The gods that sanctioned good weather continued to cooperate in October 1995 as the Civil War travelers headed south through Mississippi toward Louisiana. The odometer had spun past the 2,000-mile mark since this adventure began.
We stopped at Rosemont, the boyhood home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, in Woodville, Mississippi — 37 miles south of Natchez near the Louisiana border. Davis’ father, Samuel, built the house in 1810, and Davis received his early schooling there in a log cabin. Davis’ mother, Jane Cook Davis, and other members of the family are buried there.
Driving another 35 miles, we arrived at the Port Hudson State Commemorative Area in Louisiana. This is the site of a Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River that Union forces held under siege and attacked in May, and again in June, 1863, without success.
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks led the 30,000 Yankee assaulting troops against the less than 7,000 Rebel defenders under the command of Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, yet the Confederates were able to repulse these attacks because of the natural earthworks created by the undulating terrain. Banks launched attacks along a 4.5 -mile line of Rebel fortifications, including Fort Desperate, the Priest Cap, Slaughter’s Field and the Citadel.
The Federals advanced across appropriately-named Slaughter’s Field, where some 2,000 Union soldiers were killed, including 600 African-Americans of the First and Third Louisiana Native Guards. Free blacks from New Orleans composed a majority of the First Louisiana Native Guards, including the line officers.
The black officer in command of the charge by these two regiments, Capt. Andre Cailloux, was shot down as he shouted orders in both French and English. His heroic death became a rallying cry for recruitment of black soldiers for the Union army (https://www.nps.gov/nr/Travel/louisiana/por.htm).
Unable to capture the Rebel position, the Union troops continued to hold Port Hudson under siege. However, once the Confederate army at Vicksburg surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, Gardner had no other viable option but to surrender his Port Hudson garrison.
The fall of this last Southern stronghold on the Mississippi River on July 9, 1863, caused the Confederacy to be cut in two geographically. The cost of this siege was high: Union casualties totaled some 3,000, while all 7,000 Rebels were killed, wounded or captured.
The interpretive center at the park includes a museum with displays of original Civil War artifacts, and an audio-visual program that introduces visitors to the siege of Port Hudson and the state commemorative area itself. Port Hudson has 6 miles of walking trails through the 643-acre battlefield.
An elevated boardwalk over the breastworks at Fort Desperate facilitates a close examination of an area directly involved in combat. That location came under heavy Union attack.
The interpretive center also featured a computer database of the Rebel troops who served at Fort Hudson. The computer printed out a certificate listing defenders with the same or similar names and their status. For those who had been captured and were paroled, they could not engage in combat again until exchanged for a Northern prisoner.
Testing the system by typing in my last name, the response listed nine soldiers: four named John Ryan, one Michael, an R.C., two named Thomas, and one William. These men were from the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The National Park Service’s online Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System, that lists all who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, has superseded the Fort Hudson computer database. The CWSS also includes histories of Union and Confederate regiments, links to descriptions of significant battles, and selected lists of prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records (https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm).
Leaving Port Hudson, next on our agenda was driving through the Louisiana cotton and sugarcane fields and past the plantation houses to Baton Rouge. From there, our van would turn west across the Sabine River into the Lone Star State of Texas.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point