The Union Takes New Orleans
Civil War historians have not shown a great deal of attention to the fall of New Orleans, an event that was an early indicator of gloomier things to come for the Confederacy. In A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy, Mark Bielski tells of the leaders and men who fought for control of the Crescent City, the largest city in the South, the key to the Mississippi, and the principal commercial gateway for the Confederacy; crucial to the cotton trade, it was the largest exporting port in the world. He tells the story of New Orleans from the outbreak of the war through its fall to Union forces in 1862, and does a solid job elucidating why this was vital to the downfall of Confederate chances for victory economically, politically, and militarily.
Bielski stresses the fact that political and military authorities at Richmond showed little initiative or strategic vision. That Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore and many other Southerners expressed concern for the security of the city, warning Jefferson Davis and the Confederate War department of the need to properly prepare for its defense, shows that Davis was initially little concerned for New Orleans. Many troops from Louisiana and surrounding areas were sent elsewhere, particularly to Virginia, and the first commander in the theatre, the superannuated David Twiggs, abandoned strategically important Ship Island – on the Gulf between New Orleans and Mobile – upon the appearance of one Federal gunboat.
Bielski shows how President Lincoln and his advisors, consistently looking for ways to destroy the Confederacy’s economy, as embodied in what was dismissively called the “Anaconda Plan” – Winfield Scott’s scheme to end the war by securing control of Confederate ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and the line of the Mississippi - saw New Orleans as an obvious objective.
Confederate leadership never developed a coherent strategy, Davis often engaging in political squabbling with political and military leaders, and failing to communicate effectively, even as the Union fleet took Ship Island and began turning it into a base. No significant “national” effort was made to prepare the city for defense, though many local people - politicians, soldiers, and civilians - worked hard, and later fought hard, to hold the city. But few reinforcements arrived, and no one seems to have considered trying to disrupt Federal forces assembling on Ship Island.
In April of 1862 Commodore David Farragut’s ships ran the defenses of the lower Mississippi with little loss, and an army under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler moved in to secure it, achieving the important goal of sealing off the Mississippi, which came under complete Union control with the fall of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.
Bielski ends his account with a look at the recriminations which followed the fall of the city. Mansfield Lowell, in command at the time, became the fall guy, and despite the fact that a court of inquiry vindicated him, Jefferson Davis refused to publicize its decision in order to deflect criticism from himself and his cabinet.
Bielski writes very well and weaves the words of the participants into the narrative, including comments from Farragut, Butler, David Porter, Davis, Moore, Tweed, P.G.T. Beauregard, and others. Four excellent maps, by cartographer Hal Jespersen, and many photographs supplement Bielski’s text
Overall, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy is a long-needed addition to the story of the fall of the Confederacy and will make a fine addition to the reading list of anyone interested in the history of the Civil War, explaining why New Orleans fell seemingly due to its negligible resistance.
Bielski has hit a home run with A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy, and Savas Beatie has added another good book to their “Emerging Civil War” series.