April 24, 1862: Farragut Runs Past the New Orleans Forts

The largest city of the Confederacy, New Orleans also controlled all shipment from the Mississippi and into the Mississppi.  Even a cursory look at a map would indicate that New Orleans was a crucial city for the Confederacy and a crucial target for the Union.  In early 1862 the Union assembled a force to take this prize:  18,000 soldiers commanded by Major General Benjamin Butler, and a naval armada under Flag Captain David G. Farragut, 6o years old, but possessed of energy that few men in their twenties possess, and a veteran of over half a century of service in the Navy.

In Mid-March Farragut began moving his fleet into the mouth of the Mississippi.  The approach to New Orleans up the Mississippi was guarded by two Confederate forts:  Jackson on the west bank and Saint Philip on the east bank.    The Confederate defenses were aided on the river by three ironclads:  the CSS Manassas, the CSS Mississippi, and the CSS Louisiana, backed up by an improvised fleet of converted merchant vessels, gunboats and rams, none of which stood any chance against the might of the Union fleet.  If Farragut’s force was going to be stopped, it would have to be by the forts.

From April 18-April 23 the forts were bombarded by 26 mortar schooners under the command of Farragut’s foster brother Captain David Porter, with whom Farragut had an uneasy relationship.  Porter had used his influence in Washington to require Farragut to give him the chance to reduce the forts by bombardment.  Farragut was sceptical and he was right.  Although the bombardment was fierce, the forts remained in action.  On the 24th, Farragut successfully had his ships run past the forts, destroying the Confederate fleet in the process.  Almost defenseless New Orleans surrendered to the fleet after three days of negotiation on April 29.  Butler’s army took the forts bloodlessly on the 29th, aided by a mutiny of the Confederate troops at Fort Jackson.  The richest strategic prize of the War fell to the Union swiftly, and with amazingly few casualties.  Farragut was promoted to Rear Admiral for this feat, the first admiral in US history.  The Union took a large step to victory with the fall of the Crescent City.

Here is Farragut’s report dated May 6, 1862 to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, detailing the running of the forts on April 24, 1862, and the capture of New Orleans on April 29.

SIR : I have the honor herewith to forward my report, in detail, of the battle of New Orleans. On the 23d of April I made all my arrangements for the attack on, and passage of, Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

Every vessel was as well prepared as the ingenuity of her commander and officers could suggest, both for the preservation of life and of the vessel, and perhaps there is not on record such a display of ingenuity as has been evinced in this little squadron. The first was by the engineer of the “Richmond,” Mr. Moore, by suggesting that the sheet cables be stopped up and down on the sides in the line of the engines, which was immediately adopted by all the vessels. Then each commander made his own arrangements for stopping the shot from penetrating the boilers or machinery, that might come in forward or abaft, by hammocks, coal, bags of ashes, bags of sand, clothes-bags, and, in fact, every device imaginable. The bulwarks were lined with hammocks by some, with splinter nettings made of ropes by others. Some rubbed their vessels over with mud, to make their ships less visible, and some whitewashed their decks, to make things more visible by night during the fight, all of which you will find mentioned in the reports of the commanders. In the afternoon I visited each ship, in order to know positively that each commander understood my orders for the attack, and to see that all was in readiness. I had looked to their efficiency before. Every one appeared to understand his orders well, and looked forward to the conflict with firmness, but with anxiety, as it was to be in the night, or at two o’clock A. M.

I had previously sent Captain Bell, with the petard man, with Lieutenant Commanding Crosby, in the “Pinola,” and Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell, in the “Itasca,” to break the chain which crossed the river and was supported by eight hulks, which were strongly moored. This duty was not thoroughly performed, in consequence of the failure to ignite the petards with the galvanic battery, and the great strength of the current. Still it was a success, and, under the circumstances, a highly meritorious one.

The vessel boarded by Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell appears to have had her chains so secured that they could be cast loose, which was done by that officer, thereby making an opening sufficiently large for the ships to pass through. It was all done under a heavy fire and at a great hazard to the vessel, for the particulars of which I refer you to Captain Bell’s report. Upon the night preceding the attack, however, I dispatched Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell to make an examination, and to see that the passage was still clear, and to make me a signal to that effect, which he did at an early hour. The enemy commenced sending down fire-rafts and lighting their fires on the shore opposite the chain about the same time, which drew their fire on Lieutenant Commanding Caldwell, but without injury. At about five minutes of two o’clock A. M., April 24th, signal was made to get under way (two ordinary red lights, so as not to attract the attention of the enemy), but owing to the great difficulty in purchasing their anchors, the “Pensacola” and some of the other vessels were not under way until half-past three. The enemy’s lights, while they discovered us to them, were, at the same time, guides to us. We soon passed the barrier chains, the right column taking Fort St. Philip, and the left Fort Jackson. The fire became general, the smoke dense, and we had nothing to aim at but the flash of their guns; it was very difficult to distinguish friends from foes. Captain Porter had, by arrangement, moved up to a certain point on the Fort Jackson side with his gunboats, and I had assigned the same post to Captain Swartwout, in the “Portsmouth,” to engage the water batteries to the southward and eastward of Fort Jackson, while his mortar vessels poured a terrific fire of shells into it. I discovered a fire-raft coming down upon us, and in attempting to avoid it ran the ship on shore, and the ram “Manassas,” which I had not seen, lay on the opposite side of it, and pushed it down upon us. Our ship was soon on fire half-way up to her tops, but we backed off, and, through the good organization of our fire department, and the great exertions of Captain Wainwright and his first lieutenant, officers, and crew, the fire was extinguished. In the meantime our battery was never silent, but poured its missiles of death into Fort St. Philip, opposite to which we had got by this time, and it was silenced, with the exception of a gun now and then. By this time the enemy’s gunboats, some thirteen in number, besides two iron-clad rams, the “Manassas” and “Louisiana,” had become more visible. We took them in hand, and, in the course of a short time, destroyed eleven of them. We were now fairly past the forts, and the victory was ours, but still here and there a gunboat made resistance. Two of them had attacked the “Varuna,” which vessel, by her greater speed, was much in advance of us; they ran into her and caused her to sink, but not before she had destroyed her adversaries, and their wrecks now lie side by side, a monument to the gallantry of Captain Boggs, his officers, and crew. It was a kind of guerilla; they were fighting in all directions. Captains Bailey and Bell, who were in command of the first and second divisions of gunboats, were as active in rendering assistance in every direction as lay in their power. Just as the scene appeared to be closing, the ram “Manassas” was seen coming up under full speed to attack us. I directed Captain Smith, in the “Mississippi,” to turn and run her down; the order was instantly obeyed, by the “Mississippi” turning and going at her at full speed. Just as we expected to see the ram annihilated, when within fifty yards of each other, she put her helm hard aport, dodged the “Mississippi,” and ran ashore. The “Mississippi” poured two broadsides into her, and sent her drifting down the river a total wreck. Thus closed our morning’s fight.

The Department will perceive that after the organization and arrangements had been made, and we had fairly entered into the fight, the density of the smoke from guns and fire-rafts, and the scenes passing on board our own ship and around us (for it was as if the artillery of heaven were playing upon the earth), it was impossible for the Flag-Officer to see how each vessel was conducting itself, and can only judge by the final results and their special reports, which are herewith enclosed; but I feel that I can say with truth that it has rarely been the lot of a commander to be supported by officers of more indomitable courage or higher professional merit.

It now became me to look around for my little fleet, and to my regret I found that three were missing the “Itasca,” “Winona,” and “Kennebec.” Various were the speculations as to their fate, whether they had been sunk on the passage or had put back. I therefore determined immediately to send Captain Boggs, whose vessel was now sunk, through the Quarantine bayou, around to Commander Porter, telling him of our safe arrival, and to demand the surrender of the forts, and endeavor to get some tidings of the missing vessels. I also sent a dispatch by him to General Butler, informing him that the way was clear for him to land his forces through the Quarantine bayou, in accordance with previous arrangements, and that I should leave gunboats there to protect him against the enemy, who, I now perceived, had three or four gunboats left at the forts the “Louisiana,” an iron-clad battery of sixteen guns ; the “McCrea,”very similar in appearance to one of our gunboats, and armed very much in the same way; the “Defiance,” and a river steamer transport.

The levee of New Orleans was one scene of desolation. Ships, steamers, cotton, coal, etc., were all in one common blaze, and our ingenuity was much taxed to avoid the floating conflagration.

I neglected to mention my having good information respecting the iron-clad rams which they were building. I sent Captain Lee up to seize the principal one, the “Mississippi,” which was to be the terror of these seas, and no doubt would have been to a great extent; but she soon came floating by us all in flames, and passed down the river. Another was sunk immediately in front of the Custom-House; others were building in Algiers, just begun.

I next went above the city eight miles, to Carrollton, where I learned there were two other forts, but the panic had gone before me. I found the guns spiked, and the gun-carriages in flames. The first work, on the right, reaches from the Mississippi nearly over to Pontchartrain, and has twenty-nine guns; the one on the left had six guns, from which Commander Lee took some fifty barrels of powder, and completed the destruction of the gun-carriages, etc. A mile higher up there were two other earthworks, but not yet armed.

We discovered here, fastened to the right bank of the river, one of the most herculean labors I have ever seen a raft and chain to extend across the river to prevent Foote’s gunboats from descending. It is formed by placing three immense logs of not less than three or four feet in diameter and some thirty feet long ; to the center one a two-inch chain is attached, running lengthwise the raft, and the three logs and chain are then frapped together by chains from one half to one inch, three or four layers, and there are ninety-six of these lengths composing the raft; it is at least three quarters of a mile long.

On the evening of the 29th Captain Bailey arrived from below with the gratifying intelligence that the forts had surrendered to Commander Porter, and had delivered up all public property, and were being paroled, and that the navy had been made to surrender unconditionally, as they had conducted themselves with bad faith, burning and sinking their vessels while a flag of truce was flying and the forts negotiating for their surrender, and the “Louisiana,” their great iron-clad battery, blown up almost alongside of the vessel where they were negotiating ; hence their officers were not paroled, but sent home to be treated according to the judgment of the Government.

General Butler came up the same day, and arrangements were made for bringing up his troops.

I sent on shore and hoisted the American flag on the Custom-House, and hauled down the Louisiana State flag from the City Hall, as the Mayor had avowed that there was no man in New Orleans who dared to haul it down ; and my own convictions are that if such an individual could have been found he would have been assassinated.

Thus, sir, I have endeavored to give you an account of my attack upon New Orleans, from our first movement to the surrender of the city to General Butler, whose troops are now in full occupation, protected, however, by the “Pensacola,” “Portsmouth,” and one gunboat, while I have sent a force of seven vessels, under command of Captain Craven, up the river, to keep up the panic as far as possible. The large ships, I fear, will not be able to go higher than Baton Rouge, while I have sent the smaller vessels, under Commander Lee, as high as Vicksburg, in the rear of Jackson, to cut off their supplies from the West.

I trust, therefore, that it will be found by the Government that I have carried out my instructions to the letter and to the best of my abilities, so far as this city is concerned. All of which is respectfully submitted.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Flag-Officer, Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.



Published in: on April 24, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. Flag Captain David G. Farragut, 6o years old, but possessed of energy that few men in their twenties possess
    The stupidest of many modern stupid notions is obligatory pension for people in their sixties. It is especially stupid where people in charge are concerned. When Field-Marshal Joseph Radetzky (one of the few good generals that Habsburg Austria ever produced) fought through and won, against all odds, the Italian First War of Independence (1848-9), outfighting, outmarching and outlasting a vastly superior enemy and the whole revolted country, he was 78; and among his most effective enemies, as he himself recognized, was General Cesare Laugier de Bellecour, who was 75. When the two enemies finally shook hands at a state dinner in 1850, they could look back on memories going back for both to the Napoleonic campaigns. Real leaders may die, but they rarely grow too old to lead – just look at the current Pope.

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