In the New York Times of February 11, 1877, appeared the obituary of a North Country native, Theodorus Bailey, who was born in Chateaugay in 1805 and moved to Plattsburgh with his family around 1811. The Battle of Plattsburgh took place three years later, on September 11, 1814. Although Theodorus was just nine years old, that historic event made quite an impression. His obituary, in fact, pointed out that Bailey “accepted as his pet hero Commodore Macdonough, the American commander in the battle,” and was thus inspired to seek a career in the navy.
It’s also interesting that among the War of 1812 battles that are considered pivotal, Plattsburgh has often been overlooked in favor of three others: Baltimore, Lake Erie, and New Orleans. And yet this same Theodorus Bailey was lauded as a hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
How can that be? Well, there were actually two Battles of New Orleans, but because the name was already taken during the War of 1812, the second one, which occurred during the Civil War, is often referred to as the Capture of New Orleans.
Bailey’s obituary, like many history books and websites, provides the basics of his life and career. Nearly all of those sources, however, fail to include an important and controversial incident that affected both his military career and the accuracy of our history texts. Much more later on that subject.
But first, the essential elements of an impressive résumé. In 1818, at the young age of 13, Theodorus received an appointment as a navy midshipman. Nine years later, he was commissioned a lieutenant. Then came service on various ships, two trips around the world, navy yard jobs, and assignment as commander of the Lexington, which saw action on the Pacific Coast during the US–Mexican War (1846–1848). He was promoted to commander in 1849 and commissioned a captain in 1855.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bailey was given charge of the frigate Colorado as part of the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron under Captain David Farragut, tasked with preventing war materials from reaching the South’s ports in Florida. Then, moving farther west, the Colorado helped blockade New Orleans by guarding the mouth of the Mississippi.
Farragut then undertook a very important mission—an attack on New Orleans itself, by far the largest city in the South (equal in population to the next four largest cities combined) and its most important port. Although he was ill at the time (with hydrocele … and a warning to men: follow the link and the first line may cause a cold sweat), Theodorus volunteered to join the expedition. But the Colorado drew too much water to clear the shallow bar at the Mississippi’s mouth, so Bailey was offered command of the Oneida. For political reasons, he settled on a gunboat, the Cayuga, and successfully lobbied to lead the attack, serving as second in command of the fleet under Flag-officer Farragut.
On the river south of New Orleans were Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the city’s primary protection. After a frustrating several days of trying to bomb them into submission, Farragut’s fleet attempted a daring run past the forts under cover of darkness. In the early-morning hours, the ships aligned into three divisions, one ahead of the other. The plan was to continue upriver while exchanging fire with the enemy.
Leading the charge at the head of the first section was the Cayuga under Captain Theodorus Bailey. William Seymour, aide to Confederate fort commander General Johnson Duncan, described the scene: “The roar of the artillery was deafening—the rushing sound of the descending bombs, the sharp whizzing noise made by the jagged fragments of exploded shells, the whirring of grape shot and hissing of canister balls—all this was well calculated to disturb the equanimity of the strongest nerved man.”
During that intense battle, Bailey’s ship broke free and headed upriver as planned. No others, however, were able to immediately follow, leaving Theodorus and the Cayuga suddenly on their own. Ahead of them, several large steamers, some rams, and many gunboats of the Confederate fleet crowded the river. It was, in retrospect, his Macdonough moment—in the face of tremendous odds, here was an opportunity to shine. Ahead the Cayuga went.
With skill and brashness, Bailey took them on, avoiding the large rams and capturing several boats, all while taking constant fire from the rebels. Finally, help arrived as other ships from the Union fleet made it past the forts.
Several encounters followed as the Cayuga led the way upriver towards New Orleans. In the end, Bailey’s ship had been struck more than 40 times, but as Macdonough had done nearly 50 years earlier, Theodorus succeeded in routing the enemy.
Another Union man involved in the action, Commander David Porter, wrote years later as an admiral, “There was no braver officer in Farragut’s fleet than Captain Theodorus Bailey, who led the first division at the passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Bailey had that dashing courage which ought to delight the eye of any commander-in-chief, and no man was ever more pleased with the conduct of a subordinate than was Farragut with Bailey all through the several battles, even up to the levee of New Orleans.”
As if that weren’t enough danger for one day, Bailey was rewarded by Farragut with orders to enter New Orleans and demand her unconditional surrender. Newsmen of the day described it as a near suicidal mission. Commander Porter wrote: “At this time the whole city was in an uproar, such as was perhaps never before seen in this country … and all animated by a common hatred of the detested Yankees.”
Large quantities of cotton and other goods were dumped into the river by the Confederates and/or set afire to avoid their falling into enemy hands. Amid the chaos, a boat approached and two Union officers landed—Theodorus Bailey and his lieutenant, George Perkins. Bailey stepped forward and demanded to see the mayor, whereupon, Porter continued, the crowd “erupted in outrage…. Again they roared and shouted, ‘Down with the Yankees! Shoot them! Hang them to a lamp post!’ And they crowded around the two officers, who walked fearlessly on.”
Future author George W. Cable, a 17-year-old eyewitness, described the scene: “…a roar of shoutings … ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis! … Kill them! Hang them!’ … About every third man had a weapon out. Two officers of the United States Navy [Bailey and Perkins] were walking abreast, unguarded and alone, looking not to the right or left, never frowning, never flinching, while the mob screamed in their ears, shook cocked pistols in their faces, cursed and crowded and gnashed upon them.
“So through the gates of death these two men walked to the city hall to demand the town’s surrender. It was one of the bravest deeds I ever saw done.”
After the dust had settled and New Orleans was controlled by the North, Farragut dispatched Bailey to Washington with a first-hand report of what had passed. Farragut’s own written description of the effort, along with Bailey’s account, were presented to the Secretary of the Navy and other top brass. So excited were they at the outcome, it was insisted that Bailey, a hero in everyone’s eyes, immediately re-tell the story before the US Senate, which he agreed to do.
In his official report describing the battle, Bailey used a phrase that gained a measure of fame: “It was a contest of iron hearts in wooden ships against ironclads with iron beaks, and the iron hearts won.”
Next week, the controversial conclusion: Whether accidentally or intentionally, legendary Admiral David Farragut was credited with the actions of his second in command, Theodorus Bailey.
Photos: Theodorus Bailey; the Cayuga breaks through the Confederate fleet. Both images are from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 2 (1884) by various contributors.