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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HOMER C. BLAKE
GREAT EXAMPLE WORTH MORE THAN AN ORDINARY VICTORY—BLAKE'S NATIVITY AND EARLY
EDUCATION—ENTERS THE NAVY—HIS FIRST CRUISE ROUND THE WORLD—KEEPS
COMMUNICATION OPEN BETWEEN OUR VESSELS IN THE CHINESE SEA—SERVES ON THE COAST
OF AFRICA—ENTERS THE NAVAL SCHOOL—PASSED MIDSHIPMAN—SERVES IN THE WAR WITH
MEXICO—CRUISE TO THE EAST INDIES—SENT HOME TO RECRUIT HIS HEALTH—JOINS THE
PARAGUAY EXPEDITION—ANECDOTE—SECOND CRUISE TO THE AFRICAN COAST—BREAKING
OUT OF THE REBELLION—BLAKE JOINS THE PORT ROYAL EXPEDITION—COMMANDS THE R.
R. CUYLER—TRANSFERRED TO THE HATTERAS—A DESCRIPTION OF HER—ON BLOCKADE
DUTY OFF GALVESTON—SENT IN PURSUIT OF A STRANGE STEAMER—HIS FIGHT WITH THE
ALABAMA—CORRESPONDENCE WITH AN ENGLISH CAPTAIN IN KINGSTON—IS
EXCHANGED—HIS CREW ASK THE GOVERNMENT TO GIVE HIM ANOTHER VESSEL TO CRUISE
AFTER THE ALABAMA—COMMANDS THE EUTAW IN THE JAMES RIVER—HIS GREAT SERVICES
HERE—NOW OVER THE BUREAU OF NAVIGATION IN PORTSMOUTH, N. H.
It is a curious fact, in our
naval history, that a commander never lost a vessel in an engagement not only
without being acquitted of all blame, but absolutely winning laurels by his
misfortune. The manner in which he fought his ship, the heroism he displayed,
and the desperate nature of the contest, made the defeat, by the great example
it furnished, worth as much to the country and the navy as a victory would have
Thus Lawrence, crying out on
the verge of death, "Don’t give up the ship," although victory was
hopeless, furnished a motto that has been worth more than a dozen victories to
Porter, standing on the deck
of his shattered vessel, in the harbor of Valparaiso, with his colors struck,
was a hero greater than any ordinary victory could have made him, while the
example he set of how an American commander should fight his ship, has awakened
a spirit of emulation in our commanders that will exert a powerful influence as
long as our navy exists. The same is true of the gallant Blake, carrying his
frail vessel into a hopeless combat, and then fighting her till she was a wreck
and fast sinking.
Homer C. Blake was born in
Dutchess County, New York State, on the 1st day of February, 1822. His
father’s name was Elisha Blake, and his mother’s Merilla Crane. When he was
but a year old, his father moved into what was then considered the far West,
Ohio, and settled in that section called the Western Reserve. Here he grew up
from boyhood, attending the schools common to that part of the country, and
laboring at intervals, as the youth of that time around him were accustomed to
Through the influence of
friends, he, at the age of eighteen, March 2d, 1840, received the appointment of
midshipman. In the following December, he joined the Constellation frigate, and in her made a cruise round the world. A
mere lad, the change from a secluded life in a remote town in the West, to the
wide field opened before him in this extended cruise, could not have been
greater, and it matured him fast. Active, alert, and always ready for any duty,
he showed at the outset that he had chosen the profession for which he was
designed. His first voyage lasted for over three years, and he did not reach
home until 1844. In that time he had become a man, having lived twice three
years in experience.
When the Constellation reached China, all communication was cut off between
the spot where the vessels anchored and Canton. But it was all-important that
this should be kept open; and the duty of doing this was committed to young
Blake, who, in an open boat, with only twelve men, performed it to the entire
satisfaction of his commander. At this time, the price of an Englishman’s head
was a thousand dollars, and as the Chinamen were not very scrupulous what kind
of head they brought to market, and no one could distinguish between that of an
Englishman and an American, it required the utmost care and vigilance on the
part of the young midshipman to keep his head from going into their basket.
On his return, he was allowed
only a short furlough, in which to visit his friends; and in a few weeks was
ordered to join the sloop-of-war Preble,
about to sail for the coast of Africa. He remained for a year on this
inhospitable coast, engaged in the arduous, annoying, and often dangerous duty
of suppressing the slave-trade.
On his return from this
cruise, he entered the United States Naval School, to add scientific to his
practical knowledge, and thus enable him to make the latter broader in its
application, and enlarge the field of his future influence.
Here he showed the same
devotion to study that he had to practical duties, and the same facility in
mastering whatever he undertook. Having completed his education, for which his
four years of actual service had been an admirable preparation, he graduated in
1846, as passed midshipman. Six years of practical and scientific training seems
a long time before one passes the threshold of his profession, but none too long
to make the accomplished officers we need in the navy.
The war in Mexico now breaking
out, young Blake, ambitious of distinction, applied for active service, and was
attached to his old vessel, the sloop-of-war Preble,
and sent to the coast of California. He would have preferred a different vessel
and a destination which placed him more directly in the vicinity of the army,
where the hard fighting was expected to take place. As a rule, officers do not
like sloops-of-war. In the first place, they are too small to perform any great
work, while their armament makes them top-heavy, and anything but pleasant craft
to be in a heavy sea.
His duties were various on the
coast of California, but furnished no opportunity for distinguishing himself.
In the mean time the war drew
to a close, and in 1848 the Preble was
detached from that station, and ordered to the East Indies. But scarcely had the
vessel, after her long voyage, reached Canton, when Blake’s health became so
feeble that he was unfit for duty. There seeming to be no prospect of recovering
on board the sloop and in that unfavorable climate, he was permitted to return
He was now employed for a
short time on shore in the coast survey.
But, in 1850, we find him
again afloat in the frigate Raritan,
bound once more for the Pacific. He did not, however, complete his cruise in
her, but was transferred to the sloop-of-war
St. Mary. In this vessel he kept on to the China Seas, and so home by way of
the Cape of Good Hope—thus, in about nine years, making three voyages around
In 1856, he again joined the Raritan
frigate, and sailed for the coast of Brazil. This vessel formed a part of the
Paraguay expedition. The expedition was devoid of interest; but a little
incident occurred, while Blake’s vessel lay at Rio Janeiro, which would have
been forgotten had it not been related by one of the Russian officers, who
visited our country a short time since, and were received with so much display
in New York. Several English and French men-of-war were in the port of Rio
Janeiro at the same time that the St.
Lawrence was there. Soon after, the Russian ship-of-war Diana
came into harbor—one of the vessels that bore a prominent part in the repulse
of the English and French on the Asiatic coast. One day, some ten or twelve of
her crew came ashore on leave, and were walking leisurely along, when they were
suddenly set upon by a large party of French and English sailors. Near by, a
group of American officers were standing, spectators of the scene. The Russians
were getting badly beaten, when one of the officers stepped quickly forward amid
the combatants, and, laying his hand on his sword, soon turned the scale, so
that the Russian sailors came off victors. It was only a passing incident,
forgotten by that officer the next hour, and never perhaps recalled again, till,
five or six years after, it was told by a Russian officer on our own soil, to
show the friendly relations that existed between the two nations. Forgotten by
us, it had been repeated in the Russian navy, and made every sailor who heard it
our fast friend. That officer was Homer C.
On his return from this
cruise, in 1857, he was employed for a while on shore duty. He was then again
sent to the coast of Africa, returning in the latter part of the next year.
For twenty years Blake had now
been almost constantly afloat, enriching his experience by almost every species
of navigation, till he was fit to command any vessel, yet apparently without any
prospect of reaching the grade of captain until he should be almost old enough
to be put on the retired list.
But the election of 1860
precipitated the long threatened collision between the North and South; and
when, in 1861, the war actually broke out, Blake applied for active duty. No
doubt or vacillation disturbed him in choosing the course he should take. His
sword and his life he wished to cast together, if need be, to sustain the old
flag he had sailed under in every sea on the globe, and whose folds had been his
protection in nearly every harbor of the world.
He was first ordered to the Sabine,
which was employed on the coast of South Carolina. This vessel formed a part of
the Port Royal expedition; but, being detained in rescuing the crew of the Governor,
during a violent storm, she did not arrive in time to take part in the
engagement. The Sabine being soon
withdrawn from thin station, and employed on recruiting duty, Blake, who could
not brook such a tame employment amid the vast preparations for deadly combat
going on around him on every side, requested to be detached from her and placed
at the post of danger.
He was ordered to the command
of the R. R. Cuyler, and, though the
vessel was not one which he would have selected for active service, it was with
feelings of pride that he found himself in separate command.
He was, however, soon
transferred from her to the command of the Hatteras.
As this vessel went, with all her armament and her brave dead, to the bottom of
the sea, a brief description of her may not be out of place, especially as the
southern press called her an ironclad, and the rebel congress passed a vote of
thanks to Semmes, for sinking so formidable a ship, and achieving such a
She was originally built at
Wilmington, as a passenger vessel between Galveston and New Orleans, and of the
slightest construction, for an iron ship. She was of a thousand tons burden, and
drawing but seven feet of water.
The government, which in its
sore need purchased everything that could by any transmutation be called a war
vessel, bought this also, and, removing the after cabin, put an extra planking
on her slight pine deck, to enable it to bear the light guns which were to be
placed on board. These consisted of four thirty-two pounders, two thirty-pounder
rifles, and one twenty-pounder rifle. The total weight of metal she flung at a
single broadside was only one hundred and fourteen pounds, against the Alabama’s
four hundred and thirty-six, or within a fraction of a quarter as much. The
heaviest gun of. the Hatteras was a
32-pounder; the heaviest of the Alabama
was a 110-pounder rifle gun, and a heavy 68, weighing nine thousand pounds—a
gun which could not have been used on the Hatteras
without knocking her to pieces.
The Hatteras, however, was strong enough for ordinary blockading duty,
to which she was ordered off Galveston, and formed a part of the fleet under
command of Commodore Bell.
On Sunday, January 11th, in
the afternoon, Blake saw a signal from the flagship Brooklyn, directing him to sail to the southward and eastward. After
steaming in this direction for an hour and a half, the lookout reported a
steamer bearing to the southward. Blake immediately ordered all steam on, and
took a long and scrutinizing survey of the stranger. As he gradually lessened
the distance between them, he saw clearly that she was the far-famed Alabama,
and at once ordered his vessel cleared for action—being determined to close
with her. She did not try to escape, but kept under easy way to decoy the Hatteras so far from the fleet that no assistance could reach her
before the conflict would be over. Blake knew that his frail vessel would not
stand her fire more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Almost his only hope
therefore in closing with her was that he could carry her by boarding before his
vessel was hopelessly crippled. Failing in this, he hoped—though he knew it
was only one chance out of a thousand—to be able, by a lucky shot, to detain
her until some of the rest of the fleet could come to his assistance. Although
the heart of a brave commander exults at the prospect of an even-handed
encounter with a foe, it requires the loftiest heroism and the most unselfish
patriotism to carry him into an encounter where he knows that defeat awaits him.
We cannot conceive of a more trying position, and it awakens the deepest
sympathy to see this brave officer steadily and sternly moving up to grapple
with his superior enemy. One may look death, but not defeat calmly in the face.
He had said in a private letter to one of his friends, when going down to
Galveston: "I have much to live for, but I could not be happy to purchase
my life with any neglect of the duty I owe to my country. I shall not seek
danger; but if it comes I shall take it in the line of my duty, and endeavor to
do credit to myself, family, and state." That hour had now arrived; and,
what adds immeasurably to the interest of this combat, the crew knew perfectly
well that it was the Alabama that now
lay-to, waiting for them; and knew, moreover, that it was a hopeless contest on
which they were about to enter. We all are aware how the hope of success braces
men for the combat, and how depressing it is to enter on one when defeat is
certain. Blake, fully alive to this, scanned the countenances of his crew with
an anxious heart. It was enough for him if he could leave a great example to
those who should come after, but: would the sailors share his feelings? It was
with heroic pride, therefore, that he saw every face calm and firmly set for the
struggle. He could read there the determination to fight while a plank would
float them, and then sink with their brave commander, and their colors flying.
No eulogy on the latter could be pronounced so great as this quiet, deep
devotion of his crew. He must be a rare officer who can win it.
As the Hatteras pressed forward, night began to gather over the water, and
Blake saw that his antagonist had ceased steaming and was lying "broadside
on," awaiting his approach. The stranger was now only about four miles off,
and loomed clearly up in the darkness. Blake, however, kept silently on, the men
at quarters with strings in hand and with orders to fire at the slightest
hostile movement on the part of the enemy. When within seventy-five yards, he
hailed, "What steamer is that??" Back through the gloom came the
hoarse reply: "Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Vixen." Blake then said he would send a boat aboard, and,
turning, gave the order to have one lowered immediately. But scarcely had the
boatman’s shrill whistle rung- over the water, when the stranger shouted,
"We are the Confederate steamer Alabama,"
followed instantaneously by a full broadside. The darkness had hardly closed
over the flash, when the guns of the Hatteras
replied, and the terrible conflict commenced. Although almost within
pistol-shot, Blake kept straight towards the Alabama, knowing that his only chance was to close with her. If he
once could grapple her firmly, he knew his brave crew would sweep her decks like
a storm. He at length got within thirty yards, when muskets and pistols were
used, and he hoped in a minute more to hear the shout of his boarders. But
Semmes knew his advantage too well, and penetrating Blake’s design, shot ahead
with his swifter craft and poured in his broadsides. Blake continued to hug him
close, straining every nerve to lock him in a death grapple, but in vain. With
his greater speed Semmes easily avoided it, while his heavy shot was doing
fearful execution. A barrel of turpentine lay in the lower part of the hold of
the Hatteras, covered with stores; and
a shell, entering the vessel, exploded near it, setting it on fire. In an
instant the hold was a mass of flame, roaring along the vessel’s sides. The
alarm was sounded, and the firemen sprang below to extinguish the fire. Blake in
a moment saw that this was impossible, and ordered the firemen to return to
their guns. With the promptness of men on drill they wheeled into their places,
and began to load and fire coolly as ever, though the flames were coming
fiercely up the hatchways. The magazine and shell room were above the
water-line, and constructed of nothing but thin pine plank, and in a few moments
the first lieutenant came on deck and reported that the fire was burning the
bulkheads. Blake with his heroic nature now thoroughly aroused, replied:
"Never mind—she won’t blow up for fifteen minutes yet, and we must
fight on if we all go to the bottom,"—and they did fight on, firing with
a rapidity probably never before equalled in a naval combat. Being close
alongside, no training of the guns was necessary, and Blake knew that he must
try to make up for disparity in weight of metal, by rapid firing, and so ordered
the guns to be fought from a tight heading and not sponged. Before they were so
fouled as to be useless, he knew the conflict would be over.
In a few minutes the Hatteras
was in flames fore and aft, her walking-beam was shot away, her port wheel
smashed to fragments, her decks a mass of splinters, and the brave vessel a
hopeless wreck. Blake stood amid the ruins around him calm and
collected—determined that the flag, which the flashes of his guns still
revealed flying above him, should never be struck-but the next moment, he saw
that his vessel was fast settling in the water, and firing his last gun, just as
the water was coming on deck, he, out of feelings of humanity for his brave
crew, ordered a gun fired to leeward, in token of surrender. The firing at once
ceased, and Semmes hailed to know if he wanted help. Blake replied in the
affirmative, and at the same time lowered his own boat. Other boats were soon in
the water, and the entire crew, with the exception of Blake, were safely placed
aboard them. He, with two dead men, remained alone on the wreck until all were
out of her, when he also stepped off the submerged deck into a boat and was
taken on board the Alabama.
The fight had lasted less than
twenty minutes. Scarcely were the prisoners secured, when the Hatteras,
with a heavy lurch, went to the bottom, her flag still proudly flying.
Commodore Bell saw the flashes
of the guns more than twenty miles distant, and heard the rapid explosions, and
immediately sent off three vessels to aid the Hatteras.
But utter darkness and silence soon settled over the water, and they cruised at
random all night. Next day they found the mastheads of the Hatteras
standing upright, and out of water, "tops and gaves awash, and the
hurricane-deck adrift." This told the story; but whether her brave
commander and crew were below with her, and this was the monument above their
watery graves, they could not tell.
In the mean time the Alabama
bore away for Kingston, Jamaica, with her prisoners.
Blake, who knew that the short
but terrific cannonading of the two vessels must have been heard by our fleet
off Galveston, hoped that the Alabama
would be overhauled and captured, and every day scanned the waters with an
anxious eye. But no help came, and in nine days the crippled pirate reached
port. The British steamer Greyhound
was in the harbor at the time, and, when she heard that, the Alabama
had arrived, the band struck up "Dixie’s Land." Blake, who was
chafing under his captivity, could not brook this fresh insult, and immediately
sent the following note to the commander of that vessel.
January 24, 1863.
To the Commander of H. B. M.
"Lieutenant-Commander H. C. Blake, of the United States Navy, presents his
compliments to the Commander of H.B.M. ship Greyhound,
and desires to learn whether or not he may consider the playing of “Dixie’s
Land’ by the band of the Greyhound,
upon the arrival of the Confederate steamer Alabama,
on the evening of the 21st instant, as a mark of disrespect to the United States
Government, or its officers who were prisoners on board the Alabama,
at the period indicated. Lieutenant-Commander H. C. Blake respectfully requests
an early response.
United States Consulate,
To this the former returned
the annexed handsome, frank, and satisfactory reply.
Commander Hickley, R. N.,
presents his compliments to Lieutenant-Commander Blake, U. S. N., and has to
acquaint him that on the evening in question he was on board the A—,
dining with Captain Crocroft. Shortly after the time of the officer of the guard
reporting the Alabama’s arrival, he
heard the drums and fifes of H.M.S. Greyhound
playing, among other tunes, the tune of “Dixie’s Land.” He immediately
repaired on board, causing other national tunes to be played, among which was
the United States national air, and severely reprimanded the inconsiderate young
officer who had ordered “Dixie’s Land” to be played, calling for his
reasons, and writing and forwarding them forthwith, with his report to Commodore
Hugh Dunlop, C.B., who severely reprimanded the officer.
As the officer in question had
no idea that any U. S. officer or man was on board the Alabama, it must be evident to Lieutenant-Commander Blake that no
insult was intended.
H.M. S. Greyhound, Port Royal, Jamaica, January 24, 1863.
Semmes treated Blake and the
prisoners with generosity, but said to another officer that Blake had "more
d—d assurance than any man he ever saw," to attack such a vessel as the Alabama
with the Hatteras. But weak as the latter was, she, in the short, unequal
contest, so severely handled the rebel craft, that she had to remain for a long
time in port to be fit for sea again, the repairs costing $86,000 in gold.
Semmes, however, was highly
complimented by his Government, and his conduct commended to the notice of
Congress. Blake might say, with Paul Jones, who, when he heard that Captain
Pearson, of the Serapis, had been made
a knight, after the battle with him, remarked: "If I ever catch him at sea
again I’ll make a lord of him.”
Though Blake lost his vessel,
he broke up Semmes’ plans, which, if carried out, would have caused us more
damage than the loss of a dozen such vessels as the Hatteras. He was short of provisions and coal, and intended to
supply himself with these from some of our merchant steamers off Galveston, and
then run into the mouth of the Mississippi, and fall in with and capture
But, however these plans might
have resulted, the noble example set by Blake and his crew was worth more than
many such vessels. A great example of self-devotion lives forever, and this
brave, hopeless attack of the Alabama
will be remembered as long as naval heroism is recorded. Ever present to a
commander’s mind, he cannot shrink from any contest, however hopeless, when
his country’s good requires it.
Blake’s crew showed their
appreciation of his conduct, by sending a petition to the Department, asking
that the steamer Eutaw might be given
him, and they be allowed to cruise after the Alabama. They say: "We assure you, that if it could be
understood that a steamer was actually fitting out, under our able commander,
hundreds of seamen now lost to the service would be eager to enlist." * * *
And again: "It took the Alabama
twenty minutes to sink the Hatteras.
But if we once get alongside of her with the Eutaw, and Captain Blake for her commander, we will either sink or
capture her in half that time." "We
want satisfaction, and it lies in your power to place us in a position that will
give us a chance to take or destroy the notorious pirate."
It must be a source of
gratification to Blake, to know how the crew that fought this hopeless battle
under him, longed once more to stand on the same deck with him, in another
encounter with their common adversary. It is higher praise than government
officials can bestow. A crew that so loves and trusts their commander, will
never see their flag struck, while their guns can carry shot.
The Eutaw was given Blake, but, instead of being sent after the Alabama,
was stationed in the James River. Here she was constantly engaged—now in
partial engagements with the enemy, and now in transporting troops.
In the latter part of 1863,
the rebel press announced that a movement would soon be made on their part which
would astonish the world. It actually took place on the 24th of January, 1864.
In order to understand the
object and result expected by this movement, it must be remembered, that, with
our iron-clads, we could go no further than "Trent’s Reach," the
greatest depth of water beyond being twelve and a half feet, while they drew
thirteen and fourteen feet. Finding them useless for a direct attack on
Richmond, and the Government requiring them on the coast, a line of strong
obstructions was thrown across the river at this point. The iron-clad Onondaga,
and a few wooden gunboats, were left to prevent the rebels from removing them (a
force fully adequate to the duty, if properly used). The rebels had now their
rams, and a number of other vessels. Semmes had returned, and was appointed to
the command of their fleet. Longstreet, with twenty-five thousand men, moved to
the right of the army of the James; Lee, to the left of the army of the Potomac;
and Semmes with his fleet was to force the obstructions, pass down, destroying
the pontoons, cutting the connection of the two armies, capture City Point, our
base of supplies, and take possession of the James River. On the day fixed, the
rebel fleet came down, driving in our pickets, and commenced the removal of our
obstructions. The naval commander, instead of taking his vessel to the
protection of his defenses, retired, and allowed them to be removed, thus
leaving a passage for the rebel fleet. Most fortunately for us, two of the rebel
rams, waiting for the opening of the channel, got aground, thus frustrating the
plan for that night. The enemy, however, prepared for a second attempt at high
water the following night. Blake was at this time stationed at Deep Bottom, on
the "east side," to protect the right of the "army of the
James." On the morning of the 25th, the commander of the naval division
having been removed for his conduct on the previous day, Blake took command of
it. On going on board the Onondaga, he
found her port propeller disabled; yet, with her in this condition, and only a
few small gunboats, he was to contend with the rebel fleet. A false step, or a
moment’s hesitation, would endanger the safety of our armies. Against the
advice of almost all the officers, he got the Onondaga, with the assistance of tugs, close to the obstructions,
and directly under the fire of the rebel batteries, and in such a position that,
if she was sunk either by the rams or torpedo-boats, as he expected, she would
take the place of the removed obstructions. This action prevented a second
attempt, as he was afterward informed by one of the officers who was attached to
the rebel fleet.
A single extract of a letter
from Admiral Porter to him, will show how great was the service he performed.
The admiral says: "Had your predecessor done as well, we should now be in
possession of the entire rebel navy, and on our way to Richmond." On the
return of the admiral from the capture of Fort Fisher, Blake was continued in
command of the iron-clads and naval picket line, and had the pleasure of taking
part in the engagement which caused the fall of Richmond, and saw the old flag
assume its proper place on the state house of that city.
He is now at the head of the
Bureau of Navigation, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
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