previous next

The opening of the lower Mississippi in April, 1862-a reply to Admiral Porter.

By Captain W. C. Whittle.
The Century, illustrated monthly magazine, of April, 1885, contains an article by Admiral David D. Porter, of the United States Navy, entitled ‘The Opening of the Lower Mississippi—April, 1862.’

Before the article appeared I received a very polite letter from W. Lewis Fraser, Esq., manager of the Century, requesting me, as one of the officers of the Confederate iron-clad Louisiana, to furnish such a description as I could of the Louisiana, and of her construction, to accompany an article soon to appear in their magazine, enclosing me at the same time a pencil sketch of the vessel, of which he said, ‘from the enclosed drawing furnished by Admiral Porter, we conclude that she was somewhat similar to the Merrimac.’ I concluded from that clause that Admiral Porter might be the author of the article referred to.

I gladly supplied Mr. Fraser with as good a sketch and description of the Louisiana as I was able from my short experience on board and knowledge of her, and touched upon an incident connected with [561] her destruction with which I was peculiarly concerned. The manager of the magazine was kind enough to publish what I said, in foot notes, along with the article when it appeared over Admiral Porter's signature.

In consequence of my having been a party to the incident above alluded to, connected with the destruction of the Louisiana, I have been requested to write a reply to certain portions of the article to prevent the perpetration and perpetuation of an unjust reflection upon the conduct of an honorable gentleman and a gallant and efficient officer, Commodore John K. Mitchell, who commanded the naval defences at the time of the passage of the Confederate fortifications and fleet by Admiral Farragut, and at the subsequent surrender of the land defences to the present Admiral Porter.

It is with reluctance that I consent to do so, and I wish that the task had fallen upon one better able to deal with it as it deserves.

From a reluctance to engage in controversy incident to age, my former gallant commander, Commodore Mitchell, hesitates to undertake it. It is with no desire or intention to enter into a controversy, with no desire or intention to injure anyone, but simply to do justice where silence might lead to injustice in the minds of those who read Admiral Porter's article, unacquainted with all the circumstances bearing on the case, and with no other guide to a proper understanding of it.

It is no part of my purpose to discuss how far the Federal Government was indebted to Admiral Porter for the services rendered by the renowned Admiral Farragut, by Admiral Porter's recommending Admiral Farragut to the Washington authorities to command in chief the expedition to carry out a scheme conceived by Admiral Porter, as the article states; or of his, as is implied, standing as it were sponsor for the loyalty of Admiral Farragut; nor for the service rendered by Admiral Porter in getting the Federal fleet over the bar, in reference to which he says in his article, page 935, ‘Farragut felt extremely uncomfortable at the prospect before him, but I convinced him that I could get the vessels over, if he would place them under my control, and he consented to do so.’

I will leave these matters to the credulity of the American reader not unfamiliar with Admiral Porter's style.

I will commence my work by stating a fact that has most important bearing upon Commodore Mitchell's conduct, which is, that, except for an active co-operation, the forts and land forces were a separate and distinct command from the naval forces on the Confederate [562] side. The former were under the command of General Duncan, and the latter under the command of Commodore Mitchell.

This is set forth in Admiral Porter's article, who says, page 950, ‘General Duncan told me that he had no authority whatever over the naval vessels, and that, in fact, Commodore Mitchell, of the regular naval forces, had set the military authorities at defiance. So I waived the point, being determined in my own mind what I would do when the forts were in our possession.’

As is set forth in my notes accompanying, in publication, Admiral Porter's article, the Louisiana was in an entirely incomplete condition when she was sent down from New Orleans, and Commodore William C. Whittle, the naval commander at New Orleans, only sent her down in that condition in obedience to positive orders from Richmond to do so, and against his remonstrance and better judgment. Her guns were not mounted, and the machinery of her two propellers was not put together. The machinery of her miserably conceived wheels, working in a ‘well’ in her midship section, one immediately forward of the other, was in working order, but when she cast off her fasts at New Orleans on, I think, April 20th, 1862, the wheels were started, but with them she went helplessly down the stream, and tow-boats had to be called to take her to her destination, the point where she was afterwards destroyed, on the left bank of the river, just above Fort St. Philip, where she was tied up to the river bank, with her bow down stream. Machinists and mechanics were taken down in her, and worked night and day to complete the work on the machinery and to prepare the ship for service.

Our gallant and efficient commander, the lamented Charles F. McIntosh, aided by active, zealous and competent officers, bent all their energies to put the ship in a fighting condition, and by the time that the Federal fleet came up to run by the batteries, on April 24th, all the guns, except, I think, two, were mounted. At that time, the work on the machinery of the propellers was far from completion, and the vessel was, in that regard, as helpless as when she went there. The port-holes for the guns were so miserably constructed as simply to admit of the guns being run out, and were so small as not to admit of training laterally or in elevation.

With regard to the question of putting the Louisiana below Fort Jackson and near the obstructions, as General Duncan wished and urged, Admiral Porter, in his article, says, page 941: ‘Fortunately for us, Commander Mitchell was not equal to the occasion, and the Louisiana remained tied up to the bank, where she could [563] not obstruct the river or throw the Union fleet into confusion while passing the forts.’

On page 940, Admiral Porter says: ‘We had kept up a heavy fire night and day (from the mortar fleet) for nearly five days—about 2,800 shells every twenty-four hours.’ This was kept up from behind a point of land below Fort Jackson, upon which, by some short-sightedness on the Confederate side, the military commander had allowed the trees to remain uncut down, so that the shells from the mortars could be thrown over the trees into Forts Jackson and St. Philip, while the mortar vessels were not visible from the forts. This was the fire which General Duncan wished the Louisiana, by dropping down, to divert from the forts to herself. When the suggestion was urged, Commodore Mitchell had a consultation with his officers. It was decided, and wisely, that it was injudicious, for the reason that it would place her under the fire of the whole Federal fleet commanded by Admiral Farragut, without its being in her power to reach them by a single shot, in consequence of her ports not admitting of an elevation of more than five degrees; and in addition, to the terrific fire of Admiral Porter's mortar fleet—‘2,800 shells in twenty-four hours’—any one of which, falling upon her unprotected upper deck, would have gone through her bottom and sunk her, under which combined fires it would be impossible for any work to be done on our machinery, which we so hoped to complete in time for service when the Federals should come up. Is it not, then, unjust to thus speak of Commodore Mitchell? Is it not conclusive that in his refusal to do so ill-judged a thing, he proved rather that he was the man for the occasion?

At the time that Admiral Farragut's fleet ran the batteries, Commodore Mitchell's command consisted of the still helplessly immovable Louisiana, Commander Charles F. McIntosh, the converted merchant propeller, McRae, Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Huger, and the little ram, Manassas, Lieutenant-Commander Alexander F. Warley. That all these were fought bravely, and as efficiently as their character and condition admitted of, was thoroughly established.

The courageous McIntosh and Huger received mortal wounds, to say nothing of many other brave spirits. The officers and men of these necessarily illy constructed, illy armed and provided, and incomplete substitutes for vessels of war, went out to fight, and did fight, each, as it came up, one of the most powerful naval fleets that this country ever fitted out, with all the improvements and facilities [564] that human ingenuity, money, and fine machine shops and dockyards could supply. And no one, with the heart of a brave man beating in his breast, can truthfully reflect upon their courage.

The converted propeller, ‘Governor Moore,’ which was so efficiently and heroically fought by her brave commander, Beverley Kennon, was not of Commodore Mitchell's command, nor were the river steamers intended for co-operation.

When Farragut's fleet passed up it left below Forts Jackson and St. Philip, under General Duncan, and the still helpless ‘Louisiana,’ under Commodore Mitchell, with a river steamer as a tender, the ‘Landis,’ alongside, which was entirely unarmed. The ‘Louisiana’ had used her guns against all of the Federal fleet as they passed, and every man fought bravely and well, and chafed under their powerlessness, from causes and defects beyond their efforts to correct, to do more. There she lay, with her little flag bravely flying, after having resisted every projectile from Admiral Farragut's fleet. The guns used during the action on board the ‘Louisiana’ were those of the bow division pointing down the river, and those of the starboard broadside division pointing across the river; the former consisting of two 9-inch, smooth bore shell guns and one 7-inch rifle; and the latter, I think, one 32-pounder rifle, and two 8-inch smooth bores.

Of the bow division, I had immediate command. I was the Third Lieutenant.

During the conflict, one of the largest of Admiral Farragut's fleet, as if her steering gear was disarranged, was caught in the eddy current and came right athwart our hawse, her starboard side nearly, if not actually, touching our stem, with only the length of our short forward deck outside of our armor between her side and our armor In that position we received her fire without any shot perforating, and the three guns of my division were fired as fast as they could be loaded and discharged, but here the abortively constructed portholes prevented our depressing our guns to sink her.

It was at this time that our brave commander, Charles F. McIntosh, received his death wounds. When this vessel was placed in this position, as if anticipating that she intended to try to board us, and chafing under the forced inactivity of our vessel, he called away his men to repel the attack and gallantly led them to the upper deck, when he was shot down, as were numbers of his brave followers. A braver man, or set of men, never gave up their lives to any cause.

I cannot pass on further in my narrative without a tribute to the [565] courageous intrepidity of the commanders and crews of the steamer McRae, and the little ram, Manassas, the other two vessels of Commodore Mitchell's command.

The former, a small converted merchant steamer, and the latter originally, I think, a tug-boat, which was roofed over with iron, turtleback fashion, and used as a ram. The officers and crews of these two little vessels took them out to meet their powerful antagonists, and fought to the death the vessels of Admiral Farragut's fleet without any regard to their strength and size, or to their own weakness. The brave commander of the McRae, Huger, fell mortally wounded, and was succeeded by his First Lieutenant, C. W. Read, who fought with desperate courage as long as he could reach an enemy and until the Federal fleet had passed beyond his power to get at them. Her gallant crew suffered heavily. She, after the action, was sent up under a flag of truce, to carry the wounded to New Orleans, where they could receive better treatment. I think that she was there taken possession of by the Federals.

The courageous Warley, of the Manassas, after fighting and ramming among the Federal fleet as long as he could, found that under the heavy ordnance of the enemy, his little craft was leaking and fast filling, and he had to scuttle and leave her, taking to the swamp.

I cannot believe that at any period of the world's history greater courage was ever displayed, or against such odds.

And now I come to the time of the surrender of the forts and the destruction of the Louisiana.

I think it was on April 27th that Commodore Mitchell was informed by General Duncan that he had received a demand from Admiral Porter to surrender, and offering terms of capitulation, and that he had peremptorily refused. Our work was still going on, night and day, on our machinery. The next morning we were to test the efficiency of it. At daylight, a note from General Duncan came off to say that, during the night, a portion of his garrison had mutinied or deserted, and that, not knowing the extent of the disaffection, he had determined to accept the terms offered by Porter.

Commodore Mitchell was, of course, astonished, and jumping into a boat went on shore, and asked if the note was genuine. The reply was, that it was.

He learned that a portion of the garrison of Fort Jackson, from New Orleans, becoming uneasy about their families, had deserted. He remonstrated and urged that the garrison of St. Philip was true, as was the crew of the Louisiana, but he was told that it was too late, [566] as a messenger had been despatched. Commodore Mitchell returned to the Louisiana.

Admiral Porter's fleet, led by the flag-ship, Harriet Lane, was then seen coming up under a flag of truce, in reply to a flag of truce on Fort Jackson.

A consultation was called by Commodore Mitchell. The decision was, that with an enemy above—an enemy below soon to be in possession of our forts — with limited supplies—no reliable motive power —to destroy the vessel.

An orderly but rapid transfer to the unarmed tender ‘Landis’ was made; the magazines and charges in our guns were drowned as far as practicable. Commodore Mitchell, Lieutenants Wilkinson, Ward and I were the last to leave the Louisiana after firing her effectually. Commodore Mitchell then called me to him and told me to go in a boat, indicated, to Commodore Porter's flag-ship, then anchored off Fort Jackson, distant about a mile, and say to him, with his compliments, that he had fired the ‘Louisiana,’ and drowned, as far as he could, the magazines and charges in the guns, but that she was secured to the banks with rope fasts, which might burn; and as he was indisposed to do him any damage while under a flag of truce in answer to a similar flag from the forts, he notified him in case his burning ship should drift down among his fleet. I started down in the boat, two men pulling; when I got about one third of the distance, I felt the boat tremble, and, looking around, saw that the Louisiana had blown up at or near the spot where I left her. I went on, however, and, going alongside of the Harriet Lane, was received by my old naval academy school-mate, Edward Lea, who was on deck. I asked for Commodore Porter, and was told that he was below. A messenger was sent down to him. The reply came back that he was arranging the terms of capitulation of the forts.

In a short time he came up. I delivered the message of Commodore Mitchell. He said, ‘Where is the Louisiana?’ A strange question from one who had been ‘fairly shaken from his seat,’ and whose flag-ship had been ‘thrown on her side.’ I replied that she had blown up.

I returned to the ‘Landis,’ which was up the river just above Fort Jackson, at which point she was awaiting the approach of Porter to demand our surrender.

In a short time the Harriet Lane steamed up towards us. As our flag was still flying, she fired a gun as a signal, demanding our surrender. [567] Our little vessel was entirely unarmed, and had been taken there to await that demand. The flag was ordered to be hauled down, which was done in a dignified manner.

Of this, in his article, Admiral Porter says, page 951: ‘His (Mitchell's) movements had been reported to me, and as soon as General Duncan had left the ship, I gave orders for the Harriet Lane to weigh anchor and beat to quarters. We steered directly for the vessel carrying Mitchell's flag, and the order was given to fire at the flag pole, but the smoke was not out of the gun before the Confederate flag was hauled down.’

The last clause is probably the most obnoxious part of his article. As I said before, we had gone there to await the signal to surrender in this unarmed vessel. When the signal was made, it was replied to by hauling down our flag. I deny most positively that it was done in a hurried or undignified way.

Right here I will state, if Admiral Porter intended by this clause to reflect upon or impugn the courage of these officers and men, that when their reputation for courage is put against his for veracity, I will say to him as he claims to have said to the Confederate officers, when he says it was reported to him that the Louisiana was coming down as a fire ship on his flotilla—‘If you can stand the explosion when it comes, we can.’

After our surrender, we were placed first on the Clifton and afterwards on the Colorado. We were not treated kindly on the Clifton, but the officers of the Colorado were as kind to us as I think their orders would permit. From the Colorado we were put on board of the Rhode Island for transportation to Fort Warren, in Boston harbor.

Admiral Porter, on page 950, says:

We were all sitting at the table on board the Harriet Lane with the terms of capitulation between us. I had signed it, as had also Commander Renshaw, of the Westfield, and Lieutenant-Commander Wainwright, of the Harriet Lane, was about to follow our example, when he was suddenly called on deck by one of his officers. He returned immediately, and informed me that the iron-clad Louisiana was in flames and drifting down the river towards the mortar flotilla (steamers), through which there was not room for her to pass, as our vessels were anchored within thirty yards of each other. “This is sharp practice,” I said to the Confederate officers, “but if you can stand the explosion when it comes, we can.”

We will go on and finish the capitulation. At the same time I [568] gave Lieutenant Wainwright orders, &c., &c., &c. Then I handed the pen to General Duncan and Colonel Higgins, who coolly signed their names in as bold a hand as if they were not momentarily in danger of being blown up. Then we all sat quietly awaiting the result. In a few moments an explosion took place which fairy shook us all out of our seats, and threw the Harriet Lane over on her side, but we finished the terms of capitulation.

I leave it to the reader to account for the apathetic inactivity with which, in the face of such a danger, ‘we sat quietly awaiting the result,’ and, too, to explain the nature of the explosion which only caused the little boat in which I was to tremble, when, at three times the distance, it ‘fairly shook us all from our seats, and threw the Harriet Lane over on her side.’ Is this addressed to the ‘marines?’

To Fort Warren we were taken by the Rhode Island, commanded by Commander Trenchard. When we got there, we were courteously received by Colonel Dimmick, who had the heart of a brave soldier and a Christian gentleman in his bosom. He extended to us our paroles, putting us on the footing with other prisoners. A day or so after, the good, brave old Colonel sent for Commodore Mitchell, Lieutenants John Wilkinson, W. H. Ward, W. C. Whittle, and some other Lieutenants, and told us that he had been ordered from Washington to withdraw our paroles and put us in confinement. Upon inquiry, we learned that it was because of the report of Admiral Porter, of ‘scandalous or infamous conduct’ in having set fire to the Louisiana and sent her down as a fire-ship upon his flotilla while under a flag of truce and receiving the capitulation of the forts. Commodore Mitchell wrote a letter to the authorities in Washington, embodying my statement of having received and delivered his message to Admiral Porter, and we were at once released, and the privileges of our paroles extended to us.

Let the impartial reader judge for himself.

Now, to establish beyond doubt how unjust Admiral Porter's conduct was, and his criticism of Commodore Mitchell's conduct is, I will give the following documents, the printed original of which I have:

Confederate States Navy Department, Richmond, December 5th, 1863.
Finding and opinion of a naval court of inquiry, convened in the city of Richmond, Va., January 5th, 1863, by virtue of the following precepts:


Confederate States Navy Department, Office of orders and detail, Richmond, December 24th, 1862.
Sir,—By order of the Secretary of the Navy, you are hereby appointed President of a court of inquiry, to be convened in this city on the 5th of January next.

Captain S. S. Lee and Commander Robert G. Robb have been ordered to report to you, and with you will compose the court.

Mr. George Lee Brent will report to you as Recorder. You will inquire into the whole official conduct of Commander John K. Mitchell, Confederate States Navy, while in command of the steamer Louisiana, and in charge of the vessels of the Confederate Navy at and below New Orleans, and report the same to this Department, with your opinion whether the said officer did or did not do all in his power to sustain the honor of the flag, and prevent the enemy from ascending the Mississippi River; and if he did not, to what extent did he fail so to do.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

F. Forrest, Chief of Bureau. Flag-Officer Samuel Barron, C. S. N., Commanding, &c., James River, Va.


That Commander Mitchell assumed command of the Louisiana at New Orleans on the 20th April, 1862; and from that time until the destruction of the vessel, only a period of eight days was embraced.

That the whole force under his command consisted of the Louisiana, the McRae, the Manassas, the Jackson, and one launch.

That on the day he took command, Captain Mitchell descended the river Mississippi in the Louisiana, and took up a position on the left bank of the river, about half a mile above Fort St. Philip.

That on leaving New Orleans, the machinery of the Louisiana was incomplete, her motive power imperfect, and her battery improperly mounted.

That she could not, on a fair trial, stem the current of the Mississippi with her own motive power, aided by two steam tugs.

That every exertion was made by Commander Mitchell, the officers and mechanics, to get the Louisiana in a proper state of efficiency [570] for defence of the passage of the river, and that the defects in mounting the battery had been remedied, and the battery served with efficiency, with the exception of two guns out of place.

It appears that a request, or order, was sent by General Duncan, commanding Fort Jackson, to Commander Mitchell to change the position of the Louisiana to a point lower down the stream, which, by a council of officers, was unanimously deemed impracticable, and to a certain extent impossible on account of the great depth of water, and that such change of position would endanger the safety of the Louisiana. That in the position General Duncan desired the Louisiana to assume, she would have been in range of the mortar boats of the enemy, and perfectly helpless, inasmuch as she could not give her guns more than five (5) degrees elevation; not enough to reach the enemy. That the best disposition possible was made of the vessels under the command of Commander Mitchell to resist the passage of the enemy.

That on the 24th of April the enemy appeared, and his passage was hotly contested by the Louisiana, the McRae and the Manassas.

That the Jackson was previously sent up the river to guard certain passes, and the launch down the river to signal the approach of the enemy; and that they took no part in the fight.

That every possible resistance was offered by the vessels mentioned to the passage of the enemy up the river. That at no time was the Louisiana able to leave her moorings and pursue the enemy, from want of sufficient motive power. That the interval between the passage of the enemy and the destruction of the Louisiana (four days), was employed in completing the machinery to render her more able to cope with the enemy; and that it was Commander Mitchell's intention to make an attack when the Louisiana was capable of doing so.

That Commander Mitchell, when he beard that General Duncan, in command of Fort Jackson, had accepted the terms of surrender offered the day before by Captain Porter, United States Navy, remonstrated with General Duncan against such a course, but was told it was too late, as a flag of truce boat had already been sent.

That the enemy appeared in overwhelming force; and that at the time it was determined in council to destroy the Louisiana the position of affairs was as follows: There were from ten to fourteen large vessels of Flag-Officer Farragut's fleet above the Louisiana, and the mortar fleet and gunboats of Captain Porter were below. Two vessels of the enemy with white flags flying, were coming up the river in sight [571] to accept the surrender of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which had white flags in answer to them. That the Louisiana could not move from where she was moored to the bank; nor could she fire on the boats with flags of truce flying; and in a short time the forts would be in the hands of the enemy, and the Louisiana between them. It was then unanimously determined in a council of the officers to destroy the Louisiana, as it was the only course left to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy.

This destruction was accordingly effected under the direction and supervision of Commander Mitchell, in an orderly and deliberate manner, and every precaution was taken to insure the safety of his men.


And the court is of the opinion, from all the evidence adduced, that Commander Mitchell did all in his power to sustain the honor of the flag, and to prevent the enemy from ascending the Mississippi river; and that his conduct and bearing throughout the period of his service while in command of the vessels of the navy, for the defence of the Mississippi river, under the trying and embarrassing circumstances under which he was placed, was all that could be expected by the country and the naval service of a capable and gallant officer.

S. Barron, Flag Officer, President of the Court. George Lee Brent, Recorder.

Navy Department, March 17th, 1863.
Proceedings and finding approved. Office of Orders and Detail will dissolve the Court.

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.

Confederate States Navy Department, Office of orders and detail, Richmond, March 18th, 1863.
Flag-Officer, S. Barron, Commanding, & c.,
sir,— The Naval Court of Inquiry on Commander Mitchell, of which you are the presiding officer, is hereby dissolved. The [572] court convened in this city on the 5th day of January and has been continued thus long in session awaiting the attendance of General Mansfield Lovell and Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Higgins, who were summoned to appear before it as witnesses, by orders from the War Department. Learning that one of these gentlemen, Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins, cannot be spared from his present command, and that General Lovell has made no answer to the summons from the War Department, although they have been more than two months since summoned, again and again, there is no course left but to dissolve the court, which is done accordingly, and you will so inform the members and the judge advocate. You will be pleased to have this letter, or a certified copy, spread upon the records of the court.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

F. Forrest, Chief of Bureau.

The foregoing is ordered to be published for the information of all whom it may concern.

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.

Before this court convened, General Duncan died.

It is worthy of note that neither General Lovell, who commanded all the troops in and below New Orleans, nor Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins, who was second in command of Fort Jackson, could be gotten as witnesses before this court, notwithstanding Admiral Porter's statement that the conduct of Commodore Mitchell was severely criticised and condemned by the Confederate army officers.

The Louisiana was a coveted prize. In one of the Federal yards, with every facility for work, she could soon have been made into a formidable engine of war. No doubt her destruction was a great disappointment to Admiral Porter, and I can only explain his harshness towards Commodore Mitchell and his Lieutenants as prisoners, and his bitterness in his criticisms since, by his failure to possess himself of her.

Would it not be far nobler to gracefully wear the laurels he has won, than to pluck those from the brow of his dead friend, Farragut, or his vanquished foe, Mitchell?

Norfolk, Va., December 18th, 1885.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: