Federal warships were in the process of bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which defended the southern approach to New Orleans near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Flag Officer David G. Farragut, overall commander of the Federal naval squadron, planned to use the mortar attack to force the forts to surrender, 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.
Farragut therefore decided to send his warships past the forts, through the narrow passage between the Confederate obstructions that had been opened by Federals on the “wild 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 reported on the 23rd, “I visited each ship in order to know positively that each commander understood my orders for the attack and to see that all was in readiness. I had looked to their efficiency before.” To his wife, Farragut wrote, “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. He told Duncan, “I feel, and I believe that I know, 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 to pass 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, Major 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.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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), 2012.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.