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Chapter 28:

  • Naval affairs, continued
  • -- importance of New Orleans -- attack feared from up the River -- preparations for defense -- strength of the forts -- the General plan -- ironclads -- raft fleet of the enemy -- bombardment of the forts commenced -- advance of the fleet -- batteries below the city -- evacuation of the city by General Lovell on appearance of the enemy -- address of General Duncan to soldiers in the forts -- refusal to surrender -- meeting of the garrison of Fort Jackson -- the forts surrendered -- ironclad Louisiana de-stroyed -- tugs and steamers -- the governor Moore -- the enemy's ship Varuna sunk -- the McRae -- the state of the city and its defenses -- public indignation; its victims -- efforts made for its defense by the Navy Department -- construction of the Mississippi.

New Orleans was the most important commercial port in the Confederacy, being the natural outlet of the Mississippi valley, as well to the ports of Europe as to those of Central and South America. It was the depot which, at an early period, had led to controversies with Spain, and its importance to the interior had been a main inducement to the purchase of Louisiana. It had become before 1861 the chief cotton mart of the United States, and its defense attracted the early attention of the Confederate government. The approaches for an attacking party were numerous. They could through several channels enter Lake Pontchartrain, to approach the city in rear for land attack, could ascend the Mississippi from the Gulf, or descend it from the Northwest, where it was known that the enemy was preparing a formidable fleet of ironclad gunboats. In the early part of 1862, so general an opinion prevailed that the greatest danger to New Orleans was by an attack from above, that General Lovell sent to General Beauregard a large part of the troops then in the city.

At the mouth of the Mississippi there is a bar, the greatest depth of water on which seldom exceeded eighteen feet, and it was supposed that heavy vessels of war, with their armament and supplies, would not be able to cross it. Such proved to be the fact, and the vessels of that class had to be lightened to enable them to enter the river. In that condition of affairs, an inferior fleet might have engaged them with a prospect of success. Captain Hollins, who was in command of the squadron at New Orleans, and who had on a former occasion shown his fitness for such [178] service, had been sent with the greater part of his fleet up the river to join the defense there being made. Two powerful vessels were under construction, the Louisiana and the Mississippi, but neither of them was finished. A volunteer fleet of transport vessels had been fitted up by some river men, but it was in the unfortunate condition of not being placed under the orders of the naval commander. A number of fire rafts had been also provided, which were to serve the double purpose of lighting up the river in the event of the hostile fleets attempting to pass the forts under cover of the night, and of setting fire to any vessel with which they might become entangled.

After passing the bar there was nothing to prevent the ascent of the river until Forts Jackson and St. Philip were reached. These works, constructed many years before, were on opposite banks of the river. Their armament, as reported by General Lovell on December 5, 1861, consisted of—Fort Jackson: six forty-two-pounders, twenty-six twentyfour-pounders, two thirty-two-pounder rifles, sixteen thirty-two-pounders, three eight-inch columbiads, one ten-inch columbiad, two eight-inch mortars, one ten-inch mortar, two forty-pounder howitzers, and ten twentyfour-pounder howitzers; Fort St. Philip: six forty-two-pounders, nine thirty-two-pounders, twenty-two twenty-four-pounders, four eight-inch columbiads, one eight-inch mortar, one ten-inch mortar, and three field guns.

General Duncan reported that on March 27th, he was informed by Lieutenant Colonel Higgins, commanding Forts Jackson and St. Philip, of the coast defenses which were under his (General Duncan's) command, that the enemy's fleet was crossing the bars and entering the Mississippi River in force, whereupon he repaired to Fort Jackson. After describing the condition of the forts from the excess of water and sinking of the entire site, as well as the deficiency of guns of heavy caliber in the forts, he proceeds:

It became necessary in their present condition to bring in and mount, and to build the platforms for, the three ten-inch and three eight-inch columbiads, the rifled forty-two-pounder, and the five ten-inch seacoast mortars recently obtained from Pensacola on the evacuation of that place, together with the two rifled seven-inch guns temporarily borrowed from the naval authorities in New Orleans. It was also found necessary to repair the old water battery to the rear of and below Fort Jackson, which had never been completed, for the reception of a portion of these guns, as well as to construct mortar-proof magazines, and shellrooms within the same.

One of the seven-inch rifled guns borrowed from the navy was subsequently returned, so that, when the forts were attacked, the armament was one hundred twenty-eight guns and mortars. [179]

The garrisons of Forts Jackson and St. Philip were about one thousand men on December 5, 1861; afterward, so far as I know, the number was not materially changed.

The prevailing belief that vessels of war, in a straight, smooth channel, could pass batteries, led to the construction of a raft between the two forts which, it was supposed, would detain the ships under fire of the forts long enough for the guns to sink them, or at least to compel them to retire. The power of the river when in flood, and the driftwood it bore upon it, broke the raft; another was constructed which, when the driftwood accumulated upon it, met a like fate. Whether obstructions differently arranged—such as booms secured to the shores, with apparatus by which they could be swung across the channel when needful, or logs such as were used, except that, being unconnected together, but each separately secured by chain and anchor, they might severally yield to the pressure of the driftwood, sinking, so as to allow it to pass over them, and, when relieved of the weight, rising again—or whether other expedient could have been made permanent and efficient, is a problem which need not be discussed, as the time for its application has passed from us.

The general plan for the defense of New Orleans consisted of two lines of works: an exterior one, passing through the forts near the mouth of the river, and the positions taken to defend the various water approaches; nearer to the city was the interior line, embracing New Orleans and Algiers, which was intended principally to repel an attack by land but also, by its batteries on the river bank, to resist approach by water. The total length of the entrenchments on this interior line was more than eight miles. When completed it formed, in connection with impassable swamps, a very strong line of defense. At the then high stage of the river, all the land between it and the swamps was so saturated with water that regular approaches could not have been made. The city, therefore, was at the time supposed to be doubly secure from a land attack.

In the winter of 1861-62 I sent one of my aides-de-camp to New Orleans to make a general inspection and hold free conference with the commanding general. Upon his return, he reported to me that General Lovell was quite satisfied with the condition of the land defenses—so much so as to say that his only fear was that the enemy would not make a land attack.

Considered since the event, it may seem strange that after the fall of Donelson and Henry and the employment of the enemy's gunboats in the Tennessee and Cumberland, it was still generally argued that the danger to New Orleans was that the gunboats would descend the [180] Mississippi, and applications were made to have the ship Louisiana sent up the river as soon as she was completed.

The interior lines of defense mounted more than sixty guns of various caliber, and were surrounded by wide and deep ditches. On the various water approaches, including bays and bayous on the west and east sides of the river, there were sixteen different forts, and these, together with those on the river and the batteries of the interior line, had in position about three hundred guns.

One ironclad, the Louisiana, mounting sixteen guns of heavy caliber, though she was not quite completed, was sent down to cooperate with the forts. Her defective steam-power and imperfect steering apparatus prevented her from rendering active cooperation. The steamship Mississippi, then under construction at New Orleans, was in such an unfinished condition as to be wholly unavailable when the enemy arrived. In the opinion of naval officers she would have been, if completed, the most powerful ironclad then in the world, and could have driven the enemy's fleet out of the river and raised the blockade at Mobile. There were also several small river steamers which were lightly armed, and their bows were protected so that they could act as rams and otherwise aid in the defense of the river; from the reports received, however, they seem, with a few honorable exceptions, to have rendered little valuable service.

The means of defense mainly relied on, therefore, were the two heavily armed forts, Jackson and St. Philip, with the obstruction placed between them: this was a raft consisting of cypress trees forty feet long, and averaging four or five feet at the larger end. They were placed longitudinally in the river, about three feet apart, and held together by gunwales on top, and strung upon two two-and-a-half-inch chain cables fastened to their lower sides. This raft was anchored in the river, abreast of the forts.

The fleet of the enemy below the forts consisted of seven steam sloops of war, twelve gunboats, and several armed steamers, under Commodore Farragut; also, a mortar fleet consisting of twenty sloops and some steam vessels. The whole force was forty-odd vessels of different kinds, with an armament of three hundred guns of heavy caliber, of improved models.

The bombardment of the forts by the mortar fleet commenced on April 18th, and after six days of vigorous and constant shelling the resisting power of the forts was not diminished in any perceptible degree. On the 23d there were manifest preparations by the enemy to attempt [181] the passage of the forts. This, as subsequently developed, was to be done in the following manner: the sloops of war and the gunboats were each formed in two divisions and, selecting the darkest hour of the night, between 3 and 4 A. M. of the 24th, moved up the river in two columns. The commanders of the forts had vainly endeavored to have the river lighted up in anticipation of an attack by the fleet.

In the meantime, while the fleet moved up the river, there was kept up from the mortars a steady bombardment on the forts, and these opened a fire on the columns of ships and gunboats which, from the failure to send down the fire rafts to light up the river, was less effective than it otherwise would have been. The straight, deep channel enabled the vessels to move at their greatest speed, and thus the forts were passed.

Brigadier General J. K. Duncan, commanding the coast defenses, says in his report of the passing of Forts Jackson and St. Philip by the enemy's fleet:

The enemy evidently anticipated a strong demonstration to be made against him with fire-barges. Finding, upon his approach, however, that no such demonstration was made, and that the only resistance offered to his passage was the anticipated fire of the forts—the broken and scattered raft being no obstacle— I am satisfied that he was suddenly inspired, for the first time, to run the gantlet at all hazards, although not a part of his original design. Be that as it may, a rapid rush was made by him in columns of twos in echelon, so as not to interfere with each other's broadsides. The mortar-fire was furiously increased upon Fort Jackson, and, in dashing by, each of the vessels delivered broadside after broadside, of shot, shell, grape, canister, and spherical case, to drive the men from our guns.

Both the officers and men stood up manfully under this galling and fearful hail, and the batteries of both forts were promptly opened at their longest range, with shot, shell, hot-shot, and a little grape, and most gallantly and rapidly fought, until the enemy succeeded in getting above and beyond our range. The absence of light on the river, together with the smoke of the guns, made the obscurity so dense that scarcely a vessel was visible, and, in consequence, the gunners were obliged to govern their firing entirely by the flashes of the enemy's guns. I am fully satisfied that the enemy's dash was successful mainly owing to the cover of darkness, as a frigate and several gunboats were forced to retire as day was breaking. Similar results had attended every previous attempt made by the enemy to pass or to reconnoiter when we had sufficient light to fire with accuracy and effect.

The vessels which passed the fort anchored at the quarantine station about six miles above, and in the forenoon proceeded up the river. Batteries had been constructed where the interior line of defense touched both the right and the left bank of the river. The high stage of the river gave to its surface an elevation above that of the natural bank; a continuous levee to protect the land from inundation existed on both sides [182] of the river. When the ascending fleet approached these batteries, a crossfire, which drove two of the vessels back, was opened upon it, and continued until all the ammunition was exhausted. The garrison was then withdrawn—casualties, one killed and one wounded. The regret which would naturally arise from the fact of these batteries not having a sufficient supply of ammunition is modified, if not removed, by the statement of the highly accomplished and gallant officer, Major General M. L. Smith, who was then in command of them. He reported:

Had the fall of New Orleans depended upon the enemy's first taking Forts Jackson and Philip, I think the city would have been safe from an attack from the Gulf. The forts, in my judgment, were impregnable as long as they were in free and open communication with the city. This communication was not endangered while the obstruction existed. The conclusion, then, is briefly this: While the obstruction existed, the city was safe; when it was swept away, as the defenses then existed, it was within the enemy's power.

On the other hand General Duncan, whose protracted, skillful, and gallant defense of the forts is above all praise, closes his official report with the following sentence: ‘Except for the cover afforded by the obscurity of the darkness, I shall always remain satisfied that the enemy would never have succeeded in passing Forts Jackson and St. Philip.’ The darkness to which he referred was not only that of night, but also the absence of the use of the means prepared to light up the river. As further proof of the intensity of the darkness, and the absence of that intelligent design and execution which had been claimed, I will quote a sentence from the report of Commodore Farragut: ‘At length the fire slackened, the smoke cleared off, and we saw to our surprise that we were above the forts.’

On April 25th the enemy's gunboats and ships of war anchored in front of the city and demanded its surrender. Major General M. Lovell, then in command, refused to comply with the summons, but, believing himself unable to make a successful defense, and in order to avoid a bombardment, agreed to withdraw his forces, and turn it over to the civil authorities. Accordingly, the city was evacuated on the same day. The forts still continued defiantly to hold their position. By assiduous exertion the damage done to the works was repaired, and the garrisons valiantly responded to the resolute determination of General Duncan and Colonel Higgins to defend the forts against the fleet still below, as well as against that which had passed and was now above. On the 26th Commodore Porter, commanding the mortar fleet below, sent a flagof-truce boat to demand the surrender of the forts, saying that the city of New Orleans had surrendered. To this Colonel Higgins replied, April [183] 27th, that he had no official information that New Orleans had been evacuated, and until such notice was received he would not entertain for a moment a proposition to surrender the forts. On the same day General Duncan, commanding the coast defenses, issued the following address:

soldiers of forts Jackson and St. Philip:
You have nobly, gallantly, and heroically sustained with courage and fortitude the terrible ordeals of fire, water, and a hail of shot and shell wholly unsurpassed during the present war. But more remains to be done. The safety of New Orleans and the cause of the Southern Confederacy—our homes, families, and everything dear to man—yet depend upon our exertions. We are just as capable of repelling the enemy today as we were before the bombardment. Twice has the enemy demanded your surrender, and twice has he been refused.

Your officers have every confidence in your courage and patriotism, and feel every assurance that you will cheerfully and with alacrity obey all orders, and do your whole duty as men and as becomes the well-tried garrisons of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Be vigilant, therefore, stand by your guns, and all will yet be well.

J. K. Duncan, Brigadier-General, commanding coast-defenses.

Not less lofty and devoted was the spirit evinced by Colonel Higgins. His naval experience had been energetically applied in the attempts to preserve and repair the raft. As immediate commander of Fort St. Philip, he had done all which skill and gallantry could achieve, and though for forty-eight hours during the bombardment he never left the rampart, yet, with commendable care for his men, he kept them so under cover that, notwithstanding the long and furious assault to which the fort was subjected, the total of casualties in it was two killed and four wounded. Their conduct was such as was to be anticipated, for had these officers been actuated by a lower motive than patriotism, had they been seeking the rewards which power confers, they would not have taken service with the weaker party. Their meed was the consciousness of duty well done in a righteous cause, and the enduring admiration and esteem of a people who had only these to confer.

During the 25th, 26th, and 27th, there had been an abatement of fire on the forts, and with it had subsided the excitement which imminent danger creates in the brave. A rumor became current that the city had surrendered, and no reply had been received to inquiries sent on the 24th and 25th. About midnight on the 27th the garrison of Fort Jackson revolted en masse, seized upon the guard, and commenced to spike the guns. Captain S. O. Comay's company, the Louisiana Cannoneers of St. Mary's Parish, and a few others remained true to their cause and country. The mutiny was so general that the officers were powerless to control it, [184] and therefore decided to let those go who wished to leave, and after daybreak to communicate with the fleet below and negotiate for the terms which had been previously offered and declined.

Under the incessant fire to which the forts had been exposed, and the rise of the water in the casemates and lower part of the works, the men had been deprived not only of sleep, but of the opportunity to prepare their food. Heroically they had braved alike dangers and discomfort, had labored constantly to repair damages, to extinguish fires caused by exploding shells, to preserve their ammunition by bailing out the water which threatened to submerge the magazine; yet, in a period of comparative repose these men, who had been cheerful and obedient, as suddenly as unexpectedly broke out into open mutiny. Under the circumstances which surrounded him, General Duncan had no alternative. It only remained for him to accept the proposition which had been made for a surrender of the forts. As this mutiny became known about midnight of the 27th, soon after daylight of the 28th a small boat was procured, and notice of the event was sent to Captain Mitchell, on the Louisiana, and also to Fort St. Philip. The officers of that fort concurred in the propriety of the surrender, though none of their men had openly revolted.

A flag of truce was sent to Commodore Porter to notify him of a willingness to negotiate for the surrender of the forts. The gallantry with which the defense had been conducted was recognized by the enemy, and the terms were as liberal as had been offered on former occasions.

The garrisons were paroled, the officers were to retain their side-arms, and the Confederate flags were left flying over the forts until after our forces had withdrawn. If this was done as a generous recognition of the gallantry with which the forts had been defended, it claims acknowledgment as an instance of martial courtesy—the flower that blooms fairest amid the desolations of war.

Captain Mitchell, commanding the Confederate States naval forces, had been notified by General Duncan of the mutiny in the forts and of the fact that the enemy had passed through a channel in rear of Fort St. Philip and had landed a force at the quarantine, some six miles above, and that, under the circumstances, it was deemed necessary to surrender the forts. As the naval forces were not under the orders of the general commanding the coast defenses, it was optional with the naval commander to do likewise or not as to his fleet. After consultation with his officers, Captain Michell decided to destroy his flagship, the Louisiana, the only formidable vessel he had, rather than allow her to fall into the hands of the enemy. The crew was accordingly withdrawn, and the vessel set on fire. [185]

Commodore Porter, commanding the fleet below, came up under a flag of truce to Fort Jackson, and while negotiations were progressing for the surrender, the Louisiana, in flames, drifted down the river and, when close under Fort St. Philip, exploded and sank.

The defenses afloat, except the Louisiana, consisted of tugs and river steamers, which had been converted to war purposes by protecting their bows with iron so as to make them rams, and putting on them such armament as boats of that class would bear; these were again divided into such as were subject to control as naval vessels, and others which, in compliance with the wish of the governor of Louisiana and many influential citizens, were fitted out to a great extent by state and private sources, with the condition that they should be commanded by riversteamboat captains, and should not be under the control of the naval commander. This, of course, impaired the unity requisite in battle. For many other purposes they might have been used without experiencing the inconvenience felt when they were brought together to act as one force against the enemy. The courts of inquiry and the investigation by a committee of Congress have brought out all the facts of the case, but with such conflicting opinions as render it very difficult, in reviewing the matter, to reach a definite and satisfactory conclusion. This much it may be proper to say: that expectations, founded upon the supposition that these improvised means could do all which might fairly be expected from war vessels, were unreasonable, and a judgment based upon them is unjust to the parties involved. The machinery of the Louisiana was so incomplete as to deprive her of locomotion, but she had been so well constructed as to possess very satisfactory resisting powers, as was shown by the fact that the broadsides of the enemy's vessels, fired at very close quarters, had little or no effect upon her shield. Without power of locomotion, her usefulness was limited to employment as a floating battery. The question as to whether she was in the right position, or whether, in her unfinished condition, she should have been sent from the city, is one for an answer to which I must refer the inquirer to the testimony of naval men, who were certainly most competent to decide the issue.

One of the little river boats, the Governor Moore, commanded by Lieutenant Beverly Kennon, like the others imperfectly protected at the bow, struck and sunk the Varuna, in close proximity to other vessels of the enemy's fleet. Such daring resulted in his losing, in killed and wounded, seventy-four out of a crew of ninety-three. Then finding that he must destroy his ship to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy, he set her on fire, and testified as follows: [186]

I ordered the wounded to be placed in a boat, and all the men who could to save themselves by swimming to the shore and hiding themselves in the marshes. I remained to set the ship on fire. After doing so, I went on deck with the intention of leaving her, but found the wounded had been left with no one to take care of them. I remained and lowered them into a boat, and got through just in time to be made a prisoner. The wounded were afterward attended by the surgeons of the Oneida and Eureka.

This, he says, was the only foundation for the accusation of having burned his wounded with his ship. Another, the Manassas, Lieutenantcommanding Warley, though merely an altered ‘tug-boat,’ stoutly fought the large ships; being wholly unprotected except at her bow, however, she was perforated in many places, as soon as the guns were brought to bear upon her sides, and floated down the river a burning wreck. Another of the same class is thus referred to by Colonel Higgins:

At daylight, I observed the McRae, gallantly fighting at terrible odds, contending at close quarters with two of the enemy's powerful ships. Her gallant commander, Lieutenant Thomas B. Huger, fell during the conflict, severely, but I trust not mortally, wounded.

This little vessel, after her unequal conflict, was still afloat, and, with permission of the enemy, went up to New Orleans to convey the wounded as well from our forts as from the fleet.

On April 23, 1862, General Lovell, commanding the military department, had gone down to Fort Jackson, where General Duncan, commanding the coast defenses, then made his headquarters. The presence of the department commander did not avail to secure the full cooperation between the defenses afloat and the land defenses, which was then of most pressing and immediate necessity.

When the enemy's fleet passed the forts, he hastened back to New Orleans, his headquarters. The confusion which prevailed in the city, when the news arrived that the forts had been passed by the enemy's fleet, shows how little it was expected. There was nothing to obstruct the ascent of the river between Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the batteries on the river where the interior line of defense rested on its right and left banks, about four miles below the city. The guns were not sufficiently numerous in these batteries to inspire much confidence; they were nevertheless well served until the ammunition was exhausted, after which the garrisons withdrew and made their way by different routes to join the forces withdrawn from New Orleans.

Under the supposition entertained by the generals nearest to the operations, the greatest danger to New Orleans was from above, not [187] from below, the city; therefore, most of the troops had been sent from the city to Tennessee, and Captain Hollins, with the greater part of the river fleet, had gone up to check the descent of the enemy's gunboats.

Batteries like those immediately below the city had been constructed where the interior line touched the river above, and armed to resist an attack from that direction. Doubtful as to the direction from which, and the manner in which, an attempt might be made to capture the city, such preparations as circumstances suggested were made against many supposable dangers by the many possible routes of approach. To defend the city from the land, against a bombardment by a powerful fleet in the river before it, had not been contemplated. All the defensive preparations were properly, I think, directed to the prevention of a near approach by the enemy. To have subjected the city to bombardment by a direct or plunging fire, as the surface of the river was then higher than the land, would have been exceptionally destructive. Had the city been filled with soldiers whose families had been sent to a place of safety, instead of being filled with women and children whose natural protectors were generally in the army and far away, the attempt might have been justified to line the levee with all the effective guns and open fire on the fleet, at the expense of whatever property might be destroyed before the enemy should be driven away. The case was the reverse of the hypothesis, and nothing could have been more unjust than to censure the commanding general for withdrawing a force large enough to induce a bombardment, but insufficient to repel it. His answer to the demand for the surrender showed clearly enough the motives by which he was influenced. His refusal enabled him to withdraw the troops and most of the public property, and to use them, with the ordnance and ordnance stores thus saved, in providing for the defense of Vicksburg, but especially it deprived the enemy of any pretext for bombarding the town and sacrificing the lives of the women and children. It appears that General Lovell called for ten thousand volunteers from the citizens, but failed to get them. There were many river steamboats at the landing, and if the volunteers called for were intended to man these boats and board the enemy's fleet before their land forces could arrive, it cannot be regarded as utterly impracticable. The report of General Butler shows that he worked his way through one of the bayous in rear of Fort St. Philip to the Mississippi River above the forts so as to put himself in communication with the fleet at the city, and to furnish Commodore Farragut with ammunition. From this it is to be inferred that the fleet was deficient in ammunition, and the fact would have rendered boarding [188] from river boats the most likely to succeed. In this connection it may be remembered that, during the war, John Taylor Wood, Colonel and A. D. C. to the President, who had been an officer of high repute in the ‘old Navy,’ did in open boats attack armed vessels, board and capture them, though found with nettings up, having been warned of the probability of such an attack.1

Many causes have been assigned for the fall of New Orleans. Two of them are of undeniable force: first, the failure to light up the channel; second, the want of an obstruction which would detain the fleet under fire of the forts. General Duncan's report and testimony justify the conclusion that to the thick veil of darkness the enemy was indebted for his ability to run past the forts.

The argument that the guns were not of sufficiently large caliber to stop the fleet is not convincing. If all the guns had been of the largest size, that would not have increased the accuracy but would have diminished the rapidity of the fire, and therefore in the same degree would have lessened the chances of hitting objects in the dark. Further, it appears that the forts always crippled or repulsed any vessels which came up in daylight.

The forts would have been better able to resist bombardment if they had been heavily plated with iron; that would not, however, have prevented the fleet from passing them as they did. Torpedoes might have been placed on the bar at the mouth of the river before the enemy got possession of it, and subsequently, if attached to buoys, they might have been used in the deep channel above. Many other things which were omitted might and probably would have been done had attention been earlier concentrated on the danger which at last proved fatal. If the volunteer river-defense fleet was ineffective, as alleged, because it was not subject to the orders of the naval commander, that was an evil without a remedy. The governor of Louisiana had arranged with the projectors that they should not be subject to the naval commander, and the alternative of not accepting them with that condition was that they [189] would not agree to convert their steamers into war vessels. Unless, therefore, it can be shown that they were worse than none, their presence can not be properly enumerated among the causes of the failure.

The fall of New Orleans was a great disaster, over which there was general lamentation, mingled with no little indignation. The excited feeling demanded a victim, and conflicing testimony of many witnesses most nearly concerned made it convenient to select for censure those most removed and least active in their own justification. Thus the naval constructors of the Mississippi and the Secretary of the Navy became the special objects of attack. The selection of these had little of justice in it, and could not serve to relieve others of their responsibility, as did the old-time doom of the scapegoat. New Orleans had never been a shipbuilding port, and when the Messrs. Tift, the agents to build the ironclad steamer Mississippi arrived there, they had to prepare a shipyard, procure lumber from a distance, have the foundries and rolling-mills adapted to such iron work as could be done in the city, and contract elsewhere for the balance. They were ingenious, well informed in matters of shipbuilding, and were held in high esteem in Georgia and Florida, where they had long resided. They submitted a proposition to the Secretray of the Navy to build a vessel on a new model. The proposition was accepted after full examination of the plan proposed, the novelty of which made it necessary that they should have full control of the work of construction. To the embarrassments above mentioned were added interruptions by calling off the workmen occasionally for exercise and instruction as militiamen, the city being threatened by the enemy. From these causes, unexpected delay in the completion of the ship resulted, regret for which increased as her most formidable character was realized.

These constructors—the brothers Tift—hoped to gain much reputation by the ship which they designed, and from this motive agreed to give their full service and unremitted attention in its construction without compensation or other allowance than their current expenses. It would, therefore, on the face of it, seem to have been a most absurd suspicion that they willingly delayed the completion of the vessel, and at last wantonly destroyed it.

E. C. Murray, who was the contractor for building the Louisiana, in his testimony before a committee of the Confederate Congress, testified that he had been a practical shipbuilder for twenty years and a contractor for the preceding eighteen years, having built about a hundred twenty boats, steamers, and sailing vessels. There was only a fence [190] between his shipyard and that where the Mississippi was constructed. Of this latter vessel he said:

I think the vessel was built in less time than any vessel of her tonnage, character, and requiring the same amount of work and materials, on this continent. That vessel required no less than two million feet of lumber, and, I suppose, about one thousand tons of iron, including the false works, blockways, etc. I do not think that amount of materials was ever put together on this continent within the time occupied in her construction. I know many of our naval vessels, requiring much less materials than were employed in the Mississippi, that took about six or twelve months in their construction. She was built with rapidity, and had at all times as many men at work upon her as could work to advantage— she had, in fact, many times more men at work upon her than could conveniently work. They worked on nights and Sundays upon her, as I did upon the Louisiana, at least for a large portion of the time.

The Secretary of the Navy knew both of the Tifts, but had no near personal relations or family connections with either, as was recklessly alleged.

He, in accepting their proposition, connected with it the detail of officers of the navy to supervise expenditures and aid in procuring materials. Assisted by the chief engineer and constructor of the navy, minute instructions were given as to the manner in which the work was to be conducted. As early as September 19th he sent twenty ship carpenters from Richmond to New Orleans to aid in the construction of the Mississippi. On October 7th authority was given to have guns of heaviest caliber made in New Orleans for the ship. Frequent telegrams were sent in November, December, and January, showing great earnestness about the work on the ship. In February and March notice was given of the forwarding from Richmond of capstan and mainshaft, which could not be made in New Orleans. On March 22d the Secretary, by telegraph, directed the constructors to ‘strain every nerve to finish the ship,’ and added, ‘work day and night.’ April 5th he again wrote: ‘Spare neither men nor money to complete her at the earliest moment. Can not you hire night-gangs for triple wages?’ April 10th the Secretary again says: ‘Enemy's boats have passed Island 10. Work day and night with all the force you can command to get the Mississippi ready. Spare neither men nor money.’ April 11th he asks, ‘When will you launch, and when will she be ready for action?’ These inquiries indicate the prevalent opinion, at that time, that the danger to New Orleans was from the ironclad fleet above, and not the vessels at the mouth of the river; the anxiety of the Secretary of the Navy and the efforts made by him were, however, of a character applicable to either or both the sources of danger. Thus we find as early as February 24, 1862, that he [191] instructed Commander Mitchell to make all proper exertions to have guns and carriages ready for both the ironclad vessels, the Mississippi and the Louisiana. Reports having reached him that the work on the latter vessel was not pushed with sufficient energy, on March 15th he authorized Commander Mitchell to consult with General Lovell, and, if the contractors were not doing everything practicable to complete her at the earliest moment, that he should take her out of their hands, and, with the aid of General Lovell, go on to complete her himself. On April 5, 1862, Secretary Mallory instructed Commander Sinclair, who had been assigned to the command of the Mississippi, to urge on by night and day the completion of the ship. In March, 1861, the Navy Department sent from Montgomery officers to New Orleans, with instructions to purchase steamers and fit them for war purposes. Officers were also sent to the North to purchase vessels suited to such uses, and in the ensuing May an agent was dispatched to Canada and another to Europe for like objects; in April, 1861, contracts were made with foundries at Richmond and New Orleans to make guns for the defense of New Orleans. On May 8, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy communicated at some length to the Committee on Naval Affairs of the Confederate Congress his views in favor of ironclad vessels, arguing as well for their efficiency as for the economy in building them, believing that one such vessel could successfully engage a fleet of the wooden vessels which constituted the enemy's navy. His further view was that we could not hope to build wooden fleets equal to those with which the enemy were supplied. The committee, if it should be deemed expedient to construct an ironclad ship, was urged to prompt action by the forcible declaration, ‘Not a moment should be lost.’

Commander George Minor, Confederate States Navy, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, reported the number of guns sent by the Navy Department to New Orleans, between July 1, 1861, and the fall of the city, to have been one hundred ninety-seven, and that before July twentythree guns had been sent there from Norfolk, being a total of two hundred twenty guns, of which forty-five were of large caliber, supplied by the Navy Department for the defense of New Orleans.

Very soon after the government was removed to Richmond, the Secretary of the Navy, with the aid of Commander Brooke, designed a plan for converting the sunken frigate Merrimac into an ironclad vessel. She became the famous Virginia, the brilliant career of which silenced all the criticisms which had been made upon the plan adopted. On May 20, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy instructed Captain Ingraham, [192] Confederate States Navy, to ascertain the practicability of obtaining wrought-iron plates suited for ships' armor. After some disappointment and delay, the owners of the mills at Atlanta were induced to make the necessary changes in the machinery, and undertake the work. Efforts at other places in the West had been unsuccessful, and this was one of the difficulties which an inefficient department would not have overcome. The ironclad gunboats Arkansas and Tennessee were commenced at Memphis, but the difficulty in obtaining mechanics so interfered with their construction that the Secretary of the Navy was compelled, on December 24, 1861, to write to General Polk, who was commanding at Columbus, Kentucky, asking that mechanics might be detached from his forces, so as to insure the early completion of the vessels. So promptly had the ironclad boats been put under contract that the arrangements had all been made in anticipation of the appropriation, and the contract was signed ‘on the very day the law was passed.’

On December 25, 1861, Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, Confederate States Navy, a gallant and competent officer, well and favorably known in his subsequent service as commander of the ram Arkansas, was sent to Nashville. Information had been received that four river boats were there, and for sale, which were suited for river defense. Lieutenant Brown was instructed to purchase such as should be adaptable to the required service, ‘and to proceed forthwith with the necessary alteration and armament.’

In the latter part of 1861, it having been found impossible with the means in Richmond and Norfolk to answer the requisitions for ordnance and ordnance stores required for the naval defenses of the Mississippi, a laboratory was established in New Orleans, and authority given for the casting of heavy cannon, construction of gun carriages, and the manufacture of projectiles and ordnance equipments of all kinds. On December 12, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy submitted an estimate for an appropriation to meet the expenses incurred ‘for ordnance and ordnance stores for the defense of the Mississippi River.’

Secretary Mallory, in answer to inquiries of a joint committee of Congress, in 1863, replied that he had sent a telegram to Captain Whittle, April 17, 1862, as follows:

Is the boom, or raft, below the forts in order to resist the enemy, or has any part of it given away? State condition.

On the next day the following answer was sent:

I hear the raft below the forts is not in best condition; they are strengthening it by additional lines. I have furnished anchors.


To further inquiry about the raft by the committee, the Secretary answered:

The commanding General at New Orleans had exclusive charge of the construction of the raft, or obstruction, in question, and his correspondence with the War Department induced confidence in the security of New Orleans from the enemy. I was aware that this raft had been injured, but did not doubt that the commanding General would renew it, and place an effectual barrier across the river, and I was anxious that the navy should afford all possible aid. . . . A large number of anchors were sent to New Orleans from Norfolk for the raft.

Though much more might be added, it is hoped that what has been given above will sufficiently attest the zeal and capacity of the Secretary of the Navy, and his anxiety, in particular, to protect the city of New Orleans, whether assailed by fleets descending or ascending the river.

Having thus reviewed at length the events, immediate and remote, which were connected with the great catastrophe, the fall of our chief commercial city, and the destruction of the naval vessels on which our hopes most rested for the protection of the lower Mississippi and the harbors of the Gulf, the narrative is resumed of affairs at the city of New Orleans.

1 Captain Wood had a number of light rowboats built, holding each about twenty men. They were fitted with cradles to wagons, and could be quickly moved to any point by road or rail. He writes: ‘In August, 1863, I left Richmond with four boats and sixty men for the Rappahannock, to look after one or two gunboats that had been operating in that river. Finding always two cruising together, I determined to attempt the capture of both at once. About midnight, with muffled oars, we pulled for them at anchor near the mouth of the river. They discovered us two hundred yards off. We dashed alongside, cut our way through and over the boarder nettings with the old navy cutlass, gained the deck, and, after a sharp, short fight, drove the enemy below. The prizes proved to be the gunboats Satellite and Reliance, two guns each. Landing the prisoners, we cruised for two days in the Chesapeake Bay. A number of vessels were captured and destroyed.’

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