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New Orleans was the only major city in the Confederacy, and it was captured by the Union army and navy just a year after the war began. Did the city fall to the Union because its immigrants were fed up with the nativist Know Nothings commanding its defenses?
New Orleans had endured some of the worst anti-immigrant violence in the entire country during the decade before the war. Thirty-eight percent of the population of the city was born abroad, primarily in Ireland and Germany. During the 1850s, the Know Nothings gained control of city government and they used violent mobs to keep immigrants from voting or taking part in civic life. At times, shoot-outs took place between nativists and immigrants over the right to vote, with the newcomers most often forced to retreat.1
After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the mayor of New Orleans, a Know Nothing, tried to rally immigrants to the Rebel cause, but with a few exceptions—like the men of the famed Louisiana Tigers—Irish and German alike stayed home. They had never been welcome in this southern city and they saw no point in risking their lives to protect its slave-owning hierarchy.
While immigrants avoided serving in the Confederate army, many were pressed to serve in local military units established to defend the city itself. Two regiments filled with immigrants were in a key fort on the Mississippi whose mutiny led to the fall of the city. Did the immigrant soldiers mutiny because they were in danger of being overrun by the Unionists, or were they reacting to the politics of xenophobic hatred directed against them by the leaders of New Orleans?
In his provocative book on the mutiny at Fort Jackson, Michael Pierson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, argues that the fort’s garrison was more afraid of its Know Nothing commanders than it was of the Union army and navy.2
Fort Jackson was located south of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. The Union invasion force coming north up the river from the Gulf of Mexico had to pass the fort to take the city. While Union warships were able to run past the fort, transport ships carrying the soldiers needed to occupy the city were stopped by it. On the night of April 27, 1862, 400 of the 630 men in and around the fort mutinied. The next day they surrendered Fort Jackson to the Union, facilitating the capture of New Orleans.3
While there is no account from the mutineers describing what motivated them, their commander, General Johnson Duncan, blamed the defeat on the fact that the troops “were mostly foreign elements, without any great interests at stake in the ultimate success of the [Confederacy].” Another Confederate commander on the scene wrote that “no native Southerners were involved” in the mutiny.4
Professor Pierson says that the political repression immigrants in New Orleans experienced during the 1850s was only intensified during the city’s “Confederate Year” from April 1861 to April 1862. Under conditions of war, dissent was brutally suppressed. Men who expressed criticism of slavery or of the Confederate leaders were jailed without a jury trial. Immigrant workers who struck for better wages on the docks were beaten or arrested under the guise of military necessity. The Know Nothing mayor became the sole judge of these political cases. Sentences for ordinary political expression could be harsh. David O’Keefe, for instance, was imprisoned for six months when his children gave a cheer for Abraham Lincoln.5
As the Confederate Year progressed, the city’s leaders became almost as worried about internal subversion as they were of Union attack. Blacks reportedly set fires in the city that terrified Confederates. Acts of sabotage against Confederate naval ships at the Irish-dominated docks were reminders that New Orleans was not solidly behind secession.6
Professor Pierson writes:
Confederates in Louisiana made almost no attempt to make immigrants feel at home…Confederates seemed intent on reinforcing the hierarchy that placed wage-earning immigrants at the bottom of white society. At a time when the Lincoln administration…worked to secure the loyalty of immigrants in the north, the Confederacy did very little.7
While the Know Nothings mistrusted the immigrants, they knew that they had to force them into the army if they were to have any chance of keeping New Orleans Confederate. Fort Jackson had eight companies of approximately 80 to 100 men each in its garrison. Four were known as “The Regulars.” These appear to have been mostly Irish immigrants, many of whom had been dockworkers. When they became soldiers they brought with them their own secret societies and unions that they had employed in their struggles against the Know Nothings before the war. Professor Pierson believes that these covert resistance organizations played a major role in the stunning success of the mutiny. The Irish had established systems of signals and codes that allowed them to coordinate a complex mutiny under the noses of their Confederate officers.8
Another company at Fort Jackson was called the “Jagers,” German for “Hunters.” The fact that this German company apparently coordinated with the mostly Irish “Regulars” indicates that the mutiny was not so much an ethnic uprising as it was a revolt against the Know Nothings.9
The mutiny may also have been a revolt against a Confederate government that had betrayed the immigrants’ ambition to become Americans. The immigrants had come from a Europe still dominated by kings and princes. They arrived in a great, if flawed, republic which was becoming increasingly democratic. Secession meant that they would never be Americans. Instead they would be the most disenfranchised white segment of a country dominated by slave-owning aristocrats. The Confederacy, they may have feared, was on its way to becoming like the countries they had left behind in the Old World.
When the Fort Jackson garrison surrendered, the New York Post reported that two of the Confederate companies gave “three cheers for the Union.” Other captured soldiers went even further. According to the Confederate commander General Johnson Duncan “many [of the mutineers] enlisted with the enemy,” indicating a strongly Unionist sentiment.10
The story of how immigrants in New Orleans reacted to its capture by the Union forces is an even more interesting chapter in The Immigrants’ Civil War, which we’ll take up next.
This painting depicts the Union fleet passing the forts guarding New Orleans. Fort Jackson is on the left. (Source: Naval Historic Center)
In the article “Irish Tigers from Louisiana,” we give an extensive history of the Know Nothings in New Orleans.
1. The Capture of New Orleans by Chester G. Hearns, Louisiana State University Press (1995); “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-1990” by Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, Population Division, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population Division Working Paper No. 29; The Irish in New Orleans: 1800-1860 by Earl F. Nichaus, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1965) pp. 50-51; Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization edited by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joan Logsdon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1992) pp. 165-168, The Know Nothing Party in New Orleans by Leon Cyprian Soule, Louisiana Historical Association, Baton Rouge (1961) pp. 72-79.
2. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).
3. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).p. 18; The Capture of New Orleans by Chester G. Hearns, LSU Press (1995); The Navy in the Civil War Vol. III: The Gulf and Inland Waters by A.T. Mahan, Scribner’s (1883); “Early Operations in the Gulf” by Professor J.R. Soley in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2, p. 13; “New Orleans Before the Capture by George Cable” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2 pp. 14-21; “The Opening of the Lower Mississippi” by David Porter in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2 pp. 22-54; “The Water Battery at Fort Jackson” by William Robertson in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2 pp. 99-100.
4. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).p. 32; The Navy in the Civil War Vol. III: The Gulf and Inland Waters by A.T. Mahan, Scribner’s (1883) pp. 87-88. Mahan, the leading American naval scholar of the 19th century, wrote that the “men were largely foreigners, and with little interest in the Secession cause.”
5. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).pp. 39-53.
6. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).p. 70.
7. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).p. 92.
8. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).
9. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).p. 86.
10. Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleansby Michael Pierson, University of North Carolina Press (2008).pp. 115-119.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites