Updated: May 12, 2021
by Gordon Thorsby
The Mississippi River was an excellent resource for both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. Loss of control of the Mississippi would be tragic to the Confederacy. For Federal ships moving north from the gulf, the river kept bluecoated armies in the deep South fed and supplied. With the taking of New Orleans in April, 1862, Grant could now attempt to make efforts around Vicksburg. That is until a small town became involved.
As Union steamers made their way north from New Orleans, Confederates prepared efforts to block, damage and sink vessels. In August, 1862 there was one particular place near a bend in the river that had a great vantage point called Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Many small towns could only hope for good roads or even a railroad. Donaldsonville had the Mississippi. Donaldsonville was a riverboat stop to pick up cotton and other products produced by farms and plantations. The passing sailors on military and non-military vessels passing north thought Donaldsonville was a pleasant and peaceful place. When cannon and sniper fire began belching forth from the Donaldsonville’s shore, it was producing a new good and service. To the Confederate partisans, they had an easy shortrange “field of fire” with easy targets of opportunity.
Incidents became too numerous to ignore. Targets of the guns focused on unarmed steamers and transports. River traffic increased and with that came the surge of the number of shore-to-ship engagements, many expensive and some deadly. Admiral David Farragut decided that the guns in the town posed a serious threat to his ships’ security and action was taken. Farragut warned the local government that he would bombard portions of the town and recommended that "Every time my boats are fired upon, I will burn a portion of your town." And that “the citizens, women and children” should get away to avoid injury. The leader of the local partisan group responsible for firing on vessels was a local businessman, Captain Phillippe Landry. The first action was about to take place.
The warning from Farragut did not alter behavior from Phillippe or anyone else in the town. Two nights later, on August 8th, Philippe fired on the transport, St. Charles. On August9, 1862, the ships, USS Hartford and Brooklyn steamed up river, anchored in range of the town and “beat to action.” The Hartford and Brooklyn were first line sloops-of-war that could bring a broadside of over 50 guns to bear on a target.
A landing party rowed to shore to perform preparatory work. Fire was set to Landry’s hotel, and other buildings supporting the partisan forces that were firing on passing vessels. Then, guns and mortars from the Hartford and Brooklyn proceeded to add their exclamation point to demonstrate that further incidents would not be tolerated. Naturally, the townspeople protested the damage on the town and to their livelihood. The firing from the town ceased, that is, for a while. It started again within another month and sailors aboard passing vessels were once again targets. In October, a Navy Lieutenant aboard a passing vessel was mortally wounded from sniper fire emanating from the town.
Ten months went by and 1862 became 1863. The Vicksburg Campaign had reached a zenith and the battle for the Mississippi was about to be decided. Help to relieve Vicksburg was not forthcoming. Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor came west from Virginia with orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to take all action to relieve the sieges on Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Taylor’s strategy was to threaten New Orleans, possibly to return the largest city in the South into Confederate control and draw forces away from Vicksburg. New Orleans was the largest city in the South in 1862.
Around June 20th, 1863, Brigadier Jean-Jacques-Alfred-Alexandre Mouton(aka. Alfred) put the brigades of Brig. Gen. Thomas Green (all Texas cavalry brigade), Colonel James Major, and a battery of artillery into motion to block another part of the river and that was at a little place called Donaldsonville. Green’s force moved at night and got into position across near Ft. Butler, manned by three companies of 28th Maine men and some convalescent soldiers. While forces were heavily lopsided in Mouton’s favor, Green’s men were assaulting prepared positions and at night. As midnight passed, the order was given and forces attacked the small fort on all sides at once. Two Union ships anchored in the river, USS Princess Royal and USS Winona responded by throwing shells from 9” and 11” Dahlgren guns into the shadowy attackers. It turned out that the fort’s greatest defense was the wide ditch that was determined impossible to cross. The fort may not have been scouted or someone forgot to tell the Mouton and Green in charge of the operation. Green and Majors withdrew their forces and the second battle of Donaldsonville concluded with losses of about 300 on each side. Donaldsonville remained in Union hands throughout the rest of the war. Vicksburg and Port Gibson would fall in the next month and the Mississippi was forever lost.
The significance of the fight was that Federal troops would control areas and waterways as long as they maintained river patrols. Rebellion resistance organized or irregular continued forcing significant use of resources. The failed Red River Campaign by Union Gen. Nathanial Banks with an entire Corps and a fleet of ships failed to tame the region. Louisiana continued to be a “hot zone” for the rest of the war and one of the last areas to surrender in 1865.
The Civil War in Louisiana, by Winters John D., Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 18., Government Printing Office, Washington, 1862.
Maps: Courtesy of National Park Service (Public Domain)
Print: Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Photographs: Courtesy of Library of Congress