Heart of Louisiana: Battle of Port Hudson

Re-enactors at the Port Hudson State Historic Site
Re-enactors at the Port Hudson State Historic Site

In 1863, Louisiana's river road was on the front lines of the Civil War. Union forces had already captured New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and were aiming to remove the last Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. Rebel forces needed to control a larger section of the river, so they dug in at Port Hudson, Louisiana, the first high ground north of Baton Rouge.

Michael Frairing with the Louisiana State Parks says, "There were bluffs that were 60 to 80 feet above the surface of the Mississippi River. This gave the rebel defenders a distinct advantage over any Union gunboats that might attempt to attack or pass Port Hudson."

Holding Port Hudson gave the rebels 150 miles of river south of Vicksburg to move supplies from the west across the Mississippi to the east. The first time U.S. Admiral David Farragut tried to run seven Union gunboats past the Confederate defenses at Port Hudson, only two made it. That prompted a major ground assault by Union General Nathaniel Banks.

Frairing says, "He had an army of about 30,000 men. Now the rebels here at Port Hudson, they were trying to protect an area of about four square miles with only 6,800 rebel soldiers."

But the Confederate forces had eight months to prepare. They built earthworks atop ravines, and cut down trees and created obstacles to stall Union troops. Union forces move in from the north and the south. In the first attack, 17,000 federal soldiers charged the rebel stronghold.

Frairing says, "And the federal attacks were not well coordinated, they were poorly led, and the Confederates just literally mowed down those federal soldiers."

With Union soldiers completely surrounding Port Hudson, the siege began.

The battle at Port Hudson lasted 48 days. That's one day longer that the Civil War siege upriver at Vicksburg, making this Louisiana battle the longest siege in American history.

Frairing says, "The Confederates did not have any reinforcements. They had to fight with what men they had. Every day that went by the Confederate ranks were reduced by casualties, whether killed or wounded, also sick."

The rebel soldiers dug rat holes inside their earthworks to shield themselves from Union artillery. There were constant skirmishes. After a battle, rebel troops would scavenge for guns and ammo from fallen enemy soldiers.

Frairing says, "Towards the end of the siege the rebels were reduced to eating horses, mules, dogs and rats."

Joining the Union forces were the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, a force of 1,000 black soldiers who were part of the assault on the rebel defenses.

Frairing says, "This was the first time in American military history where black soldiers as part of the regular U.S. Army made an attack."

Nearly three weeks after the siege began, Union forces launched another major assault. Again, they suffered heavy casualties and had to retreat. About 5,000 Federal troops were killed or wounded. Another 4,000 fell to disease. Confederates suffered 700 casualties and a few hundred more died of disease.

Frairing says, "There have been bigger battles, there have been bloodier battles. But Port Hudson goes down in Civil War history as the bloodiest battle per thousand men engaged during the Civil War."

After Confederate forces at Vicksburg surrendered, the rebel soldiers at Port Hudson also laid down their weapons. The Union had won control of the Mississippi River.

A national cemetery just outside the old Confederate defenses holds the graves of 4,000 Union soldiers who died fighting in the region. The Confederate dead were not allowed there. The grave markers are a reminder of the bloody siege and the human sacrifice that occurred on a strategic bend in the river at Port Hudson.

There will be battle re-enactments this weekend at the Port Hudson State Historic site near St. Francisville marking the 150th anniversary. Confederate and Federal re-enacting units will be on site all weekend demonstrating camp life and staging drills, skirmishes and the battle. For more information, go online to http://porthudsonshs.wordpress.com/battle-reenactment and http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/ipthudson.aspx.