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Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.
The New Orleans Foreign Legion, spick and span in green and gold, patrolled the city that night. Riffraff, juvenile ragtag, and cutthroats, smashing, shouting, cursing, roamed through the streets. At Magazine and Common they clutched a wretch who looked like a spy, lapped a rope around his neck, and jerked him up to a lamppost. Fires crackled. Flames leaped skyward. Blazing ships, cut adrift, floated down-river. At 18 Felicity Street, "Nature's truly gifted Clairvoyant," Madame Rosa, did a good business; in the Picayune offices, the editor silently read Scripture.
•Seventy-five miles to the south, the watch was set on board a Confederate paddle-wheeler secured to the riverbank. Guns jutted out into the darkness. The captain turned in early, but could not sleep. Across the river a Louisiana artillery officer stared into the blackness. No lights. Silence. A sergeant tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out to the water. Gunners leveled their cannon on black, shapeless masses.
p107 Near midnight inside Confederate Fort Jackson, a thin black-bearded general with sorrowful eyes huddled over a desk, reading and rereading a dispatch. Rebel naval forces refused to co‑operate. He muttered to an orderly: "Tell Commander Mitchell that there will be no to‑morrow for New Orleans unless he immediately takes up the position assigned." The general knew, his soldiers knew that the fort was helpless without naval support.
Below the forts a Yankee fleet bobbed at anchor. Carpenters sorted out plugs and patches to stop up the shot holes; gunners checked the lock strings of their cannon; the deck gangs filled sand buckets to scatter on bloody decks. On the poop of Hartford, a balding man dressed in a tattered captain's uniform, looking more like a passenger than an admiral, sat on a propeller block and conversed with his staff.
A Yankee boat crew silently pulled oars upstream. Darkened figures located the Confederate river obstacles, disconnected the hulks chained together across the water, returned to Hartford, and reported. Tonight, the Union fleet would attempt to sneak past the Rebel river forts, guardians of New Orleans, Queen City of the South.
At an island military base in the Gulf, the wife of a Union officer awoke at 3:30 A.M. to the rumble of distant gunfire and murmured: "I must keep my nerves." Restlessly, she awaited the dawn of 24 April 1862.
The capture of the largest, wealthiest, and most important city in the Confederacy and the control of the Mississippi River had early stirred the imagination of p108 Northerners. When the thunderclap after the fall of Fort Sumter had subsided, the Union, especially the Northwest, exerted pressure for re‑establishing uninterrupted navigation of the Mississippi River, the ocean outlet for the great central valley. Lincoln, his Administration, and the entire Union imagined that the Army, and the Army alone, would conquer New Orleans. The military would inch down-river, possibly with naval support, from Cairo, Illinois, flatten the river towns, haul in the loot, and ultimately control the river. This would fracture the South's spine, knock the trans-Mississippi area out of the war, and cut off the Confederacy's access to the rich cargoes and the wealth of New Orleans. "That city," diagnosed a United States senator, "is the real key to the enemies' positions."
The applause over the Navy's Port Royal exploit in November 1861 faded when Admiral Du Pont fumbled his chance to take Savannah and Charleston. General McClellan, commanding the Union troops in the East, stalled. The Northern offensive stood still. Bitterness, concentrated in the Northwest, intensified against Lincoln. To London and Paris, Union indecisiveness on the battlefield spelled out Rebel success. "God in Heaven, this government will crumble to pieces unless something is splendidly done," raged a congressman.
In Hampton Roads, Admiral Goldsborough prepared to launch his amphibious blow against Roanoke Island. in Washington, Fox, the Navy's glory seeker, eyed New Orleans. Gulf blockaders reported difficulty in sealing off the numerous approaches to the Crescent City. A thrust at New Orleans would be less difficult, p109 less expensive, less exhausting, and more fatal to the South than the most stringent blockade.
Built before the days of steam power, Forts Jackson and St. Philip shielded New Orleans from the Gulf and could easily blow sailing vessels out of the water. Steamships, as Du Pont demonstrated at Port Royal, could shoot past land batteries unscathed. New Orleans was vulnerable to such an attack. Once the city fell, the fleet could then push up the river, contact the naval and military units operating on the upper Mississippi, and mop up Kentucky and Tennessee. The forts, coupled with the swift river currents, Fox reasoned, made Southerners feel secure from any Gulf danger. They anticipated a blow from the north.
Fox consulted Welles. Together they saw the President. Lincoln, unfamiliar with maritime affairs and leaning heavily upon his military advisers, thought the idea risky. He was already engrossed in plans for a military expedition swooping down from the north. But the more Fox argued, the more Lincoln became deeply interested. He consented to think the matter over.
In early November 1861, a heavily bearded sea captain, wearing a blue frock coat and baggy trousers, sat and fidgeted in the anteroom of the Navy Department Building. Black Dave Porter had just returned from Gulf blockading duty and was crazy for a fight. Welles was too busy to see him; Fox, too intent on tactics. Porter waited all morning. Two senators, talking incessantly, shoved open the door and headed for the Secretary's office. Porter saw his chance. He butted into the conversation with a scheme to capture New Orleans. p110 The senators hustled Porter into Welles's office. Father Neptune listened quietly, attentively. Shuffling his notes together, he called Fox and with Porter rushed across the White House lawn to Lincoln. The Captain repeated his plan: fit out an expedition — a flotilla of mortar vessels to shell the defending forts, fast steamers to rush upriver to New Orleans, and troops to occupy the city. Fox objected. Why clutter the operation with mortar schooners when swift steamers could run the forts? Porter countered that a forty-eight-hour naval barrage using 13‑inch army siege guns planted on dismasted schooners would knock out enemy guns, permit the steamers to snap off Confederate supply lines, and hold New Orleans until the Army arrived.
Lincoln was impressed. "The Mississippi is the backbone of the Rebellion . . . it is a barrier against our forces. Come," Lincoln said, "let us go and see McClellan." Rounding up Seward, they trooped to the General's headquarters at Fourteenth and H streets. Little Mac had just replaced Winfield Scott as General in Chief of the Union armies and was now at the zenith of fame and power. Handshaking completed, Porter sketched out his plan for a third time. McClellan, unimpressed, stalled. To pull out 50,000 soldiers from other projects would be disastrous. He could not spare the force. Porter emphasized that the operation would be primarily naval, requiring only 10,000. McClellan hesitated. Welles underscored that the assault would distract the Rebels in Virginia. The General capitulated. Troops would be ready.
With the Army committed, the Navy Department addressed p111 itself to the problem of over‑all command. A blunder here could ruin the enterprise. The forty-eight-year‑old Porter, despite extensive service, was only a junior commander. The Department could not spare Du Pont from South Carolina. Goldsborough had North Carolina to worry about. Stringham was too old. Captain David Farragut, gunnery expert? This relative unknown had spent half his naval career on the beach, but Farragut was a marked man in Welles's book. The Secretary admired the Captain, a Norfolk resident, for denouncing Virginia's secession, leaving his home and property, and joining the Union forces. But was Farragut equal to the task? Welles queried gold braid. They respected Farragut, but doubted his capacity for general command. Neither Lincoln nor the Cabinet knew him. Several congressmen complained that he was of Southern birth, of Southern residence, with a Southern wife. Welles spurned such talk. He was convinced that Farragut was the man to lead, willing to take risks, a good officer in an emergency. Porter and Fox concurred.
The oval-faced, clean-shaven Cap'n Davy stepped off the New York train at the Washington depot and found Fox waiting. Over a breakfast of steak and eggs, Fox inspected this stoutly built veteran of sixty-three, observing that he tried to hide his baldness by combing his side hair across his pate. Old Bulldog was a conservative with dash. They strolled to the Navy Department and huddled with Welles. They explored each phase of the New Orleans assault. Farragut agreed. It could succeed. Fox then handed him a list of vessels. The Captain was p112 confident that he could run the forts and conquer New Orleans with only two thirds the number. The Assistant Secretary believed that the Captain was too enthusiastic, but Welles, after a fine dinner at Fox's house during which Farragut proved pleasant and gay, approved his selection. The next day the Department informed the press that Farragut was the flag officer of the newly created West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Fox began snipping the red tape delaying the expedition's organization. He assigned Porter, commanding the mortar flotilla, to purchase and equip twenty schooners, each to mount one 13‑inch mortar and two 32‑pounders. The chowder pots, measuring •six feet in diameter and five in length, had to be cast in Pittsburgh foundries and then lugged to New York and Philadelphia shipyards. Carpenters dismasted the 250‑ton schooners and filled their bowels with heavy timbers to reinforce the decks for the violent recoils and concussions.
In Washington, McClellan tossed in bed with typhoid fever, too miserable to take action. The bewildered Secretary, Simon Cameron, knew nothing of an expedition. Fearful of any leaks, Welles withheld all information from the War Department and confused everyone, including the Army, with hints of action against Mobile, Galveston, or the Mediterranean.
Off in Boston the Hero of Lowell, the Leveler of Fort Hatteras, Ben Butler, strutted about town, making politicians "bitter as Hell" and recruiting a volunteer battle force for Virginia. Washington had shunted this braggart off to New England. Butler jettisoned the idea of p113 this unit co‑operating with McClellan in Virginia and contemplated a strike at Mobile or Galveston. Rumbles from Texas indicated that a strong Union feeling existed there. While Fox and Porter wrestled the pot‑bellied mortars on board schooners, Butler was planning the invasion of Texas. Already he had dispatched 2000 soldiers to Ship Island in the Gulf to wait his other contingents from Hampton Roads. To the War Department, an assault against Mobile or Galveston seemed preferable, more feasible than one against New Orleans, since a military descent of the Mississippi was then taking shape.
On 14 January 1862 Cameron, confused, unaware of a New Orleans expedition, resigned. His replacement, the gruff Edwin Stanton, was also ignorant of naval plans. On a drizzly Sunday morning in mid‑January, Butler, just arrived from Boston, breakfasted at Stanton's home. The two talked for three hours. Stanton abruptly asked:
"Why can't New Orleans be taken?"
The Secretary ordered Butler to discard Texas and prepare a detailed study of New Orleans. He requested McClellan to do the same. The General, fever gone, disregarded his promise to the Navy. He had other worries. Requests from commanders in the field were piled up on his desk. Unsympathetic with the New Orleans venture, the General yielded to the demands for manpower in South Carolina. Butler's force of New Englanders, waiting impatiently at Hampton Roads, was ordered to South Carolina. "What!" exclaimed Butler p114 when he heard the news. "Have I been played with all this time?" He stormed into the Navy Department and blabbed the whole thing to his friend Gus Fox. They rushed to Lincoln. They argued, urged, and convinced. The Navy was ready. Lincoln concluded that he must take Army matters into his own hands. "Don't wait for the Army . . . move Heaven and Earth, do it at once!" blustered a congressman.
At the War Department, Stanton was flabbergasted when informed about the New Orleans expedition. "An attack . . . by the Navy? . . . never . . . heard . . . of it." Fox smoothed Stanton's ruffled feathers. McClellan's orders were countermanded.
Farragut sailed from Hampton Roads on 3 February with forty-seven vessels, including eight heavily armed steam sloops, seventeen gunboats, and two sailing sloops. Porter, with twenty‑one mortar schooners towed by Manhattan ferryboats, took departure nine days later. Before Butler shoved off with his 15,000 greenhorns, he said good‑by to Lincoln, adding: "We shall take New Orleans, or you'll never see me again."
The Confederacy recognized the strategic importance of New Orleans. President Davis and military prompters forecast after careful analysis that the Union might sink its knife into this economic heart from the north, severing the South's flow of goods through this source. Yankee ironclads, then campaigning on the upper Mississippi, seemed to imperil New Orleans more than the wooden antiques floating in the Gulf. The defenses above the city included a handful of gunnery freaks behind mudbanks. Below, at Plaquemine Bend, •one hundred p115 miles south of New Orleans, loomed two imposing forts on opposite sides of the river whose guns could demolish wooden-hulled frigates. At Fort Jackson, solid masonry walls soared •twenty‑two feet, and fifty cannons plus a six‑gun water battery commanded the river. One tier of guns was casemated, protected from above by the vaulted roof that supported the parapets, making it bombproof. Fort St. Philip, the smaller, was braced with forty‑two cannons. •Twenty miles below lay the Head of the Passes, where the main streams of the Mississippi were divided into channels.
Far removed from the fighting fronts and within reach of the city, soldiers of these forts romped and killed time. Every week pleasure seekers descended and pointed to the big cannon that would annihilate a Yankee fleet. On 18 October 1861 these frolics terminated. A tousled-haired, erect little general arrived in the city, occupied rooms at the St. Charles Hotel, and took command of New Orleans's defenses. General Mansfield Lovell, feeling an ominous breeze from the Gulf, was unimpressed with President Davis's analysis. Unless drastic changes were made, the Yankees might invade from the south. Forts Jackson and St. Philip needed repairs, heavy-calibered guns, and ammunition. Lovell set up a vigorous schedule. He sat in his office every day from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. listening to complaints and advice and issuing orders. In midafternoon he recounted his troops and poked around defenses, foundries, workshops, and shipyards. He concluded that New Orleans was helpless.
Ghosts from Hatteras, Port Royal, Fernandina, and p116 Roanoke Island haunted this general. Like others before him, he flooded the War Department and state capitals with letters and wires, begging, demanding aid. Richmond tarried. State governments quibbled. Their eyes focused on hovering Yankee armadas. Why should they co‑operate with New Orleans?
November, December passed. Governor Moore of Louisiana forked over $60,000 to Lovell and purchased 1880 rifles and 30,000 cartridges from Europe. Blockade-runners landed them on the barren coast of Florida. That "freebooter," Governor Milton of Florida, bullied by Du Pont operating from Port Royal, pirated the rifles. Was not Florida's need more urgent? Telegrams jammed the wires from Louisiana. "In God's name," stormed Moore to Davis, "order them to be sent." Richmond dawdled.
To obstruct the river from a Gulf thrust, Lovell spent $100,000 from the city council to chain together an old raft and schooners and line them up near the forts. He sent down fifty fire rafts loaded with wood mixed with cotton, resin, and tar oil. Such craft had checked the Spanish armada in 1588, and he prayed they would be effective in 1862. New Orleans procured the services of a Memphis explosives' expert, but the depth and power of the Mississippi current rendered mines impotent.
The situation worsened. Lovell surprisingly discovered that really two independent commands existed in the area, the Confederate Army and Navy, each a separate and distinct organization.
Rebels meanwhile met reverses at Forts Donelson and Henry in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Richmond, p117 sensing real disaster, stripped Lovell of every soldier except 3000 ninety‑day men and shipped them off to General Beauregard at Corinth. Lovell desperately, urgently begged for manpower, especially the return of the Third Mississippi, composed of fishermen, oystermen, and sailors familiar with the bayous. The Third Mississippi tramped into New Orleans. Was not New Orleans more important than Mississippi? The governor of Mississippi disagreed violently, thumped his desk, and demanded that his regiment be rerouted. The War Department suggested that Lovell muster a flying coastal battery to bolster Mississippi morale.
New Orleans despaired. Citizens had shoveled arms, men, and everything they had into Virginia and Tennessee battlefields. Now, with Lincoln's expeditions sailing almost daily, New Orleans, its very doors threatened, could scrape together neither heavy guns nor small arms. In the barrooms, hotel lobbies, and private homes, Louisianans unfolded newspapers and realized that their cannon and men had been siphoned into less important places. New Orleans became dreary, desolate, grim. Afternoons at Coliseum Place found merchants, bankers, underwriters, judges, and real-estate brokers — the home guard — tramping over the harsh turf. Families hid valuables; public schools belatedly substituted "Dixie" for "Hail Columbia"; gold and silver vanished; warehouses emptied; traffic to and from the interior shrank; the destitute multiplied; the blockade was shutting the door to ocean commerce.
Five days after Farragut steamed from Hampton Roads, Richmond commanded Lovell to forward additional p118 soldiers plus river-defense gunboats to Kentucky and Tennessee. New Orleans, the General was told, was "to be defended . . . by defeating the enemy at Columbus."
Outraged, the New Orleans Committee of Safety sent a member to plead Louisiana's case before President Davis. Complaints rained down on Richmond. The Navy Department was not "worth a fig"; the War Department was a mess. Congressmen pressured. Work on fortifications should continue night and day and even on Sundays. Time was running out. The Secretary of the Navy shrugged and declared that labor on Sundays would shock religious beliefs. A Louisiana congressman, exhausted from wirepulling, publicly upbraided the Naval Secretary, calling him inefficient and incapable of holding office.
The Confederate Government dictated that it was ridiculous for one position, New Orleans, to be secured while gaping holes remained in other regions. The safety of each part depended on the security of the whole. Louisianans argued the converse. The safety of the whole depended on the security of each part, namely New Orleans.
Davis and his advisers were blind to this logic. The Union bossed the sea. Richmond counted cargoes, but "Heaven knows," bemoaned the Secretary of War, "when we will receive them, if at all." Sea power loomed large. The Yankees, concluded a Southerner, could do nothing without gunboats. The huge black steamers did their fighting.
News seeped through the South that a Union expedition p119 would soon clobber Mobile or Galveston. Alabama quivered. Mobile shook. It needed guns, ammunition, and men. Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and now Alabama underscored that they had thrown thousands of arms into distant areas for the common defense. Were not Mobile, New Orleans, and other ports to be defended?
Pounded in the West by Grant and Halleck, the Confederacy pulled out troops from the coasts of Florida, including Pensacola, and threw more and more men into this Western breach. Military chieftains divined it fruitless to hold coastal or frontier positions any longer.
As Mobile, Galveston, and New Orleans girded themselves, the Yankee expeditions steamed toward the Gulf. Off the New York Light, two converted ferryboats of the mortar flotilla bashed into each other; a Farragut steamer, Pensacola, ran into the Florida mud; others sprang leaks. Off the North Carolina coast, Butler's troopship Mississippi plowed through the seas. At breakfast officers congratulated themselves on the delightful weather. Suddenly the ship lurched. Butler believed that the ship had struck a whale. The skipper ordered the forward anchor dropped. The ship forged ahead into the anchor's flukes, smashing a five-inch hole in her side. Water gushed into the soldiers' berthing compartments. Butler pushed his way through the confusion and arrested the captain and mate, whom he suspected of Southern sympathies. The Union blockader Mount Vernon steamed up and rescued Mississippi and her master.
Thirty days out from Hampton Roads the transport p120 Mississippi limped into Ship Island, the Army-Navy staging area for New Orleans. This hole was no Garden of Eden, no Coney Island. One soldier whined: "Lord, what . . . wretched land." Men swore at the heat, the flies, the latrines. Flat, sandy Ship Island was •seven miles long, three quarters of a mile wide, and lay •fifteen miles from the Mississippi coast. •Sixty-five miles to the east was New Orleans. The Rebels had abandoned Ship Island in late 1861 and the Union Navy had immediately moved in and established an important base for the Gulf Squadron.
Not a house stood. Carpenters slapped together a shanty of charred boards, •eighteen feet square, for the residence of General Butler and his wife. An old‑fashioned French bedstead, a wardrobe, a secretary stacked with dishes, a safe, chairs, a washstand, a dining table, and a stove furnished the shack.
Soldiers fared worse. They wore wretched uniforms. Nearly half the men were without shoes, many without shirts, several without coats. They drilled in blouses and cotton drawers. Troops attacked sand forts, fired at wrecks off the beach, and, occasionally, shot at each other in error. A month's casualty list included three wounded. Butler took for granted that the decisive battle for New Orleans would be his force against the Confederate Army.
Off in the distance, Farragut struggled. Without waiting for Porter's force, he moved his ships to the mouth of the Mississippi and began tugging and pushing them over the mud bar. Side-wheeler Mississippi took ten p121 days. All engines were put ahead full until she struck firm in the ooze. Hawsers snapped. Inch by inch she washed through. Porter's mortar flotilla arrived. The ferryboats tugged, pushed, and nudged. Pensacola repeatedly grounded and was finally lugged through the muck on her side. Three weeks were wasted.
Porter complimented Farragut on his zeal and anxiety, but privately denounced his chief's incessant jabbering, his lack of attention to detail, his optimism.
The mortars proved as tricky as the mud. Crews had never fired them. The manual told gunners to stand in the rear on tiptoe with mouth and ears open. At Pilot Town, near the mouth of the Mississippi, the captain of Dan Smith, who disliked going into battle blind, ordered target practice. Sailors hauled 16‑pound shells to the howitzer, loaded it with the full service charge of twenty pounds of powder, and changed sights. The skipper did not know "just what the thing would do." Gunners fired the mortar. It boomed, recoiled violently, and drove the carriage into the waterways, listing Dan Smith ten degrees to port. The concussion knocked every door off its hinges. The arms chest and roundhouse collapsed. An Irish boatswain, hands on hips, surveyed the wreckage: "O howly Jasus, and wouldant I have been in a hell of a fix, if I stayed where they tould me?"
Farragut and Butler met on Ship Island. The General agreed to hold what the Navy took. Butler's regiments began embarking on Mississippi, Matanzas, Lewis, North America, Wild Gazelle, and E. W. Farley. Soldiers toted camp kettles, mess pans, cups, plates, knives, forks, overcoats, p122 blankets, extra shirts, and four days' cooked rations. Farragut reread a Fox dispatch: "Success at New Orleans is the downfall of everything else."
Good Friday, 18 April 1862, Clifton and Westfield churned up the river towing Porter's mortar fleet. Once secured to the lee of a wooden point, the first and third divisions loaded, cut the fuses for 3000 yards, and fired into Fort Jackson. Across the river, the second division pounded St. Philip. The earth shook. The trees quivered. The mortar schooners fired, settled down in the water, careened, lurched, and shot astern. The Rebels spotted the second division. A shell hammered into T. A. Ward, ripped the cabin, tore up the rigging, and smashed a hole at the waterline. Cannon mauled George Mangham, knocked Maria J. Carlton out of commission. That night, this division recrossed to the west bank and took up station behind the others. Firing from the Confederate batteries failed to slacken.
At New Orleans, Lovell frantically telegraphed Beauregard for help. Independent of the General, the ram Manassas, several launches, the unfinished iron battery Louisiana plus three River Defense Squadron bees, some with drunken crews, floated downstream toward the forts. The governor of Louisiana threw in two steamers, Governor Moore and General Quitman. Naval guns on all vessels numbered forty.
For six days and nights the mortars banged away. The forts stood. Powder-caked seamen looked like Negroes. Crews, fagged out, slumped on deck, fell asleep, only to awake ten minutes later to fire again. Porter despaired that his guns had not flattened the forts within p123 forty-eight hours. "My liver is completely turned upside down," he complained. "My eyes are failing me."
Down-river the Old Bulldog, growling and losing confidence in the mortar scheme, contemplated carrying out his own plan — a dash past the forts.
Early in the morning of 24 April, masters-at‑arms ordered hammocks stowed; cooks readied hot coffee and hardtack; a boatload of seamen rowed toward the forts, unshackled river obstructions blocking the channel, and returned. At 2 A.M. Hartford's signalmen hoisted two red lanterns. The squadron got under way. Black shapes moved past Porter's fleet toward their objective. The crews heard only the chugging of the engines. Suddenly, flames, burning rafts, flashes, explosions shattered the night. Three hundred guns roared. Cayuga, Pensacola, and Mississippi steamed through the holocaust, past the river obstructions, the forts, the guns, and out of range upstream. For an instant seamen saw half-naked gunners at the forts rushing, shouting, screaming. Guns fired, recoiled, fired. Shells whined. Confederate paddle-wheeler Governor Moore headed toward Union gunboat Oneida. "What ship is that?" bellowed the Yankee skipper. Spotting Governor Moore's distinguishing light, Oneida raked her with the starboard broadside at point-blank range. Governor Moore, badly beaten up, steered erratically, rammed into the oncoming Union Varuna, backed off, butted, reversed, banged again, and steamed off. The Confederate ram Stonewall Jackson, scrambling for safety, accidentally smashed into Varuna's port gangway. The ram backed off furiously, maneuvered •four miles toward New Orleans, was beached, fired, and p124 deserted. Governor Moore, meanwhile, ran into a Yankee cross fire. Her guns and boats shot away, her engine room enveloped in steam, decks aflame, Governor Moore dropped anchor, her colors burning at the peak. Fifty-seven men lay mangled on the deck.
The battle intensified. Yankee gunboats struggled up river past the forts, firing shot after shot. A news correspondent, cringing from the impact, said he had never before had any conception of Hell. Faces were dark, smeared with blood and smoke.
General Lovell just then disembarked from a river steamer at Fort Jackson. Taking one look, he scampered back on board and headed toward the city, depressed at the result of months of labor swept away. New Orleans could not be held more than twenty-four hours.
Farragut's Hartford, engaging Fort St. Philip, went hard aground attempting to avert a fire raft. Flames licked up the sides. "Fire quarters! Fire quarters! Don't flinch from that fire, boys. There's a hotter fire . . . for those who don't do their duty," ordered Farragut. Flames spread. In the engine room, the black gang put the throttle wide open. Engines backed full. The ship trembled. Firemen could scarcely hold their feet. The flames extinguished, the ship slipped off the shoal and shot past the forts.
Astern, the Union steamer Brooklyn ran afoul a sunken hulk. The Confederate ram Manassas and fire rafts bore down. "The ram, the ram, give her four bells! Put your helm hard-a‑starboard," screamed the Yankee captain. The ram struck Brooklyn a glancing blow amidships. p125 A dark figure ran out of the ram's hatch, jumped forward to the smokestack, fell headlong into the murky water, hit by a Yankee hand lead. Little damaged, Brooklyn steered clear and moved upstream.
By dawn only the squadron's Pinola, Itasca, and Winona failed to start for the forts, because daylight was fast approaching. Burning, smoldering, sinking Rebel hulks, the engines of some still racing, paddle wheels spinning, lined the riverbanks. The Confederate military commander saw Farragut upstream, out of range, heading toward the city, and exclaimed: "Shut up shop; the old Navy is too much for us; good‑by, New Orleans." Porter's mortar vessels ceased firing.
By 8:30 A.M., the Confederate naval forces lay scattered and broken. The ram Manassas, disabled, exploded and sank; Governor Moore, Stonewall Jackson, General Quitman, Resolute, the telegraph steamer Star, and tugs Mosher and Belle Algerine were already destroyed. Louisiana, McRae, and ram Defiance were secured to the forts. The two‑gun Jackson and passenger boat Doubloon safely reached New Orleans.
Below the forts, General Butler had witnessed the fleet action. Once Farragut passed the batteries, Butler reorganized his troops, disembarked, and marched on Fort St. Philip. He was perturbed and hurt, considering it unmilitary for the Navy to run off and leave the forts behind. This was a joint action. His visions of being the first in New Orleans evaporated — "But each is the race for glory," he commented.
Farragut's force, meanwhile, headed toward New Orleans with 210 dead or wounded. Cotton bales, debris, p126 and vessels, charred and burning, cluttered the river.
The Queen City was in turmoil. The alarm bell on Christ Church struck twelve four different times. Negroes scurried up Canal Street with baskets, buckets, pans, and wheelbarrows jammed with loot. Molasses ran in the gutters. One woman, a pistol in each hand, cried: "Burn the city. . . . Burn the city." Banks unloaded valuables. Citizens stormed consulate offices demanding that their gold be protected by a foreign flag. "Call All! Call All!" raved an editor.
Want a weapon! Gather a brick!
Club or cudgel, stone or stick!
Anything with a blade or a butt;
Anything that can cleave or cut!
One thousand men offered to jump on steamers, head downstream, board the fleet, and fight it out hand to hand.
The mob on the levee watched the bruised Yankee fleet, silent, grim, terrible.
Big Yank! Little Yank!
Run, Yank, or die!
Schoolchildren booed. "Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Give them rotten eggs! Wait till Yellow Jack comes, you will be dying in the street like dogs and no one to bury you."
General Lovell began pulling his troops out of the city. Channel obstructions swept away, the forts passed, supplies out, Butler on the march, New Orleans could offer only puny resistance. The force which controlled p127 the waterways held the city in a vise. Farragut could starve New Orleans within a month. Lovell knew his depleted ranks could whip Butler's men on land, but they stood no chance against naval cannon.
It drizzled on 25 April. Wharves and buildings, shipyards and vessels, cotton bales and sugar hogsheads smoldered along the waterfront. Bands played the quick marches as Lovell's troops cleared out.
Two Union officers in a launch reached a wharf, disembarked, and faced the mob. They walked on unharmed, pursued up the streets by the shouts: "Down with the Yankees! Shoot them! Hang them to a lamppost!" At the city hall they presented their credentials and asked surrender. Out in the channel Hartford leveled her guns.
Below at the forts, Confederates inspected the wreckage: brick barracks destroyed, parapets torn up, the parade plains submerged under •ten inches of water. Only nine guns in both forts worked. The dampness, the discomfort, the shelling, the fifty dead, the rumor of Butler's troops nearby sapped Rebel morale. At midnight on 27 April, Fort Jackson stood silent. Suddenly, soldiers mutinied, seizing guards, spiking guns, and refusing to fight. The city had surrendered. To hold out meant butchery. A Catholic priest tried to quell the uprising. Efforts failed. Half of the garrison, volunteers and regulars, marched out of the fort into the wilderness and into Butler's hands. Porter and his mortar flotilla saw the white flag waving from the parapets.
To show the Southerners that his men had not gone p128 to the devil, Porter ordered his men to don white mustering suits, and officers, their frock coats and white trousers. Union and Rebel commanders clustered on board Harriet Lane for surrender ceremonies. Porter immediately signed the capitulation articles. Lookouts suddenly yelled, pushed, and pounded on the deck. The Rebel iron battery Louisiana was loose. "This is sharp practice, but if you can stand the explosion we can," declared Porter. Confederate officers with palsied hand signed the document, then sat back on overstuffed chairs, waiting. There was a terrific explosion. Harriet Lane shook and careened. The damage was slight. Louisiana swept past down-river and was beached. Porter turned over the forts to Butler, and at New Orleans, Farragut commandeered all river boats not destroyed and sent them down to haul up the soldiers.
On 1 May, General Butler arrived in New Orleans. At 5 P.M. the procession headed by the Fourth Wisconsin band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" moved into the city. A motley, jeering crowd surged along the pavements, struggling to spot General Butler. "Where is that damned rascal? There he goes, God damn him! Devil! Go home, you damned Yankees." Women hissed. Butler concentrated on keeping in step. The parade trudged along the levee to Poydras Street, then to Charleston, to Canal, arriving at the customhouse. The St. James Hotel was converted into a Federal hospital. Lafayette Square, the United States Mint, a boarding-house on Poydras, Lyceum Hall, and Odd Fellows Hall made excellent barracks. Butler, nudging a hackman with a bayonet, drove to the St. Charles Hotel with Mrs. p129Butler, her hairdresser, and his aides. To insure safety, a regiment lined up around the hotel and planted four howitzers on each corner. Butler issued proclamation after proclamation. He boasted that he had a spy behind the chair of every Rebel head of a family. Rumors scurried around that Picayune Butler had bragged that his power in New Orleans was "equal to the Pope's, the Holy Ghost, to Christ himself."
The Confederacy was cast into the dumps. "Down into the very depths of despair go we," moaned a Southerner. "Are not we cut in two?" The Yankees at one gulp had gobbled up the South's largest port, its most colorful city, giving them the key to the Mississippi. The blockade was significantly strengthened. General Robert E. Lee termed the disaster a very severe blow; the Norfolk Day Book, the most deplorable tale ever heard in America.
The Confederate Government, reasoned Louisianans, had deserted New Orleans. Interested only in their own places, the busy bees in Richmond had forgotten the Queen City. If the state's resources had not been drained to defend far less important places, New Orleans might still be standing. They vented their wrath on Lovell. That wretched general had run off and left them, intoxicated, frightened. New Orleans, like Hatteras, Port Royal, and Roanoke Island, had fallen because of shoddy defenses, deficient fire power, lack of co‑operation between Army and Navy, and the superiority of swift steamers over land-based guns. Richmond, incapable of protecting three thousand miles of coast line, failed to cope with Union sea power. The South, like the North, p130 had gambled on marching armies, big armies on a single battlefield, disregarding the havoc which could be wrought by wooden-hulled ships probing the lightly defended shores. Confederate armies could outwhip, outmaneuver, outlast Union armies. Strategy called for draining away men and arms from the beaches, feeding them into interior battle fronts, and fighting the Yankee invader on Rebel terms. But seaboard residents, their shores overrun or threatened by the enemy, discovered they had been sacrificed.
In Boston at Lombard's north wharf, N. A. Thompson and Company auctioned off the church, plantation, school, and fact, and loud alarm bells captured at New Orleans. The entire Union tingled. The names Farragut and Porter were on the lips of Northerners everywhere. The Confederacy seemed to be caving in. Administration officials reminded the Western states, recently indignant with Lincoln, that the Navy had opened the dam for Mississippi River commerce.
The fall of New Orleans jolted the Southern cause in London. John Bull was flabbergasted. The son of the American minister reached home in Upper Portland Place and discovered his father dancing and skipping across the entry hall shouting: "We've got New Orleans!" The Times intimated for the first time that there was little chance for the South. In Paris the fall of the Queen City was like a cold plunge to Napoleon III, then ready to act without Great Britain and recognize Confederate independence. The Presse reported that the fate of the rebellion was an accomplished fact.
Hurrahs over New Orleans quickly died away. In the p131 West, Grant was contained at Shiloh. The cigar-chewing General Halleck nudged Grant into the background, took personal command of Western operations, moved southward, and conducted a sluggish campaign against Corinth, Mississippi. The possibility loomed that Confederate forces might cross the river into Arkansas and Texas. The Union's Western Flotilla operating on the upper Mississippi slowed down at Memphis. New Orleans should have been followed up with rapid sledge-hammer blows. The Navy Department had sent Farragut to Louisiana with ocean-going steamers and 15,000 troops. To subdue the entire Mississippi above New Orleans, the Admiral needed men to hold the river towns and light-draft vessels to navigate the tricky waters. Farragut, snarling, sat in New Orleans with neither. His lighter vessels had been mauled; Butler required all his soldiers to quell a rebellious city.
Porter and Farragut added, subtracted, and totaled up their force and Confederate strength in the Gulf and selected Mobile as the next target. Porter steamed off to Ship Island towing his mortar schooners to await Farragut. A week passed. At New Orleans, the Admiral opened his mail pouch and found a note from Fox, ordering him to push up the river and meet the Western Flotilla. Open the Mississippi!
Porter grew edgy. To set up the Mobile operation, he moved eastward with gunboats and, meeting the Mobile blockaders, planted buoys along the channel approaches. Everything was ready for Farragut.
Porter spotted red skies in the east toward Pensacola. His gunboats sharply changed course and steered toward p132 Florida. For months the Confederates had been evacuating Pensacola, sending soldiers and guns into Tennessee. The commander of the Mobile defenses, noting a new force off his port, informed the army at Pensacola to expedite evacuation. Rebels hurled torches into the forts, the navy yard, hospital, and wharves and abandoned Pensacola to march to Mobile and safety.
The Union flotilla puffed into the harbor unopposed. At the entrance, Fort Pickens, occupied by Federals since the outbreak of the war, shelled retreating Rebels. Porter's bluejackets landed and entered the city to discover ragged Negroes, grinning, somersaulting, and crying "Massa Linkum." The only white man, attired in a blue coat with brass buttons and yellow trousers, pushed through the crowd, shook hands with Porter, and exclaimed: "Welcome, the city is at your feet." Naval bluff had just acquired Pensacola, one of the finest ports on the Gulf coast.
Still in the dark about Farragut, Porter returned to Ship Island. Weeks passed. To his amazement, he discovered that his chief had pushed upriver to Vicksburg. Porter's requests for more gunboats to take a tottering Mobile were turned down.
Despite Union sea power, Mobile, Wilmington, Savannah, and Charleston remained in Confederate hands. Of these four, the North most coveted Charleston, Rebellion Roads, symbol of secession.
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