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Confederate responsibilities for Farragut's success.


James Grimshaw Duncan, son of the Commander of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip.
On the 22d of April, by order of Major-General Lovell, everything afloat, including the towboats and the entire control of the fire-barges formerly under General J. K. Duncan, was turned over to Captain J. K. Mitchell, commanding the Confederate States naval forces on the lower Mississippi River; and 150 men from both forts were given him as gunners and sharp-shooters for the Louisiana.

In an interview with Captain Mitchell on the morning of this date, General Duncan learned that the motive power of the Louisiana was not likely to be completed in time to bring her, as an aggressive steamer, into the pending action. As an ironclad floating battery, mounting sixteen guns of the heaviest caliber, she was then as complete as she would ever be. Under these circumstances General Duncan considered that her best possible position would be below the raft, close in on the Fort St. Philip shore. This position would give us three direct and cross fires upon the enemy's approach, and at the same time insure the Louisiana against a direct assault. Accordingly, General Duncan urged these views upon Captain Mitchell in the following letter:

It is of vital importance that the present fire of the enemy should be withdrawn from us, which you alone can do. This can be done in the manner suggested this morning, under cover of our guns, while your work on the boat can be carried on in safety and security. Our position is a critical one, dependent entirely on the powers of endurance of our casemates, many of which have been completely shattered and are crumbling away by repeated shocks; and therefore I respectfully but earnestly against urge my suggestion of this morning on your notice. Our magazines are also in danger.

Captain Mitchell replied:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of yours of this date, asking me to place the Louisiana in position below the raft this evening, if possible. This vessel was hurried away from New Orleans before her steam power and batteries were ready for service, without a crew, and in many other respects very incomplete, and this condition of things is but partially remedied now. She is not yet prepared to offer battle to the enemy, but should he attempt to pass the forts, we will do all we can to prevent it; and it was for this purpose only that she was placed in position where necessity might force her into action, inadequately prepared as she is at this moment. We have now at work on board about fifty mechanics, as well as her own crew and those from other vessels doing work essential to the preparation of the vessel for battle. Under these circumstances it would, in my estimation, be hazarding too much to place her under the fire of the enemy. Every effort is being made to prepare her for the relief of Fort Jackson, the condition of which is fully felt by me; and the very moment I can venture to face our enemy with any reasonable chance of success, be assured, General, I will do it, and trust that the result will show you that I am now pursuing the right course.

On the 23d, Captain Mitchell replied to another urgent request from General Duncan:

I know the importance to the safety of Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the city of New Orleans of having this vessel in proper condition before seeking an encounter with the enemy. If he seeks one or attempts the passage of the forts before this vessel is ready, I shall meet him, however unprepared I may be. We have an additional force of mechanics from the city this morning, and I hope that by to-morrow night the motive power of the Louisiana will be ready, and that in the meantime her battery will be in place and other preparations will be completed, so as to enable her to act against the enemy. When ready, you will be immediately advised.

In this refusal Captain Mitchell was supported by Captains McIntosh, Huger, and Warley. Two other notes were also addressed him this day, requesting that fire-barges be sent down and a vigilant outlook kept from all his vessels, and asking his cooperation should be enemy attempt to pass during the night. This was promised, but no success attended the attempts at sending down fire-barges, for which there was no excuse; for, although the tugs were not in working order, there was six boats of the river fleet available, and fire-barges were plentiful. No immediate relief being looked for from our fleet, the entire command of Fort Jackson was turned out to repair damages under a very heavy fire. The bombardment continued without intermission throughout the 23d, but slackened off about 12 o'clock M., at which time there was every indication of exhaustion on the part of the mortar-flotilla. The following letter was sent to Captain Mitchell by General Duncan:

I am of the opinion that the mortar practice of the enemy against Fort Jackson must be nearly exhausted, and that there is every indication that the enemy, as the next plan of attack, is about to move up his large vessels to the point of woods, and open upon us with his broadsides. One of the large vessels has already been brought up and placed in position. Should the above prove to be the case, it is imperatively necessary that the batteries of the Louisiana should be brought into action at all hazards, as well as those of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. A proper position for the Louisiana would be on the Fort St. Philip side, a short distance below the raft and close to the shore, which will give us three direct and cross fires up the point of attack.

To this Captain Mitchell replied as before. Nothing now could be expected of the Louisiana; the only position which offered every possible chance of success had been repeatedly refused. Still Captain Mitchell had other duties to perform, and at sundown General Duncan wrote the him:

The enemy has just sent up a small boat, and planted a series of white flags on the Fort St. Philip side, commencing about 350 yards above the lone tree. It is the probable position of his ships in the new line of attack which, in my opinion, he contemplates for attacking Fort Jackson with his large vessels. As you may not have seen this operation, I furnish you with the information. Please keep the river well lit up with fire-rafts to-night, as the attack may be made at any time.

The flags referred to were planted under cover of a perfect hail of shells. At about 9 P. M., Lieutenant Shryock, C. S. N., Captain Mitchell's aide, came ashore to inform General Duncan that the Louisiana would be ready for service by the next evening (the 24th). General Duncan informed him “that time was everything to us, and that tomorrow would in all probability prove too late.” Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins warmly seconded this opinion, and warned Lieutenant Shryock that the final battle was imminent within a few hours. In regard to lighting the river, Lieutenant Shryock [102] stated that fire-barges would be sent down regularly every two hours throughout the night, and as none had been sent up to that hour (9:30 P. M.), he left, informing these officers that the matter would be attended to as soon as he arrived on board. Hour after hour passed, and not a barge was lighted. In consequence of this neglect, the river remained in complete darkness the entire night. The bombardment continued all night, and toward morning grew furious. At 3:30 A. M. the large vessels of the enemy were observed in motion. General Duncan then made this, his last and final appeal to Captain Mitchell:

Fort Jackson, La., 3:30 A. M., April 24th, 1862.
Captain: As I anticipated, and informed you yesterday, the enemy are taking up their positions at the present moment, with their large ships, on the St. Philip shore, to operate against Fort Jackson. They are placing themselves boldly, with their lights at their mast-heads. You are assuming a fearful responsibility if you do not come at once to our assistance with the Louisiana and the fleet. I can say no more.

Mitchell did not come, but Farragut did.


John K. Mitchell, Commodore, C. S. N.
The article by Admiral D. D. Porter, entitled “The opening of the lower Mississippi,” published in “The century” magazine for April, 1885, is open to adverse criticism, and particularly where he indulges in personal reflections upon the officers of my command. He claims that
one fact only was in our [Farragut's] favor, and that was the division of their [the Confederate] forces under three different heads, which prevented unanimity of action. In every other respect the odds were against us.

But taking Admiral Porter's own showing of the armaments, it appears that the weight of one entire round of projectiles was approximately: Confederate, 7139 pounds; Union, 20,224; making a difference in favor of the Union force of 13,085 pounds, or nearly 3 to 1 in weight of projectiles.

The weight of one entire round of all the Confederate forces afloat (including the 10 guns of the Louisiana that could not be used) was 1760 pounds, and did not equal one round of any one of 4 of the first class United States sloops of war, as, for instance, the Pensacola, which was 1860 pounds. The ordnance of the United States fleet was the heaviest known to any navy of that day; her vessels were inferior to those of no other nation in construction, equipment, and speed, and were manned by officers and crews of unsurpassed courage, skill, training, and discipline. The Confederate armament was composed of the old discarded guns of the United States army and navy, many of which were old smooth bores, rifled or reamed out to a larger caliber; or, if newly cast, made from scrap iron, insufficiently tested and inspected, and so, with good reason, distrusted by the crews that worked them. Admiral Porter further says:

It is generally conceded by military men that 1 gun in a fort is about equal to 5 on board of a wooden ship, especially when, as in this case, the forces afloat are obliged to contend against a 39-knot current in a channel obstructed by chains and fire-rafts. “[See note, p. 75.]”

Nowhere is it shown that any obstructions were encountered by the fleet in its passage by the forts, and it appears that the Hartford was the only vessel that got foul of a fire-raft. As to the Louisiana, Admiral Porter states:

The Louisiana remained tied up to the bank, where she could not obstruct the river or throw the Union fleet into confusion while passing the forts.

The fact is that the Louisiana, being immovable, could use only her 3 bow guns and 3 of her starboard broadside guns, and those only as the vessels of the enemy passed directly in front of them, for they could be trained but 5 degrees either way. Her heterogeneous crew was sent on board in less than four days before the action; there was no time for the men even to know each other at the same gun, no time for training or practice, but they were occupied during this brief period in mounting or remounting their guns, few of them having ever seen a cannon fired.

In his account of the capitulation in the cabin of the Harriet Lane, Admiral Porter says:

As we were about to sign the terms, I was quite surprised to find that it was not expected that the vessels of war were to be included in the terms agreed to by the Confederate officers.


indeed! when that very morning Colonel Higgins had sent his letter of the same day (April 28th), offering the “surrender of these forts” (Jackson and St. Philip), which he commanded; and closing with the words, “we have no control over the vessels afloat.” [See note, p. 51.] Moreover, in the terms presented to Duncan when he went on board, which the Admiral says he had prepared before, nothing is said of the surrender of the naval forces. Such a contradictory statement, however, has its parallel in the assertion as to the effect of the explosion of the Louisiana, that it
fairly shook us all out of our seats and threw the Harriet Lane over on her side, but we finished the terms. . . . The Louisiana was blown up just before reaching the flotilla.

Lieutenant William M. Bridges, Adjutant of Fort Jackson, now (1887) a resident of Richmond, Va., was present in the cabin at the signing of the capitulation, and he denies, most emphatically, that such an effect was produced on the Harriet Lane and on those seated in her cabin.

My belligerent rights were not impaired or suspended by the surrender of General Duncan and the flying of a flag of truce, to which I was not a party; and had the effect of the explosion been to destroy the Harriet Lane and the entire Federal force, the laws of war would have justified it.

As to my difference of opinion with General Duncan: naval officers ought surely to be considered better judges of how the forces and appliances at their command should be managed than army officers. The conduct of the naval forces, by the finding of a Confederate court of inquiry, was fully sustained, and the court prolonged its session two months, vainly waiting for the appearance of General Lovell and Lieut.-Colonel Higgins, who were summoned to testify before the court at my instance, they being the most prominent complainants against the Navy, General Duncan having died.

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