Category Archives: Louisiana

New Orleans: Preparing the Advance

April 22, 1862 – Flag Officer David G. Farragut met with his fleet officers to lay out his plan for bypassing Forts Jackson and St. Philip and steaming up the Mississippi River in a daring attempt to capture New Orleans.

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

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

Farragut’s original plan had been to use a mortar attack to force the surrender of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, 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.

Thus, Farragut would send his warships past the forts, through the narrow passage between the Confederate obstructions that had been opened by Federals on the 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 wrote his wife, “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: “I feel, and I believe that I know,” Mitchell told Duncan, “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 passing 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, 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.

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (23 Apr 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 164; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 365; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 141; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 202; 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), p. 60; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 317

New Orleans: Bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Philip

April 18, 1862 – 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.

Cmdr D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Cmdr D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 of the 18th. 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. Troops quickly extinguished 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 and 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…”

As 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 bypassing the forts and river obstructions to get to New Orleans. Porter’s aide, speaking for him in his absence, opposed the move because it would open the river and enable Confederate vessels to come down and attack Porter’s fleet. The aide insisted that the forts must be captured before moving upriver. Farragut disagreed, and 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 Federals 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 it 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.”

—–

References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 281-82; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 161, 163; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 140; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 450; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 201-02; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 419; 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), p. 58

New Orleans: Targeting Forts Jackson and St. Philip

April 17, 1862 – Commodore David G. Farragut, flag officer of the Federal West Gulf Blockading Squadron, proceeded with his plan to capture New Orleans, the Confederacy’s largest and richest city.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Farragut, stationed at Ship Island, Mississippi, in the Gulf of Mexico, had been planning to take New Orleans since February. He spent the past month waiting for the mortar fleet of his adopted brother, Commander David D. Porter, to arrive in support. Also on Ship Island was Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal troops, who would march in and take the city with the navy’s help.

The main obstacles in getting to New Orleans were Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two old works on either side of the Mississippi River. These forts, situated 12 miles above Head of Passes and 80 miles below New Orleans, covered any attempt to approach the city from the Gulf of Mexico. The Confederates in the forts, commanded by Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, worked endlessly to try keeping the high river from flooding them out.

General Mansfield Lovell led the defenses within New Orleans, but these had been severely depleted by the transfer of nearly 5,000 men first to Fort Donelson and then to Corinth. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory refused to allow the Confederate River Defense Fleet that had been transferred to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, to go back down the Mississippi and help defend New Orleans. Mallory contended that Commodore Andrew H. Foote’s Federal Western Flotilla posed a greater threat than Farragut.

Meanwhile, Porter’s mortar fleet arrived to give Farragut the largest naval armada in U.S. history. It included 24 wooden warships with a total of 200 large-caliber guns. Joining them were 20 mortar schooners, each with a 13-inch mortar gun. Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Harriet Lane, traded fire with the Confederates at Fort Jackson twice to get the precise ranges. Farragut also personally reconnoitered both Jackson and St. Philip, and he relied on a coastal survey led by Ferdinand H. Gerdes that mapped the river approaches to the forts.

The armada traversed the treacherous sandbar and entered the Mississippi River on April 8, prompting Farragut to remark, “Now we are all right.” Within a week, three of Porter’s vessels moved within range of the forts and exchanged fire. These Federals were able to gauge the distance better for the rest of the fleet. Farragut moved his vessels up the river to a point just below the forts on the 16th.

In addition to the forts, Confederates had extended a large chain across the Mississippi to block a Federal naval advance. They also had an unfinished ironclad, the C.S.S. Louisiana, and a “mosquito squadron” of small gunboats led by Captain George N. Hollins. Other obstacles were placed in the river, but the high water would help the Federal ships to bypass them.

The Confederate defenders in the forts watched the massive fleet of warships, mortars, and troop transports approaching on the 17th. Farragut had the mortars towed into positions near a line of trees on the west bank; a bend in the river hid these vessels from Confederate view and Porter camouflaged the masts with tree branches. The remaining ships were stationed at designated points on the Mississippi.

As the Federals took their positions, Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore protested the Confederate government’s order to move the C.S.S. Louisiana north of New Orleans and not south to support the forts. Moore explained to President Jefferson Davis that the fort’s guns could not reach the naval vessels bombarding them, and the Louisiana was “absolutely a necessity at the forts for the safety of New Orleans, and that it is suicidal to send her elsewhere.”

Davis wrote Moore back expressing less concern about this new Federal threat from below New Orleans than the threat of the Federal ironclad gunboats north of the city:

“The wooden vessels are below, the iron gun boats are above; the forts should destroy the former if they attempt to ascend. The Louisiana may be indispensable to check the descent of the iron boats. The purpose is to defend the city and valley; the only question is as to the best mode of effecting the object.”

Meanwhile, the Federal vessels continued establishing their positions for the bombardment scheduled to begin the next day.

—–

References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 281-82; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (17 Apr 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 254; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 150, 157-58, 161; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 132, 135-36, 138-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 200-01

The Louisiana Secession

January 26, 1861 – Delegates to the Louisiana State Convention at Baton Rouge voted 113 to 17 to secede from the United States.

Louisiana Secession Flag | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Louisiana Secession Flag | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Governor Thomas O. Moore had taken steps toward secession before the convention even assembled. On January 10, militia led by Braxton Bragg carried out Moore’s orders to seize the Federal arsenal and barracks at Baton Rouge. The troops confiscated 50,000 stands of small arms and 40 cannon. Moore transferred some of the guns to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus, who feared his state was vulnerable to Federal occupation.

Louisiana militia then turned their attention to forts guarding the prized city of New Orleans. They seized the U.S. Marine Hospital and Forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Troops also seized Fort Pike near New Orleans on the 11th.

Governor Moore called for the convention to consider secession on January 23. By that time, five states had already seceded (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). Three days later, the delegates used gold pens to sign the ordinance of secession. Businesses closed down in New Orleans as talk of war increased; this marked an extreme shift of opinion in the port city since it had major business ties to the northern states.

When news of Louisiana’s secession reached Washington, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois fiercely declared that any state that had been bought “with the national treasure”—as Louisiana had been through the Louisiana Purchase—would not be allowed to secede and control the vital Mississippi River.

Undeterred, Louisiana militia seized Fort Macomb near New Orleans on the 28th. A potential clash loomed the next day when Treasury Secretary John A. Dix received a wire stating that the captain of the revenue cutter U.S.S. Robert McClelland surrendered his ship to Louisiana officials at the port of New Orleans. Dix had sent Treasury agent W. Hemphill Jones south to make sure all cutters turned their ships over to Federal, not state, authorities at New Orleans, Mobile, and Galveston.

Dix immediately replied: “Tell Lieutenant Caldwell (of the U.S. Navy) to arrest Captain Breshwood (commanding Robert McClelland), assume command of the cutter, and obey the order I gave through you. If Captain Breshwood, after arrest, undertakes to interfere with the command of the cutter, tell Lieutenant Caldwell to consider him as a mutineer, and treat him accordingly. If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” This aggressive response helped inflame northern passions against the South.

Still the seizures continued. On the 31st, Louisiana troops under orders from Governor Moore seized the U.S. Branch Mint and Customs House in New Orleans, as well as the U.S. revenue schooner Washington. Moore collected $500,000 in gold and silver from the mint, of which he later gave $147,519.66 in customs house receipts to the new Confederate treasury.

—–

Sources

  • Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 193, 508
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 9-10
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 24-27, 29-30
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 254
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 11
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161