The two forts which were the scene of Farragut’s first brilliant exploit in running by the enemy’s works with wooden vessels have not been regularly garrisoned since 1871 and have been maintained only in a casual sort of a fashion. Stronger and newer defenses have taken their place, though these two spots have had a long and honorable existence in the defense of the mouth of America’s greatest river and of its picturesque French Spanish American chief city, New Orleans. Situated 32 nautical miles by river from the Gulf of Mexico and about 22 miles from the lighthouse at the head of the passes of the Mississippi, they occupy the first habitable ground bordering the river, at a sharp bend known as English Turn. Fort St. Philip is on the northern bank of the river. Fort Jackson on the southern. Though so far from the Gulf by river. Fort St. Philip, owing to the peculiar formation of the mouth of the Mississippi, with long fingers spread out into the sea, is only a short distance from the Gulf as the crow flies.
About a mile above the site of Fort Jackson there stood an ancient French fortification known as Fort Bourbon, which gradually yielded to the encroachments of time so that now there is of it nothing left. Fort St. Philip, itself, was founded by the French and was surrendered to the United States in 1803 with the purchase of the Louisiana territory.
The situation of the two forts was early recognized by the United States as possessing much military value, and in 1812-1815 St. Philip was made over by the United States authorities and Fort Jackson was built. Fort St. Philip at the time of the Civil War consisted of a quadrangular earthwork with brick scarp rising 19 feet above the level of the river and a wet ditch with exterior batteries above and below. Fort Jackson, largely added to between 1824 and 1832, was a pentagonal bastioned fortification built of brick with casemates, glacis and wet ditch; and of the two was the more formidable work.
The two forts saw service in 1814 against the British. At this time the name Jackson was applied to the southern fort in honor of the fiery American commander whose defense of that city has become an inspiring legend.
The Confederate Government had early taken possession of the forts and had put them in complete order. When Farragut’s fleet appeared, early in the spring of 1862, Fort Jackson with its water battery mounted 75 guns and Fort St. Philip about 40. The works were garrisoned by about 1500 men, commanded by Brigadier General J. K. Duncan; St. Philip being under the direct command of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Higgins. Just above the forts the Confederates had placed a fleet of 15 vessels, including the ironclad ram Manassas. Below Fort Jackson they had obstructed the river with a heavy chain brought from Pensacola. This chain was pinned to the under side of a row of cypress logs which were 30 feet long and four or five feet in diameter. The spring freshets caused this chain to break and it was replaced by two lighter chains supported in similar fashion.
As a first move against the Confederate strongholds, Farragut sent Commander Porter with his fleet of mortar vessels to bombard the forts. The bombardment opened on the 18th of April and continued without remission for six days, but though breaches were made in the walls and the levee was broken at one place so that the beleaguered men had a difficult task to keep the waters of the Mississippi from drowning them out, the action was inconclusive.
It was then that Farragut determined upon the bold move (later duplicated at Mobile) which was so great an element of his fame. At two o’clock on the morning of April 24, 1862, he set his fleet in motion up the river. The chain barriers were cut and the fleet contrived to get past the fort without serious damage or loss of life. Thus was accomplished the feat of passing, with wooden vessels in a stream half a mile wide, two forts specially prepared to resist such an effort. The Confederate fleet was met beyond the forts and repulsed after a sharp engagement.
Farragut now passed on to New Orleans to make sure of the rich prize of a city whose export business at that time was the greatest in the world, while Porter was left behind with a sufficient squadron to continue the bombardment of the forts. After being under continuous fire until the 28th of the month the forts surrendered, and have never since been in active service.
The reservation of Fort Jackson contains 557.6 acres and that of Fort St. Philip 1108.85 acres. The reservations consist entirely of swamplands, during season of high water being almost completely inundated. Those portions containing the forts, quarters and other buildings are leveed on all sides, but notwithstanding the protection thus afforded there are times when the water rises so high as to become a source of great inconvenience in going about. This is especially the case when rain is added to the water, which percolates through the levees.
Any account of Fort Jackson would be incomplete without allusion to its alligators. These reptiles constitute one of the principal objects of interest to visitors and may be seen in numbers floating in the moats or basking on shore in the sunlight. They are from five to fifteen feet in length and possess great strength. It was customary to feed them with bread and crackers from the bridges over the moats, calling them up by whistling, and from frequent occurrence of this act they seemed to become accustomed to the signal and responded to it just as might dogs.
The rattlesnakes of the vicinity are numerous and formidable. One was caught here measuring 11½ feet and having 27 rattles. Black snakes are large but rare. Moccasins, of which there are two varieties, attain a large size and are frequently very venomous.
The mosquitoes constitute a serious obstacle to the enjoyment of life to the infrequent garrisons at this post, for they not only ply their calling with great diligence during the night but in summer are equally zealous throughout the day. Various expedients are adopted to avoid and drive them away. The smudge is brought into frequent and useful requisition. Gloves are worn and covering of mosquito netting is frequently used to protect the neck and head.