April 28, 1862 (Monday)
Half of his men had deserted. The guns had been spiked and many of the gunboats destroyed. Confederate General Johnson Duncan, commander of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, was a beaten man. Those soldiers who remained at the forts were completely demoralized. Before the Union fleet, under Flag Officer David Farragut, had run past the forts towards New Orleans, they had been subjected to days of days of fiery bombardments. Since the enemy fleet reached New Orleans, rumors of its fall spread through the garrison.
On the morning of this date, General Duncan called together his officers. He first met with Captain Mitchell, commander of the Confederate Navy near the forts. Mitchell, who now commanded only the feared, but never fully completed ironclad, CSS Louisiana, was indignant. He claimed that the Louisiana would possibly be ready to move on her own power later in the day. If the forts were surrendered, he and his crew would be without support. Disgruntled, Mitchell returned to his craft.
Next came the officers from Fort St. Philip. Though none of their men had revolted, it was pretty clear that the possibility was there. With the situation appearing grim, they agreed that there was nothing more to do but surrender. With that, Duncan sent word to Captain David Porter, Union commander of the mortar boat fleet just south of the forts.1
“Upon mature deliberation it has been decided to accept the terms of surrender of these forts under the conditions offered by you in your letter of the 26th instant, viz, that the officers and men shall be paroled, officers retiring with their side-arms. We have no control over the vessels afloat.”2
The control over the vessels afloat was, of course, Captain Mitchell’s. While Duncan and the officers from Fort St. Philip were deliberating, he met with his officers aboard the Louisiana. In his report, which differs greatly from Duncan’s, Mitchell claimed that the letter offering surrender had already been sent by the time he first met with Duncan. Furious over the offer, he and his officers decided that there was nothing else to do but destroy the Louisiana. She couldn’t be driven under her own power, but even is she could be made ready, the Federals controlled the river to the south and to the north. There was no escape.3
As Mitchell and his men were preparing their ship for the torch, Captain Porter received Duncan’s message and was steaming towards the fort in the USS Harriet Lane. The Federals sent a ship for Duncan and his officers (which did not include Mitchell). They gathered in the cabin of Porter’s flag ship to work out the details of the surrender. One of the points that Duncan made sure was clear from the beginning was that the naval ships weren’t to be included in the surrender. No ships, or anything of a naval nature were included in the official document.
As the articles of capitulation were put on paper and signed, an officer came below and told Porter that the Rebels had set the Louisiana on fire. Duncan and the other Rebel officers protested, telling Porter that they weren’t responsible for anything the naval officers were up to.
Soon, and not surprisingly, the fire burned through the tethers lashing her to the shore and she began to drift down river, towards the Union fleet. They prepared for the worst, as the Louisiana floated towards them, the heat of the flames touched off her sixteen guns, which had been mysteriously loaded. As the fully-engulfed craft moved closer, if also pushed towards Fort St. Philip, where it exploded in a massive fury, sending shreds of iron into the fort, killing one of the Confederates.
After the meeting adjourned, the flags of both forts were lowered and the United States flags raised aloft. The officers and men of the forts were taken to New Orleans over the next couple of days.
With the surrender in the books, Porter turned to the capture of Captain Mitchell, who was still near the landing where the Louisiana had, until recently, been docked. He and his crew were quickly arrested and offered only an unconditional surrender.4
Sixty miles north, in New Orleans, Flag Officer Farragut looked out over the city and saw the flag of the State of Louisiana still floating above City Hall. Farragut had ordered that the flags over not just City Hall, but the Mint and the Custom House be replaced with United States flags. In writing to the mayor, he threatened to unleash his artillery upon the city, focusing upon the levees, which would flood the streets, causing immeasurable damage. Farragut gave him forty-eight hours to either replace the flags or remove the women and children.
Once he received Farragut’s demand, he countered with a bit of logic: “If it is deemed necessary to remove the flag now floating from this building, or to raise United States flags on others, the power which threatens the destruction of our city is certainly capable of performing those acts.”
In a second letter, he went even further:
“Sir, you can not but know that there is no possible exit from this city for a population which still exceeds in number 140,000, and you must therefore be aware of the utter insanity of such a notification. Our women and children can not escape from your shells if it be your pleasure to murder them on a question of mere etiquette; but if they could, there are but few among them who would consent to desert their families and their homes and the graves of their relations in so awful a moment. They would bravely stand the sight of your shells rolling over the bones of those who were once dear to them, and would deem that they died not ingloriously by the side of the tombs erected by their piety to the memory of departed relatives.”
Farragut did not reply to either of the letters, allowing his threat to bombard the city within forty-eight hours stand on its own.5
He was also still waiting on General Benjamin Butler and his force of infantry. They had moved a few miles north of the forts and set up camp, but he had heard nothing of them since. Around 1pm, Butler arrived in New Orleans, his troops being left behind. He met with Farragut and even stayed the night.6
While they talked over the incidents that had occurred since the Federals unofficially captured New Orleans, Farragut told Butler about the man who tore down the United States flag that a few naval officers had run up over the Mint.
“I will make an example of that fellow by hanging him,” exclaimed Butler.
Farragut smiled and said, “You know, General, you will have to catch him before you can hang him.”
“I know that,” replied Butler, “but I will catch him, and then hang him.”7
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p532. Duncan’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p544. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p299. Mitchell’s Report. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p369-371. Porter’s Report. Also, the articles of capitulation can be found in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p544-545. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p232-235. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p697. [↩]
- Battles and Leaders, Vol. 2. p93. [↩]