July 9, 1863 (Thursday)
The fall of Vicksburg no doubt sealed the fate of the Confederacy’s hold on the Mississippi River. It was not, however, the last bastion upon the Big Muddy clung to by the Rebels. That honor fell to General Franklin Gardner, commanding the 6,300 Southerners inside the fortifications of Port Hudson, Louisiana.
When last we left this besieged bastion at the end of May, Union General Nathaniel Banks had invested and attacked to no clear victory. Though the siege operations went forward as one might typically expect from such an affair, Banks tried another attack on June 14 (the same day that General Ewell’s Confederates attacked Winchester). Banks gave General Gardner fair warning that he was about to attack him by launching a day-long artillery barrage that could only signal one thing. When Banks’ men went forward, the Rebels were ready and it ended about as well as one might expect. As the Federals retreated, Gardner’s Rebels taunted from behind their embrasures.
The next day (as General Lee’s men began to cross the Potomac into Maryland), Banks organized a party of 1,000 men “to vindicate the flag of the Union and the memory of the defenders who have fallen.” To add ginger to their swagger, he dubbed them the Forlorn Hope. These were all volunteers and 1,300 men stepped forward, and were placed under the command of Col. Henry Birge.
While most of Banks’ men were in the pits of the lowest morale, these volunteers, including some from his black regiments, were in high spirits. For weeks they drilled and trained, becoming an elite strike force. At the end of June, Banks himself addressed them. “A little more than a month ago,” he began, “you found the enemy in the open country far away from these scenes. Now he is hemmed in and surrounded. What remains is to close upon him and secure him with our grasp. We want the close hug! When you get an enemy’s head under your arm, you can pound him at your will. The hug he will never recover from until the Devil, the arch Rebel, gives him his own!”
This strange little speech emboldened the Forlorn Hope despite the fact that they knew it wasn’t going to be so easy to hug the Rebels to death. The date was set for July 4th, but that came and went as the Forlorn Hope literally dug their way closer to the Rebel trenches. The going was necessarily slow due to the Confederates setting traps and rolling shells down the walls of the fort.
Then, on July 7, General Gardner and his Southerners heard loud cheers coming from the Union lines. They were sustained and rambunctious and could mean but one thing. Calling over the walls, they asked what all the cheering was about. When the reply came that General Pemberton and surrendered Vicksburg three days prior, they had a feeling that it was some sort of ruse. But after receiving official notification from General Banks, they knew their number was up.
The next day, the 8th, officers representing both Banks and Gardner met under some trees to hammer out the details of the surrender. After a bit of back and forth, it was decided that the Confederates would stack arms and the Federals would march unopposed into the works at 7am.
And on the morning of this date, that’s how it happened. Leading the parade was the Forlorn Hope, and a band played “Yankee Doodle.” The Confederates, gaunt from privations, stood at attention as the Federals filed into their fortifications.
General Gardner ordered his men to lay their arms upon the ground, as he handed his sword to Banks’ second-in-command, George Andrews. The Federal band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” as the Union flag was run up the pole. The anthem was followed immediately by “Dixie.” Throughout the ceremony, there was not a cheer to be heard.
“The siege will be remembered not only for its important results,” wrote Banks soon after, “but also for the manner in which it has been conducted.” This was a fine bit of boasting for a man who had lost nearly two men for every Rebel who surrendered. Though the Confederates surrendered 6,300 troops, fifty-one pieces of artillery and 15,000 stands of arms, Banks had lost 5,000 killed or wounded with another 5,000 to disease.
Perhaps, however, it was best that it happened the way it did. General Gardner had been ordered to vacate Port Hudson just as the siege of Vicksburg began. If he had received the order a day or two before, he could have left it nearly unopposed, as Banks had not yet invested the fort. Banks would have lost not a man.
He would, however, have joined Grant at Vicksburg. Since Banks outranked him, it would have been Banks heading up the siege of Vicksburg, and not Grant. Banks’ star would have risen even higher (since the outcome of the Vicksburg siege was plain even before it began), while Grant’s would have fallen, or at least remained the same.
But as history records, Banks invested Port Hudson and was victorious only after Grant oversaw the surrender of Vicksburg. Overshadowed by both Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Banks, still commanding the Department of the Gulf, would soon turn his attention to Mobile, Alabama.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, Part 1, p620-628; Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandworth, Jr. [↩]