Running past the Forts
At New Orleans
At the start of the American Civil War New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy. Her position near the mouth of the Mississippi had turned her into a major international port, where the goods of the north-west and cotton from Louisiana and Mississippi could be transferred to ocean going ships from the low draught riverboats suitable for use on the Mississippi. The city’s defences were concentrated downriver, at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, themselves thirty miles upstream from the many mouths of the Mississippi. The river itself provided an additional defence in the form of sandbars that form at the various mouths of the river. Those sandbars prevented the largest ships in the Union navy from entering the river, and even slowed down the carefully picked fleet that did capture the city.
It was the sandbar that protected New Orleans from an early attack by David Porter, who spent most of 1861 with the squadron blockading the Mississippi. While there he developed a plan that he hoped would result in the capture of the city. In November his ship, the Powhatan, returned to New York. Porter was ordered to report to the Navy Department in Washington. He took this chance to explain his plan to Secretary of the Navy Welles, who took it to President Lincoln. The idea of opening the Mississippi had been in their minds since the start of the war, and they quickly approved Porter’s plan. With Lincoln’s support, and that of General McClellan, Porter’s plan was approved, and work began on finding the ships and men he would need to carry it out.
Porter’s plan required an army 20,000 strong, needed to occupy New Orleans, and hopefully also Vicksburg, further up the river in Mississippi. The navy would provide a fleet of gunboats with at least 200 guns and a fleet of mortar boats, capable of bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip. In the end, the expedition was launched with an army 6,000 strong under General Benjamin Butler, a gunboat fleet carrying 166 guns and 26 howitzers and a mortar fleet nineteen strong. The relative weakness of the army had little impact on the operations at New Orleans, but did ensure that Vicksburg was safe from effective attack. Finally, the expedition needed a commander. Porter recommended David Farragut, a veteran naval captain of southern birth, who had come north at the outbreak of the war and offered his services to the Navy. Farragut agreed to take command of the expedition, beginning one of the most remarkable civil war careers.
The Confederate defenders of New Orleans had also been busy. BY the time the Union expedition finally arrived, Fort Jackson mounted 74 guns and Fort St. Philip another 52. Behind those forts was a small fleet of twelve ships. Ten were hasty conversions of riverboats or steamers, but two were more powerful ironclad warships – the C.S.S. Louisiana and the ram C.S.S. Manassas. The Louisianawas a particularly powerful ship, but she was not finished in time to take an active role in the upcoming battle, and remained moored to the river throughout the battle. Passage of the river itself was obstructed by eight hulks mooring in the river and connected by a heavy chain, with the gaps closed by log rafts. Fire rafts had also been prepared, and would be used in the battle.
Farragut arrived off the Mississippi on 20 February 1862, on his flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford. The rest of his fleet arrived over the next two months, and by mid-March he was ready to move. On 18 March the mortar fleet crossed the bar at Pass à l’Outre, but it was to take another twelve days for the rest of the fleet to get across the bar, a delay caused by a poor selection of ships that included several too large to easily cross the bar.
The Union fleet was finally ready to sail up-river on 16 April. That day Farragut moved the fleet to within three miles of the forts, and began to prepare for the mortar bombardment. This began on 18 April. On the first day of the bombardment Fort Jackson was set on fire. Porter’s preparation had been meticulous, and the majority of the thousands of shells that the mortar boats fired hit their target. Fort St. Philip suffered much less damage during the bombardment, as it was almost out of the mortar’s effective range.
The bombardment of Fort Jackson did not entirely quieten the forts guns, but it did much reduce their efficiency. Colonel Edward Higgins, the Confederate commander of the fort, later described the bombardment as making it ‘impossible for us to obtain either rapidity or accuracy of fire’. Most of the forts buildings were destroyed, and her interior flooded after the levee protecting her from the river was destroyed.
Farragut was not quite ready to risk running his ships past the forts. His main concern now was that the line of hulks chained across the river was impassable. However, an expedition on the night of 20 April was able to cut the chain and create a clear channel on the left (eastern) side of the river, nearest to Fort St. Philip.
By 23 April the constant effort of bombardment was beginning to take its toll on the mortar fleet. They had fired 16,800 shells at the forts, and were beginning to run out of ammunition. Confederate gunfire from the forts had managed to sink only one of the mortar ships, but the constant firing was starting to cause damage to the ships. Farragut decided that the time was right to run past the forts, and sail up to New Orleans.
Running past the Forts
Farragut divided his fleet into three divisions for the dash past the forts. He had to be talked out of leading the first division himself, and eventually agreed to lead the second division, which contained his three heaviest ships. The fleet began to move at 2 a.m. on 24 April. The first ship of the first division came under fire at 3.15 a.m. At the same time part of the mortar fleet opened a new bombardment on Fort Jackson, preventing that fort from doing much damage during the upcoming battle.
The lead division was soon past both forts, and engaged with the Confederate fleet. By the time Farragut had got past Fort St. Philip, the battle between the fleets was almost over. Farragut’s division devoted some time to attacking Fort St. Philip, with the intention of knocking her guns out of action at least for long enough for the third division to get past safely. After succeeding in this, Farragut passed on beyond the forts. At this point he came clossest to disaster. A Confederate fire-raft, filling, amongst other things, with burning pine cones, was being guided towards the Hartford by a tug. In her attempts to avoid the fire-raft, the Hartford ran aground. The fire-raft found her target and the Hartford was soon on fire. After a short period when it looked like the flagship might have to be abandoned, the fire was extinguished; she was backed off the shoal, and continued up the river.
Most ships of the third division got past the badly damaged Confederate forts without any problems. Three of the slowest found themselves stuck below the forts at daylight, and had to beat a hasty retreat under fire from the remaining guns in the two forts.
Above the forts the biggest threat was posed by the ram Manassas. First she hit the Mississippi, but without inflicting much damage. She then attempted to ram the Pensacola, but that ship managed to avoid the collision. After that the Manassas attempted to pass between the forts to attack the mortar fleet, but was fired on by her own side, and forced to turn back. Her next target was the Brooklyn. She found her target, inflicting a blow that might have been very serious if it had not hit the Brooklyn’s full coal bunker (although her captain remained convinced that he had actually hit the Hartford). During the only gun on the Manassas was put out of action. This marked the end of her career. She was now downstream of the Union fleet, and could not make enough speed against the current to successfully ram her opponents. With the river behind her blocked by the guns of the Confederate forts, her captain had no choice but to run her aground and abandon ship. Once aground, she was set alight by Union gunfire, floated down the river, and exploded.
At New Orleans
Farragut’s fleet reached New Orleans at 1 p.m. on 25 April, the day after the fight at the forts. The city was unexpectedly vulnerable to capture. The troops that had been defending the gulf coast had been taken north to help defend Tennessee, where they had recently been involved in the defeat at Shiloh (6-7 April 1862). The situation there rapidly descended into farce. Farragut sent an officer to the city hall with a demand for the surrender of New Orleans. The major of the city passed the responsibility for this on to General Lovell, who had command of the small force still in the city, but he replied that he and his men were leaving the city, and therefore it was not his to surrender.
The next day Farragut made a formal demand for surrender. Mayor Monroe again refused to surrender, instead telling Farragut’s emissary to take possession by force. At this point only the mob seemed to be willing to fight for the city, but even they soon ran out of enthusiasm. Finally, on 29 April Farragut sent a small force to the custom house, where they hoisted the stars and stripes, before moving on the city hall where they pulled down the recently adopted state flag of Louisiana, but prudently did not raise the stars and stripes in the face of a vast but sullen mob. The city was finally secured on 1 May when General Butler’s army arrived and took over control from the marines.
After the capture of New Orleans, the fleet continued up the river, capturing Baton Rouge and Natchez, but Farragut’s expedition had one more major target – Vicksburg. This was later to be the great Confederate citadel on the Mississippi. It was not yet that strongly fortified, but was in a naturally strong position. Butler’s army was much smaller than the 20,000 originally called for, so when Farragut reached Vicksburg the garrison of the city was more than strong enough to resist any attack he could make. Even so, he persisted from later June until 26 July, when he finally had to abandon the attack as the water level in the Mississippi began to fall.
The capture of New Orleans was one of the most significant moments during the civil war. The Confederacy lost her biggest city and main port, an important centre of ship building, and, most importantly, control of the Mississippi. That great river was now closed to northern and southern ships alike. Union warships were able to patrol all but 200 miles of the river. New Orleans went on to be an important centre for northern trade. While the mob had been strongly pro-Confederate when Farragut’s fleet appeared, New Orleans had many pro-Union men (or at least many men who were willing to go along with the occupation in return for the chance to trade). There was also a large free black community which went on to provide several regiments for the Union armies.