlisted men, but kept the officers as prisoners for later exchange.
The battle and the campaign were over. After over two years the Mississippi was opened for the Union, and closed to the Confederacy. There was still plenty of fighting ahead, but the South had been dealt a crippling blow.
American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.