The Aftermath of Port Hudson and Nathaniel Banks’s Return to Bayou Teche

The fall of both Vicksburg and Port Hudson was trumpeted throughout the North. However, Ulysses Grant took the greater prize, accepted the surrender of more men, and suffered fewer losses than Banks. His campaign, then and now, is considered among the most brilliant of the war. Banks by contrast oversaw a longer siege and lost more men taking a lesser post held by fewer troops.

If Port Hudson had fallen before Vicksburg, even after June 14, it might have eclipsed Grant’s victory in so far as Banks could claim to have won the North’s first major strategic victory of 1863. The North was starved for good news, particularly after Chancellorsville. If Port Hudson had fallen on May 27, Banks could have come north to Vicksburg and at least shared in the glory. The push by Henry Halleck to place Banks in command at Vicksburg may have been to have Banks reap the glory, and use that war hero status to become president, as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor had done before. Banks came within a hair of being the North’s darling. Instead, the honor went to Grant.

Fanciful Image of Halleck in Battle

Port Hudson was a Pyrrhic Union victory. Losses were heavy in taking the post, and it consumed a disproportionate amount of resources considering what the Confederates put into the place. Banks gained only marginal glory from Port Hudson. It is true he did take the position, and in addition cleared out Bayou Teche in the spring of 1863, when the North was starved for good news. His operations delivered a death blow to slavery in Louisiana. But for the Northern public it all paled when compared to Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

Regardless, Nathaniel Banks acted fast once Port Hudson fell. He left most of the Corps d’Afrique under George Andrews at Port Hudson, while Godfrey Weitzel  landed his infantry at Donaldsonville in an effort to crush Richard Taylor. The men were not in high spirits, many feeling they were being denied a deserved rest. Their numbers had been cut down by battle, disease, exhaustion, and desertion.

By July 11, Weitzel was moving down both sides of Bayou Lafourche. Taylor and Green needed time to move their plunder to Niblett’s Bluff. Green struck Weitzel at sunrise on July 13 just north of Paincourtville, near St. Emma and Belle Alliance. Both grand plantations were owned by Charles A. Kock, hence the name of the battle: Kock’s Plantation. In a swirling fight, Green’s two cavalry brigades defeated Weitzel’s three infantry brigades. Kock’s Plantation might have been Green’s best battle. He inflicted 500 losses and captured a plethora of supplies at a loss of only thirty men.

St. Emma Plantation

In XIX Corps, there was a fresh round of recriminations. Weitzel arrested Joseph S. Morgan, a brigade commander accused of drunkeness. In September he was stripped of his rank. By contrast, when Weitzel sent men to recover the wounded, he also sent a note to Green praising his generalship. The defeat stung the shaky XIX Corps, and Banks became cautious. The weather was only getting hotter, certain to affect an army already physically hurting from the grueling siege of Port Hudson. Only on July 22 did Banks reclaim Brashear City.

Cut off completely from the Confederacy, morale dropped west of the river. Kirby Smith did all he could to foster native industries in order to ensure Confederate forces were supplied. This was among his best achievements, and into 1864 the Confederates west of the Mississippi would remain formidable. Still, Smith’s heavy handed ways meant neutral sentiment increased.  Smith had to put down rebellions across the state. Winn Parish all but declared independence. Southwest Louisiana was in rebellion, as jayhawkers expanded their control and threatened the supply lines to Texas. It was believed that in the Teche alone there were 8,000 draft-dodgers hiding. Some 400 of Green’s cavalry mutinied and made for home, stopped on August 23 only when John P. Major told them they would be shot once they got there. In these desperate times Paul Octave Hébert, who oversaw the subdistrict of Northeast Louisiana, pushed for enlisting black soldiers, convinced that they had proven their worth. Smith toyed with the idea but did not act. In addition, relations between Taylor and Smith further deteriorated. Taylor was bitter and correct that “in war time once lost can not be regained. The unwise movement toward Vicksburg retarded operations at Berwick’s and on the river.” 

Paul Octave Hébert

Grant sent elements of XIII Corps to Banks’ aid and a division led by Francis Herron, the hero of Prairie Grove. In total, Banks received 14,000 veteran troops. At the same time, the Corps d’Afrique rapidly expanded. Banks now commanded some 50,000 men. With Port Hudson captured, Banks wanted to seize Mobile. Henry Halleck wanted Banks and Grant to secure the Mississippi River valley by expanding Federal control on the west bank. Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton wanted an expedition to Texas to interfere with Confederate trade along the Rio Grande and show the flag to the French installed Mexican government. It was decided that Grant and Fredrick Steele would clear out the valley, Grant taking Monroe while Steele would take Little Rock. Banks would handle Texas.

Halleck wanted Banks to move up the Red River and invade east Texas, seeing that as the best way to fulfill his desires and those of Lincoln. Banks favored an attack from the sea. He gave command of XIX Corps to the newly arrived William B. Franklin and ordered him to land near Sabine Pass, on the Texas and Louisiana border. He would then march on Houston. Sabine Pass was held by forty men manning six cannons at Fort Griffen. They were mostly Irish and while well trained, they had no combat experience. They were led by Richard “Dick” Dowling. What the Irish tavern keeper lacked in men, he had in pure moxie. Dowling’s force not only held but their fire was so accurate they forced the gunboats USS Clifton and Sachem to surrender. Franklin decided not to land his 6,000 man force, as he did not know Confederate strength and he was low on water. It was among the Union’s most humiliating defeats.

Sabine Pass

Sabine Pass having failed, Banks moved overland through Bayou Teche and into central Louisiana. As before, Banks’ men freely looted a land already thoroughly despoiled. The Rebels attacked where they could. Green struck a detachment at Norwood Plantation on September 29 and inflicted over 500 casualties, took some cannon and supplies, and suffered only 121 losses. On November 3 Green struck at Bayou Bourbeux, two miles from Grand Couteau. Green’s men overran the camp, and Union losses were 700 out of 1040 Federals, with the 23rd Wisconsin losing 211 men, some 80% of its ranks.

XIX Corps Crossing Vermilion Bayou in October 1863

On November 5, Franklin fell back to Vermilionville (modern day Lafayette). Franklin then reasoned his position could be cut off by a Rebel dash so on November 17 he fell back to New Iberia. Fighting was not at an end. Banks had Franklin send his cavalry to flush out Rebels at Camp Pratt on the southwest shores of Spanish Lake, taking over 100 Texas horsemen prisoner. On November 24 the Federals destroyed Maj. St. Leon Duperier’s 2nd Louisiana Mounted Zouaves, who despite their fancy name were mostly a guerrilla outfit. These victories boosted morale and secured Franklin’s encampment. New Iberia would remain in Federal hands until January 6, when a small pox outbreak brought caused a retreat to the town of Franklin.

William B. Franklin

Meanwhile, Banks sent Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana with 4,000 men to Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border. As Dana approached, the Point Isabel garrison, which included many unwilling Tejano, fled. The Federals then captured Corpus Christi and Fort Esperanza on Matagorda Island.

Banks came out of 1863 confidant of his enhanced reputation. He had taken Port Hudson, dutifully planted the American flag in Texas, placing the Union in contact with the Mexican resistance and forcing Confederate trade to relocate to Eagle Pass. He fulfilled Lincoln’s orders, gaining his favor and a toehold in a strategic backwater, while the greater prize of Mobile remained in Confederate hands. Banks though knew his position was fragile. Stanton and the once friendly Halleck did not like him. His forces had been victorious, but tellingly had lost most of the battles. Taylor, Gardner, and Green were obviously better commanders. Banks’ only talent was a steely determination. Grant had that same virtue but also strategic and operational skills Banks could not match. As such, Banks found himself superseded when Grant received the rank of lieutenant general in February 1864.

Regardless, Banks played up his victories, and with it his chances at the presidency in 1868. To enhance those chances, Banks looked to renewed campaigning in 1864. Halleck, Steele, and William Tecumseh Sherman saw Shreveport as the best means to attack Texas and secure the Mississippi valley. Banks was not so sure but acquiesced and knew if he was successful, he might then get an even bigger command, take Mobile, and end the war with a military reputation to match his political ambitions.

3 Responses to The Aftermath of Port Hudson and Nathaniel Banks’s Return to Bayou Teche

  1. Thank so much for this very informative series on Port Hudson – a significant campaign that gets a bit overlooked due to the Vicksburg Campaign.

  2. I am glad you both liked this series. It was fun to write. After Shiloh, this is tied with Petersburg as my favorite campaign of the war.

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