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Farragut & Our Naval Commanders

By J. T. Headley
Comprising the early life and public services of the prominent naval commanders who, with Grant and Sherman and their generals, brought to a triumphant close the great rebellion of 1861-1865. (First edition 1867)

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Modern science has worked greater changes in naval warfare since the breaking out of the recent rebellion than ever before in the same period of time. These changes have been not only in the size and destructive power of cannons, but in the mode of constructing ships of war.

The earliest naval engagement on record was fought by Eurythus, a prince who controlled the Red Sea. The most noted one of ancient times was that of Salamis, between the Greeks and Persians. The fleet of the latter consisted of twelve hundred galleys, manned by five hundred thousand men, while the former had but four hundred vessels. Xerxes caused his throne to be placed on a mountain overlooking the scene of combat, in which he sat surrounded with secretaries, pen in hand, to note the heroic deeds of individual commanders, and to mark the laggards in the conflict. The mountain ridges near the Acropolis and the Hill of Mars were crowded with spectators of the fight, which ended in the dispersion and destruction of the whole Persian fleet. This was five hundred years before Christ.

The Romans were accustomed to advance to the attack with their galleys arranged in the form of a triangle-the admiral’s vessel at the head. Then, as now, human ingenuity multiplied the engines of destruction. Turrets were erected on the prow or stern, from which arrows could be discharged in showers; huge engines arose from the centre, from which rocks were hurled with a power that sent them, like round-shot, through the bottoms of the vessels; battering-rams swung from the masts, to beat in their sides; while pots of live coals and melted pitch and combustible compounds were added to the battle-axe and spear. It is said that the ancestor of Hannibal threw pots of live and poisonous serpents on board his enemy’s ships, which, darting around on deck, spread consternation among the crew.

The invention of cannon introduced a new element into naval warfare. The Venetians and Genoese, the great naval powers of the 16th century, first used them in naval combats. The first great battle fought after their introduction was that of Lepanto, in 1571, between the Venetians and Spanish on one side, and the Turks on the other, in which the great question was decided whether Christianity or Mohammedanism should control Northern Europe. The Turks had two hundred and thirty galleys and transports, with six vessels carrying heavy artillery. The Christians had two hundred and fifty, manned with fifty thousand men. Nearly five hundred vessels, with two mighty armies on board, met in mortal combat. No time was lost in distant firing, for the vessels rushed on each other in a close death-grapple. Modern naval warfare furnishes no such an imposing array of force. It was a frightful struggle, and when it closed nearly a hundred of the Turkish vessels had sunk to the bottom of the sea, and twenty-five thousand men lay dead on the decks, or had disappeared beneath the waves, Ten thousand Christians also had fallen, making the total number of victims in this terrific sea-fight thirty-five thousand. Such a loss of life in a naval combat at the present day can hardly be conceived of.

In those old barbarous times, as we are accustomed to call them, grand naval expeditions were fitted out with a rapidity that even in these days would be regarded with astonishment. Rome once fitted out an immense fleet in ninety days after the trees were standing in the forest. Pisa built and equipped a fleet, to sail against the king of Syracuse, of two hundred and twenty vessels in forty-five days.

War-vessels kept pace with improvements in ship building, till huge fabrics with three gun-decks, and throwing a terrific amount of metal in a single broadside, were launched by the great maritime powers of the world.

Hollow shot or shells were very early introduced into the navy; but being thrown from mortars, were used chiefly in assailing fortified places on land. The Paixhan gun, though invented by an American, about 1812, received but little attention here until it was introduced into France by Captain Paixhan. This was a great improvement in naval warfare, for with this piece of ordnance shells were fired point-blank like round-shot. Before they were thrown in a curve, and hence of but little use on the water. The explosion of shells by concussion was a great step forward. With this exception, however, the improvement in cannon was very slight. There is, however, a great difference between the howitzer of 1693 and the Dahlgren howitzer, which is used for firing grape and canister at close quarters.

In our second war with England we made a great stride forward in naval warfare. England had been regarded by the world as “mistress of the sea," and the attempt to contend with her on her favorite element was considered the world over to be a piece of madness on our part.

The first conflict took place between the Constitution  and Guerrière, and lasted less than an hour, yet so terribly was the English frigate cut up, that she went down in the waves while yet crimson with the blood of her slain. In the single-handed fight that occurred not long after between the United States and Macedonian, the latter had a third of her- entire crew and officers, numbering three hundred men, killed and wounded, while the American frigate lost but twelve, all told. So also the United States suffered but very little in her hull, while the Macedonian received a hundred shot below her bulwarks. In the fight between the Constitution and Java, the former came out of it with every spar standing, and ready for another antagonist, while the latter resembled a slaughter-pen, and sank a helpless wreck to the bottom. In nearly every contest the same result followed. Not only were we the victors, but the disparity between the killed in the two ships, and the frightful manner in which the enemy was cut up, while we suffered but little, caused the most unbounded astonishment. The English accounted for it on the ground of a slight difference in the weight of the respective broadsides, or attributed it to mere accident. We made as great a mistake in boasting that our success arose from superior bravery or seamanship. The simple truth was, we had introduced an improvement in gunnery, of which the English at that time were ignorant. We had placed sights on our cannon. The English regulated their firing by a pendulum, swinging in the square of the hatchway, by which the inclination of the ship was indicated, and which enabled them to know when the guns were in a horizontal position, and thus, if in a smooth sea, on a level with the hostile ship. But with a vessel rolling on a swell it was a very uncertain guide. On the contrary, we had sights on the guns, sometimes on the muzzle-ring, answering to the forward sight of the rifle, and sometimes tubes were laid along the gun, and capable of being adjusted to suit the range. Hence our gunners took aim when they fired, and the consequence was, that in a broadside engagement, we, in an incredibly short space of time, made a wreck of the enemy. This rifle-practice with cannon on board ships was an entirely new thing in naval warfare.

This new improvement was soon adopted by the naval powers of Europe, and others made, so that at the commencement of the recent civil war, our navy was hardly equal to one of the third-rate maritime powers. The country was living on the fame of its former achievements, and had we been suddenly thrown into war with either France or England, we would have been amazed and mortified at the sorry exhibition our navy would have made. Our ports would have been blockaded and our ships shut up in harbors, until we could have built vessels and created a navy of respectable proportions. We were, however, making improvements in guns as well as England. The Dahlgren gun differs from ordinary cannon only in that the metal is taken from the forward part of the piece and put around the breech. The great strain always being in the back part of a cannon, the strength is concentrated here, so that a Dahlgren gun and one constructed on the old principle of the same weight, would have very different calibers-the former throwing a much larger shot. Almost endless experiments have been made to make guns of large caliber that would be safe. The casting of so large a mass as a gun that should be capable of throwing one hundred or two hundred pound shot, and yet have it, in the cooling process, retain its strength, was very difficult. Throwing a jet of water in the bore while the atmosphere cooled the outside has overcome some of the difficulty.

The rifled cannon of Parrott attracted but little attention from the public at large, until the breaking out of the war. It seems strange that the superior accuracy of the rifle to the musket did not suggest rifled cannon before, but the great difficulty was to make any large iron ball fit so closely as to get a spiral motion from the grooves. This was at last overcome by having the ball long instead of round, and slightly conical, and a band of copper metal around the base, which would expand into the grooves by the air being forced underneath it when the charge was fired. A tumbling shot from a rifled piece would, of course, be worse than a round shot from a smooth bore.

But a charge of thirty or forty pounds of powder required great strength in the breech of the piece, and to secure this, Parrott resorted to an ingenious contrivance. After the gun was cast, the surface of the breech was made of polished smoothness. Then a wrought-iron bar, several inches square, was rolled by machinery into a spiral coil, and the inside dressed off perfectly smooth, yet a fraction too small in bore to slip over the gun. This was then heated to make it expand, when it was driven over the breech. Contracting in cooling, it hugged the piece almost as close as though it had been welded to it. This wrought-iron reinforcement gives the rifled cannon prodigious strength, for the strain on the former is lengthwise of the metal. The various English rifled guns, such as the Whitworth, Armstrong, and others, differ only in the manner of producing the spiral motion of the shot or in being breech-loading.

But the greatest improvements have been in the construction of iron-clad vessels. France and England had both for a long time been experimenting on a large scale in their construction, and though our attention had been directed to it, but little had been done except to encourage by large appropriations the completion of the famous Stevens Battery at New York. But the breaking out of the civil war stimulated at once the proverbial ingenuity of Americans, and a great variety of models were proposed. The increased size of ordnance rendered a corresponding power of resistance in ships necessary, and Congress made an appropriation for the carrying out of some experiments in building iron-clad steamers. The Secretary of the Navy was also authorized to appoint a board of three skilful naval officers to investigate the plans and specifications that might be submitted for their construction, and report on the same. The Navy Department immediately issued an advertisement for the construction of" one or more iron-clad steam vessels of war" for sea or river service, "to carry an armament of from eighty to one hundred and twenty tons’ weight, with provisions and stores for from one hundred and eighty-five to three hundred persons, according to armament, for sixty days, with coal for eight days." This was in the forepart of August, 1861. The board consisted of Joseph Smith, H. Paulding, and C. H. Davis. By the middle of the next month their report was ready. Some seventeen propositions with specifications were sent in, of which only three were accepted. One was the Monitor of Ericsson, the price of which was to be $275,000; length of vessel 1’72 feet, breadth’ of beam 41 feet, depth of hold 10 feet, displacement 1,255 tons; speed per hour, nine statute miles. The second was the famous Ironsides, of Philadelphia, offered by Merrick & Sons. The price of this was to be $780,000; length of vessel 220 feet, breadth of beam 60 feet, depth of hold 23 feet, draught of water 13 feet, displacement 3,296 tons, speed per hour, nine and a half knots. The third proposition accepted, was that of Bushnell & Co., New Haven (the Galena). The price of this was $235,250; length of vessel 180 feet, breadth of beam __ feet depth of hold 12+ feet, draught of water 10 feet, displacement, __ tons; speed per hour, twelve knots. Of these it will be seen that the Ironsides was to be a very large vessel, and the contractors asked for nine months’ time in which to complete her. In accordance with, the recommendation of the Board the Navy Department immediately made a contract with the three parties named above, and our iron-clad navy was commenced. Ericsson’s model was a novel one-the vessel being made to lie very low in the water, and to carry but two guns of large caliber, which were to be mounted in a shot-proof turret that revolved by machinery placed within it, so that, without maneuvering the vessel, the broadside of two guns could be brought to bear on any desired point.

These were not to be made for exhibition, and to awaken criticism or excite doubts, but for actual immediate combat. No time could be wasted on target practice. The ponderous shot and shell already in use and to which wooden vessels presented no resistance, were to be tested on these, and the question settled at once for the whole world whether anything that would resist them could be made to float.

The Board did not think it desirable to go into the question of large sea-going steamers; for in the first place the appropriation was not sufficient, and in the second place, in this war, upon which we had entered, we should have little need of these, as the contest on the water was to be chiefly in our harbors and shoal rivers.

Various minor improvements, of course, followed these, but the three vessels contracted for settled the question of iron-clads, and revolutionized naval warfare.

But some months would necessarily elapse before these would be ready for service, and in the mean time the rebel ports must be blockaded, and such war-vessels as the enemy had stolen, or could extemporize, met and disposed of.

The coast was to be guarded over three thousand miles in extent, while our little navy was scattered over the world at the time of the breaking out of hostilities, so that the home squadron consisted on the 4th of March, 1861, the time of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, of but twelve vessels, only a few of which were in Northern ports. These were the Pawnee, screw, at Washington, Crusader and Mohawk steamers, and a supply and store ship at New York. Before the month closed, however, the Powhatan, Pocahontas, and Cumberland arrived.

The old navy, all told, consisted of but seventy-six vessels, carrying 1,783 guns. Fifteen vessels returned during the year, which, as fast as they could, were ordered on duty.

It can scarcely be wondered at, that European powers at first ridiculed the idea of our blockading so great an extent of coast with such an insignificant fleet.

At the outset our naval force was divided into two squadrons-the Atlantic, extending south of Cape Florida, under Stringham, and the Gulf squadron, its line of blockade reaching from Cape Florida to Grand Gulf, under G. W. Mason, who, in September, was superseded by Mclean. Besides these there was the Potomac flotilla, necessary to keep open the water communication with Washington. Added to this, the Mississippi River must be opened, and a flotilla was at once ordered to be built on our western waters. Of course the necessities of the Government in a war of such gigantic proportions, and thrown so suddenly upon it, were too urgent to permit it to wait for the building of a sufficient number of vessels, and those to be used as a part of the navy, or that could be easily transformed into war-vessels, were purchased. One hundred and thirty-six were thus bought the first year, and fifty-two built, which, added to the old navy, made the new one to consist of 264 vessels, in all carrying 2,557 guns, with an aggregate of 218,000 tons and 22,000 seamen.

Although the seaports of Wilmington, Newbern, Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans were very important ones in a military point of view, and their occupation by our forces necessary in the great plan for the overthrow of the rebel army, it was not expected they would be taken at once. Hence the sudden and great accession of naval strength was for the purpose of blockading them, for the South being a non-manufacturing country, its guns, ammunition, clothing, etc., must’ be brought from abroad. It was of the utmost importance to cut off these supplies; and the vessels which brought them belonging in the main to neutral powers, and the South having nothing deserving the name of a navy at sea, comparatively weak vessels would answer for blockading purposes. Speed was the first consideration; number and size of guns a secondary one. The South being filled with cotton, the want of which had stopped many mills in England, it furnished a tempting prize to adventurous ship-owners, especially as the articles which they brought in exchange for it would command fabulous prices. It had long ago been established as a law of nations that a paper blockade, or a blockade simply declared by proclamation, was not binding. There must be an adequate force to maintain it, or neutral powers were not obliged to regard it. Hence the enormous efforts of our Government to accumulate sufficient force at the various Southern seaports to sustain the President’s proclamation. Of course, we could not have maintained the blockade of such an extent of coast had we been at a war with even a third-rate maritime power. The Southern Government, aware of this, began at once to construct a powerful ram, for the purpose of running down our vessels and breaking up the blockade. Rams, or vessels constructed with an iron beak to sink vessels by running into them, had been talked of before the war, and Col. Ellet urged on Congress the advantage to the Government of building such vessels. Their final adoption was another new feature in naval warfare. On our rivers and the smooth waters of our harbors they became powerful engines of destruction.

Great efforts were made by Southern emissaries to get France and England to deny the blockade, and it was fondly believed by the rebel Government that England would do this, on account of the cotton, on which her mills depended. It had been repeated so often by Southern speakers that " Cotton was king," that the South believed it, and that England, to keep her great manufactories going, and her millions from starving, would risk a war rather than do without it. But the British Government dreaded nothing so much as a collision with us, for although at the outset her powerful navy might overwhelm us, her statesmen well knew our vast resources, great inventive capacity, national pride, and indomitable perseverance in anything that we undertook; in short, that if we fell, like Samson, we would carry the pillars of her commercial temple with us in our overthrow.

But though, as a nation, she did not dare to disregard our blockade, she was not at all anxious to interfere with the private enterprise of her citizens in their efforts to render it ineffectual. The amount of shipping engaged in this nefarious business may be gathered from the fact that the very first year, with our inadequate naval force, we captured a hundred and sixty-one blockade runners, and during the war, of both small and great, more than a thousand were taken or destroyed. When it is remembered that only a small percentage of those actually employed in this business were taken, at least in their first voyage, some estimate may be made of the number of times the blockade was run.

From this brief summary it may be seen how weak our naval force was at the outset of the war-the urgency of the Government in getting those vessels home that were scattered over different seas, and the prodigious efforts it put forth to obtain a naval force sufficient for the vast work it had to do. How great this work was, may be gathered from the fact that during the war, two hundred and eight vessels were commenced, and most of them completed, and four hundred and eighteen purchased, while the number of men in the service was increased from 7,600 to 51,500, and the number of artisans and laborers in the various navy-yards from 3,844 to 16,880, exclusive of an almost equal number engaged in private shipyards and establishments under contracts. The total sum expended by the Navy Department during the war was $314,170,960 68, or an annual average expenditure of $72,500,990 93.

Designing this brief outline of naval affairs as an introduction to the heroic deeds of our naval commanders, we refer the reader to the Appendix for fuller and more complete statistics.

Chapter II

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