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Book II:—the naval war.

Chapter 1:

New Orleans.

NEW Orleans was the most important of all the cities of the Confederacy, as well on account of its population, numbering one hundred and seventy thousand souls, as by its position on the lower course of the Mississippi. It had within its walls but an insignificant number of slaves, about thirteen thousand, but it was the principal mart of all the rich cotton and sugar plantations which lined both banks of the Mississippi, and which were exclusively cultivated by negro labor. Its inhabitants, therefore, widely divided by the difference of race and language, had always been unanimous in sustaining the cause of slavery since it had played the first part in the political affairs of the republic, nor had they been among the less zealous in raising the standard of secession in 1861. Many of them had fought bravely on the battle-field of Bull Run. Should the Confederacy ever be recognized and enjoy a tranquil independent existence—should it succeed in realizing the dream of that vast association known by the name of Knights of the Golden Circle, and encompass the Gulf of Mexico by annexing Cuba on one side and Mexico on the other—the queen of the Mississippi was certain to become the capital of this new power. So long as the war lasted it was a strategic point of the utmost importance. If the Federals should succeed in taking possession of this city, they would obtain a foothold in the centre of one of the richest rebel States; they would take from their adversaries a port which required a large number of vessels to blockade, and would secure a strong base of operations from which to attack in rear the armies charged with the defence of the upper course of the Mississippi. Consequently, since the [150] outset of the war their aim had been to make themselves masters of the place. We have said that in the month of December, 1861, General Phelps had landed with a few Massachusetts battalions on a small sandy islet called Ship Island, situated at the entrance of Lake Borgne. As this bay extends to within a short distance of New Orleans, the station of Ship Island, although a disagreeable spot, swept by winds dangerous to vessels and unhealthy for men, afforded, nevertheless, an indispensable point for victualling the fleet and the troops which were about to attack the capital of Louisiana. Upon this island Phelps had found a large fortification commenced before the war, which the Confederates had evacuated during the month of September, and which had been completed by the Federal troops.

While the Federal government was organizing the expedition the object of which was the capture of New Orleans, it maintained a strict blockade of the coast of the Mexican Gulf, despite the inclement season, which it rendered more stringent by gradually occupying the coast itself. A few words will suffice to explain the small military operations which preceded in the first four months of 1862 the setting out of this great expedition.

The first was the occupation of Cedar Keys. This group of islands is situated on the western coast of Florida, a short distance from the main land, and fronting the head of a line of railway which, crossing the peninsula in an oblique direction from south-west to north-east, connected with the Atlantic coast at Fernandina. The war-steamer Hatteras, which appeared there on the 10th of January, took possession of this post without firing a shot; there the Federals found several guns, four schooners, with four or five smaller vessels; they also captured about fifteen prisoners and destroyed the railway station. Six weeks after, on the 24th of February, a few sailors in a launch tried to take possession of another vessel which they had spied on the coast; they were unable to get her away, but succeeded in destroying her.

The principal river which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, east of Mobile Bay, is the Appalachicola, formed by the junction of the waters of Flint River and the Chattahoochee. At its mouth there are found alluvial deposits, which cause the coast to [151] describe a convex curve surrounded by islands and sand-banks. This navigable river afforded the best way for conveying the products of the States of Georgia and Alabama to the coast, which the blockade-runners came to receive in the little town of Appalachicola, situated on Appalachee Bay. In order to put an end to this traffic, two launches were detached from the Federal cruiser Mercedita on the 23d of March, which blockaded the entrance of the bay, and ordered to proceed to the town. The Confederate authorities, together with a small garrison, had fled at their approach; but the sailors did not consider themselves sufficiently strong to venture on shore. They returned on the 3d of April, ten days afterward, in eight launches or whaling-boats, took temporary possession of the town, and did not return on board the Mercedita and Sagamore until they had destroyed all the vessels that could be used in the contraband trade.

More to the west the naval division charged with the blockade of the Mississippi also occasionally visited the enemy's coast; this was at the time when Farragut was commencing his operations, and it was essential to keep a watch over the Confederates along the whole line they had to defend. While Butler's troops were impatiently waiting on the sandy shores of Ship Island for the moment when they might penetrate into the passes which lead to the rich city of New Orleans, it so happened that one day during the equinoctial storm, when a furious gale of wind was blowing, and the sea was more violently agitated than usual, some soldiers picked up on the beach a little girl three years old, who had been washed by the waves from a Confederate ship which was going to pieces at the entrance of Lake Borgne. The child, restored to consciousness by the unremitting care of those around her, was able to tell the name of her relatives; and Major Strong, chief of Butler's staff, prompted by a humane instinct, undertook to carry her, under a flag of truce, to Biloxi, a small town formerly frequented by the inhabitants of New Orleans as a sea-bathing resort, situated opposite Ship Island. But on his return he was treacherously attacked by parties lying in ambuscade, and came near being killed or captured, with the sailors who had escorted him. The two tenders, the Jackson and the New London, accompanied by a transport with the Ninth Connecticut regiment on board, were sent [152] to chastise the perpetrators of this infamous outrage. These vessels, which a short time before, on the 23d of March, had already exchanged a few cannon-shots with two small Confederate steamers, appeared before Biloxi on the evening of April 2; the troops were landed, the town occupied, and the authorities were glad to get off at the cost of some humble apologies. On the following day the three Federal vessels ran into the Pass Christian channel, a short distance from there, drove off the two Confederate steamers, landed a few troops to destroy the Confederate depots, and, after having again taken the men on board, returned to Ship Island. Finally, on the very day when, as we shall see presently, Farragut was taking possession of New Orleans, the 27th of April, a Federal detachment seized a small abandoned work called Fort Livingston, on the western coast of the Mississippi delta, where some Louisiana militia were in the habit of parading for a few hours once a week.

A few Confederate vessels, while attempting to force the blockade, fell, about the same time, into the hands of the Federal navy stationed in the Gulf of Mexico.

We may mention the brig Wilder, which was run ashore near Mobile on the 20th of January to escape from the Union cruisers, and was raised and taken off by the latter under a brisk fire from the beach. The most important capture was that of the steamer Florida, a splendid vessel engaged in the contraband cotton trade between the coast of Florida and Havana. On the 4th of April a Federal launch which had been sent to reconnoitre the bay of St. Andrews, west of the mouth of the Appalachicola, surprised a small schooner employed as a blockaderunner, which had taken refuge there a month before. It was found that when captured the captain of this vessel made strong professions of loyalty to the Union cause, and even proposed to assist the Federals in seizing the Florida, whose whereabouts, at the extremity of the bay, near the mouth of Bear Creek, he divulged to them. The armed sailors concealed themselves on board the schooner, which stood off for the Florida without any one suspecting the trick. In the twinkling of an eye the Federals jumped on board and took possession of the enemy's vessel. Here, again, they found men ready to assist them. As was almost [153] invariably the case, the engineers were at heart in favor of the Union, and readily consented to continue their services. After a dangerous run of several days, after having run aground three times and having lost many men by the fire of the enemy concealed along the shore, the brave boatswain, Lewis, brought the Florida into the Bay of St. Joseph. An attempt almost as bold was made on the 5th of April by a Federal launch and a whaleboat, at the other extremity of the Mexican gulf, to seize the schooner Columbia, which had taken refuge in the San Luis Pass, in Texas, west of Galveston. But after having been for a moment in possession of the vessel, the Union sailors were obliged to abandon their prize, which they set on fire before leaving.

Meanwhile, the project of an expedition against New Orleans, which had been determined upon at the close of the year 1861, and then relinquished, when a war with England seemed imminent, had been revived as soon as the question of the Trent prisoners was amicably settled. General Butler had been directed to raise the necessary troops for this expedition; and in order to make him independent of the local authorities, whose recruiting operations he might interfere with, a military department was created expressly for him in the New England States. He set himself actively to work, and soon succeeded in raising about ten thousand men. The most important part of this expedition, however, was that pertaining to the navy. This was entrusted to Captain Farragut, an officer of large experience, who had remained faithful to his flag, although a native of Tennessee. He was placed in command of the Gulf squadron, and embarked at Hampton Roads on the 2d of February, on board the fine sloop-of-war Hartford, which he was to lead into many battles. The secret concerning the object of the undertaking had been carefully kept. The vessels which the government was collecting from all quarters for this expedition had received sealed orders, designating Key West or the mouths of the Mississippi as the rallying-point.

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