April 25, 1862 – Federal warships arrived at the harbor of the Confederacy’s largest and richest city, and despite wrangling over surrender terms, the city’s fall was virtually assured.
The Confederates at Forts Jackson and St. Philip sent off one message warning the people of New Orleans that the Federals were coming before the telegraph lines were cut. Resentful city residents crowded the streets to await the naval fleet’s arrival in the harbor. The city’s provisions and supplies were collected, and as the Federal ships came within sight, the destruction began.
Some 30,000 bales of cotton were set on fire and launched down the river. Mass amounts of tobacco, sugar, corn, and rice were dumped into the Mississippi, with the people taking what they could. The scene became “one general conflagration of everything that could be of use to the enemy.” A person noted, “Every grog shop has been emptied, and gutters and pavements flowing with liquors of all kinds, so that if the Yankees are fond of strong drink, I fear they will fare ill.”
The unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Mississippi was added to the ruin, as officials reluctantly burned her to prevent capture. The Confederates had been confident that the Mississippi, if completed, could have matched the entire wooden Federal naval fleet.
Word of the Federal advance reached the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge, 80 miles up the Mississippi, and similar destruction ensued. A resident of that town wrote:
“Wagons and drays, and everything that could be driven, or rolled along were to be seen in every direction loaded with the bales. Up and down the levee, as far as we could see, negroes were rolling it down to the brink of the river, where they would set the (bales) afire, and push them in, to float burning down the river.”
Below New Orleans, Flag Officer David G. Farragut assigned two of his warships to stay behind and led the remaining 11 up the Mississippi. The Federals came upon two batteries of 14 guns at English Turn on the Chalmette line (east bank) and the McGehee line (west bank). Located three miles downriver from New Orleans, this was where Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the War of 1812.
As the Confederate fired, Farragut’s vessels responded with their bow guns, then shifted left and right to fire broadsides. The high river enabled the Federal guns to elevate enough to hit the batteries. The enemy guns were silenced within 20 minutes and, as Farragut reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “those who could run were running in every direction.”
The captain of the U.S.S. Richmond observed that as the fleet approached the city, “over a thousand bales of (burning) cotton passed us floating down the river. We passed over 20 large ships on fire before we came in sight of New Orleans, and there a horrible sight met our eyes. They had set fire to all the ships and steamers for miles along the wharves.”
Farragut’s fleet surgeon wrote that “the gunboats were busy all evening towing burning ships and fire-rafts and fire-ships free of the fleet.” Farragut described the waterfront fires in a letter to his wife and stated, “Such vandalism I have never witnessed.” The Federals dropped anchor in the New Orleans harbor around 1 p.m., and two officers went ashore to demand the city’s surrender from Mayor John T. Monroe.
An enraged mob gathered around the officers, screaming “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!”, “Hang them!”, and various curses. The Federal gunboats trained their cannon on the city streets to ensure that the crowd did not attack the officers. Confederate soldier and novelist George Washington Cable later recalled that “the crowds on the levee howled and screamed with rage. The swarming decks answered never a word; but one old tar on the Hartford, standing with lanyard in hand beside a great pivot-gun, so plain to view that you could see him smile, silently patted its big black breech and blandly grinned.”
The officers hurried to City Hall, where Mayor Monroe explained that General Mansfield Lovell, the Confederate commander of the district, had placed New Orleans under martial law before evacuating his militia. Therefore, Monroe had no authority to surrender the city.
Lovell arrived at City Hall soon after and offered to “return with my troops and not leave as long as one brick remained upon another” if the people were willing to suffer through a naval bombardment. The Federals instead demanded immediate and unconditional surrender. Lovell refused because his militia had already evacuated, making New Orleans an open city. He then deferred to the mayor and city council to negotiate whatever terms they pleased.
Monroe said that he would not resist Federal occupation of the city, but he would not disavow his loyalty to the Confederacy either. He told the officers, “This satisfaction you cannot obtain at our hands.” Monroe then said that he needed to meet with the city council before agreeing to anything.
By this time, the mob had gathered outside City Hall, with some trying to break down the front doors to seize the Federal officers. Lovell diverted their attention by coming out and announcing his refusal to surrender while the Federals slipped out the building’s back door.
Monroe met with the city council and discussed what they should do while the Federals remained on their ships in the harbor. Farragut opted not to press his demand for unconditional surrender too hard because Forts Jackson and St. Philip were still in Confederate hands downriver. Thus, a sort of stalemate ensued between Farragut and the mayor, who issued a proclamation:
“After an obstinate and heroic defence by our troops on the river, there appears to be imminent danger that the insolent enemy will succeed in capturing your city… I shall remain among you, to protect you and your property, so far as my power or authority as Chief Magistrate can avail.”
Regardless of whether the Federals would officially take over the city, their conquest of New Orleans was essentially complete. Even so, city residents would continue their resistance, as reflected in a passage of a teenage girl’s diary: “We are conquered but not subdued.”
The Federal capture of New Orleans deprived the Confederacy of its largest and richest port, where foodstuffs from the lower Mississippi River Valley were exported to Europe in exchange for war supplies by blockade-runners. Farragut became an instant hero in the northern states, and the Federals now had a vital base from which to invade the Deep South.
Confederate officials soon turned their attention to Vicksburg, Mississippi, a more formidable city higher up the river. Vicksburg residents began fleeing the city, fearful that they would be targeted next. They were soon replaced by an influx of New Orleans refugees.
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