One-hundred and fifty years ago, Admiral David Farragut faced the difficult task of reducing or bypassing Confederate defenses to capture New Orleans. The Confederates inherited an extensive network of fortifications constructed under the “Third System” by the U.S. Army from 1815 to 1860. As such, the defenses provide a good study of the seacoast defense theory of the antebellum years.
The scheme of defense for New Orleans contained the lessons learned from the War of 1812, considering the British attempts to take the city in 1814-15. During that war, an old colonial fort, Fort Saint Philip, successfully prevented British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane from moving directly up the Mississippi River. Instead the British moved by way of the backwaters southeast of the city. After a delaying action by Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones (you may be more familiar with his nephew Catesby ap Roger Jones of the CSS Virginia), the British moved through Lake Borgne and a series of bayous to reach a spot downstream of New Orleans. Had the British ground commanders moved quickly, they might have captured the city. Instead, indecision and a spoiling attack by General Andrew Jackson bought time for the Americans to establish defenses just outside New Orleans. Admiral Cochrane proposed using Chef Menteur Pass to reach Lake Pontchartrain and outflank the Americans. But he was overruled. I’ll let Johnny Horton pick up the story from there….
Military minds realized even in victory, Andrew Jackson’s success revealed many weak points in the defense of New Orleans. As result, the lower Mississippi River received much attention from those planning coastal defenses in the antebellum period. Instead of a single point defense, as might be employed at a harbor entrance, New Orleans required a system of defenses covering the waterways leading to the city. The bayous connecting Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain required special attention. Technology of the time provided 24-, 32-, and 42-pdr guns with practical ranges of around 1500 yards. The expected opponent in the most likely scenario was a European navy, using wooden, sail-powered warships (meaning for riverine purposes, good old muscle power via oars or capstans). Such forces, unable to “run” the batteries as later steam-powered ships might, would lay at anchor and bombard the shore defenses. Furthermore, the defense assumed a long lead time, given the travel time from Europe, in which Americans could activate the militia and concentrate (or constitute) naval forces.
To start with, immediately following the War of 1812 the Army improved the defenses of the Mississippi River itself. Old Fort Saint Philip received updates and a new mate across the river. With Fort Jackson on the west bank, any attacker faced a gauntlet of fire along the river.
In the 1820s, Army efforts shifted east towards the route used by the British. Battery Bienvenue grew from a few guns in 1816 to a twenty-four gun fortification by 1830. (I’ve mentioned this fort in relation to some rather rare guns.) This covered the juncture of two bayous leading back to Lake Borgne. Further down, in Tower Dupre, completed in 1833, blocked one entrance from the lake to Bayou Dupre. Another tower, not complete at the time of the Civil War, blocked another pass between Lake Borgne and Bayue Dupre at Proctor’s Landing.
But the main effort went towards two very similar forts sealing off the passes between Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain. Completed in 1827, Fort Pike covered the Rigolets, a northern channel between the lakes. The Army completed Fort Macomb the same year, covering Chef Menteur Pass to the south. Engineers laid out both forts with triangular traces using an arc of casemates to optimize the number of guns facing the channel, while offering no blind angles to any waterborne attacker. Terrain and topography allowed the Army to dispense with elaborate outer works for these forts. Any besiegers would fight the water table in addition to the fort’s defenders.
After completing defenses to address the eastern approaches, the Army turned to those west of the river. Construction on Fort Livingston, to cover the main entrance to Barataria Bay, began in 1835. Work at that isolated location proceeded in spurts. The fort was barely completed before the Civil War, and never properly armed.
As weapons technology improved, the Army was able to extend the system of forts further out. In 1858, the Army started construction of a fort on Ship Island, Mississippi, to protect Mississippi Sound. That sound connected to Lake Borgne and to inland waterways around Mobile, Alabama. A battery of heavy columiads, or better still those heavy Rodman guns undergoing tests, could command a wide expanse of water from that fort. The Confederates briefly held the incomplete fort in 1861, but the Federals seized it back in September that year. Fort Massachusetts, as it came to be known, then became a base of operations along the Gulf Coast.
So in April 1862, the defense of New Orleans was a series of strong points covering the likely avenues of approach:
The Confederates added a few batteries along the Mississippi to supplement the system they inherited. But the existing forts remained the heart of the defense.
In retrospect, we would be hasty to claim this defensive strategy was flawed. As designed within the construct of a national defense, the system might have worked. I disdain “alternate histories,” but if we flip history on its head considering a repeat of 1814, an American defense (benefiting from a larger manpower and industrial base) compares well with potential adversaries. But reality is the Confederates didn’t have a concentrated “blue water” navy, “Pook’s Turtles”, Rodman’s guns, or legions of mid-western militia to aid in the defense. I contend the very things the defensive strategy depended upon became the force undoing of the Confederate defenses of New Orleans.
So how’s that for a War of 1812 bicentennial and a Civil War sesquicentennial cross thread post?
- Transitioning from Old to New: The First Production Batches of Rodman Guns (markerhunter.wordpress.com)
- 150 Years Ago: Forts Henry and Heiman (markerhunter.wordpress.com)
- Heavy Iron to Protect the Coasts: 15-inch Rodman Guns (markerhunter.wordpress.com)
- Tall Ships On The Father Of Waters (webnerhouse.com)