Who Won the Battle of New Orleans (US Civil War)?

In 1861, the Union placed the Confederacy under a naval blockade. With its large navy, it could threaten Southern coastal cities, especially vibrant and populous New Orleans.

Apr 6, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who won battle of new orleans


After the US Civil War began in April 1861, the Union placed a naval blockade around the Confederacy to prevent international trade and weaken its economy. One year later, after the Confederacy proved itself tough and resilient, the Union began retaking territory to increase the pressure to surrender. One major prize was the South’s most populous city: New Orleans. Could it be captured?


Victory Goes to the Union

Union naval officer David Farragut (above) famously captured New Orleans in 1862 and aided in the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863. Source: Library of Congress


The largest city of the Confederacy, New Orleans, was key to stopping Southern international trade and gaining control of the Mississippi River, which flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at the city. After the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Union had placed a naval embargo around the South in what was known as the Anaconda Plan. The goal was to “strangle” the Confederate economy by denying it the ability to trade with Europe, especially the exporting of cotton and tobacco to Britain and France. However, critics thought the plan was too slow, and the First Battle of Bull Run revealed that the Confederacy was prepared to fight hard for independence.


As the Civil War dragged on, the Union looked to capture New Orleans. At first, it had been avoided due to the protection of two coastal forts: Jackson and St. Philip. After careful surveillance of the defenses, Captain David Farragut decided to attack. Massive bombardments hit both forts and eventually, the Union was able to sink Confederate barges that had strung chains across the Mississippi River. With the chains sunk, Farragut’s fleet forced its way between the two forts during frantic bombardments. On April 25, 1862, Farragut anchored in front of the city of New Orleans, capturing the first major Confederate city during the war.


Timeline of the Battle of New Orleans

A painting of the naval bombardment of New Orleans between April 24 and 25, 1862. Source: Library of Congress via Liberty Fund Network


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On April 16, 1862, Captain David Farragut moved his fleet into place south of New Orleans to scout out the situation. The fleet included specialized mortar boats to fire artillery at the two coastal forts, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip.


On April 18, the first bombardment began, with a second bombardment the next day. Though damaged, both Confederate forts withstood the bombardment. In the meantime, Farragut had to decide what to do about barges stretching chains across the Mississippi River, preventing ships from sailing up it and into New Orleans. Initial attempts to sink the chain barges were unsuccessful, so Farragut continued his bombardment of the fort.


A hand-drawn map of Confederate fort defenses of New Orleans prior to the beginning of the Battle of New Orleans on April 24, 1862. Source: Library of Congress


After five days of bombardment, the Union finally opened up the chains blocking the river, and Farragut’s fleet surged through during the pre-dawn hours of April 24. As the Union ships passed between the two forts, they engaged in intense firefights with the forts and Confederate ships.


The next day, Farragut was anchored at New Orleans, and on April 28, forts Jackson and St. Philip finally surrendered after continued Union bombardments.


By May 1, Union troops entered New Orleans unopposed, seizing the first major (and largest) Confederate city.


What Caused the Battle of New Orleans?

Great Naval Battle at New Orleans, April 24, 1862 engraved by George E. Perine after an original drawing. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command


The Confederacy was at a major economic disadvantage compared to the Union: it had a smaller population with little immigration to bolster it, relatively little industry, and relatively little transportation infrastructure. One of its few hopes of sustaining the Civil War long enough to win independence was its cotton and tobacco trade with Britain and France. The Confederate States of America desperately sought formal diplomatic recognition from those two European powers, as that might lead to military aid. Seizing the Confederacy’s largest port would severely limit its ability to smuggle exported cotton and tobacco to Europe and transport weapons from abroad.


Union Navy commander David Dixon Porter began crafting a plan to capture New Orleans while watching it from the Union’s naval blockade. Capturing the city would also give the Union access to the lower part of the Mississippi River and deny use of it to the Confederacy, preventing them from moving troops and supplies north or south. Time was of the essence, as it was rumored that the Confederates were building new ironclad ships to defend the area. The Union needed to strike quickly before additional defenses could be made to the city.


Why Was the Battle of New Orleans Significant?

An 1885 rendering of New Orleans showing its size and ability to conduct trade. Source: United States Census Bureau


New Orleans was the Confederacy’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, with some 120,000 to 170,000 residents, foreign diplomats, and regular pre-war trade with Europe and Mexico. Capturing it would be a tremendous blow to the Confederacy, both in terms of physical power and psychologically. Like the later Battle of Atlanta, losing control of a major city representative of Southern culture would erode the South’s morale. Conversely, seizing the city would greatly boost Union morale, which had sunk after the First Battle of Bull Run.


A recent Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh, which revealed that the Union could gain territory in the Western Theater even if it could not successfully move against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, would be bolstered in the Northern press by seizing New Orleans. Union President Abraham Lincoln needed significant victories in the war to reduce public pressure to accept Southern demands for independence – many citizens in the North had no desire to fight to prevent the South from seceding. Capturing a “crown jewel” of the Confederacy would help bolster Lincoln’s efforts to maintain the union.


5 Facts About the Battle of New Orleans

Union rear admiral David Farragut (right), famous for capturing New Orleans in 1862, coined the famous phrase “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” in 1864. Source: US Naval Institute (USNI).


1. Casualties

There were few casualties in the battle. Only four Confederate defenders in forts Jackson and St. Philip were killed during the four-day bombardment, with fourteen more wounded. During Farragut’s push through the forts, as he sailed upriver to New Orleans, the naval battle saw roughly 140 Confederate sailors killed versus only about 40 Union sailors killed. Both sides reported approximately 170 wounded during the naval engagement. There were no casualties when occupying the city, as Confederate troops had left by the time Union admiral David Farragut arrived on April 25, 1862.


2. Commanders

The Union commander was Captain David Farragut, son of a Revolutionary War veteran who had immigrated to South Carolina from Spanish territory in 1776. Farragut was adopted at a young age by a military family in New Orleans and soon moved to Washington DC. As a boy, he began sailing on naval ships with his adoptive father. Not long after, as a young teenager, Farragut served during the War of 1812. As a Spanish speaker, he secured a naval command during the Mexican-American War. After the war, now at the then-highest US naval rank of captain, Farragut established the first naval base on the West Coast in California.


With both land and naval forces, the Confederate command in New Orleans was split among different officers and did not work efficiently. Ultimately, the highest-ranking officer was Major General Mansfield Lovell, a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran. While Farragut had been born in the South and moved to the North, Lovell did the opposite and resigned his employment in New York City when the Civil War began. In October 1861, Lovell was appointed commander of New Orleans. While the capture of New Orleans made Farragut a hero, Lovell’s failure to prevent its capture ended the man’s military career; he was reduced to serving as a “volunteer staff officer” under General Joseph E. Johnston.


3. Number of Forces Involved

As the defenders, the Confederates had roughly 1,200 soldiers between the two coastal forts of Jackson and St. Philip. In addition, there were hundreds of sailors on the dozens of Confederate boats stationed nearby. To defend the city of New Orleans itself, General Mansfield Lovell was left with only about 3,000 short-term volunteer soldiers after recent Confederate losses elsewhere (part of the Shiloh campaign) caused the military command to utilize them away from New Orleans, which was not thought to be under threat.


The Union had hundreds of sailors on Farragut’s fleet of over forty ships, although only twenty-four warships actually entered the city’s harbor, plus 15,000 infantry ready to disembark at New Orleans. After passing the coastal forts, these 15,000 soldiers faced no resistance and occupied the city.


4. Visiting New Orleans coastal forts

Visitors today can visit New Orleans and take guided tours about the city’s Civil War history. However, since no actual battle took place in the historic city, Civil War buffs would do better to visit Fort Jackson, which tried to prevent Farragut’s fleet from sailing past. Unfortunately, Fort St. Philip has sustained significant damage over the years due to flooding and coastal erosion. It is privately owned and unavailable to visit. However, those visiting New Orleans can get a double dose of military history: the Battle of New Orleans is often remembered in the context of the War of 1812, where Andrew Jackson defeated British attempts to seize the city in January 1815.


5. Trivia: Creation of the Rank of Admiral

Capturing New Orleans, especially with minimal bloodshed, made Union naval captain David Farragut a hero. At the time, there was no rank of admiral, with those considered above the rank of a traditional captain, as Farragut was, labeled “Flag Officers.” In honor of his victory at New Orleans, Flag Officer Farragut was made the nation’s first rear admiral. Later victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi (1863) and Mobile Bay, Alabama (1864) saw Farragut further promoted to the first vice admiral and admiral of the United States Navy.


Aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans

Union general Benjamin Butler occupied New Orleans and courted controversy due to the political nature of the city and its occupation. Source: Virginia Humanities


Because Flag Officer David Farragut was a naval officer, the Union ground forces were commanded by General Benjamin Butler, who was tasked with occupying New Orleans. Butler was perhaps one of the most controversial general officers of the Civil War and had little military experience prior to the Battle of Fort Sumter. Despite Butler’s often-criticized physical appearance and lack of military background, he proved an able administrator. Although hated by many Southerners, Butler successfully improved the health, welfare, and public order of the war-addled city. His aggressive tactics in maintaining public order, which he had used in Baltimore, Maryland in 1861, provoked significant controversy in New Orleans within weeks of his arrival.


After many women had harassed occupying Union troops during the days following the city’s surrender, Butler passed the “woman order” (General Orders 28) on May 15, 1862. This order stated that women engaging in harassment of Union soldiers would be considered prostitutes and thus subject to arrest. This sparked outrage throughout the Confederacy, in the European press, and even received some criticism in the North. The “Beast” Butler, as he was nicknamed after the controversial order, was soon replaced. However, his order worked to stop the harassment, and Butler was allegedly even courted to join President Abraham Lincoln on his 1864 ticket as vice president.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.