Battle of Fort Bisland
In April 1863, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks launched an expedition up Bayou Teche in western Louisiana aimed at Alexandria. On April 9, two divisions crossed Berwick Bay from Brashear City to the west side at Berwick. On the 12th, a third division went up the Atchafalaya River to land in the rear of Franklin intending to intercept a Rebel retreat from Fort Bisland or turn the enemy’s position. Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor sent Col. Tom Green’s regiment to the front to ascertain the enemy’s strength and retard his advance. On the 11th, the Yankees began their advance in earnest. Late on the 12th, Union troops arrived outside the defenses in battle line. An artillery barrage ensued from both sides until dark when the Yankees, many of whom were hit by Rebel cannon fire, fell back and camped for the night. About 9:00 am on the 13th, the Union forces again advanced on Fort Bisland. Combat did not begin until after 11:00 am and continued until dusk. In addition to Rebel forces in the earthworks, the gunboat Diana, now in Confederate hands, shelled the Yankees. U.S. gunboats joined the fray in late afternoon. The fighting ceased after this. Later that night, Taylor learned that the Yankee division that went up the Atchafalaya and landed in his rear was now in a position to cut off a Confederate retreat. Taylor began evacuating supplies, men, and weapons, leaving a small force to retard any enemy movement. The next morning, the Yankees found the fort abandoned. Fort Bisland was the only fortification that could have impeded this Union offensive, and it had fallen.
Fort Bisland - April 11-13,1863
The fortifications at Fort Bisland were a collection of shallow earthworks that extended across the dry stretches of land around the Bayou Teche, which ran through the right center of the Confederate line. When BG Mouton arrived and evaluated the defenses he found that the works were complete on the western shore but none had been started on the east bank. He understood the necessity of continuing the works and collected a large body of slaves from the surrounding area and put them to work in an effort to complete the works. The crews worked nonstop until the arrival of the Federal troops forced Mouton to man the incomplete trenches. The troops did what they could to improve the defenses during the artillery battle on the 12th but the works never reached completion. Each side did contain a strong redoubt and the flanks of the short line were protected by swamps. Any assault on the line would be restricted by the surrounding terrain and have to be made across cane fields and drainage ditches creating ample kill zones for the defenders.
Knowing full well the extent of the Federal advance MG Taylor deployed his available forces into the defenses. On the east bank a line 900 yards long was held by 1500 members of Mouton's Louisiana Brigade supplemented by the 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers. From a command post in the redoubt Mouton surveyed the field and decided the best use of his troops. The dismounted Texans were thrown forward on the extreme left in a cluster of trees while his brigade manned the works. On the west the BG H.H. Sibley's filled the trenches with a mixed command of approximately the same number of men. Colonel Thomas Green's cavalry was sent to maintain an eye on the developing threat in the Confederate rear formed by BG Grover's late deploying division. The recently captured Diana stood by waiting to assist from the river.
While BG Grover was trying to overcome his difficulties getting into position Wietzel conducted a cavalry reconnaissance that located the Confederate line only four miles away. The delays caused MG Banks to become impatient. Despite the fact that his blocking force was not yet in position he started Weitzel's brigade forward about noon on the 11th. The advance met little opposition other than some light skirmishing with cavalry pickets. The advance was spearheaded by Company B of the 12th Connecticut and they gradually pushed the pickets back until the "line of defense was revealed." Here they halted and awaited orders. MG Banks, unwilling to hazard an assault in the growing darkness and until all his troops were present, encamped them for the night. The first major action at Fort Bisland would wait until the 12th.
The Federal advance continued on the 12th. When Banks learned that Grover was on the move he ordered a harder push against the cavalry skirmishers. Weitzel's brigade with Ingraham's (1st) brigade of Emory's division on his right advanced toward the fort. The lead elements of Weitzel's brigade arrived before Fort Bisland at about 1600 and found the Confederates "strongly intrenched." BG Emory took advantage of a brief pause to replace his lead brigade with COL Halbert Paine 's (2nd) brigade and then formed the other two brigades into a second (Ingraham) and third line (COL Oliver Gooding). At 1730 the Confederate artillery opened at 1000 yards with a wild shot that landed between the second and third line. Two batteries of Federal guns were sent forward and a lively artillery duel was commenced. Without orders to assault the fort the Federal troops continued to exchange fire with the Confederates until dusk. The enemy's fire being "quite severe" the infantry sought cover in the drainage ditches and then retired out of range shortly after dark.
Left behind was the 4th Wisconsin, commanded by LTC Bean, who were thrown forward as skirmishers to a "grove in front of the sugar house" and slave quarters. Bean was also ordered to deploy a line of sharpshooters along the Teche in order to oppose any effort to bring down the Diana. Forty picked men were assigned to this duty. Bean took further stock of his exposed position and requested reinforcements. He received an additional three companies of infantry and about 30 cavalrymen. The position was an unenviable one. Caught between the artillery firing from both sides the men were raked by fire throughout the night as the opposing batteries continued to trade shots. Despite the difficulty the deployment was a necessary one as the buildings and trees masked the left of the Confederate line. In order to maintain some idea of what was happening in that quarter of the field a force had to be maintained there. The decision was further justified when these line of sight limiters were compounded by "a dense fog" in the overnight.
Across the cane fields MG Taylor was also making plans. He sent the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry Cavalry to report on the progress of BG Grover's deployment in his rear. To gain time and possibly order the recall of Grover's troops, Taylor ordered a spoiling attack by Sibley's brigade. Taylor was convinced that with the support of the Diana Sibley could attack from the west shore of the Bayou and "drive the enemy back, throw him in confusion, and render it necessary for him to withdraw" Grover's division. Sibley was less excited about the idea and did not make coordination with BG Mouton until 0200, although he received the order at 2100. After consultation with Mouton, Sibley declared the operation impractical for time limitations. Taylor's order was squelched by a commander that he accused of "supineness." The issue at Fort Bisland would be decided by Federal initiative on the 13th.
Prepatory to assault on the Confederate works BG Emory ordered the slave quarters in front of the 4th Wisconsin burned to improve the line of sight into the Diana's expected area of the action. The 8th New Hampshire was also moved forward to supplement the 4th Wisconsin. When the fog began to dissipate in the early morning sun the Diana was revealed exactly as had been expected. The sight of the gunboat on their flank caused the COL Halbert Paine, brigade commander, to request that "heavy guns from the 1st Indiana artillery" be moved into position to engage her. Instead Paine received two sections of 20-lb Parrott's from the 18th New York Artillery. He also lined the banks of the river with eight infantry companies to fire on the ship if she should travel to far down the river. Before the "Black Horse Battery" arrived the Confederates opened "a brisk fire" from the batteries all along the line and Diana. Once the Union batteries were established they responded in kind to the Confederate barrage. A shot from one of the heavy Union guns found Diana and issued a telling blow. Her armor was pierced and the shot burst in the boiler room killing two and wounding five. The resulting damage to the engines gave Captain Oliver Semmes no choice but to retire the vessel. As Paine reported "the artillery subsequently drove her crippled up the river." The unused infantry on the shore were returned to their units.
A combination of Weitzel's and Paine's brigades advanced on the west bank but could make no headway against the enemy works. In an effort to circumvent the heart of the enemy defense Weitzel sent the 75th and 114th New York on a march to test the extreme left of the Confederate defense. LTC Babcock, of the 75th, declared that his regiment would "see what was in there" and instructed COL Smith of the 114th to have his men lay down to protect themselves from the enemy fire. Shortly thereafter a "rapid rattle of musketry" indicated contact with the enemy. Twice the New Yorkers tested the line but were repulsed by the combined fire of the Valverde Battery, Diana (before she retired), and the infantry line comprised of the 5th Texas, Waller's 13th Texas Battalion,and the 28th Louisiana. Late in the afternoon Sibley attempted a counter move by trying the Union left. The effort was met by the 173rd New York. The two sides fought to a standstill in the cane breaks until darkness called an end to the action there.
On the other east bank of the line COL Goodings brigade started a general, but slow, advance against Mouton's line at 1000. The skirmishers in advance of the attack were stopped cold by the 7th Texas Cavalry but the steady pressure forced Mouton to send reinforcements. A mixed group of 250 Louisiana troops was sent to firm up that portion of the line. The steady Confederate defense held against the cautious advance of Gooding's regiments. Near sundown the overwhelming numbers of Federals finally began to tell. A charge by the 31st Massachusetts and the 156th New York carried the outer works. Gooding claimed the capture of 86 defenders, but his move did not pierce the line.
In the center Gooding pressed against the enemy line with two regiments. The volume of fire sent out by the Confederates there again stopped the Union troops just short of the works. As daylight started to fade the expectation was for a final assault on the Confederate position. Instead, as the Union commanders prepared their troops for the all out assault, word was received from Banks that the attack would wait until morning. The order suspending the attack also thanked "the officers and men of all arms" and promised that "the morning will witness our complete triumph." Banks had little word on the progress of Grover's blocking force and opted to wait still longer for this part of his plan to develop. Taylor, however, knew from reports of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry that Grover was finally closing the trap. He sent the 4th Texas to help keep the back door open and issued orders to abandon the fort. A rear guard of the 5th Texas, 13th Texas Battalion and one section of guns held the line while the remainder of the force made good their escape. By 0300 the fort was empty. Despite a 0100 report to Paine that their was activity in the Confederate works nothing was done until morning. At daybreak the Union troops stormed unopposed into the works and then sat down and had breakfast. When the Union losses were calculated for the the three day operation results showed that despite the enormous expenditure of ammunition only 40 men were killed and 184 wounded. Confederate losses were not reported.
- ↑ The 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery belonged to the siege train and brought four 30-lb Parrotts, four 20-lb Parrotts, and two 12-pounders to the fight. It was composed of the 21st Indiana that had been so instrumental in the victory at Baton Rouge fighting as infantry. In February 1863 Banks ordered them converted to an artillery asset.