The Last Assault on Port HudsonThe Illustrated London News, vol. 43, no. 1212, p. 27.
July 11, 1863
Since the previous assault the position had been somewhat changed. We now have no centre, but only a right and left, which, joined together, forms nearly a right angle, completely inclosing the rebel stronghold on the east bank of the river. General Grover's division is now on the upper side of Port Hudson, extending a distance of nearly four miles from the river to the interior, to a point within supporting distance of General Auger's division, which is on the west side of the rebel fortifications, and extends a distance of about three miles in the direction of the river to within hailing distance of our fleet.
Before proceeding to give the detail, the correspondent gives the following account of the rebel position derived from observations "from a high tree within less than one hundred rods of the first line of rebel defences":--
Looking from the extreme north-easterly range of rebel rifle-pits towards the river on the upper side of Port Hudson, a long line of earthworks can be seen glistening with bayonets and protected by a ditch nearly 12ft. in width, and, for the purpose for which it was built, unusually deep. Within short musket range enfilading breastworks command every possible approach to the enemy's position.
As I have before indicated in speaking of the conjunction of our right and left, the rebel defences form nearly a right angle, both the lines of which extend to the river, inclosing a sharp bend in the stream, by which our gun-boats found it so difficult to pass. The most accessible approach apparently to the rebel earthworks is over a clear field about 600 yards in width, and which, at first sight, presents the appearance of an almost perfect level. This spot, however, since our last assault has been determined to be, although the most inviting, the most treacherous, place along the entire line of rebel defences. Our soldiers in their charge found it to be filled with deep, narrow gullies, too small to cover a large body of troops, and too large to make a passage over them, even for infantry, barely possible. Horses are out of the question, and were not used at this point. These artificial ravines are completely covered with fallen trees and vines, which are so arranged as to nearly obscure them from sight, and make an advance over them a matter of extreme difficulty. In our charge upon the enemy's lines at this spot it was impossible for our soldiers to keep in regular order of battle. Frequently whole squads of men would sink out of sight, only to be rescued by the assistance of their comrades. Down the right line of the enemy's works all approach to the fortifications is made exceedingly difficult by high bluffs and deep irregular gullies. The enemy's rifle-pits are, although bearing the appearance of very wide constructions, built upon the most approved modern engineering skill. Here again fallen trees have been so arranged as to make it impossible to move artillery or troops in line of battle. The entire distance of rebel works presented for our reduction are nearly eight miles in extent.
Last Saturday evening the order of attack was determined upon at head-quarters, and communicated to the Generals who were to command the assaulting columns.
The point of attack was the extreme north-easterly angle of the enemy's breastworks, and the plan of the assault was briefly as follows:--The 75th New York, under command of Captain Cray, and the 12th Connecticut, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Peck, were detailed as skirmishers, forming a separate command under Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock, of the 74th New York. The 91st New York, Colonel Van Zandt commanding--each soldier carrying a five-pound hand-grenade, with his musket thrown over his shoulder--followed next in order. The skirmishers were to creep up and lie on the exterior slope of the enemy's breastworks, while the regiment carrying the grenades were to come up to the same position and throw over their grenades into the enemy's lines, with a view to rout them and drive them from behind their works. The 24th Connecticut, Colonel Mansfield, with their arms in like manner to the grenade regiment, followed, carrying sandbags filled with cotton, which were to be used to fill up the ditch in front of the enemy's breastworks, to enable the assaulting party the more easily to scale them and charge upon the rebels. Following these regiments came, properly speaking, the balance of General Weitzel's whole brigade, under the command of Colonel Smith, of the 114th New York. Next came Colonel Kimble's and Colonel Morgan's brigades, the last of which, with another brigade, was under the general command of Colonel Birge. This force was held to support the assaulting column, which was under the immediate command of General Weitzel, who made the attack on the right. General Emory's old division moved in conjunction with General Weitzel on the left, forming a separate column. The two divisions (General Weitzel's and General Paine's) were under the command of General Grover, who planned the assault under General Banks's order. General Weitzel's division was expected to make a lodgment inside the enemy's works, and in that manner prepare the way for General Paine's division. After the inside of the enemy's fortifications had been reached skirmishers were to push forward and clear the way, while both columns were to be deployed in line of battle, and move towards the town of Port Hudson, where a grand citadel, which forms the last means of rebel defence, is situated.
About daylight the 75th New York, which had been slowly advancing, approached the enemy's works sufficiently near to see his fire. Previously the columns of the main body of General Grover's command were formed in the woods skirting the enemy's breastworks. The 12th Connecticut, during the night, had lost its way in the woods, and the 91st New York was ordered by General Weitzel to take the place that had been assigned to it, and follow immediately in the rear of the 75th New York. After the advance of the 75th and 91st Regiments, General Weitzel's entire command commenced moving forward. Several days previous our army engineers had been preparing a covered way, which extended from the woods where our troops lay to within about one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy's position. Through this covered way our troops marched in single file up to the point where the first line of battle was formed. The covered way was relied upon as being sufficiently deep to afford protection to our soldiers; but it turned out to be of no considerable consequence, owing to some fault in its construction. After the advance had arrived at the end of the covered way, they began slowly to push over the innumerable barriers that had been planted by the rebels to obstruct their march. The difficulties I have before spoken of concerning the open field immediately facing the enemy's works were here experienced. The deep gullies covered over by brush and creeping vines were completely obscured from sight, and were only known to exist after our soldiers had plunged into them. Part of our skirmishers deployed to the right while suffering severely from the enemy's fire, and a portion of the advance took up a position on the left of the point to be attacked. They were immediately followed by General Weitzel's column. General Paine in the meantime advanced towards the enemy's works with his command further on the left. Our troops, as soon as they had left the cover of the woods, which were scarcely 300 yards from the enemy's breastworks, were subject to the constant fire of the rebel infantry. A portion of our artillery, which was planted some distance in the rear of our advancing forces, kept up a continuous fire on the rebel works, and served very much to protect our troops as they were advancing to the attack.
After our skirmishers had picked their way up to within about thirty yards of the enemy's works they sprang into the ditch, expecting to be able to shelter themselves under the cover of the rebel fortifications, and keep the enemy down while the regiment, with the hand-grenades, should advance and perform their part of the work in driving the rebels from their position. The portion of the 75th which succeeded in reaching the ditch were immediately repulsed, and nearly all of them were killed or wounded. The ditch was so enfiladed that it was impossible for men to live under the murderous fire of the enemy.
In consequence of the repulse of the portion of the 75th that succeeded in reaching the ditch the hand-grenades could accomplish but little. In fact, although they made many desperate but gallant attempts to be of service, they rather damaged than benefited our chances of success, for, as they threw their grenades over the rebel breastworks, the rebels actually caught them and hurled them back upon us. In the meantime, while the skirmishers were nobly endeavouring to sustain themselves in their position, Weitzel's column moved up as rapidly as possible, and made a series of desperate assaults on the enemy's works, for which, for bravery and daring, the history of war can hardly furnish a parallel. At this time, the sun having fairly risen, the fight became general; a fog, which had partially obscured the contending armies, lifted and revealed their respective positions. The enemy were fully prepared for us, and they lined every part of their fortifications with heavy bodies of infantry. The battle had begun in earnest, and General Paine's column as well as General Weitzel's was actively engaged. Under the general plan of attack, as directed by General Banks, Generals Augur and Dwight were to make feints on the extreme left of General Grover's position, to distract the attention of the enemy from the main assault. Accordingly, before the engagement became general between General Grover's command and the enemy, Generals Augur and Dwight had attacked the enemy.
The fight, however, though only intended at a feint, was, on the part of General Dwight's command, exceedingly severe, and scarcely less so with General Grover's. General Dwight's loss in killed and wounded will probably exceed two hundred. General Augur's loss will fall considerably short of that number. Under General Grover's command, probably the most desperate fighting was done by General Weitzel's old brigade. Colonel Smith, leading these veterans, fell early in the action, mortally wounded. The charges made on the rebel works by our brave soldiers showed a determination to carry then at all hazards; but human bravery on this occasion was not adequate to the accomplishment of their object. The most formidable obstacle that presented itself as a barrier to our success was the rebel glacis, which at the point attacked had been constructed in such a manner as to make every bullet tell that was fired from the rebel breast works while our troops were endeavouring to make the ascent. In fact, the great natural advantages and engineering ability at Port Hudson have been rather under than over rated. Immediately upon the fall of Colonel Smith, Lieut.-Colonel Von Petten, of the 160th New York, took command of the brigade, and gallantly led the charge until all further hope of driving the rebels from their position was gone. Brigade after brigade followed in rapid succession, storming the rebel works until compelled to fall back with great slaughter under the terrible fire of the enemy.
The fighting ceased at eleven o'clock in the morning. We having been repulsed in every assault, our soldiers, under command of their officers, laid themselves down under the shelter of the gullies, trees, covered way--in fact, everything that could afford them protection--and waited for the day to pass and darkness come on. Many of our wounded who were accessible were carried from the field by squads detailed for that purpose. It is a shameful reflection on humanity that a large number of our soldiers, carrying the wounded and dying from the field on stretchers, were shot down by the enemy, and in several instances the wounded were killed while being borne from the field. At nightfall, however, we commenced the burial of our dead, and succeeded before the morning in carrying most of our wounded from the battleground.
I have no time to give you further details, as we have not yet entirely recovered from the confusion at the battle, and a courier is about leaving with despatches. Our total loss, however, in this last attack upon Port Hudson, will probably not fall much short of 1000. It is rumoured, just as I am closing this letter, that we are to attack the enemy again to-night.