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New Orleans — the entering wedge where the Navy helped the Army

James Barnes
The capture of Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the surrender of New Orleans was the first great blow that the Confederacy received from the south. Coming but two months after the fall of Fort Donelson, it was the thunderous stroke on the wedge that started the ensuing separation of the seceding States into two halves. It was the action that shortened the war by months, if not by years; and though performed by the navy alone, its vital connection with the operations of the army in the West and along the great highway of the Mississippi was paramount. The military history of the war could not be written without touching upon it. The inborn genius of President Lincoln was never more clearly shown than when, on November 12, 1861, he ordered a naval expedition to be fitted out for the capture of New Orleans, the real key to the Mississippi; and never was clearer judgment proved than by the appointment of Captain David G. Farragut to the supreme command as flag-officer. To his fleet was attached a mortar flotilla under Commander David D. Porter, and here again was found the right man for the hour.

All through November, December and early January of 1862, the preparations were hurried without waste of energy. On the 2d of February, Farragut sailed from Hampton Roads, with orders to rendezvous at Key West, where Porter's mortar-boats were to join him. Such vessels as could be spared [227]

The steam frigate Brooklyn The Vessel that Followed the Flagship Past the Forts at New Orleans. When David Glasgow Farragut chose the Hartford as the ship to fly his flag, he picked out a craft that for her type (a steam frigate of the second class) was as fine as could be found in any navy in the world; and as much could be said for the Brooklyn, the second ship of the center division. She marked the transition period between sail and steam. Her tall masts were the inheritance of former days; her engines were merely auxiliary factors, for she could sail with all her canvas set and the proper wind to drive her faster than she could steam under the best conditions. Here we see her with royal, top-gallant sails, top-sails, and courses clewed up, and her funnel lowered to a level with her bulwarks. In passing the forts at New Orleans, she presented no such appearance — her upper yards had been sent down, and with her engines doing their utmost, her funnel belching smoke, she swept slowly on into the line of fire. The first division, composed of eight vessels under command of Captain Theodorus Bailey on the Cayuga, was ahead. But every gunner in Fort Jackson and in Fort St. Philip had been told to “look out for the Hartford and the Brooklyn.” It was dark, but the fire-rafts, the soaring shells, and the flames from the guns afloat and ashore made everything as bright as day. By some mistake, the reports that were first sent to Washington of the passing of the forts contained an erroneous plan. It was the first or discarded drawing, showing the fleet in two divisions abreast. This was afterwards changed into the three-division plan in which Captain Bailey with the Cayuga led. It was not until four years after the closing of the war that this mistake was rectified, and many of the histories and contemporary accounts of the passing of the forts are entirely in error. The center division was composed of only three vessels, all of them steam frigates of the first class: the Hartford, flying Farragut's flag, under Commander Wainwright; the Brooklyn, under Captain T. T. Craven, and the Richmond, under Commander J. Alden. In the first division were also the steam sloops-of-war Pensacola and Mississippi, and they already had been under fire for twenty minutes when the center division neared Fort Jackson. The flagship (really the ninth in line) steered in close to the shore, but was obliged to sheer across the stream in an attempt to dodge a fire-raft that was pushed by the Confederate tug Mosher. It was a daring act performed by a little crew of half a dozen men, and as a deed of desperate courage has hardly any equal in naval warfare. The Mosher all but succeeded in setting the flag-ship in flames, and was sunk by a well-directed shot. The Brooklyn, after a slight collision with the Kineo, one of the vessels of Bailey's division, and almost colliding with the hulks in the obstructions, was hit by the ram Manassas a glancing blow — a little more and this would have sunk her, as both her inner and outer planking were crushed. But, like the flag-ship, she succeeded in passing safely.

[228] from the blockade, whose pinch upon the South Atlantic ports had already begun to be felt, were detached to aid the expedition. No such great plans and actions could be carried on in secrecy. Almost from its incipiency, the object of all this preparation became known throughout the South. Every effort was made by the Confederate military commanders to strengthen the defenses at New Orleans, which consisted of the formidable forts St. Philip and Jackson that faced one another, the former on the north bank and the latter on the south bank of the river below the city. Once these were passed, New Orleans would fall. Not only were the forts strengthened, but every effort was made by the Confederates to gain supremacy afloat; and in this they all but succeeded. In addition to the formidable obstructions placed in the river, the iron-clad ram, Manassas, was strengthened and further protected to prepare her for conflict. The Louisiana, then building at New Orleans, was rushed toward completion. If she had been ready, perhaps New Orleans would have told a different story, for she was designed to be the most powerful ironclad of her day--4,000 tons rating and mounting sixteen heavy guns, well protected by armor. Up the river, at Memphis, the Arkansas was being prepared for active service; and on the various tributaries were being built several iron-clad vessels.

No ship in Farragut's fleet possessed any more powers of resistance than the old wooden walls of Nelson's time. Against this attacking fleet were the well-placed guns ashore, seventy-four in Fort Jackson and fifty-two pieces of ordnance in Fort St. Philip. The garrisons were made up of about seven hundred well-trained cannoneers apiece. As Admiral Porter has observed, “Assuming upon the general concession of military men that one gun in a Fort was equal to about three afloat, and considering the disadvantage of a contrary three-and-a-half-knot current to the Federal vessels (with additional channel obstructions of fire-rafts and [229]

The Richmond The Third Ship of the Center Division at the Passing of the Forts.--There was a current in the Mississippi that had to be taken into account in estimating the time that Farragut's fleet would be under fire from the forts. The larger vessels were all so slow when under steam that, taking the rule that “a fleet is no faster than the slowest ship,” caused them literally to crawl past the danger points. The Richmond was the slowest of them all. Just as she neared the passageway through the obstructions her boilers began to foam, and she could just about stem the current and no more. The vessels of the third division passed her; but at last, with her bow pointed up the river, she was able to engage Fort Jackson. Opening with her port batteries, she hammered hard at the fort, and with small loss got by, followed by the little gunboat Sciota that had equal good fortune. When day dawned, the Richmond crept up to the anchored fleet and reported. It was feared at first that she had been lost or sunk. The battle of New Orleans was probably the most successful, and certainly the boldest, attempt ever made to match wooden ships against forts at close range. Although the Confederate gunboats were inferior to the Federal fleet, they also have to be taken into consideration for their brave and almost blind assault. If they had been assisted by the unfinished ironclads they might have borne different results, for the Louisiana, owing to her unfinished condition never entered the fight. She was considered to be more powerful than the Merrimac. Certainly her armament would prove it, for she mounted two 7-inch rifles, three 9-inch shell guns, four 8-inch smooth-bores, and seven 100-pounder rifles — in all sixteen guns. At the city of New Orleans was an unfinished ironclad that was expected to be even more powerful than the Louisiana. Only the arrival of Farragut's fleet at this timely hour for the Federal cause prevented her from being finished. It was believed by her builders — and apparently, in view of the immunity of ironclads, with reason — that not only could the Mississippi drive the Federal fleet out of the river, but that she would be able to paralyze the whole of the wooden navy of the North, and might possibly go so far as to lay the Northern Atlantic cities under contribution. In order to prevent her from falling into the Federal hands she, like the Louisiana, was set on fire and drifted a wreck down the stream. Commander J. Alden, in every way to render the chances of success more favorable. Cables were slung over the side to protect her vulnerable parts, sand bags and coal had been piled up around her engines, hammocks and splinter-nettings were spread and rigged, and as the attempt to run the forts would be at night, no lights were allowed. Decks and gun-breeches were whitewashed to make them more visible in the darkness. Farragut's orders had concluded with the following weighty sentence: “I shall expect the most prompt attention to signals and verbal orders either from myself or the Captain of the fleet, who, it will be understood in all cases, acts by my authority.” The Richmond lost two men killed and four men wounded in the action.

[230] chains), the odds were greatly in favor of the Confederate defenses.”

The defenders of the old city, New Orleans, were confident that the fleet would never pass. On the 16th of April, the mortar-boats were in position along what was, owing to the bend of the river, really the southern bank (one division, on the first day, was across the river), and in the morning they opened, each vessel firing at the rate of one shell every ten minutes. Organized into three divisions, they were anchored close to the shore, the furthest up stream, only 2,850 yards from Fort Jackson, and 3,680 from Fort St. Philip. They were near a stretch of woods and their tall masts — they were mostly schooners — were dressed with branches of trees in order to disguise their position from the Confederate guns. For almost eight days, at varying intervals even at night, the twenty boats of this flotilla rained their hail of death and destruction on the forts. Brave and hardy must have been the men who stood that terrific bombardment! The commanders of the Confederate forts bore witness to the demoralization of both the men and defenses that ensued. Nearly every shell of the many thousand fired lodged inside the works; magazines were threatened, conflagrations started, and destruction was reaped on all sides. Long after the memorable day of the 24th of April when the fleet swept past, Colonel Edward Higgins, the brave defender of Fort Jackson, wrote as follows:

I was obliged to confine the men most rigidly to the casemates, or we should have lost the best part of the garrison. A shell, striking the parapet over one of the magazines, the wall of which was seven feet thick, penetrated five feet and failed to burst. If that shell had exploded, the work would have ended.

Another burst near the magazine door, opening the earth and burying the sentinel and another man five feet in the same grave.

The parapet and interior of the Fort were completely [231]

Capture of New Orleans.

David G. Farragut, Who Commanded the Fleets at New Orleans. No man ever succeeded in impressing his own personality and infusing his confidence and enthusiasm upon those under his command better than did David Glasgow Farragut. In drawing up the plans and assuming the responsibility of what seemed to be a desperate and almost foolhardy deed, Farragut showed his genius and courage. His attack was not a blind rush, trusting to suddenness for its effect; it was a well-studied, well-thought-out plan. Nothing was neglected “which prudence could suggest, foresight provide, or skill and science devise.” Farragut was well aware of the results that would follow. The control of the lower Mississippi, if complete, would have enabled the Confederate Government to draw almost unlimited supplies from the vast country to the west of the river, and undoubtedly would have prolonged the war. The failure of Farragut's plan and his defeat would have meant a most crushing blow to the North. But in his trust in his officers and his own fearless courage there was small chance of failure. Calm and collected he went through the ordeal, and when safe above the forts he saw Bailey's vessels waiting, and one by one his other ships coming up, he knew that his stupendous undertaking was a success.

The whole of the North rose in elation at the news of the capture of New Orleans; but the surrender of the city at the mouth of the river aid not mean complete possession. From Vicksburg southward, the long line of the river and the land on either side was yet in the possession of the Confederates. Baton Rouge and Natchez surrendered on demand. On May 29th, transports carrying the troops of General Williams came down the river after a reconnaissance at Vicksburg. Farragut was anchored off the town of Baton Rouge. He reported to Williams that a body of irregular Confederate cavalry had fired into one of his boats, wounding an officer and two men, and that he had been compelled to open his batteries upon the shore. Williams at once occupied the town in force.

David Glasgow Farragut: the man who dared

A flagship in unfriendly waters: the Hartford lying close to the levee at Baton Rouge

[232] honeycombed, and the large number of sand bags with which we were supplied alone saved us from being blown to pieces a hundred times, our magazine doors being much exposed.

On the morning of the 24th, when the fleet passed, the terrible precision with which the formidable vessels hailed down their tons of bursting shell upon the devoted Fort made it impossible for us to obtain either rapidity or accuracy of fire, and thus rendered the passage comparatively easy.

Although all the foregoing proves the accuracy and value of the mortar fire, it alone could not reduce the forts. They had to be passed to lay the city at the mercy of the fleet. But there were the obstructions yet to deal with. 'Twas a brave deed that was done by the two gunboats, Itasca and Pinola, which, after great difficulties, broke the great link-chain that, buoyed by logs and hulks, closed up the channel. General M. L. Smith, the engineer of the department, in his report, in referring to the fall of New Orleans, wrote, “While the obstruction existed, the city was safe; when it was swept away, as the defenses then existed, it was in the enemy's power.”

By 2 o'clock A. M. in the morning of the 24th, the intrepid Lieutenant Caldwell, who had suggested the expedition of the two gunboats that had broken up the obstruction, returned to the fleet after a daring survey of the channel, and the flagship hoisted the appointed signal. In two divisions, the fleet passed through the broken barriers and steamed into the zone of fire. It was an enfilading fire, as soon the guns of both forts were brought into play. There is not space here to go into the details of the naval battle that followed with the bravely fought Confederate gunboats and the ram Manassas. That belongs to naval history. There were deeds of prowess performed by vessels that flew either flag; there were small separate actions whose relating would make separate stories in themselves. Amid burning fire-rafts and a continuous roar from the opposing forts, the first division of the fleet under the command of Captain Theodorus Bailey held its course, [233]

Coaling Farragut's fleet after New Orleans

Coaling Farragut's Fleet at Baton Rouge. If “a ship without a captain is like a man without a soul,” as runs an old naval saying, a vessel dependent upon steam power with empty bunkers is as a man deprived of heart-blood, nerves, or muscles; and a few days after New Orleans, Farragut's vessels faced a serious crisis. Captain A. T. Mahan has summed it up in the following words: “. . . The maintenance of the coal supply for a large squadron, five hundred miles up a crooked river in a hostile country, was in itself no small anxiety, involving as it did carriage of the coal against the current, the provision of convoys to protect the supply vessels against guerillas, and the employment of pilots, few of whom were to be found, as they naturally favored the enemy, and had gone away. The river was drawing near the time of lowest water, and the flag-ship herself got aground under very critical circumstances, having had to take out her coal and shot, and had even begun on her guns, two of which were out when she floated off.” Many of the up-river gunboats could burn wood, and so, at a pinch and for a short time, could the smaller steamers with Farragut. But the larger vessels required coal, and at first there was not much of it to be had, although there were some colliers with the fleet and more were dispatched later. In the two pictures of this page we are shown scenes along the levee in 1862, at Baton Rouge, and out in the river, a part of the fleet. The vessel with sails let down to dry is the sloop-of-war Mississippi; ahead of her and a little inshore, about to drop her anchor, is one of the smaller steamers that composed the third division of the fleet. Nearby lies a mortar schooner and a vessel laden with coal. Baton Rouge, where Farragut had hoisted his flag over the arsenal, was policed by a body of foreigners employed by the municipal authority. The mayor had declared that the guerilla bands which had annoyed the fleet were beyond his jurisdiction, saying that he was responsible only for order within the city limits. There was some coal found in the city belonging to private owners, and the lower picture shows the yards of Messrs. Hill and Markham, who, through the medium of Mr. Bryan, the Mayor, opened negotiations with Farragut for its sale.

Levee and river at Baton Rouge in 1862: the vessel with sails let down to dry is the sloop-of-war Mississippi; ahead of her and a little inshore, about to drop her anchor, is one of the smaller steamers that composed the third division of the fleet. Nearby lies a mortar schooner and a vessel laden with coal.

The Coaling Yard at Baton Rouge: the yards of Messrs. Hill and Markham, who, through the medium of Mr. Bryan, the Mayor, opened negotiations with Farragut for its sale..

[234] his ship, the Cayuga, leading the van. The second division, under the fleet's commander, followed. The powerful steam ram, Manassas, had struck the Brooklyn, doing some slight damage. But when the Mississippi turned her wooden prow upon her, in order to avoid being turned over like a log, the ram took to the shore, where her crew escaped. Subsequently, having received two broadsides from the Mississippi, she slid off the bank and drifted in flames down with the current.

By daybreak nine of the Confederate vessels that had fought so gallantly and dauntlessly were destroyed. The forts lay some five miles downstream. The little batteries that protected the outskirts of the city were silenced. On the 25th, New Orleans lay powerless under Farragut's guns. The dreaded Louisiana was set on fire and blew up with tremendous explosion. Another, and still more powerful ironclad, the Mississippi (not to be confused with the vessel in Farragut's fleet of the same name), suffered the same fate. She had been launched only six days before. On the 27th, Porter, who was down the river, demanded the surrender of the forts; and General Duncan, the Confederate commander-in-chief, accepted the terms on the 28th. At 2.30 P. M. on that day, Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson were formally delivered, and the United States flag was hoisted over them. On May 1st, General Butler arrived and the captured city was handed over to the army. The wedge having been driven home, the opening of the Mississippi from the south had begun.

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