In studying the Fall of New Orleans, I was looking forward to researching the intricacies of the campaign, the characters on either side, leadership, decision making and what led to the end result. Additionally, geography and topography would come into play. Although a visitor could use the book as an historical guide, the events covered a fairly large distance: from the Gulf of Mexico and Mouth of the Mississippi River, to the Confederate forts 70 miles below New Orleans, to the city itself and areas around it.
In writing about the beginning of the war here in 1861, being a New Orleanian, I was at once intrigued and dismayed—or perhaps I should not have been surprised—at the lackadaisical approach to preparing the defenses of the city. The irony is that it was the South’s largest city, one of the world’s greatest ports and an economic hub. It seemed foolhardy not to give it the utmost protection.
After Fort Sumter, General P.G.T. Beauregard came home to the city and offered his services while awaiting assignment. At Forts Jackson and St. Philip he emphasized the necessity of cutting down the trees that grew on the river banks. The gunners must have a clear field of fire. Position the artillery so that the guns could find their targets anywhere on the water. He also recommended installing a chain barrier on the river between the forts. This would prevent the enemy from advancing upriver, but allow friendly vessels passage in either direction. Beauregard additionally advised shoring up the inner and outer defenses of the city itself against a land attack but with special attention to the possible approach of Yankee gunboats coming upriver. He departed for Virginia, work began according to his recommendations, but was never taken to completion.
There are a few historical markers and it is a 1.5 hour drive south of New Orleans to the forts. Visitors can visit the grounds at Fort Jackson*, the interior may not be open, but it gives one a good perspective of the width of the river and what the troops manning the fort were facing. Now the fort is home to the annual Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival in early December. There is also the Fort Jackson Museum adjacent to the fort. Unfortunately, Fort St. Philip is only reachable by boat and is on private property.
The command of the District of Louisiana went to General David E. Twiggs. He had had a long and distinguished career in the U.S. Army but was already seventy-one years old. He no longer had the vigor needed to carry out the duties needed for such a job. The question here, with all due respect to General Twiggs, was why wouldn’t the Confederate War Department assign someone with more energy for such a task. This was early in the war, but among city leaders there was already growing concern.
The key element at this point was a Union naval blockade. The commander of the U.S. Army was an elderly veteran and hero of the Mexican War, General Winfield Scott. He was a Virginian loyal to the Union. He felt that the economic strangulation would be more strategically acceptable than countless casualties and instituted his “Anaconda Plan.” Named for the giant constricting Amazon snake, it was an ambitious naval blockade that would bottle up Southern ports and choke off commerce.
The Anaconda Plan was theoretically sound. However, the Union Navy had fewer than fifty warships to carry out the task of patrolling more than 3,000 miles of coastline. Nevertheless, part of this fleet would sail to the Gulf of Mexico and begin a blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi River. At this point, there was a positive development for the Southern side. An experienced naval commander, George N. Hollins took charge of naval defenses in New Orleans and decided to act. There were four Union warships patrolling the waters in this area of the Gulf of Mexico. Three of them were formidable war ships: the Vincennes, Preble and Richmond as well as a smaller steamer, the Waterwitch. Hollins’ river fleet was comparatively smaller, but he found a way to add to it with the first ironclad in the war. He commandeered the “Turtle” from a band of would-be privateers. This group had converted a tugboat into an attack vessel with curved iron rails to armor the sides, a 64 lb. gun, steam powered screws and perhaps its best weapon, a ramming prow.
It was early October 1861 when Hollins engineered a victory over the commander of the Union ships, Captain John Pope. Pope had a distinct advantage in firepower with fifty-five guns to Hollins’ twenty, but the Confederates used the element of surprise.
They drove the Union ships away from the river’s mouth. For a detailed account of this action, read Neil P. Chatelain’s excellent post of October 21, 2021, “Under Fire: First Ironclad Shots at the Head of Passes.”
The major campaign to capture New Orleans took place in the following spring of 1862 when Admiral David G. Farragut arrived with a major flotilla of gunboats and mortar schooners. Once the Federal gunboats were able to get past the forts and steam up river to New Orleans, the city was unable to defend itself. There is a map in the book that shows the disposition of their gunboats in relation to the forts. Once the first squadron of gunboats arrived, Captain Theodorus Bailey came ashore to demand surrender. The book contains a map that shows the key points in the city relative to those final days as the Union took control. All are in walking distance of Jackson Square, including the U.S. Mint where the Stars and Stripes first flew as well as City Hall where the surrender negotiations occurred.
*For information about Fort Jackson and the Museum, contact Plaquemines Parish: https://www.plaqueminesparish.com/272/Fort-Jackson-Museum
A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862
by Mark F. Bielski
Savas Beatie, 2021
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