The Confederates' Last Stand on the Mississippi

48 Days of Hell
"The enemy advanced in column of Regiments four deep, across an open field, some five hundred yards in width. Our view of the advancing colums was fine, not a single obstruction to mar the view.  It was a magnificent sight, but the great odds against us looked appalling as our line was weak, averaging about one man to every five feet, and no reserve force."

(Joseph M. Bailey, Company Captain, 16th Arkansas Infantry Regiment - CSA)

Civil War
Field Trip

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Port Hudson, Louisiana


(Visited: July, 2010)
In May of 1863 six thousand Confederate soldiers at Port Hudson, Louisiana readied themselves for attack by a much larger Union Army.  The Southerners, under the command of Major General Franklin Gardner knew the importance of holding their garrison on the banks of the Mississippi River but did not know how long they could hold out against the combined Federal Army/Naval force that would soon be bombarding and assaulting them on a daily basis.
 
Union Major General Nathaniel Banks knew that capturing the Confederate stronghold would be difficult but with 30,000 land troops and a naval gunboat floatilla, at his disposal, he was confident of victory within days.  The result would be a hot and bloody standoff that would leave the Confederates near starvation and leave nearly half of the Federals dead, wounded or sick... becoming the Longest Siege in the American Civil War.

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A type of heavy cannon used by both Federal and Confederate artillerists during the long string of battles at Port Hudson.

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This Confederate 1st National Flag flew over the soldiers who defended Port Hudson during the hot and humid summer of 1863.  The flag is now displayed in the Visitor's Center of the Port Hudson Louisiana State Historic Site.

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One of a series of bronze plaques by renowned sculptor and Distinguished Professor of Southern University, Frank Hayen.  These plaques can be viewed at the Port Hudson Vistor's Center

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(Photo Above)
The Confederate 15th Arkansas Regiment held off repeated attacks against seemingly overwhelming odds at "Fort Desperate."
 
     
                         
                             CWFT INTERVIEW

Photos for this page of CWFT were taken during a visit to Port Hudson in July, 2010.  In May, 2012 CWFT conducted an interview with Head Interpretive Ranger of Port Hudson Historical Site, Michael Fraering.
Mr Fraering's answers to CWFT's questions are insightful and his particiaption is very apprecieated.


CWFT:  How and when did you first become interested in American History?

Mr Fraering:  I don't know. I have always been interested in history.
I was born and raised in the South during the Civil War Centennial, and adding the fact that I had ancestors who fought in the war it just kinda came natural.


CWFT: What are the duties of a Louisiana Interpretive Ranger?

Mr Fraering: The  duties of a Louisiana State Parks interpretive ranger are to give tours, audio/visual presentations, living history
demonstrations, perform and supervise curatorial activities for the
museum's collection, and oversee the site's educational and interpre-
tive programs.


CWFT:  Why was the possession of Port Hudson so important to both the Confederacy and the Union in the summer of 1863?


Mr Fraering:   While the siege of Vicksburg gets more attention than
Port Hudson the fact of the matter is that the South could not have one without the other.  Vicksburg's job was to keep the Federals from
coming down-stream, while Port Hudson kept them from going up-
stream.  This allowed the Confederates to control the river between
the two.  This was important not so much so that the Rebels could go
up and down the river, but east and west across the river.  This allow-
ed them to maintain commerce east and west. What factories the
outh had were in the east, and they were shipping supplies to the
western Confederate forces. European supplies dodging the Atlantic
blockade could be landed in Mexico and shipped from Mexico, through
Texas and Louisiana, across the Mississippi to the east.  Seizing control
of the Mississippi River was important to the Federals so they could
cut off these sources of supplies to the Confederates.  Probably equally
important was opening the river to commerce for the mid-western
farmer and merchant.


CWFT:             U.S. General Nathaniel Banks had an almost 5 to 1
advantage in troop strength and a Naval force but he suffered large
casualty numbers at Port Hudson... In 48 days he could not take the
Confederate stronghold by attack... What went wrong for Banks and
his army at Port Hudson?
 

Mr Fraering:     Nothing went wrong for Union General Banks that did
not also go wrong for other Civil War generals, both North and South, 
who made attacks against fortified and entrenched defends-ers.  While
the attacker may have had the initiative, the defender had the tacical
advantage.  In McWhiney ad Jamieson's book "Attack and Die" they very clearly point out that almost always the attacker suffered
huge casualties and very rarely succeeded in their attacks, while the 
defender lost fewer men.  Examples are Grant's failures at Vicksburg,
Burnside's at Fredericksburg, Longstreet at Knoxville, Lee at Gettys-
burg, etc...  Grant only took Vicksburg because he strarved the garri-
son into submission.













CWFT:             The 15th Arkansas Infantry Regiment defended a
                       position they named "Fort Desperate" ... Could you 
                       describe the intense fighting that took place there?


Mr Fraering:     The 15th Arkansas position at Fort Desperate was a
                       very unfortunate location for the defenders.  It was the
                       hinge point for the Confederate defenses.  It was sit-
                       uated at the north-east corner of the land defenses.
                       If the Federals had been able to occupy it they could
                       have enfilade the eastern and northern lines of the 
                       Confederate earthworks making them untenable.  Fort
                       Desperate stuck out like a thumb from the rest of the
                       defenses and was exposed on three of it's four sides,
                       which allowed the Federals to bombard and assault 
                       from almost all sides.  Also Fort Desperate was the only
                       Confederate earthwork on the north side of Foster 
                       Creek.  This further isolated it from friendly support.
                       Fort Desperate's artillery was very quickly neutralized
                       at the beginning of the siege.  One of the cannons was
                       destroyed during the first assault on May 27, and the 
                       other piece was placed in the rear to cover the backside
                       of the fort.  While other Rebel defenders were pulled 
                       out of the line from time to time for rudimentary R&R,
                       the 15th Arkansas stayed where they were for the 
                       duration, without relief or reinforcement.  About the 
                       only advantage they enjoyed was being armed with 
                       smoothbore muskets, which turned out to be superior
                       defensive weapons.  This allowed them to spray their 
                       attacker with buckshot at close range.
                      
CWFT:              On the Union side the Louisiana Native Guard Regi-
                       ments made a courageous but tragic assualt on the
                       Confederate lines at Port Hudson.  Was this the first
                       use of black troops in a Civil War battle?

Mr Frairing:      Black troops, both free and slave, had fought in pre-
                       vious wars and battles in the Americas before the Civil
                       War and Port Hudson, but this was the first time in
                       American military history where black soldiers, a.s part
                       of the regular U.S. Army, made an assualt.  In pre-
                       vious engagements they had fought defensively.
                       Defensive fighting is not considered as the same "trial
                       by fire" as making an assault.  (FYI - the battle
                       depicted in the best Civil War move ever made,
                       "Glory" occurred about two months after the Native
                       Guards made their attack at Port Hudson.)

CWFT:             Some historians feel the Louisiana Native Guard troops
                      were poorly served by the white officer, General
                      William Dewight Jr.  What happened during this attack?


Mr Frairing:      Lt Colonel Edward Bacon, of the 6th Michigan Infantry
                       wrote in his book, "Among the Cotton Thieves" that on
                       May 27 "General Dewight got drunk before breakfast."
                       No doubt about it, the Louisiana Native Guards were 
                       very poorly served by General Dewight.  Dewight made
                       no effort to have a reconnaissance made of the area to
                       be attacked.  He compounded this by lying and saying
                       that there had been a reconnaissance and that it was 
                       the easiest way into Port Hudson.  While at other places
                       up and down the Confederate line the Federals were 
                       attacking with multipliable brigades with considerable
                       artillery support, the Native Guards were just two 
                       regiments supported by only two companies of white
                       soldiers and only two pieces of artillery.  This Federal
                       artillery support was very quickly driven from the field
                       by superior Confederate firepower.  The Native Guards
                       made their attack with no artillery support.  Not only 
                       that, but because of the peculiar lay of the land the
                       Confederates were able to employ some of their heavy
                       river front artillery in support of their infantry and field
                       artillery  that opposed the Guards.  The results were
                       predicdictable.  The assualt was repulsed with a consid-
                       erable loss of life.  (Was there any shame in this re-
                       pulse?  Not when you consider that all of the other 
                       Federal attacks failed that day.  (There might be a
                       temptation to say that Dewight was racist, but his per-
                       formance later in the siege would seem to indicate that
                       he held the lives of white troops with the same con-                       tempt.)

CWFT:              After withstanding 48 days of siege, attacks and bom-
                       barrdment... General Franklin Gardner surrendered his
                       garrison to General Banks and his Federal army.  What
                       were the conditions that made the Confederate com-
                       mander finally "throw in the towel?"

Mr Fraering:     The Confederate Port Hudson garrison was running
                       short on food.  Towards the end of the siege they had
                       been reduced to eating horses, mules, dogs and rats.
                       (There is the notorious story of the soldiers eating rats
                       at Vicksburg, but it is also documented that Pemberton
                       had about a month of rations left when he surrendered.
                       Have historians transposed the rat story to the better 
                       known story of Vicksburg?)
                       Another problem faced by the garrison was the short-
                       age of medicine.  Sickness had taken more soldiers out
                       line than Yankee bullets.  Ammunition shortage was 
                       not a problem except for percussion caps for the 
                       muskets and rifles.  Gardner could expect Banks to be
                       reinforced in part or in whole by Grant's forces at 
                       Vicksburg.  But more than anything else there was no 
                       point in holding out without Vicksburg.  Once again, 
                       Vicksburg and Port Hudson were a set.  You could not 
                       have one without the other.

CWFT:              One of the primary reasons that CivilWarFieldTrip.com
                        exists is to encourage history teachers and their 
                        students to get out of the classroom and visit the sites
                        where American History happened.  What kind of pro- 
                        grams and activities are offered educators and 
                        students at Port Hudson Historic Site?

Mr Fraering:      The Port Hudson State Historic Site has two types of 
                        school tours: guided and self-guided.  With the guided
                        tour the group gets the 15 minute movie that gives 
                        the history of the battlefield and the park, 15 to 20 
                        minutes in the musem exhibit area, a musket demon-
                        stration and a guided half mile walk down the trail 
                        system.  With the self-guided tour the group gets the 
                        15 minute movie, 15 to 20 minutes in the museum, 
                        and a musket demonstration.  The group then has the
                        option of going down the trails on their own.  Groups
                        wishing to have a tour should call the site at least one
                        week in advance of the desired date.  This is to guar-
                        antee it does not conflict with a prescheduled program
                        or other tour, and to make sure there is enough staff
                        on site. School groups are NOT charged and entrance
                        fee.
                        The site also has two School Days in the Fall and
                        Spring.  School Days programs are where six to seven
                        interpretive stations are set up.  Each station covers a
                        differen t Civil War topic.  The students get a fifteen
                        minute presentation on this topic and then move on to
                        the next station until they have covered all of them.
                        Registration is required to attend these programs.

CWFT:              What is the question that Interpretive Rangers most
                        often hear from students who visit Port Hudson?

Mr Fraering:      The question that Interpretive Rangers most often hear
                        from students who visit Port Hudson is "Where is the
                        bathroom?"  The next most asked question is "Are you
                        hot in those clothes?"

CWFT:              What is the main thing you hope a vistor will take with
                        him/her after a visit to Port Hudson?


Mr Fraring:        Unfortunately the Siege of Port Hudson is too often
                        portrayed as a footnote in the history of the Civil War.
                        True the Siege of Vicksburg and the Battle of
                        Gettysburg happened at roughly the same time, and 
                        they were larger and more important battles, but the
                        soldiers here at Port Hudson, both North and South,
                        were just as brave and their sacrifices were just as
                        great as the soldiers who fought there.  They deserve
                        to be remembered too.

CWFT:               Today, Port Hudson is a beautiful wooded park with
                        well-kept trails and interesting exhibits... staffed by
                        helpful and knowledgeable Rangers.  What kind of
                        changes, in the way of new facilities, programs or
                        events are being planned for the coming years?


Mr Fraering:      Any improvements or additions to the Port Hudson
                        State Historical Site hinges on funding.  Until the econ-
                        omy improves this will not happen.  Naturally the add-
                        ition of more property would greatly enhance the park.
                        An interpretive earthwork, like the one at Vicksburg,
                        would give the visitors a better idea of what the earth-
                        works actually looked like.  The purchase of Port
                        Hudson specific artifacts would also be a positive 
                        addition.

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Port Hudson State Historical Site is located near Jackson, Louisiana (about 20 miles northwest of Baton Rouge on the eastern side of the Mississippi River) and is easily accessible via U.S. Highway 61.

Contact Information:
236 Hwy 61, Jackson, LA 70748
Phone: 225-654-3775  or (toll free): 888-677-3400
E-Mail: porthudson@crt.la.gov
Website: www.crt.state.la.us/parks/ipthudson




                      


                      






























 

                           
(Photo Below)
One Union and one Confederate soldier are burried beneath Port
Hudson's unique "Peace Monument,"

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