From the Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
When you read about Vice Adm. David G. Farragut, it is most likely in terms of his being lashed to the mast of USS Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1865. It was during this Civil War naval battle the legendary leader was credited with saying: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
This blog, however, isn’t about the sound bite that made Farragut famous. This is how Farragut’s leadership and tediously detailed planning and reconnaissance resulted in one of the great Union naval victories of the Civil War 153 years ago as Farragut’s fleet sailed upriver to capture New Orleans April 18-25, 1862.
The nation had been torn apart during the year since the war began April 12, 1861. The nautical highways of commerce and trade in antebellum America quickly converted into free-flowing theaters of warfare. It would be the shallow interior of the divided states where opposing forces tested each other with wood, iron, and water. The fiercest of all naval combat during the war occurred along narrow riverways traversing the eastern half of the continent. The riverine campaigns waged by Union and Confederate navies constantly evolved, often finding that environmental barriers were as troublesome an adversary as the enemy.
The main focus of Union river strategy was taking the mighty Mississippi, a system of rivers that had an unpredictable cycle of flooding and drought, making it difficult for an attacking squadron to launch timely assaults.
One of those environmental barriers – sandbars – kept Union Navy Capt. David Dixon Porter’s blockading squadron from sailing up the Mississippi to New Orleans, the largest city of the Confederacy and a major international port. Returning to the Washington Navy Yard at the end of 1861, Porter devised a plan to infiltrate the Mississippi River with a fleet of gun and mortar boats armed with 166 guns and 26 howitzers that could bombard the two forts – Jackson and St. Philip – that provided protection 70 miles from New Orleans. The Army, led by Gen. Benjamin Butler, would follow to take the Crescent City. Porter recommended the West Gulf Blockading Squadron to be led by his older foster brother, Capt. David Glasgow Farragut, a naval officer of southern birth who was already 60 and the veteran of two American wars. Porter would command the accompanying mortar boat flotilla.
Farragut arrived in the Gulf on his flagship, the steamship USS Hartford, in mid-February, 1862. As his skippers arrived over the next few weeks, Farragut issued detailed orders on how to ready their ships for river service, practice damage control and gunnery drill exercises. Concerned for his sailors, Farragut made sure the wounded would have the proper supplies by converting one of his vessels into a hospital ship and stocking it with iron bedsteads and tourniquets.
He also learned what he could of the enemy’s defenses, which besides the two forts included eight hulks moored in the river connected by a heavy chain reinforced by log rafts. Fire rafts were also ready to be deployed against an approaching enemy.
Farragut and Porter studied dispatches from Washington, read letters and papers from captured blockade runners and reports of prisoner interrogations. Farragut even joined upriver reconnaissance missions, deliberately steaming within range of the guns in the rebel forts to test the accuracy of their fire.
On April 16, Farragut and his fleet moved to within three miles of the forts. Two days later, the mortar boat flotilla began bombarding the forts, setting Fort Jackson on fire, thanks to the meticulous planning of Porter and Farragut. Fort Jackson’s guns that could return fire were hampered by the constant barrage of mortars striking their targets. Fort St. Philip suffered less damage as it was nearly out of range of the mortars.
“We have been bombarding the forts for three or four days, but the current is running so strong that we cannot stem it sufficiently to do anything with our ships, so that I am now waiting a change of wind, which brings a slacker tide, and we shall be enabled to run up,” Farragut wrote privately to a friend. “We had a deserter from the fort yesterday, who says the mortars and shells have done great damage.”
A covert action on April 20 was led by Capt. Henry H. Bell to cut the chain that lashed the hulks together blocking passage of the river. His letter reflected Farragut’s anxiety about putting his men into harm’s way.
“Captain Bell went last night to cut the chain across the river,” he wrote. “I never felt such anxiety in my life as I did until his return. One of his vessels got on shore, and I was fearful she would be captured. They kept up a tremendous fire on him; but (Capt. David Dixon) Porter diverted their fire with a heavy cannonade. They let the chain go, but the man sent to explode the petard did not succeed; his wires broke. Bell would have burned the hulks, but the illumination would have given the enemy a chance to destroy his gunboat, which got aground. However, the chain was divided, and it gives us space enough to go through. I was as glad to see Bell on his return as if he had been my boy. I was up all night, and could not sleep until he got back to the ship.”
With a clear channel on the left (eastern) side of the river, nearest to Fort St. Philip, Farragut was ready to send the fleet through to New Orleans. They were running out of ammunition after firing nearly 17,000 shells at the forts, with only one mortar boat casualty. On April 23, Farragut spoke to each skipper to make sure they understood his plan of attack, wisely anticipating the chaos that would follow amid darkness, smoke and gunfire. And perhaps most importantly, he gave each the power to proceed independently if necessary.
Farragut divided the squadron into three divisions, planning to lead the attack until he was convinced to lead the second division with the three heaviest ships.
At five minutes before 2 a.m. April 24, two red lanterns were hoisted on the deck of Farragut’s flagship Hartford, signaling the fleet to get under way. By 3:40 a.m., the sky was lit with bursting shells, blazing fire rafts; just as quickly visibility was obscured by black smoke. Farragut’s plan for an orderly line devolved into a push through the channel, with some ships getting hammered while others slipped through unscathed.
Farragut’s insistence on drilling his crews on damage control came to fruition. As Hartford pounded Fort St. Philip with shells to get the third division through the channel, a tug towing a raft filled with blazing pine cones set its sights on the flagship. Attempts to maneuver past the tug caused Hartford to run aground; the fire-raft found its target, and soon the wooden steamer was ablaze. The crew finally got the blaze under control and Hartford was headed upriver. By daylight, all but two of the third division ships got through, forcing their retreat back into the Gulf.
After minor resistance from the remnants of the Confederate navy, Farragut’s squadron reached New Orleans on the afternoon of April 25. With Confederate troops still in Tennessee after the defeat at Shiloh earlier that month, no one wanted to take the responsibility for surrendering the city to Farragut. A major deferred the decision to Confederate Gen. Mansfield Lovell, whose troops were already retreating north. Even the mayor refused to hand over the keys, claiming Farragut had to take it by force.
Loathe to put his men into unnecessary danger, Farragut sent Marines to raise the American flag over the custom house and remove the Louisiana state flag from city hall on April 29, more than 10 days from when his squadron began bombarding the forts. When Gen. Butler’s forces arrived May 1, they secured the city and freed Farragut’s fleet to continue upriver to Vicksburg. But that’s another blog for another day.
Some of the information for this blog came from “The Civil War at Sea,” a special edition of The Daybook published by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Norfolk, Va.