Port Hudson Cannons Boom to Celebrate History
By James Ronald Skains
“We are the best kept secret in this region,’’ Greg Thomas, Director of the Port Hudson State Commemorative Area, told the Explorer. “We have 2 or 3 people each week who come in here and say, “We’ve seen you passing by on Highway 61 for 20-30 years and didn’t know what the Port Hudson Commemorative Area was all about.”
“Few people seem to know the significance of Port Hudson during the Civil War or what interesting things that we have at the Park for people to see,’’ Thomas explained. “In addition to the Museum and the Battlefield, we have 6 miles of scenic walking trails through the 643 acre park.”
“Only a portion of the actual Port Hudson battlefield is within the perimeters of the commemorative area,” Thomas pointed out. “The Confederates had 4.5 miles of earthen breastwork in place plus 11 batteries along the River itself.”
The guns at Port Hudson controlled who sailed up or down the Mississippi River, and protected the entrance of the Red River, which led to the “bread basket of the Confederacy.” Vicksburg, 110 miles from Port Hudson as a crow flies, controlled the navigation on the River and protected the entrance to the Red River from the north.
To be able to surround Port Hudson, the Union military brought gunboats and troop transport boats up the Atchafalaya River in order to access the Mississippi River. Once above Port Hudson, the Union military landed infantry and cavalry troops at Bayou Sara in order to move south to surround and attack Port Hudson.
“We have our Firepower Enactment four times a year where we fire the 6 pound cannon, the 42 pound cannon, and various rifle muskets,” Mike Fraering, who has worked at the Park for 25 years, explained. “A #6 cannon fires a 6 pound shell for about 1600 yards. A #42 cannon fires a 42 pound load for 1900 yards or a little over a mile.”
Fraering continued, “There are various types of shells used in these guns. The solid round iron ball was used to knock down buildings or other gun batteries, while canisters were loaded with all kinds of destructive pieces of metal to kill people, as the exploding shell was filled with round balls of metal. The grape shot was similar to the canisters. Today, as usual, we will be using only a 2 pound charge of power in the #6 cannon and a 10 pound charge in the #42 cannon.’’
My guess as an observer of the firing of the two cannons on June 1, 2013 was that the boom of the #42 would probably carry 5 miles. I can only imagine what the cacophony of sound would have been like with dozens of these cannons going off in a continuous battle. According to Fraering, the #6 gun could be loaded, primed, and fired 3 times a minute. The big #42 firing sequence would take a full minute.
“We average about 16,500 visitors a year,’’ Thomas noted. “Our biggest crowds come on the 4th weekend of March when we have a full-scale re-enactment. However, It is more difficult to take care of our visitors now, than it was three years ago before we lost 4 employees due to State budget cuts.”
War was nothing new to the Feliciana’s, Bayou Sara, and the Plains area, as all were involved to a degree in the Revolutionary War of 1776 and the War of 1815 However, neither compared to the blood, tears, horror and agony suffered by its residents during the siege of Port Hudson and the battle of Plains Store 5 miles eastward. Union Army officer, Major Love of the 116th New York Regiment won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his action in the battle of the Plains.
There are several reasons why Port Hudson and the ensuing Red River campaigns never have received as much spotlight as have other Civil War Battlefields. One is that the victor gets to write the history of the war first. Neither, the fall of Port Hudson or the ensuing Red River campaigns by the Union Army were outright success. Port Hudson was a “surrender” scenario for the Union Army based on short supply of rations and ammunition for the defenders. The fall of Vicksburg upriver rendered the defense of Port Hudson a futile Confederate military objective.
Within the last 25 years, a young Texas based scholar, author, and Professor at McMurray University in Abilene, Texas, Donald S. Frazier, has added new insight into the Civil War as it was fought in Louisiana. Texas not only supplied a large number of troops to fight in Louisiana, but the Texans undertook cattle trail drives to resupply Port Hudson. The cattle were herded into swimming across the Mississippi River around the Woodville area where they butchered and smoked the meat and delivered it to the soldiers at Port Hudson.
The next firing of the cannons at Port Hudson will take place on June 23rd starting at 1 PM in conjunction with the Zachary Historical Association Tour of historical homes in the area.