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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Port Hudson National Cemetery is located in Zachary, Louisiana, near the old steamboat landing of Port Hickey and the town of Port Hudson on the banks of the Mississippi River. In May 1863, Union forces laid siege to Port Hudson, the last Confederate outpost along the Mississippi. The three-month siege was a decisive victory for Union forces, although coming at a high price; thousands of Union troops lost their lives. Union General Nathaniel Banks selected the site of the cemetery, which dates from 1867. The cemetery’s original square plan contains Union troop burials, while two later additions contain burials from 20th century conflicts.
Control of the Mississippi River was a critical military goal for both sides during the Civil War. The Confederacy used the river as a transport line, ferrying both supplies and men. The Union wanted to stop this traffic and divide the Confederate states. By 1862, the Union controlled both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and set their sights on Confederate strongholds at Port Hudson, Louisiana, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the north. The Union launched a coordinated attack against the two strongholds in May 1863. General Ulysses S. Grant and his forces moved against Vicksburg as Major General Nathaniel Banks commenced his attack against Port Hudson.
Port Hudson was not an easy victory for the Union. Confederate troops built an elaborate set of earthworks to protect the site. The U.S. Army cannons fired upon the Confederate defenses, backed up by artillery from Union Navy ships. After 48 days of continuous fighting, Confederate troops surrendered on July 9, 1863 after learning that Grant’s forces had captured Vicksburg. The Mississippi River was now open to Union navigation, but the price of victory was high. More than 5,000 were killed or wounded, and 5,000 died due to disease and sunstroke.
The siege of Port Hudson was the first significant engagement in which African American Union troops fought against Confederate troops. During the initial assaults on the Confederate stronghold, two regiments made up entirely of African American soldiers, roughly 1,000 in number, moved against one of the Confederacy’s strongest positions. The First Louisiana Native Guards, made up of freemen of French extraction, and the Third Louisiana Native Guards, composed of former slaves, fought in this first assault. Fighting with no support, the troops suffered a high number of casualties and 308 lost their lives. Andre Cailloux of the First Louisiana was among the casualties, and his death became a rallying cry for the recruitment of African American soldiers.
The original cemetery was rectangular in plan with perpendicular paths forming four quadrants. At the center of the intersection is a small circular mound set with the cemetery flagpole. A bronze shield attached to the flagpole is inscribed with the cemetery’s year of establishment and number of interments. A brick wall, built circa 1875, encloses the original cemetery.
Just left of the cemetery’s 1932 entrance gate is the superintendent’s lodge. The lodge is a one-and-a-half story brick building designed in the Second Empire style, known for its mansard roof and dormer windows. The lodge’s design is of the standard plan Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs created. The lodge is one of the 17 remaining Second Empire-style Meigs lodges found at Civil War-era national cemeteries. Constructed in 1879, the lodge was restored in 1998 to its original appearance. To this end, a later addition was removed, and the porches and trim were re-created. The windows and doors were also restored.
Three other structures in the cemetery’s northwest quadrant include a 1908 brick utility building, a 1935 brick-and-concrete pump house, and a 1998 building containing public restrooms and space for the cemetery staff.
Most of the interments in the cemetery’s original sections are Union troops. Interments in the cemetery’s expansion areas include veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and recent conflicts in the Persian Gulf.