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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of New Orleans

John Kendall

published by The Lewis Publishing Company,
Chicago and New York, 1922

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p244  Chapter XV
The Passage of the Forts

At a dinner given in his honor shortly before the departure of the "Sumter," Admiral Semmes, discussing the possibility of an attack by the Federal fleet on New Orleans, said, frankly, that in his opinion Forts Jackson and St. Philip could not be depended on to check the advance of the enemy's ships up the Mississippi. This was the verdict of a sailor thoroughly acquainted with the situation. It was not the view held by the Confederate authorities in Richmond, nor that of the people of New Orleans. Although New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy, and in spite of the fact that its capture would admittedly have grave commercial and strategic consequences, the town was stripped of its resources to supply the needs of the forces fighting in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.​1 Between the date of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession and the beginning of 1862, New Orleans sent to the front 20,000 men — virtually all her military population. When the news of the impending attack on the city became certain — about the beginning of January, 1862 — Lovell set energetically to work to organize the land defenses of the city. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Brig.‑Gen. J. K. Duncan was assigned to command of the coast defenses. This brought under his control not only the river forts, but Forts Pike, McComb,º and Bienvenu,º on the lakes; and Forts Livingston, Caillou, Quitman, Berwick, and Chêne, on the gulf coast. Lieutenant Colonel Higgins was put in charge of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. The latter point was under the immediate control of Captain Squires. Higgins established his headquarters at Fort Jackson, and remained there until, a few days before the beginning of the attack, when Duncan took charge at that point.

All that could be done in an emergency was done. Forts Jackson and St. Philip were strengthened, and some small addition made to their armament, by bringing guns from elsewhere in the Confederacy, and mounting them in the works. Elaborate and scientific earthworks were erected below the city, at Chalmette; others somewhat less elaborate were constructed above. For these the City Council appropriated the funds set aside for charitable and educational purposes. These fortifications served no good end except to convince the citizens that the administration was making every effort to protect the city. As a matter of fact, when they were finished, there was no artillery with which to equip the lines, practically everything of that sort having been turned over to the outlying fortifications, the river-fleet, and the forts. Lovell also opened powder mills in the city, which turned out considerable supplies of material of rather dubious quality. He understood very clearly that the main attack of the Federals would be delivered along the line of the Mississippi, and shared Semmes' view, that the forts, with their 100 or 110 guns, could not prevent the fleet from passing. He therefore supplemented the defenses there with a raft or boom, which, stretched across the river and securely moored with chains, would, it was hoped, be effective in holding the enemy's vessels under the fire of the batteries. The  p245 building of the raft was very difficult at this season, when the Mississippi was at flood stage; in February it was swept away, and was with difficulty replaced under the supervision of Colonel Higgins. The expenses connected with the work were met by a subscription among the wealthier citizens of the city. Higgins had been formerly an officer in the United States navy, but now held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He appreciated the danger of having the raft again swept away, and suggested that in its place a cable be laid across the river, to be carried on a line of hulks anchored with bows upstream. This plan was adopted and executed.

[image ALT: A view of a 19c port, from the land side, showing in the foreground a wide road with large horse-drawn vehicles employed in loading and unloading; mostly to their right and in the middle ground, warehouse and dock areas, and in the background, serried ranks of tall masted sailing ships. It is a view of the port of New Orleans.]

The French Market and Shipping

A river defense-fleet was organized under Captains Montgomery and Stevenson, both old and able steamboat captains, on whom the Confederacy now conferred authority to purchase all the vessels they could get, and convert them into war-ships. They had likewise authority to raise and equip crews for these boats. The plan was to make each vessel as impervious to the enemy's shot as possible with rows of cotton-bales enclosed with heavy timber and railroad iron. They were to be fitted with power­ful engines and armed with a few heavy guns. To each was assigned as commander an experienced river pilot. Fourteen vessels were thus fitted out, mainly towboats and river steamboats. Lovell, however, was able to retain only six of them, the remainder being re­quisitioned to re-enforce the fleet in the upper Mississippi resisting the advance of the Federals from that direction. Several of the little fleet were supplied with an iron ram at the prow. These were the "Warrior," Captain Stevenson; "Stonewall Jackson," Captain George Phillips; "Defiance," Captain McCoy; "Resolute," Captain Hooper; "General Lovell," Captain Byrd Paris, and "John C. Breckenridge," Captain James Smith. They were supplemented by what was called the "State" fleet, comprising the "McRae," formerly the "Star of the West," a merchant ship captured by the Confederates in a Texas port, altered and strengthened, and armed with five 42‑pounders, and commanded by Lieutenant Huger, a gallant Carolinian, who had formerly held a commission in the United States  p246 navy; the "Jackson," a similar vessel, commanded by Lieutenant Renshaw, also an ex-United States naval officer; the "Governor Moore," commanded by Capt. Beverly Kennon, another ex‑naval officer; and the "General Quitman," commanded by Capt. Alex Grant, a planter and river-boat master of long experience. These vessels had been refitted at the expense of the State of Louisiana.

The entire fleet was not regarded with much confidence either by the authorities or the people. They put much more faith in the iron-clad floating battery "Louisiana," and the huge armor-clad "Mississippi," the latter of which lay on the stocks on the river front in Jefferson City, with hundreds of men at work on her day and night, in a frantic effort to finish her in time to be of service against the enemy's fleet. The "Louisiana" was in a dry-dock protected with a plating of iron in which a power­ful marine engine was being installed. She was to have a battery of 16 guns of large caliber. Her commander was Captain Mitchell, an officer of the old navy, a well-known and competent officer. He had been promoted to the command of the "Louisiana" when Hollins, her first officer, was put in charge of the Confederate naval defenses. Mitchell devoted himself energetically to the task of completing his vessel. As yet her guns had not been mounted, her machinery was imperfect, and she could not maneuver in any way under her own power. The demand of the public, however, compelled the military authorities to order her to be launched and taken down to the forts in this incomplete state. Mitchell did not expect much of this clumsy contrivance.

There was also the little ram "Manassas." She was originally the little ocean-going steamer "Enoch Train," of Boston. This vessel was built as an ice-breaker and had been used as such in the northern Atlantic ports. The idea of the "Manassas" originated with Captain Stevenson, then a member of a prosperous commission house in New Orleans. At the beginning of the war this gentleman turned his attention to plans for the defense of the city, and recommended to the authorities the construction of a new kind of war-vessel, the novel feature of which was a power­ful ram at the prow. He took his project to Montgomery, and obtained from the Confederate authorities there permission to experiment, with the promise of further recognition if he succeeded in constructing a serviceable craft. Stevenson bought the "Enoch Train" in 1861, for $100,000, subscribed by a group of patriotic men in New Orleans, and refitted her in one of the yards in Algiers, opposite New Orleans. Stevenson's plan included no armament. A single gun, was however, installed in the bow of the ship, despite his objections. When Hollins was put in command of the naval defenses, he ordered this little vessel out for trial. He himself accompanied her to the forts, Stevenson being retained as pilot. There were then lying in the passes several large Federal warships, part of the blockading squadron, including the "Preble," the "Vincennes," and the "Richmond," all power­ful ships, any one more than a match, in the view of naval experts, for the small Confederate vessel. Hollins made a reconnaissance in a smaller vessel, and convinced himself that there was, nevertheless, some chance of a success­ful attack upon the Federal squadron. On his return to the "Manassas" he found that Stevenson had been superseded as master by Lieutenant Warley, of the Confederate States navy. Stevenson was very much offended at the action of the Confederate Government in thus displacing him, and his anger had important consequences, later, when the  p247 Federal attack developed, and the necessity for united and harmonious action on all sides became urgent.2

It decided that the "Manassas" should be permitted to try herself out, and on October 11, 1861, accompanied by the "Ivy," a converted towboat armed with two 42‑pounders and commanded by Lieutenant Fry, later shot in a filibustering expedition in Cuba, and the "McRae," to which Commodore Hollins now transferred his flag, she weighed anchor under cover of the night. The "Manassas" first attacked the "Richmond." Fortunately for that ship, however, a coal barge which lay alongside received the impact of the ram, and the only serious damage inflicted upon the Federal cruiser was done by a shot from the "Manassas's" bow gun, which passed through the captain's cabin. The jar of the blow disarranged the "Manassas's" machinery, and she was therefore unable to maneuver so as to bring her gun to bear, and consequently could not fire again. At this juncture the other vessels of the Federal squadron concentrated their fire upon her. The Confederate ships now came up, and the Federals drew off. In executing the operation the "Richmond" ran on a mud lump and stuck fast. The "Ivy" was able to approach quite close, and opened fire with both of the guns which composed her armament. Before Fry could sink his opponent, however, the "Preble" and the "Vincennes" came to the rescue and he was forced to abandon the unequal struggle. The "Manassas" was towed away from the scene. The exploit gave great satisfaction in New Orleans. Stevenson's idea was vindicated; the little ship was accepted by the Confederate authorities, and after having been repaired was added to the regular navy.

The contractors who were building the "Mississippi," the Messrs. Tifts, of Georgia, planned to make her the mightiest war-engine known up to that time. She was larger and more power­ful than the famous iron-clad "Virginia," the services of which in Hampton Roads are well-known. Unfortunately, here, as in all the works undertaken for the protection of the city, the lack of skilled mechanics and ship-wrights was severely felt. Practically all this kind of labor had been drafted by the Confederate Government, and withdrawn from the city long before. For this reason the heavier parts of the "Mississippi's" machinery had to be cast in Richmond. The building of the ship took much longer than anticipated. In February, 1862 her sixteen engines yet remained to be put in place, her iron armor to be finished, her prow to be re-enforced, and her guns to be put on board. The delay in completing the ship caused some anxiety in New Orleans. A committee was formed to see that all the material required by the contractors was promptly furnished. Its members visited the yard and made periodical reports on the work. The grounds were lighted by gas in order to facilitate the work at night. A large guard was established around the spot where the great hulk lay, to insure order and protect the vessel from treachery. But the insistence of the public finally compelled the contractors to launch the "Mississippi" prematurely. The launching was success­fully effected, and caused much rejoicing in the city; but the difficulties of getting the machinery to work, and the incompleteness of many other parts of the ship, made thoughtful observers tremble. It was known that the enemy was informed of the  p248 progress which was being made on the "Mississippi," and that his attack would be delivered, if possible, before she was ready to meet him.

The situation, then, as far as the naval defenses of the city, was not encouraging. Lovell was still worse off for land forces. At the beginning of 1862 he had succeeded in creating a fairly respectable body of troops, but it had been drained away to supply men to the army at Corinth, just as the major part of Duncan's river-fleet had been re­quisitioned to defend Island No. 10. By March he could count only 3,000 men in and around the city. The Confederate Government persisted in the idea — in which General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard concurred — that the rumored attack from the gulf was merely a demonstration; that the serious danger was to be apprehended from above;​3 and that at any rate, even if the Federal fleet did intend actually to attack the city, that attack could not be delivered before the latter part of the spring, by which time the borrowed fleet and some of the borrowed regiments would be returned, the "Louisiana" and the "Mississippi" would be finished, and an efficient resistance could be offered. Although the people of the city pinned their faith to the invulnerability of the forts and the effectiveness of the great iron-clads which they were building, they did not altogether succeed in blinding themselves to the peril of their position, and a feeling began to prevail that the Confederate authorities in Richmond were either indifferent, or at any rate did not realize the fate which menaced New Orleans.

By the end of February the United States army collecting at Ship Island received its last quota. It now numbered between 12,000 and 15,000 men. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who had, some time before, made himself conspicuous as an advocate of the attack on New Orleans, was appointed to the command. The magnitude of the naval preparations were not very clearly understood, even in the North. Both Farragut and Porter, two of the ablest officers in the navy, had given their opinion that it was feasible to attack, with ships, the forts on the Mississippi River. They differed, however, as of method. Porter favored an elaborate bombardment of the forts, which he calculated could be silenced within 24 hours. Farragut relied on his ships alone. He was intimately acquainted with the topography of the entire vicinity of New Orleans. His father, a native of Minorca, who had emigrated to the United States early in the century, had spent a short time in New Orleans, and a much longer time in trading along the river into the city, rafting lumber down the stream to sell at the United States navy yard below the suburban town of Algiers. Farragut's own sister was even then living near the mouth of the Pascagoula River. As a boy this able officer had repeatedly visited New Orleans, and still included among his friends in the city prominent persons, such as Marion Baker, Mayor Monroe's secretary.

Preparations for the attack began in 1861. An advance force of 2,000 men was sent to Ship Island under Phelps. The building of Porter's mortar fleet went on systematically in New York and elsewhere. Twenty-one strong schooners, each of 75 to 100 tons, were altered and strengthened to withstand the shock of firing 13‑inch mortars, carrying a shell which weighed 200 pounds. The British war-correspondent, Russell, who furnished the London "Times" with an account of these vessels while  p249 they were under construction, said that they were the most formidable instruments of warfare yet devised in the United States. Farragut on his part was provided with the best ships in the United States navy, including the "Hartford," the "Pensacola," the "Richmond," and the "Brooklyn," vessels of about equal size and armament, averaging 2,000 tons burden, and equipped with 24 guns, most of them of 9 or 11 inch bore — formidable weapons indeed, judged by the standard of those times. To these were added the gunboats "Iroquois", "Oneida", "Wissachickon", "Cayuga", "Sciota", "Pinola", "Itasca", "Varuna", "Kennebec", "Kineo", "Katahdin", and "Winona," all newly-built, of great strength and heavily engined, and each armed with a large "pivot" gun and five or six smaller pieces. The smaller steamers "Harriet Lane," "Westfield," "Owasco," "Miami," and "Jackson," each carrying from six to eight heavy guns, and two sailing sloops, the "Vincennes" and "Portsmouth," each armed with 20 guns, made up a formidable fleet. Including the mortar schooners there were 47 vessels, mounting 310 guns — by far the largest and most power­ful fleet that had up to that moment ever operated under the flag of the United States. Farragut chose his subordinates with the same meticulous care that he selected his ships. They included David Porter, Jr., Bailey, Bell, Smith, Alden, Morris, Craven, Smith, Wainwright, Boggs, Lee, and others of the ablest officers in the navy.

Butler, on arriving at Ship Island, and taking over the command from Phelps, set to work to organize his army. For practice he sent out several small expeditions to operate along the Mississippi coast. These succeeded in shelling a few Italian settlements and capturing some fishing boats; but most important of all, they were designed and to some extent succeeded in convincing the Confederate Government that his attack, if made at all, would be in the nature of a flank movement against New Orleans. Farragut, meanwhile, was busy getting his vessels over the bar at the mouth of the river — a difficult and dangerous affair in those days — which occupied two or three weeks. The plan which he now communicated to Butler, was, that the bomb-vessels should fire upon Forts Jackson and St. Philip until they were completely reduced; whereupon Butler's forces would ascend the river on transports and occupy the fortifications. If, however, the bombardment failed to produce the anticipated result, the navy, which in the interim would remain quietly further down the river, would make an attempt to run by the forts, try to clear the river of the enemy's obstructions, and cut off the forts from all supplies. Thereupon Butler was to land below Fort St. Philip, approach from the rear, and try to take it by assault. It was known that no preparations had been made to resist a land attack from that direction. The development of the latter plan was credited to Lieutenant, afterwards General, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Godfrey Weitzel, who had been associated with Beauregard in the construction of the forts, and who, on that account, was considered to know the locality intimately. It was, however, a dangerous plan, and if carried out, would probably have brought disaster upon Butler and his troops.

The news that Farragut had crossed the bar and that his ships were at anchor in the Mississippi a few miles below the forts was received with much alarm in New Orleans. This mood of discouragement was helped by other circumstances. Rumors were afloat that the delay in completing the "Mississippi" was due to treachery. A detachment of sharpshooters, under Captains Mullins and Lertigue, who had been dispatched  p250 to the lower reaches of the Mississippi in the hope that they could delay the fleet, had failed to accomplish anything; and a regiment, commanded by the veteran Polish revolutionary, Szymanski, sent to co‑operate with them had accomplished nothing as the high water in the river made it impossible to get within rifle range of the enemy, who, moreover, had easily repelled the attack with the fire of the howitzers mounted in the fighting tops of his ships. Moreover, the news of the heavy Southern casualties at Shiloh had just come, still further to dampen the spirit of the city. New Orleans was largely represented on that battlefield. Nearly one-half of its soldiers had fallen, killed or wounded. Many of the injured were now finding their way back to be cared for by the friends who had witnessed their departure, so short a time before, full of youth and confidence.

By April 15 Farragut's advanced vessels arrived at the point of woods below Fort Jackson. The other vessels stretched out in a long line thence downstream, with the transports with Butler's men on board at the end, towards the passes. Above that point the wood had been cleared away to allow the guns in the forts full command of the river. Why this had not been done more extensively was never known. Behind this shelter the enemy now disposed his mortar-vessels in almost complete security. The vessels were stationed inshore; with rigging dressed with foliage, and hulls painted dark gray, they were invisible at a distance of two miles. Six boats were anchored on the east bank of the river, in full view of the batteries at Fort Jackson, with a view to draw their fire. The idea of bombarding a fortress under such circumstances was a novelty in warfare; the result of the experiment was awaited with the liveliest expectation throughout the fleet. Success depended upon the accuracy with which the shells were aimed. Captain Gerdes, of the U. S. Coast Survey, who had spent much time in the vicinity, undertook to supply charts by which to locate the bomb-vessels. While these preparations were being made, the Federal gunboats made frequent dashes into the zone of fire of the forts, in order to divert attention and to reconnoiter. Duncan repeatedly fired on them, but learned to his dismay that nothing of less size than his seven-inch gun could reach these daring adventurers. It is probable that the quality of powder turned out from Lovell's mills in New Orleans was principally to blame for the failure of his artillery to prove effective at these short ranges.

Not long after taking up these positions Farragut discovered the damage done to the raft, or boom, by the river's current. On the 17th he observed the Confederates at work repairing it. On the 17th Duncan and Higgins sent down a fire raft, one of the many barges assembled for this purpose above the forts, under charge of the river fleet. It was expected that these vessels, loaded with combustibles, should be released at frequent intervals. This duty was confided to Captain Stevenson, but much dissatisfaction was expressed over the way in which he managed it. This initial raft collided with the hulks supporting the cable and threatened to carry it away. Lieutenant Renshaw was then put in charge of the work, but met with no better success. Finally, when by the united exertions of all parties, a raft was got flaming past the obstructions and sent down into the enemy's midst, it produced great excitement, chiefly because it was thought that the burning craft carried explosives as well as combustibles; but as soon as this error was ascertained, the "Iroquois" attached a line and towed it ashore, when it burned itself out  p251 harmlessly. Warned by this experience, however, Farragut formed a patrol of small boats, which diverted all subsequent visitors away from the vessels of the fleet. The fire rafts, if properly managed, would, at least, have performed a useful function by illuminating the river. Duncan, who had established his headquarters at Fort Jackson, was constantly urging that they be sent down, but little attention was given to his requests.

The bombardment opened on the afternoon of April 17. About 4 P.M., a gunboat ran out into the stream and engaged in a long range duel with the fort, under cover of which two mortar-schooners were towed out and opened fire. The fire, slow and irregular, at first, showed that the crews were unaccustomed to their work. The shells fell near the fort; some even struck; but nothing serious resulted, except some damage to the levee, which increased the flow of water, a nuisance with which the garrison had constantly to contend, owing to the high level of the river. Early on the 17th each of the Federal gunboats towed four mortar-schooners into position at the edge of the cleared space in the woods on the west bank of the river. Here fifteen of these vessels were soon moored in a line, about one and one-half miles below Fort Jackson, which was to be the principal object of attack. Six other mortar-boats took up position on the opposite side of the river. Both forts opened fire, but without doing much harm. Only a single rifled piece in Fort Jackson could reach the enemy. Little attention was paid to the fire of the forts, except as the "Owasco" replied with an occasional shot. After a few rounds the great 13‑inch mortar, in Fort St. Philip, which, was expected to do much, collapsed and became useless. At 9 o'clock the bombardment opened in earnest and lasted ten hours. Some 2,000 shells struck Fort Jackson. Only an occasional shell was directed at Fort St. Philip, as it was known that, when Fort Jackson fell, the other fortress would necessarily capitulate also, not being able alone to offer any protracted resistance. The garrison in Fort Jackson early had to seek refuge in the casements and leave the works to suffer as they might from the enemy's fire. The quarters in the bastions, which contained all the property of the soldiery, was ultimately set on fire. There was no way to extinguish the flames. The citadel, near which the ammunition was stored, was next to catch. All hands turned out in a valiant effort to suppress the fire before it communicated to the ammunition. The flames were extinguished and rekindled several times. Higgins exerted himself to the uttermost, but the citadel was finally completely consumed. Meanwhile, the river-fleet was sending down frequent fire-rafts, some of which grounded near the fort, others of which got no further than the cable, and the remainder were intercepted and towed away by Farragut's patrols. At the end of the day the men in the forts were greatly exhausted by their exertions. In many cases this was their first taste of actual warfare. The casualties were not serious — one killed and six wounded. A few of the guns had been damaged. The fort itself was practically unharmed. The enemy also had practically escaped damage. A few of the mortar boats had been hit, but not much injured; their wounds served merely to show the need of removing those hitherto stationed along the east bank, to a less exposed position with the remainder of the flotilla, along the west bank.

 p252  During that night the Confederates neglected to maintain a strict guard over the cable. The Federals were able to inspect it, and ascertained that it could easily be removed.

The bombardment was resumed the next day. Many shells struck the fort, but the majority buried themselves in the soft earth near and exploded harmlessly. Several guns were dismounted including one 10‑inch and one 7‑inch Columbiad. The fire from the forts was more brisk than on the previous day, as the garrison was become habited to the shells, which no longer kept them from the guns. The "Oneida" was hit and suffered a loss of nine men wounded; a mortar schooner was sunk. Two men were wounded in the fort during the day. The bombardment did not cease at nightfall, but continued through the night, to the great annoyance of the wearied men. Duncan telegraphed a report to the city written in a more hopeful vein than his messages of the preceding day. Bad weather set in on the 19th; the bombardment continued all through the day, and that night, under the shelter of darkness and rain, the enemy made a daring and success­ful effort to cut the cable. For some unascertainable reason, the river-fleet omitted to send down fire-rafts. Under cover of a tremendous fire two Federal gunboats approached the cable. One of them, the "Pinola," laid herself alongside of a hulk, while a Prussian engineer, Krull, who was on board, attached a petard and connected the wires of an electric battery which was to explode a heavy charge of gunpowder and wreck the barrier. But as the "Pinola" cast off, the wind caught her and drove her down stream and the wires parted. Farragut had, however, another less scientific but more effective method of solving the problem. The "Itasca" landed a party of men on one of the hulks who attacked the cable with chisels, and after half an hour of strenuous labor they cut it. Duncan, finally apprized by a rocket from a scout boat of what was going on, opened a heavy fire, but the Federals calmly completed their work. The "Itasca" swung down stream entangled in the severed cable, and had a narrow escape from being driven ashore in a very exposed situation, from which she was only extricated by the courage and skill of her commander, Captain Caldwell.

Farragut had by now made up his mind to a more energetic mode of procedure. The process of reducing the forts by bombardment was proving unexpectedly slow. Most of the mortar boats were beginning to be short of ammunition. On the 20th he issued orders stating his opinion that the fleet should run past the forts and that the troops should then effect a landing from the Gulf side in the vicinity of the Quarantine, both forces thereafter to move together up the river, aiding each other as the necessity arose. On the 21st, before daybreak, the fire rafts which Stevenson had failed previously to dispatch drifted down the river in the midst of the Federal fleet; this time they came near to causing a great disaster; one narrowly missed setting fire to the "Hartford," and another to the "Sciota." The fourth day of the bombardment resulted in dismounting more guns in Fort Jackson, and one man was wounded; but the garrison was learning how to take care of itself, and Duncan began to feel confident of his ability to hold out, although anxious for an intermission in the bombardment, in which he might remount his damaged artillery and make other repairs. Efforts to replace the cable had been in vain. Duncan therefore now asked for help from New Orleans, suggesting that the "Louisiana" be sent to his support. Lovell accordingly  p253 instructed Mitchell to have her towed down the river, although he probably knew as well as anybody else that in her imperfect state she was useless both as a vessel and as a stationary battery. Mitchell had orders to take command of the whole motley Confederate navy. It would have been a great relief to Duncan to have an experienced officer in this position. Unquestionably Mitchell should have been sent earlier to undertake this important duty, but he had been detained in the city in order to hurry the work on the "Louisiana." With him now came Captain McIntosh, who was assigned to command that vessel. Mitchell frankly told Duncan that the "Louisiana" was useless; her own machinery refused to function, and there were no towboats in the fleet capable of managing her; and if pushed into action it would be entirely possible for the enemy to take positions where his ships could batter her to pieces. In these views Mitchell was supported by all the other naval officers present at this interview with the commander of the forts. Duncan, however, persisted in his demand that she should take a position before the fort and go into action. He hoped in this way to converge three fires upon the enemy. Mitchell insisted that if the fifty mechanics whom he had brought with him and who were still actively at work on the vessel had a few days more of undisturbed labor, the vessel might be put in shape to be really useful. As a matter of fact, by superhuman effort she was actually completed before the forts were finally compelled to surrender, and it is quite possible that had his advice been accepted at this critical moment this result might have been attained in time to render the "Louisiana" a deciding factor in the battle with the fleet. Duncan, however, was disgusted with what he regarded as Mitchell's obstinacy; his reports show his irritation. Later on he went so far as to blame the disastrous result of the siege upon Mitchell, but a court-martial, after a full investigation, vindicated that gallant officer entirely.

Mitchell, deferring to Duncan's insistence, agreed to do all in his power to see that the fire rafts were dispatched at proper intervals. He found, however, that this was not easy to do in the disorganized condition in which he found the river fleet. Two boats which had been detailed to handle the fire rafts had failed to do their work properly on account of defective machinery. Moreover, the larger part of the fleet under Stevenson declined to recognize Mitchell's authority, on the ground that officers and men had joined on the understanding that they should not be subject to the orders of the regular navy, nor be placed under the command of the regular naval officers. Stevenson, whose anger over the "Manassas" episode is easily perceived in these acts of insubordination, consented, however, to co‑operate in every possible way with Mitchell, reserving the right to use his own judgment as to details, and on the distinct understanding that the vessels in his charge should constitute a separate command.

It was unfortunate that disagreements should have arisen among the commanding officers at this moment, when more than ever it was imperative that all of the Confederate forces should combine to offer a definite and coherent resistance to the enemy. In fact, the ultimate failure of the defense was in no small part traceable to the failure of the river fleet to align itself harmoniously with the general scheme of operations mapped out by Mitchell. Stevenson contended that he was only demanding what General Lovell desired to have done. In this statement the old river captain was probably sincere. As a matter of fact, he misunderstood  p254 Lovell's ideas. Referring to the river fleet, at a later time, Lovell expressed an opinion anything but complimentary to its organization. "Unable to govern themselves, unwilling to be governed by others, their almost total want of system, vigilance and discipline rendered them useless and helpless when the enemy dashed upon them suddenly on a dark night." In fact, the whole organization of this little fleet was a blunder. It was due, doubtless, to the pressure which popular opinion exerted upon the government. Mitchell's whole command, therefore, resolved itself into the unmanageable "Louisiana," the guns of which were not yet in position on the very eve of the battle; the ram "Manassas," the "McRae" and the "jackson," two steamers loaned by Governor Moore, the "Quitman" and his namesake, "Governor Moore."

On the 22nd and 23rd of April Duncan shelled vigorously the woods behind which the Federal squadron lay concealed. He also repaired the fort, where some damage had been done that required attention. The heavy fire from the enemy's mortars continued all through the 23rd. But at noon on that day it slackened perceptibly. This Duncan interpreted as presaging some new development in the attack. He communicated this view to Mitchell and entreated him to tow the "Louisiana" into a position below the fort, where her guns would command the lower sweep of the river. He was so determined to have this done that he took up the matter with Lovell by telegraph. Lovell, in his turn, communicated with Whipple,​a senior officer of the Confederate Navy in Louisiana, and asked him to strain a point, if possible, in order to gratify Duncan. Lovell himself decided to go to the forts and try in person to arrange the differences that had arisen between two capable and loyal officers. The people of the city, however, were not allowed to know that any dispute existed. Everything was represented to them as progressing satisfactorily, and the feeling of confidence which had been stimulated by Duncan's optimistic telegrams was permitted to remain undisturbed.

So far Fort Jackson had suffered a loss of six men killed and thirteen wounded. Fort St. Philip was still intact, although about a thousand shells had fallen within the works. The men of the garrisons were in good spirits. On the morning of the 23rd no attempt was made in the forts to reply to the bombardment. Mitchell was now able to send a message to Duncan, through his lieutenant, Shryock, that he expected to have the "Louisiana" in condition by the following day. He had succeeded in getting at least part of his guns into position. Duncan was convinced that the enemy's final attack was to be expected momentarily. He therefore sent back by Shryock urgent messages relative to the fire rafts. Shryock himself undertook to see that they were dispatched at frequent intervals during the night; but they failed to come at intervals of two hours, as Duncan had been led to hope. There does not seem to be any real foundation for the belief which Duncan afterwards expressed, that this neglect was a principal cause of the Federal success; all that can be said is, that it helped towards a result which was determined by many agencies. Mitchell, sharing Duncan's apprehensions, made the best disposition possible of his fleet. The "Manassas" lay with her tender just above Fort Jackson. The "Louisiana," with her tenders, on board of which were most of her cannoneers — the mechanics still being in possession of the vessel herself — retained her old position above Fort St. Philip. Near her was the "McRae," and still further upstream were anchored the "Quitman," "Moore" and the six boats under Stevenson.  p255 The "Jackson" had been dispatched to the Quarantine Station to prevent the Federals from landing troops by way of the bayou and canals, and also to cover the infantry force which Lovell had dispatched to repel Butler, if he should, as expected, attempt to make his way in from the Gulf by these water courses to the river.

It is not necessary here to give a detailed account of the passage of the forts by the Federal fleet. A brief outline of the fighting will suffice to enable the reader to understand why the forts were ineffective in stopping the enemy's ships. Farragut's squadrons began to move between 2 and 3 A.M. on the morning of April 24th. They formed three divisions, the first under Farragut himself, the second under Bailey and the third under Bell. Previous to and during the advance the mortar fleet redoubled its fire. The night was still but hazy, and the moon did not rise till 3 o'clock. In the midst of the obscurity the steamers moved against the current at the rate of four miles per hour. The formation adopted was expected to divide the enemy's fire as much as possible. It was anticipated that the action would last about an hour and a half. Under such conditions the Confederates had need to be very expert artillerists to do much damage with a battery of 104 guns. Higgins' men opened fire as soon as they distinguished the approaching vessels. Bailey sustained the first broadside from Fort St. Philip. Pushing the "Cayuga" close in, he returned the fire energetically as he pressed on. The other vessels followed his example, and all the ships of his division got by without much damage, except the sailing vessel, "Portsmouth," which was in tow; the tow rope was cut by a shell and the boat drifted down the river helpless.

In the meantime, Bailey was actively engaged both with the forts and with the Confederate vessels. One of his largest boats, the "Mississippi," steamed down upon the "Louisiana," from which a rapid fire had been maintained upon the enemy as they passed. Mitchell stood in a most exposed position upon the upper works of the vessel. The great enemy vessel swept up so close that he felt it necessary to order a group of sharpshooters to prepare to repel boarders. The "Mississippi" reached a position not thirty feet away, athwart the hawse of the "Louisiana," before she delivered her tremendous broadside. The concussion was terrific, but the iron plating with which the "Louisiana" was sheathed was impervious and the cannon balls fell harmlessly from her armored sides. Her own guns returned the fire, but did no material damage, as they could not be sufficiently depressed to hull the enemy at that short distance.

Bell, in the third division, had a harder time in getting past the forts. He was more exposed to the fire of the forts than Bailey. Half of his division, however, had passed, when the "Itasca" received a ball through her boiler, became helpless and drifted down stream. The "Winona" and "Kennebec" also were so badly injured that they had to drop out of the fight.

The heavy ships under Farragut also experienced the full effect of the fire of the forts. They opened when the "Hartford" was one and one-half miles distant. The ship was struck several times. Farragut replied with two guns, but reserved his fire till he arrived within half a mile of Fort Jackson. Then he fired a heavy broadside, killing and wounding several men in the fort. The same thing was done by the "Richmond." The "Brooklyn," suddenly confronted by the "Manassas,"  p256 which now steamed into the fight, exchanged several rounds with her without either vessel incurring serious injury. Then the gallant little Confederate vessel undertook to steer a fire raft against the "Hartford." In trying to avoid contact with this formidable foe the flagship ran aground and was unable to escape, as the "Manassas" pushed the blazing mass against her sides. Instantly the ship was in a blaze. Only the prompt and devoted efforts of her crew saved her from destruction. She was finally extricated from her position and continued on her way up the stream. The "Manassas" in the meantime had turned her attention to the "Mississippi," but her engines became unmanageable and sustained a severe fire, under which she was disabled so completely that Warley had no alternative but to run her ashore and abandon her. She ultimately drifted away from the bank and floated down the river on fire. As she approached the Federal vessels below the bend her appearance created general dismay; they fired on her, until her harmless condition was discovered, when an effort was made to salvage her as a curiosity, but scarcely had a rope been passed around her when she exploded faintly, her bow gun went off and she sank.

Above the forts Bailey met the remainder of the Confederate fleet. First alone, and then with the support of the remaining vessels of his squadron, he sustained a smart engagement with them. Here the "Stonewall Jackson" rammed and so seriously injured the "Varuna" that she was run ashore and her crew abandoned her. The "Jackson" came out of the encounter in scarcely better shape and likewise had to be run ashore and abandoned. The other vessels of the river fleet fought valiantly, but the issue of the contest was never in doubt. Stevenson, in the "Warrior," made a gallant effort to imitate the "Jackson's" exploit. He rammed one of Bailey's boats heavily, but the blow proved insufficient to dispose of his antagonist, while his own vessel suffered severely from the almost vertical fire poured into it from the howitzers in the enemy's tops. All of the river fleet was quickly put out of action, driven ashore or sent down stream in a disabled condition. They lost heavily, especially in officers, among whom the gallant Captain Cooper, widely known along the river as a steamboatman, was killed. The "Governor Moore" lost seventy-four out of a crew of ninety-four. The only vessel to emerge from this phase of the contest was the "McRae," which was cleverly handled. She engaged several of the enemy's vessels in succession and then rescued the "Resolute" when that vessel had been driven ashore and was on the point of hoisting the white flag. The "Resolute," however, was unfit for further service and was subsequently run ashore and burned. The "Warrior" was finally disposed of in the same way. The "McRae" was much cut up and her brave commander, Huger, was mortally wounded. She took refuge under cover of the forts. The "Louisiana," after her encounter with the "Mississippi," was seen to be invulnerable, and the Federals made no further effort to molest her.

Fort Jackson suffered no real harm from the cannonading of the fleet. The casualties there in the action were nine killed and twenty-one wounded. Fort St. Philip received the fire of every division of the fleet in turn, but the loss there was but two killed and four wounded. Several of Squires' guns were dismounted. Farragut's escape from destruction while under the fire of the fort had been little less than miraculous. When the "Hartford" went aground in trying to escape from the attack of the "Manassas" and the fire raft, she lay for some time within point-blank  p257 range of the water battery at Fort St. Philip. Squires ordered all guns concentrated upon the ship, but the two Columbiads on which he mainly relied had become unmanageable, and another gun which bore directly had just been broken near the trunnions and consequently the "Hartford" was able to pull off the mud before she had sustained anything like the damage that would otherwise have been her portion. The fire of Fort St. Philip was on the whole more effective than that of Fort Jackson. The guns there had greater depression, and the enemy's ships passed closer, but owing to the number of ships among which the fire was necessarily distributed and the speed at which the ships passed, it was found impossible to concentrate long enough on any one vessel to sink her. The loss in the fleet was thirty killed and 119 wounded.

The Federals on the vessels remaining below the forts had no difficulty in guessing how the combat had gone. By 8 A.M. a cloudless sun revealed the United States flag fluttering from the mastheads of shipping far beyond the Confederate fortifications. Duncan, however, was still in a sanguine mood. The "Louisiana" echoed with the clatter of the tools of the machinists at work within her stout hull. She might still fight. He himself set to work to reorganize his troops. When Porter sent up a flag of truce, to demand the surrender of the forts, Duncan's answer was a negative. As the boat approached, her mission not being perceived, she had been fired on; this error elicited ample apologies, which were conveyed to Porter by the officer in charge. Later in the day the "McRae" and the "Resolute" moved out into the river and opened fire on the enemy's vessels in the distance. Porter, alarmed at the preparations which he perceived were being made on board the "Louisiana," withdrew the mortar flotilla to a point just above the head of the passes.

This ended the fighting at the forts. Nearly 17,000 shells are estimated to have been fired, of which probably one-third found their mark. The bombardment lasted in all seven days. At its end the forts remained practically unhurt. Some weeks later, when Lieutenant Weitzel was sent thither to make an inspection and report upon their status, he was able to say that, barring a few superficial repairs, they were in as good a condition to meet an enemy's attack as they had ever been. But this was small comfort. The enemy's fleet had passed and the fate of New Orleans was practically settled. Farragut's ships steamed slowly up to the Quarantine, six miles above the forts, where they anchored. On the way up they sighted a tugboat hastily putting out from the station; it was the "Doubloon," with General Lovell on board. He had reached the forts on his mission of reconciliation only in time to be forced to beat a hasty retreat, and now was on his way to New Orleans to confirm the mournful news which would precede him. The gunboat "General Lovell" made a generous effort to divert the attention of the fleet from the fleeing "Doubloon;" her commander, Lieutenant Renshaw, exchanged shots with the "Cayuga," but a ball passed through his vessel, and he deemed it wise to make all the speed he could after the "Doubloon," pausing only to send a telegram — the last to go over the wires from the forts — announcing the injury which his vessel had received and his own intention of proceeding immediately to the city.

As Bailey approached the Quarantine Station he saw in the narrow plain beyond, known as the Chalmettes, a body of Confederate soldiers. Believing that they were preparing to attack, he opened fire on them and  p258 killed one man. It was Szymanski's regiment and the Chalmette Guards. This little force had no option but to surrender — the first prisoners taken by the expedition.4

The Author's Notes:

1 Mahan, "The Gulf and Inland Waters," p59.

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2 Kennon, "Fighting Farragut Below New Orleans," Century Magazine, July, 1886, p446.

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3 Davis, "Rise and Fall of the Confederate Movement," II, 210; Mahan, "The Gulf and Inland Waters," p59.

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4 Democrat, 1880, passim. These numbers contain a series of articles entitled "Two Decades of Louisiana," intended to cover the history of the State from 1860 to 1880. They were published anonymously but were the work of Alexander Walker. Walker never carried his work beyond 1862. As he was a trained observer and conscientious historian, his account of what he had himself witnessed is very valuable. I have availed myself extensively of his work as far as it goes, especially where it supplies detail regarding the course of events in New Orleans.

Thayer's Notes:

b A reader informs me that the name should probably be Whittle: Captain William Conway Whittle, C.S.N.

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