Feint on Port Hudson
By J. L. Hallett
March 13th, 1863, was a day of more than ordinary interest. Orderlies were hurrying hither and to, bearing despatches to the several commanders, while the streets of Baton Rouge were astir with brigades of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, forming into line of march. The head of the column faced toward Port Hudson, General Grover’s division in the lead. How the blood tingled, how excited the brain, how elastic the step when the bugles clear and sharp notes sounded the advance. The 31st was there with seven days rations in knapsack, equipments bright as silver dollars, and all eager to meet the enemy. At 7 p.m., we camped for the night at Green’s Plantation on the Bayou Sora road. The line of march was resumed at 6.20 the following morning, and at 10.15 a.m., halted at Barnes Cross Roads in rear of the Rebel batteries. I was directed by General Banks to open communication with Admiral Faragut, and given the following message to transmit:
“To Admiral Faragut
My command is at Barnes Cross Roads and occupies the road to Ross Landing on the flank and rear of the Rebel batteries. When will you open fire? We will be ready this evening.
(signed) N. P. Banks, M.G.C.”
The distance to the river where lay the fleets was six miles, with woods intervening, and as there was no prominence overlooking the woods from which to signal, the only alternative was to find a position to sight the Flagship. There was reason to believe that the road leading to the river was picketed with Rebel bayonets, as the road lay in the immediate vicinity of the Fort, but the order must be obeyed at all hazards, get there we must, if through fire. My three flagmen carried their signal equipments and were armed with carbines, but could make little resistance if attacked. General Banks offered whatever force was needed and twelve picked men, including a sergeant of Grierson’s Cavalry that had just arrived from a successful raid through Mississippi, were assigned to my command. They were plucky fellows, fine horsemen, and relieved me of much anxiety when I saw their bronzed faces. Without chart or guide of any sort, we put spur to our horses, determined that naught but bullets should stop us. We meant to run the gauntlet, unless brought to bay by superior numbers. With eyes straight ahead, the horses were urged on at full speed, the clattering hoofs, clang of sabres and carbines, and roll of dust from the horses feet would have brought joy to a wild west troup. Coming to a bayou, we found the bridge destroyed and swam the horses across. Here were signs of the Rebel outpost, but on our approach the picket guard retreated and we soon after made our way to Springfield Landing without exchanging a shot. The fleet was not in sight — an island in the river hid the ships from view — and what to do next we knew not; did not think it prudent to follow the retreat of the Rebel pickets in the direction of the fort, and in the opposite direction, was an impassable swamp. Had we been given full instructions before starting, we should have known what to have done, for while in this dilemma, the friendly steamboat “Morris” hove in sight and the Captain, seeing us, came to the landing. The plank
was shoved out and the whole party went on board. We at once steamed around the island and approached the fleet. Signalling the Hartford, a boat was sent off and, in a few minutes, I was on board and ushered into the presence of Admiral Faragut. The Admiral was short in stature, beardless, wore a round-about coat, white linen cap and looked youthful for his years. With extended hand he said “I’ve been looking for you” and on reading the message replied “Tell General Banks I am all ready and shall open fire on the forts at twelve o’clock tonight.” Returning in the ship’s yawl to the “Morris“, the words of Farragut were put in writing and when the boat reached the landing, they were intrusted to a cavalryman to carry, as speedily as possible, to Banks’ Headquarters. We waited in suspense, as it was a dangerous road to travel and there was fear of his being intercepted. What followed that night is a record of history. At dawn, I boarded the “Richmond” to get as full a report of the fight as possible; a horrible sight met our eyes, the decks which had been white-washed were literally covered with blood; the wood work and rigging was splintered and torn by the enemy’s shot and shell, and the machinery disabled. Below were the dead and wounded. All about was as still as death, the sailors having retired to their berths for rest after the terrible conflict. This imperfect despatch was sent by courier:
Springfield Landing, 8 A.M.
March 15, 1863
To Maj. Gen. Banks
The “Hartford” and “Albatross” passed the rebel batteries and fort and are now anchored above Port Hudson. The “Mississippi” ran ashore under the Rebel batteries, was abandoned and set on fire to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy. The frigate soon floated downstream and blew up. The “Monongahela” returned to her position on account of an accident to her machinery that prevented her stemming the current. The “Richmond” received a shot through her steam drum when abreast the Port and was obliged to fall downstream. Richmond‘s loss 3 killed, 15 wounded. Monongahela 10 Killed, wounded unknown. Mississippi, loss heavy, not known. The Richmond, Monongahela, Genessee and Kineo are now at anchor five miles below Port Hudson.
(signed) J.L. Hallett. Lieut. & Acting
The terrific cannonade of the night before and report caused by the explosion of the magazine that blew up the Frigate Mississippi was heard distinctly at Army Headquarters, few knew what the firing was and the General waited with considerable anxiety for despatches giving the results of the engagement. On receipt thereof, an order was at once issued to the effect that the object of the expedition was accomplished and directed the forces to return to Baton Rouge.
Grierson’s Cavalry was sent to escort my party back to Camp and, as we were the only representatives of the Army that saw the Naval encounter, we were the heroes of the day and were plied with questions all along the line.
The expedition was intended as a “feint” only, to divert the Rebels from the River side of Port Hudson while the ships attempted to pass the Fort and cut off reinforcements and supplies.
The boys were disappointed not to have a little practice with their rifles at that time, but subsequently in May, June and July of the same year at the same place they had all they wanted.
— J. L. Hallett