New Orleans: Preparing the Advance

April 22, 1862 – Flag Officer David G. Farragut met with his fleet officers to lay out his plan for bypassing Forts Jackson and St. Philip and steaming up the Mississippi River in a daring attempt to capture New Orleans.

Map of area around Forts Jackson and St. Philip | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Map of area around Forts Jackson and St. Philip | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Farragut’s original plan had been to use a mortar attack to force the surrender of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, and then work with Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s infantry to capture New Orleans with a joint army-navy attack. But by this time, Farragut had concluded that Commander David D. Porter’s mortar schooners were not neutralizing the forts as hoped.

Thus, Farragut would send his warships past the forts, through the narrow passage between the Confederate obstructions that had been opened by Federals on the night of April 20. Farragut’s officers did not share his confidence, with one saying that “there is but little or no sanguine feeling of success.” Another officer later wrote, “The prevailing opinion seemed to be adverse to making the attempt to pass the forts at that time,” citing the reasons “that it was premature; that the forts had not yet been sufficiently reduced by the fire of the mortar vessels, and that the risk of the loss of too many vessels was too great to be run.”

Others cited the swampy terrain in preventing troops from marching by land. Some feared that the wooden warships could not withstand the powerful Confederate artillery in the forts. Farragut reminded his men that the mortar schooners would eventually run out of ammunition, and, “I believe in celerity.” The officers, having been overruled, returned to their ships. Lieutenant Francis Roe, executive officer of the U.S.S. Pensacola, wrote:

“Our people view this conflict as most desperate. These may be the last lines I will ever write. But I have an unflinching trust in God that we shall plant the Union flag upon the enemy’s forts by noon tomorrow… If I fall, I leave my darlings to the care of my country.”

As Farragut planned his advance on the 23rd, Porter requested more time for his mortars to weaken the forts before Farragut’s ships made their move. The ships had fired 16,800 rounds by that time, but the Confederate defenders held firm. In fact, Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, the Confederate commander, reported that only three guns had been disabled, and he had lost just five killed and 10 wounded.

Farragut, who had always doubted the ability of the mortars to neutralize the forts, refused to wait. He wrote his wife, “I have now attained what I have been looking for all my life–a flag–and having attained it, all that is necessary to complete the scene is a victory. If I die in the attempt it will be only what every officer has to expect.”

Meanwhile, two tugboats pulled the unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana to Fort Jackson. The Louisiana’s engines and propellers did not function. Another ironclad under construction, the C.S.S. Mississippi, was slated to join the Louisiana, but she was not far enough along in her construction to participate.

After meeting with Captain John K. Mitchell of the Louisiana, Duncan reported, “As an iron-clad invulnerable floating battery, with sixteen guns of the heaviest caliber, she was then as complete as she would ever be.” Duncan wrote to Mitchell asking him to use the Louisiana’s guns to help draw fire from the Federal mortars: “It is of vital importance that the present fire of the enemy should be withdrawn from us, which you alone can do.”

Mitchell met with his naval officers and concluded that it was not worth the risk: “I feel, and I believe that I know,” Mitchell told Duncan, “the importance to the safety of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip and the City of New Orleans of having this vessel in proper condition before seeking an encounter with the enemy.” If Federal ships tried passing the forts, Mitchell said he would use the Louisiana’s guns to stop them, “however unprepared I may be.” But he would not use his vessel to draw fire from the mortars.

Duncan appealed to his superior in New Orleans, General Mansfield Lovell, who in turn appealed to Mitchell’s superior, Commander W.C. Whittle. Lovell explained that the Louisiana would not be sent to take on the Federal fleet, but rather her guns would just be used to help stop the mortar attack. Whittle sent a request to Mitchell: “Can you not occupy a position below Fort St. Philip so as to enfilade the mortar boats of the enemy and give time to the garrison to repair damages at Fort Jackson?”

That day, Federal sailors and crewmen prepared their warships to run the fort batteries. They covered vulnerable parts of their vessels to better withstand the shelling, and they whitewashed their decks to give them more nighttime visibility. The bypass effort was to begin at 2 a.m. on the 24th.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (23 Apr 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 164; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 365; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 141; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 202; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 60; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 317

The Partisan Ranger Act

April 21, 1862 – The Confederate Congress approved a measure authorizing the organization of guerrilla forces to help combat the Federal invasion.

The 1st Confederate National Flag | Image Credit: RussellHarrison.com

The 1st Confederate National Flag | Image Credit: RussellHarrison.com

Since the war began, partisan rangers (i.e., guerrillas) had operated throughout the Confederacy, but the Confederate government did not officially consider them to be legitimate military units. According to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, “Guerrilla companies are not recognized as part of the military organization of the Confederate States, and cannot be authorized by this department.”

However, the tremendous Federal manpower advantage, along with the deepening Federal thrusts into Confederate territory, prompted the government to look for new ways to motivate military enrollment. Virginia had taken the lead the previous month by approving a law creating at least 10 companies of “rangers and scouts” to operate against Federal occupation forces within the state and “give the greatest annoyance to the enemy.”

The Confederate Congress finally approved the Partisan Ranger Act, which consisted of three provisions:

  1. The president could grant commissions to officers to recruit men for partisan companies, battalions, and regiments; those recruited would be subject to presidential approval
  2. The partisans would receive the same uniforms and pay as regular soldiers, and they would be granted rations and other allowances in the same allotments as regular soldiers
  3. The partisans would be compensated by the government for any Federal arms or ammunition that they captured and delivered to the Confederate quartermaster

Within five months of this law’s passage, the Confederate War Department reported that six partisan regiments, nine battalions, and 24 companies had begun operations in various areas of the Confederacy under Federal occupation, including Virginia and the coastal regions. John H. McNeill and John S. Mosby were among the most prominent of the partisan leaders.

This law did stimulate recruitment as hoped. But it encouraged more men to join the irregular units and not the armies, thus ensuring that the armies would continue experiencing manpower shortages.

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References

Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 141; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 561; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 107-08; Wikipedia: Partisan Ranger Act

From Aden Cavins, 59th Indiana Volunteers

Letter from Captain Aden Cavins, Company E, 59th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, to his wife.

Steamer Nebraska

Tennessee River

April 21, 1862

Indiana State Flag | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

I wrote you yesterday while landed at Fort Massac below Paducah (Kentucky). We are now steaming up the river rapidly. At daylight this morning we passed Fort Henry, which you will remember is twelve miles from Fort Donaldson. We will arrive at Pittsburg Landing about ten o’clock tonight and will not embark until morning. The Tennessee river is a beautiful stream, but there is not much improvement on its banks. The country is partly low, and part beautiful, rolling hills. The whole country is suggestive of poetry and fiction.

I had nothing to write you but not being otherwise engaged I write because it is pleasant to do so to you and because it will also afford you pleasure. You must not be so uneasy about me, for it would be a bloody fight indeed for one-tenth of my men to be killed and one-fifth wounded, so that though none are safe in battle, yet the chances are more in favor than against one. You will find consolation in the reflection that none die before their time comes and that there is a Providence that shapes and controls the destiny of the living and the dead.

When in company with some persons of education, you have heard us speak of the Differentials, or vanishing quantities employed in the higher mathematics. These are quantities infinitely small, but still are quantities. Human life seems to me when compared to the infinite future much like one of these Differentials. It is small, very small. It is a short dream filled up with episodes of light and shade, happiness and sadness.

You remember the beautiful tradition of some of the old Jewish Rabbis. It was that little angels were born every morning of the beautiful streams that go running over the flowers of Paradise, their life was sweet music for one day, then they died and subsided in the waters among the flowers that gave them birth. Forgetfulness soon came over their sweet roseate and musical life, and they are remembered no more forever. Such is that part of our existence called human life. We are born, live but a day, are placed in the temple of “silence and reconciliation” where lie buried the strife and fierce contentions of life. Soon the veil of oblivion is spread over all and there remains no heart beat to commemorate the departed.

I seldom indulge in fancies but merely have deviated from my usual habit on account of the poverty of news, and only do it in this case in view of the freedom I claim in writing to you in any way that judgment or humor may dictate. You are aware that at times a storm of fancies sweep across my mind. I have suppressed them through life, but they will loom up occasionally through the matter-of-fact surface that I have cultivated.

The Siege of Yorktown: The Buildup Continues

April 20, 1862 – Confederate morale sagged on the Virginia Peninsula, as the number of Federal troops continued increasing on multiple fronts.

General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Yorktown on April 17 and assumed command of the Confederate army that now consisted of his own Army of the Potomac and Major General John B. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula. Johnston’s new command included both the Virginia Peninsula and Norfolk.

By this time, five of Johnston’s seven divisions had arrived or were on their way to reinforce the Yorktown-Warwick River line on the Peninsula, raising the total number of Confederate defenders to nearly 50,000. But this was still not half the total of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Of Johnston’s two remaining divisions, one (8,000 men under Major General Richard Ewell) remained on the Rappahannock River line in northern Virginia at Brandy Station, and one (6,000 men under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson) was in the Shenandoah Valley at Mount Jackson. A third force, the Army of the Northwest under Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, consisted of about 3,000 men in the Valley west of Staunton.

President Jefferson Davis arranged for Ewell and Jackson to send their correspondence through his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rather than Johnston, who was now busy arranging defenses on the Peninsula. Due to the delicacy of military protocol, Lee had to be careful when communicating to Ewell and Jackson not to offend Johnston by infringing on his authority.

In northern Virginia, the Federal troops of Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock arrived at their namesake river north of Richmond after a forced march from Washington. This army, formerly I Corps in the Army of the Potomac, had been slated to join the Peninsula campaign but was withheld by President Abraham Lincoln to block any Confederate attempt to threaten Washington.

By the time McDowell arrived, the Confederates had burned all the nearby bridges and abandoned the town of Fredericksburg, just across the Rappahannock. McDowell did not move to take Fredericksburg because the river was too wide, and the primary movement was to be McClellan’s on the Peninsula. McClellan continued pleading with Washington to send him McDowell’s troops, despite now having 100,000 of his own.

Farther west, two Federal armies under Major Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Fremont threatened the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia. This immense accumulation of Federal troops in Virginia represented their greatest opportunity to destroy the Confederates since the war began. McClellan, McDowell, Banks, and Fremont all faced vastly inferior opponents that could have been easily destroyed if any of the Federal commanders made a determined effort to do so. But none did.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Although McClellan wanted McDowell’s entire force to reinforce him, he settled for one of McDowell’s divisions, consisting of 12,000 Federals under Brigadier General William B. Franklin. This gave McClellan an even greater manpower advantage. Meanwhile, Johnston directed Confederates to repair bridges over the Chickahominy River, 20 miles in his rear, in case he needed to retreat. Acknowledging low morale among the men and his army’s vulnerability, Johnston said, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

By April 23, the Federals on the Peninsula had positioned six 10-gun batteries of 13-inch siege mortar cannon about two miles outside Yorktown. However, McClellan would not begin firing until his remaining nine batteries were put in place. McClellan telegraphed Lincoln, “Do not misunderstand the apparent inaction here. Not a day, not an hour has been lost. Works have been constructed that may almost be called gigantic.”

This unprecedented display of artillery disturbed Johnston enough to begin preparing for the worst. He informed his superiors that supplies could be diverted to the Richmond area for his troops “in the event of our being compelled to fall back from this point.” He asked for officials to have 100 wagons filled with supplies waiting for his men when they fell back to Richmond. Johnston then directed Major General Benjamin Huger to prepare to evacuate Norfolk and secure as many supplies and equipment as possible from the Gosport Navy Yard there.

Johnston wrote to Flag Officer Josiah Tatnall, commander of the Confederate naval fleet, asking him to use the C.S.S. Virginia to attack the Federal transports on the York River. Tatnall objected because 1) such an action would leave the Virginia exposed to Federal shore batteries, 2) the Virginia could not break through the Federal warships guarding the transports, and 3) such a mission would leave Norfolk undefended.

Returning to his original argument, Johnston once again urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line in a letter to Lee: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful… We must abandon the Peninsula at once.” Johnston contended that it would be better to give up Norfolk than to lose the army, and he again proposed falling back to positions outside Richmond. Johnston even suggested invading the North while General P.G.T. Beauregard somehow led his battered Confederate army out of Corinth to invade Ohio. Once again, Davis and Lee refused.

Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Maratanza began bombarding the forts at Yorktown and Gloucester on either side of the York River. Even with all his superior firepower, McClellan telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Would be glad to have the 30-pounder Parrotts in the works around Washington. Am short of that excellent gun.”

As April ended, Federal prospects for victory on the Peninsula seemed very bright. McClellan reported that he had 112,392 officers and men present for duty. They even had some of the best people to care for their sick and wounded, as the U.S. Sanitary Commission hospital ship Daniel Webster arrived at the York River with Commission General Secretary Frederick Law Olmstead and several top surgeons, physicians, and nurses.

Conversely, Confederate hopes were sinking, as Johnston most likely had less than 50,000 effectives, with many others been lost to illness, exposure, and fatigue.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 105; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (18 Apr 1862); CivilWarHome.com/SanitaryCommission.htm; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13515-23, 13611-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 161; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 403-04, 410; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 139, 141, 143-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3287, 3323-34; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 201-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570-71

New Orleans: Bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip

April 18, 1862 – On Good Friday, Federals took the first step toward capturing New Orleans when Commander David D. Porter’s mortar boats began firing on Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

Confederates led by Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan defended the southern approach to New Orleans by manning the old Forts Jackson and St. Philip on either side of the Mississippi River below the city. They strung a large chain across the river to block Federal vessels from moving upriver; they also had fire rafts, sunken hulks, a “mosquito fleet” of small gunboats, and the unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana at the ready.

Cmdr D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Cmdr D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Porter was confident that the 200-pound shells from his mortar schooners would destroy the forts. Flag Officer David G. Farragut, overall commander of the Federal naval squadron, disagreed but allowed Porter to proceed anyway. All of Porter’s vessels were in their designated places by dawn of the 18th. Many were posted along the river’s west bank, concealed by trees while having a clear view of the forts about 3,000 to 3,500 yards away.

The lead mortar opened fire at 9 a.m., with the next 19 vessels opening in succession until they all kept up a steady fire. The gunners focused primarily on Fort Jackson, sending a round into those works every two minutes. The accurate fire blasted Jackson both outside and in, eventually setting the Confederate barracks and citadel on fire. Troops quickly extinguished the blaze.

The Confederate artillerists struggled at first to find their range, but when they did, they inflicted substantial damage on some of the mortars. Two took direct hits near the waterline and had to be pulled out of action. Farragut responded to Porter’s call for support by sending four gunboats to fire on the forts with their rifled artillery. But these vessels withdrew by noon, having expended all their ammunition.

As the mortars continued firing, they ignited another and much larger fire at Fort Jackson’s citadel. Duncan ordered his men to counter by sending fire rafts (i.e., rafts of burning oil atop piled wood) down the river. But these went aground along the riverbanks before reaching the enemy vessels.

Porter ordered a ceasefire at sundown, after the Federals had sent over 1,000 rounds into the forts. The fort walls sustained extensive damage, but the Confederate defenders held firm. Seeing the fire in Fort Jackson’s citadel, Porter thought it was just another stray fire raft. Had he known how much damage he inflicted, he might have continued firing through the night. Porter later said that this was the “only mistake that occurred during the bombardment.”

The mortars resumed their furious cannonade on the 19th and kept it up for the next five days and nights. A sailor on the U.S.S. Hartford recalled the scene: “As the shells left the gun the track of (their burning fuses) through the air was distinctly visible, and the shots were quite accurate.” The gunners fired “so fast that six to seven shells could be seen coursing through the air at once.”

Duncan reported that “the mortar fire was accurate and terrible, many of the shells falling everywhere within the fort.” The shells disabled several Confederate cannon, but those still functioning continued scoring some hits on the mortars, including sinking the U.S.S. Maria J. Carlton.

Farragut’s doubts about mortar fire’s effectiveness on the forts ultimately proved correct, as the bombardment had less effect than Porter hoped. Despite the heavy damage, the forts remained an impediment to any Federal advance up the Mississippi. A captured Confederate naval officer later told Captain Samuel P. Lee of the U.S.S. Oneida that the mortars “had not produced any military results (though so many shells had fallen in the forts) as the dismounted guns were immediately replaced…”

As the bombardment continued, a man claiming to be a Federal spy visited both Porter and Farragut on Easter Sunday and informed them that even though the Confederates were demoralized by the Federal mortars, they had plenty of ammunition, food, and supplies, and would not likely surrender soon. Based on this information, Farragut called a meeting of his officers at 10 a.m.

Farragut announced that while Porter continued his bombardment, the Federal warships would try bypassing the forts and river obstructions to get to New Orleans. Porter’s aide, speaking for him in his absence, opposed the move because it would open the river and enable Confederate vessels to come down and attack Porter’s fleet. The aide insisted that the forts must be captured before moving upriver. Farragut disagreed, and the clearing operation proceeded.

Two gunboats, the U.S.S. Itasca under Lieutenant Charles H.B. Caldwell and the U.S.S. Pinola under Commander Henry H. Bell, crept up to the two heavy chains stretched across the river on the “wild night” of the 20th. The evening was “dark, rainy, with half a gale of wind blowing down the river.” The crewmen’s mission was to break the chains and remove as many obstructions as possible to enable Farragut’s squadron to bypass the forts on their way upriver.

Accompanying the Federals was Julius Kroehl, an expert in underwater explosives, who brought five 180-pound barrels of powder. He placed these barrels on one of the sunken hulks, but the wires to the galvanic batteries used to detonate the charge came loose, and the powder failed to detonate.

The Confederates had discovered the Federals’ presence by this time and opened fire on them. Bell quickly climbed onto one of the hulks and unhooked one of the chains. He then took his gunboat through the narrow passage far enough to gather steam, and turned around and plowed through the other chain, creating a gap wide enough for Farragut’s ships to pass single-file.

As this took place, the Confederates sent more fire rafts down the river to threaten the mortars and warships. The fleet surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Hartford reported that a Confederate vessel followed the rafts, ostensibly to negotiate a truce:

“A large rebel steamer is coming down with a white flag of truce. Orders are given for a steamer to go and meet her, but the traitor steamer set fire to three fire-rafts she had in tow, hoisted the enemy colors and ran up the river! Such is the use they make of flags of truce. As she turned back the forts opened all their guns upon our fleet. Their rifled cannon, fired with great precision, are troubling us much.”

One intensely blazing fire raft approached the Hartford and the Richmond. But the Federals deployed picket boats, on which Federals used grappling hooks to grab the burning rafts and ground them on the riverbanks before they could reach the fleet. Meanwhile, the C.S.S. Louisiana was sent upriver about a half-mile to serve as a floating battery since it could not function any other way. Laborers were still trying to complete her, but she had been poorly designed and was not effective.

For the Federals, Farragut reported the next day:

“We have been bombarding the forts for three or four days, but the current is running so strong that we cannot stem it sufficiently to do anything with our ships, so that I am now waiting a change of winds, which brings a slacker tide, and we shall be enabled to run up… Captain Bell went last night to cut the chain across the river. I never felt such anxiety in my life as I did until his return… They let the chain go, but the men sent to explode the petard did not succeed; his wires broke. Bell would have burned the hulks, but the illumination would have given the enemy a chance to destroy his gunboat, which got aground. However, the chain was divided, and it gives us space enough to go through.”

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References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 281-82; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 161, 163; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 140; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 450; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 201-02; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 419; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 58

New Orleans: Targeting Forts Jackson and St. Philip

April 17, 1862 – Commodore David G. Farragut, flag officer of the Federal West Gulf Blockading Squadron, proceeded with his plan to capture New Orleans, the Confederacy’s largest and richest city.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Farragut, stationed at Ship Island, Mississippi, in the Gulf of Mexico, had been planning to take New Orleans since February. He spent the past month waiting for the mortar fleet of his adopted brother, Commander David D. Porter, to arrive in support. Also on Ship Island was Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal troops, who would march in and take the city with the navy’s help.

The main obstacles in getting to New Orleans were Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two old works on either side of the Mississippi River. These forts, situated 12 miles above Head of Passes and 80 miles below New Orleans, covered any attempt to approach the city from the Gulf of Mexico. The Confederates in the forts, commanded by Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, worked endlessly to try keeping the high river from flooding them out.

General Mansfield Lovell led the defenses within New Orleans, but these had been severely depleted by the transfer of nearly 5,000 men first to Fort Donelson and then to Corinth. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory refused to allow the Confederate River Defense Fleet that had been transferred to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, to go back down the Mississippi and help defend New Orleans. Mallory contended that Commodore Andrew H. Foote’s Federal Western Flotilla posed a greater threat than Farragut.

Meanwhile, Porter’s mortar fleet arrived to give Farragut the largest naval armada in U.S. history. It included 24 wooden warships with a total of 200 large-caliber guns. Joining them were 20 mortar schooners, each with a 13-inch mortar gun. Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Harriet Lane, traded fire with the Confederates at Fort Jackson twice to get the precise ranges. Farragut also personally reconnoitered both Jackson and St. Philip, and he relied on a coastal survey led by Ferdinand H. Gerdes that mapped the river approaches to the forts.

The armada traversed the treacherous sandbar and entered the Mississippi River on April 8, prompting Farragut to remark, “Now we are all right.” Within a week, three of Porter’s vessels moved within range of the forts and exchanged fire. These Federals were able to gauge the distance better for the rest of the fleet. Farragut moved his vessels up the river to a point just below the forts on the 16th.

In addition to the forts, Confederates had extended a large chain across the Mississippi to block a Federal naval advance. They also had an unfinished ironclad, the C.S.S. Louisiana, and a “mosquito squadron” of small gunboats led by Captain George N. Hollins. Other obstacles were placed in the river, but the high water would help the Federal ships to bypass them.

The Confederate defenders in the forts watched the massive fleet of warships, mortars, and troop transports approaching on the 17th. Farragut had the mortars towed into positions near a line of trees on the west bank; a bend in the river hid these vessels from Confederate view and Porter camouflaged the masts with tree branches. The remaining ships were stationed at designated points on the Mississippi.

As the Federals took their positions, Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore protested the Confederate government’s order to move the C.S.S. Louisiana north of New Orleans and not south to support the forts. Moore explained to President Jefferson Davis that the fort’s guns could not reach the naval vessels bombarding them, and the Louisiana was “absolutely a necessity at the forts for the safety of New Orleans, and that it is suicidal to send her elsewhere.”

Davis wrote Moore back expressing less concern about this new Federal threat from below New Orleans than the threat of the Federal ironclad gunboats north of the city:

“The wooden vessels are below, the iron gun boats are above; the forts should destroy the former if they attempt to ascend. The Louisiana may be indispensable to check the descent of the iron boats. The purpose is to defend the city and valley; the only question is as to the best mode of effecting the object.”

Meanwhile, the Federal vessels continued establishing their positions for the bombardment scheduled to begin the next day.

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References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 281-82; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (17 Apr 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 254; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 150, 157-58, 161; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 132, 135-36, 138-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 200-01

The Confederate Conscription Act

April 16, 1862 – President Jefferson Davis signed a bill into law requiring all able-bodied white men between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve at least three years in the Confederate military. This was the first national draft in American history.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By this time, Federal forces were closing in on Richmond, New Orleans, and vital points along the Mississippi River and Atlantic coast. The Confederates had just lost thousands of men in the largest battle ever fought in America up to that time, and many men who had enlisted in the Confederate army for 12 months at the beginning of the war were about to go home.

All these factors led to a growing call for conscription, which had been intensely debated in the Confederate Congress. Opponents argued that it violated the same civil liberties southerners had seceded to uphold. Some claimed that forcing men into the army showed weakness by indicating that volunteerism alone was no longer enough to maintain the war effort.

Supporters invoked the same arguments they had rejected when northerners made them before the war, citing the constitutional powers of Congress “to raise and support armies” and “provide for the common defense, as well as to make laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” They also contended that conscription would provide the military with the manpower desperately needed to secure Confederate independence.

Ultimately, new Secretary of War George W. Randolph persuaded enough congressmen to approve the bill, and then he persuaded Davis to sign it into law. Thus, the Confederacy took the first and most expansive step toward centralizing state and national armies.

State officials would administer the draft, and draftees would be allowed to elect their own company, battalion, and regimental officers. The number of draftees would be proportional to the number of residents in each state and county. A regular recruiting system was also introduced to counter battlefield losses with continuous recruitment.

Soldiers preparing to return home after serving 12 months were now told they had to stay on for another two years or the war’s end, whichever came first. The three total years of service began on the soldiers’ original enlistment dates. Davis initially resisted extending one-year enlistments to three years, but he finally resolved that it was a necessary measure.

Politicians hopeful that the prospect of a draft would stimulate more volunteerism added a provision giving draftees 30 days to volunteer instead. Men could also pay a $500 commutation fee to evade the draft. This clause applied to pacifists such as Quakers and Mennonites; it also aimed to enable skilled laborers and the wealthy to continue serving the Confederacy in non-military capacities.

Another provision allowed for men to hire substitutes to serve in their place from “persons not liable for duty,” usually those outside the specified age range or foreigners. The substitute clause was based on the English tradition of assuming that those who could afford to hire a substitute could be more useful to the war effort outside the army. “Substitute brokers” became a lucrative profession as a result. This provision caused such widespread resentment among those who could not afford to hire a substitute that it was eventually repealed.

The original Conscription Act offered no exemptions from the draft other than commutation or substitution. Realizing that this could deplete the southern workforce, Congress enacted an amendment five days later that included exemptions for many classes and professions, including government workers, war industry laborers (i.e., those working in textiles, mines, foundries, etc.), river ferrymen and pilots, telegraph operators, hospital employees, apothecaries, printers, clergymen, and educators.

These exemptions invited fraud, as many new schools quickly opened, along with pharmacies that featured “a few empty jars, a cheap assortment of combs and brushes, a few bottles of ‘hairdye’ and ‘wizard oil’ and other Yankee nostrums.”

Men who owned 20 or more slaves were also exempted from the draft so they could maintain supervision of farm production and defend against potential slave uprisings. This became known as the “Twenty Negro Law.” It only applied to states that had laws requiring white men to oversee and police their slaves. Many criticized this provision as favoring plantation owners.

Governors Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Zebulon Vance of North Carolina were among the most virulent critics of the Conscription Act. Brown declared that no “act of the Government of the United States prior to the secession of Georgia struck a blow at constitutional liberty… as has been struck by the conscription act… at one fell swoop, (the act) strikes down the sovereignty of the States, tramples upon the constitutional rights and personal liberty of the citizens, and arms the President with imperial power.”

It was not surprising that Georgia and North Carolina accounted for 92 percent of all exempted government workers in the Confederacy. Even Davis’s own vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, became an outspoken opponent of this measure.

Many who supported the Conscription Act blamed Davis for making it necessary because of his strategy to stay on the defensive and protect many static points at once. Davis countered that “without military stores, without the workshops to create them, without the power to import them, necessity not choice has compelled us to occupy strong positions and everywhere to confront the enemy without reserves.”

The Confederate press generally supported the new law but did not hesitate to expose its weaknesses. Despite resentment to government coercion, many saw this as necessary to meet the wartime emergency. The law affected nearly every Confederate family in some way, even though nearly half of those drafted never served.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 484-85; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (16 Apr 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 158, 160, 163; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 155-56, 245, 767; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 394-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 136, 139; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3310; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 73-74; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 197, 200; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 430-32; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 372-73; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 613-14; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 129; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262