New Orleans was the jewel of the Confederacy. In addition to being the South’s largest city, it boasted considerable industry that produced ironclads, munitions and uniforms, among other items. More important, it controlled access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico.
Both sides grasped the significance of New Orleans, but, surprisingly, the Confederates did little to prepare its defenses. As fast as soldiers could be mustered in Louisiana, they were shipped off to Virginia and Tennessee, leaving the state virtually defenseless. The Confederates were also lulled into a false sense of security by Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two large brick emplacements located on the river’s west and east banks, respectively, near its mouth.
Manned by several hundred soldiers and protected by some 100 cannons, the forts seemed more than adequate to stop an enemy fleet trying to move upstream. A large boom made from chains and old vessels had also been strung across the river to serve as a barrier, and a 12-boat squadron of the River Defense Fleet and numerous fire rafts stood ready to repel any invaders.
But these defenses were not nearly as strong as they appeared. The forts’ cannons were antiquated, and the gunpowder was of poor quality. It was also impossible to coordinate the forts and gunboats, because the captains of the River Defense Fleet refused to take orders from the forts’ commander, Brig. Gen. Johnson K. Duncan.
In March 1862, Union Flag Officer David Farragut assembled a large fleet of warships, mortar boats and transports at the river’s mouth. Onboard the transports were thousands of infantrymen under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Farragut knew the forts were too strong to run past or to capture. Instead, he chose to reduce them first with the mortar boats commanded by his foster brother, Lt. David Porter, then dash past them to New Orleans.
On April 18 — Good Friday — Porter’s boats began a week-long bombardment that blasted the forts to rubble. Surprisingly, the defenders suffered relatively few casualties because most of them stayed deep within the forts’ protective walls. During the bombardment, Confederate officials in New Orleans dispatched the powerful ironclad Louisiana to help protect the forts, but the vessel’s engines were inoperative, and it ended up serving as a floating battery anchored next to Fort St. Philip.
When he thought the forts were sufficiently battered, Farragut sent a vessel upriver one night to cut a hole in the chain boom in preparation to steam past the forts. The Union sailors chosen to make the run were unsure how many enemy guns had been knocked out by their bombardment, so they prepared for the worst. Chain armor was draped alongside each vessel to protect the engines, guns and engine rooms were sandbagged, and netting was strung above deck to catch falling debris. They also covered the decks with white sand to reflect light — and to provide traction by soaking up the expected blood and gore.
In the predawn hours of April 24, Farragut sent 17 warships upriver, but the Confederates spotted them and opened fire. The Union sailors responded with their own broadsides, and a thick cloud of smoke quickly enveloped the river.
“The roar of the artillery was deafening; the rushing sound of the descending bombs; the sharp, whizzing noise made by the jagged fragments of exploded shells, the whirring of grape shot and hissing of canister balls — all this was well calculated to disturb the equanimity of the strongest nerved man,” recalled General Duncan’s aide, William Seymour. “A lurid glow of light rested upon the Fort, produced by the almost incessant discharges of our own guns, and the explosion of the enemy’s shell above and around us.”
The small River Defense Fleet rushed to engage the enemy, but visibility was so poor the ships sometimes accidentally collided. At least one fire raft was set loose that singed Farragut’s flagship. When dawn broke, all but three of Farragut’s ships had successfully passed the forts, and the boats of the River Defense Fleet were either sunk or scattered. The future admiral and hero of the Spanish-American War, George Dewey, was a young officer with the fleet, and he later recalled seeing Farragut tied to the riggings of his flagship, the Hartford, shouting encouragements to the ships as they passed by.
Losses were surprisingly light, with Farragut and the Confederates losing about 200 men each in the battle. As a testament to their bravery, 20 Union sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism in this one fight.
New Orleans, left unprotected, was now doomed. Farragut sailed on to the city and anchored next to the levee on April 25. The city was in complete chaos; both the authorities and civilians had panicked when they learned the enemy was approaching. To prevent the Yankees from capturing valuable supplies, the Confederates set fire to ships, docks, bales of cotton and warehouses along the riverfront. A heavy cloud of smoke hung over the city, and Canal Street was ankle-deep in molasses that had been dumped in the gutter.
A heavy rain began and lightning crashed, but a huge crowd lined the levee to face the Union ships and shout curses and threats at the sailors. Still covered in soot and grime from the night’s battle, the sailors simply patted their cannons and smiled, which infuriated the crowd even more.
Farragut ordered two of his officers to demand the city’s surrender from Mayor John T. Monroe. These two officers had to walk through the mob of furious citizens, who cursed, spat on and threatened them. Drunken men waded through the crowd and placed cocked pistols against their heads threatening to shoot them. The Louisiana novelist George Washington Cable witnessed the deed and later wrote, “So through the gates of death those two men walked to the City Hall to demand the town’s surrender. It was one of the bravest deeds I ever saw done.”
At City Hall, while the crowd beat upon the doors shouting threats, the two officers demanded the city’s surrender. Monroe refused and referred the matter to Gen. Mansfield Lovell, who commanded the Confederate troops in the city. Lovell also refused to surrender but, knowing the futility of opposing Farragut’s cannons, said he would evacuate his 4,000 men. The Confederates then helped the Union officers slip out of the building and back to their ships through backstreets to avoid the mob.
Library of CongressUnion mortar boats sailing past Fort Jackson
The next day a Union shore party raised the American flag over the Mint building. When the soldiers at Fort Jackson learned of the city’s capture, some of them mutinied, and their officers had no choice but to surrender, along with Fort St. Philip, on April 28. The captain of the Louisiana blew up his ship rather than see it fall into enemy hands.
With only light casualties, Farragut and the Navy had won a stunning victory that put the Union one step closer to securing the entire Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in two.
Sources: Charles L. Dufour, “The Night the War was Lost”; Terry L. Jones, ed., “The Civil War Memoirs of Capt. William J. Seymour: Reminiscences of a Louisiana Tiger”; Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War”; John D. Winters, “The Civil War in Louisiana.”