World War I poster with Admiral Farragut at Mobile Bay shouting out: "Damn the torpedoes, go ahead!"
Two old masonry forts - Jackson and St. Philip on the Mississippi River below New Orleans - were the city's first line of defense.
After a brief bombardment failed to force the forts to surrender, Farragut's vessels steamed past them early on April 24 and destroyed the small Confederate fleet that supported the forts. Confederate troops evacuated New Orleans rather than submit to a bombardment. Without firing a shot, the city surrendered to Farragut, and Union troops under Gen. Benjamin F. Butler occupied New Orleans on May 1. The Confederacy had suffered a grievous blow. Lost were the major port, iron foundries, the financial center of the South, and, eventually, the Mississippi River. New Orleans served as a Union base for subsequent operations up the "Father of Waters."
Louisiana was open to invasion, but the Union high command directed its energies to the Mississippi River. When Baton Rouge fell to Farragut on May 7, the state capital was moved to Opelousas. After the union navy was turned back from Vicksburg in July 1862, the Confederates decided to try to retake Baton Rouge. On August 5, Confederates under General John C. Breckinridge (former U.S. vice-president and presidential candidate) attacked Union troops camped on the outskirts of town. Union troops were driven back to the levee where they were not protected by their gunboats. When the gunboat Arkansas did not arrive to drive the Union warships, Breckinridge's Confederates retreated to Port Hudson where they began erecting fortifications.
Breckinridge's attack frightened Gen. Butler. Anxious for New Orleans's safety, Union forces evacuated Baton Rouge on August 21, and it was not reoccupied until December 17 when Butler's successor, Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, arrived. This hiatus from August until December proved pivotal, allowing the Confederates to complete their river batteries and trenches at Port Hudson.
In October 1862, a Union force under Gen. Godfrey Weitzel conducted a destructive raid from Donaldsonville down Bayou Lafourche. On October 27, the Federals brushed aside a small Confederate army under Gen. Alfred Mouton in the Battle of Labadieville. Mouton's troops evacuated the region, falling back to the lower Bayou Teche. After occupying the area, Weitzel's men laid waste to the sugar industry along the Lafourche.
Military activities subsided until spring of 1863. Urged by the government in Washington, D.C., to attack the stronghold at Port Hudson, Banks and Farragut finally moved against the fortification. On the night of March 14, the Confederates turned back Farragut's naval attack. Banks realized Port Hudson could be claimed only with a lengthy siege. Before attempting this task, he decided to clear south Louisiana west of the Mississippi of Confederate troops that might threaten his supply lines on that river.
Gen. Richard Taylor's small Confederate army was entrenched at Fort Bisland on Bayou Teche. Banks moved most of his army to Brashear (now Morgan City) to attack Fort Bisland. After successfully holding their fortifications on April 12 and 13, Taylor's men were outflanked and had to retreat. On April 14, the Battle of Irish Bend allowed Taylor's army to escape capture. Banks' forces pursued the Confederates, capturing Opelousas and Alexandria and forcing the state capital to move one last time to Shreveport.
Acting in conjunction with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's attack on Vicksburg, Mississippi, Banks turned from Alexandria to move against Port Hudson. The siege of Port Hudson ensued, lasting from May 23 to July 9, 1863, the longest siege in American military history.
Two unsuccessful Union assaults occurred May 27 and June 14. On May 27, black troops faced Confederates in battle for the first time and performed admirably. During the protracted siege, Confederates were forced to eat mules and horse meat and even rats, on occasion. They were said to prefer mule to horse. Vicksburg fell on July 4. When Confederate Gen Franklin Gardner received this news, he surrendered to Banks. Port Hudson was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Now the river was completely under Union control and the Confederacy was split in two. Valuable supplies - primarily beef and salt - from the Trans-Mississippi states were cut off from Confederate armies in the east.
Through the fall and winter of 1863, Union forces along the Gulf of Mexico turned their attention to Texas. In Louisiana, Confederates were victorious in much of the occasional fighting. On September 29, Gen. Taylor's men surprised and routed a small union force in the Battle of Stirling Plantation. In October, the Federal campaign from Brashear to Opelousas was turned back, and on November 3, the Confederates won another victory at the Battle of Bayou Bourbeau.
In mid-March 1864, the Red River campaign was launched to drive Taylor's army from Louisiana and plant the Union flag in the interior of Texas. Taylor's outnumbered army retreated as Gen. Banks' superior forces pursued. At Mansfield, Taylor received reinforcements. On April 8, he attacked the nearby Union army and inflicted a severe defeat. During the night, Banks retreated to Pleasant Hill. Taylor attacked again the next day, April 9. The Battle of Pleasant Hill was a draw. These were the last important battles fought on Louisiana soil. Banks retreated to Alexandria and there his accompanying fleet became trapped when the waters of the Red River fell. On May 13, the vessels were freed by Bailey's Dam. Banks continued his retreat to New Orleans by was of Simmesport and Morganza. Taylor's success in the Red River Campaign delayed Union victory in the war by several months.
Only small skirmishes occurred in Louisiana after the Red River Campaign. As word of Robert E. Lee's surrender spread through Confederate camps in Louisiana in 1865, soldier morale fell. Demoralization continued as armies east of the Mississippi River surrendered. Men began deserting and going home. In mid-May, General Edmund Kirby Smith contacted Union Gen. Edward R.S. Canby to negotiate the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Terms were worked out and signed by Kirby Smith's subordinates on May 26, by which most of Louisiana's Confederate units had disbanded.
Rather than surrender, Kirby Smith, Governor Henry W. Allen, numerous military and civilian leader and hundreds of soldiers went into exile in Mexico.
In Louisiana, the war took a heavy toll, out of proportion to the extent of the fighting. Only three states suffered as much or more: Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. Approximately one-fifth of the state's able-bodied white males and hundreds of black soldiers were killed in battle or died of disease. Thousands of whites and blacks were maimed or permanently disabled.
The end of slavery cost Louisiana over one-third of her assessed pre-war wealth. More than half the state's 1860 livestock had been killed or confiscated. And much other the countryside was desolated, with sugar plantations hit the hardest, losing close to $100 million without including the value of the slaves.
Overall, Louisiana emerged from the war with less than half its former wealth. In 1860, she ranked second in the nation and first in the South for per capita wealth. By 1880, she ranked 17th in the nation and last in the South. Louisiana entered the war wealthy. At its close she was ruined, devastated and poverty-stricken.