One-hundred-fifty years ago, April 1862, New Orleans fell to Union forces one year into the Civil War. The impact of this loss proved critical. At the time, England and France, who relied on southern cotton and northern wheat, were debating mediating between the belligerents. President Lincoln sought to have Europe remain neutral; President Jefferson Davis urged Europe to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.
Major Pierre G.T. Beauregard, a second lieutenant in the Army Engineers, had drained New Orleans and constructed the Custom House. A Creole to the core, he immediately resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy when war became a reality. He considered the Mississippi River the city’s most vulnerable point and formulated a plan of defense based upon an attack from below.
Beauregard realized that the two forts south of New Orleans, Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, could protect the city, but only if the trees were cut from the batture to permit a clear line of fire, and only if the forts were properly armed with long guns. In addition, he ordered that a strong, lighted chain barrier to be stretched across the river to inhibit any attempts to sail upstream and that “fire rafts” be strategically placed along the river’s bank to be set alight and floated downriver in the event of an attack. Gunboats would add additional firepower.
Beauregard noted that the city must be able to repel an attack for about 30 minutes and do massive damage in that short time because they could only hold the enemy at bay for that long.
On April 12, 1861, the same P.G.T. Beauregard had ordered his gunners to fire on Fort Sumter, thus opening the Civil War. In response, President Lincoln blockaded southern ports. New Orleans commerce crashed from $550 million per year to a mere $51 million per year within months.
Nearly all of the troops, arms and ammunition available to New Orleans had been ordered to Virginia. Cannons lacked shells and carriages. The ironclad Louisiana stood unfinished, lacking a driveshaft, guns and some armor. The ironclad Manasses likewise remained uncompleted in dry dock.
Worse still, Confederate leadership mistakenly believed that New Orleans could only be taken by an attack from upriver, which required passing the heavily defended Vicksburg, Miss., – an impossible task.
In December of 1861 Union forces occupied Ship Island, the landing point for the British during the Battle of New Orleans. New Orleans residents shouted: “Chalmette’s glories will be repeated!”
Richmond persisted in the assertion that an attack would only come from upriver.
Soon shortages of food and basic supplies plagued New Orleans. The city established free markets for the hungry, which serviced 723 families on the first day. By March 7, 1862, the families needing assistance climbed to 1,862. By March 25, 1,921 families depended upon charity for sustenance.
Governor Thomas O. Moore appointed General Mansfield Lovell, formerly of Massachusetts, to defend the city, but he lacked arms and men and his command was limited to land troops. He had no authority over the unfinished gunboats Louisiana or Manasses, which belonged to private enterprises; he could not command the river fleet, nor could he give orders to the fire rafts.
News reports from Washington indicated that a major invasion force was headed for the Gulf of Mexico. An alarmed Lovell responded by sending a message to his superiors in Richmond: “The forts can be passed, we are disorganized, and have no general officer to command and direct.”
Their response: “The fleet is not headed for New Orleans and fears of our people are without cause.” Confederate leaders steadfastly refused to alter their belief that the Union attack must come from upriver.
On September 19, 1862, the Union warship USS Water Witch crossed the bar and took possession of Head of the Passes. On Oct. 10, four additional ships joined the Water Witch, thus closing the river to all commerce.
For a brief moment Confederate forces has cause for celebration. On what is called “The Night of the Turtle,” Confederate seamen took the ironclad steam ram Manassas downriver. In total darkness, the Manassas surprised the Union ships and rammed one. Captain Pope, who commanded the group of ships, ordered a full retreat, abandoning the passes and embarrassing the Union.
However, the celebration proved short-lived; the collision had dismounted one of the Manassas’ two steam engines and the ship had to limp back to port for repairs.
While this action unfolded, Union generals were making plans.
Naval Officer David Porter planned to construct a new type of naval vessel, a mortar boat, for bombarding the forts so as to open the gate for a naval invasion from the mouth of the river.
Running a Gauntlet
General John Barnard, Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, who – along with Beauregard – had been in charge of rebuilding the forts in the 1840s, calculated that ships steaming upriver would run a gauntlet of fire for 3.5 miles. For 2 miles they would face the fire of 100 to 125 guns, and 50 to 100 guns for 1.5 miles. That, of course, assumed that these forts were properly equipped and manned. It would take only 25 to 30 minutes to pass the forts. It must be done at night.
Lincoln approved Porter’s mortar boats, and also Porter’s recommendation that David Farragut, Porter’s foster brother, be made fleet commander.
The Washington Star, a northern newspaper, disclosed details of the Union plan of attack. General Lovell received a copy. Meanwhile, Confederate commanders in Richmond still refused to accept reality.
As for the forts, Lovell later reported: “I found matters generally so deficient and incomplete that I was unwilling to commit their condition to writing for fear of their falling into the wrong hands.”
Further complicating matters, the River Defense Fleet’s gunboats left New Orleans to support the defense of Island No. 10, which occupied a double bend of the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Mo., blocking the Union’s advance. Maintaining this position was a critical concern for the South.
Lovell’s problems mounted. The Mississippi River ran at an exceptionally high flood tide during spring 1862. High water and debris pressed against the blocking chain. It gave way. Although repaired, it still lacked the strength needed to repel a concerted attack by a determined enemy.
Ship Island became the staging area for the fleet and General Benjamin “The Beast” Butler’s 15,000 troops. With all details complete, Farragut hoisted anchor and crossed the sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
On April 18 of that year, Porter took his position below the forts, around a bend in the river to avoid coming under fire from the Confederate forts, and began shelling the forts. The massive volleys continued for several days, but Farragut was growing impatient. He ordered a midshipman to climb a mast and signal which mortar shells fell into the forts and which landed short or long. There were more “outs” than “ins.” The forts weren’t being reduced.
Farragut camouflaged his ships with river mud, saplings and paint. He reinforced bulkheads with anchor chains and engines with sandbags. He sanded the decks to provide traction against water and blood.
On April 23, 1862, Farragut ordered the attack. At 2 a.m. on the 24th, he ordered two lanterns hoisted from the mizzenmast of his flagship Hartford, signaling his ships to advance at 3:30 a.m. The Union ships approached in three divisions: the first led by Captain Theodurus Bailey, the center under Admiral Farragut and the last under Captain H.H. Bell.
At 3:30 a.m., Confederate Sergeant Herman in the water battery below Fort Jackson reported to Captain William Robertson that he detected “… several black, shapeless masses barely distinguishable from the surrounding darkness moving silently but steadily up the river.” At 3:40 a.m. the guns of both forts Jackson and St. Philip opened fire.
A fierce battle ensued involving competing cannon fire from the forts and Farragut’s ships. Confederate gunboats added to the melee with occasional efforts to ram Union ships by the hastily repaired Confederate ironclad Manassas. The few fire rafts that were lighted had little effect.
The Confederate gunboat Louisiana, upon which so much depended, remained tied to the shoreline above the fort.
David Porter of the mortar boat flotilla stated: “I shake a little now when I think how near we came to being defeated. One day’s more delay and the game would have been blocked on us. They would have put the Louisiana in the only narrow channel where ships had to pass, and she would have sunk everything that came by.”
Rather than have these dangerous ironclads fall into Union hands, both would be set on fire and sunk.
Daylight on April 24 found the Union fleet above the forts and on their way to New Orleans. Fourteen of Farragut’s ships had passed the enemy. One, the Varuna, lay disabled alongside the bank; three others sustained damage and turned downstream to the protection of Porter’s gunboats. Commander Alden wrote in his log: “Victory! The American flag floats over everything on the Mississippi River this morning.”
The batteries at Chalmette and the West Bank were hopelessly outgunned by the massive broadsides the Union fleet delivered. The West Bank battery possessed nine guns; Chalmette had only five. The Confederates abandoned their position after running out of ammunition.
New Orleans had no defenses. No batteries had been erected and only Lovell’s army remained. Lovell sent a telegram to Richmond: “The enemy has passed the forts. It is too late to send any guns here; they had better go to Vicksburg.”
Total casualties for the entire invasion amounted to fewer than 50 Confederates fewer than 200 for the Union.
Farragut’s fleet found the river littered with cotton bales, burning ships, sugar casks and other debris. Wharves and warehouses were on fire. Curiously, sailors witnessed some civilians running along the levees waving either white flags of surrender or American flags. Others played “Dixie” and cursed the offending Union navy.
Watching in Disbelief
At 2 p.m. Farragut’s fleet arrived in New Orleans under a heavy rain. Thousands of soaked New Orleanians stood on the levees and watched in disbelief as the USS Mississippi struck up the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Forts Jackson and St. Philip now lacked communication with New Orleans. On April 27, 1862, Captain David Porter sent Confederate commander Duncan a request to surrender. Duncan refused, taking notice that he had no orders from the city to give up his position.
Soon, events took on a momentum of their own. Duncan and Higgins noted a change in attitude among the men at Fort Jackson, ending in a small mutiny. “They seized the guards, turned the guns around and started spiking the guns.” Some immediately left the fort while others refused to obey orders. Duncan realized that holding out was impossible because “… there was no longer any fight in the men remaining behind … they were completely demoralized.”
On April 28, Duncan contacted Porter and arranged a surrender of the forts. Duncan and Higgins boarded the Union ship USS Harriet Lane and conceded the forts to the Union.
Back in New Orleans, capitulation was under way as well. Under the pelting rain, Farragut ordered Captain Theodorus Bailey and Lieutenant George Perkins ashore protected by a white flag to demand the city’s surrender. They rowed to the wharf at Laurel Street. According to Bailey: “No one received us, although the whole city was watching our movements, and the levee was crowded in spite of the heavy rain-storm. Among the crowd were many women and children, and the women were shaking rebel flags and being rude and noisy.”
Author George Washington Cable recalled years later that the actions of these two Federal officers was: “… one of the bravest deeds I ever saw. [they] walked abreast, unguarded and alone, looking not to the right or left, never frowning, never flinching, while the mob screamed in their ears, shook cocked pistols in their faces, cursed and crowded, and gnashed upon them. So through the gates of death those two men walked to City Hall to demand the town’s surrender.”
Despite vitriolic abuse, Bailey presented David Farragut’s Unconditional Surrender document that called for hoisting the American flag over the Custom House, the Mint and the Post Office, and removal of the State Flag over the City Hall.
Mayor Monroe met with the City Council. They hated to surrender, but now lacked any means of defending the city. Bailey and Perkins were then secretly escorted back to their ships in a covered coach with a Confederate escort as locals pounded and kicked the mayor’s office door.
Farragut ordered a troop of Marines to hoist the “Stars and Stripes” on the flagstaff at the U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue as well as the at Custom House. A citizen named William Mumford tore down the flag at the Mint.
In the meantime, discussions with the city council continued as anti-Union mobs ran through the streets. Finally, on April 28, Farragut informed Mayor Monroe that he had 48 hours to remove women and children before the fleet opened fire.
On April 29, New Orleans surrendered under occupation of only 250 Marines and two howitzers. On May 1 General Butler had Mumford hung for tearing down the American flag on the U.S. Mint.
Southern morale suffered a serious blow. Mary Boykin Chestnut confided in her diary: “New Orleans is gone, and with it the Confederacy! Are we not cut in two? The Mississippi ruins us if it is lost.”
The fall of New Orleans irreparably damaged the southern cause in the Civil War militarily, politically and diplomatically. This next month marks the 150th anniversary of this critical historic event. The tide had turned April 29, 1862, when the queen fell.
Ron Chapman is a professor of history at Nunez Community College.