The Battle of Port Hudson
"A few weeks after the fight of the 2nd Regiment (Louisiana Native Guard) at Pascagoula, General Banks laid siege to Port Hudson, and gathered there all the available forces in his department. Among these were the 1st and 3rd Infantry Regiments (Louisiana Native Guards) of the Phalanx. On the 23rd of May the federal forces, having completely invested the enemy's works and made due preparation, were ordered to make a general assault along the whole line. The attack was intended to be simultaneous, but in this it failed. The Union batteries opened early in the morning, and after vigorous bombardment Generals Weitzel, Grover, and Paine on the right, assaulted with vigor at 10 a.m., while General Augur in the center, and General T.W. Sherman on the left, did not attack till 2 p.m.
"Never was fighting more heroic than that of the federal army and especially that of the Phalanx (Black) regiments. If valor could have triumphed over such odds, the assaulting forces would have carried the works, but only abject cowardice or pitiable imbecility could have lost such a position under existing circumstances. The negro regiments on the north side of the works vied with the bravest, making three desperate charges on the Confederate batteries, losing heavily, but maintaining their position in the advance all the while.
The column in moving to the attack went through the woods in their immediate front, and then upon a plain, on the farther side of which, half a mile distant, were the enemy's batteries. The field was covered with recently felled trees, through the interlaced branches of which the column moved, and for two or more hours struggled through the obstacles, and stepping over their comrades who fell among the entangled brushwood pierced by bullets or torn by flying missiles, and braved the hurricane of shot and shell.
What did it avail to hurl a few thousand troops against those impregnable works? The men were not iron, and were they it would have been impossible for them to have kept erect, where trees three feet in diameter were crashed down upon them by the enemy's shot; they would have been but as so many ten-pins set up before skillful players to be knocked down.
The troops entered an enfilading fire from a masked battery which opened upon them as they neared the fort, causing the column first to halt, then to waver and stagger; but it recovered and again pressed forward, closing up the ranks as fast as the enemy's shells thinned them. On the left the Confederates had planted a six-gun battery upon an eminence, which enabled them to sweep the field over which the advancing column moved. In front was the large fort, while the right of the line was raked by a redoubt of six pieces of artillery. One after another of the works had been charged, but in vain. The Michigan, New York and Massachusetts troops - braver than whom none ever fought a battle - had been hurled back from the place, leaving the field strewn with their dead and wounded. The works must be taken. General Nelson was ordered by General Dwight to take the battery on the left. The 1st and 3rd Regiments (Louisiana Native Guards) went forward at double quick time, and they were soo n within the line of the enemy's fire.
Louder than the thunder of Heaven was the artillery rending the air shaking the earth itself; cannons, mortars, and musketry alike opened a fiery storm upon the advancing regiments; an iron shower of grape and round shot, shells and rockets, with a perfect tempest of rifle bullets fell upon them. On they went and down, scores falling on right and left. "The flag, the flag!" shouted the black soldiers as the standard-bearer's body was scattered by a shell. Two file-closers struggled for its possession; a ball decided the struggle. They fell faster and faster; shrieks, prayers and curses came up from the fallen and ascended to Heaven. The ranks closed up while the column turned obliquely toward the point of fire, seeming to forget they were but men. Then the cross-fire, of grape shot swept through their ranks causing the glittering bayonets to go down rapidly. "Steady men, steady," cried bold Cailloux, his sword uplifted, his face the color of the sulphurous smoke that enveloped him and his followers, as they felt the deadly hail which came apparently from all sides. Captain Cailloux was killed with the colors in his hands; the column seemed to melt away like snow in sunshine, before the enemy's murderous fire; the pride, the flower of the Phalanx, had fallen. Then, with a daring that veterans only can exhibit, the blacks rushed forward and up to the brink and base of the fortified elevation, with a shout that rose above it. The defenders emptied their rifles, cannon, and mortars upon the very head s of the brave assaulters making of them a human hecatomb. Those who escaped found their way back to shelter as best they could.
The battery was not captured; the battle was lost to all except the black soldiers; they, with their terrible loss, had won and conquered a much greater and stronger battery than that upon the bluff. Nature seems to have selected the place and appointed the time for the negro to prove his manhood and to disarm the prejudice that at one time prompted the white troops to insult and assault the negro soldiers in New Orleans. It was all forgotten and they mingled together that day on terms of perfect equality. The whites were only too glad to take a drink from a negro soldier's canteen, for in that trying hour they found a brave and determined ally, ready to sacrifice all for liberty and country. If greater heroism could be shown than that of the regiments of the Phalanx already named, surely the 1st Regiment of Engineers displayed it during the siege at Port Hudson. This regiment, provided with picks and spades for the purpose of "mining" the enemy's works, often went forward to their labor without any armed support except the cover of heavy guns, or as other troops happened to advance, to throw up breastworks for their own protection. It takes men of more than ordinary courage to engage in such work, without even a revolver or a bayonet to defend themselves against the sallies of any enemy's troops. Nevertheless this Engineer Regiment of the Black Phalanx performed the duty under such trying and perilous circumstances. Many times they went forward at a double-quick to to do duty in the most dangerous place during the engagement, perhaps to build a redoubt or breastworks behind a brigade, or to blow up a bastion of the enemy's. "They but reminded the looker on." said a correspondent of a western newspaper, "of just so many cattle going to a slaughterhouse."
A writer, speaking of the other regiments of the Phalanx, says: "They were also on trial that day, and justified the most sanguine expectations by their good conduct. Not that they fought better than our white veterans; they did not and could not."
"But there had been so much incredulity avowed regarding the courage of the negroes; so much wit lavished on the idea of negroes fighting to any purpose, that General Banks was justified in according a special commendation to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiments, and to the 1st Engineer Regiment, of the Phalanx, saying, 'No troops could be more determined or daring.' The 1st lost its Cailloux, the 2nd its Paine, but the Phalanx won honor for the race it represented."
SOURCE: Joseph T. Wilson, THE BLACK PHALANX. Published by American Publishing company, Hartford, Connecticut, 1892.
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