By the winter of 1863, Union forces controlled the Mississippi River with the exception of the approximately 110 miles between the Confederate strongholds of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Between these two points, the Red River emptied into the Mississippi from the west. The Red River was an important supply line, not only for Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but for the eastern Confederacy as well. Food of all kinds, goods from Europe that arrived via Mexico, and military recruits from the western Confederate states traveled eastward on the Red River. Control of the portion of the Mississippi River between Port Hudson and Vicksburg was needed to cut off this vital supply line.
In March of 1863, Admiral David Farragut, whose fleet was operating on the Lower Mississippi River below Port Hudson, decided to run his vessels past the Port Hudson defenses in order to disrupt communication and supply lines on that portion of the Mississippi still under Confederate control. Farragut had captured New Orleans in April 1862 after successfully running past Forts Jackson and St. Phillip down river from the Crescent City.
Running the Port Hudson batteries would not be easy. The small town of Port Hudson was situated on the east side of the Mississippi River on a three mile long bluff that rose sixty to eighty feet above the river, and the position was garrisoned by 16,000 soldiers. The Confederate commander at Port Hudson was Major General Franklin Gardner, a West Point educated native New Yorker. Gardner had fortified Port Hudson well, including arranging 21 heavy guns on the river bluffs for maximum effect against Union ships.
Admiral Farragut’s fleet consisted of the sloops of war Hartford, Richmond, and Monongahela; the side wheel frigate Mississippi; and the Sachem, Genesee, Kineo, and Albatross, four smaller gunboats. He also had the ironclad steamer Essex and half a dozen mortar boats.
Because the enemy batteries were only on the east side of the river (the starboard side of the fleet), Admiral Farragut devised a unique plan. He lashed the smaller gunboats to the port sides of the sloops of war. The smaller vessels would be used to help power and maneuver the larger vessels, especially if the latter became damaged or disabled in the fight. They would also be helpful in turning the ships in the sharp bend in the river on the northern end of Port Hudson. Farragut’s flagship, the Hartford, was paired up with Albatross, the Richmond with the Genesee, and Monongahela with the Kineo. The Mississippi would have to go it alone, and was assigned the rear position. The Essex, Sachem, and the mortar boats would remain behind and provide cover fire. Farragut was also counting on Major General Nathaniel Banks and his Nineteenth Army Corps to provide a land based diversion against the defenses of Port Hudson while the fleet ran past the river batteries. However, the slow moving Banks was not in position to provide a diversion when Farragut was ready to go, so the mission fell entirely to the Navy.
Running the Port Hudson Batteries
At 9:00 P.M. on March 14th, the fleet began moving into position, and an hour later, headed upstream. Admiral Farragut led the way on the Hartford, followed by the Richmond, Monongahela, and Mississippi. At 11:20 a Confederate lookout fired a signal rocket, which was followed by a cannon shot, and the battle was underway. The Essex and the mortar boats opened fire in support.
The Hartford unleashed a broadside with its starboard guns and steamed ahead as the Confederate batteries returned fire. Bonfires were quickly lit on shore to light up the surroundings. The smoke from the cannon fire and the bonfires made for poor visibility for the ships trying to navigate the river. As Hartford neared the bend in the river, it ran aground. Farragut immediately ordered the Hartford’s consort, the Albatross, to back up. It did so, and the Hartford then powered forward, and was freed before the Confederate artillery could draw a bead on the pair. Hartford headed around the curve, and had succeeded in running the Port Hudson batteries.
Close behind the Hartford was the Richmond with its consort Genesee. In the smoke and darkness, Richmond nearly fired its guns into Hartford and at one point almost collided with the Admiral’s ship before the two separated. The smoke was so dense that the gunners on Richmond were ordered to hold their fire until they could see muzzle flashes from the southern artillery. Confederate sharpshooters raked the ships with musket fire. Gun crews on the high bluffs ran their guns to edge and fired down on Richmond and Genesee. “Early in the fight a portion of a man’s skull fell on our quarter deck” recalled an engineer on the Richmond.
Richmond was nearing the bend in the river when a cannon shot plunged through the decks and hit a steam valve filling the air with hot vapor and dropping the steam pressure down to the point that the engine lost most of its power. Genesee was able to turn the two vessels around and head back down river. The ships fought their way past the Port Hudson defenses and reached safety.
The Monongahela and Kineo pair was next. As the two fought their way upriver, Monongahela grounded and Kineo was torn loose from its lashings and grounded itself. The grounded ships were easy targets for the Confederate gunners. Kineo was able to free itself and with one line tied to the Monongahela, the engines of the two ships managed to pull the larger vessel to deeper water. Kineo’s rudder had been damaged by a solid artillery shot, and could only be maneuvered with great difficulty. Kineo’s commander got the vessel into the river current and allowed the ship to drift back down stream. Monongahela tried to continue on its own, but the ship’s engines had overheated in the effort to free it from the grounding, so it too headed back down river.
That left the Mississippi as the last to try running the Port Hudson batteries. Mississippi was on its own; with big paddlewheel boxes on its sides, it was not possible to effectively lash to an escort gunboat. As it made its way up river, the Mississippi also ran aground. The crew tried for a half hour to free the vessel but it was hopelessly stuck, and was bombarded heavily. The order was given to abandon ship. Captain Melancton Smith and Executive Officer George Dewey (who would later command the U.S. Fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish American War) were the last to leave.
In order to keep the Mississippi from possibly falling into enemy hands, fires were set in several places as the crew abandoned ship. Gradually, the burning vessel freed itself and began drifting down river. Finally, around 5:30 A.M. on March 15th, the flames detonated the ship’s magazine, and the Mississippi exploded.
General Gardner reported Confederate losses as one killed and eight wounded. Captain Smith reported 64 killed or missing from the Mississippi; nine were killed and 40 wounded on the other ships. Though most of his fleet failed to make it past the Port Hudson batteries, Farragut did place a formidable warship and smaller gunboat into position to disrupt Confederate shipping on the Red River and Mississippi River between Port Hudson and Vicksburg.
- “Decks Covered With Blood” by John F. Wukovits. America’s Civil War, March 1992.
- “Man and Nature at Port Hudson, 1863-1917″ by M.L. Bonham, Jr. The Military Historian & Economist, October 1917.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. U.S. War Department. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1895-1929,
- Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
- “Some Personal Recollections and Reminiscences of the Battle of Port Hudson” by Harrie Webster, U.S. Navy, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Commandery of the District of Columbia, 1894.
- The Civil War in Louisiana by John D. Winters. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1963.
- The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.