March 7, 1863 (Saturday)
Along the Mississippi, it was becoming clear that General Grant, operating in the upper river, was bogged down. Everything he tried had fizzled with very little tangible results. At this point, all he had going for him was the Yazoo Pass expedition, which had finally broken through the Confederate and natural obstructions and would soon, he believed, be near Vicksburg’s back door.
As far as the Navy went, it was a disaster. The loss of the Queen of the West and Indianola showed that Admiral David Dixon Porter was doing no better than his infantry counterpart. And so hope turned to the south.
From New Orleans Admiral David Farragut and General Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Army of the Gulf, had been making last minute preparations to storm up the river towards Vicksburg. The only thing in their way was the Confederate bastion of Port Hudson.
This was a formidable place. Sitting atop high bluffs at a sharp bend in the Mississippi, Port Hudson’s seven batteries of heavy artillery could rake any enemy crafts that attempted to steam past the fort. If attacked from the land, the terrain combined with the improved fortifications would cause the attackers to pay dearly in the blood of their comrades.
Neither Farragut nor Banks took this lightly. While Farragut wanted to attack Port Hudson immediately (he had even wanted to do it in January, before Banks’ army was on the scene), Banks was a bit more cautious.
It was true that Banks had much to do when it came to picking up the pieces left by Benjamin Butler, who had lorded over New Orleans before being fired, but now the time had come. Banks really had little choice. If he wanted to keep his job, not only did he have to bring New Orleans into the Union, he had to lead an army.
Throughout much of February, Banks’ Army of the Gulf inched northward, as the Rebels made further preparations. From Vicksburg, General John Pemberton sent Albert Rust (from the early Western Virginia Campaign fame) and his brigade to Port Hudson.
Meanwhile, Banks had moved much of his army to Baton Rouge. His force was 15,000-strong and organized into three divisions. He left troops at New Orleans and La Fourche to cover his flanks.
There, they waited for Farragut. This wait filled Banks with doubts. It was probably the arrival of Rust’s Confederate Brigade at Port Hudson that caused the rumour that a portion of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving towards the Mississippi. To those who knew better, this made no sense at all, but to Banks, sequestered in the bayous of Louisiana, it was a frightening possibility.
For a time, Banks figured that it would be the Rebels at Camp Moore, east of Port Hudson, would attack him, and asked Farragut to post a gunboat on Pass Manchac to Lake Ponchartrain to block any Confederate attempts upon New Orleans.
But by this date, his 15,000 men were assembled and four brigades of Confederates garrisoned Port Hudson. Farragut’s fleet was being assembled and Banks was waiting it out, hoping it would not all go bad before it even started.1
- Sources: Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. [↩]