During the years of the American Civil War, New Orleans was the largest city among those in the Confederate States of America (CSA). In 1840, New Orleans was home to the largest slave market in the nation. By 1850, it was the nation’s sixth largest city, boasting a population of almost 169,000; the only city in the South with more than 100,000 people. During the Antebellum era, New Orleans was Dixie’s commercial heart, cotton being the number one export, bringing in 50% of the estimated $156 million ($4.2 billion in 2014) in region’s export income; with tobacco and sugar second and third in importance.
On January 22, 1861, Louisiana voted to secede from the Union, with the Secession Convention meeting a week later in New Orleans. During the meeting, an ordinance was passed that would allow Federal employees to maintain their jobs; however, they would now be considered employees of the state of Louisiana. In March, Louisiana joined the CSA and seized the federal mint in an effort to produce coinage for the Confederacy, specifically half-dollars.
With Louisiana now officially a member of the Confederate States of America, New Orleans became the ‘go to’ spot for enlistment of troops, due to the size of its population. The “Washington Artillery” was composed of early responders and later formed the nucleus of the Army of Northern Virginia. In January 1862, the Louisiana Native Guard was formed, composed of free blacks who served the Confederate Army by defending various entrenchments around New Orleans. Ranking Confederate officers who called New Orleans home included Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard and Albert G. Blanchard. Harry T. Hays became commander of the infantry brigade that boasted the state’s largest group of Irish-Americans.
Due to her location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the vital role she played for the South with respect to obtaining supplies and the sale of goods for revenue, New Orleans was definitely one of the first targets the North sought to capture. It did not take long for the War Department to begin the formation of plans regarding a major attack in an effort to seize control of the city and the all-important port; thereby choking off the fledgling Confederacy’s major source of income and supplies.
Wasting little time, Union leaders gathered in January 1862 and selected Captain David G. Farragut to command the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Despite numerous difficulties, this group soon moved four heavy ships to the lower Mississippi River, none of which were armored. These ships were surrounded by nineteen smaller vessels, consisting mostly of gunboats, and a flotilla of mortar boats.
Two forts provided the Confederacy’s main defense for the lower Mississippi River – Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson. In addition to the forts were a number of smaller fortifications. Composed of brick and masonry, the forts were armed with smoothbores (cannons) and heavy rifles. A number of gunboats and ironclads composed the Confederate Navy; however, the quantity of these vessels were far outnumbered and outgunned by the fleet belonging to the Union Navy.
Following an elaborate reconnaissance on April 16th, the Union Navy now took up its position south of the forts in preparation for battle. Two days later, the mortar boats opened fire, with the shelling highly accurate. In retaliation, the Confederates were able to sink one of the boats and disable two others. Though Fort Jackson was severely damaged in the process, its defense mechanisms were in no way crippled, despite a second attack the following day.
A boom between the forts proved to be a formidable obstacle for the Union fleet to navigate. It had been created in an effort to detain any vessels under close fire than should attempt to proceed upriver. Despite the efforts of the gunboats to destroy the barrier, little success was reaped. Though the bombardment by the Union Navy continued, it succeeded in disabling only a small percentage of the Confederate guns.
That all changed on April 23rd. That night, Union gunboats Pinola and Itasca charged in and successfully created a gap in the boom. At 2:00 a.m. on April 24, the fleet weighed anchor, with Admiral Farragut aboard a corvette (small warship) named the Hartford leading the charge. A severe conflict at close quarters with the forts quickly ensued and before long, a large portion of the Union fleet maneuvered past the boom.
The following day, Admiral Farragut dropped anchor in front of New Orleans. The bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip continued from the mortar boats, prior to the forts surrendering on April 28th. Soon afterwards, the infantry marched into New Orleans and completed the city’s capture. The fact New Orleans was captured without a battle ensuing within the city itself spared the metropolis the destruction numerous others in the South experienced. As a result, many of the city’s significant structures associated with the Civil War still stand.
When news of the Union’s success reached Jefferson Davis, it was an absolute shock. The capture of the Confederacy’s largest city was both a major turning point in the Civil War, and an incident of international importance.
– – – – –
If you enjoyed this article, please ‘like’ it and subscribe to my site. Thank you.