Losing New Orleans
Testimony to the Evacuation of the Crescent City

     The impossible task of defending a city below sea level and vulnerable to grand assault by an enemy fleet was not for lack of an innovative military mind, but rather the neglectful attention the Confederate government placed upon the importance of holding it. Major General Mansfield Lovell assumed command of Department No. 1 by Special Orders No. 173 from the Adjutant and Inspector General's Office in Richmond on October 7, 1861 placing upon him the monumental responsibility of safeguarding the city of New Orleans. In February of 1863, by direction of the President of the Confederate States upon the application of his former department commander, a court of inquiry was assembled to ascertain the facts and circumstances surrounding the fall of New Orleans.

     Major General T. C. Hindman, Brigadier General William M. Gardner, and Brigadier General T. F. Drayton made up the board of officers assembled at Jackson, Mississippi in March to take testimony and report their findings.

     In support of points north pursuant to prevent the invasion of Tennessee, Major General Mansfield Lovell had transferred equivalent to one division of troops to Kentucky which immediately stripped the Crescent City of essential infantry personnel needed to defend it. Likewise in the month of February the militia within the state, up to ten thousand the previous November, six thousand having been armed of which half that number were sent likewise to the Volunteer State and only twelve hundred of those left behind were equipped with muskets and an assorted array of shotguns. Unlike his soldiers, there was a trust factor which prevented the commanding general from issuing live ammunition to them until the need arose, having more than 600,000 rounds of shotgun cartridges in storage.

     Heavy armament could not be spared the city, every application that was made to send such caliber weapons had been denied by the central government in Richmond which included points such as Pensacola that were then about to be abandoned. All the department commander could expect from the navy was their professional cooperation should the emergency arise. When requested that all available forces be placed under the central command of Department Number 1, the Navy Department refused to unify the two branches.

     Many of the vessels afloat, particularly those of the converted ironclads, Louisiana and Manassas were incapable of operational readiness before the movement to take the city had commenced. The revenues had not been allotted Commodore George N. Hollins to continue on with the contracted work and even the powder for his guns had to be obtained through the generosity of the department. The city merchants likewise had kicked in an additional $45,000 dollars which obviously displayed a grand lack of energy and promptitude displayed by the flag officer's superiors in Richmond.

     He stated that he had wished he could bring all his vessels to bear on Farragut's fleet. He foresaw that the bows of the enemy's ships would have been exposed to the broadsides of his ironclads, while the forts would have blown apart their sterns.

     The safety committee of New Orleans offered monies to Lovell but requested they know what it was used for. He denied the acceptance at first on grounds of not making public the weaker points of the department. He later availed himself of roughly two hundred fifty thousand dollars but still he lacked the need of armaments, supplies, anchor chains and small arms. Instead, he asked of the committee to help run the blockade using their funds to obtain provisions needed for the city in case of siege.

     Bennett and Surges, a foundry inside the Crescent City had been anxious from the start in manufacturing large caliber guns for the Confederate government, but Richmond provided no encouragement to do so. They had just recently begun to manufacture eight of them at the request of Major General Lovell, this included five completed, tested and placed on the line of defense before the city fell.

     General Lovell had asked Commander William C. Whittle to place the Louisiana on the Fort Saint Philip side of the river, one half mile in front which ought to have provided her cover by the fort's crossfire. The naval officer foresaw the futility involved in doing so for in the absence of her motive power, she was left vulnerable. The firepower, however, was desperately required and it was deemed best to simply utilize her as a floating battery and take the chance of losing the ship rather than to lose New Orleans.

     When the war was about to commence, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard had submitted drawings for a boom to span the Mississippi River at Forts Jackson and Saint Philip. Without such a contraption the fire power of the two bastions would not be enough to block the enemy fleet by themselves. When he had left for Montgomery, Alabama in February of 1861, the drawings were entrusted to Colonel Paul Hebert; however, the boom had never been constructed due to the lack of appropriations allotted for the defense of the city. Once the enemy fleet had passed the two forts the city lay to the mercy of the enemy. If New Orleans lost the river the city became strategically worthless.

     Major General Martin L. Smith concurred on the fall of New Orleans, it being situated below sea level; would constitute it being placed upon an island and the force that controls the river, controls the supplies she subsists upon. He reiterated that once this had been accomplished the city had perhaps only thirty to sixty days before starvation claimed its citizenry. The forts themselves were impregnable as long as they remained in communication with the city itself. Once the forts were passed, nobody including General Lovell could have controlled the area.

     During the engagement of April 24th, when the federal fleet engaged and later passed both Forts Jackson and Saint Philip; the department commander's principal line of defense where his guns, manpower and ships had been heavily concentrated, the city and the protection of its one hundred fifty thousand citizens were thus rendered untenable. The upper interior line had not enough powder to mount any significant defense when the fleet sailed into the city. The only way out of the city for the Confederates was a small strip of land between the river and Lake Pontchartrain. The Confederate line of supply through Texas and the Red River would be severed, and once the ground forces occupied the city, an occupation of Kenner, ten miles above New Orleans would cause both citizen and soldier alike to submit to a siege. The food stores and supplies were determined to last only another three weeks and their fate sealed by starvation.

     There had been plenty of swamplands behind the city for the inhabitants to hide themselves, but should the troops remain, the usages of war permitted the federal navy to treat all as combatants. With the guns of thirteen vessels pointed along the streets, the risk had been high in setting the swamps to fire any time of their choosing. It was deemed appropriate to leave New Orleans un-garrisoned altogether. The department commander, therefore, made use of the time before they landed ground forces and began the burden of removing all public property.

     The major general commanding would rather submit himself to the public clamor he knew would follow as a result of his decision rather than subject the women and children to a bombardment of the city that he knew had to be forcefully evacuated within three weeks anyway. The choice of staying in New Orleans would have cost soldiers, weapons and supplies. The enemy would have controlled the river system as far north as Memphis which likewise would fall into their clutches, but by withdrawing; Lovell could fortify, arm and organize Vicksburg, a strong defensible position.

     That April 24th, the Superintendent of the railroad received an order from Lovell having him hold everything in readiness for the removal of troops and government property. These trains were strictly forbidden for citizen or private property transport, and the removal of soldier and government property went on day and night for the next ninety six hours.

     Major S. L. James, a nominal staff officer to the department commander was ordered to the wharfs to detain all steamboats at the landing to take on government stores. The various ordnance officers were put to the task of loading them, but in the excitement of evacuation many engineers and pilots abandoned their boats leaving these as well to the mercy of the enemy. Drays and wagons had to be impressed upon to move such things from the city to the railroad depots where the railroad authority took charge of it.

     The court's opinion was that in the early attempt to build a proper defense of New Orleans, superior authority had withdrawn nearly all of his effective ground forces relied upon to defend it. The exterior line along the forts was rendered as strong as the means within his command would allow. The navigational obstructions was adequate as long as it remained in place, the rise of the river caused it to be swept away leaving the river unimpeded. Nothing had been communicated to the government regarding its insecurity nor was it reported when it was swept away. For this Major General Manfield Lovell was found remiss in his duty. The incompletion of the ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi left the Navy incapable of complete cooperation with the department commander.

     It was found that the general displayed great energy and an untiring industry in the performance of his duties; his conduct marked by all the coolness of self possession due to the circumstances that he faced and manifested a high capacity for command along with the clearest foresight in many of the measures taken to defend the city.

     The loss could only be attributed to a lack of inattention from a higher level. The little means at his disposal along with an unusual tide cooperating on behalf of the federal fleet, sealed New Orleans' fate. The apathy of the Confederate government would mark its unimportance; as the Confederates forced to move north in an endeavor to save the river now destined to slice the south in half from top to bottom.

Aldie Daniel Moran
© 2006

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net