Thursday, June 27, 2013

Vicksburg Campaign-The Navy Shells Port Hudson From the River and Land

Farragut's squadron attempting to the run the guns at
Port Hudson and the destruction of USS Mississippi.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the vast public interest in it, let us not forget the importance of Vicksburg.  Listen to the words of a Confederate Army engineer stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi: "I am almost sorry to hear of Lee's progress Northward; for it looks as if the importance of Vicksburg were not understood.  What is Philadelphia to us if the Mississippi be lost?" 

Union  leaders in the West understood the importance of Vicksburg and spent considerable resources to take the town.  The "siege" of Vicksburg formally began on 18 May 1862 when Mayor L. Lindsay rejected the U.S. Navy's demand to surrender. Taking Vicksburg turned out to be more than just a simple assault.  It involved a complex process of controlling not only the Mississippi River, but its secondary rivers and nearby towns that guarded the river approaches. One of these towns near Vicksburg was Port Hudson, Louisiana.  The river town is strategically positioned on the Mississippi near the Red River.  Confederate forces used the Red River to bring supplies to Vicksburg from the west.  Thus, any encirclement of Vicksburg by Union ground forces was pointless unless Port Hudson was subdued.

The first major move on Port Hudson was to suppose to be a joint Army-Navy effort between Admiral David Farragut and Major General Nathaniel Banks.  However, Farragut grew tired of Banks' sluggish movements and delays. Since he took New Orleans with no ground forces, Farragut somewhat arrogantly believed he could push past Port Hudson and seize control of the Red River-Mississippi River junction with just his ships. 
Gunners from USS Richmond
prepare to fire the ship's forward
Parrott Rifle at Port Hudson

With USS Hartford in the lead, Farragut's seven ship squadron steamed up river in pairs with USS Mississippi bringing up the van of the squadron alone. The operation did not go well as all the seven ships ran aground as they attempted to hug the west bank of the river.  Hartford and Albatross got free and under the cover morning fog successfully passed the guns.  The other five were not so lucky as the wind blew away the fog.  Four of the ships received heavy damage, but successfully retreated back down stream. 

Mississippi, however, took several critical hits, caught on fire and sank.  The frigate's executive officer and future Admiral of the Fleet, Lieutenant George Dewey stayed on board long enough to spike the guns.  Thus ended the career of one of the Navy's most famous ships.  Farragut did not hear about Mississippi's demise until he read about it in local newspapers.  The movement was not one of the admiral's finest hours.

After that operation, the Navy was much more cautious and respectful of Port Hudson's defenses. Both Union and Confederate forces settled in for a long siege.  Banks' forces eventually encircled Port Hudson on the eastern side and U.S. Navy ships bombarded the town from positions down river.  
"Battery No. 10"-The Navy contributed four IX-inch
Dahlgrens to the Army's eighty-nine gun siege train
that encircled Port Hudson.  Sailors from USS
 Richmond manned the battery.

Steam sloops such as USS Monogahela (manned by both Dewey and  another Spanish-American War hero, Winfield Scott Schley) and Richmond, along with the ironclad USS Essex rotated in and out of the bomb line. The mortar schooner squadron that allegedly worked so well at New Orleans, returned from Hampton Roads and also began a steady bombardment of the town. 

After several failed assaults by Union ground forces on Port Hudson's extensive fortification network, Banks decided to blast the Confederates out of their position.  He brought in over eighty heavy guns to shell the Confederate defenses.

The Confederate defenders, however, had their own heavy guns.  Of particular note was a 10-inch Columbiad, which inflected heavy loses on Union ground forces.  Having nothing to respond to such firepower, the Army turned to the Navy for help.
The Navy had an answer. Originally intended for a new fort at Head of Passes (where the  Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico), the Navy had four IX-inch Dahlgrens in surplus.  The Navy agreed to transfer the weapons to the Port Hudson siege lines.  Labeled "Battery No. 10," gun teams from Richmond manned the weapons and took up positions about a mile east of the town. 

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