Jean Lafitte
Historic Resource Study (Chalmette Unit)
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Forty-six years after the British attack on New Orleans the scene at Chalmette once more hosted military activity. At the outbreak of the Civil War Confederate authorities in Louisiana saw great need in protecting the port city from an invasion by Union troops and early in 1861 they began formulating defensive plans for that purpose. But while events unfolded in the East, defenses along the Mississippi were generally neglected, despite the admonitions of prominent officers like Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. Only in September, 1861, when Major General Mansfield Lovell took command of Confederate Military Department No. 1 did preparation of the defenses at New Orleans begin in earnest.

The fortifications around the city constituted what authorities termed the outer and inner lines of defense. The former consisted of Forts Jackson, St. Philip, Pike, Macomb, and Livingston—all relatively large permanent masonry structures, besides some earthen fortifications that stood along the various watercourses surrounding the city. The inner line, started in July, 1861, comprised mostly temporary earthworks thrown up at strategic points along the waterways and at railheads closer in to New Orleans. Under Lovell's direction this system was refined mostly in the area of the swamps and bayous adjoining both sides of the Mississippi. Erected according to the tenets of field fortification, the earthworks stretched for broad distances at right angles to the stream, generally terminating at the water's edge in large batteries each capable of mounting several heavy cannon. [1] The generalities of the interior line were discussed by Lovell as follows:

Commencing at the swamp on the west side of the river, about 4-1/2 miles below Algiers, this interior line extended across the firm ground of the right bank of the river, and from the right bank at a point just opposite across the dry ground, to a swamp which occupied the space between it and Gentilly Ridge, where the line extended across the ridge to the adjoining swamp. It was resumed at the various points of firm ground on the railroad, canal, and roads, when they issued through the swamp in rear of the city, towards Lake Pontchartrain. Above the city it also extended from the swamp to the left bank of the river again, and from the opposite side it ran along the Barataria Canal from the bank of the river to the swamp above Algiers. The total length of the intrenchments on this line was more than 8 miles, and, when completed, it, in connection with the swamp, put New Orleans in an impregnable position so far as regarded any attack by land. [When finally finished] it mounted more than sixty guns, of various calibers, and was surrounded by wide and deep ditches. [2]

More specifically, the inner line of defense consisted of a line of entrenchments for infantry and artillery across Gentilly Ridge; a similar line running between the swamp and the river at Chalmette; another line opposite Chalmette, called McGehee, also running between the swamp and the river; a line above New Orleans on the right bank, again running from swamp to stream, called the Barataria line; another line of earthworks on the left bank 1-1/2 miles above the suburb of Carrollton, termed the Victor line; an earthen battery and cognate works defending the Carrollton Railroad at Lake Pontchartrain; and a battery along the road between Bayou St. John and New Orleans. Several smaller works were planned but never commenced. [3]

The line at Chalmette represented the major Confederate defensive position between the lower river forts and New Orleans. Begun soon after General Lovell assumed command, the Chalmette line touched the Mississippi at a point immediately below the present national cemetery where a breakwater was erected to protect the bank from erosion. [4] The Chalmette line took the configuration of a disjointed multi-saliented earthwork paralleling the length of a four-foot water-filled ditch for a distance of roughly 2,250 yards at right angles to the river. [5] At the riverward end of the entrenchments the Confederates mounted ten 32-pounders which were intended to act in concert with a like number of 42-pounders at Line McGehee across the stream in providing a stiff cross fire against ascending vessels. "The lines," wrote Lovell, "extend to the swamp on each side, and have flanking arrangements for thirty-two pound carronades to sweep the whole point." [6] Built initially to thwart an attack by land forces, the Chalmette and McGehee lines geared for a stout defense in the spring of 1862 as Flag-Officer David G. Farragut's naval fleet made ready to assault from the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi. By late April changes in the disposition of ordnance in the two works brought the number of guns planned for Chalmette to twelve and those for McGehee to twenty. Urgent redistribution of ten 42-pounders for use by the navy, however, reduced the ordnance components at Chalmette and McGehee to five and nine guns, respectively. [7]

Union efforts to gain military control of the Mississippi culminated in Farragut's advance on New Orleans in April, 1862. Strengthened Confederate positions at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip offered some hope of stemming the approach of the Union fleet, but a sustained attack by Commander David D. Porter's mortar boats weakened the defenses. Early on the morning of April 24 the Federal vessels began passing the river forts amidst a prolonged bombardment by Confederate guns. Most of the craft survived intact and pushed on upstream to capture the city, dispersing various Confederate vessels enroute. All efforts by the Southerners to check the advance failed; at English Turn blasts from the warships drove the rebels into the adjacent swamps.

Still hoping to protect the city, General Lovell had directed Brigadier General Martin L. Smith, commanding at Chalmette, to raise volunteers who might attempt boarding and capturing Farragut's ships. Only 100 men agreed to take the risk and the plan was dropped. [8] Instead, an effort to repel the Union approach was made by the batteries at Chalmette and McGehee. But even in that attempt, the chance for success was scant. More than half of the ammunition projected for the batteries had been removed and placed aboard an ironclad steamer, Louisiana, which was eventually destroyed. [9]

The confrontation occurred at about midday, April 25. Farragut's steamers in passing English Turn had encountered ships with cotton cargoes ablaze set adrift to float down the river, evidence that New Orleans was in process of abandonment. As the Federal ships approached Chalmette the swollen stream afforded them a commanding view of the works situated several feet below on the plain. The ships advanced in two columns. One, Cayuga, was far ahead of the others and drew a steady fire from the Chalmette and McGehee batteries for fifteen minutes before Farragut passed by in Hartford and opened with fierce broadsides of shell, grapeshot, and shrapnel causing the Confederates to pull back from their guns and seek refuge. Two other vessels, Pensacola and Brooklyn, followed suit so that after twenty minutes of bombardment by the Union fleet the land batteries, now devoid of any hope for response, were abandoned by their defenders. During the exchange, Pensacola and Oneida wrought the most destructive fire against the Chalmette position and were followed by the succeeding vessels in Farragut's fleet. [10]

The part of the warship Brooklyn in the encounter was detailed by her commanding officer:

On the morning of the 25th of April, as the fleet was proceeding up the river, at about a quarter-past 11 o'clock, two batteries were discovered, one on our starboard bow, and the other almost directly ahead. Signal was made... to prepare for action. At this time the flag-ship was the leading vessel, the "Brooklyn" was the second in the line, and the "Iroquois" third; the others were astern, and somewhat scattered. A few minutes after your signal the "Cayuga" passed the "Brooklyn," and so close as to compel me to hail and request her commander not to force me out of my station. She pushed on, and even passed the flag-ship.

About noon, being then one and a quarter miles distant from them, the batteries opened a raking fire upon us. The fire of starboard [Chalmette] battery was immediately responded by this ship, then about half a cable's length astern of the "Hartford," and twenty-one shots from our 80-pounder rifled gun were rapidly, and with remarkable precision, thrown into it, only two of these shots failing to take effect. A few minutes afterward the "Brooklyn," then steaming at the rate of ten knots, by the sudden shearing off and slowing down of the "Hartford," for the purpose of engaging the enemy, necessarily sheered in shore, which brought her up within one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards of the port-hand battery, and so as to obstruct the fire of the "Hartford." The "Brooklyn" then opened fire with grape and canister, stopped her engines, and, lying within less than one hundred yards of the river bank, delivered two other broadsides, which completely drove the enemy pell-mell from their guns and from the field. [11]

The unequal action, wrote one participant, "scarcely deserves the name of a battle." [12] A few shots were leveled by men on shore armed with muskets, but they soon withdrew under fire of Union marines. [13] At McGehee where Brigadier General Smith commanded were three companies to operate the nine guns, plus one company of trained sharpshooters. At Chalmette Brigadier General Buisson was in charge of a company of the Twenty-second Louisiana Volunteer Infantry under Captain Patton; a company recently arrived from Fort Pike at Chef Menteur under a Lieutenant Butler; one unit of the Beauregard Battery of Artillery, plus two infantry battalions there for instruction but positioned to guard against an attack on the position by land. Total number of troops on both sides of the river stood at more than 1,000. [14] The defenders occupying the works at Chalmette and McGehee were resigned to the outcome of the engagement and fought Farragut's ships "through a sense of duty, but without any expectation of success." [15]

The McGehee battery (commanded by Colonel Pinkney) was first to fire against the Union fleet, the discharge followed promptly by rounds from the Chalmette unit. The bombardment from shore lasted until the ammunition at hand was exhausted, the men, wrote Smith, "displaying a coolness and intrepidity that was gratifying, especially... [those] who then for the first time in their lives discharged a heavy gun." [16] Once satisfied that further resistance was futile, and ammunition having run out, the troops were permitted to withdraw back from the river along the entrenchments. One man was killed and another wounded during the engagement with the Union war vessels. [17]

During the evacuation of the posts surrounding New Orleans following Farragut's arrival, the guns, implements, and camp equipage at Chalmette and McGehee were abandoned to the enemy. General Lovell was later subjected to a court of inquiry regarding his performance during the fall of New Orleans. Records indicate that he did not order the withdrawal from Chalmette and McGehee and that it was accomplished on the authority of General Smith because of the condition of his command and supplies following the fight with the Federal ships. [18]

Federal troops occupied New Orleans and environs following Farragut's success and the Confederate evacuation. To ensure the security of the city against the possibility that the rebels might return, Union soldiers now took station at all strategic military points in the vicinity. The overall New Orleans command belonged to Major General Benjamin F. Butler and, later, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. In January, 1863, an administrative realignment brought the Chalmette position under command of Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. His division included a first brigade under Brigadier General Neal Dow, part of which consisted of the Twenty-eighth New York Volunteer Infantry commanded by Colonel Cowles and stationed at Chalmette. [19] That the region should remain invulnerable to Confederate counterattack was underscored the following July when a board of defense, consisting of five ranking officers, recommended numerous changes in existing regional security measures. Besides urging that 5,000 federal soldiers be sent to garrison New Orleans, the board proposed construction of floating batteries as well as erection of a number of fortifications at significant transportation junctures. [20] Furthermore, they wrote:

there should be a citadel large enough for a garrison of 5,000 troops, the line of parapet about 1,250 yards long, a field work of high relief, with a revetted scarf, the site to be chosen by the chief engineer [of the department], in the vicinity of the Chalmette line. The works constructed by the rebels should be allowed to remain.... A road of communication should be made from the citadel to the Gentilly road. [21]

Such an elaborate defensive work was never built. Instead, the intrenchments at Chalmette remained essentially as erected by the Confederates. Perhaps the best representation of the state of the works appeared in a diagram evidently prepared in late 1863 or early 1864 by Captain John C. Palfrey of the Engineer Department. The diagram exhibits the length of the Chalmette works from the riverbank to the swamp, roughly 2,170 yards. At distances of from 40 feet to 700 feet behind the works and paralleling them was a ditch 4 feet wide. Immediately in front of the intrenchments was a fosse, or water-filled ditch, measuring at different places between 20 and 46 feet wide. The earthworks followed the theoretical manuals, embracing throughout their length the components of counterscarp, scarp, berm, parapet, and banquette. There was a sally port opening about 830 yards from the river and another some 830 yards farther inland through which the Mexican Gulf Railroad passed. The parapet measured about 8 feet high at the inside of the superior talus (top), while the banquette and battery floor stood approximately 4 feet above ground level. Cannon emplacements were arranged on either side of each sally port, while other battery positions were established elsewhere on the line. The ditch was kept filled with water by a canal adjoining at the northernmost end, while a dam erected in the ditch some 500 yards from the river kept the water entrapped, completing the defense. Overall configuration of the works was of two gentle eastward-jutting protrusions each arranged with multiple salients to prevent an enemy assault by land. Total length of the zigzagging entrenchments was 7,226 feet. [22]

During 1864 the aggregate troop strength at Chalmette fell drastically. In June only 201 men were stationed there and in Proctorville on Lake Borgne to guard the approach to the city by that route. [23] The Chalmette portion of this defense comprised 1 officer and 79 men of the Thirtieth Massachusetts Volunteers. [24] Within three months the Chalmette post was occupied by black soldiers of Company H, Twentieth U. S. Colored Troops, commanded by Captain Elijah S. Curry. [25] By December, however, the force there consisted of two companies of the Thirty-fourth Indiana Volunteer Infantry. [26]

Other administrative and strength changes occurred in 1865 as the Union occupation of New Orleans continued. During the first weeks of the year the Chalmette post became headquarters for the Sixteenth Army Corps, commanded, ironically enough, by Major General Andrew Jackson Smith. Consequently, in late February the post was garrisoned by the entire Eleventh Wisconsin, Thirty-third Illinois, Twenty-sixth Indiana, and Sixth Minnesota volunteer infantry regiments. [27] It was anticipated that these troops would take part in a field campaign scheduled to begin in the region. [28] Accordingly, in late February the first brigade departed aboard a steamer for Dauphin Island in Mississippi Sound. The 124th Illinois Volunteer Infantry reported for duty at Chalmette on February 27 and, attached to the first brigade, shortly left to join the balance of the command at Dauphin Island. [29]

As might be expected, the confinement of such a large number of troops to the area behind the entrenchments posed problems, especially when bad weather struck. On February 24 Brigadier General John McArthur notified headquarters that his command was "in a sinking condition. If compelled to remain long where they are, contending with the water and mud of Chalmette, they will disappear." McArthur applied to the commander of Jackson Barracks nearer the city for the use of quarters in which to house his soldiers. [30] Throughout the first few weeks of March the flooding continued, requiring commanders to impress citizens into service for the purpose of repairing the levees. The bad weather ultimately caused problems among the troops camped at Chalmette, as noted by Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut:

The wretched waste and destruction by the troops at Kenner and Chalmette of the picketts and fascines renders both those points [along the river] very dangerous. I am compelled by overwhelming evidence to believe that the most utter recklessness, both of public and private rights, has characterized the troops which have occupied Chalmette especially. Plunder, pilfering, and robbery committed by them are already the subject of heavy reclamations. [31]

In late April the rising Mississippi forced a breach in the levee opposite Chalmette. As before, citizens were directed by military officers in repairing the crevasse. [32]

After the Civil War ended the camp at Chalmette continued to be used for the assembly of troops from diverse regional points for purposes of maintaining order in the Reconstruction South. In June, 1865, to that end, men of the Fourth Army Corps under Major General David S. Stanley, late of the Army of the Cumberland, began arriving at Chalmette where they received supplies and equipment from a depot established in New Orleans. [33] A company of the Twentieth U. S. Colored Infantry was also posted there to "perform such escort and other duties as may be required at that point." [34]

Shortly thereafter the military occupation at Chalmette ceased altogether when the former Confederate earthworks were abandoned. [35]

Thereafter the Chalmette entrenchments represented a silent vestige of the brief struggle there in 1862 and the solidifying occupation by Union forces until the war's end. In 1864, after the national cemetery was established adjoining them, part of the works comprising the sally port nearest the river had to be demolished. During the early 1880s the works remained, but the ditches were "covered with green sluggish water, giving sustenance to flags and bulrushes." [36] This situation continued into the twentieth century, when the eroding works were featured in a photographic essay by an area newspaper. [37] By then the ditches had likely been filled in by erosion or purposely as a precaution against disease. Aerial photographs taken in April, 1943, reveal that an 800-foot segment of the intrenchments paralleling the Chalmette National Cemetery had been lost. [38] The remaining segments extending from the river back across Highway 46 were intact as late as May 31, 1951. By January, 1954, however, virtually all of the fortification line lying between the highway and the Mississippi River had been obliterated with construction of the Kaiser Aluminum facilities. In 1964 only a portion still existed north of the highway, and today that area comprises a housing subdivision. [39] The old Confederate works at Chalmette are now gone.

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Last Updated: 05-Sep-2004