THE BATTLE OF PORT HUDSON
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During the early years of the Civil War (1861-1865) the Union leadership recognized the importance of gaining control of the Mississippi River in order to achieve the “anaconda” effect of strangling the Southern forces

 

from obtaining supplies and arms with which to fight for their independence from the United States. The North controlled any attempted access for delivering these necessities from the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and overland from the North.

Port Hudson

The key to completing this objective would be the capture of Mississippi River port cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Vicksburg, and Memphis. By 1863 Northern armies had taken control of New Orleans (April, 1862) and Memphis (June, 1862) and by May 29, 1862, Union troops would march northward and capture the city of Baton Rouge. All that apparently lay in tightening the noose was General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg.

In August, 1862, Confederate General John Breckinridge attempted to retake Baton Rouge but was turned away due to the heavily armed Union troops that had now taken up fortifications. Breckinridge then marched northward along the Mississippi and selected an ideal spot about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge in the small town of Port Hudson. What made this location so unique was its very steep bluffs (as high as 80′) on the east side of the river. Additionally this position was at an extremely sharp bend of the Mississippi— a point which would force the slowing of ships attempting to run the distance; especially heading north, against the current, from Baton Rouge. This of course would make them easy targets for the artillery placed atop the bluffs.

By the spring of 1863, final entrenchment and fortification had been completed at Port Hudson—now under the command of Major General Franklin Gardner. By March, 1863, Franklin and his force of 6,800 men were firmly in place to prevent Union attack.

On March 14, Union naval commander Admiral David Farragut attempted to run a fleet of seven ships past the Port Hudson defenses. During a fierce 3-hour battle, Farragut lost 5 of his 7 ships, and although somewhat of a Confederate victory, 2 ships were able to take position above Port Hudson near the Mississippi’s intersection with the Red River; thereby blocking any supplies from reaching Gardner’s soldiers.

On May 27, nearly 40,000 Union troops under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks began a full-scale attack, but with the South’s ideal defensive location and very accurate sniper fire, the North were turned back reporting very heavy losses. This attack was also noteworthy because it marked the first significant use of black troops during the Civil War.

A second unsuccessful Union attack was attempted on June 14 and once again a great number of casualties were sustained by the North. Union command reports included nearly 500 killed and 3,000 injured during these two attacks.

With the great amount of losses, Banks decided to no longer proceed with an outright frontal assault on Port Hudson. Since he controlled any outside access to the fort, he opted to starve the Confederates assuming there were limited supplies inside the fortifications.

Banks was correct in his assumption. Conditions worsened fairly quickly as the Southern forces were forced to eventually eat their horses, mules, dogs, and even rats in order to survive. The starvation along with the constant barrage of artillery and sniper fire greatly reduced the morale of the valiant Confederate troops. As the wait continued, the North was not without its share of problems. The Louisiana summer temperatures, mosquitoes, and disease attributed to over 4,000 solders’ hospitalization.

General Banks did finally plan for another assault on Port Hudson for July 11. His soldiers were able to excavate tunnels under the bluffs to enable their unseen advancement toward the fort. But before this attack took place, word had arrived of the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th. News of the Union’s success reached Banks and in a meeting with Confederate commander Gardner, dispatches from Vicksburg were submitted as evidence; and together with this evidence and 48 days of fighting and starvation, Gardner chose to surrender on July 9, 1963; ending the longest siege in American history.

The surrender provided the Union total control of the Mississippi River virtually cutting off any attempted aid from states like Texas and Arkansas. Today the Port Hudson National Cemetery, some 20 miles north of Baton Rouge, serves a reminder of the courageous efforts on the part of the North and South in this key battle of America’s most devastating war. Besides the graves of Confederate soldiers, nearly 4,000 of those buried include fallen Union troops. In 1974 the cemetery and battlefield was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.