When you think of great navel battles from U.S. history, we mostly think of phenomenal battles of the Revolutionary War or World War II. But it was a naval battle for control of the mouth of the Mississippi river during the Civil War that changed the course of that war. The strategies that lead to the fall of New Orleans is one of the storied naval encounters of this era of U.S. history.
It was the Union general Winfield Scott who correctly surmised that by capturing the port of New Orleans and by taking control of the ports of the Mississippi river, the Union forces could effectively split the confederacy in half. But taking New Orleans was not as easy as it might seem. The confederacy were heavily dug in at two locations, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip and these fortifications would be used to repel any attempts to go up the river to capture the city.
The tasks of neutralizing those forts and getting up river fell to Flag Officer David G. Farragut. To begin his strategic assault, Farragut took Ship Island, which was off the coast of the river to use as a base of operations to assault the forts. The initial plan was to destroy or effectively make the forts ineffective with mortar fire. But in addition to the forts, the confederate commander, Major General Mansfield Lovell, had 10 gunboats and two ironclad ships to defend his position. Farragut knew the assault would be difficult but he began his attack on April 18th, 1862 nonetheless.
Farragut assaulted the forts for five days pounding them with mortar fire. But despite that incredible shelling, he was not able to destroy or neutralize their ability to defend the river. There was nothing left to do but to try to get past the forts despite their fire and get his ships up river. This was a bold maneuver but one that was eventually successful but not without losses.
It took an hour and a half for the first wave of ships to pass the forts but Farragut was able to navigate past them. But when the second division approached the river mouth, they were not so successful when the flagship of the armada ran aground. With some success, the confederate defenders attacked the grounded ship, The Hartford, which caused a fire to break out. The Union forces were able to get the ship under control nonetheless and back en route up river, which meant that the armada was clear of the forts and able to proceed to New Orleans to put it under Union control.