Port Hudson State Historic Site is on the Mississippi River 20 miles north of Baton Rouge and 12 miles south of St. Francisville. It preserves 909 acres of the scene of the 1863 Siege and Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana.
The fight for Port Hudson was part of the Union's "Anaconda Plan," a strategy devised by Gen. Winfield T. Scott in 1861 to strangle the Confederacy into submission. Scott believed that a blockade of the Southern coastline by the U.S. Navy followed by the conquest of the Mississippi valley would allow Federal forces to squeeze the life from the South much as a giant snake squeezes the breath from its prey.
The blockade was in effect by early 1862 and the Union navy stormed past the forts below New Orleans in April 1862 and war ships soon anchored in the Mississippi at Baton Rouge. Confederate forces tried to retake the city on August 5, 1862, but the Battle of Baton Rouge ended in failure and the Southern troops withdrew up the river to Port Hudson.
The situation on the Mississippi was no critical for the Confederacy. New Orleans and Baton Rouge at the southern end of the river were in Union hands. Federal forces driving south from the confluence of the Ohio River, meanwhile, had pushed as far south as Memphis. The keys to the river now became Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana.
Recognizing that control of the latter position was vital if Confederate forces hoped to prevent Union warships from pushing up the Red River or concentrating against Vicksburg, Southern forces began building batteries, mounting heavy cannon and throwing up a 4.5 mile line of breastworks and earthen forts there. The work at Port Hudson began on August 15, 1862, just ten days after the failed attempt to retake Baton Rouge.
The strength of the unfinished citadel was tested on September 7, 1862. Commander David Dixon Porter attacked Port Hudson with the USS Essex and the USS Anglo-American. Confederate gunners, some of whom came from the famed ironclad CSS Arkansas after that vessel was destroyed at Baton Rouge, used plunging fire from cannon mounted on the high bluffs to drive back the Union warships. The Essex alone sustained 14 hits and the naval attack failed.
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks next moved forward to try his hand at taking Port Hudson. He was a political appointee from Massachusetts and many officers of the old regular army worried that he did not possess the experience to capture the citadel. The Confederate government, meanwhile, sent Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner to take command of the Port Hudson defenses. A professional soldier and hard-fighting commander, he proved to be an excellent choice.
Gardner immediately went to work improving the defenses of Port Hudson, turning the works there into a masterpiece of military engineering. He used the high bluffs and deep ravines surrounding the community to add strength to his lines and focused on clearing wide fields of fire for his cannon.
The Union Navy again tested the batteries of Port Hudson on the night of March 14, 1863. Admiral David G. Farragut brought a line of warships and gunboats up the river from Baton Rouge and into the range of Gardner's heavy artillery. The Confederate commander now had twenty big guns aimed out over the river and opened a devastating fire as Farragut came within range. Two Union warships, USS Hartford and USS Albatross, made it through but the others were driven back. The steam frigate USS Mississippi was demolished by the Confederate batteries. An explosion so loud that it could be heard as far away in New Orleans sent the ship to the bottom of the river.
Gen. Banks hoped to bypass the Confederate citadel but was stymied by a lack of transport. His delays gave Gardner and his men even more time to prepare their defenses and stockpile munitions and provisions. With Gen. Ulysses S. Grant beginning his move on Vicksburg, it became critical that Banks advance on Port Hudson and he finally started forward. Part of his army marched north from Baton Rouge while the rest came down the Red River by boat. The advance from Baton Rouge was led by an African American regiment, the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards. They served as pioneers and bridge builders for the Union force.
Fighting broke out four miles east of Port Hudson at the Battle of Plains Store on May 21, 1863, Six hundred Confederates held off thousands of Union troops for more than one hour before falling back into the main fortifications. The Union army followed.
The second wing of the army, accompanied by General Banks himself, came down the Red and Mississippi Rivers from the Atchafalaya and landed at Bayou Sara near St. Francisville. Once ashore, the soldiers pushed south to complete the encirclement of Port Hudson. It was anything but easy. Banks was harassed by Confederate cavalry and it took him five days to get his army fully into position for its attack. Gardner and his men spent the time extending their lines and moving some of their heavy cannon from the river batteries into fortifications that faced the Union army.
The Confederate forts were atop ridges and surrounded by a labyrinth of ravines, creeks and woods. They soon earned nicknames like "Priest's Cap" and Fort Desperate. Banks' more experienced subordinate officers viewed the Confederate defenses with trepidation and warned him that any attempt at storming them would result in massive Federal casualties. The Union commander believed, however, that his 30,000 men could easily force their way through the Confederate lines to defeat Gardner's 4,000 defenders. His decision was announced by the firing of cannon from all along the Union lines on the morning of May 27, 1863.
Confederate gunners responded to the attack with a fury but then slowed their rate of fire to conserve ammunition. Thinking that his cannon had silenced the Southern guns, Banks ordered the infantry attack to begin. Thousands of Union soldiers charged straight forward into an area of deep ravines fronting Port Hudson's northern defenses. The rugged terrain broke up their formations and funneled the men into a position ringed on three sides by Southern troops. The assault degenerated into a blood bath.
The attack had already stalled by 10 a.m. when the black soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards were ordered to attack near the point where the northern end of the Confederate line intersected with the Mississippi River. They fought courageously but were driven back.
Banks was not yet willing to admit defeat and now had 30 pieces of his artillery bombard the Confederate earthworks on the east side of Port Hudson. Brig. Gen. T.W. Sherman - not to be confirmed with Gen. W.T. Sherman - then moved forward his division to the attack. The Union soldiers charged into brutal Confederate fire and the name of Slaughter's Plantation - where part of the battle was fought - gained new meaning.
By the time Banks requested a truce the next morning, nearly 2,000 Union soldiers lay dead or wounded. The victory shouts of Gardner's Confederates told the story. Their defenses had withstood the first enemy onslaught in a battle that cost them around 235 men killed and wounded.
General Banks now recognized that his seasoned officers had been right about the strength of the Confederate defenses. He began regular siege operations against Port Hudson, slowly working his lines closer and closer to the forts and batteries of Gardner's command. The Confederates did not wait idly for another attack. They again took to their shovels and dug in deeper as they waited out the Union army. Some even spent the next two weeks collecting spent Union bullets from the first attack and sewing them into canister loads to fire back at the Federals should they dare to try again.
Gen. Banks ordered a one-hour bombardment of the Confederate lines on June 13, 1863. He demanded that Gardner surrender but the Confederate general refused. At 3:30 the next morning, the Union troops surged forward once again.
The attack was poorly planned and early morning fog added to the confusion. The Confederates were even more ready than they had been the first time and unleashed a fury of shot, shell and rifle fire on the Union columns. Three separate assaults were driven back and by the time the smoke cleared, the Union army lost another 1,792 men killed or wounded. Gardner lost only 47 men in driving back the attack. Banks did not try again.
The Federals settled into their siege operations with renewed vigor but the Confederates remained defiant. By the end they were eating rats and mules but still refused to surrender. It was not until July 9, 1863 - when he learned of the fall of Vicksburg - that Gardner realized there was nothing to be gained by further resistance.
Port Hudson functioned in cooperation with Vicksburg to keep open a section of the Mississippi. With the fall of one, however, the other could no longer fulfill that purpose. Unwilling to sacrifice his men if they could do no good by continuing to resist, he ordered a white flag to be raised over the Confederate lines. The longest siege in American military history finally came to an end.
An estimated 10,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or died from illness during the Siege and Battle of Port Hudson. The Confederates lost 750 men, half of them from sickness.]
Visitors can now tour key areas of the battlefield at Port Hudson State Historic Site. The park features preserved earthworks, exhibits, more than 6 miles of trails, overlooks, an outstanding museum and a picnic area. The museum offers a driving tour map of sites outside the park including the river batteries, Port Hudson National Cemetery and the Plains Store battlefield.
The park is at 236 Hwy 61, Jackson Louisiana (GPS Coordinates 30.69466, -91.279069). See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. It is open Wednesday through Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 per person. Seniors and children 3 and under are admitted free.
Please watch this free video to learn more about the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards and the service of other black soldiers from Louisiana during the Civil War: