American Civil War: Capture of New Orleans

Farragut's fleet approaching New Orleans, 1862
US Navy Passing Forts Jackson and St. Phillip below New Orleans, April 24, 1862. US Naval History & Heritage Command

Capture of New Orleans - Conflict:

The capture of New Orleans by Union forces occurred during the American Civil War.

Capture of New Orleans - Dates:

Flag Officer David G. Farragut ran his fleet past Forts Jackson and St. Philip on April 24, 1862, and captured New Orleans the following day.

Fleets & Commanders:


  • Flag Officer David G. Farragut
  • 17 warships
  • 19 mortar boats


  • Major General Mansfield Lovell
  • Forts Jackson & St. Philip
  • 2 ironclads, 10 gunboats

Capture of New Orleans - Background:

Early in the Civil War, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott devised the "Anaconda Plan" for defeating the Confederacy. A hero of the Mexican-American War, Scott called for the blockade of the Southern coast as well as the capture of the Mississippi River. This latter move was designed to split the Confederacy in two and prevent supplies from moving east and west. The first step to securing the Mississippi was the capture of New Orleans. The Confederacy's largest city and busiest port, New Orleans was defended by two large forts, Jackson and St. Philip, situated on the river below the city (Map).

The task of taking the city fell to the US Navy and Flag Officer David G. Farragut. A long-serving officer and commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Farragut established his base of operations at Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi.

In addition to his squadron, he was provided with fleet of mortar boats led by his foster brother, Commander David D. Porter, who had the ear of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox. Assessing the Confederate defenses, Farragut initially planned to reduce the forts with mortar fire before advancing his fleet up the river.

Moving to the Mississippi River in mid-March, Farragut began moving his ships over the bar at its mouth. Here complications were encountered as the water proved shallower than expected.  As a result, the steam frigate USS Colorado (52 guns) had to be left behind. Rendezvousing at Head of Passes, Farragut's ships and Porter's mortar boats moved up the river towards the forts. Arriving, Farragut was confronted by Forts Jackson and St. Philip, as well as a chain barricade and four smaller batteries. Sending forward a detachment from the US Coast Survey, Farragut made determinations on where to place the mortar fleet.

Capture of New Orleans - Confederate Preparations:

From the outset of the war, plans for the defense of New Orleans were hampered by the fact that the Confederate leadership in Richmond believed that the greatest threats to the city would come from the north. As such, military equipment and manpower were shifted up the Mississippi to defensive points such as Island Number 10.  In southern Louisiana, the defenses were commanded by Major General Mansfield Lovell who had his headquarters in New Orleans. Immediate oversight of the forts fell to Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan.

Supporting the static defenses were the River Defense Fleet consisting of six gunboats, two gunboats from the Louisiana Provisional Navy, as well as two gunboats from the Confederate Navy and the ironclads CSS Louisiana (12) and CSS Manassas (1). The former, while a powerful ship, was not complete and was used as a floating battery during the battle. Though numerous, the Confederates forces on the water lacked a unified command structure.

Capture of New Orleans - Reducing the Forts:

Though skeptical about their effectiveness in reducing the forts, Farragut advanced Porter's mortar boats on April 18.  Firing non-stop for five days and nights, the mortars pounded the forts, but were unable to completely disable their batteries. As the shells rained down, sailors from USS Kineo (5), USS Itasca (5), and USS Pinola (5) rowed forward and opened a gap in the chain barricade on April 20.

On April 23, Farragut, impatient with the bombardment's results, began planning to run his fleet past the forts. Ordering his captains to drape their vessels in chain, iron plate, and other protective materials, Farragut divided the fleet into three sections for the coming action (Map).

Capture of New Orleans - Running the Gauntlet:

At 2:00 AM on April 24, the Union fleet began moving upstream, with the first division, led by Captain Theodorus Bailey, coming under fire an hour and fifteen minutes later. Racing ahead, the first division was soon clear of the forts, however Farragut's second division encountered more difficulty. As his flagship, USS Hartford (22) cleared the forts, it was forced to turn to avoid a Confederate fire raft and ran aground. Seeing the Union ship in trouble, the Confederates redirected the fire raft towards Hartford causing a fire to break out on the vessel. Moving quickly, the crew extinguished the flames and was able to back the ship out of the mud.

Above the forts, the Union ships encountered the River Defense Fleet and Manassas. While the gunboats were easily dealt with, Manassas attempted to ram USS Pensacola (17). but missed. Moving downstream, it was accidentally fired upon by the forts before moving to strike USS Brooklyn (21). Ramming the Union ship, Manassas failed to strike a fatal blow as it hit Brooklyn's full coal bunkers. By the time the fighting ended, Manassas was downstream of the Union fleet and unable to make enough speed against the current to ram effectively.

As a result, its captain ran it aground where it was destroyed by Union gun fire.

Capture of New Orleans - The City Surrenders:

Having successfully cleared the forts with minimal losses, Farragut began steaming upstream to New Orleans. Arriving off the city on April 25, he immediately demanded its surrender. Sending a force ashore, Farragut was told by the mayor that only Major General Lovell could surrender the city. This was countered when Lovell informed the mayor that he was retreating and that the city was not his to surrender. After four days of this, Farragut ordered his men to hoist the US flag over the customs house and city hall. During this time, the garrisons of the Forts Jackson and St. Philip, now cut off from the city, surrendered. On May 1, Union troops under Major General Benjamin Butler arrived to take official custody of the city.

Capture of New Orleans - Aftermath:

The battle to capture New Orleans cost Farragut a mere 37 killed and 149 wounded. Though he was initially unable to get all of his fleet past the forts, he succeeded in getting 13 ships upstream which enabled him to capture the Confederacy's greatest port and center of trade. For Lovell, the fighting along the river cost him around 782 killed and wounded, as well as approximately 6,000 captured. The loss of the city effectively ended Lovell's career. After the fall of New Orleans, Farragut was able to take control of much of the lower Mississippi and succeeded in capturing Baton Rouge and Natchez.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Capture of New Orleans." ThoughtCo, Oct. 14, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, October 14). American Civil War: Capture of New Orleans. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Capture of New Orleans." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2018).