By Larry Lowenthal
New Orleans was vital to the South but presented a striking anomaly, a great city in a nation that defined itself by agrarian values. With an 1860 population of over 168,000, it was more than twice the size of the next two southern cities, Charleston and Richmond, combined; and this population included an astonishing diversity of foreigners and more free blacks than was typical. Its sophisticated international commerce and banking and its lively polyglot culture set it apart from the rest of the Confederacy. Perhaps because of these differences, Confederate officials may not have fully appreciated the city’s importance; or they may have convinced themselves that it was sufficiently protected. For its defense New Orleans relied primarily on two forts, Jackson and St. Philip, located on a bend of the Mississippi some 75 river miles below the city. These had comprised part of the federal coastal defense establishment, which in practice meant harbor defense; that they were far from both the sea and the city they were protecting was due to the peculiar geography of the region.
These forts formed part of what students of the subject term the Third, or Permanent, System of coastal defense—permanent because they were built of masonry and because it was expected that they would perform their function indefinitely. Beyond the interest they generate as imposing physical structures, they express fundamental American attitudes toward military matters in the 19th Century—the need to protect a lightly populated but vast extent of coastline, distrust of a large standing army (since in wartime the forts could be garrisoned with militia), and a reliance on technological solutions. The fact that coastal defense was one of the few continuing sources of federal construction contracts, spread over many districts, cannot be overlooked as a reason for their appeal. Fort St. Philip, originally built by the Spanish, was taken over and upgraded by Americans in 1808, in time to hold off a British attack in 1815. Army engineers considered that it was inadequate as a sole defense and constructed Fort Jackson on the opposite side of the river between 1824 and 1832. A typical product of the Third System, it had five corner bastions (giving it a shape that was often referred to as a “star fort”); and its brick walls were 25 feet high and 20 feet thick. Louisiana militia, on orders of pro-secessionist Governor Thomas Overton Moore, walked in and occupied the two forts without resistance in January 1861, even before the state voted to leave the Union. [Kaufmann 225-26] There was nothing secret about the construction of the forts, since numerous army engineers who remained loyal had circulated through them. In January 1862, during the planning for the attack on New Orleans, Brig.-Gen. John G. Barnard, then Chief Engineer in the Army of the Potomac, submitted a detailed description of the two forts, which he knew from personal experience. [OR: Ser. I, v. XV, 413-420]
Despite the reliance they placed on them, the Confederates had been haphazard in providing for the forts. They had increased the armament, but many of the guns were worn smoothbores and too light, limiting their effectiveness in firing at a modern fleet. There is a surprising diversity of figures for the armament at the forts, and it is beyond the range of this history to reconcile the various numbers. Probably there was something on the order of 70 guns of assorted types at Fort Jackson, including what was called a “water battery,” which was an emplacement directly on the water that could fire at the same elevation as the enemy ships. In theory armament was determined by the specialized functions of the various classes of guns, but in a practical sense it was dictated by whatever the Confederates could lay their hands on.
The condition of the garrison looked even more unpromising. Most were militiamen, and when ordered to move to Fort Jackson, many mutinied and had to be prodded onto transports at bayonet point. It was said that many were foreigners and Northern men or Union sympathizers. [Winters 84, 86] This ominous situation had been brought about partly by mismanagement, but it provided an early hint of the inadequacy of Southern manpower, transportation, and economic resources to conduct a war against a rising industrial power. The most strongly motivated troops, with the best training and equipment, had been sent out of Louisiana to fight in other theaters. They often performed splendidly, but they left a void at home. If the men who resisted being dispatched to Fort Jackson had been devoted to the Confederacy, they would not have been lingering at home to feel the sharp end of a bayonet on their backside. In addition to these deficiencies, the defense was hindered by divided counsel, as officials such as Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory professed to believe that the threat to New Orleans was at least as great from upstream as below; and the various Confederate naval forces did not coordinate well with the army or with one another.
Cmdr. Porter had persuaded Farragut that he could reduce the forts with the fleet of 20 mortar ships he had assembled. (Mortars were tubby guns that could fire shells on a high trajectory to explode over the fort, destroying armament and garrison.) Farragut appeared skeptical, but the plan had the support of McClellan and others, so he had little choice but to try.
Preparations completed, Porter launched his bombardment April 18, 1862, dispatching 1400 13-inch (diameter) projectiles, each weighing over 200 pounds, against Fort Jackson. Many missed their target or failed to explode, but observers could see fires from wooden buildings set ablaze inside the fort. Nevertheless, Porter had promised to compel surrender in 48 hours, but after four days there was no sign that the forts were ready to submit.
Increasingly impatient, Farragut determined to make the dash past the forts that he had always intended. He sent a detachment to break a chain and remove other obstructions the Confederates had placed in the river, never with as much success as they had hoped. After midnight on April 24, Farragut began his epic run. Inside the forts, the men, a motley aggregation to begin with, had endured “almost unbearable” living conditions due to high ground water, yet more than four days of intense bombardment had not broken their will to resist. [Dufour, 203] Forts Jackson and St. Philip had been located on opposite sides of the curving river so as to produce overlapping fire. Both fired furiously, a terrible gauntlet for Farragut’s wooden ships to run, but the confusion of smoke and flame nullified much of the advantage of the forts’ placement and the ranges its gunners had developed. Most of Farragut’s fleet broke through, leaving the forts grumbling behind. Porter’s mortar fleet, with ammunition in short supply, did not attempt the passage, remaining below the forts under protection of some of Farragut’s ships.
The 31st Mass. were reluctant spectators for much of this action, partly because plans had never been fully coordinated with the Navy. At the earlier combined actions at Hatteras and Port Royal, their engagement had been nearly simultaneous, but at New Orleans, where Porter and Farragut had promised to compel the surrender of the forts with naval power, Butler’s role remained ambiguous. Two regiments, the 26th and 31st Mass., plus an artillery battery, spent the night of April 15-16 on the Mississippi. Late on the night of the 16th the ship weighed anchor, towing the sailing ship North America loaded with more of Butler’s troops, the 30th Mass. and 9th Conn. They passed over the bar into the main channel of the Mississippi on the 17th and after anchoring overnight proceeded up the river to within ten or 15 miles of Fort Jackson. [Shaftoe diary; Wheeler diary; Knight diary; Nichols diary. Nichols and Shaftoe are clear in confirming that they did not move upriver until the 18th.] From there, Butler sent word to Secretary Stanton that he was “ready to cooperate with the fleet, who move today, or so I believe, upon the Forts.” [Apr. 17, 1862; Marshall, I:414]
Afloat on the turgid river but safely out of range of enemy guns, the regiment witnessed a spectacular display as Porter’s mortars went into action: “No rockets could ever equal the brilliancy of the shells with their lighted fuse as the air was filled with them. Never, No Never will one of us aboard of the ship ever forget that sight.” [Shaftoe diary, Apr. 23, 1862] One night the humid sky was luridly illuminated by fire rafts the Confederates sent down the current, hoping to ignite enemy vessels, but Union sailors grappled them aside with little damage. Despite the unforgettable free show, discontent smoldered among the troops of the 31st. In addition to worry about the unfolding battle, they were overcrowded, sweltering, unable to sleep, and the food was wretched. “We lie here like dead heads and the men are getting discouraged, for we have hardly room to breathe, let alone to move.” [Shaftoe diary, Apr. 21, 1862] Subsistence was described in dismal terms: “All we have to eat now is a cup of coffee in the morning, and at night, and a piece of rotten magotty [sic] bacon and perhaps a rotten potatoe [sic] or two, and what sea bread we want.” [Underwood diary, Apr. 21, 1862] Shaftoe reported that the men were “ragged and dirty” and half had dysentery. [Shaftoe diary, Apr. 25, 27, 1862]
The erratic movements of the troopships seemed puzzling and may have reflected higher-level indecision. On April 21, the Mississippi retreated downstream, only to return on the following day, when it anchored even closer to the forts. [Shaftoe diary] Butler’s location suggests that he still expected that the forts would fall to naval action alone. If they had to be taken by land assault, it would be foolhardy to begin from the river directly under their guns. Once it was learned that Farragut had passed the forts but that they were still resisting, Butler went ahead with a contingency plan the two had formed before the battle and dropped back down the river on the 24th. The idea was to come in behind the forts and join Farragut at Quarantine Station, a few miles up the river, thereby cutting them off. Butler confirmed this arrangement by sending a trusted aide, Capt. C. H. Conant of the 31st Mass., whom he described as “having made a reconnaissance in the rear of St. Philip night before last” and added “He may be most implicitly relied upon and trusted.” [Butler to Farragut, Apr. 24, 1862; Marshall, I:420] Porter was consulted on this proposition and agreed; with ammunition short and fearing the rebel warships remaining near the forts, especially the ironclad ram Louisiana, he had little choice but to stay out of range. Butler then issued orders to his various troopships. His seeming retreat in the face of the enemy had initially disheartened some of the men, but by evening of the 25th,they understood that the retrograde movement had been made so that he could go back into the Gulf and approach Fort St. Philip from the rear.
Delayed for a day when his Navy escort, the Miami, grounded, Butler came into position on the 26th and placed the 26th Mass., which he had previously praised as “one of the very best regiments that ever left Massachusetts” aboard the Miami. [Butler to General-in-Chief, Nov. 18, 1861; Marshall, I: 282]. The Miami was probably the same ship the Mississippi had encountered in distress off Virginia and towed into Fortress Monroe. [Marshall, I:348] This ship, which drew only 7 ½ feet of water, came aground six miles from the fort. The advance force, which included a Massachusetts battery and portions of the 4th Wisconsin and 21st Indiana — regiments McClellan had transferred — rowed four and a half miles until the water became too shallow even for rowboats. Butler described this as “a fatiguing and laborious row,” but the exertion was exceeded in the final mile and a half, when the men, in water up to their waists, dragged the boats against a strong current. [Butler to Secy. Stanton, Apr. 29, 1862; Marshall, I:424] That this maneuver was possible at all was due in considerable measure to Lt. Weitzel, who was in the early stages of his rapid ascent to a brilliant military career. Like most army engineers, he had been assigned to coastal fortifications, and it so happened that he had spent considerable time at the forts that defended New Orleans. While hunting waterfowl, he learned his way around the intricate web of swampy channels in the vicinity.
With the advance elements on terrain that passed for land, the 31st Mass. transferred to the steamer Lewis on April 28, expecting to follow. This was the vessel whose smokestacks had been knocked over by the rampant Mississippi. Shaftoe described the Lewis with restrained affection as “an old rickety thing carrying one gun, made more like a flat boat.” [Diary, Apr. 28, 1862] Nevertheless, he professed to feeling good, as they were finally going ashore with the prospect of some action. At this point, whether he realized it or not, it would seem that Butler was in a precarious position. He had only one regiment of infantry and parts of two others on land, the 31st Mass. had not disembarked, and other regiments were scattered on transports. Based on the experience of the 26th Mass., it would take a long time for other troops to wade into position, and then there would be the problem of supplying them through the treacherous waterways. The general had every intention of assaulting the forts, but whether he had sufficient strength or what he would do if the first attack was repulsed was uncertain.
In the event, these critical questions never had to be answered. During the night of the 27th, the garrison at Fort Jackson mutinied and spiked their guns. As Butler summarized, “they said they had been impressed and would fight no longer.” [to Secy. Stanton, Apr. 29, 1862; Marshall, I:424] Fort St. Philip did not immediately participate, but with the command disintegrating, resistance was impossible. The men in the forts, reluctant warriors from the outset, heard rumors that Farragut’s warships were before New Orleans and that their escape routes were blocked by Butler’s soldiers and by ships that Porter had moved to the rear of Fort Jackson. They were well aware that the forts had been designed to resist naval bombardment, not an attack by land, and they probably did not know — or care — how few men or guns Butler had at his immediate disposal. The commander of the forts, Gen. Johnson K. Duncan, had been determined to fight and had rejected Porter’s initial demand to surrender, but now had no choice. Porter negotiated and accepted the surrender without reference to the Army or Butler, who at the moment was probably upstream on Farragut’s flagship. This action was fully in character for Porter, a notorious glory-seeker, and offended Butler, who had his own ravenous thirst for fame. The incident provoked hostility that lasted for the rest of their lives. Years later in his autobiography, Butler still fumed over “how untruthfully and villainously Capt. David D. Porter behaved through this whole transaction of the capture and surrender of the forts . . . .” [Butler’s Book, 371]
When Butler learned that Farragut had made it past the forts, he sent a message of effusive praise: “Allow me to congratulate you and your command upon the bold, daring, brilliant and successful passage of the Forts of your fleet this morning. A more gallant exploit it has never fallen to the lot of man to witness.” [Apr. 24, 1862; Marshall, I:420] He took a different tone in writing to his wife two days later, by which time he knew that Farragut had continued upriver to New Orleans. This he deemed “wholly an unmilitary proceeding on his part, to run off and leave forts behind him unreduced, but such is the race for the glory of capturing New Orleans between him and Commodore Foote that thus we go.” [Apr. 26, 1862; Marshall, I:422. Foote commanded the naval forces far upriver.] This was an uncharitable statement but not unjustified, and it probably represented the last time Butler and Porter agreed on anything for the remainder of their careers. According to the plan they had developed, Butler expected Farragut to be waiting at Quarantine so that they could reduce the troublesome forts by joint effort. In dashing up to New Orleans, the flag officer left behind forts with most of their armament intact, as well as several potentially dangerous Confederate warships. If six days of naval bombardment had failed to persuade the forts to submit, there was little likelihood that Porter’s greatly reduced force could accomplish the task. That left it up to Butler’s infantry, supported only by a few field guns. Whatever else the Fort Jackson mutineers accomplished, they preserved several military reputations.
Meanwhile, Farragut had got himself into a bind at New Orleans. His guns overawed the city, already staggered by the sudden and unexpected defeat, but he lacked the strength to compel its surrender. The few Confederate forces in the vicinity had departed northward, leaving no military authority to surrender, and the mayor found ways to procrastinate on the matter. As civil government broke down, the city fell into the hands of a mob of ruffians who screamed curses and threats against the federal naval officers. Displaying extraordinary courage, the officers passed through the rabble to the mayor’s office. One rowdy tore down a federal flag that Farragut’s men had raised over the mint and distributed torn pieces to participants in the mob. Running out of patience, Farragut sent a detachment of marines to seize several vital buildings, but he did not have the manpower to occupy the city; the more men he sent into the city, the fewer he would have to man the guns if it became necessary. What Farragut would have done if the forts had delayed Butler for several days is unclear, but with resistance ended he asked Butler to bring his troops up promptly.
Instead of having to attack a fortified position, the 31st Mass. returned to the Mississippi and sailed up the liberated waterway as conquerors. At sunrise on April 30, on the ship Mississippi once again, they reached the forts that had been their goal, but which they had never seen. It had been a day of celebration, with bands playing patriotic music and flags waving, but actually seeing the forts was a sobering experience: “It is a mystery to us all how under Heavens our Gun Boats ever got by those forts,” wrote one soldier. [Shaftoe diary, Apr. 30, 1862] After counting 36 guns in Fort St. Philip and many more in its partner, Frank Knight was forced to agree: “’Tis a wonder to me we ever took those Forts.” [Knight Diary, Apr. 30, 1862] The wonderment was shared to a more devastating degree by the stunned citizens of New Orleans, who in time fell back on conspiracy theories in the belief that only betrayal could explain how the forts had fallen. (“The idea prevails here among some classes that the General in command at Fort Jackson betrayed the cause for a large sum of money—they can’t see how it could have been taken any other way.” [Tupper letter, Mar. 7, 1863])
The awe and relief the men of the 31st felt when they saw the forts close-up was fully justified. During his bombardment, Porter’s ships had hurled 16,800 mortar shells at the forts, yet they were still capable of a stout defense. [Kaufmann, 247] When Weitzel inspected the forts a few days later, he found surprisingly little damage. Fort St. Philip, he said, “with one or two slight exceptions, is to-day without a scratch.” As to Fort Jackson, despite the spectacular fires in the wooden buildings, “it is as strong to-day as when the first shell was fired at it.” It could be that, as an engineer, Weitzel had a personal stake in showing the forts’ durability, but another officer affirmed that only four guns had been disabled and eleven carriages damaged at Fort Jackson during the mighty bombardment. [Kaufmann 249] By the end of the war, the massive forts of the Third System had been rendered as obsolete as medieval castles, to the immense dismay of a generation of engineers who had labored to make them not only invincible but esthetically pleasing; but in 1862 they were still formidable.
Now, after so many months of preparation, hardship, and danger, all that remained was a leisurely cruise up the great river in absolute safety. The slight rebel resistance above the forts had been brushed aside, and so much dependence had been placed on the forts that proposals to strengthen defenses closer to the city had never progressed. “All along the river on both sides are pleasant plantations with their niggers to work hoeing sugar cane, both men, women and children, the driver with his whip in his hand looking on.” [Shaftoe diary, May 1, 1862] Although on board the same ship, another soldier offered quite a different perception, perhaps reflecting a different political orientation: “The negroes seem overjoyed as we pass the plantations. They leave their work and swing their hats and hoods and shout “Hurrah for the Yankees.” . . . We went by some noble sugar plantations. A sugar house on each, and the negro quarters arranged so neat that there could be no fault found with them.” [Underwood diary, May 1, 1862] “Fields of sugar cane extending as far as the eye could reach, with the orange trees and the deep green of the tropical vegetation, was a scene ever to be remembered.” [Hawkes letters, May 1, 1862]
Sometime in the early afternoon of May 1 (various accounts differ as to the exact time), the Mississippi came up to the New Orleans wharf alongside Farragut’s triumphant warships. There they could see and smell the remains of the bonfires that had been ordered by Confederate authorities to destroy valuable commodities such as cotton, as well as items of military value. Because the 31st Mass. had not actually landed during the attack on the forts, it was complete and in order on the deck and was a logical choice to enter the city first. Having battled nothing more than the lice they had exchanged on the crowded vessel, the troops were supposedly in good condition, though they might have been a little unsteady on their feet. (Although they were supposed to be soldiers, not sailors, the men had spent 42 of the 70 days since leaving Boston on ships, primarily the Mississippi.)
Much of the accumulated misery of those days was forgotten as the men prepared to land. “This has been one of the proudest days of my life!” wrote one soldier. “Secession is at a discount.” [Hawkes letters, May 1, 1862] A sergeant in Co. I exulted “We shall all remember this day as long as we live.” [Nichols diary, May 1, 1862] In a major battle, the consequences are usually evident almost immediately. With the loss of New Orleans the Confederacy had received a probably mortal wound, but because the effects were largely economic and diplomatic, they took longer to be felt fully. Rather than cutting down a tree, it was more like girdling it so that it died slowly.