April 1862: Yankee invasion takes New Orleans!

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

David Farragut (Library of Congress)

New Orleans, Louisiana, was the jewel of the Confederacy. In addition to being the South's largest city, it boasted considerable industry that produced ironclads, submarines, munitions, uniforms, and other military items. More importantly, it controlled access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. Both sides grasped the significance of New Orleans, but, surprisingly, the Confederates did little to prepare its defenses. To state officials' chagrin, most of Louisiana's soldiers were shipped off to Virginia and Tennessee early in the war, leaving the state virtually defenseless. The Confederates were also lulled into a false sense of security by Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two large brick forts located on the west and east banks, respectively, near the Mississippi's mouth. Manned by several hundred soldiers and protected by approximately one hundred cannons, the forts seemed more than adequate to stop any enemy force trying to move upstream. A large boom made from chains and old vessels had also been strung across the river to serve as a barrier, and a 12-boat squadron of the River Defense Fleet and numerous fire rafts stood ready to repel any invaders. As it turned out, however, these defenses were not nearly as strong as they appeared. The forts' cannons were old and antiquated, and the gunpowder was of poor quality. It also was impossible to coordinate the forts and gunboats because the River Defense Fleet captains refused to take orders from the forts' commander, Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan.

In March 1862, U.S. Flag Officer David Farragut assembled a large fleet of warships, mortar boats, and transports at the river's mouth. Onboard the transports were thousands of infantrymen under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler to support the navy. After studying the forts, Farragut decided they were too strong to run past or to capture. Instead, he chose to reduce them first with the mortar boats commanded by his foster brother, Lieutenant David Porter, and then dash past them to New Orleans.

On April 18-Good Friday-Porter's mortar boats began a week-long bombardment that blasted the forts to rubble. Surprisingly, the defenders suffered relatively few casualties because most of them stayed deep within the forts' protective walls. During the bombardment, Confederate officials in New Orleans dispatched the powerful ironclad Louisiana to help protect the forts, but the vessel's engines were inoperative, and it was relegated to serving as a floating battery tied up next to Fort St. Philip. When he believed the forts were sufficiently battered, Farragut prepared to run past them and sent a vessel upriver one night to cut a hole in the chain boom. The Union sailors chosen to make the run were unsure how many enemy guns had been knocked out by their bombardment, but they prepared for the worst. Chain armor was draped alongside each vessel to protect the vital engines, guns and engine rooms were sandbagged, and netting was strung above deck to catch falling debris. Most ominously, the decks were covered with white sand to reflect light and to provide traction by soaking up the blood and gore.

In the predawn hours of April 24, Farragut sent seventeen warships upriver, but the Confederates spotted them and opened fire. The Union sailors responded with their own broadsides, and a thick cloud of smoke quickly enveloped the river. General Duncan's aide William Seymour recalled, "The roar of the artillery was deafening; the rushing sound of the descending bombs; the sharp, whizzing noise made by the jagged fragments of exploded shells, the whirring of grape shot & hissing of Canister balls-all this was well calculated to disturb the equanimity of the strongest nerved man. . . .A lurid glow of light rested upon the Fort, produced by the almost incessant discharges of our own guns, and the explosion of the enemy's shell[s] above and around us." The small River Defense Fleet also rushed in to engage the enemy, but visibility was so poor the ships sometimes accidentally collided. During the wild melee, at least one fire raft was set loose that singed Farragut's flagship. When dawn broke, all but three of Farragut's ships had successfully passed the forts, and the boats of the River Defense Fleet were either sunk or scattered. Losses were surprisingly light, with Farragut and the Confederates losing about 200 men each in the battle. As a testament to their bravery, twenty Union sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism in this one fight.

New Orleans was doomed. Farragut sailed on to the city and anchored next to the levee on April 25. The city was in complete chaos because both the authorities and civilians panicked when they learned the enemy was approaching. To prevent the Yankees from capturing valuable supplies, the Confederates set fire to ships, docks, bales of cotton, and warehouses along the riverfront. A heavy cloud of smoke hung over the city, and Canal Street was awash in molasses that had been dumped in the gutter.

A heavy rain began to fall and lightning crashed, but a huge crowd lined the levee to face the Union ships and shout curses and threats at the sailors. The Yankees, still covered in soot and grime from the night's battle, simply patted their cannons and smiled, which infuriated the crowd even more. Farragut ordered two of his officers to go ashore and demand the city's surrender from Mayor John T. Monroe. These two officers had to walk through the mob of furious citizens, who cursed, spat upon, and threatened them. Drunken men sometimes waded through the crowd and placed cocked pistols against their heads threatening to shoot them. Louisiana writer George Washington Cable witnessed the deed and later wrote, "So through the gates of death those two men walked to the City Hall to demand the town's surrender. It was one of the bravest deeds I ever saw done."

The officers never faltered and continued to City Hall. There, while the crowd beat upon the doors shouting threats, the two demanded the city's surrender. Monroe refused and referred the matter to General Mansfield Lovell, who commanded the Confederate troops inside New Orleans. Lovell also refused to surrender but said he would take his 4,000 men out of the city and not fight for it because he knew Farragut's cannons could destroy the city. The Confederates then helped the Union officers slip out of the building and back to their ships through backstreets to avoid the mob.

The next day, a Union shore party raised the U.S. flag over the Mint building. When the soldiers at Forts Jackson and St. Philip learned of the city's capture, some of the men in Fort Jackson mutinied, and their officers had no choice but to surrender the two forts on April 28. The captain of the Louisiana blew up his ship rather than see it fall into enemy hands. With only light casualties, the U.S. Navy had won a stunning victory that put the Union one step closer to securing the entire Mississippi River.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.