Louisiana's Military Heritage:
Battles, Campaigns, and Maneuvers
Despite proclamations to the contrary, with its vote for secession on January 26, 1861, and the seizure of Federal forts, ships, and property within its borders, Louisiana had placed itself squarely on the path to conflict with her sister states in the Union. Even forgiving the seizure of U.S. military posts and warships, the inevitability of war was due to an old and simple cause: the Mississippi River.
The delegates who voted for secession in Baton Rouge knew that the issue of the river would be a prickly one and so added the following statement in Louisiana' Ordinance of Secession:
"We, the people of Louisiana, recognize the right of free navigation of the Mississippi River and tributaries by all friendly States bordering thereon; we also recognize the right of the ingress and egress of the mouths of the Mississippi by all friendly States and Powers...."
Even delegates from throughout the South were aware of the potential flashpoint. While meeting in February at Montgomery, Alabama, to construct a new constitution for the fledgling Confederacy, they quickly made it known "that the peaceful navigation of the Mississippi River is hereby declared free to the citizens of any State upon its borders, or upon the borders of its navigable tributaries." The statement was an attempt to calm the fears of the western states whose commerce depended upon rivers like the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri, and the Tennessee.
There was little likelihood of the Union accepting these pledges at face value. Even had the Confederacy not been formed and the seceding states remained each an independent republic, Louisiana posed a special problem that her sister states bordering the river (Mississippi, and later Arkansas and Tennessee) did not: Louisiana held both banks of the river in its southernmost reaches. The right of free navigation and deposit had been guaranteed by the Spanish in the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, only to be revoked in 1802, thus cutting off trade to the western states. The whole Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 had been predicated on keeping the mouth of the river open to American trade. But now, a "foreign" state could again potentially lay waste to western trade.
The attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, ended any debate on the matter. The Union and the Confederacy were now at war. President Abraham Lincoln issued a call on April 15 for 75,000 troops to be raised. Caught up in the emotional firestorm of the moment, President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy retaliated on April 16 with a call for 32,000 troops and on April 17 with a proclamation calling for privateers to take to the seas against Northern shipping. The escalation of events continued when President Lincoln proclaimed on April 19 a blockade of all Southern ports from South Carolina to Texas. The blockade was extended northward to Chesapeake Bay one week later on April 27 following the secession of Virginia. On May 08, the head of customs at Louisville, Kentucky, was ordered to prevent the shipment of arms, ammunition, and provisions to the seceded states, thus "blockading" them from the north as well via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
At its onset, a blockade of approximately 3,500 miles of coastline was impossible for the Union navy. There were not nearly enough ships in the fleet. But it soon became a necessity as Confederate privateers spread upon the high seas.
In May of 1861, the steamships CALHOUN, MUSIC, V. H. IVY, and WILLIAM H. WEBB were armed and converted into privateers in New Orleans before sailing into the Gulf looking for targets of opportunity. The IVY captured two vessels that month. The MUSIC and the CALHOUN each captured three. The WEBB alone captured six vessels approximately 90 miles off of the mouth of the Mississippi. At the end of May, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received a letter of complaint from the president of the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company regarding ship seizures in the Gulf of Mexico and reports of privateers sailing from New Orleans. A similar letter was received by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward from the president of Sun Mutual Insurance Company. Privateers from all throughout the South were slowly beginning to make a mark on commerce.
On May 26, 1861, the USS BROOKLYN was the first blockader to arrive off of Pass à L’Outre at the mouth of the Mississippi. A second vessel, the USS POWHATAN, soon followed on May 30 and dropped anchor at Southwest Pass. To meet the requirements of international law, an official notice of the blockade had to be made to authorities at the port in question, with time allowed for any neutral vessels inside to evacuate. At New Orleans, June 15 was given as the deadline for the departure of neutrals. Great Britain had declared itself officially neutral in the conflict on May 14. France, the Netherlands, and Spain would follow on June 10, 16, and 17 respectively. In the meantime, however, low water in the river prevented some of the vessels from departing across the sandbars at the river's mouth. In consideration of this, the captains of the BROOKLYN and the POWHATAN—Commander Charles H. Poor and Commander David D. Porter respectively—granted extra time for them to depart. As the waters rose, they even allowed Confederate steam tugs to tow the foreign vessels across the bar into deeper water before retreating back upriver to New Orleans.
The POWHATAN had almost immediate success, capturing the MARY CLINTON on a run into New Orleans during her first day on station off the Southwest Pass. But both ships soon discovered problems that were unforeseen. The first involved ships that had left a foreign port bound for New Orleans prior to the official issuance of the notice of blockade to that nation's government. Those vessels now arrived off of the Mississippi to find that they not only could not make port, but that they did not have enough coal (for steamships), food, or water to return to their port of origin or a neutral port. Many other cases emerged such as wives having sailed from abroad to join their husbands and, in one case, an American consul in Mexico attempting to retrieve his sons who had been attending school in Mobile before hostilities ensued.
USS MASSACHUSETTS soon arrived to reinforce the blockade of the Mississippi and promptly seized the British brigantine NAHAM STETSON as she attempted to enter the South Pass on June 20 after having been warned off by the blockading vessels. There were four outlets to the Mississippi—Pass à L’Outre, Southwest Pass, South Pass, and Northeast Pass—and only three ships present. As South Pass was shallow (allowing only three to eight feet across the bar), the Union ships focused for the moment on the other three river entrances. But blockade runners and commerce raiders could also exit Lake Pontchartrain and enter the Gulf via the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass to the north. The blockading vessels could even sight smoke from steamships in the vicinity of Barataria Bay to the west. Intelligence gained from Union sympathizers (or Union loyalists, depending upon one's point of view), even suggested that goods were being shipped westward down the New Orleans, Opelousas & Great Western Railroad from the Crescent City to Berwick Bay where it was then loaded onto seagoing vessels. The Confederates were simply bypassing the Mississippi via the bayous to the west and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, carrying on a somewhat subdued trade in spite of the blockade.
Another unanticipated problem for the blockade ships was that of a supply network. In order to keep an effective blockade, a ship had to be on station constantly. With the shortage of available ships, there were no spares to relieve them while they sailed to a neutral or friendly port to resupply. Thus, most did not have adequate coal, food, or water (with the exception of the BROOKLYN which had her own condenser). There were, however, Union loyalists and sympathizers in New Orleans and the surrounding areas who traveled downriver to trade with the ships, bringing fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and newspapers. This clandestine support of the blockade from within his own lines caused Major General David E. Twiggs, CSA, in command at New Orleans to order all outbound vessels to be searched at Fort Pike on Lake Pontchartrain and at Fort Jackson on the Mississippi. Anyone caught communicating with the blockade vessels was to be arrested and prosecuted.
The lamps at the Pass à L’Outre and South Pass lighthouses were also extinguished by the Confederates at this time so as to hinder the ships and force them further offshore to keep from running aground. The mouth of the Mississippi was at times very foggy given the cool river water entering the warm Gulf waters. This made for ideal conditions for the blockade runners and privateers—using pilots who knew the local waters—to slip past blockading vessels, while making it difficult for the Union ships to maneuver in unfamiliar waters.
On Sunday morning, June 30, the BROOKLYN left station off Pass à L’Outre in pursuit of a sail vessel to the north. No sooner had she departed than the Confederate raider CSS SUMTER raced out of the pass and headed for the open sea. The BROOKLYN turned around and gave chase into the afternoon before retiring back to the pass upon sighting a sail headed in that direction. The SUMTER escaped to Cuba and began preying upon Union shipping throughout the Atlantic.
On June 24, the USS SOUTH CAROLINA had attempted to blockade Berwick Bay (north of Atchafalaya Bay) but found the approaches too shallow and could not approach. She moved on westward to initiate a blockade at Galveston, Texas. However, at the end of July, her captain, Commander James Alden, placed 35 men aboard the captured schooners DART, SHARK, and SAM HOUSTON and sent them to patrol the coastline between there and Berwick Bay on the Louisiana coast. The schooners were ordered to disrupt communications and seize any blockade runners, particularly in the vicinity of Calcasieu Pass and Sabine Pass. The expedition returned from their patrol empty-handed, but Commander Alden wrote to his superiors to recommend a blockade ship for Berwick Bay, stressing its importance and that of Sabine Pass.
The MASSACHUSETTS, meantime, had successful hunting to the east of the Mississippi River near Ship Island in the Mississippi Sound, south of Biloxi and east of Lake Borgne and the Chandeleur Islands. She seized the schooner HILAND on July 13. The armed Confederate steamers CSS OREGON and and CSS ARROW engaged her off of the Chandeleurs the following day and were forced to withdraw. Remaining in the vicinity of Ship Island, the MASSACHUSETTS captured the sloop CHARLES HENRY on August 07. Not long afterward, the POWHATAN captured the schooner ABBY BRADFORD off of the mouth of the Mississippi.
On August 10, 1861, the Blockade Strategy Board issued a detailed report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles regarding the coastline of Louisiana (the rivers, bayous, sounds, bays, canals, railroads, towns, known fortifications, etc.), paying particular attention to the approaches to New Orleans. The Board made recommendations for effective blockading, but advocated deferring the capture of New Orleans for the immediate present in favor of other actions currently underway (most likely operations against Cape Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina and Port Royal Sound in South Carolina).
As they entered the third month of the blockade off the Louisiana coast, the Union ship commanders began to encounter more unanticipated problems. In order to chase blockade runners or head off approaching ships, they had to keep up a constant head of steam. Therefore, the machinery aboard their vessels—particularly the boilers and engine parts—were beginning to fall into disrepair through constant use as they were not able to make port and get downtime for maintenance. The lack of spare vessels again came into play. Additionally, after capturing a blockade runner, the commanders would have to place a prize crew aboard to maintain control of the captured vessel until it could make port and be turned over to the courts for adjudication. This meant that as they intercepted and captured more and more ships, they had fewer men with which to man their own blockade vessels. The need for spare parts, spare men, spare coal, and spare provisions was felt keenly throughout the first year of the blockade.
In mid-August, Commander Ciscero Price of USS HUNTSVILLE left his station at Galveston Bay to make a patrol of the Louisiana coast, touching at Sabine Pass and Berwick Bay. He intercepted and destroyed one small schooner in Atchafalaya Bay before returning to Galveston. In September, Commander Melancon Smith of USS MASSACHUSETTS erected a navigation light and a small earthen fortification on Chandeleur Island in the barrier island chains off of Louisiana's southeast coast. He conducted a bit of counter-intelligence work in the process by giving two captured fishermen from the area false information about the nature and armament of the outpost prior to releasing them, hoping that it would be relayed to authorities in New Orleans and thence to the southern newspapers.
New vessels began rotating into the Gulf Blockading Squadron at this time, relieving the veteran ships and crews so that they could return home for repairs and liberty. USS NIAGARA replaced the BROOKLYN at Southwest Pass and USS RICHMOND took over blockade duty from the POWHATAN at Pass à L’Outre. USS VINCENNES dropped anchor at Northeast Pass, taking over from the ST. LOUIS. The MASSACHUSETTS and the PREBLE now patrolled off of the Mississippi Sound (the shallow waters between the mainland and the barrier islands stretching between Lake Pontchartrain and Mobile Bay).
On September 16, 1861, a major turning point for the blockade occurred. Unable to maintain their garrison, Confederate forces evacuated Ship Island in the Mississippi Sound, south of Biloxi and east of Lake Borgne. The MASSACHUSETTS immediately moved to occupy the fort located there. This occupation was pivotal for the fact that Ship Island could now serve as a forward supply base for the squadron. Up to this point, all supplies and official communications had to be ferried in from Key West (which was still in Union hands), Cuba, or ports in the North via ships like USS RHODE ISLAND. This was still the case, but the travel time involved for the supply ships was now cut in half, allowing more trips to be made.
Toward the end of September, pressure was beginning to mount on the blockade runners operating out of the shallow inlets and bayous west of the Mississippi. In Atchafalaya Bay, USS HUNTSVILLE and the prize schooner DART captured the schooner CECILIA en route to Berwick from Sabine Pass carrying passengers and a cargo of shoes. Making use of her shallow draft, Commander Price outfitted the CECILIA with a howitzer and sent her with the DART to patrol west along the coastline. The strategy worked because on September 30, the CECILIA succeeded in capturing the schooner UNCLE BILL in Vermilion Bay while the DART overtook the schooner ZAVALLA. The SOUTH CAROLINA, while patrolling Timbalier Bay and Barataria Bay on the same date, captured the schooners EZILDA and JOSEPH TOONE, both registered as British vessels but manned by Confederate crews.
As early as August, Secretary of the Navy Welles had forwarded drawings of the Head of Passes (the point where the Mississippi River divides into the four passes) to Flag Officer William Mervine, commander of the Gulf Squadron, noting a foundation located there that belonged to an old lighthouse that no longer existed. In September, the Blockade Strategy Board sent Welles a report on the pre-war fortifications of Ship Island, the pre-war status of Fort Livingston on Barataria Bay, and anticipated needs and hazards in setting up a fortification at the Head of Passes. Thus, it was no surprise to Mervine when the new ships were rotated into the area in September along with construction materials. The blockade ships off the Mississippi had a new mission: built a fortification at the Head of Passes.
After much effort in crossing the bar throughout the end of September, four Union warships—the RICHMOND, VINCENNES, PREBLE, and WATER WITCH—occupied the Head of Passes. The CSS IVY had taken the task force under fire on October 09 to no effect, but the range of her guns (firing past the Union ships while still remaining beyond their range) caused sufficient concern to send the USS NIAGARA sailing for Pensacola the next day to secure rifled guns for the ships' defense. Unfortunately, the Confederates attacked prior to her return and routed the entire task force in a dramatic nighttime battle on October 12-13, driving them from the Head of Passes and back across the bar into the Gulf.
The NIAGARA returned to the mouth of the Mississippi River on October 16 and took up station off of Southwest Pass. On the same day, the SOUTH CAROLINA, which had been recalled from Barataria Bay to help pull the heavier ships of the task force back across the bar and into the Gulf, captured the British schooner EDWARD BARNARD. She and the WATER WITCH crossed the bar into the river on the 17th and opened fire on the CSS IVY and another rebel steamer, pursuing them upriver almost to Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Near the mouth of the river, the USS HUNTSVILLE, suffering from damaged sails and leaking in a general state of disrepair after so many months on station, ran aground in West Bay on October 18. Understandably, morale among the blockading ships was low.
In the meantime, the Confederates, perhaps feeling emboldened by their victory at the Head of Passes, were on the move. The armed steamer CSS FLORIDA departed Lake Pontchartrain on October 19 and sailed to Pearl River to take on wood and water. From there, she departed on training maneuvers toward Horn Island Pass on the coast of Mississippi. Turning south, she made a limited engagement with the USS MASSACHUSETTS off of Ship Island before retiring.
The month of November saw the continued enforcement of the blockade off of the Louisiana coast in spite of the Head of Passes debacle. On November 21, the USS NEW LONDON and USS R. R. CUYLER, along with crew members from the MASSACHUSETTS, captured the Confederate schooner OLIVE in the Mississippi Sound with a cargo of lumber. They also took the steamer ANNA on the following day with a cargo of naval stores. The pairing of NEW LONDON and CUYLER was a successful one for on November 28, they captured the Confederate steamer HENRY LEWIS with a cargo of sugar and molasses and the schooner A. J. VIEW with a cargo of turpentine and tar off of Ship Island. The day before (Nov. 27) had seen the VINCENNES board and seize the British bark EMPRESS, which had run aground at the mouth of the Mississippi while trying to run the blockade with a large cargo of coffee.
The NEW LONDON and the CUYLER opened the month of December with the capture of the sloop ADVOCATE in the Mississippi Sound on December 01. Three days later, the armed steamer CSS FLORIDA returned to stage an attack in the Sound against USS MONTGOMERY at Horn Island Pass. She was joined this time by CSS PAMLICO but to no avail. Shots were fired to little effect and both sides retired with little or no damage. A Confederate sortie occurred the following week on December 11 when CSS OREGON and CSS PAMLICO departed Lake Pontchartrain in an effort to link up with CSS GRAY CLOUD and CSS FLORIDA, sailing from the direction of Mobile Bay. USS MASSACHUSETTS and USS NEW LONDON, stationed in the Mississippi Sound in the vicinity of Ship Island, engaged the quartet and forced them to withdraw, disrupting their attempt at communication.
On December 11, USS SOUTH CAROLINA captured the Confederate sloop FLORIDA (not to be confused with the armed steamer of the same name) off of the lighthouse at Timbalier Bay, between Barataria Bay and Atchafalaya Bay. The COLORADO, on this same date, sent an expedition upriver to Pilot Town at the Head of Passes and succeeded in capturing a small schooner and two men. In the west, the RHODE ISLAND captured the schooner VENUS just southeast of Sabine Pass on December 26, while in the east, the NEW LONDON and CUYLER captured the schooner GYPSY in the Mississippi Sound with a cargo of cotton on December 28. The French brig of war MILAN arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi during this time, having received permission from the U.S. Secretary of State to pass through the blockade and remove French citizens from New Orleans. Unfortunately, she suffered a collision with the newly arrived USS DE SOTO, causing her to withdraw for repairs with her mission incomplete and resulting in not a small bit of embarrassment in diplomatic circles for the United States.
At year's end of 1861, the Mississippi River was now thoroughly blockaded. The frigate COLORADO guarded the Southwest Pass. The sloop of war VINCENNES guarded the Northeast Pass. Pass à L’Outre was guarded by the steamer MISSISSIPPI and the bark KINGFISHER. The PREBLE lay at the South Pass. But the deep draft of these vessels prevented them for crossing the bar into the river very easily and Flag Officer William McKean requested small steamers of light draft to be sent to him. He also wished for steamers to accompany the heavier sailing vessels at the mouth of the river in the event that enemy steamers attacked while they were becalmed. McKean reported that the MASSACHUSETTS, SOUTH CAROLINA, HUNTSVILLE, and MOHAWK were all in poor condition and were likely to be unable to return north. The MISSISSIPPI and the RICHMOND were at that time broken down and McKean reported that he and his commanders had begun outfitting prize steamers for duty. The steamers would be of use in the shallow bays to the west where Confederate traffic still existed between Berwick Bay and ports in Texas.
One month earlier, on November 19, the prize schooner ANNA TAYLOR had been dispatched to Southwest Pass from her station at Galveston to replenish her water supply. She failed to arrive and had not been seen since that time by other vessels of the blockade. The blockaders' worst fears were realized when the USS SANTEE captured the schooner GARONNE offshore near Galveston on January 11, 1862. From the crew of the GARONNE, they learned that the ANNA TAYLOR had wrecked on the Louisiana coast in the vicinity of Sabine Pass. The TAYLOR's crew were now prisoners of war and were being held in New Orleans.
The Navy had been ridiculed in the Northern papers and by the politicians for the embarrassing defeat at Head of Passes in October. So in spite of the successes of November and December and the reinforcements that had arrived, the men of the blockade undoubtedly felt very alone and vulnerable lying anchored off a hostile coastline far from home. The Confederates, in contrast, felt emboldened. Not only had they driven off an invasion fleet, but more blockade runners were getting past the Union ships than were getting captured. Sabine Pass and Berwick Bay were still thriving centers for blockade running. So it was no surprise when Captain Thomas O. Selfridge of USS MISSISSIPPI spied Confederate steamers conducting reconnaissance in North Pass and Pass à L’Outre on New Year's Day of 1862.
The U.S. diplomatic corps in Cuba and other locations like the Bahamas became very adept at gathering intelligence for the Navy during this time. Flag Officer McKean and Secretary of the Navy Welles would routinely receive reports on activities in the port there that either targeted ships planning to run the blockade inbound or gave notice of weak points where vessels had already escaped. Union ships plying the open waters of the Gulf could then sail along known shipping lanes in the hope of capturing blockade runners far from shore. The Navy even began seizing ships flying foreign flags when loaded with munitions or war supplies if they were bound for tiny Caribbean ports or neutral destinations like Halifax, Canada. The Union captains claimed that such vessels were ultimately bound for the Confederacy via secondary ports and devious routes. Though it pushed the boundaries of international law in the extreme, Britain gradually accepted this doctrine of ultimate destination (or continuous voyage) and ultimately put it to use against Germany fifty years later in World War I.
An administrative change was made in mid-January with the division of the Gulf Blockading Department. Flag Officer McKean was placed in charge of the Eastern Gulf region and Flag Officer David G. Farragut would now command the Western Gulf region between the Rio Grande River on the Texas-Mexican border and St. Andrew's Bay near Pensacola, Florida.
In late January, the USS HATTERAS was sent to Berwick Bay to relieve the MONTGOMERY, though the latter was given leave to remain on station if the captains felt that two vessels were necessary. They were both given notice that the Confederate steamer MOBILE was likely to run for the sea from Berwick soon with a cargo and that the steamer CALHOUN—now converted from a privateer to a blockade runner—was likely to arrive there from Havana in the coming days. The diplomatic corps' intelligence proved true. The prize schooner USS SAMUEL ROTAN intercepted the CALHOUN in East Bay near the Southwest Pass on January 23. The CALHOUN's crew set their vessel ablaze and abandoned ship but the crew of the ROTAN boarded her and successfully extinguished the flames. The blockade runner was loaded with 50,000 pounds of powder, 400 bags of coffee, and chemicals. With a Union crew now aboard, the CALHOUN was armed and joined the blockade.
At about the same time that the CALHOUN was captured in East Bay, a Confederate bark loaded with cotton attempted to escape via the Southeast Pass. She ran aground and as the USS VINCENNES approached to investigate, her crew set her afire and escaped. A schooner was spotted by USS MERCEDITA attempting to run the South Pass with the aid of a steam tug. As the Union vessel approached, the tug retreated and the schooner—discovered to be the JULIA of New Orleans and loaded with cotton—was also burned.
On January 28, the USS DE SOTO captured the British schooner MAJOR BARBOUR at Isle Derniere near Grand Caillou where she had grounded. The BARBOUR was carrying a cargo of eight (8) barrels and 198 cases of gunpowder, along with nitrate of soda, sulphur, percussion caps, and lead. The following day, a schooner successfully evaded capture by the DE SOTO off of Ship Shoal Island.
On January 30, the Confederate push continued as four armed steamers moved down Southwest Pass to exchange fire with the USS COLORADO. No damage occurred to either side, however, as all of the vessels were beyond the range of each other's guns. The HATTERAS, meantime, had arrived at Atchafalaya Bay where the Confederate steamer MOBILE—far from being the unarmed blockade runner previously reported—came out of the harbor at Berwick Bay to attack the Union vessel. A one-hour engagement ensued with the MOBILE firing numerous volleys from the shallows before retiring back into the bay. The HATTERAS was unable to follow due to her deeper draft.
This push by the Confederates had been predicted by R. W. Shufeldt, the U.S. Consulate General at Havana. Shufeldt's intelligence indicated an effort to open the Mississippi for several steamers sitting loaded in New Orleans awaiting an opportunity to put to sea. As it had with the sailing schedule of the CALHOUN, the diplomatic corps was proving useful in tracking the movements of the Confederates from afar. As a result of this report and the subsequent actions, USS BROOKLYN—which had returned north for repairs and replenishment—was ordered back to the Western Gulf Blockade Squadron.
It is interesting to note that this push by the Confederates at Southwest Pass was timed within the space of a week with the attack at Atchafalaya Bay and with the sailings of the CALHOUN and the MAJOR BARBOUR from Havana. The sloops attempting to escape the Mississippi also fell within this one week period. It would be an obvious conclusion that the attacks and the sailings were coordinated, though no documentation of this exists. What is especially interesting, though, is that all of this occurred just as the French corvette LAVOISSIER arrived off of Pass à L’Outre, replacing the damaged MILAN on a mission to obtain a neutral vessel to evacuate French citizens from New Orleans. Could it be that the Confederates, learning of the French warship's sailing, timed their activities so as to be viewed by a nation whom they hoped would intervene on their behalf? Again, no documentation exists on this possibility, so it remains nothing more than an intriguing conjecture.
The Union vessels continued to see good hunting as the blockade entered its ninth month. On February 01, 1862, the USS MONTGOMERY captured the schooner ISABEL off of Atchafalaya Bay flying secessionist colors. Five days later, the gunboat USS SCOTIA captured the sloop MARGARET off of Isle au Breton with a cargo of 30 bales and 35 half-bales of cotton. The USS DE SOTO caught the schooner STAR out of Bayou Lafourche on February 08 before engaging the steamer VICTORIA at Barataria Bay on the 12th. The VICTORIA escaped capture by retreating into the bay where the shallow waters prevented the DE SOTO from following. She beached herself near Fort Livingston and the batteries there opened fire on the Union vessel, but all of the shots fell short.
To the east, the sail-steamer MAGNOLIA managed to slip out of the Mississippi River via Pass à L’Outre in a heavy fog on February 19. She was spotted, however, by the USS BROOKLYN and USS MERCEDITA who immediately gave chase. The two ships pursued the Confederate vessel eastward to within sight of the blockading vessels off of Mobile. The MAGNOLIA was cut off and captured by the USS SOUTH CAROLINA with a cargo of 1,000 bales of cotton. During the course of the chase, her crew had jettisoned approximately 200 bales to lighten her load and increase her speed. BROOKLYN and MERCEDITA returned to their stations off the mouth of the Mississippi only to later learn that two steamers had escaped the passes during their absence. These vessels would later arrive in Havana unmolested with their cargos intact.
While the pursuit of the MAGNOLIA was going on, the USS NEW LONDON was busy in the Mississippi Sound on February 20. She captured twelve small ships (nine sloops and three schooners) that were moored at Isle au Pied near Cat Island. Two vessels managed to elude her. Manned by local oystermen and fishermen, it was believed that the boats were being used to reconnoiter the movements of Union blockade vessels in the area. In the midst of this operation, Flag Officer David G. Farragut arrived at Ship Island aboard his flagship, USS HARTFORD, to assume command of the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. With his arrival, plans for a new Union initiative on the Mississippi began to take shape.
Meanwhile, Sabine Pass—located on the Texas-Louisiana border—continued to pose a problem for the blockade. Confederate diplomat William L. Yancy, returning from a mission to England, slipped back in through the blockade at this port aboard the schooner WIDE AWAKE on March 06, making his way overland back to the capital in Virginia. On March 10, a letter by Dr. M. P. Jewett, president of Vassar College, to U.S. Senator Ira Harris was forwarded by the senator to U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. A source close to Jewett had recently arrived in New York from Galveston, having traveled via Sabine Pass and Havana. This source reported that rebel steamers loaded with cotton routinely sailed from Sabine Pass to Havana and had cleared hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Confederacy.
Such information was corroborated via the diplomatic corps in Havana and naval sources. CDR Daniel B. Ridgely of USS SANTIAGO DE CUBA reported finding two Confederate steamers—the VANDERBILT and the WHITNEY—in port at Havana while he took on coal on March 10. They had successfully run the blockade at the Mississippi and Sabine Pass. The two vessels departed shortly thereafter and the CUBA followed. Patrolling east-to-west between Mobile and the Sabine, he arrived off the Sabine on March 17 where he spotted a river steamer exiting the pass loaded with cotton. The steamer retreated back into the river where the CUBA could not follow. Ridgely lay in wait offshore for four days before departing in the direction of the Calcasieu River. Not long after, his lookouts spotted smoke from a steamer exiting the Sabine. The SANTIAGO DE CUBA turned and pursued and the Confederates beached their vessel and set her ablaze to avoid capture. During his time in this area, CDR Ridgely sighted four schooners and several steamers at the Sabine River and three schooners and one river steamer at the Calcasieu River. The western Louisiana coastline obviously required greater attention.
The Union blockaders were soon to have some relief, though their forces would be strained for a short while longer. More ships were arriving each week, including a fleet of mortar schooners. While escorting this mortar fleet, the gunboat USS OWASCO chased down and captured two Confederate schooners—the EUGENIA and the PRESIDENT—on March 16 in Breton Island Pass. Both were loaded with cotton and en route to Havana. Intelligence gained from the interrogation of a prisoner from the ships revealed information about the defenses of New Orleans, living conditions in the city, and ports of entry from blockade runners.
Armed with this information, a fleet of seventeen men-of-war, seven steam gunboats, and twenty mortar boats, Flag Officer Farragut began to move out for the mouth of the Mississippi from his forward base at Ship Island. Behind him, troops under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler were steadily arriving from the North. New Orleans and the Mississippi River were about to be closed to the Confederate blockade runners ... permanently.
Sources used in the compilation of this article:
American Civil War Fortifications (1)—Coastal Brick and Stone Forts, by A. Konstam. Osprey Publishing (2003).
The American Pageant by Thomas A. Bailey & David M. Kennedy. D.C. Heath & Company (1987).
The Civil War in Louisiana, by John D. Winters. Louisiana State University Press (1963).
The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865, Emory M. Thomas. Harper & Row (1979).
Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, by W. Craig Gaines. Louisiana State University Press (2008).
History of the Confederate States Navy, by J. Thomas Sharf. The Fairfax Press (1977).
The Naval Historical Center website.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, U.S. Naval War Records
Office. 31 vols. Washingston, D.C. (1894-1922).
Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae, by Edward T. Cotham, Jr. University of Texas Press—Austin
**Copyright 1997-2011 by Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission**