Union Navy Fleet Attacks Confederate Forts at the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Phillip

The Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip (April 18–28, 1862) in the American Civil War was the decisive battle for possession of New Orleans.

The two Confederate forts on the Mississippi River south of the city were attacked by a Union Navy fleet. As long as the forts could keep the Federal forces from moving on the city, it was safe, but if they were negated, there were no fall-back positions to impede the enemy advance.

New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, was already under threat of attack from the north when Farragut moved his fleet into the river from the south. Although the menace from upriver was geographically more remote than that from the Gulf of Mexico, a series of losses in Kentucky and Tennessee had forced the War and Navy Departments in Richmond to strip the region of much of its defenses. Men and equipment had been withdrawn from the local defenses, so that by mid-April almost nothing remained to the south except the two forts and an assortment of gunboats of questionable worth.[1] Without reducing the pressure from the north, (Union) President Abraham Lincoln set in motion a combined Army-Navy operation to attack from the south. The Union Army offered 18,000 soldiers, led by the political general Benjamin F. Butler. The Navy contributed a large fraction of its West Gulf Blockading Squadron, which was commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut. The squadron was augmented by a semi-autonomous flotilla of mortar rafts and their support vessels under Commander David Dixon Porter.

The expedition assembled at Ship Island in the Gulf. Once they were ready, the naval contingent moved its ships into the river, an operation that was completed on April 14. They were then moved into position near the forts, and on April 18 the mortars opened the battle.

The ensuing battle can be divided into two parts: a mostly ineffective bombardment of the Confederate-held forts by the raft-mounted mortars, and the successful passage of the forts by much of Farragut's fleet on the night of April 24. During the passage, one Federal warship was lost and three others turned back, while the Confederate gunboats were virtually obliterated. The subsequent capture of the city, achieved with no further significant opposition, was a serious, even fatal, blow from which the Confederacy never recovered.[4] The forts remained after the fleet had passed, but the demoralized enlisted men in Fort Jackson mutinied and forced their surrender.

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Early Union plans had called for the division of the Confederacy by seizing control of the Mississippi River. One of the first steps in such operations was to enter the mouth of the Mississippi River, ascend to New Orleans and capture the city, closing off the entrance to Rebel ships. In mid-January 1862, Flag-Officer David G. Farragut undertook this enterprise with his West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The way was soon open except for the two forts, Jackson and St. Philip, above the Head of the Passes, approximately seventy miles below New Orleans. In addition to the forts and their armament, the Confederates had placed obstructions in the river and there were a number of ships, including two ironclads, to assist in the defense. Farragut based his operations from Ship Island, Mississippi, and on April 8, he assembled 24 of his vessels and Comdr. David D. Porter's 19 mortar schooners near the Head of the Passes. Starting on the 16th and continuing for seven days, the mortar schooners bombarded Fort Jackson but failed to silence its guns. Some of Farragut’s gunboats opened a way through the obstruction on the night of the 22nd. Early on the morning of the 24th, Farragut sent his ships north to pass the forts and head for New Orleans. Although the Rebels attempted to stop the Union ships in various ways, most of the force successfully passed the forts and continued on to New Orleans where Farragut accepted the city’s surrender. With the passage of the forts, nothing could stop the Union forces: the fall of New Orleans was inevitable and anti-climatic. Cut off and surrounded, the garrisons of the two forts surrendered on the 28th.