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

The capture of New Orleans by Union forces occurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and saw Flag Officer David G. Farragut run his fleet past Forts Jackson and St. Philip on April 24, 1862 before capturing New Orleans the following day. 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.

To New Orleans

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). While forts had historically held an advantage over naval vessels, successes in 1861 at Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal led Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox to believe that an attack up the Mississippi would be feasible. In his view, the forts could be reduced by naval gunfire and then assaulted by a relatively small landing force.

Fox's plan was initially opposed by US Army general-in-chief George B. McClellan who believed that such an operation would require 30,000 to 50,000 men. Viewing a prospective expedition against New Orleans as a diversion, he was unwilling to release large numbers of troops as he was planning what would become the Peninsula Campaign. To obtain the needed landing force, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles approached Major General Benjamin Butler. A political appointee, Butler was able to use his connections to secure 18,000 men and received command of the force on February 23, 1862.

Farragut

The task of eliminating the forts and taking the city fell to Flag Officer David G. Farragut. A long-serving officer who had taken part in the War of 1812 and Mexican-American War, he had been raised by Commodore David Porter following the death of his mother. Given command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in January 1862, Farragut arrived at his new post the following month and established a base of operations on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi. In addition to his squadron, he was provided with a fleet of mortar boats led by his foster brother, Commander David D. Porter, who had the ear of Fox. Assessing the Confederate defenses, Farragut initially planned to reduce the forts with mortar fire before advancing his fleet up the river.

Preparations

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 three feet 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.

Fleets & Commanders

Union

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

Confederate

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

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.

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). There were led by Farragut and Captains Theodorus Bailey and Henry H. Bell.

Running the Gauntlet

At 2:00 AM on April 24, the Union fleet began moving upstream, with the first division, led by 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.

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 Butler arrived to take official custody of the city.

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. Pressing upstream, his ships reached as far as Vicksburg, MS before being halted by Confederate batteries. After attempting a brief siege, Farragut withdrew back down the river to prevent being trapped by falling water levels.