Category Archives: New Orleans

150 Years Ago: The turning of the leaves and changes of command

After the Confederate campaigns into Maryland and Kentucky petered out in the fall of 1862, there were several changes in the lineup of Federal field commanders. I suspect most readers are familiar with the relief of George McClellan, replaced by Ambrose Burnside, which occurred this week 150 years ago. At the end of last month, I wrote about William Rosecrans moving to command the “new” Department of the Cumberland which was really the “old” Army of the Ohio.

But there was another change of command queued up for the fall of 1862, and it also occurred, on paper at least, during the early days of November:

Washington, November 8, 1862.
By direction of the President of the United States Maj. Gen. N. P. Banks is assigned to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas.

By order of the Secretary of War:
Assistant Adjutant-General.

And with General Banks then in charge of the Department of the Gulf, who was on the outs?

More explicit orders came the next day from General Henry Halleck:

… The President of the United States having assigned you to command of the Department of the Gulf, you will immediately proceed with the troops assembling in transports at Fort Monroe to New Orleans and relieve Major-General Butler….

McClellan, Buell, and Butler…. all going on the bench. Burnside, Rosecrans, and Banks now taking the field. And meanwhile some fellow named John McClernand was traveling west with these orders in hand:

Washington City, October 21, 1862.
Ordered, That Major-General McClernand be, and he is, directed to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis, Cairo, or such other points as may hereafter be designated by the general-in-chief, to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.
The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require.

Secretary of War.

On the outside, it appeared that even General U.S. Grant was also vulnerable (although through the lens of history we know better).

Were all these changes an indication of failures in the field by these generals? Or was it a change in direction, emanating from the chief strategist in the White House? Or a little of both?

(Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 15, Serial 21, page 590 and Series I, Volume 17, Serial 25, page 282.)

Lines and Angles: Bomardment of Fort Jackson

Among the primary sources for the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip are several maps drafted to support naval operations. The maps themselves were products of the Coast Survey, working with Army surveys done before the war.  The products of the survey in turn were used for operational planning.  That provides what in my generation of warfighters we’d have called an “overlay,” alluding to days of clear acetate and grease pencil smudges that passed for operational graphics.

Those graphics, at the time of the operation, are a valuable tool for the commander to relate the orders.  A well drawn graphic rises above any ambiguities, perhaps due to misinterpretation of the written word, and places a THERE on the map.  For the historian, the things that are recorded on the map provide some insight into the thoughts, concerns, or preferences of the commander and his staff.

A copy of both the survey team’s draft and the finished copy are part of Fold3’s free Civil War map collection.  Here’s the final:

The caption on the map reads:

Reconnoissance of the Mississippi River below Forts Jackson and St. Philip made previous to the reduction by the U.S. Fleet under the command of Flag officer D.G. Farragut, U.S.N.  By the party under the direction of F.H. Gerdes, Asst. U.S. Coast Survey, A.D. Bache, Supdt.

NOTE – O1, O2, O3 &c. H1, H2, H3 &c are points established by triangulation.  A, B, C, D &c are points on the left bank and 1, 2, 3, 4 &c. points on the right bank of the River, established for placing the Gunboats and Mortarboats in position.  The position of the Mortar Flotilla on the first day of the bombardment, April 18th was as follows – 6 mortars on the left bank between C & J, distance to Fort Jackson 3900 to 4500 yards — 14 mortars on the right bank from 1 to 5; distance to Fort Jackson 2830 to 3490 yards.  On the 19th, the 2nd day of the bombardment, they were all on the right bank and 20 mortars were placed distant from Fort Jackson 3010 to 4100 yards.  They remained on the 3rd and 4th days nearly in the same position.  All the large armed steamers and Gunboats were placed from ¼ to 1 ¾ miles below the lowest mortar vessel.  On the first day the small steam sloops and the Gunboats went up to abreast of the Smokestack, where they engaged the forts and the enemy’s steamers.

Here’s a close up view of the left edge of the map, showing the location of the forts and marked positions for the bombarding boats.

A set of lines show the surveyors paid careful attention to the layout of the forts.  One line shows the “lower limit of casemate tier” of Fort Jackson’s down river facing battery.  Another set of lines indicates the “sector without casemate fire.”   The river facing bastion created a blind spot that guns within the casemates could not cover.  Of course, guns on the barbette tier could cover that angle.  But the mortars were supposed to make those positions untenable, if not dismounting the guns entirely.  Notice what lays within that uncovered angle.  Yes, the hulks and chains obstructing the river.  Go figure….

Another line indicates the upper limit of the casemate guns, reaching across to Fort St. Philip.  While the arc of coverage from that fort’s casemates is not depicted, simple extrapolation demonstrates the “cross fire” from the forts lay upstream of the obstructions.   So if the mortars could suppress the open barbette tier and the exterior water batteries, the casemate guns would have difficulty covering the channel.

The maps pertaining to the “battle of the forts” also includes a survey of damage done to Fort Jackson:

A close up view shows large sections, including two bastions and the central citadel, burned.  But the most serious damage was to the glacis facing downriver.  Not only did this open the moat and interior of the fort to flooding, it also exposed the casemate walls.

With the masonry exposed, the attackers could then begin battering work… in due time…. But as related yesterday, Admiral Farragut didn’t want to prosecute a formal siege.  He wanted to get up river to his assigned target.  The forts were just impediments to be bypassed if need be.  Damaged, flooded, and demoralized, the forts alone could not hold the West Gulf Blockading Squadron at bay.

The Mortar Schooners: Bombarding the Mississippi Forts

Continuing the discussion of 13-inch mortars in action, I’ve posted an article on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog detailing the Navy’s mortar schooners used below New Orleans.   The piece complements a series of cross-posts between the CWN150 blog and the Civil War Monitor’s Front Line blog, all focused on the campaign to take New Orleans.  The posts thus far also include a look at how the sketch artists covered the action.

As I indicate in the post, the mortars failed to meet expectations.  That continued a trend seen at Fort Pulaski and at Island No. 10.  Were the mortars simply inadequate or defective?   I wouldn’t go that far.  A better way to put it – heavy mortars alone could not bring about the reduction of enemy works, but provided a valuable component to any besieging force.   And while the physical damage was not as extensive as predicted, perhaps the psychological effect made up for the shortfall.

150 Years Ago: Defending New Orleans

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?