Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/November/Letter from Commander Mitchell on Defence of New Orleans

Operations of Confederate States Navy in Defence of New Orleans.

The publication of the paper of Captain C. W. Read in our May number has elicited a good deal of adverse criticism. We have received, besides the letter from Commander Mitchell, which we give below, two other papers from distinguished naval officers denying and several commenting on various statements in Captain Read's narrative. The Committee have examined these letters very carefully, and are unanimous in the opinion, that while it is very unfortunate that certain personalities in Captain Read's communication were (by inadvertence) allowed to creep into our Papers, it would not be proper for us to allow our Monthly to become the medium of bitter personal controversy, and we must, therefore, decline to publish these communications in their present form. We would, of course, file them for future reference.

The letter of Commander Mitchell, and the finding of the court, we take pleasure in publishing.

Captain Read's narrative and these several communications relate to events of which no member of our Committee had any personal knowledge; and we do not by any means endorse the entire accuracy of everything which we publish. We always give a responsible name attached to every paper; but we cannot, of course, undertake to decide controverted points, or even to take sides in our official capacity. We hope that we may be able to close this discussion (in our columns at least) by the following


309 West Grace Street,
Richmond, Virginia, October 5th, 1876.

To The Executive Committee of the
Southern Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia:

Gentlemen—My attention has been recently called to an article in the May number of the "Southern Historical Papers" entitled "Reminiscences of the Confederate States Navy, by Captain C. W. Read," and particularly to that portion of the article (page 346) relating to the surrender of Forts Jackson and Saint Phillip, below New Orleans. I take exceptions to the paragraph terminating with the sentences: "Fort Saint Phillip, on the opposite side of the river, was entirely unhurt, and was well supplied, and had a full garrison of true men. The 'Louisiana' mounted sixteen heavy guns, and was invulnerable. Comment is unnecessary."

The concluding remark in the above quotation evidently conveys a censure, but, to my understanding, it is so obscurely expressed that I am at a loss to determine against which of the three parties it is directed, viz: General Duncan, commanding both forts, but in the immediate command of Fort Jackson; the officer specially in command of Fort Saint Phillip; myself, commanding the Louisiana, or against all combined.

However, to remove all doubts on the minds of the readers of the "Southern Historical Society Papers" as to the merits of the part taken by the Confederate naval forces, in connection with the passage by the United States naval forces of the two forts named and their subsequent surrender; as an act of justice to the officers associated with me in the Louisiana; and in vindication of the truth of history, I respectfully ask you to publish in your work, with this communication, the accompanying printed copy of the finding of a naval court of inquiry (ordered at my instance), relative to the disasters of that occasion, which, I think you will admit, fully exonerates the navy.

I am, gentlemen,
Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
John K. Mitchell.

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Confederate States Navy Department,
Richmond, December 5, 1863.

Finding and Opinion of a Naval Court of Inquiry, convened in the City of Richmond, Virginia, January 5th, 1863, by virtue of the following precept:

Confederate States Navy Department,
Office of Orders and Detail,
Richmond, December 24, 1862.

Sir—By order of the Secretary of the Navy, you are hereby appointed president of a court of inquiry to be convened in this city on the 5th day of January next.

Captain S. S. Lee and Commander Robert G. Robb have been ordered to report to you, and with yourself will compose the court.

Mr. George Lee Brent will report to you as recorder.

You will inquire into the whole official conduct of Commander John K. Mitchell, Confederate States navy, while in command of the steamer "Louisiana," and in charge of the vessels of the Confederate States navy at and below New Orleans; and report the same to this Department, with your opinion whether the said officer did, or did not, do all in his power to sustain the honor of the flag, and prevent the enemy from ascending the Mississippi river, and if he did not, to what extent did he fail to do so.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
F. Forrest, Chief of Bureau.

Flag Officer Samuel Barren, Confederate States Navy,
Commanding, &c., James River, Virginia.}}

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"That Commander Mitchell assumed command of the Louisiana at New Orleans on the 20th April, 1862; and from that time until the destruction of the vessel only a period of eight days was embraced.

"That the whole force under his command consisted of the Louisiana, the McRae, the Manassas, the Jackson and one launch.

"That on the day after he took command, Captain Mitchell descended the river Mississippi in the Louisiana, and took up a position on the left bank of the river, about half a mile above Fort Saint Phillip.

"That on leaving New Orleans the machinery of the Louisiana was incomplete, her motive power imperfect, and her battery improperly mounted.

"That she could not, on a fair trial, stem the current of the Mississippi with her own motive power, aided by two steam tugs.

"That every exertion was made by Commander Mitchell, the officers and mechanics, to get the "Louisiana" in a proper state of efficiency for the defence of the passage of the river, and that the defects in the mounting of the battery had been remedied, and the battery served with efficiency, with the exception of two guns out of place.

"It appears that a request, or order, was sent by General Duncan, commanding Fort Jackson, to Commander Mitchell, to change the position of the Louisiana to a point lower down stream, which by a council of officers was unanimously deemed impracticable, and to a certain extent impossible, on account of the great depth of water, and that such change of position would endanger the safety of the Louisiana. That in the position General Duncan desired the Louisiana to assume, she would have been in range of the mortar boats of the enemy, and perfectly helpless, inasmuch as she could not give her guns more than five (5) degrees elevation—not enough to reach the enemy.

"That the best disposition possible was made of the vessels under the command of Commander Mitchell to resist the passage of the enemy.

"That on the 24th April the enemy appeared, and his passage was hotly contested by the Louisiana, the McRae and the Manassas. That the Jackson was previously sent up the river to guard certain passes, and the Launch down the river to signal the approach of the enemy, and that they took no part in the fight.

"That every possible resistance was offered by the vessels mentioned to the passage of the enemy up the river.

"That at no time was the Louisiana able to leave her moorings and pursue the enemy, from want of sufficient motive power.

"That the interval between the passage of the enemy, and the destruction of the Louisiana (four days), was employed in completing the machinery, to render her more able to cope with the enemy, and that it was Commander Mitchell's intention to make an attack when the Louisiana was capable of doing so.

"That Commander Mitchell, when he heard that General Duncan, in command of Fort Jackson, had accepted the terms of surrender offered the day before by Captain Porter, United States navy, remonstrated with General Duncan against such course, but was told it was too late, as the flag of truce boat had already been sent.

"That the enemy appeared in overwhelming force; and that at the time it was determined in council to destroy the Louisiana, the position of affairs was as follows: there were from ten to fourteen large vessels of Flag Officer Farragut's fleet above the Louisiana, and the mortar fleet and gunboats of Captain Porter were below. Two vessels of the enemy with white flags flying were coming up the river in sight, to accept the surrender of Forts Jackson and Saint Phillip, which had white flags flying in answer to them.

"That the Louisiana could not move from where she was moored to the bank, nor could she fire on the boats with flags of truce flying; and in a short time the forts would be in the hands of the enemy, and the Louisiana would be between them.

"It was then unanimously determined in a council of officers to destroy the Louisiana, as it was the only course left to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy.

"This destruction was accordingly effected under the direction and supervision of Commander Mitchell, in an orderly and deliberate manner, and every precaution was taken to insure the safety of his men."}}

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And the court is of opinion, from all the evidence adduced, that Commander Mitchell did all in his power to sustain the honor of the flag, and to prevent the enemy from ascending the Mississippi river; and that his conduct and bearing throughout the period of his service while in command of the vessels of the navy, for the defence of the Mississippi river, under the trying and embarrassing circumstances under which he was placed, was all that could be expected by the country and the naval service of a capable and gallant officer.

S. Barron,
Flag Officer, President of the Court.

Geo. Lee Brent, Recorder.}}

Navy Department, March 17, 1863.

Proceedings and, finding approved. Office of Orders and Detail will dissolve the court.

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.

Confederate States Navy Department,
Office of Orders and Detail,
Richmond, March 18, 1863.

Flag Officer S. Barron, Commanding, &c.:

Sir—The naval court of inquiry on Commander Mitchell, of which you are the presiding officer, is hereby dissolved.

This court convened in this city on the 5th day of January, and has been continued thus long in session, awaiting the attendance of General Mansfield Lovell and Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Higgins, who were summoned to appear before it as witnesses, by orders from the War Dopartment.

Learning that one of these gentlemen, Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins, cannot be spared from his present command, and that General Lovell has made no answer to the summons from the War Department, although they have been more than two months since summoned again and again, there is no course left but to dissolve the court, which is done accordingly, and you will so inform the members and the judge advocate.

You will be pleased to have this letter, or a certified copy, spread upon the records of the court.

Respectfully your obedient servant,
F. Forrest, Chief of Bureau.

The foregoing is ordered to be published for the information of all whom it may concern.

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.