Port Hudson Fully Invested – Banks Waits to Attack

May 25, 1863 (Monday)

General Nathaniel Banks and his Union Army of the Gulf had fully invested the Rebel stronghold of Port Hudson, along the Mississippi. It and Vicksburg were all that the Confederacy had left on the river. Just as General Grant had settled into a siege to the north, Banks was preparing for the same – though he was not so convinced that it would be such a difficult task to take Port Hudson.

Ink map showing both the CS and US positions.
Ink map showing both the CS and US positions.

Since the 21st, his army had established itself in a ring around the city. With Port Hudson and the Mississippi River to his front, his force consisted of four divisions and another, smaller division of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Holding the left was Thomas Sherman, his division’s flank abutted against the river. Farther right was Christopher C. Augur’s Division, which had cleared the roads for the rest of Banks’ men in the preceding days. On Augur’s right was the division under Cuvier Grover, followed by a hodgepodge of extras under Godfrey Weitzel on the Union right flank, its own right against the Mississippi.

The USCT were, at this point, basically used as pioneers – digging trenches, building bridges, etc. They consisted of nine regiments, including the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Louisiana Native Guards – some of the very few black regiments that still retained black line officers. Nathaniel Banks had taken it upon himself to replace as many of the line officers with whites, apparently believing that blacks were not intelligent enough to perform such duties.

The Colored Troops were largely made up of black property owners from New Orleans (though some escaped slaves had been welcomed into the ranks). Originally, these property owners wished to fight for the South, to defend their homes against what was widely perceived to be an invading force. But, of course, the Confederacy, like the Federal government at the time, eschewed the use of black troops and disallowed it. When Union General Benjamin Butler took command at New Orleans, many of the black property owners sided with the North, and thus the Corps d’Afrique, as they called themselves, was formed. Following some tribulation and trembling, the Federals finally allowed black soldiers to serve in the ranks – something the Confederate government wouldn’t even entertain until late 1864 (slaves were finally allowed in mid-March, 1865, but only with their masters’ consent).

Soldiers of the Corps D'Afrique
Soldiers of the Corps D’Afrique

For the time being, the USCT, while armed, mostly performed as guards, scouts, and pioneers, and most did not hold any position along the siege lines before Port Hudson. Two regiments, however, held portions of the Union line on the right, under General Weitzel.

On this date, there was a bit of skirmishing as the Rebels did their best to keep Banks’ troops away from their lines. Confederate General Franklin Gardner, commanding at Port Hudson, had not yet been able to finish the works. In fact, many of the Southern troops were not behind embrasures at all. Col. Isaiah G. W. Steedman, commanding Gardner’s left wing, was largely without cover. He was convinced that the area he held – a small, unfortified stretch near a grist mill northeast of town – would soon be attacked by the Federals.

Col. Isiah Steedman
Col. Isiah Steedman

While his men threw up temporary breastworks and tangled with Banks’ troops, he spent a few quick minutes convincing General Gardner that his front needed to be included in the works. Gardner, finally resigned to the fact that this was indeed a siege, agreed. He gave Steedman all the tools and slaves he could use. In a day’s time, the works were quite impressive. Had Banks ordered an attack before Steedman fortified, he would have been hitting the Rebels in nearly open ground.

With ninety pieces of artillery placed all along the Union lines, Banks was more or less ready to make the assault on this date. He chose, however to wait, scheduling it for the 27th. But within those extra two days, he would fail to properly reconnoiter the enemy position. It would be an all out assault, much like Grant’s at Vicksburg on the 22nd. But unlike Grant, Banks would never specify a time to begin. He left it up to his division commanders’ discretion “to take instant advantage of any favorable opportunity.” But with such an advantage in numbers (35,000 vs. 7,5000), it hardly seemed as if Banks could lose.1

  1. Sources: Pretense of Glory by James Hollandsworth, Jr.; Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. []
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