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Chapter 5:

  • A bruit of peril to the city
  • -- preparation of defenses -- Farragut at the Passes -- the bombardment of the forts -- passage of the Federal fleet -- mutiny and capitulation -- fate of the ram Louisiana -- the fleet at the city.

On October 7, 1861, Mansfield Lovell, relieving Maj.-Gen. D. E. Twiggs, and commissioned as major-general, was assigned to command of Department No. 1, which included the defenses of New Orleans and the Mississippi river. As early as December, 186, word reached New Orleans that a Federal force had taken possession of Ship Island, Mississippi sound. In the beginning of April, 1862, another bruit came from Washington, that a powerful naval expedition against Louisiana had already sailed for the river. New Orleans heard these rumors calmly. All was alarming; and nobody was alarmed. Cradled in war, that city had stood un. daunted while the British at Chalmette were filling her suburbs with near thunder. With such a baptism of fire as hers she was not easily moved by war a hundred miles away. An effective army of her sons had left her when Beauregard's voice called loudly from Corinth. Major-General Lovell had found, after filling Beauregard's appeal for volunteers, that he was left for the protection of the city, if attacked, with less than 3,000 ninety-days militia, of whom 1,200 alone had muskets. He had already established two lines of defense: one, an exterior line, passing through the forts and earthworks, under the command of Brigadier-General Duncan; the second, an interior line, embracing the city and Algiers, the command [36] of which was assigned to Gen.. M. L. Smith. Anxious to strengthen the forts on the river, he had applied to Beauregard for the ram Manassas, which was sent down the river in time, and took a part in the bombardment of April 24th, to be referred to presently.

In connection with the defense of the forts, a raft of logs and chains—popularly supposed to be invincible—had been placed across the river between Forts Jackson and St. Philip.1

In the latter part of February the ‘invincible’ raft was stormed by the invincible Mississippi, which first broke it and finally scattered its logs, a wreck of flotsam on its waters. Through the public spirit of the citizens of New Orleans another raft, consisting of a line of schooners, strongly chained amidships, was anchored by Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins in position between the two forts. A windstorm struck this raft and scattered the schooners.

On March 27th Farragut was crossing the bar. As though in sympathy, the river, swollen and turgid, hurled that day a yellow flood into the forts, causing continual pumping, with careful isolation of the magazines. In the first week of April seven to thirteen sloops of war were constantly at the head of the Passes, or at the Jump, nine miles below the forts. In the river above were Confederate steamers, reconnoitering and spying them out. With these watched, also, four steamers of the river fleet. To a certain extent they had been made shot-proof with cotton bulkheads, and provided with iron prows to act as rams; but vain was the hope that with such auxiliaries the exploits of the Merrimac in Hampton Roads could be duplicated in the lower Mississippi. In [37] command of the Confederate naval forces was Capt. John K. Mitchell.

As mention has been made here of the vessels of our fleet it may be said, once for all—so valueless did they prove to be—that the unwarlike river steamers bore such martial names as the ‘Warrior,’ ‘Stonewall Jackson,’ ‘Defiance,’ and ‘Resolute.’ These sponsors for success were belied by the facts of their brief and inglorious existence—the Defiance being the only vessel saved out of the whole fleet. Besides these, there were three Confederate rams, two of these with names of States and one of a Confederate victory. More unfortunate than criminal, they have left their fame with us. Two formed the co-operative naval force; the third, more powerful than either, did not even see the enemy. She is remembered as the Confederate States steamer-ram Mississippi. Still on the ways at New Orleans, on April 24th, without guns or men, she was hastily taken up the river to avoid capture by the enemy, where she was burned before she had begun to act. Of the other two—the Manassas and the Louisiana, built for mischief—the Manassas was lying just above Fort Jackson for service. On the opposite bank the Louisiana was hugging the stream just above the water battery. Good record had been looked for from both of them, and the Manassas perished in trying to give it. Ill-starred as she was, her captain, Warley, was neither careless nor remiss. After gallantly attacking the Richmond and pushing a fire-raft upon the Hartford, Farragut's own vessel, she rushed in the darkness of that historic night upon the Federal sloop-of-war Mississippi. She had but one gun, while the Mississippi's guns were many and of the heaviest caliber. One of her broadsides knocked away a smokestack from the Manassas. Thus rendered useless for offense, the ram was riddled and abandoned. The kindly night refused to witness her discomfiture. ‘Shortly after daylight,’ writes General Duncan, ‘the Manassas was observed drifting down by [38] the forts. She was evidently in a sinking condition.’ This tells the heroic story of effort and failure, but of right her flag should float about the Passes so long as the Mississippi has memories! Later on it will be seen that the end of the Louisiana was less glorious but more dramatic.

In the command of Fort St. Philip Colonel Higgins was ably assisted by Capt. M. T. Squires, of the Louisiana artillery, on duty in the fleet. In Fort Jackson was Brigadier-General Duncan, commanding coast defenses. Every effort had been made by General Lovell to provide heavy guns for the forts. He had secured three 10-inch guns and three 8-inch columbiads; the rifled 42-pounder and the five 10-inch seacoast mortars recently obtained from Pensacola, together with the two 7-inch guns temporarily borrowed from the naval authorities in New Orleans. Some of these guns had been placed on the old water-battery to the west of and below Fort Jackson. This battery had never been completed. After great exertions cheerfully rendered by officers and men—the garrison working by reliefs night and day—the work of building the platforms and mounting the guns was completed by April 13th. Then a hitch, inseparable from a newly organized government, occurred. No sooner had the two rifled 7-inch navy guns been placed in position, than urgent orders arrived to dismount one of them and send it at once to the city to be placed on the ironclad steamer Louisiana.

Besides these measures for defense, Captain Mullen's company of sharpshooters was stationed on the point of the woods below Fort Jackson. At the quarantine battery was Colonel Szymanski's Chalmette regiment.2 [39] Between the two forts was a force of 1,500 men. Thus protected, manned, gunned, defended, the Confederate colors floated defiantly from April 16th to April 27th.

The enemy's force consisted of twenty-one mortar schooners under Commander David Porter, and a fleet of twenty-six armed vessels, of which eight were powerful sloops-of-war and eighteen steam gunboats. This formidable fleet, under Captain Farragut, the foremost officer of the United States navy, carried more than two hundred guns of heaviest caliber.

On Friday, at 9 a. m., the entire mortar fleet, aided by rifled guns from the gunboats, opened upon Fort Jackson. Our fire speedily disabled one gunboat and one mortar schooner. At 7 p. m. the mortars ceased firing, after an expenditure of 2,996 shells. Early in the fiery hail the quarters in the bastion, as well as the quarters immediately outside of the forts, were in flames. The citadel, burning, endangered the magazines. First failure to drive our fire-barges down on the enemy. The next day the mortars opened at 6 a. m., to continue the battering throughout the day until the night. When darkness came, the terrible rain fell more heavily and more surely on the forts. Great damage was inflicted on our heavy guns. Second failure of the fire-barges to appear.

Day and night the terrible shelling grew heavier and harder to bear with each renewal of the storm, until Thursday, April 24th, on which day before dawn a sinister silence fell for a moment upon the river. At 3:30 a. m. it was broken by a portentous warning coming into the forts from the mortars. Something was going on in the fleet below. Darkness prevented sight, and a silence unbroken save by the swirl of the swollen waters. In the darkness such an exploit as was never before recorded in naval warfare is about to begin. Heretofore, the mortars have been vicious; now they become virulent. They are masking the movements of the fleet which has been advancing quietly under their paralyzing din. A [40] war vessel steams up at full speed—rushes by—is gone! It is Farragut on the Hartford, in a desperate hurry to open the path to the city. Even while hurrying past he delivers broadside after broadside of shot, shell, grape, canister and spherical case. Watchful eyes at the Confederate batteries are open now to note that behind the bold Hartford are still to pass its companions. Thirteen of these follow, each of which in turn rushes by, making no stay, pouring in broadside after broadside.

Some of the fleet must have been injured by the Confederate batteries. Although no record at the time was kept in Confederate report, one of the sloops-of-war, the Varuna, hoping to strike was badly struck in return by Southern gunners. The enemy had the advantage of the night, the smoke and the rush. For the Confederates, the batteries, with many guns disabled, hurled now and then a shot that through the storm found a target. Had there been ready obedience to the orders of the authorities, the fire-barges would have made the river as bright as day. With such assistance the war vessels would have been seen, and being seen would have been halted with shell and shot. The fight on our side showed a double face—one for the bank, another for the river. In both forts a manly defense was made through days and nights of fire. On the water, a pervading inefficiency was suggested in the naval defense, upon which so many hopes had been built only to break like glass. In this general statement—proved by one brilliant exception—I quote General Duncan: ‘To the heroic and gallant manner in which Captain Huger handled and fought the McRae, we can all bear witness.’ The passage of the fleet was brief in time, as minutes are counted, but long in tension as human hearts beat Between 3:30 a. m. and the daylight at 5:20 it had fulfilled its work for the Union, under a heavy pressure of steam which filled the black night with blacker smoke. Having passed, the vessels anchored below the quarantine, six miles above [41] the forts. Here they remained until 10 a. m., when they steamed slowly up the river. To observers on the levee, their stately motion might have looked like a triumphal procession. In truth, it was one, destined to end only before the great city which was to recognize it, as it had done O'Reilly's fleet nearly ninety-three years before, as a ‘public enemy.’

While the bombardment was going on two men, directly connected with New Orleans, were watching it. One of them was her returning commander; the other her coming dictator. One had come down on a steamboat, on official business, and had seen with foreboding the fiery passage; the other, surrounded by transports, from a point about 800 yards from Fort Jackson, had witnessed with joy the fearful transit of broadsides. One, on his steamboat, believing that New Orleans could not, with her ‘interior line’ of defense, resist the fleet which had so victoriously swept through her ‘exterior line,’ hastened sadly back to the city to see what more could be done for her. The battle between New Orleans and the fleet, having been fought once at the forts, was already over. None was surer of this than Mansfield Lovell.

Shortly after the fleet had steamed up the river, on the 24th, a gunboat from below, with a flag of truce, appeared with a verbal demand for the surrender of the forts. The demand was made in the name of Commander D. D. Porter, U. S. N. Porter, present on a gunboat, accompanied the verbal demand with a threat to re-open the bombardment in case of refusal. The demand was rejected, and with the rejection the bombardment reopened. It began about mid-day and continued until near sundown, when it ceased altogether. Meanwhile Butler was transferring his troops by way of Sable Island to the rear of the forts, preparing to occupy both sides of the river above the forts.

On April 25th no attack was made by the enemy. The forts still prepared for a successful resistance. On April [42] 26th the forts heard the news that the city had surrendered; also that the Confederate steam ram Mississippi had been burned above the city. About 4 p.m. its wreck in sorrowful testimony drifted by the forts. Vague promise to cheer came that the Louisiana—a formidable ironclad steamer, with a powerful battery—would be placed on the 27th at the bight above Fort Jackson.

Permission had been granted by the enemy to the steamer McRae to proceed, under a flag of truce, with the wounded.3 Accepting the offer of Captain Mitchell, commanding the naval forces, the seriously wounded of both forts were sent on the McRae. Receiving these late April 26th, she left the next morning. After her errand the McRae did not return again to the forts. Her last act of mercy was worthy of her courage in the bombardment. On April 27th, about 12 m., a gunboat, under flag of truce, brought a written demand for the surrender of the forts. This formal demand was signed by Commander Porter of the mortar flotilla. The forts, still defiant, again refused to surrender.

About 4 p. m. the French man-of-war, Milan, having asked permission of the forts, steamed up the river to the city. This was an exercise of authority which both forts were then fully able to enforce at need. A little later troops were seen landing at the quarantine, six miles above. The position of the Louisiana remained unchanged.

There were presages enough of coming disaster; but still above the forts floated the Confederate flag, inspiring valor. Unhappily, however, the colors, while inspiring courage, could not confirm loyalty. Over the officers of the forts a small cloud, first visible on the day they had heard the rumor of the city's surrender, filled them with concern. In a ship at sea, or in an army in the face [43] of an enemy, no cloud is so black as mutiny. In an instant, taking advantage of midnight, the cloud darkened the whole sky above the forts. This is not a pleasant incident to interject into a story of Louisiana and her gallant soldiers; yet, for the truth's sake, it must be touched upon. It is more fitting, in every respect, that an official pen should rehearse the incident which blurred the first page of the war in Louisiana. I quote, therefore, first from Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins, commanding Forts Jackson and St. Philip, on the mutiny itself; and second, from General Duncan, giving desertion to the enemy in the city as the closing scene in this ill-conceived and too well-played two-act drama of ‘Disloyalty and Treason.’

Perhaps here best may be emphasized a consolation for State pride. No native Louisianian was among the mutineers at the forts. The St. Mary's Cannoneers—all natives—by their steady valor at the guns, by their soldierly bearing against disaffection, by their stern fidelity to their State under temptation and threats, received, as they deserved, the commendation of both Duncan and Higgins. Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins thus reports the mutiny:

‘Our fort was still strong; our damage had been to some extent repaired; our men had behaved well, and all was hope and confidence with the officers; when suddenly at midnight I was aroused by the report that the garrison had revolted, had seized the guard, and were spiking the guns. Word was sent us through the sergeants of companies that the men would fight no longer. The company officers were immediately dispatched to their commands, but were driven back. Officers were fired upon when they appeared in sight upon the parapet. Signals were exchanged by the mutineers with Fort St. Philip. The mutiny was complete, and a general massacre of the officers and disgraceful surrender of the fort appeared inevitable. By great exertions we succeeded in preventing this disgraceful blot upon our country, [44] and were fortunate in keeping the passions of the men in check until we could effect an honorable surrender of the forts, which was done by us jointly on the morning of the 28th inst. I wish to place on record here the noble conduct of Capt F. O. Cornay's company, the St. Mary's Cannoneers, which alone stood as true as steel when every other company in Fort Jackson basely dishonored its country.’4

Speaking of the deserters, General Duncan, three weeks later, said: ‘Scores of them have been daily going over to the enemy and enlisting since, until now there are but a very few left from either fort not in the ranks of the enemy. Although I really did think at the time of the surrender that some few of the men were loyal, the facts which have since come to light have perfectly satisfied me that nearly every man in both forts was thoroughly implicated and concerned in the revolt on the night of April 27th, with the exception of the company of St. Mary's Cannoneers, composed mostly of planters.’

Under these circumstances but one course was open to the officers. To fight .the enemy with mutineers was equivalent to continuing to float the flag after spiking the [45] guns. With the first appearance of dawn on April 28th, a flag of truce went down to the enemy, bearing a written offer of surrender under the terms previously offered on the 27th. In reply, the Harriet Lane and three other gunboats came opposite the forts, with white flags at the fore. In the forts, white flags were displayed from the yards of the flag-masts, while the Confederate flag floated at the mast-head. Negotiations were proceeding amicably on the Harriet Lane, when on the Mississippi—of late so rich in stately spectacles—appeared a portent as awful as it was mysterious, floating by to interrupt the proceedings on board.

It was the Louisiana, once a powerful ironclad, but at this moment a helpless wreck, drifting and discharging her guns at random. Butler on April 29th said, apparently with a covert smile, that Farragut in the hurry and darkness had overlooked the Louisiana, at anchor under the walls of the fort. And now how worse than useless! The fleet, which she had been specially armed to resist and to terrify, was lying at victorious peace in the river in front of New Orleans. The mortar schooners which she might, if properly handled, have gripped hard and sunk with her powerful battery, were near the head of the Passes, warily watching her and the forts. Hopeless to save her from the superior power bearing down on her from every side, her officers set her on fire, and sent her, with all her guns protruding, down the river. Thus abandoned to her own terrible self, the luckless ironclad finally ended her career by blowing up—floating down in the presence of the guns and of the mortar fleet. The clumsy mortars, as she drifted past, struggled to escape the blazing wreck, even in its ruin a menace. In spite of the plans which had been wasted on the Louisiana, and the hopes in her which went up like a sacrifice in the smoke of her unaimed guns, she scattered, in her blowing up near Fort St. Philip, fragments everywhere within and around the fortifications. [46]

It looked like the grimmest irony or a hostile fate that the only casualties from the Louisiana's formidable battery—working at will on the third day after the passage of the forts—should have comprised one of our own men killed in the fort, and three or four wounded. Among the latter was Captain McIntosh, C. S. navy, who, having been severely wounded on the night of the enemy's passage, was then trying to get well in a tent.

The terms of capitulation were most honorable to the defenders of the forts. In addition to the written articles, Commander Porter verbally agreed not to haul down the Confederate flag or hoist the stars and stripes until the officers should get away from the forts. These terms of consideration were due to the brave officers who, standing true amid treason, had kept their faith unstained until the end. These officers, with the St. Mary's Cannoneers, the only loyal Confederates remaining on the ramparts of the two forts, left for the city about 4 p. m. on the 28th, on the United States gunboat Kennebec. Duncan and Higgins were among the passengers.

On the morning of April 25th Farragut was near Chalmette. Having exchanged compliments with M. L. Smith's guns at the interior line at 1 a. m., his fleet, the Hartford leading, passed the last objecting batteries. The fleet would soon be in front of the city, which was only waiting to see it turn Algiers Point. Inside the city the Confederate troops were busy evacuating—everywhere smothered excitement, galloping horses, drays loading, torches ready. On the levee were people fixing their eyes down the river. No sooner was the Hartford seen coming up than a pale, thin, hesitant flame was seen wriggling on shore, which showed that the work of the torch had begun. The levee, stretching up and down for five miles, at once offered up to the sky lurid columns of smoke. The dimmed sun withdrew now and then from sight, although noon had clanged from the belfry of the cathedral. New Orleans, writhing under the presence of [47] an invincible fleet, seemed to have lost her head. Great ships, fired, floated down stream, terrifying the fleet which unterrified had so lately defied our batteries. Large steamboats at her wharves; a dozen ships, cotton-laden, for foreign ports; one or two gunboats, unhappily incomplete; to sum up all, the marvelous ram, in which she had taken a mother's pride—all these, fired by no one knows whom, New Orleans offered up in one supreme sacrifice. Incendiarism was for once protected. A cloak of official authority was thrown over the whole proceeding. The secretary of war that day had sent this dispatch to order it: ‘It has been determined to burn all the cotton and tobacco, whether foreign or our own, to prevent it from falling into the hands of our enemy.’

On the 28th, Benjamin F. Butler, major-general, was taking mock possession of the forts which had already surrendered to Porter's mortar flotilla.

General Lovell was in the city at the time of the arrival of the fleet abreast the wharves. Subsequent to its appearance he had ordered the troops in the town, together with the stores, to be sent off rapidly toward Jackson, Miss. Being unwilling to subject to bombardment a city filled with the wives and children of absent soldiers, he proposed, after turning the city over to the mayor, to evacuate. With his command his objective point was Jackson, where he hoped to prevent the enemy from get. ting in the rear of Beauregard at Corinth, via Vicksburg & Jackson railroad.5 At 5 p. m. General Lovell left the city in the last train of cars that moved under Confederate auspices. At Camp Moore, on the Jackson railroad, he formed a rendezvous of observation and in. struction. Its value was seen when in August General Breckinridge marched from the camp with his division for Baton Rouge, fully fitted to meet a superior force with courage and success.

As a man, Mansfield Lovell was both clever and brilliant. [48] Upon his shoulders rested a heavy responsibility—a responsibility probably too heavy for any commander at that period, placed in the same circumstances. With inadequate means, he was intrusted with the defense of a department calling for unlimited resources. With the fighting men of the city drawn off to other fields, he was expected, out of untried material, to improvise an army to defend her against superior numbers on land and water. He had striven to utilize all the resources at his command; he had, against obstacles, attempted to get heavy guns for the forts. All his success had turned to naught. When the day of trial came, Farragut's fleet, passing the batteries in the night, made light of his columbiads.

Unhappily a prejudice, directly connected with his duty as commander, combined to injure him. While unremitting in his efforts to administer to the greatest advantage the various functions of his department, Lovell was continually hampered by lack of public confidence—a lack privately felt, if not always outwardly exhibited. [49]

1 Fort Jackson is on the western bank, thirty miles from the mouth of the river. Fort St. Philip is on the eastern bank, a few hundred yards above. These forts were well-constructed permanent works of an old pattern, containing all the available stores both of guns and ammunition.

2 To the credit of Szymanski's Chalmette regiment, it may be recorded that, in its brief service of 55 days, the quarantine battery was attacked April 24, 1862. by the Federal fleet. The Chalmettes made a spirited but unsuccessful defense against numbers and trained gunners. Its loss in the engagement was 5 men killed and 26 wounded.

3 The following is the list of the killed and wounded in each fort: Fort Jackson, 9 killed, 35 wounded; Fort St Philip, killed, 4 wounded; total 11 killed, 39 wounded.

4 ‘The St. Mary Cannoneers, Capt. F. O. Cornay, have my warmest gratitude and admiration for their whole conduct, both in face of the enemy and in the severe and arduous fatigue duties, which they displayed always and at all times, day and night, with alacrity and energy. They are an honor to the country, and well may their friends and relatives be proud of them.’—Higgins' report, April 27, 1862. The troops engaged in the defense enlisted in the city, except the cannoneers. Capt. J. B. Anderson, of Company E, Louisiana artillery, although wounded early in the conflict, continued to render the most gallant service to the end. Of the same company, Lieutenant Baylor, of the 42-pounder barbette battery, and Lieutenant Agar deserve mention. Among those who acted coolly during the six days, were Lieutenants Ogden, Kennedy and Mumford, of the Louisiana artillery; Lieutenant Gaines, in command of the 32-pounder on the river front; Captain Jones, Company I, Twenty-third regiment Louisiana volunteers; Captain Peter, Company I, Twenty-second regiment volunteers; Lieut. Thomas K. Pierson, Twentythird regiment, who was killed while gallantly fighting his guns; Capt. M. T. Squires, senior officer at Fort St. Philip; and Lieut. Thomas B. Huger, of the McRae, who was seriously wounded.

5 Report of General Lovell, April 26, 1862.

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