Charles J. Pettit was the clerk for the XO of the USS Brooklyn (LT R. B. Lowry), a yeoman aboard the USS Sciota and a clerk for many years for Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. He resigned from the Navy in 1869 and died of suicide at the age of 28 in 1871.
US STEAM SLOOP BROOKLYN
OFF BATON ROUGE, LA
May 29th, 1862
DEAR SIR: I have contemplated writing to you for a long time, but we have been so busy since our engagement with the rebels at Forts Jackson and St. Phillip that until now I have had scarcely time enough for it, and even now I will have to hurry about it. Perhaps by the time this reaches you it will not be very interesting to you, as you will read all the particulars of the engagement in the newspapers. We are all anxious to get hold of a late northern newspaper, to see what account it gives of the capture of the Metropolis of the South. But its no use talking, as the latest northern paper we have seen is 33 days old, and that one does not even suspect that New Orleans is occupied by Union troops. I will try to give you an idea of our forces, and the particulars of the greatest naval battle during the war. Although Gen. Butler and Com. Porter get all the credit for it, one thing is certain they did not do the fighting.
Gen. Butler's forces, I think, number about 20,000, which I am sure is not one half the number he should have, in order to hold the places as we take them. Com. Porter's "Mortar Flotilla," ("bummers" we call them,) consists of 21 schooners, each carrying a 13 inch Mortar and two 32 pounder shot and shell guns, 4 New York Ferry Boats, each with a heavy battery and a 100-pound Parrot Rifle, the best gun now in service. These bots are used in towing the "Bummers." His flag-ship is the "Harriet Lane," a very fast and well built steamer, built for the revenue service. Our fleet, commanded by Flag Officer D. G. Farragut, consisted of the following vessel before we attacked the Forts, viz: Sloops of War Hartford (flag ship), Brooklyn, Richmond, Pensacola and Iroquois; Frigate Mississippi and Gunboats Oneida, Wissahickon, Itasca, Sciota, Kennebec, Kenio, Katahdin, Winona, Verona, Owasco and several others whose names I cannot remember. I forgot to mention the Sloop of War Portsmouth, although she did not attack the Forts as she is a sailing vessel. One or two of the gunboats did not attack the Forts either, but I don't know their names, as they are so much alike. I will now tell you the obstructions we had to contend with. Forts Jackson and St. Phillip, are two very formidable forts, situated on opposite banks of the river, where there is a very short turn. Fort Jackson is about 300 yards lower down the river than fort St. Phillip, and as the river is only about 1300 yards wide at that point, you can see we cannot pass without being in rang of the guns of both forts. In addition to these, there were several mask and water batteries, both above and below the forts. The two forts mounted in all 170 guns. Fort Jackson is casemated, St. Phillip is not. The batteries mounted about 25 guns. In addition to this they had 17 river boats, used as gunboats and transports, and two three masted gunboats, that were built exactly like some of ours. There was one of Hollin's Turtle Rams (which won't ram anybody's ships for some time to come, unless something wonderful happens,) and there was any quantity of large rafts loaded with rod, rosin, turpentine, &c., which they set on fire and sent down on us, as there is a five mile current in the river and a raft will float own pretty rapid, and they are very dangerous things to play with in war time. In addition to the foregoing obstructions, there was at about 500 yards below the forts and within short range of their guns, a large anchor-cable of the same kind that we use to our anchors, doubled twice and stretched across the river and held up by the skulks of 7 schooners. Now for the attack: On the morning of Friday April 18th at 8 o'clock, the bombardment was commenced by the "Bummers" and continued day and night, excepting (Saturday night, the 19th, which night Fort Jackson was all in a blaze, and a deserter from the fort told us that when it got on fire they deserted it, and as soon as we stopped firing they returned and put it out, which they would not have done if we would have kept on firing,) apparently with not much effect until the morning of April 24th, (Thursday). In the mean time we dismasted one of our gunboats, so that she could not be discerned by the rebels so well at night, and with the deserter on board, who knew all about the chain, they went up with the gunboat, unshackled the chain and it fell harmless to the bottom, between two of the schooners, leaving us one seventh of the width of the river as a channel, although the chain was still held up on the outside of the schooners, yet a person that would not have known it to be cut, could not see any difference between the way it was then and before it was unshackled. This fooled the rebels, as they all say now that they had no idea that we had cut the chain. They also sent down several fire ships, which we evaded easily by steaming around them. They make an awful large blaze. There was nobody killed on the "bummers," with the exception of one man who was killed by an accident at the guns of one of them. Butler's troops in the meantime were lying down at the bar, in the "Great Republic." On the morning of April 24th, which day I will remember as long as I live, "all hands" were called at one o'clock, when we got a fighting breakfast, coffee and hard bread. At 1.45 A.M., we were all in readiness, and at 2 o'clock we got the signal for battle, and up we went, everybody in high spirits, and eager for the fray. As we had to proceed very cautiously, it was 3 o'clock before we got in short-range, when BOOM! went the first gun from the Forts. They fired about 50 guns at us before we could do anything, as we were head on to them, and could use nothing but our pivots. As soon as we got within range we gave it to them, one broadside after another, of shrapnel, grape and canister so thick and fast, that they thought all the combined navies of the world were at then. At this critical moment, this ship got afoul of the chain, and stuck on it 7 minutes when thanks to it weakness it parted and we were ourselves again. The scene was awful and sickening to look at. Mens brains, entrails &c, flying around in every direction. Mr. Anderson, Signal midshipman, a volunteer for the occasion from the Portsmouth was shot overboard from the poop and was seen no more. The same ball killed a quartermaster and they were both standing by the side of our Capt. Thos. T. Craven, as brave, cool, and good a man as ever took command of a ship. Three men had their heads shot off. One boy was cut in three separate pieces. At one gun, the 1st Capt. was killed, the 2nd Capt. wounded and died since, and 11 of the crew of the same gun were badly disabled; still, the remaining 5 men worked the gun until the end of the action. Our loss is 10 killed and 30 wounded, but all of the latter with the exception of six have recovered and are on duty. The loss on the rebels side is estimated at 1500 in killed and wounded, although they won't admit of losing more than a hundred. There was one large three deck boat, crowded with troops for the purpose of boarding us that was fairly alongside and they commenced crying out to us not to fire. Our Capt. said will you surrender? No answer, Fire! We did so and fired 13 guns right into her, which not only completely riddled her but set her on fire, and such groaning I never heard. One of the three masted gunboats came alongside of and fired one gun into us which would have entered the steam drum, but was stopped by some sand bags that we had thrown up for its protection, when we let fly and up she went as it seemed into a million of pieces. In the meantime we were not idle with the forts as we kept firing broadside after broadside into both forts, whenever there was no rebel boats between us and the forts. A second three masted gunboat escaped annihilation from our battery on account of her resemblance to the Iroquois, but she caught it from the next ship. The names of those gunboats were, respectively, the "Warrior" and "McRae." While we were engaged we had also to contend with numerous fire ships and the battering ram gave us an awful thump down about three feet below water-line and if you would see it you would not think the ship would float a day, and as it is we keep the steam pump going steady. The fight lasted about one hour and three quarters, and the loss in the whole squadron amounted to 37 killed and 150 wounded, that is included our second day's fight of which I have not yet told you. Our ship was alone struck 37 different times, about six of them struck on the water line. Three shots struck the poop where the Capt. stood during the action and he never moved, but gave his orders coolly and distinctly. Our 1st Lieut. R. B. Lowry, did excellent service also. In fact, every officer and man in the ship was complimented by the Captain, and also by the Flag-Officer. The Brooklyn was struck the most and lost more men than any other ship in the squadron. One of our gunboats (the Verona) was sunk by the ram, but her crew was saved.
Our 1st Lieutenant in his official report says: - "I without hesitation assert that the attack of our Squadron upon two strong and garrisoned Forts, coming within close grape and canister range, and to a great extent silencing their fire, and afterwards overtaking and destroying nearly all of the enemy's fleet, is not to my knowledge, surpassed if equaled on the record of any navy in the world." After we passed the forts and batteries, we kept on up the river until we reached the "Quarantine Grounds," a place about eight miles above the forts. At this place a party of rebel infantry were encamped, who on our appearance made an immediate surrender. We took their arms and left them run. We then and there buried our dead. Here was a rebel soldier who had been on the large troop steamer, and he had an eye our and one arm shot off. He said that out of over 600 he did not know of any one that did not get killed or drowned, with the exception of himself and another who died on his way up. The same day we went up the river as far as English Turn, ten miles below New Orleans, where we knew two batteries to be planted, one on each side of the river; so we waited until next morning, when at it we went right into close quarters, and they were soon subdued. We then went onto the New Orleans unmolested, with the exception of having to get out of the way of several ships loaded with cotton floating down upon us and all in a blaze. When we arrived at New Orleans, the rain was pouring down in torrents, but notwithstanding that, the levee was crowded with people, some of whom cheered for us, when the rebel soldiers fired into them. The correspondence between the Flag Officer and Mayor Monroe you will be likely to see in the newspapers. The latter in company with about twelve of the principal secessionists of the city are now confined in Fort Jackson for disobeying orders. Two or three days after we took the city, several of the shops, the Brooklyn in the lead, made a reconnaissance up the river, when we discovered about 10 miles a large battery on each side of the river, the one on the right hand having large entrenchments, and built for Com. Foote, not expecting us in this direction. On the sight of us they fled, leaving everything behind them. We spiked the guns, burnt the carriages and returned to New Orleans. We had the Stars and Stripes hoisted over the Custom House and Mint for a week before Butler arrived. On the 5th of May we went up the river to within 20 miles of Natches, when we returned down again, and arrived at Baton Rouge on the 9th and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. We left Baton Rouge on the 14th, we did not arrived at Natchez until the 19th inst. On the 20th started up the river and arrived at Grand Gulf (a small village) on the same afternoon. Next day arrived off Vicksburg. Thus far we has met no obstructions. We had two steamers loaded with troops but could not land them. On the 26th we got up anchor and went down the river, sending the troops about an hour ahead of us. When they arrived at Grand Gulf they were fired at from the high bluffs, and waited for us to come up with them. We then turned back and fired several shots at them when they hoisted a white flag. They told us we were fired at by Guerrilla Bands, of which the country is full. The troops went ashore and scoured the woods, but only found one party. They fired into our soldiers, killing a Lieutenant and wounding a private. Ours fired back and killed and wounded some and the rest escaped. They returned and found the town deserted and we then went down to Baton Rouge, where I was when I started this letter, but now (May 30th) we are in New Orleans. I think we are to attack Mobile next, and then go home for repairs. We are badly in need of them now.
We have heard of the Army's achievements at Pittsburgh and Yorktown, and nothing gives us more pleasure. I suppose you heard long ago of us capturing the prize steamer Magnolia. Please excuse me if I have intruded on your patience in writing you such a long letter, but I thought you would like to hear it all, and eve now I have not done so, as it cannot be described in words. I expect to be promoted soon. I am the 1st Lieutenant's clerk at present, and have been very busy in copying reports of the damages to different parts of the ship &c. He expects to get command of a vessel in a few days and he has told me he would make me his clerk.
I am very respectfully yours
CHARLES J. PETTIT
US Steam Sloop Brooklyn, off New Orleans, La.