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The Surrender of Port Hudson

Coming quickly on the heels of the Federal victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi the surrender of Port Hudson, Louisiana five days later is lost in the shuffle. Port Hudson, considered by its defenders as little more than an outpost of Vicksburg, occupied a strategic spot along the Mississippi where its high bluffs, like those at Vicksburg, could control traffic on the Mississippi. The surrender of this Confederate bastion on July 9, 1863 truly allowed “the Father of Waters to flow unvexed to the sea.”

The events of the surrender at Port Hudson were set in motion by the surrender at Vicksburg which occurred July 4, 1863. On the morning of July 4th, Major General Ulysses S. Grant commanding the army at Vicksburg sent an official dispatch to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf which was then besieging Port Hudson, informing him that Vicksburg had surrendered. It took until the morning of July 7th for the dispatch to arrive at Banks’ headquarters, but the former Speaker of the House wasted no time in getting the good news out to his troops. Among the first to hear it were men from the “forlorn hope,” a group of 1,000 volunteers whose mission was to storm the Port Hudson defenses. “General Banks and staff soon appeared. He rode down the line and back and then to a point near the center where he halted. Hat in hat, he then saluted the men. He next deliberately drew from his breast pocket a dispatch from General Grant announcing the fall of Vicksburg and in a most impressive manner read it to the troops,” a New Hampshire volunteer remembered. “General Banks then said to the volunteers that in view of the fall of Vicksburg, the contemplated assault would be postponed until further orders.”[1]

A member of the 133rd New York recalled that “rumors came flying through the camp of a great and glorious victory at Vicksburg. In a short time, we heard cheer after cheer rising from different parts of our line as regiment after regiment was brought up near our entrenchments and the official order announcing the surrender of Vicksburg read to them. About 9 a.m. we fell in line and the order was read to us.”[2] General Banks ordered the regimental bands to play national tunes in celebration and at noon a one hundred-gun salute was fired from guns all along the Union lines. Adjutant Luther T. Townsend of the 16th New Hampshire related that a Massachusetts colonel thrust a stick through his copy of the dispatch and sent it spear-like over into the Confederate lines.

The furor in the Union camps could hardly be missed by their opponents across the line. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Francis deGournay of the 12th Louisiana Heavy Artillery Battalion feared another attack. “About the middle of the day we heard loud hurrahs in the Federal camp and the artillery began to thunder in every direction. Every man ran to his post thinking a general assault was preparing, but wonder was still increased when it was noticed that these repeated discharges were not followed by the heavy whiz of balls or the crash of exploding shells. ‘They are firing blank charges! It’s a salute. What can it mean?’” Union troops began hollering at the Confederates that Vicksburg had surrendered. “The news was received with disdainful incredulity,” deGournay wrote. “Did they think they could discourage us with such bosh?”[3]

The morale of the Port Hudson garrison, already shaken by sickness, the long siege, and rapidly diminishing rations, took a further hit when the Yankee rumors of the fall of Vicksburg started circulating. “There is more discontent among the men within the last few days than I have discovered before, and I very much fear that the officers are at the bottom of it,” complained General William N.R. Beall to General Frank Gardner, commanding the Port Hudson garrison. He specifically had trouble with the 10th Arkansas. “But one company of the 10th Arkansas has reported- the others refuse so I am told.”[4] Colonel Isaiah G.W. Steedman commanding the left wing had the lieutenant colonel of the 10th Arkansas arrested but also tried squelching the rumors. “I can hear no bad effect resulting from rumors of today. I have tried to guard against it as much as possible.”[5] Colonel William R. Miles, commanding the Confederate right wing, noting the salutes and “vociferous cheering,” reported to General Frank Gardner that “my own impression is that some fictious good news has been given to his troops to raise their spirits; perhaps with a view of stimulating them to a charge in the morning. We will be prepared for them should they do so.”[6] At various points along the lines at Port Hudson, unofficial truces had been entered into between the troops to allow the men to get together and talk and trade. It was at one of these points that deGournay reported that the Confederates received a copy of the official dispatch from an unknown Federal colonel. Lieutenant Colonel Richard B. Irwin of Banks’ staff recalled that the Confederates responded by “calling back ‘That’s another damned Yankee lie!’ Firing died away, and the men began to mingle in spite of everything.”[7]

General Frank Gardner had ably led the defense of Port Hudson since mid-May and he elected to call a council of war on the night of July 7th to evaluate this Federal dispatch. Based on deGournay’s account, it is clear that by that evening the Confederate commander at Port Hudson had accepted that the surrender of Vicksburg was not “another damned Yankee lie” but was likely a sobering reality. “We had defended Port Hudson at all hazards to help in the defense of Vicksburg; the main post having fallen, the duty of the holders of the outpost was ended. What could be gained by a protracted defense? We were cut off from the rest of the world as the country around us was in hands of the Federals. We had scanty rations for another week and we could certainly hold out that much longer, but then the end would come. No Confederate army could march to our assistance, and our fate could have no influence on the fortune of the Confederacy. The honor of the flag was safe. It was resolved that we should surrender if we obtained honorable terms.”[8]

General Gardner must have still entertained doubts as just before midnight he dispatched a note to General Banks asking for confirmation on the fall of Vicksburg “and if true I ask for a cessation of hostilities with a view to consider terms for surrendering this position.” [9] Private William J. McBeth of the 18th New York Independent Battery witnessed the arrival of the truce flag. “The flag of truce offering surrender came in about midnight. I was up and had heard their bugle sounding and saw a light moving round the breastwork and supposed something was up, but as I was not in on the secret, I did not what that something was,” he wrote. [10] A soldier in the 116th New York reported what followed. “A parley was sounded on our front and Colonel Charles J. Paine commanding our brigade at once sent out to see what it was. He found a flag of truce with a message for General Banks. It was at once forwarded to headquarters.” [11]

After reading Gardner’s note, Banks replied at 1:15 a.m. by enclosing a true copy of the dispatch he received from General Grant but declined to parley with Gardner about surrendering Port Hudson. Upon receipt of Banks’ reply and enclosure, Gardner knew that the jig was up. “Having defended this position as long as I deem my duty requires, I am willing to surrender to you and will appoint a commission of three officers to meet a similar commission appointed by yourself at 9 o’clock this morning for the purpose of agreeing upon and drawing up the terms of surrender, and for that purpose I ask for a cessation of hostilities.” General Banks replied at 4:30 a.m. accepting Gardner’s proposal and agreed to have his three commissioners meet with Gardner’s officers outside the lines of the Paine’s brigade. “I will direct that active hostilities shall entirely cease on my part until further notice,” Banks wrote. The bloodletting at Port Hudson would finally stop after 47 days of fighting.[12]

At 9 a.m., the two groups of commissioners met outside the Port Hudson entrenchments. General Banks had originally designated his chief of staff General Charles P. Stone, Colonel Henry W. Birge (a well-respected brigade commander who was then in command of the “forlorn hope,”) and Lieutenant Colonel Richard B. Irwin, Banks’ adjutant general as his commissioners. After the exchange of notes, it was decided to send General William Dwight as part of the Federal delegation and based on Irwin’s account, it appears that he either did not participate in the surrender negotiations or acted as scribe. On the Confederate side, General Gardner designated Colonel William R. Miles, commanding his right wing, Colonel Isaiah G.W. Steedman, commanding his left wing, and Lieutenant Colonel Marshall J. Smith who had command of the artillery. [13]

The negotiations took all day and met a bit of a snag at the very end as related by Colonel deGournay. “When late in the afternoon the terms agreed upon had been referred to General Banks and received his sanction, Colonel Miles exclaimed “That’s not all! I have another demand to make!” General Charles P. Stone retorted “What? Are you going to raise new difficulties after all the trouble we have had to come to an agreement?” Miles asked, “Are we not virtually your prisoners, now that we have agreed on terms?” Stone said “assuredly.” Miles replied, “Well, you are bound to feed your prisoners. We are tired of half rations of mule meat and hard corn and must have a square meal tonight.” General Stone burst out laughing, “That’s cool. Here you have been bragging of your ability to hold out as long as you please and you confess now that you are out of provisions.” Miles replied that “it was my duty to make a strong case but now that I am not pleading, the case is settled, and truth may as well come out. By the by, I may as well add that we are about as short of ammunition as provisions.” Stone laughed, “We shan’t send you ammunition but provisions you shall have, and that speedily.”[14]

Just before dinnertime the six men had finished crafting the surrender agreement and presented copies to General Gardner and General Banks for signature. Both men gave their assent. The terms of the surrender were that General Gardner would “surrender the place of Port Hudson and its dependencies with its garrison, armament, munitions, public funds, and material of war.” The officers and enlisted men were surrendered unconditionally but the Federals agreed to give the garrison “the treatment due to prisoners of war according to the usages of civilized warfare.” Private property of both officers and men would be respected, the sick and wounded cared for the U.S. Army medical staff, and arrangement made to have a formal surrender ceremony on the morning of July 9, 1863. General Banks further ordered that the enlisted men would be paroled while the officers would be retained as prisoners of war.[15] As soon as the surrender documents were signed, a long train of food and medical supplies set out from the Union lines into Port Hudson.

In the meantime, the men of both armies started to mix together and talk. “The men on either side came out of their rifle pits or “gopher holes” as they were called, laughed and joked as amicably as if they had been engaged in some friendly pastime instead of in a fearful game of deadly warfare,” relayed Adjutant Townsend of the 16th New Hampshire.[16] A soldier from the 133rd New York related that “all day long the blue coats and gray backs were in groups outside the works engaged in friendly conversation and speculating on the probabilities of surrender.”[17] The Confederates presented all manner of dress. “The Rebs were exhibiting the most grotesque variety of uniforms ever seen,” wrote one soldier from the 165th New York. “Here would be one with enough gold on his person to set up a jeweler while right beside him would appear two large salt sacks with one of the chivalry in them.” Regardless of their uniforms, many of the Federals were impressed with the caliber of men with which they had been fighting, one New Yorker going so far as to say that they were a “stout, hardy looking set of men” and averred he would rather have the Arkansas troops as “fighting companions than many of our nine-months’ men.”[18] Another recalled that “some few wore a Rebel suit of gray, but by far the largest portion wore a dirty white colored cotton suit coarse in texture. Part of them were barefooted and as for hats, they were of every style and shape. All the officers I saw were well-dressed and looked clean and nice, but the soldiers looked dirty and filthy in the extreme.”[19]

One thing was certain, the Confederates were hungry. “They have been living on half rations for over two weeks and two days before the surrender commenced eating mule meat,” remembered Private McBeth of the 18th New York. “They were literally starved out.”[20] Corn meal and mule meat were the staples, supplemented by black beans, sugar, molasses, and salt. A hospital steward told one Federal that the sick were fed rat meat “a statement I can easily credit from the immense number of rats I saw running around as well as having seen several rat skins.”[21] Sergeant Prentiss Ingraham of the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery recalled how receiving “a liberal ration of bacon, a flour hoe-cake, a cup of coffee, and a roasted potato made me feel at peace with the world.”[22]

At 9 a.m. the next morning, General Gardner had his 3,000 or more garrison troops formed up into line on a road (another 2,500 men were sick or wounded in the hospital) and standing at order arms. General Gardner awaited at the right of the line. The Union column marched into Port Hudson beneath the flag and brass band of the 116th New York, the band playing “Yankee Doodle” followed by “Hail Columbia”, the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the “Gem of the Ocean.” General George L. Andrews led the “forlorn hope” (also known as the storming party or stormers) at the head of the column followed by Battery G of the 5th U.S. Light Artillery, then eight picked regiments from Banks’ army. “General Banks and the stormers marched past them until our right arrived opposite their left when our men fronted and came to an order arms,” recalled Captain Robert R.R. Dumars of the 161st New York. The officers assumed their places in line in front of their companies and regiments.[23]

Once Andrews was in position, General Gardner rode up to him. “General Gardner advanced and presenting the hilt of his drawn sword to General Andrews said, ‘Having thoroughly defended this position as long as I deemed it necessary, I now surrender to you my sword and with it this post and its garrison,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel deGournay. “General Andrews replied. ‘I return your sword with my compliments to the gallant commander of such gallant men and their conduct would be heroic for another cause.’ This last remark, stereotyped from General Banks’ first demand of surrender, was properly rebuked by General Gardner’s words as he returned his sword to the scabbard with an emphatic clang. ‘This is neither the time nor place to discuss the cause.”[24]

The Confederate standard was hauled down, and the stars and stripes sent aloft. “After a brief consultation between General Beall, second in command at Port Hudson, and General Andrews, General Beall turned to the thousands in his command and in clear tones said, ‘Attention! Ground arms!’ By many of the Confederates that command seemed to be obeyed reluctantly,” recalled Adjutant Townsend.[25] Captain Dumars also noted that some surrendered petulantly, “throwing their guns violently to the ground” and bitterly remarking upon the firing of a national salute by Battery G “what a waste of powder!” Lieutenant T. Scott DeWolf of the 161st New York reported the Rebels to be “about as fine a looking men as one would wish for soldiers” who wore “ a good variety of expression upon their countenances; some looking as if pleased with the idea of capture, others wearing a sullen aspect, while another class could not prevent coming visible in their countenance their supreme contempt for the damned Yankees.”[26] Another New Yorker commented that upon conversing with the Rebels he found them “as rabid secession as can be.”[27]

“The Rebs laid down their arms about 10 a.m. and a guard was posted around them, and our flag was hoisted on a large pole on one of the water batteries. Our captain marched along at the head of his company as large as life, a cigar in his mouth and swellfully patriotic feelings in his bosom,” recalled one New Yorker. “Our regiment stacked arms in the shade and the boys scattered around to explore the place and talk with the Rebs.”[28] As the federals walked around Port Hudson and visited with their erstwhile enemies, respect grew between them. “The marks of sympathy and respect the defenders of Port Hudson received at the hands of Banks’ army was a soothing balm that took away much bitterness of the defeat,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel deGournay.[29] The fruits of victory fell to General Banks and his army of New Englanders: 5,500 prisoners of war, 51 pieces of artillery, 44,000 pounds of cannon powder, 5,000 stand of arms, and 150,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, but most importantly, it opened the Mississippi to unfettered traffic.[30]

As for Port Hudson, it was a shambles. “The village of Port Hudson has very little left of it now, only a few houses. The fortifications consisted of only one line behind which the enemy had cells or caves dug to enable the soldiers to get out of reach of our shot and shell,” wrote Lieutenant DeWolf. “There is scarcely a tree, bush, building, or anything else reaching above the top of the fortifications which does not bear upon it the mark of a cannon ball or grape shot. The entire ground inside the fortifications consists of a series of hog backs and ravines covered with a thick growth of bushes and trees. In marching through to the river, we passed along several long lines of freshly made graves all neatly marked with the name, rank, age, date of death, etc. of the occupant,” he wrote.[31] “As I penetrated further into the works, the appearance of desolation and destruction in no ways was abated,” another Federal wrote. “The stench from the dead bodies of animals lying unburied together with large masses of other decaying vegetable matter was everywhere perceptible and in some places was so strong as to be absolutely unbearable.”[32]

The object of the great campaign, the opening of the Mississippi was a reality. A soldier of the 18th New York Independent Battery reported the joyous news from New Orleans. “When the news of the downfall of Vicksburg first reached us in New Orleans, the Union people thought it too good to be true while the sympathizers winked and said “hoax,” but shortly after we heard of the capture of Port Hudson, then the joy of the Union citizens was unbounded. Houses were illuminated, torchlight processions paraded the streets, speeches were made, and all seemed to think that the fabric of government instituted by Davis, Yancey, and company was fast falling. Our secesh friends could not be made to believe that it was true that the river was open again to commerce, and thought these demonstrations only plans to affect the price of sugar and molasses. But when the Imperial arrived at the foot of Canal Street, the levee was crowded with persons of all sizes, shape, nativity, and color, to see a boat that had actually come from above Vicksburg. The same night the Sallie List from the Ohio River arrived and then it was that all doubt was dispelled,” he wrote.[33] The turning point of the war in the west had been achieved along the Mississippi at both Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The Mississippi River, the Father of Waters, again flowed “unvexed to the sea.”

[1] Townsend, Luther Tracy. History of the Sixteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers. Washington: Norman T. Elliott, 1897, pg. 247 [2] Letter from “Typograph,” Correspondence of the 133rd New York Volunteers, New York State Military Museum [3] DeGournay article, Philadelphia Weekly Times, July 10, 1880 [4] Report of General William N.R. Beall dated July 7, 1863, O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 148 [5] Report of Colonel Isaiah G.W. Steedman dated July 7, 1863, Chapter 38, pg. 163 [6] Report of Colonel William R. Miles dated July 7, 1863, O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 177 [7] Irwin, Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 3, pgs. 597 [8] deGournay, op. cit. [9] O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 52 [10] Letter from William J. McBeth, Correspondence of 18th New York Independent Battery, New York State Military Museum [11] Letter from C.C.L., Correspondence of the 116th New York Volunteers, New York State Military Museum [12] O.R., Chapter 38, pgs. 53-54 [13] O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 54 [14] deGournay, op. cit. [15] O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 54 [16] Townsend, op. cit., pg. 280 [17] Typograph letter, op. cit. [18] Letter from unknown soldier, Correspondence of 165th New York Volunteers, New York State Military Museum [19] Typograph, op. cit. [20] McBeth, op. cit. [21] Typograph, op. cit. [22] Prentiss Ingraham, National Tribune, February 13, 1902 [23] Letter from Captain Robert R.R. Dumars, Correspondence of the 161st New York Volunteers, New York State Military Museum [24] deGournay, op. cit. [25] Townsend, op. cit., pg. 286 [26] Letter from Second Lieutenant T. Scott Dewolf, Correspondence of 161st New York Volunteers, New York State Military Museum [27] Correspondence of 165th New York, op. cit. [28] Correspondence of 165th New York, op. cit. [29] deGournay, op. cit., [30] O.R., Chapter 38, pg. 55 [31] DeWolf, op. cit. [32] Typograph, op. cit. [33] Letter from “Hod,” Correspondence of the 18th New York Independent Battery, New York State Military Museum

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