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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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Melancthon Smith was born in New York City, May 24th, 1810. His father, Fauquier Smith, was from Long Island, and his mother, Cornelia Jones, daughter of Dr. Gardiner Jones, from New York City. His father served as colonel in the war of 1812, and commanded a fort at the battle of Plattsburg. Sidney Smith, Captain in the United States Navy, and his uncle, was in the naval battle that took place on Lake Champlain, at the same time, under McDonough. His grandfather, Hon. Melancthon Smith, was one of the most prominent political debaters of the day, and in 17’71, was the first Sheriff of Dutchess County. In 1788, he represented this county in the convention which met at Poughkeepsie, to take into consideration the constitution of the United States, which had been prepared the year before in Philadelphia. He was one of the most prominent debaters in that convention, and chief antagonist of Alexander Hamilton.

The subject of the present sketch, having received an academic education, entered the navy March 1st, 1826.

His first service was on board the frigate Brandywine, from which he was transferred to the sloop-of-war Vincennes. In 1830, he was sent to the naval school of New York; but the next year ordered to the frigate Potomac, in which he served but little over a month, when he was ordered to the Navy Yard of Brooklyn. In 1832 he received his warrant as passed midshipman, and joined the sloop-of-war St. Louis; but in the following winter was detached from her and sent to the Navy Yard at Pensacola. The following year, however, he was ordered to the schooner Porpoise, and then to the sloop Vandalia, in which he served till 1837. The next year he was, for a short time, on duty in the Navy Yard at New York, from which he was transferred, in 1836, to the sloop-of-war Natchez, in which he served as sailing master. The same year he received his warrant as master in the navy, and the following year was promoted to lieutenant, in which capacity he served in the sloop Vandalia, till 1838. In 1839, he was attached to the steamer Poinsett, and a part of the time commanded a fort, and a twenty-oared barge on the Miami River, Florida.

The next year he was stationed in the Navy Yard at New York; but from 1841 to 1843, served on board the Fairfield and Preble, when he was ordered to the store-ship Erie. He remained here a year, and during the following year was, part of the time, on the Vandalia and Colonel Harney, and a part of the time executive officer of the Pensacola Navy Yard. From 1848 to 1855 he served, first on the frigate Constitution, and then on the Potomac, as executive officer. Being promoted to commander in 1855, he was detached from the latter vessel, and two years after ordered on special duty as light-house inspector; which position he held until just before the breaking out of the rebellion. In May, 1861, he was ordered to the Gulf Blockading Squadron, and in the following September moved against Ship Island with the steamer Massachusetts, when the rebels fired the barracks, destroyed the lighthouse lantern, and escaped to the mainland. He had an engagement also with some Confederate steamers, but his first serious action was in the passage of the forts below New Orleans. He commanded the steamer Mississippi in this terrific encounter, and received ten shots, eight going clean through the vessel, wounding six of her crew. Seeing the ram Manassas, he signalled for permission to attack her. Farragut granting it, he boldly made for her. The ram advancing to the contest, struck the steamer, inflicting a severe damage below the water line. The monster in return received a terrific broadside from the heavy guns of the Mississippi, which carried away her smoke-stack, and crashed through her mailed sides with such awful power, that the crew ran her ashore and fled in affright. Smith immediately boarded her, but finding his machinery so disabled that he could not take her in tow, and a steamer on fire drifting down on him, he recalled his boats after setting her on fire. He then riddled her with shot, when she swung loose from the bank, and drifting below the forts, blew up with a tremendous explosion. He afterwards passed up the river, and engaged, with other vessels, the batteries above.

His next important engagement, was in the terrible passage of Port Hudson, in which he lost his ship. A full account of this, together with a description of his gallant bearing on the occasion, are given in the sketch of Farragut. Nothing could test his great qualities as a commander, more than the trying position in which he found himself here, when his vessel grounded in twenty-three feet of water, right under the concentrated fire of the hostile batteries. When, after the most desperate efforts, it became evident that she could not be made to float again, and the rebel shells were bursting in and around her, the cool manner in which, with lighted cigar, he, removed his crew to the boats, and then set fire to her, showed that no danger or adversity could shake his steady nerves. He felt keenly, however, the loss of his noble vessel. A man loves the good steed which has once carried him right gallantly and safely through a deadly struggle; but a sailor has a still warmer affection for his ship, whose heavy broadsides have spoken at his command, and which has borne his flag triumphantly through a great combat. No wonder then his heart was filled with sadness, when he saw his noble vessel perish before his eyes. The manner of her death, too, appealed strongly to his sympathies. When relieved from the weight of her crew, she again floated, and swinging slowly down stream, brought her other broadside to bear. Her guns, heated by the raging flames, soon began to go off, as if still remembering her old commander, and thundered away in stern response to the rebel batteries. A pyramid of flame, she towered grandly through the gloom, and drifting with the current, moved majestically past him. He watched her blazing form lighting up the bosom of the stream, the banks, and the murky heavens, till Prophet’s Island shut her from view. A few minutes more he could trace her course by the illumination made by her burning hull, and then came a deafening explosion that shook the shores, followed by utter darkness, that told him that his noble ship was sleeping beneath the waters of the mighty river whose name she bore.

He was afterwards given the command of the Monongahela, and joined in the attack on Port Hudson, from the 1st to the 20th of June. In January, he was on a court of inquiry, to investigate the "Galveston matter," relating to the failure to capture the Harriet Lane. He was afterwards transferred east, to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Here, in the Onondaga, he was on picket duty for some time, and cooperated with General Butler in the movement of troops at Dutch Gap and Deep Bottom. But the ram Albemarle in the Sounds of North Carolina seriously threatening the existence of our squadron there, Lee sent him down to look after her. The ram, having previously sunk the Southfield, now came out again to renew her attack, when Smith, with his little squadron, boldly advanced to meet her.

The following is his account of the engagement:


The ram Albemarle, steamer Cotton-Plant, with troops, and the armed steamer Bombshell, laden with provisions and coal, came out of Roanoke River to-day at two o’clock, P. M., and, after being tolled ten miles down the sound by the picket force left to guard the entrance of the river, the Mattabesett, Wyalusing, Sassacus, and Whitehead, got under way and stood up to engage them; the smaller boats falling into position in accordance with the enclosed programme.

The engagement commenced at 4.40, by the ram firing the first gun, which destroyed the Mattabesett’s launch and wounded several men. The second shot cut away some of the standing and running rigging. At 4.45, the Bombshell surrendered to the Mattabesett, and was ordered to fall in our wake; at 4.50, fired a broadside into the ram at a distance of one hundred and fifty yards; at 5.50, the Sassacus delivered her fire in passing and then rammed his stern, pouring in a broadside at the same time. The Sassacus was seen soon afterwards enveloped with steam, when she hauled off, evidently disabled. The colors of the ram at this moment came down, and it was some time before it was ascertained whether he had surrendered, or they had been shot away. During the contact, it was, of course, impossible for the other vessels to fire; but when the Sassacus became disengaged, and resumed her firing, the engagement became general; the smaller vessels firing so rapid]y, that it was dangerous for the larger ones to approach; and they appeared also to be ignorant of all signals, as they answered without obeying them. The engagement continued until about 7:30, when, it becoming dark, the Commodore Hull and Ceres were then sent ahead to keep the ram in sight, and to remain on picket duty off the mouth of the Roanoke River, if he succeeded in entering it; the Mattabesett, Wyalusing, Miami, and Whitehead, coming to anchor in the sound, two miles and a half below. Eight torpedoes had been furnished by the army, and an attempt was made last night to place them in the mouth of the river; the entrance being watched, it was found impracticable. Another effort was made to-day at two o’clock, P. M., when the ram was discovered two miles above, on his way out. During the engagement, a seine was laid out across the ram’s bow, in obedience to orders, to try and foul his propeller, but he passed over it without injury. A torpedo was rigged out from the bow of the Miami, and she was ordered to go ahead and attempt to explode it, but, from some cause yet unexplained, it was not done. She ran up, however, sheered off, and delivered her broadside, and continued to fire at him rapidly. The injuries sustained by the ram are thought to be considerable, but his motive-power is evidently uninjured. His boats were knocked off from the decks, and his stack riddled, and it is also believed that one of his guns was disabled. The ram is certainly very formidable. He is fast for that class of vessel, making from six to seven knots, turns quickly, and is armed with heavy guns, as is proved by the 100-pounder Brooks projectile that entered and lodged in the Mattabesett, and 100-pounder Whitworth shot received by the Wyalusing, while the shot fired at him were seen to strike fire upon the casemates and hull, flying upwards and falling into the water without having had any perceptible effect upon the vessel. I had tried the effect of ramming (as suggested by the Department) in the case of the Sassacus, and was deterred from repeating the experiment by the injury she had sustained, and a signal from the Wyalusing that she was sinking, which, if the latter had been correct, (and I was not informed to the contrary until after the vessels came to anchor), would have left too small a force of efficient vessels to keep the control of the sound, which I now hold, and shall be able to maintain against any rebel force that they will be able to organize at this point, when present damages are repaired. I am convinced that side-wheel steamers cannot be laid alongside of the Albemarle, without totally disabling their wheels, which is the reason for not adopting the suggestion contained in your order to me of the 23d instant. It is reported that the rebel barges with troops were at the mouth of the Croatan River, ready to come out, and a steamer was, seen in that direction; but in regard to the first I have no positive information.


Lieutenant Commander Roe, of the Sassacus, also struck the ram, and gives the following account of the collision:


As the Mattabesett had passed around the stern of the ram, and was heading down the sound again, the ram had turned partially round with a port-helm, and now lay broadside to me. As the Sassacus had been drawn off some little distance by her operations and capture of the Bombshell, she had a good distance to get headway; and, seeing the favorable moment before me, I ordered full steam and open throttle, and laid the ship fair for the broadside of the ram to run her down. The Sassacus struck her fairly just abaft her starboard beam in the position of the rear of the house or casemate, with a speed of nine to ten knots, making twenty-two revolutions with thirty pounds of steam. As I struck, she sent a 100-pounder rifle shot through and through, from starboard bow to port-side, on the berth deck.

The collision was pretty heavy, and the ram careened a good deal-so much so that the water washed over her deck forward and aft the casemate. At one time I thought she was going down; I kept the engine going, pushing, as I hoped, deeper and deeper into her, and also hoping it might be possible for some one of the boats to get up on the opposite side of me, and perhaps enable us to sink her, or at least to get well on to her on all sides; I retained this position full ten minutes, throwing grenades down her deck-hatch, and trying in vain to get powder into her smoke-stack, and receiving volleys of musketry, when the stern of the ram began to go round, and her broadside port bearing on our starboard bow, when the ram fired and sent a 100-pounder Brooks rifle shot through the starboard side on the berth-deck, passing through the empty bunkers into the starboard boiler, clean through it fore and aft, and’ finally lodging in the wardroom. In a moment the steam filled every portion of the ship, from the hurricane-deck to the fire-rooms, killing some, stifling some, and rendering all movement for a time impossible. When the steam cleared away so I could look around me, I saw my antagonist was away from me, and steaming off. In the meantime the engine was going, as no one could do anything below, some sixteen men being scalded. I then put the helm hard a-port, headed up the sound, and around to the land, in order to clear the field for the other boats. Soon as the steam cleared up, and the effect of the explosion was over, the officers and men immediately went to the guns, and kept them going upon the enemy until we drifted out of range. I tried to ricochet several 9-inch shot, so that she might be struck on her bottom by the upward bound of the shot, but I had the mortification to see every shot strike the water inside of her, and rise on the opposite side of her. While alongside of her, and almost simultaneous with the fatal shot of the enemy, Acting-Ensign Mayer sent a 100-pounder solid shot at her port, which broke into fragments, one of which rebounded and fell on our deck, as did also some fragments of grenades. While thus together, I fired three separate shots into one of her ports; we clearly observed the muzzles of two of her guns broken very badly. After the separation of the two vessels, the Sassacus was finally headed down the sound, and continued to move very slowly, working on a vacuum, and finally stopped, when I dropped anchor. In the meantime the Mattabesett and Wyalusing gallantly went in, and the fight was nobly maintained by those vessels.


The other vessels joined in the engagement, but their shot seemed to have but little effect on the ram. Smith lost eight in killed and wounded, while Roe, on the Sassacus, had some twenty scalded by the escaping steam.

Smith, in a subsequent report, states that Lieutenant Roe was mistaken as to the speed he was going when he struck the ram; also, that he overrated the injury he had done her, especially her guns.

In July, 1864, he returned to the James River, and was made divisional officer, with the Onondaga as his flagship. In October, he was transferred to the frigate Wabash, in which vessel he participated in both of the attacks on Fort Fisher. In the last one he had eleven killed and wounded, besides those lost in the storming party furnished by his vessel. In 1865, he was detached from the Wabash, and during a part of the year was engaged on court-martial duty. In July, of this year, he was appointed Executive Officer of the Navy Department at Washington, and the same month promoted to Commodore. In September, 1866, he was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting in the Navy Department, which position, we believe, he at present holds.

Chapter XXIX

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