April 23, 1862 (Wednesday)
Things were not going well for the Confederates at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding the mouth of the Mississippi River, seventy miles south of New Orleans. They had endured a near ceaseless bombardment for the past five days, which had caused great destruction, fires, loss of quarters, supplies, ammunition and several guns. Much of the damage had come from the twenty-one Union mortar boats, just out of reach of Fort Jackson’s range. General Johnson Duncan, Rebel commander of the forts, knew that his men could hold out for weeks, but also knew that if the mortars continued to fall, they may not have nearly that long to wait.
There was, however, a small sliver of light. The Confederacy was building two ironclads, the Mississippi and Louisiana, in New Orleans. The ships of the Union fleet, commanded by Flag Officer David Farragut, were wooden and stood no chance against two ironclads. The catch was that neither the Mississippi nor the Louisiana were completed. Originally, they had both been slated to move north, away from the Union fleet, to assist at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, but the Confederate government finally saw that Farragut meant business and that New Orleans was in grave danger of falling to the enemy.
Also, in their unfinished states, neither ship had the power to steam upstream, so floating them downstream was the only option if they wanted to use them at all. And there was the rub. While the Louisiana was on the way south, being pulled by two tugboats, the Mississippi languished in port, deemed too unfinished to be useful by her builders. General Duncan, figuring that, while two ironclads would be great, one ironclad was still better than none at all. 1
The Louisiana arrived at Fort Jackson on the night of the 22nd. The following day, Duncan met with her commander, Captain John K. Mitchell, who told him that his craft had no motive power of her own and it wasn’t likely that she would be ready any time soon. “As an iron-clad invulnerable floating battery, with sixteen guns of the heaviest caliber,” concluded Duncan with resignation, “she was then as complete as she would ever be.”2
Throughout the day, Duncan tried, several times in writing to convince Captain Mitchell to use the Louisiana as a floating battery. “It is of vital importance that the present fire of the enemy should be withdrawn from us,” pleaded Duncan, “which you alone can do.”3
Mitchell refused. That night, he gathered about him all the naval officers he could find, and together they agreed to continue their refusal. The next day (on this date), Mitchell formally replied to Duncan’s pleas. “I feel, and I believe that I know,” affirmed Mitchell, “the importance to the safety of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip and the City of New Orleans of having this vessel in proper condition before seeking an encounter with the enemy.”
He explained that if Farragut’s Union fleet steamed pass the forts, then the Louisiana would most certainly fly into action “however unprepared I may be.” Until then, however, Duncan was on his own.4
Being on his own, he wired his superior in New Orleans, General Mansfield Lovell, who dropped in on Commander W.C. Whittle, Mitchell’s superior in New Orleans, to see what could be done about this sticky situation. Whittle, at first, echoed Mitchell’s views that since the ship wasn’t ready, she shouldn’t be brought under the guns of the Union fleet.
This was sound advice, but not really the point. General Lovell assured Whittle that nobody had any intension of sending the Louisiana into the enemy fleet. All that was wanted was to place her in a position, as a floating battery, to drive off the Union mortar boats doing so much damage to the forts, reminding the Commander that it was better to lose a single vessel than the entire city of New Orleans.5 Whittle begrudgingly agreed. “Can you not occupy a position below Fort St. Philip,” requested Whittle, falling short of giving an order, “so as to enfilade the mortar boats of the enemy and give time to the garrison to repair damages at Fort Jackson?”6
General Duncan’s concern was quickly turning from making repairs on the fort to the increasing probability of an all out Union attack. First, he believed that the Union mortar boats had to be running low in ammunition, so an attack was bound to come. Also, he had seen a boat placing small white flags along the banks, and figured that these would be used to align the ships of the fleet to make their advance.7
Duncan was absolutely right. Farragut had realized that mortar fire alone could not neutralize the forts and wanted to steam past them to New Orleans. Many of his officers believed that the wooden ships would be blown to pieces by the guns of the forts, but Farragut was unmoved. He had issued orders for the fleet to be ready to move out when the signal was given,8 and spent much of the afternoon moving from ship to ship to make sure everyone was on the same page. Each of the ships readied themselves as best they could, covering sensitive and prone parts of their vessels with bags of sand, clothes and even hammocks – anything that could deaden the blow of a 100lbs. projectile. Some ships whitewashed their decks to make it easier to see under the moonlight.
They would advance upon Forts Jackson and St. Philip at 2am.9
- The Night The War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour, University of Nebraska Press, 1960. This was often referred to as a guide. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p526. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18. p370. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p537. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p569. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p329. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p539; 540. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p141. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p155-156. [↩]