In the spring and early summer of 1863, the Union Army began its final, and ultimately successful, campaigns to secure control of the entire Mississippi River. Only two Confederate strongholds remained on the river, at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana. While Major General Ulysses S. Grant was leading the campaign to capture Vicksburg, Major General Nathanial Banks was in command of the Union 19th Corps, which was engaged in the reduction of Port Hudson.
Banks had tried to take Port Hudson by storm on May 27th, but had been repulsed with great loss. The commanding general decided to again try and carry the position by assault on June 14th.
One of Banks’ regiments was the 114th New York Infantry, part of the Second Brigade of the First Division of the 19th Corps. The Second Brigade was part of a four brigade storming column assigned to attack the right side of a position along the line called the Priest Cap. The Confederates had constructed formidable earthworks with a ditch in front of them. According to the battle plan, two regiments would advance as skirmishers, followed by a regiment armed with hand grenades. This would be followed by a regiment of men carrying bags of cotton to fill in the ditch, and finally, the storming column including the 114th New York. The 114th’s commanding officer, Colonel Elisha B. Smith had been assigned to command the Second Brigade. The movement began in the pre dawn hours of the 14th.
One of the officers in the 114th New York was Captain James F. Fitts. A lawyer and occasional writer in civilian life, Fitts wrote a detailed account of his experiences at Port Hudson, which was published shortly after the war in The Galaxy magazine. Here are some excerpts of his description of the June 14th assault.
And still the column pressed upward, while every eye was bent anxiously forward to catch the first view of the position. It was no time for the exhibition of enthusiasm; nobody failed to understand that the assault was being furiously pressed, without an inch of advantage to us thus far. I looked at the faces of those about me, and saw that they perfectly understood it. There were some boyish faces there that were quite pale, and the bearded ones wore a look which was almost one of suffering; but one and all were silently nerving their hearts for the torment, and they kept right on…
The sound of the strife rolled down from above in an increasing tumult; the bullets fell thicker into the road; the air was mingled with noises of battle. The sides of the cut began to slope toward the level of our feet; two rods more, and we were out of the covered way. There was an abrupt ascent, then a small area of rough, uneven ground, then a ditch, seven feet deep, and quite as wide, while beyond all rose a perpendicular earthwork, not less than twelve feet above the ditch, built in the form of a retreating angle. Here was the point chosen for the assault, and before it was being enacted a scene of slaughter replete with all the horrors of a close and desperate fight. There was not sufficient ground to allow a regiment to deploy to advantage; as fast as they were unmasked from the cut, the companies rushed with a shout up the ascent, across the intervening ground, and into the ditch. From the parapet of the Rebel work came a continual flash of rifles–not in volleys, but in an irregular burst which never ceased while the attack lasted. The Rebels were entirely sheltered behind their defenses; hardly a head was to be seen above the parapet. The open space before the work was strewn with soldiers in blue, dead, dying, and severely wounded; they lay among the bushes, on the hillside, and covered the bottom of that awful ditch, yawning like a grave, at the foot of the work. For a whole hour there was a continued repetition of the scene; a yell, a rush, shouts, musket shots, cries and groans. The ditch was at last filled with the living and the dead; the former striving, within six yards of the muzzles of the Rebel rifles, to climb the face of the earthwork, and continually dropping back, with bullet holes perforated clear through their bodies…Wounded men were killed while trying to crawl beyond the range of the fire, or lay helpless under it, unable to hazard the attempt…every repetition of the assault was met by the same murderous discharge, covering the ground thickly with its victims, and adding to the horrors of the scene.
The day was virtually decided against us by sunrise, although the troops were not withdrawn for some hours afterward, but lay prone to the earth, behind logs, stumps and ridges, discharging their rifles over the top of the work, and occasionally picking off an exposed head. Even dead bodies were mad shelters for the living, and soldiers fired from behind their slain comrades…
One of the casualties was Colonel Smith. Smith, who was very popular with the men of his regiment, had gotten up from a sickbed to lead them into action. While arranging the men for one of the assaults, Smith was shot in the abdomen. He initially refused to be removed from the field, telling those who stopped to assist him “You must not stop on my account; your duty is to be in the advance.” Smith was eventually removed from the field and lingered for five days until he died on June 19th. His body was returned to Norwich, New York, where his funeral was attended by throngs of people from miles around.
Captain Fitts was among the wounded. From one standpoint, he was one of the luckier wounded who was able to get to the rear and medical treatment. Many of the wounded had to lie in the hot sun all day until they could be retrieved from the battlefield under cover of darkness. But the hospitals had their own horrors as they filled with the wounded, and Fitts described what that experience was like.
All the morning, while there was work to do, stretchers and ambulances were busy bearing back the wounded to the field hospital, a mile to the rear. The sights and sounds of that place will scarcely bear description. A large enclosure of bare ground, surrounded with branches, was crowded in ever part with the victims of the fight, the number constantly increasing. The surgeons were busy at their sickening work, and a chaplain was also there, striving to soothe the sufferers. Some were quiet, as if unconscious of the approach of death; some were writhing in pain, but laboring hard to suppress any audible tokens of it; others, entirely unnerved with pain and apprehension, shouted, blasphemed, or prayed in frantic tones. Some expired under the knife; some died before the surgeon could reach them, and others were carried from the table, groaning with their agony, to make room for new arrivals from the front. It was a scene too painful in its details to be dwelt upon.
The assault failed at all points; there was the same story throughout of desperate, reckless daring, and unavailing slaughter…On the second day after the fight, a truce was called upon for the purpose of burying the dead. Several hundreds were buried where they fell, many of them so blackened by exposure as to be past recognition.
James F. Fitts, “A June Day at Port Hudson”, The Galaxy, September 15th, 1866.
Fitts recovered from his wounds and served for the rest of the war. Banks continued siege operations but attempted no more mass assaults. But the Confederates were running low on food and other supplies, and when word reached Port Hudson of the July 4th surrender of Vicksburg, and with no relief in sight, General Franklin Gardner surrendered his 6300 men on July 9th. When word reached the wounded at their hospitals in Baton Rouge and New Orleans of the surrender, Fitts noted that “we, too, rejoiced to know that our toils, our perils and our sufferings had not been in vain”.
History of the 114th Regiment New York State Volunteers by Elias P. Pellet
History of the Nineteenth Army Corps
by Richard B. Irwin
The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863
by Edward Cunningham
Record of the 114th Regiment N.Y.S.V. by Harris H. Beecher