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Chapter 11:

  • The river Strongholds
  • -- famous naval exploit -- capture of the Indianola -- Port Hudson Invested -- Farragut runs the batteries -- Taylor's operations.

In the fall of 1862 all the military talk had come from a plan proposed by General Ruggles, commanding the district of the Mississippi. This was nothing less than to organize an expedition for the recapture of New Orleans. As is well known, nothing came of it except, first, to alarm Butler; and next, to render Banks nervous about his defenses. Later, two armies dealt largely in gossip. Was Port Hudson to be, or not to be fortified? Still higher up the river, Confederate Vicksburg—not quite ready for her supreme trial—was wondering what Confederate Port Hudson was doing for herself. So rumors, thick and fast, began to creep up and down the lower Mississippi. Fifteen thousand men were said to be at Port Hudson with 29 heavy pieces of field artillery bearing on the river.1

One day in February, 1863, a great stir arose in the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. It came from the presence of a giant among dwarfs. The giant was cool; the dwarfs alone excited. General Taylor, feeling rusty on land, heard a proposition from Maj. J. L. Brent, his aide-de-camp, to destroy the Indianola, at the time lording it over that quiet stretch of the river, before then free to Confederate boats, and the gateway between the East and West. The Indianola, which had run the batteries of Vicksburg from the upper river, was a strongly built ironclad with her 1-inch guns forward and two 8-inch aft, all [108] in iron casemates. As a hawk in the barnyard, she swooped down upon our little river boats.

It was now that Dick Taylor caught Major Brent's idea. Quickly seizing the outline, he filled up the details. Among our river boats we had a small but very sturdy gunboat, which had been converted out of a tugboat near New Orleans. To her equipment we had added a ram, and called her the Webb. From the day New Orleans fell, the Webb had been hidden away in Red river. There Taylor had seen her, and her transfer to this debatable ground was the result. Up to that day of transfer the Webb had been unplated. Major Brent commanded the Webb and Captain McCloskey, another aide-de-camp, the Queen of the West, which had been captured by the land battery at Fort De Russy. The Queen had, four or five days before, been strengthened with an improvised ram. It was a service of danger. Volunteers were called to form the crews. More offered than were needed. Two steamers protected by cotton bales were added. These boats, with the Webb and the Queen, formed the expedition.

The Indianola was enjoying her pre-eminence on these waters. Nothing could be more lordly than her way of stopping here and there. One day she halted before Grand Bluff and gave its defenders a touch of her 11-inch guns. On February 24th the expedition was approaching its prey. Major Brent heard, when ascending the Mississippi some sixty miles below Vicksburg, that the Indianola was a short way ahead, with a coal barge lashed on either side. Brent decided to wait until the night, being certain that, if struck by her guns, either of his vessels would be destroyed. The little fleet found the Indianola about 9:30 p. m. lying ‘quartering down’ with head toward the Louisiana shore. McCloskey, testing the improvised ram of the Queen, attempted to run her down, aiming at her wheel-house. The Indianola was no true hawk, only a kestrel. On seeing the Confederate ram approach, [109] she began hastily backing her engines to escape the shock. The Queen necessarily struck her coal barge, cutting entirely through it and into her side, disabling her engines. After the blow, the Queen backed out. The Webb was close behind and, dashing up at full speed, struck the Indianola on the bow. This tore away her other barge, injuring her severely. The Indianola fired her forward guns at the Webb, which the Webb escaped. Twice did the Queen, coming up again to ram her, crush her paddle-box. The kestrel, in her peril, had gained desperation. She poured her heavy shot into the Queen from her rear casemates, killing six men and disabling three guns. The Webb, coming up again, rammed also, striking the paddle-box, displacing the iron plates and crushing the timbers. Fighting in the night was a dramatic touch too common in the war. The Queen and the Webb were preparing for another blow. Nothing could be seen through the night—only voices heard calling out from the Indianola that she was sinking. Major Brent, after the surrender, carried his prize to the east side of the river, where she sank on a bar. As a memento of the battle, the gun deck of the Indianola remained above water. Another fight between Confederate river boats and Federal gunboats, in which victory remained with the Confederate makeshifts:

Maj.-Gen. Frank Gardner, in command of the works at Port Hudson, was a thoroughly earnest man. He was untiring in his efforts to prepare the works for the conflict which had become inevitable after New Orleans had been captured and Vicksburg menaced. Port Hudson is situated on a bluff on the east bank of the Mississippi. Baton Rouge is 22 miles below it. Its heavy batteries at the time of the war were located along the bluff at points commanding extended ranges above and below them. The elevation above the water line was 85 feet at the highest point. The water battery was about 45 feet above the water line of the Mississippi and was pierced [110] for three guns. In 1862-63, but one, a rifled 32-pounder, had been mounted. It had other batteries, all of which fronted the river, making Port Hudson a place of remarkable strength. Indeed, it was generally thought, by reason of its situation and compactness, that as a work of defense it was capable of better resistance than the stronger but more scattered fortifications of Vicksburg. Guns, depressed, formed a formidable barrier to assault from the river front. Of light batteries there were four; one of them, Captain Fenner's Louisiana battery, being complimented by the chief of ordnance ‘as being the most efficient battery of the Port.’ As a rule, all the batteries needed horses. With both armies in Louisiana and outside the city, horses were valuable from their scarceness.

Considerable correspondence passed between Pemberton at Vicksburg and Gardner at Port Hudson. Gardner needed reinforcements to be ready for his ordeal. Pemberton, always man greedy, retorted by borrowing 4,000 troops for the defense of Vicksburg.2 Awhile after he admitted that the odds were largely against Gardner, frankly adding, ‘I am too much pressed on all sides to spare you troops.’ In the meantime, a trial was preparing for the batteries of Port Hudson which would test both them and the men behind them.

Banks was always active in pushing forward the claims of his department to close alliance with the fleet. Butler had profited by Farragut's courage in dashing past the batteries of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Why should [111] not Banks link his name with the victorious passage of a fleet under the batteries of Port Hudson? On March 7th Banks, in pursuance of an agreement with the rearad-miral, had moved to Baton Rouge with his army. It was his design to make a strong diversion, by land, against Port Hudson, while Farragut would be running the gauntlet of fire from its batteries. Neither Banks nor Farragut had any doubt of the issue. Farragut believed in himself, Banks believed in Farragut. Thus, on March 14th, the attempt was made with the vessels. Flagship Hartford and the Albatross swept through the fiery welcome. After them came the Monongahela, to reach only the center batteries. There, disabled by an accident to her machinery, she turned and slowly withdrew from the race. The Mississippi,3 a powerful war steamer, was not so fortunate. She had already passed the center when she got aground just under the guns. Our gunners were not merciful to their naval visitors. For half an hour they pounded her with shells. Her crew, after having suffered severely, finally set her on fire and abandoned her. The Hartford and the Albatross were already in the peaceful upper river between Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Others of the fleet had met with varying mishaps, and were content to retire. It seemed fit that, bearing the name she did, the Mississippi should end as our Louisiana and our Arkansas had ended—set on fire—burning down to her engines—blowing up—scattering her debris upon the waters. It was the old story on the great river, told over again in flame.

Banks had been far from serious in creating a diversion in the rear of the works on the Port Hudson road. Without intention of making a real assault, he was preparing, on the night of March 14th, to bring up a battery on that [112] road. Nothing came either of that battery or of Banks' ‘diversion.’ The battle clock was clearly at fault. An error had crept in between 8 p. m., when Banks thought that the batteries were to be passed that night, and 11:30 p. m. when the fleet, belching forth flame and broadsides, was actually rushing past. At that hour Banks was out on the Bayou Sara road, idly reconnoitering when fleet and batteries clashed together, and his hope lay in ruins. The broadsides could not have been very appalling. The Confederates in the batteries received each broadside with laughter.

With Farragut an open Mississippi had always been the paramount object. The fleet, guided and directed by his courage, was his main factor in the duty which had been confided to him by the government. In fronting Forts Jackson and St. Philip the first step had been taken. It had settled forever the possibility of a fiery transit of war-steamers rushing past a given point, behind which might be heavy guns, manned by skillful gunners. Farragut liked the exhilaration of the trial, as he enjoyed a storm at sea. He regretted the disabled steamers of his second venture, but with the Hartford and the Albatross, one-fifth of his venturous fleet, the admiral found himself abundantly able to blockade Red river. With these two sisters he could control the Confederate trade down that stream. No supplies could come down to victual the gunners of Port Hudson or those behind the batteries of Vicksburg. One more trial; one more triumphant gathering together of his fleet; one more order to rush in concert, would tell the story of an open stretch from Itasca to the Gulf.

Vicksburg, in March, 1863, was still seated upon her hills, conscious that by land and water foes were gathering around her, but still in her armor invincible. One result was assured to Banks. What had been done before Port Hudson was in favor of his hopes, at some future day, of effecting a consolidation with the victorious [113] fleet up Red river. As early as April he had been consulting with Grant, commanding at the farther gates of Vicksburg. Would Grant help him with Port Hudson? Could he, or could he not, give Grant a quid pro quo with Vicksburg?

On April 10th Grant sent the following message to Banks: ‘Am concentrating my forces at Grand Gulf. Will send an army corps to Bayou Sara by the 25th to cooperate with you.’ In this Grant was not wholly unselfish. Friends were gathering in force around Pemberton—the more need he should meet them with his friends. If he granted Banks a favor, he had equally a favor to ask of Banks. ‘Can you aid me, and send me troops after the reduction of Port Hudson to assist me at Vicksburg?’ Grant did not seem at this time to have conjectured that Vicksburg was to surrender to him before, not after Port Hudson was to surrender to Banks.

Gen. Jos. E. Johnston, writing from ‘Camp near Vernon, Miss.,’ on May 19, 1863, informed Gardner at Port Hudson that Lieutenant-General Pemberton had been unfortunate. Suffering severely near Edwards depot on the 16th of May; on the 17th, abandoning Haynes' Bluff, he was compelled to fall back to Vicksburg. It is not as a historian, jealous for truth, that Johnston thus addresses Gardner. While displaying certain attributes rather suggestive of Bildad the Shumite, he is frankly peremptory with the commander at Port Hudson. Under the circumstances of Pemberton's abandoning his outposts, he adds: ‘Your position is no longer valuable. It is important also that all the troops in the department shall be concentrated as soon as possible. Evacuate Port Hudson forthwith and move with your troops toward Jackson to join other troops which I am uniting.’

With the news from Pemberton thus icily given it was impossible for Gardner to doubt the perilous import of his instructions. The defenses of Port Hudson had been confided to him by the adjutant-general at Richmond, [114] Va. Since December 20, 1862, he had been constant in his endeavors to render the place impregnable. The conduct of his men on March 14th, in meeting the passage of the fleets, had greatly pleased him as a commander. Their increased hopefulness since that event had augmented his own confidence that he would be able to hold Port Hudson against the combined attack, which had been canvassed so loudly between Grant and Banks that he had not failed to hear some of the whispers.

During May and June, he had joined in a plan of receiving mail from Vicksburg. The Mississippi—half friend, half foe to the Confederates—had consented to become a medium of news to the commander of Port Hudson. Communication by land being unsafe and exposed to constant danger, Pemberton, at Vicksburg, had hit upon the plan of sending his military mail down the river. In the darkness—in the silence of death, hugging the shore farther, still farther from the Hartford and Albatross, and always floating by shaded places, his messengers passed from point to point, finally to deliver their dispatches under the guns of Port Hudson. Generally these brought questions from Pemberton to Gardner, frankly put, but not always sure of a reply. The latter, much concerned in his own charge, had been utterly unprepared for Johnston's ultimatum.4

The more sudden seemed this order of evacuation by reason of a hope which had, in the last days of June, sprung up from the known presence of Richard Taylor, back on his old fighting ground in lower Lousiana. Taylor, in this campaign, had a variety of reasons. One of these was the gathering of beef cattle for the relief [115] of the starving garrison of the Port. In a campaign, Dick Taylor always seemed to deal in surprises, even to his friends. His instant grasp of a situation; his power of quick concentration; his sudden appearances, with that other gift of masking his designs in the face of an enemy, made him an enigma among the commanders of Louisiana. On July 4th, reporting his success in southern Louisiana, he said, ‘I have used every exertion to relieve Port Hudson and shall continue to the last.’ But on that very day Vicksburg was surrendered. He then clearly saw that the loss of Vicksburg was sure to bring with it that of Port Hudson. Taylor's plan of relief had thus received an immediate quietus. Even a sudden dash upon New Orleans, a surprise never long couchant in his mind—was unwillingly deferred under advice of Gen. Kirby Smith. Returning to the Atchafalaya country, Taylor resolved to fight the enemy on his first advance—a resolve brilliantly put in execution on the Lafourche, as narrated in the previous chapter.

Taylor himself was absolutely without illusions. He felt assured that if Banks meant to overrun Louisiana it was within his power to do so. He saw in the rise of the Mississippi, Red, and Atchafalaya rivers an added proof that he could send his gunboats and transports into the very heart of western Louisiana. On his side, Kirby Smith, writing from Shreveport on July 12th, had ex-pressed his satisfaction with Taylor's operations up to that date. Smith rather took the sugar-coating from his praise, adding that Taylor's only course was to proceed with his troops to Niblett's Bluff on the Sabine. An admirable point was this bluff to threaten the enemy's communication with Texas; but in Taylor's eye, single to his State's interest, one acre of the soil of west Louisiana looked larger than the whole State of Texas, vastest of the Confederacy. The campaign of 1863 on the Mississippi had then already been ended. Vicksburg and Port Hudson had protectingly stood above a closed Mississippi, [116] but after the surrender they ceased to be useful to the Confederacy. In a forest a mighty tree, girdled by the ax of the woodman, sways in its lordly top branches, totters, and plunges to the earth. As it falls, it crushes smaller trees which rested under its proud shade. Such was the fall of Vicksburg which, like that mighty tree, carried with it the fall of Port Hudson. [117]

1 In a report of Maj.-Gen. Frank Gardner, dated April 27, 1863, to General Pemberton, he puts his force, ‘effective’ infantry 8,600 artillery 1,700, and cavalry 1,400—including Ponchatoula forces.

2 In response to one of Pemberton's calls for reinforcements Buford's brigade was sent from Port Hudson, including the Twelfth Louisiana, Col. T. M. Scott, and Companies A and C, Pointe Coupee artillery, Capt. Alcide Bouanchaud. This was the nucleus of the brigade subsequently distinguished as Scott's brigade, from Resaca to Franklin. They served under Loring in Mississippi, participated in the battle of Baker's Creek, and had crossed that stream to follow Pemberton into Vicksburg when recalled by Loring to accompany him in a night march that ended in junction with J. E. Johnston at Jackson. At Baker's Creek the Twelfth was distinguished in repelling the assaults of the enemy which threatened the capture of the artillery, losing 5 killed and 34 wounded.

3 On the bridge of the Mississippi, by the side of its commander, stood the executive officer of the ship, a man who has risen since March, 1863, from the bridge of the Mississippi to the rank of admiral, United States navy, and is known to the world as George Dewey.

4 Two telegrams of Gen. J. E. Johnston from Jackson, Miss., may be cited here. No. 1, to Pemberton at Vicksburg, January 1, 1863: ‘General Gardner is full of confidence.’ No. 2, to Gardner, January 2, 1863, ‘I am told you are confident with your present force. I hope that is so, for we cannot afford more men than you want’ Gardner retained this confidence until May 10th, when a letter from General Johnston instructed him that his duty lay in evacuation rather than heroism.

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