Forts Jackson and St. Philip Bombarded by Union Gunboats!

April 18, 1862 (Friday)

Lt. Porter

Flag Officer David Farragut, commanding the Union’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron, had made every arrangement to assail Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding the lower Mississippi and New Orleans.

Over the past week, Lt. David Porter had selected the best spots for his twenty-one mortar boats, and just after dawn, they were placed. Most hugged the bank of the river, but all had a clear view of their targets, over two miles distant.

Once placed, around 9am, they opened fire, splitting the air with iron. With terrible accuracy, the shells fell everywhere in and outside of Fort Jackson, the main target.1 Both forts, under the command of General Johnson Duncan, replied with as many guns as could be pointed at the Union fleet. At first, the Confederate fire was inaccurate, but as the bombardment grew, they found their range. With rapid fire from a multitude of guns, the Rebels quickly made it hot for the Union Navy, whose mortars fired only once every ten minutes.2

Map showing mortar boat positions (and other stuff).

Though not rapid, the Union mortars hit their mark. Before long, the Confederate living quarters inside and outside Fort Jackson caught fire and burned. The citadel inside the fort had been touched by flames, but, thus far in the fight, the Rebels had been able to control it.3

While they weren’t busy fighting the fires, the Confederate cannoneers were beginning to find their range. Lt. Porter sent to Farragut, asking him to divert the forts’ armaments with the gunboats. At least four gunboats came, adding their rifled artillery to the mix, expending their fuses by noon with rapid fire at closer range.

As the day echoed on, two mortar boats were hit by the guns of Fort Jackson. Though neither were sunk, they were both damaged near the waterline. Much to the protests of their crews, Porter moved them away from the galling Rebel fire.4

US Mortar Boat

The citadel inside Fort Jackson had again caught fire, but the conflagration was too terrific to be so quickly stifled. And so it burned out of control. General Duncan had urged the Confederate Navy to release “fire rafts,” which would, he hoped, float on the current towards the Union fleet, igniting one or more of the Federal vessels. This was a failure, as the Rebels released their fire rafts too early, and they were stopped short, coming aground in front of the forts.5

This was not a complete loss, however. Lt. Porter mistook the raging fire inside Fort Jackson to be yet another fire raft gone astray. As darkness fell, he ordered the mortars to cease for the day. Had he known that the flames near Fort Jackson were actually inside of Fort Jackson, he would have continued the shelling throughout the night. After learning the truth of the matter, Porter stated that this was the “only mistake that occurred during the bombardment.”6


Confederates Retreat in Northern Virginia

Things on the Peninsula had more or less ground to a halt, with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac digging in for a siege of Yorktown. Meanwhile, the Rebels effortlessly reinforced themselves, ready to defend the ground southeast of Richmond, between the York and James Rivers. Though the Confederates were pulling in as many men as possible, three other bodies of troops remained north of their capital.

The most remote was under General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, whose 3,000 troops were guarding the passes west of Staunton. General Richard Ewell, and his 8,000 men, were near Brandy Station. With a nominal command over both, General Stonewall Jackson’s 6,000 were at Mt. Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.

While Johnson remained out of regular contact with Jackson, Ewell had been ordered to march on the 17th to Swift Run Gap. The destination changed several times, winding up with Ewell heading towards Harrisonburg. As Ewell was moving south on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, Jackson was moving south on the western.

Map of troop positions around Virginia.

Having encamped at Mount Jackson for two weeks, it was becoming clear that the Union forces under General Nathaniel Banks were edging closer and closer. On the 15th and 16th, they had surprised Turner Ashby’s Rebel cavalry, driving them from the field. By the 17th, they were moving around Mt. Jackson to cut off the Confederate retreat.

Jackson picked up his army and moved them south towards New Market. He had hoped to make a stand there, but again the Federals were flanking him, so he continued south. By the night of this date, Jackson’s men encamped five miles south of Harrisonburg.7

Making matters north of Richmond more interesting was the appearance of the Union First Corps, under General Irvin McDowell, which had been withheld from McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in order to protect Washington. They had made forced marches from Washington to arrive across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg in the morning of this date.

They had wanted to seize the town, but, realizing that the Federals would soon arrive, a Confederate brigade from Ewell’s command, under General Charles W. Field, had fallen back across the river, burning all the bridges before moving out of town. For now, General McDowell’s movements were stopped with a wide river between the two sides.8

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p525. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p364. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p525. []
  4. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p364; 693. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p525. []
  6. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p364. []
  7. A combination of both Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, and Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p427-428; 434. []
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Forts Jackson and St. Philip Bombarded by Union Gunboats! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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