Rear Admiral David Farragut’s victory at New Orleans illustrates the importance of careful preparation, perhaps one of the least glamorous but most important attributes of leadership. New Orleans’ principal defenses to the south consisted of a pair of forts lying on either side of the Mississippi at a point seventy river miles below the city. Since the forts were surrounded by swamps, warships upstream could prevent their resupply. Farragut intended to lead his squadron in line-ahead formation past the forts and capture their base, New Orleans.
Early in March 1862, Farragut issued detailed orders to his skippers on how to ready their ships for service in the river. The orders emphasized the importance of damage control and gunnery drill.
Concern for his Sailors topped Farragut’s agenda. He knew that some of them would be wounded and he wanted to ensure they’d be properly cared for, so he requisitioned one-hundred iron bedsteads, converted one of his vessels into a hospital ship, and stocked a large supply of tourniquets. During the weeks before the attack, he beefed up the repair and supply facilities at his base and waded through an almost endless stream of paperwork dealing with coal, food, ammunition, boilers, machinery, and a thousand other details.
Meanwhile, Farragut gathered every scrap of information he could on the enemy’s defenses. He studied dispatches from Washington, read letters and papers from captured blockade runners and reports of prisoner interrogations, and listened to reports of officers whom he had sent upriver on reconnaissance missions. He also embarked on reconnaissance missions himself, deliberately steaming within range of the guns in the rebel forts to test the accuracy of their fire.
When not drilling the men, exercising gun crews, laying in provisions, or studying the enemy’s defenses, Farragut was making the rounds to encourage his officers and men in person. On 23 April, he visited each ship in the squadron to make sure the skippers understood his plan of attack. He knew that in the thick of battle amid darkness and smoke, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with them very well. He wanted every commander to understand exactly what he wanted them to do, so that each one could proceed independently, if the need arose. His enthusiasm and determination inspired and encouraged the skippers, overcoming much of their fear.
At five minutes before 0200 on 24 April, two red lanterns were hoisted on the deck of the flagship, signaling the fleet to get under way. The fighting began at 0340. At some moments, blazing fire rafts, flashing guns, and bursting shells lit the scene like day. At others, smoke hanging over the water reduced visibility to ten feet. The Union formation quickly disintegrated into something more like a race than an orderly line. Some ships slipped past the forts with nary a scratch; others got hammered.
Farragut’s squadron reached New Orleans the next afternoon and the city soon surrendered. Farragut’s careful preparations resulted in the capture of the South’s richest city and largest port. It remains one of the most resounding victories in American naval history.