The Road to Port Hudson and Nathaniel Banks’s Date with Destiny

For Nathaniel Banks, his moment of destiny arrived in May 1863. So far his career as a general had been less successful than his political one. Although he played a key roll in keeping Maryland in the union, 1862 saw him take part in a series of defeats in Virginia. What kept him around was his political clout and the fact that he and Abraham Lincoln agreed on almost everything. They were moderates with no love for slavery but a much greater love for the nation and unity. It was no secret that Lincoln saw Banks as a possible successor once he fulfilled his two terms in office.

General Nathaniel P. Banks

Louisiana had been a mixed affair for Banks. His probe at Port Hudson in March 1863 failed, as did his attempts to bypass the the town from the west bank. The Bayou Teche campaign saw Richard Taylor’s small army escape destruction while Banks’ men went on a rampage of looting, destruction, and even rape. Banks though did better at furthering Lincoln’s political designs for Louisiana, which was no surprise considering Banks’ skill as a politician. The Teche campaign also impressed Henry Halleck and it was a success overall, although incomplete since Taylor escaped.

After some indecision, Banks was ready to go for Port Hudson. Once that fell he was to go to Vicksburg, and out-ranking Grant, take command. Halleck even ordered Banks to go directly to Vicksburg and take command. It was not just that Banks had impressed Halleck; undoubtedly Lincoln knew that if Banks opened the Mississippi River he would be a favorite for 1868. Banks though did not do as Halleck wished. He lacked transports and felt he needed to be close enough to New Orleans to defend the city if Taylor should strike at it. In addition, Port Hudson was well fortified, but there were only 7,000 men. Banks was confidant he could take the town, adding to the laurels he needed if he were to seek the presidency in 1868.

On May 14, Banks moved on Port Hudson with 30,000 men from the massive XIX Corps. Like Banks most men were from the northeast and they had not acquired a good combat reputation. Indeed, none had been in a battle at the scale of Antietam, let alone Belmont. So far XIX Corps biggest and fiercest fight was Baton Rouge and only a few regiments had been in that scrape. On May 19, Banks transferred most of his men to Bayou Sara. Once a prosperous small town, it was now merely rubble, with chimney spires dotting a desolate landscape. As XIX Corps closed in, skirmishes were fought on May 20 at Cheneyville and May 21 at Plains Store. While the Rebels fell back, Banks’ men suffered heavier loses and showed little tactical skill.

The siege of Port Hudson may not have happened if Franklin Gardner had abandoned the position as Joseph E. Johnston desired. Jefferson Davis ordered him back and when Johnston ordered Gardner out on May 23 it came a day after Port Hudson was surrounded. If Banks had waited, he could have taken Port Hudson with only light losses. While such an easy victory would not give Banks too much glory, it would be welcome news in the aftermath of Chancellorsville. Furthermore, Banks would be free to come to Grant’s aid and share in the victory at Vicksburg.

Franklin Gardner

Regardless, to many it appeared that Gardner could not hold for long. He had a strong position, but lacked enough soldiers to fully man his lines. Gardner gambled that if he held long enough Johnston might come to save him. Also, while Taylor could do little to aid Port Hudson directly, he could attack Banks’ exposed rear, and possibly take New Orleans. John L. Logan, commanding a cavalry brigade of 1,200 troopers, was also nearby. On May 22 he promised Gardner “I am determined to annoy the enemy and hurt him at every favorable point and opportunity, on his flanks and in his rear.” Come what may, Gardner was also determined. To the 1st Alabama he said “The enemy are coming, but mark you, many a one will get to hell before he does to Port Hudson.” Echoing Gardner, a tree trunk just outside of Port Hudson contained an apt warning: “Beware Yankees! This road leads to hell.”

In XIX Corps morale was generally high. John Deforest of the 12th Connecticut thought his men looked like “bulldogs and bloodhounds held in leash.” Banks was cheered everywhere he went as the Federals crept up to Port Hudson over the following days. Artillery dueled, and David Farragut stepped up his naval bombardment. On May 26 Banks asked Gardner to surrender. He refused. It is possible if Banks had attacked on May 26 he would have carried Port Hudson. Rebel defenses were incomplete, particularly on the northern front. There, the terrain in this area was rugged, and little had been done there over the months to fortify it. Gardner considered an attack in that area so remote that his storehouses were placed in that sector. Isaiah Steedman, who commanded one of the Rebel brigades, convinced Gardner to fortify the area. As the Federals probed and cut paths through the woods, Steedman’s men pulled ten hour work days to get the lines finished.

Isaiah Steedman

Meanwhile, on May 26 Banks met with his officers, although what exactly occurred remains unknown. Banks wanted to attack right away, hoping to neutralize Port Hudson and then go north to Vicksburg. Another reason to strike was that two year regiments from 1861 and nine-month regiments would be leaving soon. The 6th New York had already departed. The longer Banks was at Port Hudson, the weaker he would become, forcing him to draw men from New Orleans and Lafourche.

The plan was for Farragut and the artillery, numbering some ninety cannon, to open a grand barrage. Christopher Augur’s division would advance in the center, and Thomas Sherman’s division would hit the left. Godfrey Weitzel would hold the enemy in place on the right, striking with the divisions headed by William Dwight and Halbert Paine. Cuvier Grover would be in reserve with a small division. The orders were vague and left each division commander a lot of latitude. Weitzel was confidant of success. Augur had misgivings, but he likely did not strongly voice them. Sherman asked why the Federals should attack when a siege would suffice. Banks apparently said “The people of the North demand blood, sir.” And so they would get it on May 27, 1863.

5 Responses to The Road to Port Hudson and Nathaniel Banks’s Date with Destiny

  1. Yes, in 1862, the Union army burned the town of Bayou Sara, a formerly busy river port, on fire. The U.S. Navy continued to shell the town for the following two weeks. As they did Donaldsonville, another river port downriver from Bayou Sara.

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