Tag Archives: West Gulf Blockading Squadron

Federals Capture Galveston

October 5, 1862 – Federal army-navy forces occupied Galveston, the most important port on the Texas coast.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this month, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron had seized various points on the Texas coast, from the Sabine River to Corpus Christi. The most important point was Galveston, which had been under Federal blockade for 15 months.

Naval Commander William B. Renshaw confronted Galveston with a gunboat squadron consisting of the U.S.S. Westfield, Harriet Lane, Owasco, Clifton, and the mortar schooner Henry James. The vessels neutralized the Confederates forces in the town, forcing Colonel Joseph J. Cook to surrender.

Renshaw had demanded unconditional and immediate surrender, but he ultimately agreed to give Cook four days to evacuate his troops and equipment. On the 5th, a Federal colonel and 260 men came ashore to begin occupation duty. The two sides agreed the Confederates would not move artillery into Galveston via the two-mile-long bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

Federals now had a foothold in Texas, leaving Alabama as the only Confederate state that still did not have at least one point under Federal occupation. However, Farragut knew that even though his ships had taken several ports along the coast, they could not hold those points without army support.

He wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “I have the coast of Texas lined with vessels. If I had a military force I would go down and take every place from the Mississippi River to the Rio Grande.” Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation troops in New Orleans, had pledged to give Farragut some men to occupy these ports, but they did not materialize. This led Farragut to inform Renshaw, “I fear that I will find difficulties in procuring the few troops we require to hold the place.”

Meanwhile, the Davis administration, which had not responded to urgent calls for help in reinforcing Galveston, now scrambled to regain the port. Major General John B. Magruder was given command of the Confederate District of Texas, headquartered at Houston. Magruder, who had gained fame by holding off a superior Federal force at Yorktown earlier this year, soon began planning to liberate Galveston and other coastal points from Federal occupation.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15753-63; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296-97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 746; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 218, 221; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 275, 277; 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), p. 126-27; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 526; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 750-51

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.

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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

Coastal Operations: Farragut Appointed

January 9, 1862 – U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles appointed David G. Farragut to be the flag officer of the new West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The growing size of the naval force blockading the Gulf coast prompted Welles to divide it into two commands. Flag Officer William McKean, current squadron commander, was assigned to lead the new East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Farragut, 37th on the captain’s seniority list, was chosen to lead the West. Farragut’s peers respected him, but some suspected him of having Confederate sympathies. Welles recounted:

“Neither the President nor any member of the Cabinet knew him, or knew of him. Members of Congress inquired who he was, and some of them remonstrated, and questioned whether I was not making a mistake for he was a Southern man and had a Southern wife.”

Farragut’s fleet consisted of 17 steam warships and 19 mortar boats led by Commander David D. Porter, Farragut’s foster brother. The new commander’s flagship was the U.S.S. Hartford, a three-year-old, 24-gun, 2,900-ton vessel with a screw propeller and a draft of about 17 feet. His squadron’s jurisdiction was from western Florida to the Rio Grande.

When Farragut arrived to take command on January 20, he announced to his crews that their principal mission was to secure the mouth of the Mississippi River, capture New Orleans, and then move upriver to link with Federals moving southward. This mission was so secret that Farragut told his wife to burn every letter he sent to her. As the Western Squadron began preparations, an article regarding the Federal blockade appeared in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin:

“The situation of this port makes it a matter of vast moment to the whole Confederate States that it should be opened to the commerce of the world within the least possible period… We believe the blockading vessels of the enemy might have been driven away and kept away months ago, if the requisite energy had been put forth… The blockade has remained and the great port of New Orleans has been hermetically sealed.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 100-01, 110; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 97; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 36