Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Facing the Forts: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron

Today (25 April) marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of New Orleans. In commemoration of Union control of the Crescent City, we have begun a series of posts in coordination with the Civil War Monitor Magazine, titled “Iron Men Afloat.” For each topic covered, the CWN 150 blog will focus on the machines and technology used, while the Civil War Monitor will discuss the men (i.e. living component) involved. This is the first in an ambitious series of cross posts. For the companion post at the Civil War Monitor blog, please go HERE

USS Hartford at New Orleans (Library of Congress)
United States Navy 
The ships of the West Gulf Blockading faced a daunting task in April 1862.  The Navy set its eyes on New Orleans, the South’s largest city and major port. Records show that Captain David Glasgow Farragut began planning to capture New Orleans began as far back as January and February.  The future Admiral knew that taking New Orleans meant taking or running past the powerful Forts Jackson and St. Philip, situated across each other along the Mississippi River. Farragut took command of the newly created West Gulf Blockading Squadron in late 1861, arriving with his fleet in February.  This would be his first major test as squadron commander during the Civil War. The results would give him international acclaim.

The majority of focus on ship strength during the battle centers on Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford. Built just prior to the war, the Hartford boasted steam and sail capabilities with a top speed of 13.5 knots.  This was one advantage that proved to be beneficial for sloops when compared to sluggish ironclads. The ship was by all accounts no different than any other wooden sloop-of-war created in the antebellum Navy.  Her war service record, however, made her one of the Navy’s most recognizable ships. By 1865, the ship seemed mythical. At one point in the battle (24 April), Farragut’s leadership helped save the grounded ship from a burning barge that nearly engulfed the entire ship in flames. The above print from the Library of Congress’ collection brilliantly explains the harrowing sight of battle on 24 April.  The Hartford was just one of many Union ships involved in the battle against Forts Jackson and St. Philip. The attack utilized several different ship types of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, including sloops, schooners, mortar boats, and hastily built gunboats.

The Union plan of attack was not without its flaws.  The major obstacle standing in the way of Farragut’s fleet, besides fortifications and river barrier chain, was David Dixon Porter’s mortar ships.  Slow and relatively untested, each of the 21 mortar schooners had a single 13-inch seacoast mortar capable of hurling a 227-pound shell nearly 5,000 yards. The arched trajectory a lot the plunging fire to fall on top of the enemy target: ideal for shore-based fortifications. Although Farragut did not  ascribe to the effectiveness of the giant cannons, he would use his fleet during the upcoming engagement regardless. 
(Library of Congress)

LEFT:  Union plan of attack, sketched by William Waud. Notice the sketches of CSS Louisiana and CSS Manasseh's in the left corner of the image.

 The ongoing debate of ship vulnerability and susceptibility to shore-based fortification would be tested at New Orleans. Before April 1862, few naval engagements involved ships against heavy fortifications. Although several “gauntlets” were passed in the early months of 1862 (See “Commander Walke Runs the Gauntlet”). The Mississippi River, either at its inner corridors or its entrance, was the major objective in the West.  It was there that Farragut felt David Dixon Porter’s rag-tag mortar fleet could be utilized. If anything, the results proved to be psychologically damaging, as some of the shells with their unreliable fuses did hit the fortifications.  According to historian Chester Hearn, Porter predicted he could subdue the forts within two days of bombardment.  He did not.  During the first phase of the battle (18-23 April), Porter fired nearly 3,000 mortars over the course of five days. Civil War Monitor and CWN 150 blogger Craig Swain recently wrote about the unwieldy and inaccurate mortars for the blog.
Unadilla-Class Gunboat, 1861
Unadilla-class gunboats, commonly referred to as the “90 Day Gunboats,” were employed in every naval theater of warfare during the Civil War, from the battle at Port Royal to the triumphant Vicksburg campaign. Each ship was lightly armed with one XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, two 24-pounder Parrot rifles, and one 20-pounder Parrot.  The U.S. Navy used the wrought iron Parrot rifle extensively during the war, even if the design was flawed (Many of the guns burst throughout the war).  It is hard to compare the "wholesale" design of the Parrot with the tested one of Dahlgren’s, who Spencer Tucker called “the most influential figure in the development of nineteenth century ordnance.” Of the 17 ships comprising the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, nine were Unadilla-class gunboats: Cayuga, Itasca, Katahdin, Kennebec, Kineo, Pinola, Sciota, Winona, and Wissahickon.

In total, the squadron assembled below New Orleans totaled 188 guns to the 105 guns at Forts Jackson and St. Philip (75 at Fort Jackson and 30 at Fort St. Philip).  General Mansfield Lovell and other Confederate planners hoped the fortifications and ships would be enough to stave off Farragut’s wooden fleet.

Confederate Navy 
Facing the 188 guns of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron were several ironclads and cottonclad rams that comprised the Civilian-run Confederate River Defense Fleet. Three ironclads were at New Orleans at the time of the 24 April engagement: CSS Manassas, CSS Louisiana, and CSS Mississippi. Only Manassas and Louisiana were involved in the conflict, as Mississippi was incomplete at the time of battle.

CSS Louisiana
Louisiana loosely resembled many of the casemate-type ironclads used in the eastern theater like CSS Virginia and CSS Richmond. The ship was hastily built amidst pressure from the blockade and from skilled laborers. After she sank following the fleet’s passing below New Orleans, the Louisiana’s Executive Officer pointed out in the Official Records that, above all else, the ship was poorly designed for armament, making it only a formidable ship at close range. The armor of the ship did prove effective in battle. Louisiana briefly engaged with the Brooklyn during the engagement, having the Union vessels’ cannon balls bounced off the armor plating. The only major casualty of the Louisiana during its brief engagement at New Orleans was its commanding officer, Charles F. McIntosh.

CSS Manassas
CSS Manassas made notoriety earlier in the year when it thwarted the Federal blockade at the Head of Passes. Her design sparked much curiosity; so much that David Dixon Porter attempted to save the ship from sinking to examine it at the end of the battle. New Orleans merchant John Stevenson took the captured tow boat upriver to Algiers where it was converted into a revolutionary “turtle-backed” ironclad design, complete with 1.5-inch armor and chain complementing the iron ram and single Dahlgren gun.  The new ship was christened CSS Manassas.  During the battle, Manassas managed to ram the Mississippi and Brooklyn. The damage, however, was minimal. The vessel was eventually abandoned on the shore and burned.

Stacking Up
It is important to note the simplicity of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in comparison to other squadrons or Confederate fleets. According to the National Park Service, the United States Navy suffered 229 casualties to the Confederacy’s 782. The Union Navy lost one vessel, the gunboat Varuna. The United States Navy ran the forts with no ironclad ships. The Confederate Navy lost twelve vessels during the run of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron past Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Of the three Confederate ironclads at the battle of New Orleans, none survived the end of April:
  • The CSS Manassas ran aground and sunk on 24 April by steam frigate USS Mississippi.
  • The crew of the CSS Louisiana set her afire to avoid capture on 28 April. 
  • The incomplete CSS Mississippi was burned by Confederates to avoid capture by Farragut on 25 April. 
Perhaps it is best to take a quote from the Ironclad Board, men who were ironically assigned to employ new naval technology against wooden ships. Once you read the quote, it is as if they read straight from an after-action report at New Orleans:
“Wooden ships may be said to be but coffins for their crews when brought in conflict with iron-clad vessels; but the speed of the former, we take for granted, being greater than that of the latter, they can readily choose their position and keep out of harm’s way.”
Steam power had much more to do with the battle of New Orleans than iron-wielded machinery. With a hearty understanding of strategy and tactics, Farragut’s fleet soundly passed the Forts at New Orleans, leaving a clear path to New Orleans with no sign of reinforcements between them and the strategic and commercial center. On 25 April 1862, Farragut’s forces accepted its surrender. Although the squadron’s sailors were not made of iron, their courage was wielded and forged at the gates of New Orleans in April 1862. Read more about the Battle of New Orleans, including a complete sequence of events of the engagement, HERE.

Where Are They Now? 
 Bruised and battered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both forts remain standing, albeit more in a figurative sense. St. Philip, the smaller of the two fortifications watching over the entrance to New Orleans, is only available via boat or helicopter. Both forts are part of the U.S. National Register of the Historic Places, as well as U.S. National Historic Landmarks. The many Unadilla-class gunboats created to swell the naval register immediately following the outbreak of the war were primarily sold off to foreign countries when the war ended. As for Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford remained in the fleet serving with distinction for the remainder of the Civil War. Falling into disrepair, the ship sank at her Portsmouth birth in 1956.  Here is a picture of the stern emblem of the ship, which is now part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s accessioned collection.

1 comment:

  1. April 24, 2013...nothing from New Orleans commemorating this event. Such an important happening for this city at the time and no mention of it here at all...SAD !