New Orleans, situated at the mouth of the Mississippi, was held by the Confederates. Because it is at the mouth of this great river, you can easily see it was necessary that the Unionists should have it, in order that they might be free to go up and down this great river whenever they chose.
Said Gen. Butler in his usual direct way, "New Orleans should be in our hands, New Orleans can be taken, and I can take it." There were many reasons why it seemed a doubtful place to attack, but Butler usually succeeded in whatever he set out to do; and, as his men often said, could make his hearers believe "the moon was made of green cheese" if he chose.
Soon Butler was on his way to New Orleans. He was very careful to keep his purpose hidden.
On reaching "Ship Island," a low sandy island off the coast of Mississippi, he found it covered all over with little white tents. This was the camp of Gen. Phelps, who, with 6,000 soldiers, was eagerly awaiting Butler's coming. Here Butler was joined by Admiral Farragut, one of the most remarkable naval officers America ever had. Together these two men planned to take New Orleans. Now, this city is a Mississippi sea-port; but it is situated around the corner, up the river a few miles, and was fortified strongly at every point. One could not even enter the river without passing two forts, and then there were many more dangerous points farther on. The only way to get to the city even, was either to bombard these forts and make them surrender, or else pass quietly by, letting the forts turn their great guns upon the vessels as they passed along. Neither the one, nor the other was a simple thing to do.
But danger or no danger, both Butler and Farragut were determined to reach that city.
Farragut had forty-eight vessels in all, and they carried three hundred and ten great guns.
Some of the vessels were covered over with a heavy network of iron chains to protect them from the balls from the forts. Their hulks were painted a dark, dull color, so that they could hardly be seen as they lay in the dull, muddy colored river. Then great trees were laced on the vessels' sides; so covering them up, and making them look so much like bits of the forests on the river banks, that, as they stole up the river in the dark night, the soldiers in the forts should not notice them until they were right upon them.
At last all was ready; and at three o'clock in the morning, this strange-looking fleet entered the Mississippi.
The first trouble that met them was a fire boat. This was a great raft, piled up with wood which had been soaked with oil. This was to be pushed up close to some Union vessel, to set it on fire. Of course such a fire as that oiled wood would make, would very soon catch the vessel before anything could be done to save her. And if this pile of pitch and oil were to get in among the tree-covered vessels, there would be a terrible scene!
"A boat! a boat!" cried the soldiers. "Volunteers to tow away this fire raft." "I" and "I!" and "I!" answered brave men from Farragut's fleet. A boat was lowered and rowed swiftly up to this blazing pile. Grappling irons were thrown and caught fast among the timbers, and away she was towed out of reach of the Union vessels. All by herself, on the water's edge she burned and snapped and crackled, doing no harm, only making of herself a most beautiful bonfire.
Fort Jackson was attacked first. Now followed a fierce siege. For three days the gun boats and the fort kept up the fire. Cannonball and bombshell! Smoke and flash! Roar upon roar, till it seemed as if the very earth did quake! Fish, killed by the shock, floated dead upon the river. Windows thirty miles away were broken in pieces, shaken by the jarring thunder.
A little farther up the river it was found that iron cables had been drawn across, linking together a chain of hulks, and so making passage beyond them almost impossible But nothing seemed impossible to Farragut's men.
These cables must be broken. That seemed the only thought. And so again under cover of darkness, two gun-boats were sent to break the cable. With hammer and chisel they worked away, and lo! the cable parted, and down the stream the bulks floated, leaving the passage free.
Up the river steamed the brave fleet, past the forts which threw out a rain of fire and shot upon them, straight through a fleet of confederate gun-boats, sent from New Orleans to prevent their approach to the city. And at last the Union fleet steamed up to the very wharves of the city, demanding its surrender. The people stood aghast! They had believed it impossible to reach their city. All the time the bombarding of the forts had been going on, these people had laughed and joked about it, never once thinking that Farragut could pass the forts, the fire-boats, the cables! But here he was at daybreak, at their very doors!
The people were panic stricken. What should they do? Where should they go? "Burn the city! Burn the city!" cried the men. "Yes, burn the city, and we will help you! The Yankees shall not have our homes!" cried the women.
But now news came that Butler, too, had passed the forts safely and was rapidly approaching by land. This was the last blow; and the people settled down to their fate with sullen faces, and with hearts full of hatred and revenge.
In marched Butler with flags flying, his bands filling the air with strains of Union music. Can you blame these New Orleans men and women that they hated these Union soldiers?
How the people glared at them! how they muttered and growled! The women, it is said, were more bitter than the men. They were like lionesses aroused to battle. They would not pass a Union soldier on the street. They would go out into the middle of the street rather than to meet one of the officers. The Union officers were insulted on every hand.
Gen. Butler realized how bitter a trial the taking of their city was to them, as we all do. But he could not and would not allow the Union officers, much more the Union flag, to be insulted. He at once took military command of the city, hoisted the "Stars and Stripes" and forced the people to pay, at least, outward respect to his soldiers.
Did you ever read "Uncle Tom's Cabin?" I don't suppose you have—it is too old for you yet—but perhaps you have seen it played. You remember little Eva, the little girl, who was so good to the slaves. You remember Old Uncle Tom, whose good old heart was nearly broken when he thought he must go away from his "little missus," as he always called the little Eva. And do you remember Eliza, the slave woman with the little baby, who was hunted through the forests and across the rivers, the wicked old slave-owner and his cruel pack of hounds at her heels?
Before the war broke out, Gen. Butler read this story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin;" but didn't approve of it at all. He didn't believe any such cruelty was to be found in the South. But when he left New Orleans, where he lived for nearly a year, he said, "Mrs. Stowe has told the truth in her book. I have seen with my own eyes and have heard with my own ears treatment of slaves here in the South a thousand times worse than anything that Mrs. Stowe has put into 'Uncle Tom's Cabin even."'