The First Assault on Port Hudson

For the North, May 27, 1863 would be one of the cruelest days of the Civil War. On that day Nathaniel Banks hoped to take Port Hudson by storm. Once he did, he could move on Vicksburg and claim the North’s first major strategic victory of 1863. If he failed he would have to settle for a siege. There were plenty of reporters covering Port Hudson. After all, Banks was a powerful politician and a favorite to succeed Abraham Lincoln. Yet, Vicksburg was the greater prize even if Port hudson received lavish coverage.

At 5:45 a.m.  David Farragut’s fleet and the XIX Corps’ artillery opened on Port Hudson, shelling it for over one hour. Despite the ferocious bombardment, Isaiah Steedman’s lines were not touched by the shelling. This was unfortunate, as it allowed Steedman’s men to keep on working on their entrenchments. As such Godfrey Weitzel’s attack was undone by rough terrain, poor coordination, accurate Rebel artillery fire, and the determined stand of Steedman’s 500 man advanced post, headed by M.B. Locke. The advance force delayed the Federals but lost 200 soldiers, the heaviest suffered by the Confederates at Port Hudson.

The hopelessness of Weitzel’s  attack was epitomized by the assault of John A. Nelson’s brigade, made up of the 1,000 black soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards. The attack had all the ingredients of disaster. It was overseen by William Dwight, a Massachusetts native who failed to graduate from West Point due to heavy drinking and his preference for brothels. He was brave and aggressive but also a drunk who despite being overtly racist, slept with black women while on campaign. Dwight was drinking and failed to have the ground scouted, which was the most difficult terrain at Port Hudson. In addition, he promised artillery and infantry support but provided neither. Nelson lost 200 men in minutes. The 39th Mississippi lost not a soul.

Nelson asked Dwight if he could fall back out of artillery range. Dwight, who was now drunk, replied “Tell Colonel Nelson I shall consider he has done nothing unless he carries the enemy’s works.” When told the Native Guards had lost grievously, Dwight merely said to Nelson “Charge again, and let the impetuosity of the charge counterbalance the paucity of the numbers.”  The men knew it was hopeless. Henry Finnegass, commander of the 3rd Native Guards, refused to attack. Nelson had his men fire into the Rebel works at long range which fooled Dwight.

Sketch of the the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard Regiments charging at Port Hudson. Newspapers and depictions of the charge were not wholly accurate, but embellished to make their accomplishment more dramatic, since they did not reach the walls of the fortification.

Banks would write of the Native Guards “They fought splendidly!” The attack was widely covered in the Northern press. A particularly fanciful illustration showed the Native Guards reaching Confederate lines. While the 1st Native Guards showed courage, their exploits were vastly overplayed which irked many of Banks’ men. Charles Moulton of the 6th Michigan wrote in disgust “I have never read more lies in my life.” However, it certainly bolstered recruitment, as would tales of heroism at Millken’s Bend and Battery Wagner in the weeks ahead. The heroic death of Andre Cailloux in particular was played up. The attack of the Native Guards had failed, but it heralded a new phase in the Civil War. By the end of the conflict some 180,000 black men would serve.

Thomas Sherman

Thomas Sherman, who was to attack across Slaughter’s Field, opposed the venture and was likely confused by Banks’ vague orders. Sherman was known as the “the mad-man” for his courage at Buena Vista. Although brave and a first rate administrator, Sherman possessed a prickly personality. Although Banks tried to win Sherman over, even suggesting him for promotion, Sherman still referred to Banks as “that damned militia colonel.”

At noon Banks’ went to Sherman’s command tent. He found Sherman and his staff eating lunch and drinking wine. Sherman told Banks an attack would be suicide. After leaving, an enraged Banks replaced Sherman with George L. Andrews, his chief of staff. By the time Andrews came to command, Sherman was drunk atop his horse. When Andrews tried to relieve him, Sherman tossed his hat on the ground and refused. He then led the 6th Michigan forward.

General Neal Dow (Maine, An Encyclopedia)

Sherman’s men formed at 2:00 p.m. and faced a thin but well placed Rebel line. Neal Dow’s brigade was the first in. Dow was among the most unusual of Banks’ commanders. He was an abolitionist and leader of the temperance movement. When running a fire company in Maine, he once let a liquor store burn down. When mayor of Portland, he ordered the militia to fire on anti-prohibitionist protesters. He asked Lincoln when war came for permission “to raise a regiment of teetotalers” which became the 13th Maine. Yet, he liked Sherman, who was a notorious drunk and even tried to get Dow to shoot whiskey before the assault. Both men were wounded in the attack, with Sherman losing his right leg. The commanders of the 26th Connecticut, 6th Michigan, and 128th New York also became casualties. The 165th New York lost its entire color guard and 186 out of 350 men including their commander, Abel Smith Jr.

Abel Smith

Augur’s division failed to attack in conjunction with Sherman. Henry T. Johns of the 49th Massachusetts mused “we had gone but a few rods ere our Yankee common sense assured us we must fail.” Edward P. Chapin, leading Auger’s first brigade and wearing a Panama hat, was hit once, moved forward and then a ball passed through his head. William Bartlett, leading the 49th Massachusetts, rode a horse in Augur’s attack, the only man to do so. He had no choice since he lost leg at Williamsburg. He was shot and fell from his horse only to urge the men on. The Confederates were in awe and the order was “Don’t shoot him!” Bartlett survived to fight another day.

Union troops assigned to Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur’s 1st Division attack the Port Hudson defenses in the May 27, 1863 assault that resulted in heavy Union losses for no significant military gain. (Harper’s Weekly)

The Confederates lost only thirty men repulsing Augur and Sherman. Yet, they were impressed with the courage of the Federals. The Rebels brought the wounded water in some sectors and even hauled some of the 156th New York’s injured in for treatment. In Augur’s sector fires broke out, but most of the wounded were fetched by the Confederates to save them from the flames.

Union losses on May 27 were nearly 2,000 according to Banks, but were certainly higher, perhaps as much as 3,000. The Confederates likely lost no more than 400 men. After May 27, Banks was widely considered incompetent by the soldiers. Johns concluded “We are poorly led and uselessly slaughtered, and that the brains are all within and not ‘before Port Hudson.” The morale of XIX Corps was shattered and never wholly recovered for the rest of the campaign.

Banks faced a hard task on May 27. His troops, while not green, had not fought in a great battle. His commanders were either overly cautious or drunk, and few had truly distinguished themselves even before Port Hudson. Most of all, Franklin Gardner held a strong position and made good use of his reserves and reinforced skirmish lines. His troops had high morale and many were combat veterans. Just as important, Banks’ plan was uninspired and coordination was poor, but Banks took little responsibility. He made Sherman the scapegoat for his defeat, fuming that he “failed utterly and criminally.”

4 Responses to The First Assault on Port Hudson

  1. Fascinating cast of characters! Had they not really existed, no one would have believed they could be made up!

  2. Nicely done article. Both the Federals and the Confederates had their share of odious officers. William Dwight would head my list. For more on him, I recommend The Longest Siege: Port Hudson by Russell Blount. This weekend is an excellent time to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors who fought in the Civil War and America’s other wars.

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