Assault on Port Hudson, a Terrible Fight for Duxbury Soldiers

Private William Wadsworth (1839-1863) of Duxbury, pictured here c. 1860, was wounded during the Second Assault on Port Hudson and died shortly after in a Baton Rouge hospital.

Private William Wadsworth (1839-1863) of Duxbury, pictured here c. 1860, was wounded during the Second Assault on Port Hudson and died shortly after in a Baton Rouge hospital.

The second Union assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana took place 150 years ago today on June 14, 1863. It was, in hindsight, a hopeless and reckless assault for those Federal troops that attacked the forts and trenches outside one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. Among those Union troops were a significant number of Duxbury men. For Duxbury, the Port Hudson assault represented one of the worst days of the Civil War (Duxbury’s second highest casualties in a single day, surpassed only by the Second Battle of Bull Run ten months earlier).

During the spring of 1863, Union troops under General Ulysses Grant besieged the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi while the forces under the command of General Nathaniel Banks focused upon Port Hudson, Louisiana. If the Confederate troops occupying these two strongholds could be defeated, the Mississippi River would be entirely open to the Union and a major strategic goal of the war would be realized.

General Banks (former Governor of Massachusetts) led the Army of the Gulf, a force of about 40,000 men based primarily in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Among the many regiments in this army were the 4th Massachusetts and 38th Massachusetts Infantries. 51 men from Duxbury had signed up with the 4th Massachusetts and 34 had signed up with the 38th Massachusetts. By June, they had been in Louisiana for six months. It is difficult to say how many of the 85 or so Duxbury men who arrived in Louisiana actually participated in the second assault on Port Hudson. We know that during their first few months in Louisiana, ten Duxbury men died of disease. By the time of the assault, there were probably a great many more on the sick lists. A reasonable estimate might place roughly 50 Duxbury men among the Army of the Gulf outside of Port Hudson on June 14, 1863.

Banks had made a weak demonstration against Port Hudson in March 1863 while the Union Navy ran north past the Confederate batteries overlooking the river. The naval operation proved successful as Admiral Farragut managed to get his fleet, under severe fire from the Confederate batteries, past Port Hudson. Once upriver, Farragut set up a blockade to prevent supplies from passing downriver to the town. Ultimately, this blockade had little effect. Port Hudson would have to be taken by ground troops.

Situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Port Hudson was a natural fortress. The town stood on an 80 foot bluff along a hairpin turn in the river. To the east of the town were miles of swamps and ravines, difficult to pass under any circumstances. By 1863, the Confederates had fortified the outskirts of the town with trenches and battery emplacements. Among the most significant of these was an improvised fortification known as Fort Desperate. The position, nearly a mile east of the town, would be the focal point of two different Union assaults.

In dealing with a fortified city or town, an infantry commander had two choices: assault or siege. The former was typically costly in casualties. The latter could take a great deal of time. Banks opted for assault, hoping to take the town quickly and then move his forces north to reinforce General Grant in the Siege of Vicksburg. On May 27, 1863, Banks ordered what turned out to be a poorly coordinated assault on the Port Hudson trenches which failed. The units in which the Duxbury men served were not involved in this first assault.

Following the first assault, Confederates increased their efforts in fortifying their lines. A number of the long range guns along the river were swiveled landward so as to fire on the attacking Union troops. Landmines, known at the time as torpedoes, were placed outside the trenches. Special positions for sharpshooters were constructed along the fortifications.

Banks’s second assault on Port Hudson began with an artillery barrage on June 13, 1863. After about an hour, Banks ordered his guns silenced in order to send a demand of surrender. General Franklin Gardner, commanding roughly 7,500 Confederate troops in Port Hudson, responded, “My duty requires me to defend this position, and therefore I decline to surrender.” Banks ordered his batteries to continue the barrage for the remainder of the day.

A section of "Fort Desperate" outside Port Hudson taken shortly after the Confederate surrender

A section of “Fort Desperate” outside Port Hudson taken shortly after the Confederate surrender

Meanwhile, Union infantry prepared for a three-pronged assault which was to commence at 1 a.m. on June 14. Due to poor communication, the three charges against different points of the Port Hudson lines were staggered over the course of hours beginning at 3:30 a.m. and ending well after dawn. The division to which the 4th and 38th Massachusetts belonged was to make a direct attack on Fort Desperate.

Of the assault, Captain Henry B. Maglathlin of Duxbury, commanding Company I of the 4th Massachusetts, wrote:

The lines of battle were to be formed at daylight…But the nature of the hedge at once broke up the line and upon entering the ravine below the road, fallen logs, ditches and other obstacles still further deranged the required order. Perfect silence was to be preserved, but the skirmishers, who had been plentifully supplied with whiskey, could not be restrained from shouting as they went. This…quickly drew forth from the parapets a fire of murderous execution. Onward pressed brave men, only to be mowed down by bullets, grape, canister, and shell. The havoc was terrible…Our men at length were obliged to shield themselves behind logs and stumps, and continued thus to carry on the unequal contest until night dropped its dark curtain over a gory field. Our loss was very great.[1]

The assault utterly failed. General Banks was forced to change his strategy, settling in for a siege. When the Confederates in Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4, General Gardner realized his situation was hopeless and surrendered his garrison on July 9, 1863. The Mississippi lay open to the Union.

Among the Duxbury men wounded during the June 14 assault was Private William Wadsworth a 24 year-old mariner. He was shot in the foot and taken to the Court House Hospital in Baton Rouge to recover. Although such a wound might not typically be considered life-threatening, medical care of the time had virtually no means of dealing with infection. Wadsworth suffered greatly from complications resulting from the wound and died in Baton Rouge on July 24, 1863.

After the war, when Duxbury veterans established the Grand Army of the Republic post on Washington Street, they named it the William Wadsworth Post. We are left to wonder why they made this choice. Had Private Wadsworth exhibited particular bravery during the assault on Port Hudson? Or perhaps his trials languishing for five weeks, battling infection, had a moving effect on his Duxbury companions. Or possibly Wadsworth was simply well-liked and sorely missed. Sadly, we do not have any indication as to why his name was given to the post.

The Duxbury casualties during the Second Assault on Port Hudson were:

Died of wounds
Pvt. Seth Glass, 38th Massachusetts, shoemaker, 19
Pvt. William Wadsworth, 4th Massachusetts, mariner, 24
 
Wounded
Pvt. Bradford Sampson, 38th Massachusetts, shoemaker, 29
Pvt. Lewis Bailey, 38th Massachusetts, shoemaker, 38
Pvt. Wadsworth Hunt, 4th Massachusetts, mariner, 45
 
Prisoner
Pvt. Harrison Glass, 4th Massachusetts, farmer, 21 (POW, died of disease after parole)

[1] Henry B. Maglathlin, Company I Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, (1863), p. 31-32.