Captain Homer Sprague Recalls the 13th Connecticut Infantry in the June 14th, 1863 Assault at Port Hudson
In the pre dawn hours of June 14th, 1863, Union artillery opened fire on the Confederate defensive works at Port Hudson, Louisiana in preparation for an infantry assault along the entire line. Port Hudson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, about 120 miles north, were the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The Union 19th Corps, under the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks, had the task of capturing Port Hudson. Banks had attempted to take Port Hudson by storm on May 27th, but that attack ended in failure. Undaunted, Banks felt another, more coordinated assault would succeed, and launched this second attack on June 14th.
One of the regiments participating in the assault was the 13th Connecticut Infantry, one of four regiments (the others were the 25th Connecticut, 26th Maine, and 159th New York) in the 3rd Brigade of Brigadier General Cuvier Grover’s 4th Division. The brigade commander was Colonel Henry W. Birge, a former Colonel in the 13th Connecticut. In the June 14th assault, the 3rd Brigade was ordered to support Colonel Richard E. Holcomb’s 1st Brigade in the attack on a fortified salient on the line called the Priest Cap. Captain Homer Sprague of the 13th Connecticut recalled the June 14th assault and the actions of his regiment:
The narrow path, in many places a mere ditch, was obstructed by dead and wounded, by men carrying stretchers, and by stragglers making their way to the rear. Every available cover behind stumps, logs or earth, every little depression of the ground that could shelter from the enemy’s fire, was occupied. Hand grenades were scattered along the path; also muskets, bayonets, cartridge-boxes and belts, gunny-bags filled with cotton, and here and there pools of blood. We crowded along by the flank in four or two ranks, or in single file, towards the indescribable din. The van of the Thirteenth issued from the dry ditch into the open space, and the regiment caught a glimpse of Colonel Holcomb, who had just received Banks’s last order through Weitzel, and had commenced a brief speech to his men…
Not seeing our regimental commander, who was supposed to be on the right, and who, we thought had perhaps fallen, I asked Colonel Holcomb todelay the charge a moment, until I could get the left wing into position to make a united movement. He assented. I immediately commenced moving my own and the other companies obliquely to the left and front, to give breadth to our advance and secure something like a line of battle; meanwhile endeavoring to encourage the men by exhortation and example. I tried to bring the men, every man, as far to the front as possible, before starting, without exposing them too much; in order that, at the word, each might have the least practicable distance to pass while making a simultaneous spring on the rebels. But before these arrangements had been completed, and almost before they had begun, Col. Holcomb, swinging his sword, gave the command, “Forward!” The Thirteenth leaped to the front, mixed with the troops of Holcomb’s brigade. The impassable portions of the ground instantly destroyed the unity of the advance. The right of the regiment was upon and beyond the bluff; the center, near Holcomb, but moving diagonally to the left with infinite difficulty. The portion of troops nearest Holcomb, not having so much rough ground to pass ever, got in advance of the others, and became instantly exposed to the hottest fire. For the most part they were shot down at once. Colonel Holcomb dropped dead: Lieutenant Strickland fell near him, each pierced through the head by a musket ball. Captain Grosvenor received a bullet through the arm. Acting Adjutant Gardner, of the Thirteenth, was wounded in the throat…
…The left wing, still struggling forward, now got in advance of the right and of the troops massed about Colonel Holcomb, who were fast falling, when Private Blake of my company came running tome, and exclaimed, “Captain, Col. Holcomb is killed!” “Get back to your place, sir,” I replied; It’s no such thing!” “But Captain, he certainly is killed! See, here are his brains all scattered over my coat!” A glance confirmed the terrible fact; but we hoped still to reach and scale the parapet, and I instantly repeated, “Get back to your place in the ranks, sir. Forward! men. Forward!” But the troops on the right had almost vanished. All were thrown into confusion by the unforeseen obstacles, trees, gullies, logs; yet we still pressed obliquely forward towards the enemy’s works, a goodly number from other regiments being mixed in with and following the Thirteenth. We reached a ravine not previously known, almost under the breastwork, and nearly parallel. Into this ravine we poured pell-mell. It arrested our progress. Most fortunate for us was the shelter it afforded; for we had not men enough with us to maintain ourselves long, had we reached the inside of the works. An increasing tempest of every species of shot and shell now tore the broken plateau, over which we had charged, and no supports could reach us. Colonel Holcomb having fallen, and almost the whole of the advancing column being thrown into confusion by the well-nigh insuperable obstacles, and most of the storming party greatly retarded by logs, bushes, briers, and gullies, and the leader of the movement killed, the assault failed…
We immediately commenced re-forming our companies, and separating the Thirteenth from the fragments of other commands. A rebel redoubt, known as The Priest’s Cap, projected from the parapet just on our right. The fire from a salient angle of it proving very troublesome, the writer sent Company E under Lieut. Beaton to take post behind a large log on a knoll, and silence the enemy’s sharp-shooters. Hardly had they got into position, when Capt. Comstock, who now arrived on the spot, ordered their recall; alleging that they were too much exposed…
The sunshine was now burning like fire. We suffered greatly from thirst. A peremptory order came from Banks to the senior officer of the troops at this point to enter the works at all hazards. Again and again similar orders came. Col. Hubbard expressed a readiness to follow, but not to lead. He considered it “a perfect slaughter pen.” Major Burt offered to follow with a portion of the One hundred fifty-ninth New York, but did not believe we could hold the ground, if we took it…
So the assault was not renewed. Meanwhile the lead and iron rained around us, and the accuracy of the shots was truly astonishing. Some of our men were hit lying in the very bottom of the gully, as if the balls dropped from the sky!
The day passed slowly—a long, exciting, mournful day. The fierce sun above us, we were tormented by thirst. We were faint with hunger. Every heart was sad at the loss of comrades…Cos. A and B were stationed on the brow of the ravine, just below the rebel line of fire. Here they acted as sharp-shooters. Not the smallest part of an enemy could be exposed without receiving a volley of bullets. At dusk Cos. C, I, H and K relieved them, and crawled up to within two or three rods of the parapet.
At ten o’clock at night a staff officer crept up to our position, and whispered to us that the enemy were supposed to be massing on the right, to cut their way out, and that the Thirteenth was to move back in silence to the position of the preceding night, and hold itself in readiness to assist in repelling them. This change was noiselessly executed. No sortie was made. Next morning saw us in our old position under the two batteries.
Such was the action of the Thirteenth Connecticut in the combined assault on Port Hudson, June 14, 1863. Surely, it was by no fault of ours that it did not succeed. We had done all that was required of us, and more. We had been ordered to act as a reserve; but by the sheer force of enthusiasm and without positive orders, the Thirteenth rose equal to the emergency and worked their way up to the “forefront of the hottest battle”.
Captain Apollos Comstock filed this after action report on the 13th Connecticut in the June 14th assault at Port Hudson:
BEFORE PORT HUDSON, June 14, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report the action taken by the Thirteenth Connecticut Volunteers in the engagement of the 14th instant, before Port Hudson, as follows:
As per order, we moved from our position in rear of Duryea’s battery at 2.30 a.m. to the Jackson road, and rested near the bridge, on the right of said road (going toward Port Hudson), in rear of the rifle pits, where the remaining regiments of the brigade joined us. At daylight we were ordered forward, and moved to the plateau beyond the rifle-pits, and rested on left of the road, in rear of First Brigade. At 7 a.m. we were ordered to support the First Brigade as they moved on the enemy’s works. The Thirteenth held the right of our brigade, and, following by the flank along the ravine, close in rear of the First, the regiment filed into line, the right forming under cover of a ridge of ground, about 100 yards from the enemy s works. As there was not room enough to form the whole regiment in line there, I ordered Lieutenant Gardner, acting adjutant, to take the five left companies, pass through a ravine, and form in line under cover of another ridge, on the left of the ravine and nearly parallel with the right. Soon after, Lieutenant Gardner was wounded, as also Captain Grosvenor, Company I. Still, the left moved steadily to the position referred to. At this point Colonel Holcomb, commanding First Brigade, fell, while leading his command to the charge, and his right gave way. I ordered my right to advance to their support, which they did under a very heavy fire from the enemy s works. Lieutenant Strickland, commanding Company F, fell here, killed instantly. Still they maintained the position nobly. At this time I ordered the regiment to file around the left of this position, and move forward through a ravine to a height which overlooked the enemy s works, and not more than 20 or 30 yards from them. As this was the nearest point I could reach without a direct assault of the enemy s works, which we had no instructions to do. I concluded to maintain that position and await orders. A regular detail of sharpshooters was kept at work on the brow of the height till sunset, when a strong picket was ordered to occupy it, which we did till about 10 p.m., when we were relieved, and ordered to our old position which we left on the morning of the action.
We lost 22 killed and wounded, which I have reported, with name, rank, and company in full.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Captain, Commanding Thirteenth Connecticut Volunteer
HORACE J. MORSE,
Adjutant- General, State of Connecticut.
With the failure of this assault. Banks began siege operations against Port Hudson. After word reached the Confederates of the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4th, Port Hudson’s garrison surrendered on July 9th.
The Civil War in Louisiana by John D. Winters
History of the Nineteenth Army Corps by Richard Irwin
History of the 13th Infantry Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers During the Great Rebellion by Homer Sprague
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXVI, Part 1
The Port Hudson Campaign, 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham
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