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The Confederate defense of forts Jackson and St. Philip.

On April 6, 1862, Confederate Brigadier General Johnson Kelly Duncan, commander of the  coastal defenses on the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, reported his observations of the Union armada as “twenty one schooners and two gunboats—one of the latter large. At this head of the Passes Eight gunboats, three steam frigates and one schooner.” Duncan relayed this information to his superiors in New Orleans, believing that his men in Forts Jackson and St. Philip could withstand any attack from the Federal ships. The forts, which sat on opposite banks of the Mississippi about 75 miles below New Orleans, stood as the last bastion of defense on the river against an approach to the city from the south. Duncan’s leadership over the coming four weeks would earn him a place in Southern history as an unsung hero, but Union Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s ultimate conquest of the Crescent City inflicted a crippling blow on the Confederacy.

Louisiana’s preparations for an anticipated Union invasion began in earnest soon after South Carolina’s secession in December 1860. Louisiana Governor Thomas Overton Moore took it upon himself to seize all federal property within the state, including the river forts. Fort St. Philip, an irregular brick quadrilateral on the east bank, dated to the mid-1700s and had been used by U.S. forces against the British in the War of 1812. It had been upgraded about the same time Fort Jackson, a brick pentagon, was completed on the west bank in 1832. Both stood at the Head of the Passes—the point about 40 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi where the river current divides as it begins to enter the Gulf of Mexico. On January 10, 1861, the Federal garrisons surrendered.

The new Confederate government realized the vital importance of protecting the South’s largest city and busiest port. The South provided three-quarters of the world’s cotton, and 20 percent of Great Britain’s population depended on the textile industry for its livelihood. Confederate President Jefferson Davis hoped this economic relationship might bring Great Britain into the war on the Southern side. Defending New Orleans was essential to that equation.

An inspection of the Mississippi River forts by General P.G.T. Beauregard in March 1862 at the request of the Military Board of Louisiana found that both needed strengthening. Beauregard reported that “even when in proper condition for defense, they could not prevent the passage of one or more steamers during a dark or stormy night, except with the assistance of a properly constructed raft, or a strong wire-rope, across the river, between the two forts.”

In the North, the Board of Strategy, a committee appointed by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in 1861, named New Orleans as the primary target for invasion, but the large forces needed for this task did not yet exist. Welles and his assistant secretary, Gustavus V. Fox, realized—as the British had some 48 years earlier—that New Orleans was the key to a successful invasion of the South, and that meant capturing the forts at the Head of the Passes.

To direct the Confederate defense of New Orleans, Davis assigned Maj. Gen. David Twiggs—who earlier in 1861, as a Federal general, had surrendered all Union forces in Texas. But age and ill health quickly compelled Twiggs to retire, and the Confederate War Department recommended Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell as his replacement. Contemporaries described Lovell as “a brilliant, energetic, and accomplished officer.” Born the son of Army Surgeon General Joseph Lovell in 1822, Lovell became an orphan at the age of 14 and lived for two years with a relative until he secured an appointment to West Point. After he graduated ninth in his class of 1842, the Army assigned him to the 4th Artillery Division. Lovell served in the Mexican War and was wounded at Belén Gate in the conquest of Mexico City. Commanding general Zachary Taylor promoted him to captain for his gallantry in the Battle of Chapultepec, and Lovell held that rank until he retired from the Army in 1854. He was working as a deputy street commissioner in New York City at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Upon assuming command of “Department No. 1,” Lovell requisitioned heavy guns from Richmond, Va., and Pensacola, Fla. He noted, “Twelve 42- pounders were sent to Forts Jackson and St. Philip, together with a large additional quantity of powder.” To ensure the effective use of the forts’ defenses, Lovell suggested to Confederate administrators a transplanted Northerner and West Point graduate—Johnson Kelly Duncan.

Born in 1827 in York, Pa., Duncan graduated from West Point in 1849. He served on the frontier and in Florida, but retired from the Army in 1855 to accept a position as a civil engineer in New Orleans. He later worked for the state of Louisiana. When hostilities broke out, Duncan offered his services to the Confederacy.

Davis commissioned Duncan a colonel in the artillery, assigning him to assess the strategic value of Ship Island, near Biloxi, Miss. Duncan recommended evacuation of all Confederate forces from the island, as it held no military importance. Based upon his work and Lovell’s confidence in the young engineer, Davis promoted Duncan to brigadier general and put him in direct command of the defensive operations at the passes, with Fort Jackson as his headquarters.

Aware that Forts Jackson and St. Philip stood as formidable obstacles, Welles knew he needed a strong commander to attack them. On January 9, 1862, Welles appointed Farragut as commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. On January 15, Farragut left Washington and made his way to Philadelphia to meet with his second in command: his foster brother, Flag Officer David D. Porter. They waited for more of their mortar flotilla to arrive, and as soon as the fleet assembled, they sailed to the Gulf of Mexico.

After his arrival at Ship Island, Farragut received intelligence about  the layout and munitions of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Between them they possessed 126 heavy guns. Farragut was worried about the water level of the river: A rise and fall of 5 feet could hamper the drafts of the larger vessels in their journey upriver during the rainy season. By early February 1862, Farragut was waiting for the rest of the assault force to arrive before attacking.

Duncan and his staff arrived at Fort Jackson on March 27. According to one of Duncan’s adjutants, Captain William J. Seymour, water seeped into the fort at an alarming rate, and the garrison had to work in dreadful conditions where the outbreak of disease seemed likely. Cannons sank into the ground near the fort, making it extremely difficult for the crews to move the pieces around. Despite those problems, Duncan oversaw placement of the heavy guns: 74 at Fort Jackson and 52 at Fort St. Philip. The garrison at St. Philip occupied a more vulnerable position, since the area just to the rear of the fort, known as “the quarantine,” exposed them to an attack from behind. Tiny bayou outlets became potential avenues to outflank the fort.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1861, artillery regiments served in both forts. The 1st Battery, known as “St. Mary’s Cannoneers,” mustered into service at Franklin, La., on October 7, 1861. The Cannoneers, commanded by Captain F.O. Carnay, later proved their resilience in combat and their unwavering loyalty in times of extreme distress. With a complement of 875 men, a contingent of the 6th Louisiana Battalion, “Lovell’s Regiment,” entered the forts right before Farragut’s assault, joining the 838 men already stationed in them. Duncan divided this force equally between the two defenses.

Duncan’s knowledge of the naval forces on the river boosted his confidence in the garrison’s ability to resist a Union attack. The Confederate river fleet consisted of General Quitman, Governor Moore, McRae, the ironclad Louisiana and the steam ram Manassas. Duncan stressed that Louisiana needed to play an important part in the defense. Louisiana’s outer shell was already completed, but its engines needed maintenance. Duncan hoped to use the ironclad as a floating battery if its engines could not be ready in time. Commodore William C. Whittle, commander of the naval forces on the Mississippi River, placed Captain John N. Mitchell in charge of the Confederate gunboats. Although Mitchell had a reputation as a competent naval commander, he occasionally seemed hesitant when it came to making crucial decisions.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory agreed with Duncan’s assessment that the superiority of the Union ships could be neutralized with the use of “ironclads that could drive away the wooden blockading vessels.” Mallory foresaw the importance of the ironclad, especially when the stranglehold of the Union Navy began to tighten around southern ports, stating, “Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, [and] prevent all blockades.”

On March 28, 1862, a Union reconnaissance party had observed a large chain boom stretching from one side of the river to the other. The party also discovered huge rafts that had been soaked with turpentine. Upon hearing that report, Union commanders surmised that Confederate defenders would use the rafts to light the river to hamper a night attack, or perhaps let the current take them downriver to ignite the wooden warships. Behind this barricade rested a diverse group of both Confederate and state gunboats. In addition, the defenses included schooners with draglines designed to become entangled in the propeller wheels of Union ships. Theoretically, this tactic should have been effective, but in practice it failed. Duncan also enlisted sharpshooters to hide in the “point of woods,” a swampy area just south of Fort Jackson, where they attempted to shoot commanders on the decks of the Union ships—a tactic that enraged the Federals.

On April 13 and 14, Federal gunboats approached the forts. Captain Seymour reported: “[The Union commander] brought up several of his gunboats and passed most of the day pouring a furious storm of canister and spherical case into the woods to dislodge them [the sharpshooters]. This he finally succeeded in doing.” Duncan dispatched the sharpshooters to New Orleans, seeing no further tactical use for them.

At 7:30 a.m. on the 16th, Confederate gunners inside Fort Jackson opened fire. Their shells fell short, 2l⁄2 miles away from the Federal gunboats probing the fort’s defenses. When rounds began falling closer to the gunboats during 1l⁄2 hours of incessant shelling, the Federals withdrew to safety beyond the point of woods.

During that day’s exchange, the commanders at Fort Jackson discovered their gunpowder was too weak for their shells to reach the Union vessels on the river. Later that night, Duncan reported, “The enemy triangulated points below and put up signal flags, preparatory to placing mortar boats.” Duncan launched several patrols after the discovery of the markers to remove them, but as soon as Confederate troops tore the flags down, they were replaced.

On the morning of April 17, one of the fire rafts floated downriver toward the Union fleet and caused a great disturbance. Duncan gave standing orders to Captain Mitchell to send the fire rafts down the river at night, lighting the river to ensure that the Union fleet could not sneak past the forts. The rafts proved more hazardous than beneficial to the Confederates. Most of the rafts wound up near the forts and nowhere near the Union ships, which meant the defenders had to spend time putting out fires rather than fighting.

The next morning, Good Friday, the Union mortar flotilla, totaling 21 vessels along with several gunboats, opened a 10- hour bombardment on Fort Jackson. Union gunboats fired 2,997 mortar shells. The defenders’ shots continued to fall short of their targets.

At 6 a.m. on the 19th, the Union mortar boats moved farther into the open as more of them passed the point of woods. Confederates gunners kept the mortar boats at bay and continually drove them back to the passes. But by the end of the day, several Confederate artillery pieces within Fort Jackson lay mangled and unusable.

A torrential rain fell on April 20, raising Confederate hopes of a respite in what had become daily bombardments. The Federals seized the opportunity, however, and that night a Union gunboat dragged the anchored schooners from their positions on the river. Many of the schooners became disengaged, but as the gunboat retreated the fire intensified. Captain Seymour wrote, “the bombardment was unusually heavy; the enemy using time fuses and bursting the shells above the Fort.” Union fire continued into the night, shattering some of the wooden structures within Fort Jackson.

During a brief lull in the shelling, the men inside the fort rejoiced to hear that Louisiana had arrived nearby during the night. Whittle had finally granted Duncan’s request to send the ironclad into the fray, releasing it to the charge of Captain Mitchell.

Even under the direst of circumstances, Duncan apparently maintained his composure. He calmly wrote to Mitchell, “I must trouble you to send down a raft to make light on the Fort St. Philip side a short distance below the raft, and also let a second drift down with the current.” The two commanders had met in person on the 19th, when Mitchell made his position clear: Under no circumstances should Louisiana be positioned underneath the forts, nor should it participate in any aggressive action toward the enemy. Duncan still insisted that Louisiana could only be effectively used as a floating battery.

Around noon on April 23, the Union guns slowed their fire. Before sundown Duncan wrote a dispatch to Mitchell, saying: “The enemy has sent up a small boat and planted a series of white flags on the Fort St. Philip side, commencing about 350 yards above the lone tree. It is the probable position of his ships in the new line of attack which in my opinion he contemplates.”

Farragut raised the red lantern on his flagship, Hartford, at approximately 2 a.m. on April 24. This was as the signal to the fleet to move past the forts. The gunboat Cayuga took the lead, using the lights from the forts as a guide while the ships advanced upriver in two columns. As the Union fleet made its way through the broken barriers, guns from both forts opened fire, creating a smoky haze above the river’s surface that made aiming difficult for both Union and Confederate gunners. Cayuga received most of the fire and withdrew, with Hartford taking its place in the column. Seeing the fleet staging in preparation for the attack, Duncan made a final appeal to Mitchell to bring up Louisiana, but to no avail. The Confederate vessel McRae and the steam ram Manassas remained in position above Fort Jackson.

Confederate gunners resorted to watching the enemy’s gun flashes to target the boats in the dense smoke. Manassas steamed downriver and appeared before the Union ships broke for the city. Engaging the Union vessel Mississippi, Manassas turned to get away from its larger Union adversary, but ran aground and was blasted by two heavy broadsides.

The whole skirmish took less than 2l⁄2 hours. Thirteen of the 23 Union vessels passed the forts, while Porter’s mortar flotilla remained behind to secure their expected surrender. Duncan attributed the enemy’s success in getting past the forts to the darkness and the abundance of smoke on the river.

A few hours after the Union vessels passed by, Porter, under a flag of truce, approached Fort Jackson and verbally demanded the surrender of the Confederate garrisons. If Duncan rejected the demand, Porter threatened, the Union bombardment would recommence at midnight. He made good on his word when Duncan refused to capitulate.

On April 25, Duncan requested permission from Porter for McRae to take the wounded from both forts to New Orleans for medical attention. Porter agreed, and the next day a Union gunboat under a white flag dropped down from above Fort St. Philip to escort McRae to New Orleans with the wounded aboard. Mitchell reported from St. Philip that officials in New Orleans were negotiating for the surrender of the city. Duncan balked at the rumor and vowed to maintain the defense of the forts at any cost.

That same day, Duncan observed a large frigate nestled behind Fort St. Philip with several small boats in tow. Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler had landed at the quarantine in the fort’s rear. Porter again demanded the surrender of the forts on April 27, and Duncan once more refused, still not believing that the rumors of the surrender of New Orleans were true.

Hoping to raise morale, Duncan composed a note of encouragement to the garrison’s men, commending their bravery and resolve. Considering what the men had already gone through and the rumors about New Orleans, Duncan did not know whether his troops could hold out much longer. He hoped stressing that they were protecting their homes, families and the Confederate cause would persuade the men to keep fighting. Despite his efforts, Duncan noticed that the defenders were increasingly frustrated and weary.

On April 28, their frustration exploded into a mass mutiny. The mutineers at Fort Jackson apparently planned the insurrection for more than two days before they finally acted, during which time they signaled the soldiers at Fort St. Philip, in hopes of swelling their ranks. Fort Jackson men then turned the heavy guns away from their positions, seized the guards, spiked the remaining guns and left the fort with their weapons. Half the garrison walked out, leaving behind the St. Mary’s Cannoneers, who would stay at their posts throughout the entire siege. Duncan credited Father Francis Nachon, chaplain of the forts, for calming the dissension sufficiently to prevent bloodshed.

With his force reduced to half its original strength, Duncan called a counsel of the coastal defense officers to discuss the inevitable. He then treated with Porter for the surrender of the garrisons at both forts.

Later on the 28th, Porter sailed up to Fort Jackson on Harriet Lane. “While negotiations were pending on the Harriet Lane,” Duncan wrote, “it was reported that the steamer Louisiana, with her guns protruding, and on fire, was drifting down the river towards the fleet.” As the wreck drifted on, hugging the Fort St. Philip shore, its guns fired at random and the ironclad finally blew up. Pieces of the vessel flew through the air, killing one Union crewman on the shore and wounding several Confederates.

The next day, Duncan, officers and wounded from both forts made their way upriver to New Orleans. Believing that they had performed their duty to the best of their ability, the men felt no culpability in the fall of the forts. Farragut entered the city close behind them.

When the smoke cleared near the passes, the dilapidated hulks of Louisiana, General Quitman, Manassas and Governor Moore littered the river. Giant shell holes in the forts’ ramparts also revealed the destruction wrought by the Union fleet. During the attack levees had broken, flooding the forts. At Fort Jackson nine men lay dead and 33 wounded. Two men were killed and four wounded at Fort St. Philip. The Federals suffered 37 killed and 147 wounded.

When it came time to assign blame, Lovell cited the river defense fleet. “Unable to govern themselves, and unwilling to be governed by others, their almost total want of system, vigilance, and discipline rendered them nearly useless and helpless when the enemy finally dashed upon them suddenly on a dark night,” Lovell wrote. “I regret very much that the [War] Department did not think it advisable to grant my request to place some competent-head in charge of these steamers.” Throughout the South, however, the loss of New Orleans was blamed on Lovell. Although a board of inquiry cleared Lovell of any gross incompetence, it cited him for his failure to communicate effectively with the Confederate War Department. The War Department’s removal of troops from the city as well as the Navy’s failure to effectively coordinate the defenses with the Army also contributed to the catastrophe.

When Duncan finally made it to New Orleans on May 2, 1862, the people welcomed him as a hero. He was a Union prisoner, but was later paroled. Confederate authorities gave him command of Leonidas Polk’s Reserve Division, with which he served during the invasion of Kentucky in the latter part of 1862. In November of that year, Braxton Bragg appointed Duncan to his staff.

A Confederate naval board convened on September 2, 1862, to review Mitchell’s conduct during the siege. Surprisingly, the board found that Mitchell had upheld the highest standards of service and performed his duty to the best of his ability.

From a strategic standpoint, the battle at the passes and its aftermath proved devastating for the Confederacy. As Navy Secretary Welles put it, “Thus the great southern depot of the trade of the immense central valley of the Union was once more opened to commercial intercourse and the emporium of that wealthy region was restored to national authority; the mouth of the Mississippi was under our control and an outlet for the great West to the ocean was secured.”


Alan G. Gauthreaux writes from Jefferson, La. For additional reading, see The Capture of New Orleans, 1862, by Chester G. Hearn.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.