March 19, 1863 (Thursday)
The original plan to take Confederate-held Port Hudson was simple. While General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf distracted the fort by feigning an assault, Admiral David Farragut would rush his flotilla of gunboats past the defenses along the Mississippi River. This did not happen.
The result was that only two ships were able to pass and Banks’ infantry never showed up. Both Banks and Farragut blamed the other and both had some fairly good points. Banks complained that Farragut changed the timing of the assault at the last minute, while Farragut believed that Banks could have made it anyway.
Nevertheless, while two ships made it upstream, past Port Hudson, the overall plan had failed. As the broken ships drifted downstream to safety, Banks ordered a retreat. When the USS Mississippi, which had been set on fire to keep it out of Rebel hands, exploded, Banks believed that he would soon be assaulted by their Rebel counterparts inside the fort.
The main objective, of course, was to force Port Hudson to fall. If the troops inside were enticed to leave the confines of their protection and were then defeated, the fort could not ultimately stand. Banks could surround it, cut off the supply line and watch it whither.
Instead, Banks hurried along his already-ordered retreat, much to the chagrin of his men. The retreat back to Baton Rogue, twenty miles south of Port Hudson, started March 15. Due to rampant looting, however, many of the troops on this date had still not made it back to their camp.
It was true that supplies were low and the countryside was ripe for the picking. Along the way, fearing another assault, Banks deployed at least once, waiting for a Rebel attack that never came. For the most part, however, the troops tried to keep dry of the weather while raiding larders and barns. Over $300,000 in cotton and sugar were confiscated for the Federal army.
While his men were retreating and pillaging, Banks tried several times to get in contact with Admiral Farragut, whom he believed to be just north of Port Hudson waiting patiently for Banks to get a hold of him. While the bulk of his troops were on the east side of the Mississippi, he ordered two regiments to explore up the west side. After a bit of fearful fumbling, some of them wound up where they believed Farragut would be, but found nothing. So instead, they looted and captured prisoners.
Several other such expeditions were attempted, but most were slogged down by swampy waters and rumors of Rebels.
On this date, the main body of troops was still marching back to Baton Rogue. General Banks, however, was aboard the USS Monongahela, which had moved upriver, closer to Port Hudson (but not too close), and was taking pot shots at the Rebel fort.
Meanwhile, another expedition was ordered to find Farragut, thought to be somewhere just north of the mouth of the False River. In actuality, Farragut was 150 miles north and ready to test of strength of the Rebel battery at Grand Gulf.
Farragut had not waited long after passing Port Hudson. Two days after he reached relative safety, he steamed the Hartford and Albatross north to the mouth of the Red River. On the 17th he passed Natchez and by the morning of this date, he was just below Grand Gulf. It was the only Rebel battery they had encountered since leaving Port Hudson.
As they steamed past the battery, the bigger Hartford moved between the Confederate guns and the Albatross, firing as she went. The Rebels held their fire until the Federals ships were directly opposite them, and then let loose.
Almost immediately, they had their range and made it quite hot for those aboard the Hartford. There was nothing more the Confederate gunners could really do, however. The Rebels were completely unharmed, except for their flagpole, which was hit by a lucky Federal shot.
Aboard the Hartford, things were amiss. Two had been killed and six wounded by Confederate fire. Both vessels escaped any serious damage, and by the next morning would be south of Warrenton, soon to communicate with General Grant.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Vol. 20, p3-5, 785; Official Records, Vol. 15, p266-267; Vol. 24, Part 1, p469; Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt. [↩]