The Confederate Navy’s Order of Battle at New Orleans: A Reflection of Political Tensions

River Defense Fleet Ship “Stonewall Jackson” and Louisiana gunboat “Governor Moore” engage the “USS Varuna” during the Battle of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip, April 24, 1862.
US Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo NH 59077

ECW welcomes back guest author Neil P. Chatelain.

The ECW post on September 27, 2018 titled “Order of Battle – Why Those Lists Matter” reminded me of my own research, and I began doing what historians do: using thoughts and research of others to augment my own. The result was a reemergence in my own mind of just how the order of battle can reflect and impact political and military issues. Where this stood out was in representing Confederate naval forces at New Orleans, where a more in-depth examination of the Southern order of battle highlights tensions faced there during the first year of the US Civil War.

With the formation of the Confederacy, New Orleans was immediately classified as one of the fledgling nation’s critical positions. As the home to the South’s largest concentration of industry, largest population center, largest seaport, and its significance as a position controlling the Mississippi River, it was only a matter of time before the city became a contested seat of war.[1] The Confederacy quickly sought to establish land and naval defenses for this most vital area. The land defenses resembled those of other cities, fortified positions maintained through a combination of state militia, regiments mustered into the provisional army, and a small host of what became the Confederacy’s regular army. Naval defenses however, were quite different, as reflected through just what organizations operated ships there.

No less than five government organizations operated warships at New Orleans: the Confederate navy, – augmented by its small corps of marines – the small revenue service, the army, the River Defense Fleet, and Louisiana’s state navy. Compounding these were civilian craft, both merchant blockade runners and privateers. Practically every organization that could claim jurisdiction on the Mississippi River operated vessels at New Orleans.

As the war progressed, which ships were part of which organization became muddled in confusion. Over time, the merchant ships became fewer and fewer as blockade runners escaped the river or were pressed into government service, typically as army transports. Furthermore, letters of marque and reprisal were applied for less frequently and by the time Farragut’s squadron threatened the city, most privateers had been commandeered by the government.[2]

Originally the Confederate navy acquired ships at the Crescent City for use as commerce raiders, but by the fall of 1861, it began outfitting vessels for river service, ranging from converted merchants to dry-docks repurposed as floating batteries. They also began constructing  vessels, most famously the ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi. The other element of Confederate maritime forces, its small revenue service, operated two cutters, both seized at the start of the war.[3]

The Confederate army operated warships of their own. Several improvised army gunboats cooperated with naval vessels defending coastal Louisiana, operating out of Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain. Finally, the army formed what became known as the River Defense Fleet, fourteen improvised river steamers that were manned by civilians contracted to the army and outfitted as rams. The final maritime organization was Louisiana’s own navy, two small improvised gunboats.

So many organizations made it haphazard for the Confederacy to organize a proper naval defense of the New Orleans area. Each group competed for contracts, supplies, and personnel, stretching the Confederacy’s limited infrastructure. The ironclad programs, particularly that of the Mississippi, quickly fell behind schedule, with shipyard workers striking for pay increases and frequently being pressed into local militias; ironworks and contractors likewise shuffled orders due to limited resources. Such a case delayed the outfitting of the River Defense Fleet and forced the suspension of outfitting a floating battery. Personnel were also in demand, with many experienced sailors enlisting in one organization before deserting to join another with promises of higher pay. In short, the army and navy were competing for personnel, supplies, contracts, and facilities, causing continuous delays and bitter squabbling.

Compounding the issue was the question of command. The navy appointed its own commander afloat at New Orleans, Captain George N. Hollins, but he held no sway over army craft. Furthermore, Hollins was quick to make enemies with both army and civilian officials by demanding obedience from non-navy operated ships and for seizing civilian craft, most notably the privateer ironclad Manassas in October 1861. The result was a disorganized mess instead of a clear chain of command.

Captain Hollins could not keep things together and in early 1862 matters grew more difficult when he was ordered upriver with most of the navy’s gunboats to defend against Union incursions into Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. This left a split command at New Orleans: Commander John K. Mitchell had charge of the few naval craft afloat and Commander William C. Whittle oversaw the New Orleans naval station and the delayed ironclad construction programs. This muddled matters, especially after General Mansfield Lovell began asking the navy for assistance to stop Farragut, resulting in lengthy debates over the use of the incomplete ironclad Louisiana.[4]

When Farragut arrayed the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron against Forts Jackson and Saint Philip, the Confederate order of battle facing them was as complex as could be expected from this lack of unified command. Lovell commanded the land defenses from New Orleans, with subordinates overseeing the direct defense of the two fortifications. There was an understood cooperation between army and navy gunboats on Lake Pontchartrain, but these ultimately only helped facilitate the city’s evacuation before being scuttled.[5]

Instead, Commander Mitchell directed four navy warships: the seized ironclad Manassas, the gunboats McRae and Jackson hurriedly sent downriver from Tennessee, and the incomplete ironclad Louisiana which was towed downriver with mechanics still onboard; it would take part in the fight tied to the riverbank, half its guns useless. Augmenting the naval crews were contingents of marines and soldiers from nearby regiments, directed to man the heavy guns. Mitchell also had charge of an assortment of fire rafts, but he failed to properly coordinate with two civilian tenders to maneuver them. The two cutters of the revenue service, which operated independently, assisted naval forces at the Battle of the Head of Passes the previous fall, but were deemed inconsequential to the coming campaign and remained unused at the city’s wharves.

The senior officer of Louisiana’s navy, Lieutenant Beverly Kennon, vowed cooperation with Mitchell, but this proved mixed, with one ship fighting to the end and helping to sink a Union warship while the other was burned by its crew at the start of battle.[6] The River Defense Fleet supplied another six rams, but their senior officer, John Stevenson, vowed that “under no circumstances were they to receive or obey orders from any officer of the regular Confederate navy,” a promise that would be fulfilled.[7]

Thus, the Confederate order of battle during the spring 1862 New Orleans campaign was a clear reflection of the numerous organizations plying for political and military power in the early Confederacy. Both army and navy commanders sought to increase their own influence while simultaneously competing for supplies and operations with civilian craft, the River Defense Fleet, the revenue service, and state organizations. The result was a confusing and botched defense that was clearly devoid of a centralized maritime chain of command. Results reflected the realities, with no actual defense plan implemented by the maritime forces to adequately challenge Farragut when the campaign reached its crescendo. By the time New Orleans fell, both vessels of Louisiana’s navy were destroyed, all of the River Defense Fleet was lost – burned by their own captains or sunk in battle, the two revenue cutters were scuttled, all of the Confederate navy’s ships at the forts were gone, and most of the ships, both civilian and military, at New Orleans itself were destroyed.

It is no wonder then that Farragut’s squadron successfully passed Forts Jackson and Saint Phillip. The Confederate chain of command was a shamble from the start and with so many different organizations complicating the order of battle, it is clear that the naval defense of New Orleans was significantly lacking. To be sure, the Confederacy would later learn from these mistakes, allowing officers to hold dual appointments in the army and navy to streamline the chain of command and by noting in Confederate army regulations that senior-ranking officers will assume control over all forces when operating together, regardless of branch.[8] The lesson was learned, but at the expense of political power grabs and confusing chains of command early in the war, such as at New Orleans, which proved quite detrimental to the Confederate war effort.

Neil P. Chatelain is an Adjunct Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, the University of Houston, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Neil researches US Naval History, with a particular emphasis on naval operations of the Confederacy.

Sources:

[1] David D. Porter, “The Opening of the Lower Mississippi,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 2, (New York: The Century Co, 1887), 22.; John Christopher Schwab, The Confederate States of America 1861-1865: A Financial and Industrial History of the South During the Civil War. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 29-32.

[2] William M. Robinson, The Confederate Privateers, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1928), 35-48.

[3] John Adams Dix, Memoirs of John Adams Dix, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883), 376.

[4] John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade Runner (New York: Sheldon and Co, 1877), 18, 41-42.

[5] Neil P. Chatelain, “The Confederacy’s Lake Pontchartrain Naval Squadron: A Cooperative Defense of the Coastal Approaches to New Orleans, 1861-1862,” Louisiana History, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Spring 2018), 190-192.

[6] Neil P. Chatelain, “Pelican Gunboats: The Louisiana State Navy and the Defense of Confederate New Orleans,” Journal of America’s Military Past, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2015), 5-24.

[7] Charles W. Read, “Reminiscences of the Confederate Navy,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 1, (Richmond, VA: Southern Historical Society, 1876), 341.

[8] Confederate States of America War Department, Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, 1863, (Richmond, VA: West and Johnston, 1863), 2.; Congress of the Confederate States of America, The Statutes at Large of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America, from the Institution of the Government, February 8, 1861, to its Termination, February 18, 1862, Inclusive. Arranged in Chronological Order.
Together with the Constitution for the Provisional Government, and the Permanent Constitution of the Confederate States, and the Treaties Concluded by the Confederate States with Indian Tribes
, Ed. by James M. Matthews (Richmond, VA: R.M. Smith, 1864), 228.

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