Taking of the largest city and the most important port in the Confederacy was a job left to Commodore David Farragut and a federal fleet of 17 deep sea vessels and many more shallow-draft support vessels. Opposing Farragut was a combined infantry and naval force under the command of General Mansfield Lovell of roughly 5,000 men. During the last half of April, 1862, the Confederacy would lose the one city that might have been the key to winning the Civil War.
New Orleans had been an important city to Americans for more than a hundred years whether it was in French, Spanish, American or Confederate hands. The secret transfer of the city from Spanish to French at the start of the 19th century precipitated the Louisiana Purchase and the expansion of Presidential power under Thomas Jefferson, one of the Causes of the Civil War.
New Orleans represented the strongest card in the South's hand at the outbreak of the war. More than 60 percent of the North's exports passed through the port, especially from the Midwest. Governors of these states were contacted repeatedly with offers of "free passage" down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico if they refused to send troops in support of the federal government.
In October 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Major General Mansfield Lovell to the port city, giving him command of the city and surrounding area including the defense of the Mississippi River. Lovell, an alcoholic with a penchant for chatter, proved to be the wrong man for the job. He concentrated much of his force between the mouth of the Mississippi and New Orleans at Fort Jackson (west bank) and Fort St. Philip (east bank).
Jefferson Davis did not understand the problems of defending the city, but Admiral Ralph Semmes [CS] did. Semmes stated that Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip would not be able to stop a Union fleet when he inspected the defenses in preparation for the attack in 1862. With ample cannon and a river partially barricaded by scuttled boats and other debris (called a "boom") and chains, Lovell felt the fleet would not be able to sail past the forts and up the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
U. S. Naval Officer David Farragut was a native of Tennessee who had grown up in Louisiana. Under the tutelage of Flag Officer David Porter, Farragut had learned his profession extremely well. When the South seceded, Farragut did not appear to have been torn by his choice to remain with the United States. In January, 1862, Farragut was named Flag Officer of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. When his fleet of 17 major ships (not including his command ship, the Hartford) appeared off the coast of Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi, New Orleans reacted with turmoil. Farragut sailed up the river to the forts and weighed anchor. On April 18, 1862, mortar boats began shelling Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip, but the effect was minimal.
Farragut knew his military options were limited. Advancing a force by land would be difficult or impossible, given the swampy nature of the land. Reducing the fort by siege did not seem viable either. Over the objections of junior officers, Farragut decided, on April 23, 1862, to run past the forts, through a breach in Lovell's barricade and make a run for New Orleans. Eight of the major vessels made it past the forts before the Rebels discovered the advance with the rise of the moon at 3:40 am.
Gunners from Fort Jackson opened fire, quickly followed by shells from Fort St. Philip, but the biggest concern of the U. S. Navy was Confederate rams and fire rafts coming downriver towards the federal fleet. Farragut's command ship took serious damage from artillery and fire rafts as did the vessels behind him. One, the Portsmouth, was in tow and a Rebel shot snapped the rope. The powerful current carried it downriver, away from the forts.
Continuing up the Mississippi, Farragut encountered further resistance from a flotilla of small Confederate boats that made a last stand against the Navy under orders from General Lovell. Led by the ram Manassas, which struck two ships, the Mississippi and the Brooklyn (which Farragut had taken to relieve Fort Sumter before the Civil War), most of the boats ended up running from the battle. The Stonewall Jackson successfully rammed the Varuna, forcing its Union crew to abandon ship. Little else happened until Farragut made the turn at English Bend (near Chalmette, Louisiana). Here a duel with a small Confederate force ended quickly and the gates of New Orleans lay open for the commander of the U. S. Fleet. When it anchored in New Orleans harbor, Farragut's fleet had lost the Varuna, 37 men killed and 147 wounded.
Upon his arrival in New Orleans late in the day on Saturday, April 25, 1862, Commodore Farragut found the city burning in places, with unruly mobs along the river and panic-stricken residents preparing their homes for an invasion. General Lovell and some 3,000 men had withdrawn north of the city, leaving the city without an effective fighting force. Farragut dispatched officers to find Mayor John Monroe to demand a surrender. Monroe claimed he did not have authority to surrender the city, but he began to negotiate a surrender with Farragut. Slowly Rebels on the outskirts began to surrender their positions, including both Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip and four smaller forts around New Orleans, but anarchy had broken out in the streets of the city.
Mobs tore off the small number of flags posted on federal property and the American flag flying over city hall. On the morning of April 28 Farragut demanded that the U. S. flag be respected where it flew or he would lay down an artillery barrage across the city. The following day Farragut detached two regiments with orders to raise the American Flag over city hall and the U. S. Customs House in spite of opposition from locals. On May 1, 1862, U. S. Infantry arrived under the command of General Benjamin Butler. The subjugation of New Orleans was complete.