Friday, April 25, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: April 20-26, 1862

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Effective April 25, “Blood, Tears, and Glory—The American Civil War, Day by Historical Day," changes to a weekly format, presenting a summary of that week’s events in the war. While the emphasis will continue to be on the Western Theater, all major events in the war will be recognized.

New Orleans Falls!

With warming weather, troops on both sides come alive, with skirmishes breaking out like brushfires across the nation. The Confederacy has seen little but failure since the beginning of the year, and it looks as if the worst is yet to come. McClellan has a huge force on the Virginia Peninsula, his objective the Confederate capital of Richmond. Another huge force, under Halleck, is hunkered down in southwestern Tennessee with the crucial Confederate rail center of Corinth, Mississippi, as its objective. Smaller forces are moving in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where the Federals have pretty much had their own way. And in the Mississippi estuary a fleet of Union warships is about to start moving against the Confederacy’s busiest port: New Orleans.

On Sunday, April 20, a daring party of Federals uses explosives to weaken the Confederate barricade of chains and old hulks that block the Mississippi River and access to New Orleans.

On Monday, the Confederate Congress agrees on exemptions to the sweeping conscription bill it passed last week requiring three years’ military service from all white males ages 18 to35.

On Wednesday, April 23, Capt. David G. Farragut ponders the failure of his 19 mortar boats to destroy two Confederate masonry forts (Forts Jackson and St. Philip) guarding the passage upriver to New Orleans. The mortars had rained hundreds of shells on the forts, to no avail. Swamps in the area prevent a land attack on the city as well. Farragut decides on a daring dash of his wooden warships between the defiant forts, which are on opposite shores of the Mississippi.

The fleet gets underway the next morning, Thursday, at 3 a.m. Farragut’s first eight ships creep by undetected. Then the moon rises and the next nine ships, including Farragut’s own, suddenly come under heavy fire from the forts. A bedlam of noise and smoke ensues in the darkness, with the desperate Confederate even launching fire rafts against Farragut’s fleet. However, only three of Farragut’s smaller vessels are disabled. (Farragut's "dash" is pictured above.)

Next, Farragut’s warships encounter a small Confederate defense fleet, including the ram CSS Manassas. The ram and other vessels, though fighting bravely, fail to stop Farragut and the Rebel fleet is demolished, while the Union navy loses only one vessel. The Confederates lose eight. Farragut keeps moving and on Friday anchors outside the city of New Orleans. Braving jeers and threats from city residents, a party of Union naval officers comes ashore to begin surrender talks with the city’s mayor and the commander of Confederate forces in the area.

The city’s mayor claims not to have the authority to surrender the city. Confederate Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell, commander of Confederate forces, chooses to withdraw rather than surrender.

The way is clear for Union troops, under Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, to march into the city unopposed. New Orleans was the Confederacy’s second largest city and its busiest port, the gateway to the Mississippi and the nation’s heartland. Its loss is a tremendous psychological blow to the Confederacy. It makes Farragut a Union hero, and is one of the most decisive victories of the war.


Maj. Gen. Charles F. Smith, sidelined by a seemingly minor scrape on his leg, dies on Friday, April 25, at Savannah, Tennessee. The Union loses a brave soldier and Grant a friendly mentor. At Pittsburg Landing (“Shiloh“) on Saturday, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant writes Smith’s widow in New York City, saying, “In his death the nation has lost one of its most gallant and most able defenders.”

Also at Pittsburg Landing, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck is getting ready to launch an attack—the first important military action “Old Brains” has ever led in person. His target is the Confederate base at Corinth, Mississippi, 22 miles southwest of the Union encampment. To reinforce Halleck—a man who hates to take chances— Brig. Gen. John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi has arrived to join Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Halleck spends the week issuing orders to shape up the volunteer forces, which he considers undisciplined.

On Saturday, April 26, Union Brig Gen. John G. Parke accepts the surrender of a small body of Confederates holding Fort Macon, a pentagon-shaped structure of brick and stone built on one of the barrier islands along coastal North Carolina. The old fort, a Federal facility built before the war but seized by Rebels in 1861, has been under Union artillery fire from gunboats and land batteries for nearly a month. It’s all part of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s invasion of eastern North Carolina.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Union Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Frémont have 15,000 troops each with which to deal with Stonewall Jackson’s 14,000 men. As the month ends, the Federals are threatening Staunton, held by the Confederates. So far, here in the Valley the tide has been running in the Union’s favor.

On the Virginia Peninsula, Maj. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac has halted in front of Yorktown and McClellan is preparing a siege.

Things do not look good for the Confederacy, and President Jefferson Davis is taking increasing criticism for his conduct of the war. But a little known commander named Robert E. Lee is serving as military adviser to Davis and soon will emerge into prominence.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—scarcely 3 years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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