April 17, 1862 (Thursday)
When last we left General Benjamin Butler, he had been sent home to New England to recruit youthful Democrats into the army. Butler had noticed, upon returning to his northerly home, that the bulk of the privates in the army were Republicans. Fearing, as he later wrote, “a division of the North,” he went through New England, raising upwards of 5,000 men.
As he was raising the troops, Washington was plotting a way to control the Mississippi River. While General Halleck in Missouri was attacking down the river, to attack up the river, the city of New Orleans had to be taken.
Soon, it was decided that Butler’s men were to go to Ship Island, off the gulf coast, equidistant from both the Crescent City and Mobile, Alabama, the latter of which, Butler professed to be the target. By the end of February, after some politicking in Washington, Butler and his expeditionary force were on their way to the Gulf. 1
Once upon Ship Island, they set about readying themselves to take New Orleans. The city, however, could not be taken by land. First, the forts protecting it must be reduced by naval artillery. This is where the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under Flag Officer David Farragut came into play.
Farragut had arrived on Ship Island right before Butler, but was itching to assail New Orleans as quickly as possible. He spent late February and much of March waiting for Lieutenant David Dixon Porter, who was to bring along with him a flotilla of mortar boats. He prepared his fleet, working out a way to get the heavier gunboats over the bar into the Mississippi River. By mid-March, Porter and his mortars had arrived.
Meanwhile, New Orleans, seventy miles upriver, was in a panic. Commanded by General Mansfield Lovell, the Confederate force protecting the city had been depleted, losing over 5,000 men, sent to the defense of Fort Donelson. At first, Lovell had no idea that the United States Navy was involved in General Butler’s expedition. He had no fear of being attacked by Butler, as he believed a Republican administration would never entrust a Democrat to such an important task as taking New Orleans.
When Lovell’s men began to reinforce their comrades in Tennessee, many in the city accused him of sending troops away so that New Orleans would fall. By that time, he, and the rest of the population, were well aware of the presence of the Union Navy in the lower Mississippi River. At the time that Porter was arriving with his mortar boats, Lovell declared martial law, requiring all white males to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.
Much of Lovell’s naval force had also been ordered north. However, two ironclads, the CSS Louisiana and Mississippi, feared by the US Navy just as much as the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) was feared, were nearly finished and, if the Union held off their attack long enough, could be used to great effect. Though the Union Navy could not know this, the Louisiana, which was nearest to completion, had been ordered to be sent north, when ready, rather than south, towards the Union fleet gathering below New Orleans.
Before New Orleans could be reached, the Union fleet had to first neutralize Forts Jackson and St. Philip, under the command of General Johnson Duncan. When Duncan arrived at the forts in early March, he immediately began to improve them. Water was pumped out of the casemate on Jackson, while sandbags were used for both forts to lessen the damage that could be done by Union mortars.
As March ended and April began, the Union fleet under Farragut edged ever closer to the Rebel forts. By the second week of April, the USS Harriet Lane, Lt. Porter’s flag ship, had twice engaged the batteries of Fort Jackson. The expeditions provided Farragut with the ranges needed to fully bombard the fortifications. Other coast survey parties were also dispatched to bring back information on where Porter should place his twenty-one mortar boats.
On April 15, Porter moved three of these vessels into place and fired a few shots to get the range. Enjoying their work, they continued it while Farragut readied his fleet.
On this date, Lt. Porter was ordered to move his mortar boats into place. The vessels, most of which were to be placed near the banks of the river, were disguised with branches and leaves. While they could see both forts from their position, they could not so easily be detected from the forts, being camouflaged, small and far away.2
Louisiana’s Governor Thomas Moore was beginning to think that sending the CSS Louisiana north rather than south was an incredibly bad idea. So bad, in fact, that as Porter was aligning his mortars, Moore wired President Jefferson Davis in Richmond.
After telling the President that none of the forts’ guns would reach the Union guns that had already bombarded the fort, he argued that the ironclad was “absolutely a necessity at the forts for the safety of New Orleans, and that it is suicidal to send her elsewhere.”
Davis soon replied. “The wooden vessels are below; the iron gunboats are above,” reasoned the President, referring to the wooden vessels of Farragut’s fleet and the iron gunboats of Commodore Andrew Foote in Tennessee. “The forts should destroy the former if they attempt to ascend. The Louisiana may be indispensable to check the descent of the iron boats.”
Though Moore had told him that the forts’ guns could not reach the Union position, Davis seemed completely unaware of there being any danger at all from the growing Union fleet in the lower Mississippi. Davis would be proven unbelievably wrong in a few short hours.3