Union Admiral David Farragut, preparing to brave the frowning bluffs
of Port Hudson, kept his young son by his side. They would “trust in
Providence,” he decreed. So would their shipmates.
By John F. Wukovits
The chief justice of the United States, Edward White, walked toward Admiral George Dewey, recently returned from his heroic exploits in Manila Bay, where his flotilla had soundly defeated a Spanish fleet in the early stages of the Spanish-American War. Their paths had crossed years before, although they had not met at the time, for the two illustrious men had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War battle at Port Hudson, Louisiana. White, a Confederate lieutenant, had watched from commanding bluffs while Rebel batteries tore into Dewey’s Federal ship and left it a burning hulk. White reminded Dewey of that incident and teased, “We got the better of you that night, George.” Dewey smiled and replied, “I must say that I have to agree with you.”
Dewey was not the only important naval figure involved at Port Hudson. Admiral David Farragut, commander of the Union Navy on the lower Mississippi and Dewey’s hero, planned and led the action on the winding river. Farragut’s reason for advancing on Port Hudson was simple. Union forces controlled the Mississippi River north of Memphis and south of Baton Rouge, but in the middle, Confederate ships held sway. This enabled them to bring vital Texas wheat, rice and cattle, as well as supplies from Europe (which avoided the Union blockade by docking in Mexico) down the Red River to the beleaguered forces at Vicksburg, the final Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. A movement upriver would cut off Vicksburg from these precious supplies, but to do so required charging past strong Confederate batteries at Port Hudson.
Resting 25 miles north of Baton Rouge, Port Hudson was a tiny community of 50 homes that man and nature had shaped into a hardened knot of resistance to anyone attempting to skirt its bluffs. Earthworks and seven miles of trenches, interspersed with patches of woods, swamps and ravines, sheltered 16,000 Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner and guarded the land side, while 21 large guns protected by eager sharpshooters bristled menacingly along three miles of bluffs bordering the river. Whether approaching from land or sea, a hostile force faced running a ghastly gauntlet of fire to challenge what one Confederate private boasted was “a place hard to get at.”
Magnifying an attacker’s difficulties were problems posed by nature itself. As the Mississippi neared Port Hudson, it swerved in a sharp westerly bend for over a mile. At the bend’s entrance along the right, or eastern side, began a line of bluffs soaring 80 to 100 feet high–ideal positions for Confederate heavy guns. The opposite shore gently rose to a low peninsula from shallow waters plagued by numerous eddies that channeled ships toward the eastern side of the river–the side directly under Port Hudson’s guns. A stout 5-knot current at that spot slowed enemy ships to a tortuously slow pace making them inviting targets for Confederate guns.
Farragut commanded a small but potent squadron for his run past Port Hudson. His flagship, Hartford, wielded 28 guns, while Richmond sported 25, Monongahela 11, and Dewey’s ship, the side-wheeler Mississippi, carried 17 more. The small, river ironclad Essex added another seven. Farragut lashed gunboats to the sides of Hartford, Richmond and Monongahela to give the ships twin-screw capability, thereby increasing their maneuverability in the tricky Mississippi waters. A two-ship combination could rapidly turn by backing with one screw while going forward with the other. Mississippi’s side paddle wheels made that step impractical for Dewey’s ship, so it headed upstream under its own power.
An impatient Farragut had hoped to obtain help from his Army counterparts and thus implored commanders in New Orleans to move on land against Port Hudson while he advanced on water. This would at least occupy some of the awesome Confederate guns and draw them away from his squadron as it steamed by in the open. On March 13, 1863, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, Union commander at New Orleans, finally agreed to make such a move, and Farragut finished preparing his ships.
Sailors hurriedly stored brass rails and fittings below deck. Since Farragut intended to steam past Port Hudson at night, all interior decks were whitewashed to reflect whatever faint light existed to make movement easier for his men. Farragut also installed a voice trumpet that extended from the top of the mizzenmast to the wheel so that his pilot, Thomas R. Carrell, could be positioned above the fog and smoke of battle and easily call directions to the steersman.
Although Farragut did intend to stand and fight at Port Hudson, the passage could nevertheless prove bloody. He had earlier told his flag officer, Captain Thornton Jenkins, “If we can get a few vessels above Port Hudson the thing will not be an entire failure,” but he knew the operation still faced risks. A chaplain, unfamiliar with prebattle procedure in the Navy, watched gun crews place within easy reach of their stations wooden boxes filled with sawdust. Perplexed as to the sawdust’s value, the chaplain was stunned to find out its purpose–sailors spread sawdust on the decks to absorb blood and prevent slipping during battle.
In his final order to all crews on March 13, Farragut asked each man to do his best. “I expect all to go by who are able, and I think the best protection against the enemy’s fire is a well-directed fire from our own guns.” After a 10 a.m. meeting with his commanders on March 14, while the squadron anchored off Profit’s Island seven miles below Port Hudson, Farragut decided to lead his ships past the Confederate stronghold that same night. Word came later in the day that Banks’ force was too far away to help, enraging the eager admiral; nevertheless, Farragut decreed the operation would continue as planned.
The ships cautiously inched forward around 9:30 p.m., after two red lights flashed under Hartford’s stern–Farragut’s signal to advance. On board the flagship, officers roamed about barking final orders, Marines prepared to repel possible boarders, and bare-armed sailors took up positions. Loyall, Farragut’s only son, stood next to the admiral.
The ship’s surgeon suggested that Farragut send his son below, but Farragut refused. His son must stay where he was and “trust in Providence, and la fortune de la guerre.” Farragut did, however, carefully show Loyall how to use a tourniquet by taking out a yard-long piece of rope attached to a crosspiece of wood. This rude medical device had gone into every battle with the admiral since his first service in the War of 1812, when a youthful Farragut had helplessly watched another sailor bleed to death.
For two hours the four main ships crept quietly closer to Port Hudson, while their accompanying mortar boats remained below to give support. Even Farragut seemed surprised that the Confederates refrained from firing until almost 11:30 p.m.
Hartford first braved the enemy’s guns, steaming as close as possible to the bluffs to get below the line of fire. She had already maneuvered past the first guns before a warning rocket alerted the defenders. Quickly, huge bonfires flared on the opposite shore to outline the Union ships for Confederate guns. Reflectors, placed behind the fires for further illumination, blinded Hartford’s pilot. Southern shells rained down while Northern missiles soared to the bluffs, creating an incredible amount of noise. One Confederate soldier exclaimed, “It seemed as though all the powers of Hell and destruction had been let loose, howling and shrieking for our annihilation.”
In the midst of the confusion and smoke, Hartford’s pilot could barely make out the shoreline. With a sudden jolt, the flagship ran aground where the river bent westward. Farragut immediately howled, “Back! Back on the Albatross!” an order to the gunboat lashed to Hartford’s side to free his ship before enemy gunners zeroed in on the helpless target. With Albatros’s added power, Hartford soon wriggled free and continued onward.
Loyall Farragut could barely keep up with his father, who seemed to be everywhere during the action. When an erroneous report came to him that a Confederate ram was approaching, Farragut grabbed a cutlass to repel boarders and yelled, “I am going to have a hand in this myself!” Farragut stumbled over a tarpaulin in the dark but avoided injury when Loyall clutched his arm to steady him.
Enemy shells ripped into Hartford. One shot cut a box of socks in half, another shell was found lying harmlessly on a sailor’s bunk. Assistant engineer Edward Latch stared in horror as a shell hurled a wooden splinter, 5 feet long and 4 inches thick, directly across the ship. “The effect of this missile whirling through a deck crowded with men can better be imagined than described,” he later wrote.
By 12:15 a.m., Hartford had safely navigated the bend and stood beyond Confederate range. Fortunately for her, enemy gunners had misjudged the distance and failed to depress their weapons sufficiently, a mistake they would not repeat with the following three ships. Farragut, his arm resting on Loyall’s shoulder, stared into the darkness downriver to see which vessels followed, but could discern no forms looming toward him. “My God,” he cried, “What has stopped them?”
The tricky Mississippi River, heavy smoke and lethal Confederate firepower were his answer. Smoke thrown up by Farragut’s ships joined that created by enemy shelling to obscure movement on the river–good if you were a target for heavy guns but hazardous when you needed to navigate a testy river. Pilots strained to see through the heavy mist but saw little more than occasional shore lights or gun flashes. In the confusion, true navigation proved impossible.
Richmond was next to test the enemy guns. An awesome array of mortars, large guns and sharpshooters opened up on her. One Confederate soldier, astounded by the noise erupting from Port Hudson, later gushed in wonder, “My home was about 20 miles from Port Hudson, and my people said the reverberation was so great it seemed that the glass would be shaken out of the windows.” Richmond sustained numerous hits, one in the engine room that blew out the safety-valve lever and knocked out the steam pressure. The river’s 5-knot current speedily turned the ship about without the crew realizing it. When gunners saw gun flashes on the left, they fired at what they thought were enemy positions. Instead, they had fired on Mississippi.
Splinters of wood and bits of sail and rope plummeted to Richmond’s decks as Confederate projectiles smashed home in grueling succession. One huge shell plowed into the bridge, a second demolished an entire Marine gun crew. Marine Private John Thompson was decapitated by a missile that also killed three shipmates, while another missile bounced off the deck before exploding and killing boatswain’s mate John Howard. Commander James Alden rarely had seen such horror, and later recalled: “The groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the dying were awful. The decks were covered with blood.” In the midst of the carnage, executive officer Lt. Cmdr. A. Boyd Cummings maintained his composure and repeated to his crews: “You will fire the whole starboard battery, one gun at a time, from the bow gun aft. Don’t fire too fast. Aim carefully at the flashes of the enemy’s guns.”
Richmond was saved by the heroics of four firemen. Immediately after the safety valve blew, firemen Joseph E. Valentine, Matthew McClelland, John Rush and John Hickman rushed onto deck, removed their thick, woolen shirts and soaked them in water. Covering their faces with the shirts, the four rushed back to the boilers where, braving scalding steam and the threat of explosion, they put out the fires in the damaged starboard boiler. Each man later received the Medal of Honor for this action.
Richmond headed back downstream with a loss of 18 killed and wounded, including Cummings, whose left leg was torn off by a cannon shot. He quietly told crewmen: “Quick, boys, pick me up. Put a tourniquet on my leg. Send my letters to my wife. Tell her I fell in doing my duty.” Cummings was then carried below to the surgeons. A doctor started to treat the mortally wounded officer, but he calmly turned him away. Pointing to a gravely wounded sailor, he muttered, “No, he was here before me and must be attended to first.” Cummings died four days later.
Monongahela followed Richmond, but an enemy shot smashed into the gunboat lashed to her side, knocking out the gunboat’s rudder and causing both ships to run aground on the bank opposite Port Hudson. For 25 minutes, shells rained down on the helpless Monongahela as her captain desperately tried to free her. A Confederate officer noticed that “heavy shells were falling fast and thick… and it seemed as if the whole heavens were ablaze with thunder and lightning.” When Monongahela was finally wrenched away from shore, an overheated crankpin stalled her engines, and she, like Richmond, floated downstream, with six killed and 21 wounded.
Dewey’s ship, Mississippi, steamed after Monongahela. Dense smoke forced Dewey and Captain Melanchton Smith to rely wholly on the civilian pilot provided by Farragut. As Mississippi skirted the grounded Monongahela, her gunners tried to reply to Confederate shells but found the task difficult. Dewey recalled, “There was nothing to do but to fire back at the flashes on the bluffs and trust to his [the pilot’s] expert knowledge.”
Dewey’s spirits lifted when he glanced at Captain Smith during the battle and watched him calmly lighting his cigar. He did not feel as confident about the pilot, who had never before directed a ship while under fire.
About 12:15 a.m., Mississippi approached the final battery at the entrance to the sharp westward turn. The hapless pilot then miscalculated. Thinking the ship was beyond some shoals, he ordered: “Starboard the helm. Full speed ahead.” Turning left, Mississippi churned into a muddy bank and slowly began tilting to port. Her crew pulled all portside guns toward the middle for balance, while their starboard guns returned Confederate fire.
Enemy missiles smashed down on the hapless ship. Shells tore into the wheelhouse, lifeboats and decks, hurling a deadly spray of wood and metal fragments. A cannonball being heated as an incendiary bounced loose from its handlers below deck and careened into a forward storeroom, igniting sails and ropes. For 35 minutes, part of the crew battled the ensuing blaze while the ship’s engines tried to free Mississippi from the mudbank. As Confederate gunners zeroed in, Captain Smith reluctantly said to Dewey, “Well, it doesn’t look as if we can get her off.”
About 1 a.m., Smith gave the “Abandon Ship” order. All starboard lifeboats had been demolished by enemy fire, so Smith had to remove almost 300 men using only three lifeboats. The most seriously wounded were put in the first and sent downstream to other ships, while the lightly injured and unhurt used the remaining two boats to get to shore in shifts.
Dewey now illustrated some of the leadership qualities later to make him famous at Manila Bay. When he noticed a frightened orderly rushing ahead of the rest of the men to get to safety, Dewey flattened him with an uppercut. A few minutes later the same orderly, now calmer, jumped into the river to save a wounded sailor who fell overboard. Dewey later walked up to the man he had just punched and loudly praised him.
When the boats taking the first group of sailors to shore were slow in returning, Dewey decided to go along for the second trip. He knew some men hesitated at coming back to a ship under bombardment and figured his presence would ensure that the boats returned. After receiving heavy fire all the way to shore, the boats safely landed and the men scrambled for the protection of nearby levees. Dewey ordered four men to return with him to Mississippi, but only one, a cook, obeyed. Dewey, who later termed those moments the most anxious of his career, finally cajoled and threatened enough men to man one boat, then told the men in charge of the second boat to use his gun to get the men back, if need be. At length, both boats returned to continue the evacuation.
Smith, who had been looking all over for his executive officer, hailed Dewey to his side when he returned to help search Mississippi for live crewmen. The two scoured the ship, examining bodies and constantly shouting in case a wounded man might remain among the wreckage. They located and removed one cabin boy, practically dead and covered by a heap of bodies near a gun station. Finally, Dewey and Ensign O.A. Batcheller set fire to Mississippi in two places by soaking mattresses with kerosene and lighting them.
As Dewey and Batcheller departed, Batcheller grabbed a uniform frock coat he thought was his and said, “I’ll save that, anyway.” Then the two joined the other officers to await their removal according to proper procedure–men first, followed by officers in inverse order of rank, then Dewey and Smith. Through the evacuation the starboard batteries continued to fire, and those men became the last to leave before the officers. The final boat from Mississippi contained Smith, Dewey, Batcheller, one engineer and four men.
As the boat swirled forlornly downstream, Smith tossed overboard his sword and pistols, thinking he would soon be a prisoner. Victorious shouts from shore, as Confederates viewed the burning Mississippi, deepened that feeling. “It was not pleasant to the ear,” Dewey later wrote. The boat managed to safely reach Richmond, however, where a pleased Batcheller proudly held up the coat he had saved. Quickly, Ensign E.M. Shepard reached for it saying, “Thanks, very much, Batcheller, but that’s my coat.”
Mississippi burned throughout the night until, near dawn, she had lightened sufficiently to free herself and began floating downstream. As the burning hulk passed by, a sailor on board Richmond stated: “It was a most magnificent spectacle. From the midships to the stern the noble vessel was enveloped in a sheet of flame, while firewreathes ran up the shrouds, played around the mainmast, twisted and writhed like fiery serpents.” When she grounded on Profit’s Island, Mississippi’s overheated port guns blew in a final frenzy of blazing glory. “She goes out magnificently, anyway, sir,” Dewey said to Smith, but the saddened captain could only shake his head in anguish.
With Mississippi’s demise, the first battle at Port Hudson ended. Farragut lost 35 dead and 77 wounded, compared to Confederate casualties of one killed and eight wounded. Only one ship had succeeded in getting past Port Hudson.
Outwardly, the Union had suffered a loss, but one that Farragut was willing to absorb. For in spite of the damage, he had placed a powerful ship, Hartford, as well as the accompanying gunboat lashed to her side, above the Confederate stronghold. He now stood in position to cut off western supplies to the east and challenge the Rebels for supremacy on the river.
Dividends quickly followed. Within days, a steamer bearing 300,000 pounds of precious bacon was cut off from Port Hudson. Other Southern supply ships encountered similar difficulties. Soon shortages would gravely sour conditions at both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, a pattern that would be repeated in other riverine locations as the war wound its way inexorably through the Confederacy.
John F. Wukovits writes from Michigan. Further reading: The Guns of Port Hudson, by David C. Edmonds, David Glasgow Farragut, by Charles Lee Lewis and Where Bugles Called and Rifles Gleamed, by William Spedale.
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