Print this Page


Read an Excerpt

Chapter 10

The Second Assault on Port Hudson: "Ye living men come view the ground where you must shortly lie."

On Wednesday, June 10, General Banks directed his division commanders to make preparations "as speedily as practicable" for another attack on Port Hudson's fortifications. Men were detailed to fill bags with cotton that would be used to bridge ditches encountered during the assault. Pioneers in each division were supplied with picks, shovels, and implements that would enable them to open a way for artillery through the enemy's works after they had been breached. Pontoon bridges were brought up and assigned "two for each point of attack" and the artillery, both heavy and light, was "fully supplied" with ammunition.

The following day Banks carefully outlined the disposition of his army's "columns of assault" in Special Order 138. Each column was to consist of 2,000 men. Three hundred skirmishers were to form the advance. Seventy pioneers carrying axes, shovels, picks, handsaws, and hatchets would immediately follow. The pioneers were to precede a "storming party" of 300 men carrying bags of cotton and 34 men encumbered with "balks and chesses for bridges." The storming party was to be followed by the main assaulting column "marching in line of battle as far as the ground would permit." Banks further directed that the skirmishers, pioneers, storming party, and bridge builders should be made up of the army's best troops, i.e. a "well-tried regiment or volunteers."

Shortly after issuing this latest order Banks received a dispatch from Admiral Farragut. Farragut, who had been monitoring his fleet's bombardment of Port Hudson the past few days aboard his flagship Monongahela, apprised Banks of intelligence his men had gleaned from some of Port Hudson's deserters. "I am told," he wrote, "that the enemy has nearly all his men concentrated at the upper or northern side of his defenses, calculating on the assault being made there . . . [while] the deserters say there are very few in the lower defenses." The intelligence that Farragut had brought to Banks was indeed accurate. The northern portion of Port Hudson's fortifications had been strengthened since the Federal assault on May 27th. Farragut's warning, however, fell on deaf ears. Banks would soon launch an assault against Gardner's northern defenses with disastrous results.

On Friday, June 12, 1863, Banks received somewhat more encouraging news from another Confederate deserter. This time the soldier, Corporal Augustus Meterne of Company H, Miles' Louisiana Legion, had come in through General William Dwight's lines. According to Dwight, Meterne claimed that there were about 4,000 defenders at Port Hudson of whom 3,200 were infantrymen and 800 were artillerymen. When asked about the Rebels' store of supplies and morale Meterne noted that there was "5 days' of beef left, plenty of peas, plenty of corn . . ." He added, however, that "the troops generally wish to surrender and despair of relief."

While Banks' spirits were getting a boost from Meterne's testimony, his division commanders were carefully planning their respective assaults. General Paine selected two of his most dependable regiments, the 4th Wisconsin Mounted Infantry and 8th New Hampshire Infantry, as his division's (column's) advance skirmishers. Five companies of grenadiers were drawn from the combined 28th Connecticut and 110th New York Infantries. Four companies from the 3rd Brigade would carry the bags of cotton. The remainder of Paine's three brigades would follow the cotton bag bearers. Nims' 2nd Massachusetts' battery and 50 pioneers would bring up the division's rear.

The Badgers awoke Saturday morning to the sounds of heavy skirmishing. After consuming a hastily prepared breakfast the men received orders to send the horses to the rear and proceed to the front. At 11:00 a.m. Banks' artillery and Admiral Farragut's mortar boats commenced a "terrific" bombardment of Port Hudson. The shelling lasted exactly one hour after which Banks sent a message to General Gardner asking him if he wished to surrender:

SIR: Respect for the usages of war, and a desire to avoid unnecessary sacrifice of life, impose upon me the necessity of formally demanding the surrender of the garrison of Port Hudson. I am not unconscious in making this demand that the garrison is capable of continuing a vigorous and gallant defense. The events that have transpired during the pending investment exhibit in the commander and garrison a spirit of constancy and courage that, in a different cause, would be universally regarded as heroism. But I know the extremities to which they are reduced . . . I have at my command a train of artillery seldom equaled in extent and efficiency, which no ordinary fortress can successfully resist, and an infantry force of greatly superior numbers, and most determined purpose, that cannot fail to place Port Hudson in my possession at will . . .

Admiral Farragut thought that there was "little use" in Banks' demand for surrender and he was correct. Gardner's tactful response came back almost immediately. "Your note of this date has just been handed to me, and in reply I have to state that my duty requires me to defend this position, and, therefore, I decline to surrender." At this point a thoroughly perturbed Banks' might have taken a brief moment to assess the current situation. His army of five divisions numbered at most 20,000 men of which, recalled his Assistant Adjutant General Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irwin, "the effective strength of infantry and artillery" did not exceed 13,000 men. While he would certainly have liked more troops at his disposal, Banks still enjoyed at least a 3:1 numerical advantage in men over Gardner. He also possessed a significantly greater number of field, heavy artillery, and mortar batteries. Gardner did, however, have at least one advantage over his Federal counterpart; his army's morale was higher than that of Banks'. A confident lieutenant in the 30th Louisiana Infantry echoed the sentiments of many of Port Hudson's defenders when he stated after the repulse of Banks's first assault, "Had the enemy's fighting on the 27th been weak or irresolute, the garrison would not have felt the pride or pleasure they experienced in having held their position. They knew that their own cool and unflinching stand had alone saved them." Banks had failed once before to take Port Hudson and Gardner and his men saw no reason why his next attempt should end any differently.

General Gardner's refusal to capitulate left Banks no other recourse but to attack. Late that afternoon Banks called a meeting of his general officers at corps headquarters. Together the group hammered out a plan of assault for the following day. Banks had blamed much of the failure of May 27th's assault on the fact that the attacks were uncoordinated. Tomorrow's assault, Banks decided, would again include separate attacks, but this time they would be carried out simultaneously. The columns of attack would be of division strength and include Dwight's 2nd, Paine's 3rd, and Weitzel's 5th Divisions. "We [were] ordered to assault in the morning in three columns," Paine wrote in his diary. "Weitzel's Division on the right, my division in the centre, and Dwight's on the left." Paine and Weitzel's skirmishers were to commence their attack on the central and northern portions of Gardner's fortifications at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Dwight was to attack the southernmost portion of Port Hudson's defenses at "such time after 3:30 a.m. as [he] deemed most expedient." A heavy fire of artillery was to be opened upon each point of attack 30 to 45 minutes prior to the assaults. General Grover directed Paine to use the Jackson Road as his route of approach. After proceeding some distance the division was to leave the road, cross a once cultivated field south of Mack's 18th New York and Duryea's 1st U.S. batteries, and strike a portion of the fortifications known as the Priest Cap.

As night fell, the Badgers lay down and tried to get what little sleep they could. "We knew very well what the morning had in store for us, and that our regiment would lead the attack," Company B's Knute Nelson would later write his parents. He continued:

We were not unaware of the dangers. We handed such of our little things as might have some value to a few who were sick and could not take part in the attack, and gave them the addresses of our parents and friends so they could write to them if we died and send them all the articles we had left. We did all of this as calmly as you eat your dinner. There is one thing I want to tell you about the soldier: He thinks less about eternity than about home, parents and friends.

At 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, June 14, the 4,600 men of Paine's Division gathered up their muskets and quietly fell into line. The division moved out at the route step, crossed Griffith's field and a hedge lined road 300 yards from the Confederate breastworks, and arrayed itself in assault formation. The 4th Wisconsin, now whittled down to 226 men, and 8th New Hampshire, 217 men strong, moved to the front and deployed as skirmishers. The Badgers took up their position as the first rank and carefully stepped off two pace intervals between one another. Four paces to their rear the New Hampshire soldiers deployed in a similar manner. Paine's next line was comprised of five companies, roughly 250 men, of the 28th Connecticut and 110th New York regiments all of whom carried a hand grenade. Immediately behind the grenadiers came two more regiments of Bay Staters, the 38th and 53rd Massachusetts. These men were to assault immediately and carry the works once the preceding soldiers had hurled their grenades over the parapet. The 38th and 53rd regiments were followed by the last of the Massachusetts' regiments in Paine's Division, the 31st. These 400 Bay Staters were assigned the unenviable task of carrying 40 pound sacks of cotton during the assault. The cotton would be used to fill or bridge any ditches encountered along the way. Paine's last line of assault formed up two hundred yards behind that of the skirmishers. It was comprised of the remainder of his three divisions in the following order, Gooding's 3rd Brigade (primarily the 156th New York), Hawkes Fearing's 2nd Brigade (primarily the 133rd and 173rd New York), and Colonel Samuel P. Ferris' 1st brigade.

General Paine quietly moved among his men and offered words of encouragement as they formed their lines. "We did not know that he was to lead us," remembered a surprised adjutant of the 53rd Massachusetts. "In our previous fights we had not seen any general officer in a very exposed position . . . so that his appearance before our regimental line after it had formed for the charge, passing up and down saying, as he walked, 'Men, I want you to follow me into those works,' was an inspiration."