The Fall of New Orleans Revisited

Patrick Young asks:

The largest disaster for the Confederacy in the first 13 months of the war was the Union capture of New Orleans. The city was the largest in the Confederacy, the second largest port in the U.S. in 1860, and the principal likely port for shipment of cotton to Liverpool if exports were resumed. Could Confederate forces engaged in quixotic expeditions into northern Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. have been moved to Louisiana in time to forestall the capture of the city and thereby deny the Union a choke hold on any possible commercial use of the Mississippi? This would have also substantially complicated Union moves against Vicksburg and denied the Union of the political and manpower advantages that came from capture of the city.

Could the Confederacy have prevented the fall of New Orleans? Was there a serious effort to recapture it? Should there have been?



23 thoughts on “The Fall of New Orleans Revisited

  1. Lyle Smith October 16, 2013 / 6:01 pm

    I think New Orleans could have been saved if the ironclads the Confederates were building would have been in proper working order in time for Farragut’s attack. If the CSS Louisiana alone could have been worked like the CSS Virginia was, Farragut’s wooden fleet probably would have had to turn around. However, the Confederates would have had to keep their couple of ironclads operable over the course of the war, and they might not could have managed that. New Orleans could have been taken from the north, if not from the South as well.

    No serious attempts were made to take New Orleans although Richard Taylor wanted to try and retake it, but couldn’t get Kirby Smith to agree with him. I believe Taylor took a small force near to New Orleans at some point, but they were on the West bank and weren’t big enough to take the city.

    Van Dorn did try to recapture Baton Rouge in 1862 with the combined force of the CSS Arkansas and Breckinridge’s small force, but that failed because the CSS Arkansas broke down just north of Baton Rouge. And if somehow that attack worked, they may have had a go at New Orleans, but that would have been a city too far for the CSS Arkansas probably. Baton Rouge had been a city too far for it.

    With not enough ships to dominate the Mississippi New Orleans was an untenable place for the Confederates to be. Without some kind of navy to beat back the Union flotillas coming from the South and the North, the Confederates couldn’t hold the New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Van Dorn shouldn’t have even tried to take Baton Rouge because he wouldn’t have been able to hold it permanently with the CSS Arkansas alone.

    • Patrick Young October 16, 2013 / 9:57 pm

      So Lyle, you think that a larger land force could not have prevented the Federals from capturing the city?

      • Patrick Young October 16, 2013 / 10:00 pm

        When Butler took the city, his army was only 5,000 men, IIRC.

      • Lyle Smith October 16, 2013 / 10:56 pm

        A larger land force may have caused Butler some problems (it has been suggested by some people that this could have been the case), but Farragut’s ships would have caused a bunch of problems too and the Confederates didn’t have much to stop Farragut with once he got past the forts below the city.

        And I’m aware of how small Butler’s force was. The Confederates decided to concentrate their forces elsewhere though and Lovell was probably wise to move what he had out of the city. The militia he had there wasn’t much into wanting to fight, I think.

        • Patrick Young October 17, 2013 / 4:42 am

          In “Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans” Michael Pierson argues that the small force at Fort Jackson was ideologically uncommitted to the Confederacy. Since a number of the mutineers, particularly the Irish and Germans, enlisted in the Union army, He says that the forts were delivered up to Butler. Perhaps if the Confederates had had more troops on hand, they would have been able to defend the forts better.

          • Lyle Smith October 17, 2013 / 9:59 am

            I know these arguments, but I’m not sure what Pierson suggests is true. Once Farragut’s gunships got past the forts the Confederate units in the forts were isolated. They couldn’t be re-supplied. Did they know how long Farragut could keep them cut off from help?

            The mutiny itself may not have even been an example of Unionist sentiment. They may not have been gung ho Confederates, but they may not have had strong sympathies one way or the other. Joining the Confederate or Union army may have been the only way to get fed for some of these men.

  2. Patrick Young October 16, 2013 / 7:02 pm

    I note that Louisiana furnished more USCT than any other state North or South, 24,500 Black troops, and another 5,000 White troops. This large contingent of Southern Union soldiers was only possible because of the capture of New Orleans.

    • Jimmy Dick October 17, 2013 / 6:53 am

      Just think what would have happened had the Confederates armed the black regiments that had volunteered for duty in their army. That would have given them a strong infantry force that could have repelled the Union forces. Just another example of how the racist policies of the Confederacy brought about its doom.

  3. Charles Lovejoy October 16, 2013 / 7:22 pm

    Something I know well but most have no idea, It’s New Orleans connection to Orisha/Vudu.

  4. John Foskett October 17, 2013 / 6:57 am

    Well, if they’d diverted Sibley’s force from New Mexico to New Orleans, the liquor supply around the French Quarter would have been in mortal danger. 🙂

    • Patrick Young October 17, 2013 / 7:55 am

      He wouldn’t have needed his army to accomplish that feat.

      • John Foskett October 17, 2013 / 8:58 am

        Believe me, I wasn’t suggesting that his rank and file would have been staggering around, Hurricane(s) in hand. 🙂

  5. SF Walker October 17, 2013 / 7:11 am

    The Confederates in early 1862 stripped their defenses in and around New Orleans to provide troops for A.S. Johnston’s attack of Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing and to bolster the defenses of Vicksburg and Fort Pillow. It seems they believed the major threat to New Orleans would come from the north rather than from the sea; at least at first.

  6. John Foskett October 17, 2013 / 10:21 am

    Patrick’s original question got me to thinking (and apologies if this should appear instead in response to the original campaign questions post):

    The 1862 New Mexico campaign, in theory, was aimed at the gold and silver deposits in Colorado territory as well as at southern California, its ports, etc. The force committed to this enterprise was a bit of a joke in light of the strategic aims. Should/could the CSA have put more commitment into this effort or, instead, simply never have undertaken it? I note that in California there was not insubstantial sentiment favoring the CSA in the early stages of the war and that the forces available for defense in that wide expanse were fairly minimal and reliant on local, untrained volunteers (many of whom were probably prone to wandering off on a whim).

    • Pat Young October 17, 2013 / 10:53 am

      John Foskett, the Union troops that fought the Texans were nearly all from New Mexico, Colorado or California. In other words they were men who would not have engaged in the war but for the Confederate invasion.

      • John Foskett October 17, 2013 / 1:43 pm

        I know – as, for example, in Senor Chivington’s outfit. I’m interested, however, in whether the CSA’s objectives merited something more than the limited force that our friend Sibley led forth – and, in fact, whether they merited somebody more capable than Sibley at their head. Particularly in the early days of the war, I have the sense that the Lincoln administration was concerned about its distant and thinly-garrisoned turf in that region. For that matter, Oregon and the Washington Territory had loyalty issues but there was no earthly way that the Confederates could do anything from the outside with respect to those distant realms.

        • Patrick Young October 17, 2013 / 2:30 pm

          John Foskett: The problem for the Confederates in the Southwest was that their sympathizers were few and far between and in neither the richest nor the most strategically important regions. They were in Arizona and in Southern California, both essentially nowhere in 1862. California’s population was nearly all congregated around San Francisco Bay and was largely Unionist.

          California and Arizona were separated from Texas by New Mexico which was hostile to Texas even more than it was hostile to the Confederacy.

          It would have taken a much stronger force dealing with impossible logistical difficulties to turn the Southwest grey.

  7. Will Hickox October 17, 2013 / 1:59 pm

    Sorry for hijacking the thread … you mentioned that not taking New Orleans would have complicated Union efforts against Vicksburg. After years of buying the party line that the loss of Vicksburg was a huge blow to the Confederacy, I read in Gary Castel’s “Victors in Blue” (co-written with Prof. Simpson) the interesting (to me, at least) idea that the city’s capture didn’t have much practical effect on either side’s war effort. Anyone care to comment?

    • Patrick Young October 18, 2013 / 5:29 am

      I wonder if Vicksburg would have been a major objective if New Orleans had not been captured.

      • SF Walker October 19, 2013 / 5:42 am

        I’m pretty sure Vicksburg would still have been strategically important due to its location on the river. Complete Union control of the Mississippi depended on the occupation of five Southern cities: Memphis, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Confederate possession of any one of these would have given the Rebels local control of the river–and the Federals ultimately occupied all five cities.

    • Ned October 18, 2013 / 4:43 pm

      I think the opening of the Mississippi clearly had political, morale, logical and strategic impacts so Vicksburg had practical effects on the war effort.

      IIRC Castel’s argument was more nuanced — he downgrades the importance of Vicksburg, from major turning point to side show, in favor of the theater (Chattanooga-Atlanta) he is more fond of.

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