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Farragut's capture of New Orleans.

William T. Meredith, late U. S. N., and Secretary to Admiral Farragut.
It has astonished a great many people to learn from Admiral Porter's article in “The century” magazine [reprinted in the present work] that he was the first man to propose the opening of the Mississippi. Montgomery Blair, in the United service magazine for January, 1881, and ex-Secretary Welles, in “The Galaxy” for November, 1871, both fix the time when the discussion of the question was begun by the naval authorities, which was before the appearance of Porter on the scene at Washington. And, indeed, the importance of the great river to the South was so evident to any one who studied our coast and the South-west, that it is safe to say that the eyes of the whole nation were bent on New Orleans as a point of attack just about the time that Porter imagines he suggested it.

Why was Farragut chosen flag-officer of the squadron to attack New Orleans? The answer is that he was known as an experienced and capable officer, who was on record as having plans to capture forts with ships. He was one of the few officers of sufficient rank to command a squadron who also had the strength and vigor necessary to bear the strain of arduous duty. These were the main reasons that Mr. Welles, the Secretary, and Mr. Fox, the Assistant Secretary, had for selecting him. Besides this, his appointment met the approval of Porter, who, when consulted by the Secretary, gave his voice for Farragut. It is easy now to understand how with the lapse of time Admiral Porter has learned to think that he chose the commander of the expedition. That he could have defeated Farragut's appointment is probably true, but that he chose him is a mistake; he simply assented to the previous choice of Mr. Welles and Mr. Fox. (See articles by Welles and Blair, above referred to.)

Ex-Secretary Welles relates that the armament of the fleet had been determined, before Farragut's appointment to the command, after consultation with the War Department and with General McClellan, who detailed General Butler to command the land forces of the expedition. Porter, whose advice was listened to, insisted on the importance of a fleet of schooners carrying 13-inch mortars, and asserted that a bombardment of forty-eight hours would reduce Forts Jackson and St. Philip to a heap of ruins. Mr. Welles says that Mr. Fox, who was a trained naval officer, at first objected to the mortars, and advocated running by the forts with the fleet, but finally was won over by the forcible arguments of Porter, whose plan the Department fully adopted. There is evidence, given by Commander Porter himself, that he advocated bombarding the forts till they surrendered or could be captured by assault, and that he was opposed to running the fire with the fleet leaving an enemy in the rear. (See his letter on p. 71.)

The forces to attack New Orleans were fixed, measures were taken to cast thirty thousand mortar-shells, collect the fleet and transport the soldiers, before Farragut was summoned to Washington from New York. Mr. Blair says positively that he was not to be given the command until he had been subjected to a critical overhauling by the authorities. We hear of Farragut at breakfast with Mr. Blair and Mr. Fox, probably on the morning of his arrival at the capital. Mr. Fox then showed him the point of attack, the plans, and the force to be employed. Farragut said he would engage to capture New Orleans with two-thirds the naval force. Mr. Blair tells us that he was so enthusiastic and confident of success that when he went away Mr. Fox thought him over-sanguine, and was a little inclined to distrust his ability. Mr. Welles relates that after this interview Farragut was brought to him, and they entered at once into all the plans of the expedition. When they came to the mortar-flotilla, Farragut said that he placed little reliance on mortars, and that they would not have been part of his plan and advisement, but that he would take the mortar-fleet with him, as it had been adopted as part of the equipment of the fleet and might prove of more advantage than he anticipated.

At 10 o'clock on the 20th of April, while the bombardment by the mortars was at its height, the flag-ship made signal that Farragut wanted to hold a conference of commanding officers. In an hour they had all arrived excepting three, who commanded vessels detailed that day for guard duty above the fleet, and Commander Porter, who was probably too much occupied with the mortars to leave his command.

Thirteen boats trailed at the stern of the Hartford, while the captains waited anxiously in the cabin to hear what the flag-officer would say. A private journal kept by Commodore Bell, who led the 2d division of gun-boats in the attack: describes as follows what took place at the conference:

The flag-officer [Farragut] unfolded his plan of operations. Some discussion ensued, and Com-mander Alden read a written communication to Farragut from Porter, expressing his views as to the operations against the forts. Having read them, Alden folded up the paper and returned it to his pocket, whereupon I [Commodore Bell] suggested the propriety of the document's being left with Farragut, and the paper was accordingly placed in his hands. It was therein stated that the boom, being a protection to the mortars against attack front above, should not be destroyed, upon which Farragut remarked that Porter had that morning assented to the boom's being broken, and again (it was stated in the communication) that the fleet should not go above the forts, as the mortar-vessels would be left unprotected. Farragut said he thought the mortars would be as well protected (with the fleet) above as below the forts, and that the cooperation of the army, which entered into the plans of both parties, could not be effectual unless some of the troops were introduced above the forts at the same time that they were below. He intended to cover their landing at the Quarantine, five miles above, they coming to the river through the bayou. Once above, the forts cut off, and his propellers intact for ascending the river to the city, if he found his ships able to cope with the enemy he would fight it out. Some of the officers considered [71] it a hazardous thing to go above out of the reach of supplies. Farragut remarked that our ammunition was being rapidly exhausted, without a supply at hand, and that something must be done immediately. He believed in celerity.

Farragut “believed in celerity.” He saw that while the ammunition was being exhausted but little impression had been made on the forts, and he felt sure that the time had come to carry out his plan of dashing boldly up the river through the fire of the forts.

The communication from Commander Porter containing his plans of attack, to which I have already alluded, and which was referred to by Commodore Bell, is as follows:

“ When the ships are over the bar, guns mounted, coal-bunkers filled, sick on shore, hospital arrangements made for the wounded, the fleet should move up, mortar-fleet all in tow; the chain across the river to remain untouched for the present, or until after the mortars get their position and open their fire. It is a good defense on our side against fire-ships and rams which may be sent down the river, and our ships can so command the opening that nothing can pass down. As the mortar-vessels are somewhat helpless, they should be protected at all points by vessels of war, which should be ready at a moment's notice to repel an attack on them by rams, floating torpedoes, or fire-ships; the two latter to be towed out of the way, the rams to be run down by the heavy ships, while such vessels as the Westfield and Clifton attack them end on with cannon, while gun-boats try to force them to the shore. When everything is ready for the assault, a demand for surrender should be made in language least calculated to exasperate, and of such a nature as to encourage those who might be disposed to return to their allegiance. There is evidence of a strong Union feeling in New Orleans, and everything should be done without losing by delay to prevent a counter-feeling.

When it is evident that no surrender of the forts will be made, the mortars should open deliberate fire, keeping two shells in the air all the time, or each mortar-vessel should fire once in every ten minutes. Fort Jackson, being casemated, should receive the largest share of the bombardment, three or four vessels being employed against Fort St. Philip, firing as often as they can coolly and conveniently load and point. In the meantime preparations should be made to destroy at a moment's notice the vessels holding up the chain, or the chain itself, which can be done by applying a petard to the bobstays of the vessels or to the chain, all of which petards are prepared, and a man accustomed to the business with a galvanic battery will accompany the expedition.

In my opinion there are two methods of attack,--one is for the vessel to run the gauntlet of the batteries by night or in a fog; the other is to attack the forts by laying the big ships close alongside of them, avoiding the casemates, firing shells, grape, and canister into the barbette, clearing the ramparts with boat-guns from the tops, while smaller and more agile vessels throw in shrapnel at shrapnel distance, clearing the parapets, and dismounting the guns in barbette.

The larger ships should anchor with forty-five fathoms of chain with slip-ropes; the smaller vessels to keep under way and be constantly moving about, same to get above and open a cross-fire; the mortars to keep up a rapid and continuous fire, and to move up to a short range.

The objections to running by the forts are these: It is not likely that any intelligent enemy would fail to place a chain across above the forts, and to raise such batteries as would protect them against our ships.

Did we run the forts we should leave an enemy in our rear, and the mortar-vessels would have to be left behind. We could not return to bring them up without going through a heavy and destructive fire. If the forts are run, part of the mortars should be towed along,which would render the progress of the vessels slow against the strong current at that point. If the forts are first captured, the moral effect would be to close the batteries on the river and open the way to New Orleans, whereas, if we don't succeed in taking them, we will have to fight our way up the river. Once having possession of the forts, New Orleans would be hermetically sealed, and we could repair damages and go up en our own terms and our own time.

Nature points out the English Turn as the position to be strongly fortified, and it is there the enemy will most likely make his strongest stand and last effort to prevent our getting up. If this point is impassable there is solid ground there, and troops can be brought up and landed below the forts and attack them in the rear while the ships assail them in front. The result will doubtless be a victory for us. If the ships can get by the forts, and there are no obstructions above, then the plan should be to push on to New Orleans every ship that can get there, taking up as many of the mortar-fleet as can be rapidly towed. An accurate reconnoissance should be made, and every kind of attainable information provided before any movement is made.

Nothing has been said about a combined attack of army and navy. Such a thing is not only practicable, but, if time permitted, could be adopted. Fort St. Philip can be taken with three thousand men covered by the ships; the ditch can be filled with fascines, and the walls can be easily scaled with ladders. It can be easily attacked in front and rear.

”--D. D. Porter.

Farragut stood facing his destiny, imperishable fame or failure. He was determined to run by the forts with his ships. It was plain to him that nothing more would be accomplished by the mortars. He would not cumber his fleet during the passage by towing the mortars as Porter desired him to do. Once above the defenses, and the enemy's fleet overcome, he would either push on to New Orleans past the batteries, which he knew were at Chalmette, or cover with his guns the landing of the army through the bayou in the rear of the forts. In his heart he was determined, if events favored him, to push right on seventy-five miles up the river to New Orleans without waiting for the army. Porter's views expressed in his letter to the conference gave no support to these plans. He speaks of three methods of attack: First, by running the forts; second, bombardment by the whole fleet, mortars included, with a view to the reduction of the defenses; and third, a combined attack of the navy and army. The first method, which was Farragut's plan and the plan that succeeded, he strongly condemns. He feared the result of leaving an enemy in the rear. Some of the commanding officers agreed with him.

On the next day Farragut issued a General Order [see p. 39], which bears date one day earlier than its issuance, and is at once a reply to Porter's communication to the conference of officers and an announcement of the flag-officer's determination to challenge all objections, run the forts, conquer or be conquered.

No one can read Commodore Bell's journal and Flag-Officer Farragut's general order without seeing that there was cause for disappointment in the fleet. After a bombardment of three days the defense was still vigorous and the Confederates were undismayed. As a consequence of this Farragut had lost the little faith he ever had in mortars, and [72] was prepared to carry out his own plans, differ as they might from the instructions of the Navy Department.

Farragut had a stupendous undertaking before him. A river with a current of three and a half miles an hour against the line of attack; two forts on opposite sides of the stream mounting 126 guns, and above them the Confederate steamers carrying 40 guns, while in the river, both above and below the forts, rafts were floating ready to be fired and cut loose on the first sign of an attempt to pass the boom. His fleet consisted of 8 steam sloops-of-war, 1 5 gun-boats, 1 sailing sloop, and 19 mortar-schooners. The 17 vessels which were to attempt the passage carried 166 guns and 26 howitzers. It is true that the mortar-shells were of assistance to Farragut in the passage, as they helped his own guns to distract the fire of the enemy and added to the confusion and distress in Fort Jackson. But that the passage would have been made in the darkness without the assistance of the mortars has never been seriously questioned, and is proved by Farragut's successful passage of Fort Morgan at the battle of Mobile Bay in broad daylight, which involved exactly the same principles of attack and was achieved without the use of a single mortar. The protraction of the bombardment gave the Confederates just six days more to push forward the work on the iron-clad and the fleet. Mr. Welles, in “The Galaxy,” quotes a dispatch from Porter himself which shows his recognition of the fact that the Confederates were strengthening their defenses during this period. Porter says, speaking of the siege, that the enemy was “daily adding to his defense and strengthening his naval forces with iron-clad batteries.”

What was the situation of affairs in Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip about this time — the 22d of April--as shown by the testimony before the Confederate Court of Inquiry? In the two garrisons of 1100 men, 4 soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded--7 guns of the armament of 126 had been disabled. The barracks and citadel of Fort Jackson had been destroyed by fire.

There was nothing more to burn. Whenever the gun-boats approached the defenses a vigorous fire was opened on them by both forts, but when they retired the soldiers withdrew to the casemates out of reach of the mortar-fire.

And up to this time the mortar-flotilla had fired more than 13,500 shells. Porter had expected to reduce the forts to a heap of ruins in forty-eight hours, but at the end of ninety-six hours the defense was as vigorous as ever.

Did Porter believe that Farragut's passage of the forts and appearance before New Orleans would result in a speedy downfall of the defenses and the capture of the river and city? He did not, and he was very uneasy about the fleet after it passed the forts. He wondered how Farragut would return down the river to the mortar-fleet and to the army. He could not appreciate the fact that it was not necessary for him to come back; that all the defenses must soon fall, Forts Jackson and St. Philip among them, as the effect of the occupation of the river and New Orleans. He feared that Farragut was caught in a trap. He thought he would find the forts harder to take than ever, and that he would have to fight his way down the river and attack them again. All this appears in the letter of Commander Porter, which is given below. It was written to Farragut from below the forts on the morning after the passage, three days before they surrendered. The italics are not in the original:

mortar-flotilla, April 25th, 1862.
Dear sir: Captain Boggs has arrived. I congratulate you on your victory. I witnessed your passage with great pleasure. My hopes and predictions were at last realized. You left at the forts four steamers and the famous iron-clad battery; they are mounting guns on it, and one thousand men are at work on it. She is unhurt and moves about with the stream. How fast she is I don't know. One of the steamers is iron-clad on the bow. The McRae is also at the fort. I sent a summons to surrender, but it was politely declined. As we have used up all the shells in the schooners, and wishing to be unhampered with the mortar-vessels, sent everything down and collected boats and spars. . . .

They are moving all their heavy guns upon the riverside. You will find the forts harder to take now than before unless their ammunition gives out. I threw bombs at them all day, and tantalized them with rifle-shot, but they never fired a gun. I hope you will open your way down, no matter what it costs. I am sending some of the schooners down to blockade back of Fort Jackson to prevent their escaping by way of Barataria.

Porter overlooks the difference between his hopes and his predictions, as shown by his communication to the conference of officers, which he says are realized in this letter, and Farragut's achievement. He had opposed the plan of attack by which Farragut succeeded.

Porter's letter to the Secretary of the Navy, written before the surrender, also shows his distrust of the result of Farragut's bold ascent of the river, leaving an enemy in his rear. He says, speaking of the Confederate iron-clad below Farragut's fleet at the forts, “She mounts sixteen guns, and is almost as formidable as the Merrimac. This is one of the ill effects of leaving an enemy in the rear.” And again, “These forts can hold out still for some time. I would suggest that the Mystic and Monitor, if they can be spared, be sent here without a moment's delay to settle the question.”

On the 28th of April, three days later, the forts surrendered, and Farragut, who was then in possession of New Orleans, did not find it necessary to open his way down the river as advised by Porter, to whom the surrender must have been a surprise.

What was the immediate cause of the surrender of the forts? This is exactly the question that was asked of Colonel Edward Higgins, who had commanded Fort Jackson, by the Confederate Court of Inquiry, and his reply was: “The mutiny of the garrison.” But what was the cause of the mutiny? General Duncan, who had commanded the lower defenses, including the forts, answered this in his report: “The garrison mutinied on the night of the 27th of April, giving as a reason that the city had surrendered and there was no further use in fighting.” And why did the city surrender? Was it because Porter bombarded Fort Jackson 75 miles below the city, for six days, disabling, up to the night of the passage of the fleet, only 9 [73] guns of the armament of 128, with a loss to the Confederates of less than 40 men in both garrisons?1 Or was it because Farragut dashed through the fire of the forts, destroyed the Confederate fleet, and then pushed on past the Chalmette batteries 75 miles up the river, cutting off all communication, till he anchored before the city with his torn fleet?

1 The following official statements made by Confederate and Union officers are given to show the condition of Fort Jackson and the garrison after the bombardment. On the 30th of April, 1862, in a letter to Adjutant-General Bridges, Colonel Edward Higgins says: “I have the honor to report that on the morning of the 27th of April a formal demand for the surrender of Forts Jackson and St. Philip was made by Commander Porter; the terms which were offered were liberal, but so strong was I in the belief that we could resist successfully any attack, either by land or by water, that the terms were at once refused. Our fort was still strong.”

General Duncan, commanding all the lower Confederate defenses, says after the passage: “We are just as capable of repelling the enemy to-day as we were before the bombardment.”

General Weitzel, of the United States Engineer Corps, in a report of the condition of Fort Jackson dated in May, 1862, says: “Fort St. Philip, with one or two slight exceptions, is to-day without a scratch. Fort Jackson was subjected to a torrent of 13-inch and 11-inch shells during 140 hours. To an inexperienced eye it seems as if this work were badly cut up. It is as strong to-day as when the first shell was fired at it.”

Captain Harris, of the Coast Survey, whose map of the forts is published in Porter's article, says in his report after the surrender that of the “75 guns in Fort Jackson 4 guns were dismounted and 11 carriages were struck.” But this was not done by the mortars alone. The fleet did its share in the passage. Granting that the injury of 11 gun-carriages permanently disabled 6 guns, the disablement of 10 guns in 75 is scarcely worth considering, with 116 guns in both forts still intact.

Comparing the losses on both sides during the bombardment and the passage of the forts, it will be seen that Farragut's loss, nearly all of which occurred in the passage of the lower defenses on the night of the final attack, was four times the Confederate list of killed and wounded at the forts during the entire siege. Does this look as if Fort Jackson had been disabled by the mortars before the final attack?

Colonel Edward Higgins on the 27th of April says: “Orders had been issued to the officers and men to retire to the casemates of the fort the moment the bombardment began; but when it became necessary to repel the attack our batteries were instantly in readiness and were at once engaged in a most terrific conflict with the enemy.”

I have taken no notice in this article of a letter written to Admiral Porter by the above-mentioned Colonel Higgins dated April 4th, 1872, ten years after the occurrence of the events which he professes to describe. This letter is useless as evidence, because it contradicts Colonel Higgins's own report to the Confederate authorities quoted here. Surely the official evidence of a man fresh from the scene of action is to be believed in preference to an account given by him ten years afterward in a letter. W. T. M.

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