How to Use
Reading 1: The Setting for the Siege
In May 1863, Union land and naval forces began a campaign they hoped would give them control of the full length of the Mississippi River. One army under Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commenced operations against the Confederacy's fortified position at Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the northern end of the stretch of the river still in Southern hands. At about the same time, another army under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks moved against Port Hudson, which stood at the southern end. By May 23, Banks's forces, which numbered between 30,000 and 40,000 men at their strongest, had surrounded the Port Hudson defenses. Banks hoped to overrun the entrenchments quickly, then take his army northward to assist Grant at Vicksburg.
Within the Confederate fortifications at Port Hudson were approximately 6,800 men. Their commander was Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, a New Yorker by birth. His goals were to have his men defend their positions as long as possible in order to prevent Banks' troops from joining Grant, and to keep Confederate control of this part of the Mississippi.
On the morning of May 27, 1863, under Maj. Gen. Banks, the Union army launched ferocious assaults against the lengthy Confederate fortifications. Among the attackers were two regiments of African-American soldiers, the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards. They were the first black soldiers committed to combat in the Civil War. The attacks were uncoordinated, and the defenders easily turned them back causing heavy Northern casualties. Banks' troops made a second, similarly haphazard assault on June 14. Again they were repulsed, suffering even more dead and wounded soldiers.
These actions constituted some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War. The Confederates began building their defenses in 1862, and by now had an elaborate series of earthworks. One of their officers provided the following description of the line of these barriers, which, as their name suggested, were made mainly from hard-packed dirt:
For about three-quarters of a mile from the river the line crossed a broken series of ridges, plateaus and ravines, taking advantage of high ground in some places and in others extending down a steep declivity; for the next mile and a quarter it traversed Gibbon's and Slaughter's fields where a wide level plain seemed formed on purpose for a battlefield; another quarter of a mile carried it through deep and irregular gullies, and for three-quarters of a mile more it led through fields and over hills to a deep gorge, in the bosom of which lay Sandy creek.¹
The elaborate defenses they built and difficult terrain in the area assisted the Confederates in keeping this part of the Mississippi under their control. The Federals had no choice but to besiege Port Hudson to obtain win access to the full length of the Mississippi.
For more than 2,000 years, armies unable to storm strongly defended positions--cities, for example, or forts or castles--had instead surrounded their enemies. A siege, as one of these blockades was called, might end in a number of ways. The defenders would lose if their opponents found a way to break through their defenses or if, because they were cut off from the rest of the world, they ran out of supplies. On the other hand, if the defenders could hold out long enough, their allies might appear and drive off the enemy, or the attacking army might eventually give up due to heavy casualties or lack of supplies.
This type of warfare changed significantly with the introduction of gunpowder during the Middle Ages. Both sides involved in a siege had always shot objects at the other: stones and spears and even pots of fire. These weapons quickly became obsolete, however, when gunpowder allowed armies to use powerful artillery like cannons. The new shells they fired were could knock down previously impenetrable fortifications, and so besieging armies now relied on artillery as their main weapon. Defenders also had artillery, which they used to destroy their attackers' large guns and the attackers themselves.
The fighting at Port Hudson illustrated how artillery affected the conduct of a siege. The Union Army combined artillery fire with sharpshooting riflemen as it attempted to keep the defenders from getting supplies of food or other necessities; the Union Navy added their big guns to the bombardment. The Confederates responded by firing their rifles and artillery at the Union forces. Recognizing how dangerous this type of fighting could be, each side also built elaborate earthworks to protect themselves.
The siege created hardships and deprivations for both the North and South, but by early July the Confederates were in much worse shape. They had exhausted practically all of their food supplies and ammunition, and fighting and disease had greatly reduced the number of men able to defend the trenches. When Maj. Gen. Gardner learned that Vicksburg had surrendered, he realized that his situation was hopeless and that nothing could be gained by continuing. The terms of surrender were negotiated, and on July 9, 1863, the Confederates lay down their weapons, ending 48 days of continuous fighting.
The siege of Port Hudson affected the Civil War and the men who fought there in a number of ways. The surrender gave the Union control of the Mississippi River, cutting off important states such as Arkansas and Texas. Both sides suffered heavy casualties: about 5,000 Union men were killed or wounded, and an additional 4,000 fell prey to disease or sunstroke; Gardner's forces suffered around 700 casualties, several hundred of whom died of disease. And on both sides, even many of those who survived found their view of war permanently changed.
Questions for Reading 1
1. What natural and manmade features at Port Hudson led the Confederates to occupy the position?
2. Why did the Federal commanders decide to begin a siege?
3. What are some of the characteristics of siege warfare?
4. The Union army had the goal of controlling the Mississippi River. The Confederates wanted to keep a large Federal army and navy away from Vicksburg. Based on the reading, who won at Port Hudson? Who was the winner if you look at casualties?
Compiled from Lawrence L. Hewitt, Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987); and Edward Cunningham, The Port Hudson Campaign, 18621863 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994).
¹Howard C. Wright, Port Hudson: Its History from an Interior Point of View (St. Francisville, LA, 1937; reprint ed.,; Baton Rouge: The Eagle Press, 1978), 7.