In May of 1863, as Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s army was advancing on Vicksburg, Mississippi, another Federal force was surrounding the only other Confederate stronghold left on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana, about 110 miles to the south. Major General Nathanial Banks’ 19th Corps with over 30,000 troops, faced roughly 7,000 Confederates under Major General Franklin Gardner in the well fortified garrison. Banks planned on capturing Port Hudson quickly and then marching north to assist Grant at Vicksburg. But Nathanial Banks was no Ulysses Grant, and the fighting at Port Hudson would last longer and cost more lives than the 19th Corps commander anticipated.
One of the 19th Corps regiments that bore the brunt of the fighting was the 8th New Hampshire Infantry, under the command of Colonel Hawkes Fearing, Jr. The 8th New Hampshire was one of four regiments in the Second Brigade of the Corps’ Third Division. The regiment had been in Louisiana for over a year, had seen action and taken casualties, but not on the scale they would experience at Port Hudson.
Port Hudson Assault of May 27th
With his forces assembled at Port Hudson, Banks decided to take the garrison by storm on May 27th. Colonel Fearing had been given command of the Second Brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Lull would lead the 8th New Hampshire in the assault. “Boys, eat your suppers, say your prayers, sleep well, and in the morning we will attack Port Hudson” Lull told his men on the night of the 26th. “Some of us will be sure to fall, but you know that all good soldiers go to heaven”. In the morning, Lull penned a note to his family. “This morning we storm Port Hudson, many of us will never see another day; if I am one, I shall have done my duty. Good bye, God bless you, dear father, mother, all.”
At daylight on the 27th, the 8th New Hampshire formed in line of battle. Fearing had placed two of his regiments in line in front of the 8th New Hampshire and 4th Wisconsin. The lead regiments were ordered to charge, but Rebel fire soon stopped their assault and broke up the line. Fearing then ordered his second line forward.
Lull positioned himself about 12 paces in front of the regimental color guard, waved his sword and ordered the 8th New Hampshire forward. Almost immediately, he was shot in the thigh and carried from the field. “Don’t let the regiment break; we can whip them” he yelled as he was being carried from the field. The wound was fatal and Lull died that evening.
The 8th New Hampshire and 4th Wisconsin drove a Confederate skirmish line back to the garrison’s fortifications. Some of the attackers reached the ditch in front of the works, but no support came up, and Fearing’s men were forced to withdraw. Some found cover and fired at any exposed Confederates they saw until they could make it back to Union lines.
The Confederate defenders held against the Union piecemeal attack and the assault of May 27th failed. The 8th New Hampshire had 124 killed and wounded out of 298 engaged. Total Federal casualties were just under 2,000.
Banks began siege operations, but drew up plans for another attempt to take Port Hudson by storm. In mid June, he was ready.
Port Hudson Assault of June 14th
The 19th Corps’ Third Division was selected to lead the attack of June 14th. The division commander, Brigadier General Halbert E. Paine, would personally lead the assault column with the 8th New Hampshire (with Captain William M. Barrett now in command) and 4th Wisconsin deployed in front as skirmishers. The ground they were to advance across offered little cover. On the evening of the 13th, the 8th New Hampshire’s regimental chaplain wrote in his diary that he “had prayers in my tent this evening by request of many who do not usually come.”
Early in the morning of the 14th after a huge artillery bombardment, Paine led his men forward. When they had advanced to within a hundred yards of the Confederate defensive positions, the Rebels opened fire. The skirmishers reached the enemy works and some climbed the parapet only to be shot off the wall or captured. The rest were driven back. Heavy Confederate fire prevented the rest of the column from mounting any kind of meaningful attack. Paine himself was wounded “and when we lost Gen. Paine, we lost the battle” wrote the 8th New Hampshire’s Lieutenant D.W. King.
The June 14th attack failed at all points along the front. At a cost of 203 men killed, 1401 wounded and 188 missing, the Federals had gained nothing, while inflicting just 47 total casualties–22 killed, 25 wounded–on the Rebel defenders.
The Federal wounded and dead lay between the lines in the hot Louisiana sun for three days, and the stench from decomposing bodies became so overwhelming that the Confederates agreed to return the bodies to the Federals if Banks would call a truce, which he finally agreed to do. The Rebels returned over 100 dead bodies that had decayed to the point where most were unrecognizable. “I saw 114 dead soldiers buried in one long grave” the regimental chaplain wrote in his diary adding “I cannot get the scenes out of my mind”. Incredibly, there was one surviving wounded man who was returned to the Federals. Corporal Charles Conant of the 8th New Hampshire’s Company F had managed to stay alive. Conant had been shot through both legs, his wounds were full of maggots, and his face was black and swollen, but he made it through the ordeal and was the only one to make it out alive. He survived his wounds and the war.
The 8th New Hampshire went into action on the 14th with 217 officers and men, and had 122 total casualties. “Only ninety-seven men and two officers report for service, and some of those are wounded” wrote Lieutenant King on June 19th.
Banks returned to siege operations, but planned on yet another assault, despite the failures of the first two. This time he called for 1000 volunteers, with promises of promotions, medals, and other honors for those who volunteered. The 8th New Hampshire had had enough of frontal assaults against entrenched positions, and only three volunteered for what was being referred to as Banks’ Forlorn Hope.
There was no third assault. On July 4th, Confederate forces at Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, who would be free to send reinforcements to Port Hudson. With his men short of everything and no relief in sight, Gardner felt he had done all he could do and surrendered on July 9th.
The fighting at Port Hudson from May 23rd until the Confederate surrender had cost the 19th Corps nearly 4400 total casualties. The 8th New Hampshire suffered a total of 258 total casualties, the most of any Union regiment engaged, with 30 killed, 198 wounded, and 30 missing or captured for a total of 258.
The Civil War in Louisiana
by John D. Winters
History of the Eighth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteers by John M. Stanyan
History of the Nineteenth Army Corps by Richard B. Irwin
Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War
by Duane E. Shaffer
The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863
by Edward Cunningham
Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William F. Fox