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Panoramic View of New Orleans-Federal Fleet at Anchor in the River, ca. 1862.

New Orleans, Louisiana, was the largest city in the Southern United States during the American Civil War. It provided thousands of troops for the Confederate States Army, as well as several leading officers and generals. Its location near the mouth of the Mississippi River made the city an important and early target of the Union Army, which occupied the city for much of the war, eliminating its vital status as a port for export of cotton and other Southern-produced trade goods.


Early war years

In the 1860 census, New Orleans ranked as the 6th largest city in the United States, with a population reported as 168,675.[1] It was the only city in the South over 100,000 people. By 1840 New Orleans had the largest slave market in the nation, which contributed greatly to its wealth. During the antebellum years, two-thirds of the more than one million slaves who moved from the Upper South in forced migration to the Deep South were taken in the slave trade. Estimates are that the slaves generated an ancillary economy valued at 13.5 percent of the price per person, generating tens of billions of dollars through the years.[2]

Antebellum New Orleans was the commercial heart of the Deep South, with cotton comprising fully half of the estimated $156,000,000 (in 1857 dollars) exports, followed by tobacco and sugar. Over half of all the cotton grown in the entire United States passed through the port of New Orleans (1.4 million bales), a full three times more than at the second leading port of Mobile, Alabama. The city also boasted a number of Federal buildings, including the New Orleans Mint (a branch of the United States Mint) and the U.S. Customs House.[3]

Louisiana voted to secede from the Union on January 26, 1861. On January 29, the Secession Convention reconvened in New Orleans (it had earlier met in Baton Rouge) and passed an ordinance that allowed Federal employees to remain in their posts, but as employees of the state of Louisiana. In March, Louisiana accepted the constitution of the Confederate States of America. The Federal mint was seized and used to produce Confederate coinage, particularly half-dollars. Since the dies were not changed, these are indistinguishable from 1861-O halves minted by the U.S. government. (Using a different reverse die, only four "true" Confederate half dollars were ever made.)

New Orleans soon became a major source of troops, armament, and supplies to the Confederate States Army. Among the early responders to the call for troops was the "Washington Artillery," a pre-war militia artillery company that later formed the nucleus of a battalion in the Army of Northern Virginia. In January 1862, men from the free black community of New Orleans formed a regiment of Confederate soldiers called the Louisiana Native Guard. Although they were denied participation in fighting by Confederate policy, the Confederates used the Guard to defend various entrenchments around the city. Several area residents soon rose to prominence in the Confederate army, including P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Albert G. Blanchard, and Harry T. Hays, who commanded the famed "Louisiana Tigers," a brigade with a large contingent of Irishmen from New Orleans.

New Orleans was initially a site of a CSA Naval Ordnance Depot. New Orleans shipfitters produced some innovative warships, including the CSS Manassas (an early ironclad), as well as two submarines (the Bayou St. John Confederate Submarine and the Pioneer) which did not see action before the fall of the city.

Early in the Civil War, New Orleans became a prime target for the Union Army. The War Department soon planned a major attack to take back control of the city and its vital port, choking off a major source of income and supplies for the fledgling Confederacy.

Fall of New Orleans

The political and commercial importance of New Orleans, as well as its strategic position, marked it out as the objective of a Union expedition soon after the opening of the Civil War. Captain David G. Farragut was selected by the Union government for the command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in January 1862. The four heavy ships of his squadron (none of them armored) were, with many difficulties, brought up to the Gulf Coast and the lower Mississippi, and around them assembled nineteen smaller vessels (mostly gunboats) and a flotilla of twenty mortar boats under Commander David Dixon Porter. The main defenses of the Mississippi River consisted of two permanent forts, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, as well as numerous smaller auxiliary fortifications. The two forts were of masonry and brick construction, armed with heavy rifled guns as well as smoothbores, and located on either riverbank so as to command long stretches of the river and the surrounding flats. In addition, the Confederates had some improvised ironclads and gunboats, large and small, but these were outnumbered and outgunned by the gathering Federal fleet.

On April 16, after elaborate reconnaissances, the Union fleet steamed up into position below the forts, and on April 18 the mortar-boats opened fire. Their shells fell with great accuracy, and although one of the boats was sunk by counter-fire and two disabled, Fort Jackson was seriously damaged. But the defenses were by no means crippled, even after a second bombardment on the 19th. A formidable obstacle to the advance of the Union main fleet was a boom between the forts, designed to detain the ships under close fire should they attempt to run past. Gunboats were repeatedly sent up at night to endeavor to destroy the boom, but without much success. The Federal Navy bombardment of the forts continued, disabling only a few Confederate guns but keeping the gunners of Fort Jackson under cover and limiting their ability to respond.

At last, on the night of April 23, the gunboats Pinola and Itasca ran in and broke a gap in the boom. At 2:00 a.m. on April 24, the fleet weighed anchor, Farragut in the corvette Hartford leading. After a severe conflict at close quarters, with the forts and with the ironclads and fire rafts of the defence, almost all the Union fleet (except the mortar-boats) forced its way past. The fleet soon steamed upriver past the Chalmette batteries, the final significant Confederate defensive works protecting New Orleans. At noon on April 25, Farragut finally anchored in front of the prized city. Forts Jackson and St. Philip, isolated and continuously bombarded by the mortar-boats, surrendered on April 28. Soon afterwards, the infantry portion of the combined arms expedition marched into New Orleans and occupied the city without any further resistance.

New Orleans had been captured by the Union without a battle in the city itself, and hence was spared the destruction suffered by many other cities of the American South. It retains a historical flavor with a wealth of 19th century structures far beyond the early colonial city boundaries of the French Quarter.

New Orleans under the Union army

The Federal commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, soon subjected New Orleans to a rigorous martial law so tactlessly administered as greatly to intensify the hostility of South and North. Many of his acts gave great offense, such as the seizure of $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul. Butler was nicknamed "The Beast," or "Spoons Butler" (the latter arising from silverware looted from local homes by some Union troops, though there was no evidence that Butler himself was personally involved in such thievery). Butler ordered the inscription "The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved" to be carved into the base of the celebrated equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, in Jackson Square.

Most notorious to city residents was Butler's General Order No. 28 of May 15, issued after some provocation, that if any woman should insult or show contempt for any Federal officer or soldier, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a "woman of the town plying her avocation," i.e., a common prostitute. This order provoked storms of protests both in the North and the South, and also abroad, particularly in England and France.

Among Butler's other controversial acts was the June hanging of William Mumford, a pro-Confederacy man who had torn down the U.S. flag over City Hall against Union orders. He also imprisoned a large number of uncooperative citizens. Butler's administration did have benefits to the city, which was kept both orderly and, due to his massive cleanup efforts, unusually healthy by 19th century standards. However, the international furor over Butler's acts helped fuel his removal from command of the Department of the Gulf on December 17, 1862.

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Prentice Banks later assumed command at New Orleans. Under Banks, relationships between the troops and citizens improved, but the scars left by Butler's regime lingered for decades. Federal troops continued to occupy the city well after the war through the early part of Reconstruction.

New Orleans' Civil War heritage

A number of significant structures and buildings associated with the Civil War still stand in New Orleans, and vestiges of the city's defenses are evident downriver, as well as upriver at Camp Parapet.

On Camp Street, Memorial Hall (founded in 1891 by war veterans) boasts the second largest collection of Confederate military artifacts in the country.


  1. ^ 1860 United States Census
  2. ^ Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, pp.2 and 6
  3. ^ Harper's Weekly, February 16, 1861

External links

Further reading

  • Grace King: New Orleans, the Place and the People (1895)
  • Henry Rightor: Standard History of New Orleans (1900)
  • John Smith Kendall: History of New Orleans (1922)
  • Clara Solomon and Elliott Ashkenazi (ed.), The Civil War diary of Clara Solomon : Growing up in New Orleans, 1861-1862. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press (1995) ISBN 0807119687.
  • Jean-Charles Houzeau, My Passage at the New Orleans Tribune: A Memoir of the Civil War Era. Louisiana State University Press (2001) ISBN 0807126896.


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