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.
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.
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