The Battle of New Orleans

Farragut's fleet reached the forts in mid-April. Standing on the deck of the flagship Hartford, Farragut promptly ordered an attack on Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. The two rebel (Confederate) fortresses immediately returned fire. For the next few days, the two sides tried to hammer each other into giving up. By April 22, Farragut realized that he could not get past the two forts and up the river to New Orleans by force. His ships were beginning to run low on ammunition, and the rebel outposts showed no signs of wilting despite suffering severe damage.

Farragut then came up with a bold plan to sail past the forts under cover of darkness and proceed on to New Orleans. Many of his officers tried to convince him not to attempt this strategy, but their commander held firm. He spent April 23 visiting each ship in his fleet in order to encourage his sailors and make sure that everyone understood their orders. By that evening, Farragut wrote, "everyone looked forward to the conflict with firmness, but with anxiety."

Farragut's fleet began their move up the river at 2 a.m. on the morning of April 24, when the night was darkest. As the Union ships sailed up the river, they were met with a hail of cannon fire from the forts and the Confederate warships that had been assigned to guard the city. Some of the rebel ships even pushed flaming rafts down the river to smash into Farragut's ships. But the Union fleet fought back furiously as they pushed their way upstream. As the nighttime battle lit up the sky, one reporter said that "the river and its banks were one sheet of flame, and the messengers of death were moving . . . in all directions."

The battle on the river was horribly violent. But as the Federal fleet pressed on, it became clear to everyone that Farragut's bold strategy was working. His fleet successfully glided past the guns of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, then manhandled the smaller Confederate flotilla (small fleet of ships). By dawn, Farragut's path to New Orleans was clear. He captured the city on April 25, and the soldiers at Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson surrendered three days later.

News of Farragut's great triumph delighted President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry), Secretary Welles, and other Union leaders. Down in the Southern capital of Richmond, meanwhile, the loss of New Orleans stunned Confederate military leaders. "The capture of New Orleans ranks as one of the strategic milestones of the war," wrote Ivan Mu-sicant in Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. "At a blow, the South's largest city, premier [main] port of entry, and the mouth of the Mississippi, fell to the Union."

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

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