Flag Officer David G. Farragut, commanding the Federal naval squadron currently bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip near the mouth of the Mississippi River, had informed his ship commanders that they would attempt to run past the batteries through a small opening in the Confederate obstructions on the waterway. Although most of his officers disagreed with his plan, Farragut was certain that land artillery could not destroy steam-powered watercraft, which moved much faster and would be much harder targets than sailing vessels.
In the early morning darkness of April 24, Commander David D. Porter’s mortar schooners suddenly intensified their fire against the forts, indicating to Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, the Confederate commander, that Farragut’s advance was imminent. Duncan was still trying to convince Captain John K. Mitchell, commanding the Confederate River Defense Fleet, to have his stationary ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana (which was moored to the bank because of her non-functioning engine) towed into a position to fire into the advancing Federals as a sort of floating battery. Duncan wrote him, “You are assuming a fearful responsibility if you do not come at once to our assistance with the Louisiana and the fleet.”
Despite pleas from both Duncan and Mitchell’s superior, Mitchell refused on the grounds that the Federals would destroy the Louisiana, thus depriving New Orleans of a prime defender. Mitchell also did not set fire to the hulks as ordered, which would have provided illumination that the Confederates needed to see the Federals coming.
Farragut readied 17 ships (split into divisions of eight, three, and six) bearing 154 total guns. At 1:55 a.m., he directed his men to place two red lanterns atop the mizzen of Farragut’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, as a signal to begin the advance, and the first division began moving forward in the cold, predawn darkness. The ships would have to bypass the forts single-file due to the narrow passage through the river obstructions. As the ships moved, Porter’s diversionary bombardment continued.
The rising moon enabled the Confederates to see the Federals trying to pass around 3:30, led by the U.S.S. Cayuga. Evading enemy fire, the Federals steamed through the narrow lane and came to a wider part of the river. There they moved closer to Fort St. Philip, firing broadsides into its works. The cannonade seemed like “all the earthquakes in the world, and all the thunder and lightnings… going off at once.”
Captain Theodorus Bailey, commanding the Federals’ first division from the Cayuga, reported, “we were struck from stem to stern. At length we were close up with St. Philip, when we opened with grape and canister. Scarcely were we above the line of fire when we found ourselves attacked by the rebel fleet of gunboats; this was hot, but more congenial work.”
As Farragut had guessed, the Confederate gunners in the forts had trouble hitting the moving ships, and the first division passed through without serious damage. Now the Federals had to face the Confederate river fleet coming down from New Orleans. The fleet consisted of the C.S.S. Warrior, Stonewall Jackson, Lovell, and Breckinridge, the steamers C.S.S. Star and Belle Algerine, and the gunboat C.S.S. General Quitman, along with the stationary ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana.
The Cayuga flew the Confederate night signal to try to confuse the gunboats, but three attacked her anyway and Confederate sailors tried to board her. Bailey reported on his use of the 11-inch Dahlgren gun on the first attacking ship from 30 yards: “The effect was very destructive. He immediately sheered inshore, ran aground, and burned himself up.”
The U.S.S. Oneida and the 10-gun sloop U.S.S. Varuna came up to help the Cayuga as more Confederate gunboats approached. Bailey stated, “The enemy were so thick that it was like duck shooting; what missed one rebel hit another. With their aid we cleared the kitchen.” However, a Confederate vessel managed to ram and sink the Varuna.
The Louisiana, stationed nearby, sporadically fired but did no damage. The ship’s commander, Charles F. McIntosh, was mortally wounded early in the fighting. He was replaced by Mitchell, the overall fleet commander.
The second Federal division, consisting of three large ships including the U.S.S. Brooklyn and the U.S.S. Hartford, then moved into the passage. They steamed toward Fort Jackson as they passed and fired into its works. As this second wave made it through, the Confederate ram C.S.S. Manassas appeared. She tried to ram the Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn’s sides were fortified and no damage was done.
The Manassas then tried to attack the large side-wheeler U.S.S. Mississippi, but the Federal ship evaded her. The Manassas turned to the Hartford, briefly running her aground and pushing a fire raft into her. The fire spread across the flagship’s port side and caused such a panic that Farragut cried, “My God is it to end in this way?” Firemen eventually put out the blaze, the crew ungrounded the ship, and the Hartford continued her advance. Farragut reported, “At length the fire slackened, the smoke cleared off and we saw, to our surprise, that we were above the forts.”
The Mississippi and Manassas went full steam at each other, intending to collide. According to Farragut, “We all looked on with intense anxiety. When within 50 yards, the enemy’s heart failed him, and he turned to the right and ran on shore. (Melancton) Smith (commanding the Mississippi) poured in a broadside, which riddled her. She floated down stream, on fire from her own furnaces.”
The third division of six ships then passed through, also firing into Fort Jackson. Farragut’s fleet easily outmatched the Confederate gunboats, pushing most of them aside after minor skirmishes. The Confederate vessels, many of which were manned by civilian crews, fled to safety upriver.
Following the two-hour engagement, Farragut regrouped at Quarantine Station, seven miles above the forts. There he learned that the Varuna had been sunk. Also, three ships had been stalled by the obstructions, and the rising sun enabled the Confederates to see and pour fire into them until they finally fled back downriver.
But 13 of the 17 vessels had bypassed the Confederate forts and gunboats, so Farragut considered the operation a success. Captain Thomas Craven of the Brooklyn, who had opposed Farragut’s plan, called this “the most brilliant thing in the way of a naval fight ever performed… I had always looked upon it as a most desperate undertaking, and thought that but few of our number would be left to witness our most terrible disaster. But the Lord of Hosts was with us.”
Despite the success, every vessel sustained damage of some sort, and the captain’s clerk aboard the U.S.S. Iroquois issued a gruesome report: “My poor ship is knocked almost to pieces. Fore and aft our bulwarks are torn to kindling wood… All our men were killed in the same way, torn to pieces. The head of a powder boy was blown away and never found.”
The Federals sustained 184 casualties (37 killed and 147 wounded), with one ship lost. The Confederates lost 106 men (61 killed, 43 wounded, and two escaping), along with eight ships. Major General Mansfield Lovell, the overall Confederate commander, condemned the civilian personnel handling the Confederate gunboats in a report to the War Department: “Unwilling to govern themselves, and unwilling to be governed by others, their total want of system, vigilance, and discipline rendered them useless and helpless when the enemy finally dashed upon them suddenly in a dark night.”
While Porter stayed behind with his mortars to continue bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip into submission, Farragut intended to continue upriver to New Orleans the next day. Alarm bells started ringing in that city around 9 a.m. as news arrived of the encounter. Lovell had just 2,800 militia to defend the city, and rioting broke out when he informed Mayor John T. Monroe that he would have to evacuate his force to avoid annihilation.
Lovell ordered a retreat to Camp Moore, on the Jackson Railroad about 70 miles north of New Orleans. The city’s fate was sealed.
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