April 28, This day during the American Civil War

April 28, 1862 – The Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip was the decisive battle for possession of New Orleans in the American Civil War. The two Confederate forts on the Mississippi River south of the city were attacked by a Union Navy fleet. As long as the forts could keep the Federal forces from moving on the city, it was safe, but if they were negated, there were no fall-back positions to impede the enemy advance. New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, was already under threat of attack from the north when Farragut moved his fleet into the river from the south. The Confederate Navy had already driven off the Union blockade fleet in the Battle of the Head of Passes the previous October. Although the menace from upriver was geographically more remote than that from the Gulf of Mexico, a series of losses in Kentucky and Tennessee had forced the War and Navy Departments in Richmond to strip the region of much of its defenses. Men and equipment had been withdrawn from the local defenses, so that by mid-April almost nothing remained to the south except the two forts and an assortment of gunboats of questionable worth. Without reducing the pressure from the north, (Union) President Abraham Lincoln set in motion a combined Army-Navy operation to attack from the south. The Union Army offered 18,000 soldiers, led by the political general Benjamin F. Butler. The Navy contributed a large fraction of its West Gulf Blockading Squadron, which was commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut. The squadron was augmented by a semi-autonomous flotilla of mortar schooners and their support vessels under Commander David Dixon Porter. The expedition assembled at Ship Island in the Gulf. Once they were ready, the naval contingent moved its ships into the river, an operation that was completed on April 14. They were then moved into position near the forts, and on April 18 the mortars opened the battle. The ensuing battle can be divided into two parts: a mostly ineffective bombardment of the Confederate-held forts by the raft-mounted mortars, and the successful passage of the forts by much of Farragut’s fleet on the night of April 24. During the passage, one Federal warship was lost and three others turned back, while the Confederate gunboats were virtually obliterated. The subsequent capture of the city, achieved with no further significant opposition, was a serious, even fatal, blow from which the Confederacy never recovered. The forts remained after the fleet had passed, but the demoralized enlisted men in Fort Jackson mutinied and forced their surrender. Porter’s 21 mortar schooners were in place on April 18. They were placed close to the river banks downstream from the barrier chain, which was still in place. Their tops were covered with bushes for camouflage; this was replaced as soon as it was stripped away by the shock of firing their weapons. Commencing in the early morning, the mortars kept up a steady fire all day. Porter had specified a rate of a shot every ten minutes from each mortar, which would have kept a shot in the air throughout the bombardment. The rate could not be maintained, but more than 1400 shots were fired on the first day. The rate of fire was somewhat less on subsequent days. The fuses in the shells proved to be unreliable, with the result that many of the shells exploded prematurely. To eliminate the problem, on the second and subsequent days of the bombardment, Porter ordered that all fuses should be cut to full length. The shells therefore hit the ground before exploding; they would sink into the soft earth, which would then muffle the effects of the blast. Probably because it was nearer to the Federal mortars, Fort Jackson suffered more damage than did Fort St. Philip, but even there it was minimal. Only seven pieces of artillery were disabled, and only two men were killed in the bombardment. Return fire on Porter’s vessels was about equally ineffective; one schooner was sunk, and one man was killed by enemy action (another man died when he fell from the rigging. ). Porter had rashly promised Welles and Fox that the mortar fleet would reduce both forts to rubble in 48 hours. Though this did not happen, and the immediate fighting capacity of the forts were only marginally affected. General Duncan recorded 2,997 mortar shells fired on that day. This kind of damage made life in Fort Jackson a misery when combined with constant flooding from high water within the fort. The crew could be safe from mortar fragments and falling debris only within the dank and partially flooded casemates. Lack of shelter, food, blankets, sleeping quarters, drinkable water, along with the depressing effects of days of heavy, unanswered shelling were hard to bear. When combined with sickness and the ever-present corrosive fear, conditions were definitely a drain on morale. These factors contributed to the mutiny of the Fort Jackson garrison on the 28th of April. This mutiny began a subsequent collapse of resistance downriver from the city. Fort St. Phillips was also surrendered, the CSS Louisiana blown up and even the Confederate fleet on Lake Pontchartrain was destroyed to avoid capture. The general collapse of morale began with the mutiny and greatly simplified the occupation of New Orleans by the Union navy. The Confederate authorities had long believed that the Navy’s ironclad ships, particularly CSS Louisiana, would render the river impregnable against assaults such as they were now experiencing. Although Louisiana was not yet finished, Generals Lovell and Duncan pressed Commodore Whittle to hurry the preparation. Acceding to their wishes against his better judgment, Whittle had the ship launched prematurely and added to Commander Mitchell’s fleet even while workmen were still fitting her out. On the second day of the bombardment, she was towed (too late, her owners found that her engines were not strong enough to enable her to buck the current) to a position on the left bank, upstream from Fort St. Philip, where she became in effect a floating battery. Mitchell would not move her closer because her armor would not protect her from the plunging shot of Porter’s mortars. However, because her guns could not be elevated, they could not be brought to bear on the enemy so long as they remained below the forts. After several days of bombardment, the return fire from the forts showed no signs of slackening, so Farragut began to execute his own plan. On April 20, he ordered three of his gunboats, Kineo, Itasca, and Pinola to break the chain blocking the river. Although they did not succeed in removing it altogether, they were able to open a gap large enough for the flag officer’s purposes. For various reasons, Farragut was not able to make his attack until the early morning of April 24. Having resolved to pass the forts, Farragut somewhat modified his fleet arrangements by adding two ships to Captain Bailey’s first section of gunboats, thereby eliminating one of his ship sections.  When passing the forts, the fleet was to form two columns. The starboard column would fire on Fort St. Philip, while the port column would fire on Fort Jackson. They were not to stop and slug it out with the forts, however, but to pass by as quickly as possible. Farragut hoped that the combination of darkness and smoke would obscure the aim of the gunners in the forts, and his vessels could pass by relatively unscathed. At approximately 03:00 on April 24, the fleet got under way and headed for the gap in the chain that had blocked the channel. Soon after passing that obstacle, they were spotted by men in the forts, which promptly opened up with all their available firepower. As Farragut had hoped, however, their aim was poor, and his fleet suffered little significant damage. His own gunners’ aim was no better, of course, and the forts likewise sustained little damage. The last three gunboats in the column were turned back. Itasca was disabled by a shot in her boilers and drifted out of action; the others (Pinola and Winona) turned back because dawn was breaking and not because of Rebel gun practice. The Confederate fleet did very little in this stage of the battle. CSS Louisiana was finally able to use her guns, but with little effect. The armored ram CSS Manassas came in early and tried to engage the enemy, but the gunners in the forts made no distinction between Manassas and members of the Federal fleet, firing on friend and foe indiscriminately. Her captain, Lieutenant Commanding Alexander F. Warley, therefore took his vessel back up the river, to attack when he would be fired upon by only the Union fleet. Once past the forts, the head of the Federal column came under attack by some of the Confederate ships, while some of the vessels further back in the column were still under the fire of the forts. Because of their fragmented command structure, the Confederate ships did not coordinate their movements, so the battle degenerated to a jumble of individual ship-on-ship encounters. CSS Manassas rammed both USS Mississippi and Brooklyn, but did not disable either. As dawn broke, she found herself caught between two Union ships and was able to attack neither, so Captain Warley ordered her run ashore. The crew abandoned the vessel and set her afire. Later, she floated free from the bank, still afire, and finally sank in view of Porter’s mortar schooners. Tug Mosher pushed a fire raft against the flagship USS Hartford, and was rewarded for her daring by a broadside from the latter that sent her to the bottom. Hartford, while attempting to avoid the fire raft, ran ashore not far upstream from Fort St. Philip. Although she was then within range of the guns of the fort, they could not be brought to bear, so the flagship was able to extinguish the flames and work her way off the bank with little significant damage. In getting under way, Governor Moore was fouled by and ran into the Confederate tug Belle Algerine, sinking her. Attacking the Union fleet, she found USS Varuna ahead of the rest of the fleet. A long chase ensued, both ships firing on each other as Governor Moore pursued the Federal vessel. Despite losing a large part of her crew during the chase, she was eventually able to ram Varuna. The cottonclad ram Stonewall Jackson, of the River Defense Fleet also managed to ram. Varuna was able to reach shallow water near the bank before she sank, the only vessel lost from the attacking fleet. Captain Beverley Kennon of Governor Moore would have continued the fight, but his steersman had had enough and drove the ship ashore. Kennon, apparently realizing that his steersman was correct and that the ship was unable to do any more, ordered her abandoned and set afire. CSS McRae engaged several members of the Federal fleet in an uneven contest that saw her captain, Lieutenant Commanding Thomas B. Huger, mortally wounded. McRae herself was badly holed, and although she survived the battle, she later sank at her moorings in New Orleans. None of the rest of the Confederate flotilla did any harm to the Union fleet, and most of them were sunk, either by enemy action or by their own hands. The survivors, in addition to McRae, were CSS Jackson, ram Defiance, and transport Diana. Two unarmed tenders were surrendered to the mortar flotilla with the forts. Louisiana also survived the battle, but was scuttled rather than be surrendered. In summary, during the run of the fleet past the forts, the Union Navy lost one vessel, while the defenders lost twelve. The Union fleet faced only token opposition at Chalmette, and thereafter had clear sailing to New Orleans. The fourteen vessels remaining arrived there in the afternoon of April 25 and laid the city under their guns. In the meantime, General Lovell had evacuated the troops that had been in the city, so no defense was possible. Panic-stricken citizens broke into stores, burned cotton and other supplies, and destroyed much of the waterfront. The unfinished CSS Mississippi was hastily launched; it was hoped that she could be towed to Memphis, but no towboats could be found, so she was burned by order of her captain. Farragut demanded the surrender of the city. The mayor and city council tried to buck the unpleasant duty up to Lovell, but he passed it back to them. After three days of fruitless negotiations, Farragut sent two officers ashore with a detachment of sailors and marines. They went to the Custom House, where they hauled down the state flag and ran up the United States flag. That signified the official return of the city to the Union. Meanwhile, General Butler was preparing his soldiers for an attack on the forts that were now in Farragut’s rear. Commodore Porter, now in charge of the flotilla still below the forts, delivered a demand to surrender to the forts, but General Duncan refused. Accordingly, Porter again began to bombard the forts, this time in preparation for Butler’s assault. However, on the night of April 29, the enlisted garrison in Fort Jackson mutinied and refused to endure more. Although Fort St. Philip was not involved in the mutiny, the interdependence of the two forts meant that it was also affected. Unable to continue the battle, Duncan capitulated the next day. The end of CSS Louisiana came at this time. Commander Mitchell, who represented the Confederate States Navy in the vicinity of the forts, was not included in the surrender negotiations. He therefore did not consider it his duty to observe the truce that had been declared, so he ordered Louisiana to be destroyed. Set afire, she soon parted her lines and floated down the river and blew up as she passed Fort St. Philip; the blast was strong enough to kill one soldier in the fort.

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