The Fall of Forts Jackson and St. Philip

The day after Flag Officer David G. Farragut arrived at New Orleans, Federal Commander David D. Porter sent a boat under a flag of truce to Forts Jackson and St. Philip to notify the Confederates that the city had fallen (even though it officially had not yet). With the Confederates cut off, Porter asked them to give up the forts in a message that read in part, “No man could consider it dishonorable to surrender under these circumstances, especially when no advantage can arise by longer holding out, and by yielding gracefully he can save the further effusion of blood. You have defended the forts gallantly, and no more can be asked of you.”

Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, commanding the Confederate coastal defenses, received Porter’s request the next day. Although the garrisons of four lesser forts had just surrendered, Duncan replied that he could not surrender Forts Jackson and St. Philip until he received official word from New Orleans (even though his communication to that city had been cut). Meanwhile, news of New Orleans’s apparent fall spread among Duncan’s man, and some threatened to munity. Duncan tried placating them with a proclamation:

“You have nobly, gallantly, and heroically sustained with courage and fortitude the terrible ordeals of fire, water, and a hail of shot and shell wholly unsurpassed during the present war. But more remains to be done… We are just as capable of repelling the enemy today as we were before the bombardment. Twice has the enemy demanded your surrender, and twice has been refused… Your officers have every confidence in your courage and patriotism, and feel every assurance that you will cheerfully and with alacrity obey all orders and do your whole duty as men and as becomes the well-tried garrisons of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip. Be vigilant, therefore, and stand by your guns, and all will yet be well.”

Map of area around Forts Jackson and St. Philip | Image Credit:

The men at Fort Jackson did not take heed and mutinied that night. Some turned the cannon on the fort, while about half the garrison simply walked out despite their officers’ orders and pleas. The mutineers took to the bayous on the boats needed to communicate with Fort St. Philip across the river, leaving that garrison isolated. Thinking the troops at Fort St. Philip were also revolting, Duncan began to seriously consider surrender.

Duncan called his officers together on the morning of the 28th. Even though no mutiny had occurred at Fort St. Philip, half the troops at Fort Jackson had deserted, many of the guns had been spiked, most of the boats had been lost or destroyed, no more supplies or communication would be coming from New Orleans, and Federal troops were about to land and lay siege. Surrender seemed the only viable option.

Captain John K. Mitchell, commanding the Confederate naval fleet that now consisted only of the unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana, argued against surrendering the forts because it would leave his ship exposed to capture. But his was the minority opinion, as most officers agreed that it was best to surrender. Duncan sent a message to Porter: “Upon mature deliberation it has been decided to accept the terms of surrender of these forts under the conditions offered by you in your letter of the 26th instant, viz, that the officers and men shall be paroled, officers retiring with their side-arms. We have no control over the vessels afloat.”

The vessels afloat were under Mitchell, who was furious over Duncan’s decision. Giving up the forts left the Louisiana, which had no power, an easy capture for the Federals. So he decided to destroy the vessel. As he set about doing so, Porter met with Duncan and his officers aboard Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Harriet Lane. Duncan explained that the Confederate naval forces were not part of his surrender because they belonged to Mitchell. As they drew up and signed the articles of surrender, the burning Louisiana drifted downriver and exploded near Fort St. Philip; the explosion shook the men signing the surrender documents, and flying shrapnel killed a nearby Confederate.

After the documents were signed, the U.S. flag was raised over both forts, and the Confederate officers and men were taken to New Orleans late that afternoon. Federals apprehended Mitchell and some of his men and demanded their unconditional surrender for destroying the Louisiana. Porter was enraged that Mitchell had set fire to the Louisiana while a truce was being negotiated. Duncan insisted that the navy had acted on its own responsibility. Porter declared that Mitchell and his men had “forfeited all claim to any consideration” for parole. They were confined and later sent north as prisoners of war.

During the week-long bombardment, the Confederates in Forts Jackson and St. Philip suffered 50 casualties (11 killed and 39 wounded). The forts sustained many direct hits but suffered no lasting damage. The capture of these forts opened the Mississippi River to Federal shipping from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.


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