By April 1862, a portion of General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was taking effect as the Union made a concerted effort to seize control of the Mississippi River. In early April, Brigadier General John Pope and Flag Officer Andrew Foote secured a Union victory at Island No. 10 north of Memphis, Tenn. Further south, Flag Officer David Farragut formed his invasion fleet at Ship Island in an attempt to capture New Orleans.
For the Confederacy, the key to stopping any Union attempt to capture New Orleans was to block the entrance to the mouth of the Mississippi River. This was done with two forts 40 miles north of the gulf. Fort Jackson was on the west side of the Mississippi River and Fort St. Philip on the east. Farragut had to run the guns of these two forts in order to advance on New Orleans.
At the time of the Civil War, New Orleans was the biggest town in the Confederacy. It was also one of the more unique population centers in the South. After the election of President Abraham Lincoln, there was an effort to make New Orleans a “free city” remaining neutral throughout the Civil War.
Louisiana Gov. Thomas Overton Moore stopped any talk of New Orleans’ neutrality and organized a movement for the state to secede. Moore’s secession convention only represented about five percent of the state’s citizens but he got his desired effect. Louisiana seceded from the Union January 26, 1861.
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Even before the state had seceded, Forts Jackson and St. Philip were seized from Federal troops. Located 70 miles south of New Orleans in Plaquemine’s Parish, Forts Jackson and St. Philip served as the front line of defense from a naval assault on New Orleans.
By 1862, the Federals were gearing up for an advance on New Orleans. These forces were being gathered at Ship Island south of Biloxi. This included 18,000 soldiers under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler and the West Gulf Blockading Squadron of Farragut.
By April 14, 1862, Farragut moved his vessels from Ship Island to just below Forts Jackson and St. Philip and four days later began a bombardment of the Confederate forts. This bombardment was conducted by mortar schooners under the command Farragut’s foster brother, Flag Officer David Dixon Porter. The mortar fired proved to be ineffective against the masonry forts and Farragut planned to steam his vessels north of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.
In the early morning of April 24, 1862, Farragut began his run past Forts Jackson and St. Philip. The vessels were aiming at a gap in a chain that had been stretched across the Mississippi River to stop Federal attack. Farragut’s attack was in three phases and the boats formed two floating columns. The port (left) column fired on Fort Jackson while the starboard (right) column fired at Fort St. Philip. Farragut ordered his commanders not to stop and fight with the forts but to steam past the Confederate positions.
The USS Mississippi and Brooklyn successfully made their way north of the forts only to be rammed by the CSS Manassas. The Brooklyn suffered a 24-foot tear in its hull from its collision with the Manassas. Despite the damage the Mississippi and Brooklyn continued to fight and advance, as well as the USS Hartford. The USS Varuna was not as lucky. The vessel was rammed by the CSS Stonewall Jackson and sank in shallow water near the banks.
With Forts Jackson and St. Philip successfully passed, New Orleans was now in danger of being captured. On April 25, 1862, 14 vessels of Farragut’s squadron formed around New Orleans. The city was now under Union guns. Due to high water, Farragut’s boats could easily fire into the town. New Orleans was also in danger of being flooded if Farragut decided to destroy the surrounding levees.
Confederate Brigadier General Mansfield Lovell realized there was little he could do but evacuate New Orleans. Confederates were loaded on trains and sent north to Camp Moore. Anything that could not be moved but was considered of value to the Union was either burned or dumped into the river.
All artillery and munitions were sent to Vicksburg. In a message to the War Department in Richmond, Lovell lamented, “The enemy has passed the forts. It is too late to send any guns here; they had better go to Vicksburg.”
By May 1, 1862, Butler and a small contingent Union soldiers now occupied New Orleans. Early in the war, Butler was in command of Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He drew the ire of area slave owners for allowing escaped slaves to stay in the fort as “contraband.”
Butler’s tenure in New Orleans was a tense one as he repeated clashed with the townspeople. Butler wrote of his situation in New Orleans, “We were 2,500 men in a city . . . of 150,000 inhabitants, all hostile, bitter, defiant, explosive, standing literally in a magazine, a spark only needed for destruction.”