Battle at Forts Jackson and St. Phillip

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it became evident that all states of the deep south would secede. On the local scene, before the Secession Convention of Louisiana met, Governor Thomas O. Moore seized all properties belonging to the United States. Major P. H. Theard, on January 8, 1861, seized Forts Jackson and St. Phillip in the name of the State of Louisiana.

Sergeant W. V. Smith, who represented the Union garrison at the Fort, surrendered under protest when he felt it was futile to resist the superior numbers in Major Theard's command.

The Confederate engineers had a difficult task to ready the Forts to defend the lower Mississippi River. Through the original specifications allowed for 93 gun placements, the seized Fort Jackson had much fewer guns available for immediate use.

During the battle with Flag Officer Farragut's Union fleet, there were only 69 guns at Fort Jackson and 45 at Fort St. Phillip. To supplement the batteries, General P. G. T. Beauregard suggested that a floating boom be placed across the river just below the Forts. This would halt the ships' progress under the batteries of the Forts and allow the guns to concentrate their fire.

The first boom was badly damaged by a storm. Repaired, it was damaged by driftwood. Several days before Flag Officer Farragut's fleet launched his attack, an improvised boom, constructed of eleven hulks of schooners secured together by large chains, was completed.

The improvised Naval forces at the Forts consisted of ten wooden ships and two ironclads. Commander T. K. Mitchell commanded the ships of the Confederate Navy and State of Louisiana which included the "McRae", "Stonewall Jackson", "Governor Moore", "General Quitman". and the two ironclads, the unfinished "Louisiana" and the "Manassas". The six ships of the river defense fleet were under the command of Captain John Stevenson. The two Forts containing garrisons of about 1000 men were commanded by Brigadier General J. K. Duncan.

Plans for defense of the Forts called for fire rafts to be sent down the river to light the area and to burn or harass the Union ships.

The ironclad "Louisiana", unprepared for action, was employed as a floating battery above Fort St. Phillip. Because of a lack of unified command of the Confederate forces, there was no unity of action, misunderstandings of orders and maneuvers, and animosities between the Naval officers and the river defense prevented the plans from being carried out effectively.

The Union fleet, commanded by Flag Officer David Farragut, consisted of seventeen wooden ships. Twenty mortar boats were led by Commander David Porter and 6000 Union soldiers aboard transports, ready to occupy New Orleans after her capture, were under the command of General Benjamin Franklin Butler.

Farragut's plan of attack was to have the mortar boats reduce the Forts' effectiveness before the fleet attempted to pass the guarded area. The barrier across the river was then to be severed for the passage. Since Fort Jackson was the stronger of the two Forts and in a more strategic position, most of the mortar fire was to be concentrated on it.

On April 18, 1862, the mortars commenced firing. The barrier was cut in the dark of April 20. After five days and nights the Forts were still not reduced. Farragut decided that continuous mortar shelling of Fort Jackson could not silence the Fort's batteries. He chose the morning of April 24, 1862, to attempt to pass the Forts. At 2:00 A.M. the 17 ships in three division started up river and this epic battle had begun.

The Union General Butler found the ensuing fight unique and described it in the fashion: "...Twenty mortars, 142 guns in the fleet, 120 in the Forts, the crash of splinters, the explosion of the boilers and magazines, the shouts and cries, the shrieks of scalded and drowning men; add to this, the belching flashes of the guns, blazing rafts of burning steamboats, the river full of fire, and you have a picture of the battle that was all confined to Plaquemines Bend."

The "Manassas," "MacRae" and the "Governor Moore" of the Confederate Naval forces fought gloriously. Fort Jackson's drawbridge was completely destroyed; the hot shot furnaces were demolished; the cisterns were razed to the ground; all casemated and passages were flooded by seepage caused by damage to the levees by shell-fire. Four guns were dismounted; 11 carriages and 30 beds and traverses were decommissioned. The outer walls of the Fort were cracked from top to bottom in several places through which rays of smoke-clouded sunlight filtered.

It has been computed that 3,330 shells had been thrown into the ditches and cluttered sections of the Fort; 1080 shells exploded in the air over the Fort; 1,113 mortar shells were counted on the solid ground of the Fort and levees.

In all, 8,100 shells were fired at the Forts, especially Fort Jackson, and yet they did not fall or surrender. Fort Jackson, after a tremendous fight, was still defensible.

Thirteen ships succeeded in passing the Forts and continued upriver to capture New Orleans. Flag Officer Farragut left Commander Porter and his mortar boats along with General Butler and some of his troops to capture Fort Jackson. The Forts continued their valiant fight until a mutiny broke out in Fort Jackson on April 27. The mutineers spiked many of the guns in the Fort, threatened their officers and deserted. This caused General Duncan to surrender the Forts to Commander Porter on April 28, 1862.

Flag Officer Farragut's passing of the Forts and the subsequent capturing of New Orleans was one of the most significant events of the Civil War.

With the fall of the Forts, the ultimate loss of the Mississippi Valley was certain -- an eventuality which led to the doom of the Confederacy. Had the Forts prevented Farragut's passage, and scattered his fleet, it is possible that the Civil War would have taken a different turn with the likely intervention of England and/or France.

Courtesy of the Fort Jackson Tour Guide

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