Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, Farragut’s Run Past – April 24, 1862 Part I

This map shows the Confederate fortifications at Fort Jackson and Fort St Philip and the Union fleet under Farragut. To capture New Orleans, the largest city and principal port in the Confederacy, Farragut overcame the Confederate warships (the massive CSS Louisiana could not move for want of her engines, while the CSS Manassas only mounted one thirty-two-pounder) and bypassed the two forts at night, but only after the river was freed of obstacles. Off Manila in 1898, Dewey employed the technique he had observed when taking part in Farragut’s attack: of passing heavily fortified shore positions at night. Farragut’s success had not been matched by the British in 1815. The map included the longest range of fire from the forts.

The capture of New Orleans was a key element in the Lincoln administration’s Anaconda Plan. New Orleans was the Confederacy’s most important seaport and its largest and wealthiest city. Beyond denying to the South this outlet for the shipment of cotton, securing the entire Mississippi would open the river to oceanic shipping for goods from the Northwest, as well as split off the trans-Mississippi West from the remainder of the Confederacy.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox was the strongest proponent of an assault on the Crescent City. He believed that Union victories at Port Royal, South Carolina, and Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, had proved that steam warships could successfully engage and defeat shore forts and that Union ships could defeat Confederate forts Jackson and St. Philip, which guarded the southern approach to New Orleans along the Mississippi. Commander David D. Porter convinced Fox and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that bombardment of the forts by a flotilla of mortar boats would be essential to success of the plan. He pledged that both forts would be rendered ineffective, if not destroyed, within 48 hours of shelling from large 13-inch mortars.

President Lincoln gave his endorsement. General in chief Major General George B. McClellan was opposed, that is until he learned that the operation was to be essentially borne by the navy with only about 10,000 troops required to garrison the city and its forts once the navy had forced their surrender. In December, Welles called Captain David G. Farragut to Washington and offered him command of the operation, which Farragut immediately accepted. Porter received command of the mortar flotilla. Farragut took as his flagship the screw sloop Hartford and arrived at Ship Island in Mississippi Sound on February 20, 1862.

Farragut spent nearly a month preparing for the expedition, ultimately assembling 17 ships mounting 192 guns. The most powerful of these were 8 steam sloops and corvettes: the Brooklyn (26 guns), Hartford (28 guns), Iroquois (11 guns), Mississippi (22 guns), Oneida (10 guns), Pensacola (25 guns), Richmond (22 guns), and Varuna (11 guns). These ships mounted in all 154 guns. There were also 9 gunboats: the Cayuga (4 guns), Itasca (4 guns), Katahdin (4 guns), Kennebec (4 guns), Kineo (4 guns), Pinola (5 guns), Sciota (5 guns), Winona (4 guns), and Wissahickon (4 guns). Farragut also had Porter’s squadron of 20 mortar schooners, each mounting a single 13-inch mortar. Major General Benjamin F. Butler com manded the 13,000 soldiers who would accompany the expedition.

On April 16, following careful planning and preparations, Farragut moved his ships from the Gulf into the Mississippi River estuary, just below and out of range of the river forts. Once the ships had passed the forts, Butler’s troops were to join the squadron by means of a bayou about five miles upriver. Welles hoped that Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote and his Union naval forces on the upper Mississippi would steam south and join Farragut at New Orleans. If that proved impossible, Farragut was to proceed north as far as possible.

Confederate leaders in Richmond bore considerable responsibility for subsequent events. They believed that the chief threat to New Orleans was from the north and thus sent there the scant resources available. This same attitude contributed to the failure to complete the Confederate ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi that were under construction at Jefferson City just north of New Orleans.

Major General Mansfield Lovell had charge of the New Orleans defenses. Initially commanding 6,000 men, he had expressed confidence that he could hold the city against any land attack. By early April, however, more than half of his men and much equipment had been siphoned off from New Orleans to Corinth, Mississippi, to challenge Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces at Pittsburg Landing. Another major problem lay in a divided command structure that included multiple army and navy commanders. Thus, Brigadier General Johnson Kelly Duncan, not Lovell, commanded Forts St. Philip and Jackson. The naval command was even more fractious.

Despite the paucity of Confederate manpower facing them, it would not be easy for Union forces to ascend the Mississippi. The Union ships would first have to pass the Confederate forts. Fort Jackson was a stone and mortar star-shaped works mounting 74 guns and situated some 100 yards from the levee on the west bank of the river. Fort St. Philip, mounting 52 guns, and located about a half mile upstream on the opposite bank, was of brick and stone covered with sod. High water in the river had flooded portions of both works, but Confederate engineers worked around the clock to control the water and strengthen the two installations against attack. Another liability was that the 1,100 men in the forts were inexperienced and largely untrained. This would impact the fighting, especially in conditions of poor visibility.

On the river itself, the Confederates assembled only 14 warships, most of which were small. They mounted a total of only 40 guns. There was no unity of command, and the vessels were in three major divisions. Captain John A. Stephenson commanded the Confederate River Defense Fleet of six small converted river tugs mounting a total of 7 guns and fitted with iron-reinforced prows for ramming. These were the Defense, General Breckinridge, General Lovell, Resolute, Stonewall Jackson, and Warrior. Stephenson was a Confederate Army officer who reputedly disliked naval officers and refused to obey orders of the senior Confederate naval officer in the lower Mississippi, Commander John K. Mitchell.

The Louisiana State Navy provided two side-wheeler gunboats in the Governor Moore and General Quitman. They mounted two guns each, while the Confederate Navy contributed six warships under Mitchell: the gunboats CSS McRae (eight guns) and Jackson (two guns) and the launches No. 3 and No. 6 (one gun apiece). The other two ships were the ironclads Manassas and Louisiana, but only the ram Manassas with a single gun was operational at the time of the Union assault.

The Louisiana posed the only real naval threat to the ships of Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron, and many in the Crescent City regarded it as the strongest defense for the city, after the forts. The 1,400-ton Louisiana was 264 feet in length and protected by four-inch railroad rail iron. Unfortunately for the South, the ship was not yet ready when Union forces began their attack. Nonetheless, when Porter’s mortars opened up on the forts, Mitchell had it towed down river with mechanics still working on it. The ship was then moored to the shore north of Fort St. Philip as a floating fort. Soldiers drawn from the Crescent Artillery worked its 16 guns.

Stephenson also had ordered fire rafts prepared so that they might be set loose in the current against any Union ships advancing upriver. Although the river was too swift and deep for obstructions, Lovell advocated and the Confederates built a river barrier. It consisted of two long chains formed from those of ships idled at New Orleans. Seven anchored hulks supported the chains, which passed across the river, over the forward part and amidships of the hulks, from Fort Jackson to the opposite shore.

Assembling off Pass a l’Outre, by mid-March all the heavier Union warships were able to pass over the bar with assistance from Porter’s steamers. A month later, all the other ships had assembled at Ship Island along with Butler’s troops.

On April 15, Farragut gave the order for the operation to begin. On the evening of April 18, Porter’s 20 mortar boats, towed into position by 7 steamers and moored along the riverbank some 3,000 yards from Fort Jackson where they were protected by a bend of the river and woods, opened a bombardment. For six days and nights the mortars fired 16,800 shells, almost all of them at the fort, without notable result. The problem seems to have been the fusing, the shells either burst in air or buried themselves in the soft earth before exploding without major effect. Although the mortar shells did dismount some of the guns in Fort Jackson, most of the Confederate crews bravely kept to their positions and were able to remount the guns. Indeed, Confederate counterbattery fire on April 19 sank the mortar schooner Maria J. Carlton, killing and wounding some Union sailors. The Confederates also sent fire rafts down the river at night, but Union boat crews grappled these and towed them off without damage.

Farragut knew that too much delay would have a negative effect and on the night of April 20, while Porter’s mortars kept up a steady fire so as to distract the gun crews in the Confederate forts, he sent the screw gunboats Itasca and Pinola against the river obstructions. Under heavy but inaccurate Confederate fire, the Union crews worked to open a gap through which the squadron might pass. An attempt to blow up one of the hulks with an electronically detonated torpedo (mine) failed, but some of the men of the Itasca managed to break the chains with a chisel, opening a passage that Farragut thought would be sufficient for his ships to pass through.

The Union crews, meanwhile, prepared their ships. The men landed anything that might be a potential fire hazard or inhibit smooth operations, including extra spars, rigging, boats, and all but a few sails. They also strung heavy iron cable chains on the outsides of the ships to provide additional protection to the most vulnerable areas housing the engines and steam boilers. These acted as a kind of chain mail armor. They also packed around the boilers bags of ashes, extra clothing, sand, and anything else readily available. Clearly, protecting the boilers was the major concern. Clouds of steam from a punctured boiler could inflict heavy personnel casualties. Also, such an event could immobilize the vessel, perhaps jeopardizing the entire operation.

The crews also worked to distribute weight so that the ships would draw more water forward than aft. This was so that if a vessel grounded while heading upstream, the bow would strike bottom first and the ship would not be turned around by the swift current. The crews also whitewashed their vessels’ decks so that the gunners’ tools would stand out more clearly at night; at the same time, they gave the hulls a coating of oil and mud to render them more difficult to distinguish from the shore.

On April 22, Farragut met with his subordinate commanders to discuss his plans in detail. The ships were to proceed single file through the obstructions. Porter’s mortars would provide covering fire to occupy the Confederate gun crews and hopefully drive them from their guns. Once the ships had passed the forts, Butler’s troops would be put ashore at Quarantine from the Gulf side through that bayou, allowing the Union land and naval forces to move in tandem to New Orleans. Farragut reserved the option of reducing the forts, but instructed his captains that, unless otherwise ordered, they were to steam past them.

The prevailing view among the captains, freely stated during the meeting, was that the risk was such that any attempt should be delayed until the mortars had reduced the forts. Farragut demurred. Porter would soon run short of shells, and his men were exhausted from the bombardment that had already extended over six days and seven nights. Farragut informed the captains that, given these considerations, he had decided on an attempt that very night. The attack was delayed for 24 hours, however, on pleas by two of the captains that they were not yet ready.

Soon after midnight on April 24, the crews were awakened, and the squadron got under way. The ships then moved upriver in two divisions to approach the opening in the obstructions made earlier. Captain Theodorus Bailey commanded the first division of the Cayuga, Pensacola, Mississippi, Oneida, Varuna, Katahdin, Kineo, and Wissahickon. The center (second) division, under Farragut, consisted of the Hartford, Brooklyn, and Richmond. The third division, commanded by Captain Henry H. Bell, included the Sciota, Iroquois, Kennebec, Pinola, Itasca, and Winona.

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