May 27, 1863 (Wednesday)
It had been two days since the Union Army of the Gulf, under General Nathaniel Banks and 35,000-strong, invested Port Hudson, Louisiana, held by 5,000 or so Confederates. He knew that he must make short work of the Southern bastion and quickly move up the Mississippi River to aid General Grant at Vicksburg. With this in mind, he wanted to attack the works as soon as possible, preferably in the immediate.
The problem was his underlings, specifically General Christopher Auger, who thought that putting it off for a couple of days might give them time to reconnoiter the enemy position. Thomas Sherman, also one of Banks’ division commanders, agreed. Besides, he asserted, couldn’t they use those couple of days to bombard the Confederate works with heavy artillery? The enemy’s supply lines had been cut – it was only a matter of time before they were starved into submission, he reminded Banks.
But no, Banks did not agree. First off, Confederates under Richard Taylor, still lurking in the wilds of Western Louisiana, could take this opportunity to attack the sort of defenseless New Orleans, which had been kind of abandoned by Sherman’s troops who were now at Port Hudson. Additionally, the numbers within the Army were soon to drop as the terms of enlistment were up. Banks ended the council by saying something like “the people of the North demand blood, sir!” And with that rather silly argument, Banks decided to attack the next day (meaning, this day, the 27th).
The plans were simple, though hardly straight forward. First, Union gunboats on the Mississippi and field artillery to the east of Port Hudson would open upon the Rebel works at dawn. At that time, Generals Sherman and Auger on the left and center would move their troops into position and wait for the right moment to, as Banks called it, “take instant advantage of any favorable opportunity.” If such a favorable opportunity arose, they were to, “if possible, force the enemy works at the earliest moment.” The Union right, under the de facto command of General Godfrey Weitzel, was to do much the same, but only after he saw Sherman and Auger gaining some sort of success.
At first, things seemed to go according to plan. Though Weitzel couldn’t wheel his artillery into position due to the bad ground. The Naval gunboats, as well as Sherman’s and Auger’s artillery were blasting away at daybreak.
The Confederates, under General Franklin Gardner, had established a fine defensive position, but had still placed quite a large number of troops outside of the fortifications. This was to allow the entrenchments to be improved while holding back any advancing Yankees. This was especially true on Col. I. G. W. Steedman’s front, facing off against Weitzel.
Since Weitzel wasn’t supposed to make a move before seeing that Sherman and Auger were successful, this should not have been an issue. But Weitzel decided not to wait, and formed his troops into columns and advanced upon the Rebel works, running right into Col. Steedman’s advance troops. The Rebels gave ground, but the Federals drifted right and were sent into a general disarray by the uneven and horrible ground. By the time Weitzel’s boys got to within sight of the fortress itself, they were exhausted.
Still, they made their attack, hitting a salient of the Rebel line, hoping it might be the weakest spot. All that did, however, was place them in the crossfire between two Confederate lunettes. With the fight at a standstill, around 10am, reinforcements came in the shape of the Corps d’Afrique, the black troops who, until this moment, had been allowed to do little more than dig trenches and guard roads. They attacked under the leadership of Captain Andre Cailloux, and were, like the rest of the Federals, basically slaughtered.
To make matters worse, nobody seemed to know why Sherman and Auger hadn’t yet stepped off.
It was around noon when Banks rode over to the Union left to see what was up. What he found was General Sherman seated at his headquarters about to enjoy a very lovely lunch with a bit of fine wine. Banks, rather furiously, asked why Sherman had not attacked, and Sherman replied that it would be suicide to attempt such an assault.
Banks completely (and understandably) lost it. He fired Sherman on the spot and ordered his chief of staff, General George Andrews, to take his place. Banks went back to his own headquarters, and, at 1:30, when Andrews arrived to relieve Sherman, he found the General at the head of his Division, leading them into battle (some sources claim that Sherman was drunk). Since Sherman was now doing as commanded, Andrews let him go about his business, declining to relieve him.
Sherman’s men advanced and were hit hard by a Rebel volley that killed a good many of them and dehorsed Sherman himself. Undaunted, he continued leading his division forward, towards the Confederate works, until he was hit in the thigh by a ball and had to be carried off the field. The attack continued, but with no real success.
In the Union center, like Sherman, General Auger failed to advance. He cited Banks’ incredibly vague orders as the reason. Though he heard fighting on his right through most of the morning and, more recently, fighting on his left, he still declined to go in unless Banks ordered him to do so. Banks seemed to have forgotten all about Auger until well after Sherman’s attack was about to fail.
As Sherman’s men were tumbling back, Banks sent Auger towards the Rebel fortifications. No longer having much to do on their left or right, the Confederates concentrated most of their men in the center to meet Auger’s blow. The numbers nearly even, the Rebels were able to brutally repulse the most recent of Federal attacks.
The only thing Banks had left was a brigade of reserves under General Curvier Grover. Around 3:30, they went into battle and, like their comrades, were unsupported and easily beaten. Sporadic skirmishing rippled here and there until around 5:30 when an officer from New York took it upon himself to raise a white flag. Word of this spread up and down the lines and, though unofficial, it was mostly honored, both sides apparently agreeing to disagree. The Federals, trapped up against the Rebel lines, scurried back quickly, while the Confederates bettered their positions.
That evening, out of ideas, Banks ordered up muskets for the rest of the black troops, who had, prior to the battle, been serving as ditch diggers.
Confederate General Gardner prepared his men for what he assumed would be Banks’ next attack to come the following morning. None, however, would come. Banks’ failure created a long, drawn out stalemate. The Federal losses were dear, costing Banks 450 killed and over 1,500 wounded. The Confederates lost around 50 killed, a 200 wounded.1
- Sources: Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. [↩]