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.
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 on April 18. 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. But troops were able to quickly extinguish 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 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…”
While 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 to bypass the forts and river obstructions to get to New Orleans. Porter’s aide, speaking for him in his absence, argued against such a dangerous mission: “We should first capture the forts, and then we may easily take New Orleans; but if we run the forts we should leave an enemy in our rear.” It could also open the river and enable Confederate vessels to come down and attack Porter’s fleet.
Farragut disagreed, arguing that the mortar schooners would eventually run out of ammunition. He concluded, “The flag-officer, having heard all the opinions expressed by the different commanders, is of the opinion that whatever is to be done will have to be done quickly and that the forts should be run.” 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 the men 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 she 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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