New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederate States, and one of the CSA’s most important ports. For the Federals, capturing the Crescent City became a priority early in the war. Besides taking this economically important city out of Confederate hands, the capture of New Orleans was a step in the Union’s efforts to gain control of the entire Mississippi River.
To prevent a Union fleet from steaming up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico and taking the city, Confederate forces occupied two heavily armed forts below New Orleans and about 20 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River called Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. A dozen or so gunboats and some fire rafts added to the Rebel defense. Estimates vary on the exact number of cannon in the Confederate defenses, but it was somewhere between 165-190.
But this firepower was greatly outnumbered by the Union fleet assembled in April 1862 under Flag Officer David Farragut for the purpose of running past the forts and capturing New Orleans. Farragut had 46 ships and mortar rafts, and over 300 guns. He arranged his ships into three divisions, and at 2 a.m. on the morning of April 24th, Farragut’s ships got underway. The fleet was spotted in the darkness at 3:30 by the Confederates in the forts, who opened fire, and the battle was on. Most of the fleet successfully was able to pass the forts and fight through the Confederate gunboats. Farragut’s fleet arrived at New Orleans on the 25th; the outnumbered Rebel defenders withdrew from the city, leaving the now obvious task of surrender to the civilian authorities. Meanwhile, the garrisons at Forts Jackson and St. Philips surrendered on the 29th, and with that, Federal navy and army personnel took possession of New Orleans. It was a significant victory for the Union.
Farragut detailed the naval operations and capture of New Orleans in this after action report:
U. S. FLAGSHIP HARTFORD,
At Anchor off the City of New Orleans, May 6, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor herewith to forward my report in detail of the battle of New Orleans:
On the 23d of March [sic] I made all my arrangements for the attack on and passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Every vessel was as well prepared as the ingenuity, of her commander and officers could suggest, both for the preservation of life and of the vessel, and perhaps there is not on record such a display of ingenuity as has been evinced in this little squadron. The first was by the engineer of the Richmond, Mr. Moore, by suggesting that the sheet cables be stopped up and down on the sides in the line of the engines, which was immediately adopted by all the vessels. Then each commander made his own arrangements for stopping the shot from penetrating the boilers or machinery that might come in forward or abaft, by hammocks, coal, bags of ashes, bags of sand, clothes bags, and in fact every device imaginable; the bulwarks were lined with hammocks by some, by splinter nettings made of rope by others; some rubbed their vessels over with mud to make their ships less visible, and some whitewashed their decks to make things more visible by night during the fight; all of which you will find mentioned in the reports of the commanders. In the afternoon I visited each ship, in order to know positively that each commander understood my orders for the attack and to see that all was in readiness. I had looked to their efficiency before. Everyone appeared to understand their orders well, and looked forward to the conflict with firmness, but with anxiety, as it was to be in the night, or at 2 o’clock a.m.
I had previously sent Captain Bell, with the petard man, with Lieutenant Commanding Crosby in the Pinola and Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell in the Itasca, to break the chain which crossed the river and was supported by eight hulks, which were strongly moored. This duty was not thoroughly performed, in consequence of the failure to ignite the petards with the galvanic battery and the great strength of the current. Still it was a success, and under the circumstances a highly meritorious one. The vessel boarded by Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell appears to have had her chains so secured that they could be cast loose, which was done by that officer, and thereby making an opening sufficiently large for the ships to pass through, it was all done under a heavy fire and at a great hazard to the vessel, for the particulars of which I refer you to Captain Bell’s report, marked “A.” Upon the night preceding the attack, however, I dispatched Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell to make examination, and to see that the passage was still clear, and to make me a signal to that effect, which he did at an early hour. The enemy commenced sending down fire rafts and lighting their fires on the shore opposite the chain about the same time, which drew their fire on Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell, but without injury.
At about five minutes of 2 o’clock a.m., April 24, signal was made to get underway (two ordinary red lights, so as not to attract the attention of the enemy), but owing to the great difficulty in purchasing their anchors the Pensacola and some of the other vessels were not underway until half past 3. We then advanced in two columns, Captain Bailey leading the right in the gunboat Cayuga, Lieutenant Commanding Harrison, he having been assigned to the first division of gunboats, which was to attack Fort St. Philip, in conjunction with the second division of ships, and the Hartford the left, Fleet Captain Bell leading the second division of gunboats in the Sciota, Lieutenant Commanding Donaldson, to assist the first division of ships to attack Fort Jackson, as will be shown by the general order and diagram sent herewith. The enemy’s lights, while they discovered us to them, were at the same time guides to us. We soon passed the barrier chains, the right column taking Fort St. Philip and the left Fort Jackson. The fire became general, the smoke dense, and we had nothing to aim at but the flash of their guns; it was very difficult to distinguish friends from foes. Captain Porter had, by arrangement, moved up to a certain point on the Fort Jackson side with his gunboats, and I had assigned the same post to Captain Swartwout, in the Portsmouth, to engage the water batteries to the side and end of Fort Jackson, while his mortar vessels poured a terrific fire of shells into it. I discovered a fire raft coming down upon us, and in attempting to avoid it ran the ship on shore, and the ram Manassas, which I had not seen, lay on the opposite side of it, and pushed it down upon us. Our ship was soon on fire halfway up to her tops, but we backed off, and through good organization of our fire department, and the great exertions of Captain Wainwright and his first lieutenant, officers, and crew, the fire was extinguished. In the meantime our battery was never silent, but poured in its missiles of death into Fort St. Philip, opposite to which we had got by this time, and it was silenced with the exception of a gun now and then. By this time the enemy’s gunboats, some thirteen in number, besides two ironclad rams, the Manassas and Louisiana, had become more visible. We took them in hand, and in the course of a short time destroyed eleven of them. We were now fairly past the forts and the victory was ours, but still here and there a gunboat making resistance. Two of them had attacked the Varuna, which vessel, by her greater speed, was much in advance of us. They ran into her and caused her to sink, but not before she had destroyed her adversaries, and their wrecks now lie side by side, a monument to the gallantry of Captain Boggs, his officers, and crew. It was a kind of guerrilla; they were fighting in all directions. Captains Bailey and Bell, who were in command of the first and second divisions of gunboats, were as active in rendering assistance in every direction as lay in their power. Just as the scene appeared to be closing, the ram Manassas was seen coming up under full speed to attack us. I directed Captain Smith, in the Mississippi, to turn and run her down. The order was instantly obeyed by the Mississippi’s turning and going at her at full speed. Just as we expected to see the ram annihilated, when within 50 yards of each other, she put her helm hard aport, dodged the Mississippi, and ran ashore. The Mississippi poured two broadsides into her and sent her drifting down the river a total wreck. Thus closed our morning’s fight.
The Department will perceive that after the organization and arrangements had been made, and we had fairly entered into the fight, the density of the smoke from guns and fire rafts, the scenes passing on board our own ship and around us (for it was as if the artillery of heaven were playing upon the earth), that it was impossible for the flag-officer to see how each vessel was conducting itself, and can only judge by the final result and their special reports, which are herewith enclosed, but I feel that I can say with truth that it has rarely been the lot of a commander to be supported by officers of more indomitable courage or higher professional merit.
Captain Bailey, who had preceded me up to the Quarantine Station, had captured the Chalmette regiment, Colonel Szymanski, and not knowing what to do with them, as every moment was a great loss to me, I paroled both officers and men, and took away all their arms, munitions of war, and public property, and ordered them to remain where they were until the next day. I sent some of the gunboats to precede me up the river to cut the telegraph wires in different places.
It now became me to look around for my little fleet, and to my regret I found that three were missing, the Itasca, Winona, and Kennebec. Various were the speculations as to their fate, whether they had been sunk on the passage or had put back. I therefore determined immediately to send Captain Boggs, whose vessel was now sunk, through the Quarantine Bayou [Bay] around to Commander Porter, telling him of our safe arrival, and to demand the surrender of the forts, and to endeavor to get some tidings of the missing vessels. I also sent a dispatch by him to General Butler, informing him that the way was clear for him to land his forces through the Quarantine Bayou in accordance with previous arrangements, and that I should leave gunboats there to protect him against the enemy, who I now perceived had three or four gunboats left at the forts–the Louisiana, an ironclad battery of 16 guns; the McRae, very similar in appearance to one of our gunboats and armed very much in the same way; the Defiance, and a river steamer transport.
We then proceeded up to New Orleans, leaving the Wissahickon and Kineo to protect the landing of the general’s troops. Owing to the slowness of some of the vessels, and our want of knowledge of the river, we did not reach the English Turn until about 10:30 a.m. on the 25th, but all the morning I had seen abundant evidence of the panic which had seized the people in New Orleans. Cotton-loaded ships on fire came floating down, and working implements of every kind, such as are used in shipyards; the destruction of property was awful. We soon descried the new earthwork forts on the old lines on both shores. We now formed and advanced in the same order, two lines, each line taking its respective work. Captain Bailey was still far in advance, not having noticed my signal for close order, which was to enable the slow vessels to come up. They opened on him a galling fire, which caused us to run up to his rescue. This gave them the advantage of a raking fire on us for upward of a mile, with some 20 guns, while we had but two IX-inch guns on our forecastle to reply to them. It was not long, however, before we were enabled to bear away and give the fort a broadside of shells, shrapnel, and grape, the Pensacola at the same time passing up and giving a tremendous broadside of the same kind to the starboard fort, and by the time we could reload, the Brooklyn, Captain Craven, passed handsomely between us and the battery and delivered her broadside and shut us out. By this time the other vessels had gotten up and ranged in, one after another, delivering their broadsides in spiteful revenge for their ill treatment of the little Cayuga. The forts were silenced, and those who could run were running in every direction. We now passed up to the city and anchored immediately in front of it, and I sent Captain Bailey on shore to demand the surrender of it from the authorities, to which the mayor replied that the city was under martial law, and that he had no authority. General Lovell, who was present, stated that he should deliver up nothing, but, in order to free the city from embarrassment, he would restore the city authorities and retire with his troops, which he did. The correspondence with the city authorities and myself is herewith annexed. I then seized all the steamboats and sent them down to Quarantine for General Butler’s forces. Among the number of these boats is the famous Tennessee, which our blockaders have been so long watching, but which you will perceive never got out.
The levee of New Orleans was one scene of desolation; ships, steamers, cotton, coal, etc., were all in one common blaze, and our ingenuity much taxed to avoid the floating conflagration.
I neglected to mention my having good information respecting their ironclad rams, which they were building. I sent Captain Lee up to seize the principal ones the Mississippi, which was to be the terror of the seas, and no doubt would have been to a great extent, but she soon came floating by us all in flames, and passed down the river. Another was sunk immediately in front of the custom-house; others were building in Algiers, just begun.
I next went above the city 8 miles, to Carrollton, where I learned there were two other forts, but the panic had gone before me. I found the guns spiked and the gun carriages in flames. The first work, on the right, reaches from the Mississippi nearly over to Pontchartrain, and has 29 guns; the one on the left had 6 guns, from which Commander Lee took some 50 barrels of powder, and completed the destruction of the gun carriages, etc. A mile higher up there were two other earthworks, but not yet armed. We discovered here, fastened to the right bank of the river, one of the most herculean labors I have ever seen, a raft and chain to extend across the river to prevent Foote’s gunboats from descending. It is formed by placing three immense logs of not less than 3 and 4 feet in diameter and some 30 feet long; to the center one, a 2-inch chain is attached, running lengthwise the raft, and the three logs and chain are then frapped together by chains from one-half to 1 inch, three or four layers, and there are 96 of these lengths composing the raft; it is at least three-quarters of a mile long.
On the evening of the 29th Captain Bailey arrived from below with the gratifying intelligence that the forts had surrendered to Commander Porter and had delivered up all public property, and were being paroled; and that the navy had been made to surrender unconditionally, as they had conducted themselves with bad faith, burning and sinking their vessels while a flag of truce was flying and the forts negotiating for their surrender, and the Louisiana, their great ironclad battery, blown up almost alongside of the vessel where they were negotiating; hence their officers were not paroled, but sent home to be treated according to the judgment of the Government.
General Butler came up the same day, and arrangements were made for bringing up his troops.
I sent on shore and hoisted the American flag on the custom-house, and hauled down the Louisiana State flag from the city hall, as the mayor had avowed that there was no man in New Orleans who dared to haul it down, and my own convictions are, that if such an individual could have been found, he would have been assassinated.
Thus, sir, I have endeavored to give you an account of my attack upon New Orleans, from our first movement to the surrender of the city to General Butler, whose troops are now in full occupation, protected, however, by the Pensacola, Portsmouth, and one gunboat, while I have sent a force of seven vessels, under command of Captain Craven, up the river to keep up the panic as far as possible. The large ships, I fear, will not be able to go higher than Baton Rouge, while I have sent the smaller vessels, under Commander Lee, as high as Vicksburg, in the rear of Jackson, to cut off their supplies from the west.
I trust, therefore, that it will be found by the Government that I have carried out my instructions to the letter and to the best of my abilities, so far as this city is concerned. Which is respectfully submitted.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D. G. FARRAGUT,
Flag-Officer Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson
The Civil War in Louisiana by John D. Winters
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 18
The Opposing Forces in the Operations at New Orleans, LA. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II.