The Longest Siege
July 9 marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Port Hudson, the Confederacy’s stronghold on the Mississippi River 25 miles above Baton Rouge. There’s still ample time for sesquicentennial-inspired tours of our battlefields and landmarks, but the siege of Port Hudson signals now, just as it did during the conflict itself and during the centennial commemoration of the 1960s, the beginning of the end of the War of So Many Names.
Those of a “certain age,” as they say, can remember the centennial years, one personal highlight of which was the filming (around Natchitoches) of the Harold Sinclair novel called The Horse Soldiers about Col. Benjamin Grierson’s famous cross-country raid that ended in Baton Rouge. When the show premiered at Shreveport’s venerable Strand Theatre, John Wayne drew cheers by proclaiming that he, despite playing Grierson, was really a Southerner by virtue of being from Southern California.
Now as then, the commemoration around the nation is taking the form of special museum exhibits, handsome commemorative stamps, a flood of new books and, of course, the reenactments of major battles and locally significant episodes of the war.
In Louisiana the key events were the 1862 defeat of forts Jackson and St. Philip in Plaquemines Parish which spelled the fall of New Orleans, two battles for Baton Rouge, the Lafourche-Teche campaign of 1863, the siege of Port Hudson and, of course, the Red River Campaign of 1864 when the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill halted Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ march on Shreveport (headquarters of the CSA’s “Trans-Mississippi Department” and intended staging ground for Banks’ invasion of Texas).
Those were not, of course, the extent of the Louisiana experience. In truth, hardly a town, roadway or household remained untouched by wartime activities, be they the fighting and encampments of the armies or peripheral activities like the shipyards of Madisonville and Shreveport, the troop training at Kentwood, the manufacture of medicines at tiny Mount Lebanon, the commandeering of homes for hospitals and officer quarters, the shelling of Donaldsonville and burning of Alexandria, Gen. U.S. Grant’s march and canal-digging expeditions through northeast Louisiana and, along the Gulf Coast, the stubborn resistance to Lincoln’s blockade at ports like the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers.
This chapter of the sesquicentennial, however, belongs to Port Hudson, a place well- worthy of visiting any year. Indeed, until you’ve seen its ravines, forests, quagmires and serpentine ridges you cannot grasp the drama, horror and desperation of the events that unfolded here. Read the books, study the maps, but go there, too, to walk the trails, climb the observation towers and imagine a river crowded with warships, their decks crowded with cannon and mortars, all aimed at you.
Two-hundred-odd miles upriver, Confederate guns at Vicksburg were also trained on the Mississippi, but what was being defended was not Port Hudson or Vicksburg themselves but the river’s No-Yankee zone that lay between them, created and defended by the two bastions working in tandem. It was, in fact, the only thread linking the Trans-Mississippi and eastern Confederacy, essential for communication, for the safe crossing of men and munitions and for the crossing of food, supplies and horses (most shipped down Red River which entered the Mississippi in the safe zone) for transport to Confederate armies fighting in the east.
SAGA OF A SIEGE
Louisiana’s Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had long advocated a fort at Port Hudson because of its position on bluffs above a hairpin bend, where with a swivel of its siege guns it could defend against attacks from up- or downriver, and finally, when Confederate gunboats missed their appointment to assist the Gen.
John Breckinridge in his attempt to recapture Union-held Baton Rouge on Aug. 5, 1862, the time had come. His troops fell back to Port Hudson to begin what would be the nine-month task of designing, digging, “hardening” and arming the place.
When the first attack on the fort by Adm.
David Farragut’s failed on March 14, 1863, with a loss of five of his seven ships, it became clear that this would be a lengthy siege, and Banks began preparing for it. First on his agenda was a sweep through bayou country to clear the region of Gen. Richard “Dick” Taylor’s Confederates, who might otherwise interfere with the movements of Union troops and supplies necessary for the siege.
Taylor, son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, played a game of attack and retreat as Banks followed him up Bayou Teche and thence to Opelousas and Alexandria. There Banks turned back south to rejoin Farragut, whose shelling had begun on May 22 – the first day of what would be the longest military siege in American history: a maelstrom of cannon barrages, infantry raids and assaults against Port Hudson’s 4.5-mile landside perimeter, played to a groove laid down by the thunder of Farragut’s Naval artillery.
The object of all that affection was, of course, the army of miserable and hungry men in the trenches who, after each day’s fighting, dined on mule meat and worse as they molded bullets and fashioned makeshift grapeshot by recycling spent shells, scrapiron and shrapnel in preparation for the next day’s attacks.
GRANT DIGS LOUISIANA
Upriver, meanwhile, Union attempts to take Vicksburg had begun with failed attacks by Gens. U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman on Nov. 2 and Dec. 26 of 1862, after which Grant resorted to the idea of digging canals from the Mississippi to bypass the formidable bluffs and thus position his troops downriver for attacks on the exposed rear quarters of the city.
The most feasible of his three major attempts was the DeSoto Point canal, which would simply shortcut the river’s sharp bend at Vicksburg, providing a safe detour and possibly even diverting the river’s course entirely, leaving the city and its artillery abandoned and useless. Another project was digging a 1-mile canal from the river to its long-abandoned meander route that we know as Lake Providence (an oxbow lake with links to the Tensas River which could transport the troops to a lower point on the Mississippi), and a third canal was attempted between Walnut Bayou and the river in Madison Parish. All failed (largely due to inopportune fallings and risings of the Mississippi that dried or flooded the canals), after which Grant changed his strategy again and, after months of road improvements and bridge-building, succeeded in moving his army by means of a land march down the west bank for a river crossing on the night of April 30.
After several successful engagements with Confederate forces east of the river, Grant marched to Vicksburg and surrounded the city on May 19. The siege was on.
PORT HUDSON SURRENDERS
As at Vicksburg, the entire Port Hudson region was affected by the siege, evidenced by young Sarah Morgan at nearby Linwood Plantation noting in her now-famous diary the frightening sounds of artillery. Centenary College in Jackson (now a State Historic Site) and Silliman School in Clinton (still in operation) served as hospitals, and sporadic skirmishing sprang up along supply routes and in several towns.
One such battle occurred on June 3 when Col. Grierson and his “Horse Soldiers” (fresh from their hero’s welcome in Baton Rouge after their raid) were dispatched by Banks to chase away mixed units of Confederate cavalry then occupying Clinton, only to be roundly defeated and chased back to Port Hudson.
Aside from the daily raids and artillery barrages conducted by Banks’ 40,000-man army, the 6,800 Confederates at Port Hudson, now commanded by Gen. Franklin Gardner, withstood and in fact scored decisive victories during the three most massive Union assaults, one at the north and northeast sections of the perimeter at dawn on May 27 (involving, for the first time, combat action by black Union troops, the 1st and 3rd regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard), the second attack from the south and southeast at noon of the same day, and the third a three-pronged attack at 3:30 a.m. on June 13.
Despite these successes in the face of staggering odds, despite crippling much of Farragut’s fleet and despite inflicting 6,000 Union casualties while suffering only 900 during the entire siege, the Confederates by the end of June could read the handwriting on the earthen walls.
Virtually all their artillery had been blasted to pieces, ammunition was practically exhausted, and mule meat can get, you know, tiresome even with an occasional rat for variety. Yet it was not until news of Vicksburg’s July 4 surrender had arrived – and with it the realization that Port Hudson alone could not maintain that vital No-Yankee zone on the Mississippi – did Gardner surrender, commanding his officers and men on July 9 to lay down their weapons.
Port Hudson State Historic Site is open Tuesday through Saturday each week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In its interpretive center can be found such treasures as the giant garrison flag of these earthworks (taken as a war prize by a Massachusetts officer and returned as a gift in 2003 by the Massachusetts Historical Society), as well as weapons and uniforms of both armies and graphic depictions of fortifications and assault movements.
What you will not see at Port Hudson is the river, whose dramatic bend over these 150 years has etched its way farther downstream, leaving behind the old battleground with its legendary placenames, like Fort Desperate and Artillery Ridge, that belie the tranquility of today’s beautiful park.
Channel Guide: A forest of historical markers and a few surviving lengths of Grant’s canals serve as mementos of the general’s unhappy experiences in Louisiana prior to the siege of Vicksburg, and an invaluable book by David Dumas called Major General U.S. Grant’s March in Louisiana (available in softcover or e-book at www.authorhouse.com) tells the story in great detail, complete with precise directions for those who’d like to see the landmarks for themselves.
Those with limited time can take heart in the fact that the most important and best preserved sites also happen to be the easiest to find, like a significant remnant of the DeSoto Point canal which lies directly across the river from the bluffs of Vicksburg (the only section of the National Military Park on the Louisiana side).
In the heart of Lake Providence on the south shore of the town’s namesake lake, a city park (complete with elevated boardwalk) ensures the continued survival of a 1,000-foot length of that canal; and Winter Quarters Plantation on the south shore of Lake St. Joseph – reluctant host of multiple Union encampments during preparations for the westbank march – is now a State Historic Site.
Built in sections between 1805 and 1850, it was the only manor of 15 on Lake St. Joseph, and one of few in our northeastern parishes, spared the torch in the spring of 1863, and it is now recovering from damage inflicted by a 2011 tornado. It will not reopen before late 2014 but can be viewed from Louisiana Highway 608.