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Big Trouble in the Big Easy for the Confederacy

By Jay Wertz
9/3/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The loss of the South’s largest city 145 years ago this April inflicted a deep wound to the Confederacy from which it would never recover. The fall of New Orleans did not yet mean loss of control of the Mississippi River—that would come more than a year later at Vicksburg and Port Hudson— but it dealt a serious blow to Confederate operations in the Trans-Mississippi region and eliminated another key port.

The city’s early-war fall was another example of how the Confederates’ preoccupation with the defense of Virginia contributed to disastrous losses in the West. Men were pulled from New Orleans to replace western troops sent to Virginia. The city’s supply of military arms, already affected by the Federal blockade, became even more tenuous. The Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell, had meager resources and worked with a fractured naval command. Ironically, one of Louisiana’s most brilliant military commanders, Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor, was effectively leading a force of Louisianians far away in “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign.

The Rebels looked to protect New Orleans from a sea-based attack up the Mississippi River. But the naval portion of that defense was ill-prepared, and two forts on opposite sides of the river 75 miles below New Orleans would be saddled with the brunt of the defense. Overall command of the Union expedition was in the hands of Flag Officer David G. Farragut, a life-long Navy man of unquestionable vision and daring. Farragut was joined by his foster brother Commander David D. Porter, an ambitious and bombastic officer who initiated a plan to use 13-inch seacoast mortars to bombard the forts. The soldiers in the combined army-navy operation were led by a heavy-handed political general, Maj. Gen. Benjamin “The Beast” Butler.

As destructive as Federal naval guns would be to the Confederate defenses around New Orleans, an even more powerful blow was delivered in the fall of 2005 by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. However, this should not deter anyone from touring the area. Although the destruction amounted to billions of dollars, and the human suffering was incalculable, the city of New Orleans has been successfully rebuilding. It remains one of the most vibrant, colorful and festive cities on the planet. Today well-known parts of the city such as the French Quarter, Garden District and Canal Street show little evidence of the hurricanes.

In other areas the story is different. Among the residential, commercial and wetland areas still faced with rebuilding are Civil War sites including Fort Jackson, Chalmette National Battlefield and Fort Pike. Site managers I have spoken with see visitation as a key element in the restoration of these Civil War treasures. Besides the direct economic benefit of tourists and enthusiasts exploring the sites, visitation statistics help these parks in their competition for limited government funding. So get down to Louisiana and immerse yourself in this highly important 1862 campaign. A tour of Civil War history here will take at least two days, but most people will want to savor the sights, sounds and tastes of the Crescent City for a good deal longer.

As part of the plan to strangle the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox successfully lobbied for a campaign against New Orleans. The Confederates were not sitting idly by as word of the secret buildup reached the city. The commander in charge of the two Mississippi River forts, Brig. Gen. Johnson Duncan, was making preparations at Fort Jackson, the large pentagonal brick fort on the Mississippi’s west bank, and Fort St. Philip, a late 18th-century Spanish fort opposite Fort Jackson on the east bank. Guns were upgraded, water batteries were constructed and a barrier of ship hulks was chained together across the river south of the forts. The ships of the Louisiana State Navy, the River Defense Squadron and the Confederate Navy, which rushed to press two large ironclads to completion, were augmented by timber and tar fire rafts. A smaller ironclad, CSS Manassas, which had helped stop Federal warships from entering the Mississippi at Head of Passes the previous October, was also available for service. A thin artillery defense line centered at Chalmette was established just below New Orleans, and Forts Pike and Macomb discouraged a sea approach to the city.

From the center of New Orleans, cross the U.S. 90 bridge to Gretna and continue west on Business U.S. 90 to La. 23, the Belle-Chasse Highway. Turn left and drive south for approximately 66 miles to Fort Jackson, in Plaquemines Parish. Mileage signs along the way track the distance to the fort. Turn left onto the gravel road under the Fort Jackson sign and proceed to the parking lot. Hurricane damage closed Fort Jackson to the public, but you can walk around the fort’s exterior, view the Mississippi where the naval battle occurred and see Fort St. Philip across the river.

By April 8, 1862, the expedition led by Farragut, including oceangoing warships, mortar-laden schooners and shallow-draft gunboats, arduously crossed the bars at the mouth of the Mississippi. The 18,000 men under Butler were poised to land later at Isle Au Breton Sound. Farragut sent a gunboat reconnaissance to take a look at the forts.

The Confederate naval commands were ordered to action, though some of the ram-equipped gunboats had been sent to meet threats in Tennessee. Neither of the 16-gun ironclads being built upriver at Jefferson City was completely ready. CSS Louisiana’s engines were not geared for full maneuverability, and CSS Mississippi was awaiting installation of its drive shaft. The Confederates decided to tow Louisiana downriver to act as a floating battery above the forts.

From a position south of the forts and around a blind bend, Porter set his mortars to work on Fort Jackson beginning on April 18 while Farragut’s warships remained at anchor on the east river bank. The bombardments accomplished little except to burn the fort’s wooden buildings and temporarily silence some guns. After three days of ineffective shelling, Farragut decided to run his ships past the fort. The task was made easier by some daring Yankee tars, who approached the forts in two Federal gunboats on the night of April 20 and, while under fire, breached the barrier of ship hulks.

At 2 a.m. on April 24, Farragut’s flotilla got underway in two columns. At 3:30 the first vessel, the gunboat Cayuga, passed the forts undetected but as the second, the sloop-of-war USS Pensacola, passed through the broken barrier, the alarm went out and the 109 guns of the forts and their water batteries came to life. General firing commenced, including support from Porter’s boats anchored around the bend. Upriver, the vessels of the combined Confederate naval forces began to enter the fray.

For about two hours the battle continued and the scene, according to Farragut, “was as if the artillery of heaven were playing upon the earth.” Several of the Union vessels were heavily damaged, but all passed the forts successfully except one. The Federal loss was 37 sailors killed and 147 wounded. The Confederates sustained about 100 casualties.

Word passed quickly to New Orleans that the U.S. Navy had passed the forts, and Lovell withdrew his small militia to avoid a showdown with the Federal warships. Farragut’s flotilla continued upriver on the 24th, quickly silenced the artillery of the Chalmette-McGehee line and arrived at the docks of the city on the 25th. Two brave naval officers walked through an agitated crowd to city hall and demanded the surrender of the city from Lovell and Mayor Monroe. Lovell left New Orleans hours later, and the city fathers refused to surrender. On April 29, Farragut sent sailors and U.S. Marines ashore to seize key buildings.

Although he had vowed not to give up the two forts, Duncan was cut off and threatened by Porter’s squadron and Butler’s troops. Losing control of his men, he arranged to surrender the forts to Butler and Porter. Butler’s soldiers occupied the forts, and Porter joined the fleet at New Orleans as Farragut ordered probes farther north on the Mississippi. Butler eventually became the city’s first Union military governor. At the end of the year, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks replaced him, and the process to reincorporate the Federal-controlled portions of Louisiana into the Union was begun.

Even though Fort Jackson is closed, efforts to restore it and its collection of fine artifacts are underway. Cross the drawbridge to the main entrance and view a portion of the parade ground inside. A walk around the fort reveals pockmarks and masonry cracks that resulted from the battle. Along the south casemate is a good view of some of the fort’s gun ports. Continue west around the fort and there is a large swivel base for one of the fort’s big guns and an exterior powder magazine. Much of the fort’s outer wall was destroyed in the battle, and further damage has occurred at the hands of Mother Nature.

Opposite the parking lot is a concrete bunker and observation platform, part of the Endicott additions built in the 1890s when Fort Jackson was used for military training and coastal defense. Visitors may want to carefully climb the structure that overlooks the river—or perhaps choose to view the river from an accessible portion of the modern levee. Directly across the river, to the left of a red triangular navigation marker on the opposite shore, is a view of Fort St. Philip. That fort is now inaccessible by land.

Return north on La. 23 to Business U.S. 90, cross the river bridge to New Orleans and enter I-10 east. At exit 237, get on La. 46 and continue south and east for about eight miles to Chalmette Battlefield, a unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Chalmette is known primarily as the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, in which Andrew Jackson defeated the British. It is also the only place on public grounds to view the New Orleans defense line between the downriver forts and the city. The former artillery positions were on the left side of the road that runs through Chalmette National Cemetery, and can be reached by a walking path or through the main cemetery entrance.

Virtually nothing is visible of the gun redoubts as the area was farmed after the war. In the cemetery is a G.A.R. monument, graves of soldiers from all American conflicts, including Civil War soldiers (1,500 of them unknown) who died in action or in Federal hospitals after the fall of New Orleans. In section 52 is the grave of Lyons Wakeman, one of the most famous of the North’s disguised female soldiers. Park rangers can point out the park’s Civil War features. Near the Visitor Center is the Chalmette Monument, which stood unfinished during the Civil War, and the antebellum Malus-Beauregard House.

If time permits, continue east on La. 46 to La. 47. Turn left and enter I-510 for about a mile. Exit at U.S. 90 east. In about 15 miles, Fort Pike State Historic Site is on the right side of the road just before the large girder bridge over the Rigolets. Fort Pike guarded the sea entrance to Lake Pontchartrain. The park is currently closed due to hurricane damage but the fort is visible. This stronghold, along with Fort Macomb (inaccessible but visible from U.S. 90, where it narrows crossing Chef Menteur Pass), was a three-sided Third System brick fort.

The rest of the sites associated with Civil War New Orleans are downtown and in nearby Metairie. In the French Quarter are Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, visible in many Civil War photographs. The Louisiana State Museum has Civil War exhibits and occupies several buildings in the French Quarter, including the Old U.S. Mint on Decatur and Esplanade, where the first U.S. flag was raised by Farragut’s landing party. The Merieult House, home to the Historic New Orleans Collection, was another of many French Quarter buildings that existed during the war. The French Quarter unit of Jean Lafitte NHP&P has displays on area history including a Civil War exhibit.

A short distance to the west is Canal Street. The U.S. Custom House at the corner of Canal and Decatur was used by Butler as a headquarters and prison. Other fine Civil War museums in the city include the Louisiana National Guard Military History and State Weapons Museum, and The Confederate Museum. City Hall, 543 St. Charles, was the scene of surrender negotiations between Farragut’s officers and city officials. Lee Circle, at St. Charles and Howard, has a large monument topped by a bronze statue of Robert E. Lee.

In the Garden District, accessible by streetcar, were the residences of many famous Confederate officers and officials. Jefferson Davis died on December 5, 1889, at the antebellum Payne-Strachan House, 1134 First St. Leonidas Polk is buried at Christ Church Cathedral, 2919 St. Charles. At Metairie Cemetery, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., are the graves of 2,500 Confederate soldiers, and Generals P.G.T. Beauregard, John Bell Hood and Richard Taylor. Another cemetery containing the graves of Union soldiers is on North Dufrocq Street. Camp Parapet, part of a defense line the Confederates manned west of New Orleans, is on private property but visible from the intersection of Airline Dr. and S. Causeway Blvd. West of the city are a number of antebellum plantations, many restored and open to the public, including the much photographed Oak Alley.

Given its Civil War significance and cosmopolitan heritage and charm, New Orleans is a must-see location for anyone exploring America’s past.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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