April 23, 1863 (Thursday)
Union General Nathaniel Banks had a bit of a problem. His task was to reduce Confederate-held Port Hudson, and then join with General Grant’s troops in their attack on Vicksburg, 150 miles to the north. Convinced that Port Hudson could not be taken without reinforcements, he decided to wait for reinforcements to arrive from Grant before moving on it. In the meantime, he took much of his Army of the Gulf south into the swamps and bayous to attack Fort Bisland.
This expedition resulted in a splendid victory that didn’t really mean all that much for the Federals. For the Confederates, however, the Union victory had a wonderful silver lining as it removed an entire army from the field and secured Port Hudson.
By this date, Banks’ Army of the Gulf (two-thirds of it, anyway) was at Opelousas, Louisiana. It was around this time that General Grant’s letter written a month prior finally caught up with him. But it actually wasn’t a letter, per se, but a private secretary of Admiral David Farragut’s who had memorized the letter and then destroyed the original so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. In Grant’s “letter,” he explained that he would love to send Banks troops, but he didn’t have enough transports. This was now old news as since then Grant had come up with a scheme to get past Vicksburg, take the Rebel batteries at Grand Gulf and then (probably-ish), send some troops to help with Banks’ problem at Port Hudson.
read heard this, he couldn’t believe his eyes ears. Banks, in his reply, explained to Grant that it was because of the reinforcements thought to be coming from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee that “we pushed with vigor the expedition upon which we were then engaged.”
Tossing that rather important point aside, Banks went on to extol the great rewards from this ill-conceived expedition. “Our success has been complete,” he wrote. “We have utterly destroyed the army and navy of this part of the Confederacy, and made it impossible for the enemy to reorganize his forces for some months to come.”
Banks was correct in that respect. His local success was indeed complete. His troops were well on their way to Alexandria. The Rebels forces that defended Fort Bisland were now divided, with the cavalry under Henry Hopkins Sibley on the road to Texas. The Rebel infantry, reported Banks, was “completely dispersed.” They had “captured 2,000 prisoners, 1,000 stand of arms, ammunition and ordnance stores, etc, 20 heavy guns, demolished his foundries at Frauklin and New Iberia, and the salt-works below Iberia.”
Furthermore, they had captured and/or destroyed several riverboats (including the Queen of the West) and destroyed ten or twelve transport steamers, which were also heavy with supplies for the Rebels.
Most importantly, Banks believed that following the capture of Butte La Rosa, the Atchafalaya River was completely open all the way to the Red River. If true, then Port Hudson was indeed completely bypassed.
All that was left to do was plan. And in this, Banks was incredibly unhelpful. Grant had asked Banks if he couldn’t somehow furnish transport ships to get his men to Red River. Grant’s own were not enough. “It is a grief on my part that I cannot aid you in this respect,” replied Banks. “Our transportation is lamentably deficient. I had but one steamer with which to pass two divisions of my corps over Berwick Bay in this campaign.”
He made no further mention of the “ten or twelve transport steamers” that his men had just destroyed, and didn’t seem to make the connection that such a fleet could have been exceedingly useful at such a time.
Nevertheless, Banks went on to describe what he believed the next course of action should be. Since he was so far out of touch with this supply base in New Orleans, Banks thought it would be a bad idea to go much farther, say, to the Red River. Why he ever thought it was a good idea to try this at all, he never explained to Grant. Banks thought it best that Grant’s men join with him on the Atchafalaya or Grand River, somewhere around Butte La Rosa. From there, together they could take Port Hudson.
To Banks, the Atchafalaya was the key. While traveling onward, the supplies would dwindle to a trickle, “by the Atchafalaya all difficulties of this kind are obviated.” The entire campaign into western Louisiana had taught Banks everything he needed to know and he told Grant that “too much consideration given to the advantages presented by the more southerly route.” Basically, Banks believed the Atchafalaya to be the key. From this point, he and Grant could bring the war to a close.
Needless to say, he was more than a little mistaken.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p132, 223-225; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. [↩]