April 25, 1862—With the Confederacy caught unawares and unprepared, the Union achieved a critical step in one of its major objectives—securing control of the Mississippi River. After a day of peril running his ships past the forts guarding New Orleans, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut occupied the Crescent City and demanded that civil authorities surrender lest he turn his fleet's guns on them. It was the first in a series of victories that led this old sea dog—who had joined the Navy as a nine-year-old midshipman in the War of 1812, and was 60 when conflict broke out between North and South—to become the greatest naval commander of the Civil War.
I would have been surprised a week and a half ago, when I took the picture here of the Admiral Farragut Memorial in New York’s Madison Square Park, if any passers-by could identify the man depicted. But, when this first great public commission by the famed sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens was unveiled in 1881, it was a far different story. Then, onlookers could have told you that all the highest ranks in the Navy -- rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral of the Navy—were created by Congress for him; that this native of Tennessee with a wife from Norfolk, Va., had chosen to stay loyal to the Union; and that sometimes the price of this loyalty had been severe.
(One report had it that, as Farragut passed below a New Orleans house, an indignant woman emptied the contents of her chamber pot on his head. That reportedly was the last straw for the city’s Union military governor, General Benjamin Butler, who then issue his infamous order that any woman insulting a Federal serviceman should be regarded as “a woman of the town plying her vocation.”)
The bronze, eight-foot-tall Farragut statue in Madison Square gives an extraordinarily vivid sense of what it must have been like to be this hero at the height of battle—in New Orleans, perhaps, or maybe two years later, at the Battle of Mobile Bay, when, warned that he’d be sailing through a mine-filled harbor, he supposedly barked: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” In this marvelously naturalistic depiction, the bottom of his long jacket is swirling slightly upward, as if caught by a wind. With his binoculars in his hand and his sword at his side, he is searching the horizon, on the lookout for an enemy. The statue is turned south, where the threat to the Union loomed.
The statue shows a leader impossible to regard as irresolute; the statement for which he’s remembered (perhaps apocryphal) hints at someone dismissive of danger to the point of rashness. The Farragut I’ve read about at New Orleans appears far more concerned about casualties—ready to take a risk, true, but only after a careful consideration of the cost. When told by a subordinate that he expected only 100 Federal casualties, Farragut merely responded that he hoped he was right.
Farragut and the Federals had come to believe that the time was right to make a play for New Orleans, and to pray the damage could be staunched. The prize was certainly big enough. Capturing New Orleans turned out to be “the most important event of the War of the Rebellion, with the exception of the fall of Richmond,” according to Commander David Dixon Porter, Farragut’s foster brother (and, in one of those neat twists of history, the man asked by the Navy Department to vouch for his loyalty and skill when the campaign was being planned). It wasn’t just because the Crescent City was the largest in the Confederacy, or that, with a sizable population of non-Southerners and non-slaveholders, it might prove one of the easier cities to turn back toward the Union.
No, New Orleans was also the financial center of King Cotton, an industrial center that could help maintain the Southern war effort, and a transit point that would allow men and materiel to pass unmolested across the Mississippi from west to the east. That rapid, undisturbed movement, if allowed to continue, would enable the Confederacy to transfer troops easily to the theater of operations where they were needed most.
Amazingly, the Confederate government didn’t carefully consider how to secure this critical seaport. It believed that an attack on the Mississippi would come further up the river. Thinking it highly unlikely that the Union would try to attack the city from the Gulf Coast, it moved ships and whatever men it could spare to points north.
Farragut, however, thought that an attack from the Gulf of Mexico could succeed, telling Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, “The forts are well down the river; ships could easily run them, and New Orleans itself is undefended.”
It was a shrewd assessment, and Fox and his boss, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, worked mightily to supply Farragut with all he needed in his attempt.
When it came time to take the two points guarding the approach to New Orleans, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip, the flag officer allowed Porter to try out his idea of bombarding the fortifications from mortar boats. After a week of no discernible effect, however, Farragut decided to run his boats past the forts in the early hours of April 24.
Instead of making the run as planned at 2 am, Farragut’s fleet didn’t launch in earnest for another hour and a half. Once detected, his ships found themselves under fire from the forts: “Imagine all the earthquakes in the world, and all the thunder and lightnings together in a space of two miles, all going off at once,” a participant recalled later. There was another, more unusual menace: fire rafts. In preparation for this possibility, the area around each gun on Farragut's flagship, the Hartford, had been strewn with sand and ashes, so the sailors wouldn’t slip on their own blood. Even so, when the Hartford ran aground, it took all of Farragut's exhorting and all of the ship’s efforts to put out the deathly blaze.
On the 25th, Farragut surveyed the situation and liked what he saw. The Confederate Navy in the harbor was over as a fighting force. The city’s natives came out in great numbers to shout their defiance, but Farragut knew he had time on his hand, and by the 29th all resistance in the area was snuffed out.
The loss of New Orleans was a major blow to the Confederacy. Napoleon III of France had been so anxious to dismember the Union that he had been willing to recognize the Confederate government on his own. After Farragut’s victory, however, he would do so only in league with Great Britain, and that became a less and less likely prospect after the Battle of Antietam and Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Moreover, the reign of “King Cotton” was in serious danger with the loss of its great depot; desperately needed beef and supplies could no longer move freely near the coast; and points farther up the Mississippi, such as Vicksburg, were now suddenly, shockingly vulnerable. In another year and a half, Porter and General Ulysses S. Grant would carry out an even more daring collaboration between land and sea forces than the one in which Farragut and Butler had acted to bring down New Orleans. That Vicksburg campaign split the Confederacy again in two--or, as Lincoln so memorably put it, "And so The Father of Waters flows again unvexed to the sea."