Farrugut Runs the Gauntlet!

April 24, 1862 (Thursday)

The Union fleet head towards the forts.

“You are assuming a fearful responsibility if you do not come at once to our assistance with the Louisiana and the fleet,” wrote Confederate General Johnson Duncan in the predawn, to Captain John K. Mitchell, commander of the Rebel navy at Forts Jackson and St. Philip.1 Duncan had spent much of the previous day trying to convince Mitchell to move the ironclad ship into a position to protect the fort should the Union fleet under Flag Officer David Farragut make a move to attack.

Through the darkness, Duncan could make out huge bulks moving towards the fort. The mortar boats, often slacking in fire through the night hours, began a barrage like no other. The Union attack had come.2 The CSS Louisianna, though unfinished and unable to move on her own power, was needed as a floating battery below the fort. Even Captain Mitchell’s superior in New Orleans had strongly suggested that it be moved, but again Mitchell declined. First, he cited the drunken state of troops on one of the tugboats which was to pull the ironclad, and then reiterated his old complaint that the Union fleet would just destroy the ship anyway, so why bother?3

Order of Battle

Mitchell had also been ordered to light fire barges, but failed to do even that. If used properly, they would not only illuminate the darkened Mississippi, allowing the Rebel gunners at the forts to better aim their pieces, but could also wreak havoc on the wooden vessels of the Union fleet.4

But there was no light. The first Union ship slipped through the broken chains and obstructions placed across the river by the Rebels, but recently opened by the Federals. The first went unnoticed, but as the second steamed through, the guns of both forts opened upon the fleet in a great tumult of iron and fire.5

The seventeen ships of the Union fleet under Flag Officer Farragut was sectioned into three divisions. As the first, consisting of eight vessels, made their way through the break in the boom, they pulled towards the Fort St. Philip side of the river, delivering broadside after broadside of grapeshot and canister into its walls. When the first division was clear of the boom, the second, personally commanded by Farragut, and made up of three larger crafts, made its way through, firing into Fort Jackson. To bring up the rear, the third division was to follow.6

Though the Louisiana was useless and unmoving in its original location above the forts, there were other Confederate gunboats on the scene, all above the ironclad. As the second division steamed towards Jackson, they descended upon the first ship of the first division, the USS Cayuga, which had already cleared St. Philip, much ahead of her sisters. Out of the watery darkness came three Rebel steamers with what appeared to be every attempt to board the Union Cayuga. With their 11-inch Dahlgren gun, they so damaged the first craft that it grounded itself and was set ablaze. The second was driven off in a similar manner, while a third seemed almost certain to board the ship.7

As the crew aboard the Cayuga prepared to repel the enemy in hand-to-hand battle, two Union ships came to her rescue, guns blazing, driving off the Rebels. “I had more rebel steamers engaging me than I could attend to without support, when Lee and Boggs came dashing up, delivering a refreshing fire,” reported the Captain of the Cayuga of those who saved him that morning. “The enemy were so thick that it was like duck shooting; what missed one rebel hit another. With their aid we cleared the kitchen.”8

The kitchen, however, wasn’t yet entirely cleared. The Confederate ram, CSS Manassas, had slipped through the maelstrom and attempted to butt the USS Brooklyn, of the second division. The Brooklyn’s sides, however, were well protected and the attempt failed. Seeing this, the USS Mississippi, a large paddle frigate, gave chase, but the Manassas, being smaller and faster turned the tables, swung around and rammed a nice hole in the side of the Union vessel. It did no damage, but the Mississippi backed off. After all, they were not here for a battle, but to steam past the forts as quickly as possible.9

CSS Manassas

The Manassas was all throughout the Union fleet that early morning. She nearly took out Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford by pushing a fire raft (which Mitchell finally found time to light) into her side. It was only through some quick thinking, and spare artillery ammunition, that the Hartford was saved. The flames from the raft were about to catch the ship on fire, when an officer dropped a few shells into the burning mass, exploding the raft and sending it to the bottom of the river.10

The CSS Louisiana, the feared ironclad, took only pot shots at the Union fleet as it passed by. According to General Duncan, who was incredibly unamused by her lack of service, the Louisiana fired only twelve shots during the whole of the battle.11

Having passed the forts, the bulk of the Federal ships could focus upon clearing their way through the Rebel fleet. This proved to be a fairly simple task. Only a few attempted any defense, and they were brushed aside with small skirmishes here and there. The Union fleet reassembled five miles north of the forts. Farragut discovered that he had lost four ships. The Varuna had been sunk by a Confederate ram, but the other three had turned back as the sun rose, making them too easy of targets for the Rebel forts.


He would anchor there for the rest of the day, before moving on New Orleans, sixty-miles upriver, the next morning. As for Forts Jackson and St. Philip, they were still very much under the control of the Confederates. General Duncan had no mind to surrender.

Farragut had suffered one ship lost, thirty-seven killed and 147 wounded. The Rebels faired worse, losing eight ships, some destroyed by their crews to avoid capture, with over seventy killed on the water and eleven killed in the forts.12



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p541. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p547. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p541. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p547. []
  5. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p754. []
  6. The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut, D. Appleton and Company, 1879. []
  7. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18 p171. []
  8. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18 p150. []
  9. The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour, University of Nebraska Press, 1960. I’ve turned to this book a lot for clarity, etc. []
  10. The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut, D. Appleton and Company, 1879. And The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour, University of Nebraska Press, 1960. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p528. []
  12. The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour, University of Nebraska Press, 1960. []
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  1. My sources occasionally contradict each other, which is not surprising given that darkness and large amounts of cannon fire tend to promote confusion. But the indication is that the fire raft which scorched Hartford was pushed by a tugboat rather than Manassas. Incidentally, Manassas was eventually set on fire, abandoned, and drifted downstream to the Mortar schooners where she blew up just as Commander Porter was thinking if she could be salvaged.

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