Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep on the ranks of the dead:—
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the Judgment Day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other the Gray.
America has never had a more popular naval hero than David Glasgow Farragut, born on July 5th, 1801, at Campbell's Station, a border town in eastern Tennessee. Although his father was of pure Spanish descent, foreign born, Farragut himself showed all through his life the most sterling of American qualities, among which his intrepid bravery and loyalty to country stood out with unusual prominence.
No American naval officer has ever served the United States so long with distinction. A midshipman in the first organized navy this country possessed, in 1812, when a mere child of nine years of age, he went through some of the most exciting sea skirmishes of the second war with England. An acting lieutenant at eighteen, he cruised in the Mediterranean seas and had many adventures with pirates, during the course of one of which he defeated the infamous and blood thirsty Diablito and saw him fall with a bullet through his head. A captain (the highest commission up to that time), at the age of sixty-one, in the Civil War, he conducted himself with a signal gallantry.
The period of Farragut's brilliant and victorious career really opened in 1862, when he had already been treading a deck in the service of his country more than a half-century. Not until then had the opportunity come for him to demonstrate the full extent of his worth, acquired during fifty-two years' of faithful and intelligent service. Most men would have thought of retiring from ordinary scenes of activity at his age, let alone entering upon new ones which called for almost superhuman endeavor. Not so the hardy Farragut.
Those inland waters which were to be thenceforth inseparably connected with his name and reputation, had become from the first, the chief seat of the naval operations of the war. The control of the banks of the Mississippi had for some time been recognized as of primary importance to themselves by the Northerners. But the whole stretch of shore from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico was held by the Confederates, as a consequence of which they were able to ship large quantities of supplies from the Southwest to the seat of war.
Before President Lincoln and the Federal Naval Board a plan was presented for a naval expedition against New Orleans. It was thought a fleet of wooden ships under a clever commander might run up past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the powerful seaward defenses of New Orleans, break through the river obstructions, destroy the Confederate fleet, appear suddenly before the Crescent City, and capture it. The plan was bold and difficult; it would require an officer of resolution and sagacity to carry it into successful execution. Who should it be? Everybody on the Board unhesitatingly said, "Farragut." And Farragut it was.
So on the 9th of January, 1862, he was appointed to the command of the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron, as admiral, and put to sea early in February, from Hampton Roads, in his flag-ship, the Hartford. At Ship Island he was joined by twenty-seven ships, among which were sloops of war, gunboats, and twenty-one mortar-schooners, carrying in all two hundred guns. An army of fifteen thousand soldiers, under General Butler, was to follow the fleet in transports and hold the places captured.
The Confederate defenses against which Farragut proposed to pit his strength and skill, were of a very formidable character. The mouth of the Mississippi spreads out into five passes, or channels. At that time these were extremely difficult of passage owing to large deposits of sand and mud brought down by the mighty river. At a bend in the stream, twenty miles above the passes, two powerful forts defended the approach further on. These defenses mounted a hundred and fifteen guns, and were garrisoned by fifteen hundred soldiers.
Quite close to them two immense chains were stretched across the river, being supported on eight old hulks. Above the forts were anchored the river flotilla and the Confederate fleet of fifteen vessels, including the ironclad ram Manassas and the large floating battery Louisiana. A hundred miles farther up the stream lay New Orleans, the goal of the Union expedition.
The passing of the extensive sandbar at the mouth of the Mississippi was the first difficulty encountered by Farragut. Some of the heavier ships ran aground several times, and the Mississippi herself was dragged by tug-boats through a foot of mud. For fully two weeks the tugs struggled to work the Pensacola across, and the passage of the Brooklyn required half as long. The Colorado could not get over at all.
Once on the other side of the bar the Northern forces breathed easier. Leaving the Colorado behind them, the ships steamed up the river to within three miles of Fort Jackson. Several days were spent in suitably placing the mortar-schooners, all under a strong enemy fire and in open boats. Hidden under the trees whose branches hung well out over the water, and with their projecting masts and rigging camouflaged by bunches of boughs tied to them, the schooners were moored within two miles of the fort, yet were entirely out of view.
On the morning of the 18th of April, Farragut ordered the bombardment to begin. For six days a steady and unremitting firing was kept up by the Northerners, and replied to with energy by the enemy. In that time over six thousand shells fell on the works of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, breaking the bastions and carrying damage wherever they struck. During the hours of night the bombardment would slacken, which gave the weary men a needed respite. After darkness had settled down in earnest that first day, and quietness had wrapped itself about the ships of the Northern fleet, the whole sky was suddenly lighted as if by a vast conflagration. Looking upstream, the Federals saw great tongues of flame shooting up into the black void of night, close to the water. The mammoth furnace of fire came slowly drifting down upon them, swaying uncertainly this way and that, borne on the sluggish current, conveying in its crackling embers and terrific heat a terrible threat to the ships below. It was a fire-raft, one hundred and fifty feet long, piled with pine knots full of inflammable pitch, which the crafty Confederates had pushed off in the hope of destroying the vessels their guns seemed unable to damage.
As they saw the huge bonfire bearing down upon them, a panic seized many of the sailors. It was only by the most heroic conduct that the officers of the imperiled Union vessels quieted them. Hastily drawing their anchors, and under good discipline, the ships crowded to one side, and the raft passed harmlessly by, although its heat blistered the paint of some of the nearest. Other fire-rafts followed—rafts even larger, piled higher with combustibles smeared with turpentine, flaming dangerously far out on either side as the wind would catch erratically into their mass. Some of these would surely have ignited the Union craft had not sailors gone up ahead to meet them in small boats, and bravely towed them aside at the expense of scorched faces and hands.
On the third night of the bombardment Farragut sent out his fleet captain, Henry H. Bell, on a dangerous mission. With two gunboats—the Itasca and the Pinola—Bell was to break through the barrier of Confederate schooners and heavy chains thrown across the river directly below the forts. The enterprise was one of great danger, for the gunboats would be obliged to do their work within easy range of the shore works as well as the enemy craft, yet neither Captain Caldwell of the Itasca, nor Captain Crosby of the Pinola hesitated, and their crews accepted the undertaking with cheers.
However, no sooner had Captain Caldwell gallantly run up alongside of one of the hulks supporting the chains, and boarded her preparatory to slipping the chains and firing her, than they were slipped by an over-zealous sailor without his knowledge, the hulk's anchorage gave way, and both craft drifted aground under the forts.
In this dangerous position, and under a tremendous fire, the Itasca was obliged to remain until the Pinola came to her aid. Then she backed out, and still undaunted, Captain Caldwell ran his gunboat up the river through the gap that had been made in the chains. After going some distance he turned about, and bore down at full speed upon the portion of the barrier that still remained. His bow caught the chains, lifted them three or four feet out of water, and then broke them. He and Captain Crosby then rejoined the fleet below.
On the night of the sixth day Captain Caldwell once more went up the river, to see if the gap were still open. Finding it so, he returned and reported the welcome news to Admiral Farragut, who had decided the following night to be a propitious one for making a dash past the Confederate works and craft.
In the meantime careful preparations for the undertaking had been made: The hulls of the Union ships had been smeared with mud out of the river bed, to make them less visible, the decks were whitewashed so that objects on them could be seen by the sailors at night in the absence of lights, bags of sand and rolls of sail protected the exposed machinery and important ship's parts, and all the higher spars and unnecessary rigging were sent ashore. Force-pumps and engine hose were made ready, ladders were thrown over the sides to assist the carpenter's mates in stopping chance shot holes, tubs of water to extinguish possible fires were placed on deck, while grapnels were placed in the small boats in readiness for boarding an enemy craft.
At last the looked for night—the 24th—settled down. The last rays of light showed the Union ships quiet and peaceful, as on other nights, to the Confederates. But under the sham tranquility Northern feet and hands fretted for the action that was so near, and brains were far busier than ever before.
As the moon rose, full and clear, about half-past three, it found the whole fleet under way. Silently the ships steamed up toward the forts; but already the unusual sounds had been detected by the sharp ears of the foe lookouts, and the Confederates were ready to receive them. Bonfire after bonfire began to blaze up from different parts of the shore line; fire-rafts added their conflagration to the scene; almost every inch of the watercourse in the neighborhood was illumined with the intensity of day.
Farragut's heart sank for a moment. He saw that the run could no longer be made in secret; that whatever was to be done must be accomplished in open view of the Southerners. As for retreating, he never once thought of that.
In single file the Union ships approached the gap that had been made in the line of old hulks. As they did so their mortar-schooners opened up a heavy fire upon the forts. Leading the three divisions was the little Cayuga. When she had come abreast of them the forts opened a terrific fusillade upon her. The air was at once filled with shells and other explosives, which almost blinded her pilot in the forecastle as he tried to see his way. He turned in close under the walls of Fort St. Philip, which caused most of the in tense enemy fire to pass through his rigging. Although this was badly shot up, the hull was hardly touched.
After passing the last battery, and thinking himself clear, Lieutenant Perkins, the pilot, looked back for some of his sister ships. Seeing none, he was greatly alarmed, thinking they must all have been sunken in front of the forts. Believing himself alone, the plucky commander of the Cayuga nevertheless steamed on ahead, straight into the eleven gunboats of the foe that began to bear down upon him. It seemed sheer suicide—an act of madness.
Three of the Confederate steamers attacked the Cayuga simultaneously, and attempted to board her. But when the nearest was within thirty feet, the little ship trained her eleven-inch gun upon her, and crippled her so badly that she was set afire, and had to run ashore, where she soon burned to the ground. The second enemy hauled off after a shot from the Cayuga's Parrot gun had lodged in her bow.
Only one was left. It was decided to board this ship; but just as the Northern sailors rushed forward for the purpose, they saw the Union ship Veruna suddenly appear upon the scene, firing her guns rapidly into the Southerner, who precipitately retreated.
With this timely assistance, the Cayuga was saved just in the nick of time, the other Confederate vessels holding off and giving their undivided attention to the newcomer. As for the Veruna, her recklessness was to be wondered at. Impetuously she steamed in among the enemy craft, discharging her weapons with such effective aim that soon the foe were beating away up the river. Unsupported, the audacious Veruna took up the pursuit; but in her tracks, hidden in the lurid darkness, steamed another enemy after her—the Confederate gunboat, Governor Moore. Cunningly this ship hoisted at her masthead a white light, with a red one at her peak,—the distinguishing lights of the Union vessels—thinking to deceive the Veruna into believing she was followed by a friend, should she happen to detect the steamer in her wake.
Quite unaware of his rearward danger, Lieutenant Kennon, of the Governor Moore, raced under full steam after the fugitive. Slowly he gained. At last he ran her down. Hauling in his Union lights, he opened fire, and the duel that ensued was furious. Twice the Governor Moore rammed the Union ship; the last time she began to fill with water. But still undaunted, she threw three shells into the vitals of her larger antagonist. This set fire to the Confederate, who drew off, only to surrender to another Union gunboat which had come swiftly forward during the progress of the fight. Fifteen minutes later the Veruna sank.
Meanwhile, at the forts and directly above them, the scene beggars description. All that can be said is that everything was in the utmost confusion and wildest excitement. Blinded by the smoke of the guns, one of the Union vessels fired a broadside into a friend instead of the enemy. Shot and shell were whizzing through the air in almost every direction; the night was horrible with every conceivable sound of mortal combat—harsh cries of man, harsh plunge of projectile in the waters, harsh thud and tear of destructive shot against giving timbers, harsh grunt of steam on pursuing and pursued vessels.
In passing the forts the larger ships stopped for a few moments and played their powerful batteries upon the crumbling walls, receiving a heavy fire in return. The lighter ships, however, scudded by without stopping, although they let fly showers of grape and shrapnel in the operation. The whole of the first division cleared the line of hulks and forts successfully in this manner.
Then came the center division, composed of three large ships—the Hartford, the Richmond, and the Brooklyn. The previous firing had filled the air with dense clouds of smoke, making the way almost impenetrable for those following behind the first vessels. Barely had the Hartford, bearing Farragut, come abreast of the fortifications, than a fire-raft came down the river directly toward her. In avoiding this danger she ran aground under the batteries of Fort St. Philip, in much the same position as the Cayuga had previously occupied. This time, however, the guns of the enemy works were lowered, and as she lay there, helpless, the flag-ship was subjected to a withering fire. "We seemed to be breathing flame rather than air," said Farragut afterward.
The Hartford retaliated as well as she could with her own batteries. In the midst of her torture, a Confederate tug boldly guided the fire-raft up alongside, and in an instant the flames had communicated themselves to the Union ship. By the hardest kind of exertion, the fire brigade of the vessel managed to quench the blaze on shipboard, and push off the fire-raft with pikes as the ship's guns bellowed forth and sank the audacious tug. A few minutes later, to the joy of all, her struggling engines succeeded in backing the Hartford out into deep water. She headed round upstream again, and followed through the gap in the hulks after the other Union ships.
Altogether fourteen of the Union craft passed clear of the Confederate obstructions, only one being lost—the reckless Veruna. The wonderful feat had been accomplished. Farragut had brought his fleet of wooden vessels past the formidable forts and equally formidable river obstacles with only a loss of one, and thirty-seven men killed and a hundred and fifty wounded.
All day of the 24th the fleet anchored off the Quarantine Station to review damage and make repairs. On the following morning they steamed up the river to English Turn, where the two Confederate river batteries of Chalmette and McGehee were quickly silenced.
When the inhabitants of New Orleans heard of the approach of the Union fleet under Farragut their consternation and dismay knew no bounds. News had come of the entrance of the enemy into the mouth of the Mississippi, but they had the utmost faith in the ability of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, and their supporting watercraft, to put a summary stop to further advance.
Meanwhile, as the Union fleet neared New Orleans, they found their progress greatly impeded by all kinds of wreckage sent down from above to interfere with their movement. Worthless old scows and ships loaded with tiers of burning cotton-bales were frequently met floating down stream. As the invaders came within sight of the city itself, they saw that the levee was an object of desolation. Ships, cotton, coal, lumber, and warehouses were all in one common blaze, and the ingenuity of the Union officers was taxed to the limit to avoid the conflagration when they reached it.
After three days of parley, Farragut sent a force of two hundred and fifty Marines with two howitzers, under the command of Fleet-Captain Bell, to the City Hall. Before this they drew up, and trained the guns on the front of the building. Rapidly, a great crowd had gathered back of them, and angry shouts and protestations filled the air when two Union officers went calmly upstairs and pulled down the State flag and ran up in its place the Stars-and-Stripes. In this manner New Orleans was forced to bow to the iron will of Admiral Farragut.
In the meantime the garrisons of Forts Jackson and St. Philip had mutinied. Taking advantage of the confusion among the Confederates, Commander Porter, who had stayed behind the main fleet with his mortar-schooners, made a fresh attack and succeeded in capturing the works. The defending enemy craft were also taken, and Farragut had these sent down the river for the troops of General Butler who, it will be remembered, was to follow him with a body of soldiers. Several of the ironclad rams, on which the Confederates had placed the greatest hopes, were destroyed in the general cleaning-up process that was now going on along the river between its mouth and New Orleans. The principal ship of this class—the Mississippi—was burned by the Southerners themselves, and came floating down, stream in a mass of flames as Captain Lee started up the river to seize her.
The fall of the Queen City was the knell to Confederate hopes on the mighty Mississippi. After the surrender the panic extended far upstream. The two forts at Carrollton, eight miles above, were abandoned, the guns spiked, before the Union boats appeared there. Farragut was now in favor of returning down the Mississippi, and making an immediate attack on Mobile. But the Government held to its original intention of having the fleet continue on up the river to join the Union flotilla under Flag Officer Davis, which then lay nine hundred miles above the mouth of the stream. In vain Farragut tried to convince his superiors in Washington that his force was inadequate for such an undertaking; that the high bluffs above New Orleans were strongly fortified in many places, and would require a military operation to reduce them. To make matters more unpromising for him, the waters of the river were beginning to fall, leaving many bars where there was not sufficient depth to float his ships even now. If he should succeed in going above Vicksburg, he saw no way of getting down again until the freshets of the following spring.
At two o'clock in the morning of the 28th of June, the squadron of eleven ships got under way, and began to stem the roily current. The mortar-schooners had come up, and it was only a short time before these found much to do, as well as the other ships, in forcing their way along. The mortars opened up first on the earthworks, and then the gunboats got in their broadsides. In reply, the ridge of bluffs seemed a living sheet of fire, as their batteries thundered from one end to the other, and grape and shrapnel and ball came cutting down in the midst of the ships.
The Hartford passed at slow speed, discharging her guns with deliberation and splendid effect, although the elevated works of the enemy were not an easy mark on account of their angle. From time to time, as she found herself forging too far ahead of her consorts, she would pause to allow them to catch up.
On one occasion Farragut was watching the fight from his favorite position in the mizzen-rigging, when the captain of the gun on the poop-deck asked him to get down as he wished to direct his gun near that spot. Hardly had the Admiral left his post when an enemy shot cut away the whole mizzen-rigging just above his head.
The batteries of the outlying defenses were silenced more readily than Farragut had dared to hope. In two hours the first divisions of the fleet had passed; but owing to a misunderstanding of orders, the third division dropped down the river.
Proceeding on his course, the great seaman finally joined Davis's flotilla a few miles above Vicksburg, to which Davis had come after a brilliant victory at Memphis.
As the combined fleets lay at anchor, news reached them that the Confederate ram Arkansas, which had been especially built for the destruction of the Union squadrons, was in Yazoo River. Two ships were at once ordered away on a reconnoitering expedition. About six miles up the Yazoo they met the ironclad coming at full speed. Realizing that they were unfit to make any kind of a fight against the monster, the Union vessels retreated, keeping up a continual fire from their stern guns until they had gained such a distance that their shots no longer reached the armored target.
Warned of the approach of the Arkansas, the Union fleet made hasty preparations to meet her. As their fires were low, there was no time to get up steam, so attention was given entirely to the guns.
Sweeping grandly into the Mississippi, the ram came downstream under full pressure. Past the line of Yankee ships she puffed, firing her guns in the act, her screw propeller churning the water into swirling eddies in her wake. The Union broadsides, trained on the impudent craft, thundered viciously; and their projectiles rained against her metal jacket in a crashing staccato that sounded like a thousand imps hammering a boiler. But all the grape and shrapnel in that fusillade could do was to puncture her smoke stack like a sieve and tear her flag away; bullets striking elsewhere merely flattened out or broke in bits on her plate.
Making no effort to turn about and attack her enemy, the Arkansas continued on to Vicksburg, where she sought protection under the guns of the fort. Three weeks later, however, she was to meet her end. Then, in attempting to reach Baton Rouge, her machinery broke down, she ran aground at the mercy of the Union ships, and her commander set her afire.
Meanwhile Farragut had again passed the fortifications of Vicksburg with his ships. He continued on downstream, finally arriving at New Orleans. Here, on the 12th of August, he received his commission as rear-admiral, and was the first officer in the United States Navy to hoist his admiral's flag at the main.
As most of his vessels were now in need of repairs and provisions, he steamed down to the Gulf of Mexico, where, in the harbor of Pensacola, his fleet lay refitting through the remaining summer months.
During Farragut's stay at Pensacola reports arrived that the Confederates were strengthening the defenses at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the only two important strategic positions on the Mississippi still held by them. Believing that it would soon be advisable to make a concerted attack on these points, the Admiral returned to New Orleans, from whence he could better organize his forces and make a quick dash into the enemy. Before his ships could move upstream, however, it would be necessary to wait for higher water and the arrival of troops which the Government was sending, under General Banks, to his aid.
At last the long-expected army put in an appearance, but was not ready for its part in the program till late in February. Then, when General Banks had assured Farragut that his soldiers only awaited the word to move forward, he made his plans for an immediate start.
Leaving the soldiers to constitute a land force, and move along the shores parallel with his squadron for attack in the rear of the enemy batteries that were to be met, Admiral Farragut weighed anchor on the 14th of March and steamed up to within seven miles of Port Hudson, where his ships anchored off Profit's Island.
His enterprise was a most difficult one. Port Hudson was situated in a sharp bend of the Mississippi. The high bluffs on the east side of the stream, covering the approach of the town for a mile and a half from below, were bristling with powerful open and masked batteries which threatened destruction to any ship passing them. To add to the difficulties of navigation the strong current that swept around the curve of the river, formed a deep channel under the bluffs, while on the opposite side were dangerous shoals and baffling eddies. Thus, if vessels coming upstream did not place themselves directly under the fire of the defenses on the elevations, they must attempt to run the gauntlet through shallow water that would be very likely to send them aground, a helpless prey to the long-range guns of the foe.
Farragut's squadron counted four warships and three gunboats, supplemented with a number of mortar-schooners. The latter were to take a position in advance of the other craft, and were to keep up a heavy fire to divert as much attention as possible, while the remaining ships worked by. Each of the latter, excepting the Mississippi, was ordered to lash a gunboat to her port side, so that in case of injury or accident she could be towed by her consort to a place of safety.
After darkness had settled down over the river that night, a red light suddenly appeared at the stern of the Hartford, as a signal for the squadron to form in line behind her. Answering lights soon showed that all were in position, and then the flag-ship slowly steamed upstream. Nothing but the soft chug-chug of the exhaust pipes and the faint clink-clank of engine parts could be heard, without it were the swish of curling waters cut by the sharp bows of the Union flotilla. On deck the men went about their tasks silently, muffling every operation they could. The very tension seemed to portend the sudden breaking of a terrific storm.
Undeterred, the little Union squadron crept steadily forward; but now every man was at his station before the guns, waiting for the order of Farragut to pull the lanyards. All at once the shore opposite them was thrown out into bold relief by a great flare of flame; there instantly followed a thundering crash of cannon, and shot spattered into the water all around the Yankees, sang through their rigging, and cut down some of the brave fellows themselves.
Quick came the reply from the squadron. Guided by the flare of the enemy guns, their own were trained like lightning, and heavy reports and great clouds of smoke rolled upward from the river level.
A little later so close did the flag-ship run to the shore that a Confederate officer in command of one of the batteries, seeing Farragut and two junior officers standing on the poop-deck within pistol range, stepped beyond the parapet for a moment and leveled his pistol and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for the Union men it missed fire. Seizing another pistol, the Southerner was in the act of making good his ill luck, when a musket aboard the flag-ship flashed, and he toppled over. Farragut, who had just seen his danger, turned quickly. It was to discover his own disobedient young son standing near, with excited face and a gun from which the smoke still curled!
The roar of the mortars, the shells passing like meteors across the heavens, the guns flashing and blazing until along their port sides a broad stripe of fire seemed to have been painted upon every one of the ships; the fitful glare of the bon fires on shore; the crashing sounds of battle, and the heavy interludes, of brief silence; the dense clouds of powder-tainted smoke settling down upon the water and vessels, then rising—all this made a scene young Royal never forgot to his dying day.
Up in the mizzen-top of the Hartford the pilot, on whose coolness depended the safe passage of the ship, had stationed himself with one end of a speaking-tube whose outlet was at the steersman's wheel far below. On account of the low-lying smoke the latter could see nothing himself. As the pilot, high over his head, would call out "Starboard!" or "Port!" he made the proper turn of his wheel to avoid the perils of the passage.
Finally the Hartford and her consort steamed around the bend in the Mississippi past the last of the enemy's defenses. Dropping anchor in safety above Port Hudson, Farragut looked anxiously back downstream for the rest of his squadron. Not a friendly outline could he see in the darkness beyond; but in that gulf of smoke and night he could distinctly hear the heavy rumble of guns, and presently could see, in a sudden glare of light above the rolling smoke clouds, the masthead of a ship that he knew to be the Mississippi, and which appeared to be on fire.
Meanwhile below the flag-ship, everything was confusion and disaster. The other Union vessels continued to slowly grope their way upstream, hammered every yard of the way by the shot of the breastworks on the bluffs. The Richmond managed to reach the bend without great mishap, but just as she thought herself out of range, a Confederate ball struck the steampipe and upset both safety-valves. With her pipes hissing like a thousand geese, she found her steam escaping so fast that she could no longer make headway against the current, and was forced to drift out of action.
The Mississippi was at the lower end of the line of Yankee ships, and the last to reach the treacherous bend. As she came abreast of this, she grounded on a bar. Every effort was made to back her off, but unavailingly. For the larger part of an hour she lay exposed to the galling cross-fire of three nearby Confederate defenses, answering the while in splendid manner with her own guns. Then realizing the impossibility of saving his ship, and wishing to save the lives of his crew to the uttermost, the commander of the ship had her put to the torch, and in the small boats her crew pulled away. In a short time the fine old vessel was wrapped in flames from the water's edge to her maintop, a seething furnace. Presently she blew up with a terrific report, scattering fragments of her once stately form in every direction.
Admiral Farragut thus found himself alone upon the hostile river, with only the companion ship of the gunboat lashed to his ship's side. Below him, lay Port Hudson; above was Vicksburg—both towns filled with Yankee hating Southerners. Surmising that the remainder of his squadron had probably been unable to get by the foe's river defenses, Farragut got into communication with General Grant's land forces, who were in the vicinity, and in this way managed to revictual and recoal his vessel. Thereupon, for a couple of weeks, he patrolled the river between Port Hudson, silencing the weak batteries he encountered.
Upon arriving near Port Hudson again in early April he became very anxious to communicate with the rest of his ships, if there were any left below him. It was impossible to send dispatches by land, as the enemy was alert to every suspicious movement, so when Edward Gabaudan, the Admiral's secretary, offered to proceed alone by way of the river, Farragut assented.
This undertaking of Gabaudan's was one of the most dangerous character, filled with perils from stream and enemy alike, but the young Yankee did not flinch, even after Farragut, in the kindness of his great heart, pointed them out to him. Providing himself with a pistol and a paddle, he crawled one night at dusk into a small dugout, which his associates then covered with boughs, and was pushed off into the swirling current among the numerous logs which in those days were continually floating down the mighty Mississippi, on their way to the Gulf.
After an exciting trip he reached Richmond. A solitary rocket darted up into the air at this point, bursting into a shower of fiery sparks against the dark sky. It was the signal to Farragut, a few miles above, that his daring secretary had succeeded in passing the dangerous batteries of the enemy, and would immediately deliver his dispatches.
The following night the watching Admiral detected other rockets arising from the vicinity of Richmond, and with a sigh of relief read in them the message that all his squadron except the Mississippi were waiting his commands in the lower waters.
Shortly after the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Farragut turned over the entire command of the river fleet above New Orleans to Rear-Admiral Porter, and about the first week of August sailed for New York in the Hartford.
The successful opening of the Mississippi now allowed the Federal Government to turn its attention to the extensive coastline of the Gulf. Next to New Orleans, Mobile was the most important of the Confederate ports, having become a very busy shipping station for the supplies of the southern district. An attack on Mobile, therefore, became the next naval project worth while for the Yankees.
In January, 1864, Farragut was once more sent to the Gulf, this time to take the offensive against the city he had wanted to attack months before, but which the Naval Board had erroneously thought unwise to tackle. In the meantime, the foe had greatly increased the defenses of Mobile, making the task of capturing it a most herculean one, to say the least.
For six weary months Farragut now had to lay in the waters of the Gulf on blockade duty, while his fleet was being assembled and the Confederates made their position stronger. At length, on the night of the 5th of August, the whole Union fleet, stripped for action, lay just outside the harbor of Mobile. Everything was in complete readiness, from ship to man, for the fight that the Yankees knew could be nothing else than a desperate one.
By this time the defenses of the Bay were most formidable and of a character to carry dread to the heart of almost any attacking force. The only deep-water channel for the passage of ships lay directly under the guns of Fort Morgan. Across the entrance, from Fort Gaines to the edge of the channel, the enemy had driven a double line of huge stakes, and in the channel itself they had made defensive measures doubly sure by sinking a triple row of torpedoes.
Within the harbor, and above Fort Morgan, lay the Confederate squadron, commanded by Admiral Buchanan. It was small in numbers, consisting only of three gunboats and the iron clad Tennessee (an improvement on the Merrimac, which we have met previously), the latter being the most powerful craft of its kind in the South. But backed up as it was with the strong additional defenses named, this flotilla was considered fully ample by its supporters to protect the city.
Against this array of obstacles Admiral Farragut stood ready to fling a fleet of twenty-one wooden vessels and four monitors, the latter patterned after the famous "cheese-box on a raft" creation of Ericsson's. Lashed together, two by two, the vessels were to sail in pairs. A large man-of-war, the Brooklyn, headed the line, Farragut's flag-ship, the Hartford, coming next.
Just at daylight the next morning the Union ships started forward. Farragut had taken his stand in the rigging close under the maintop, from whence he could see clearly the course of the coming fight. As they approached the enemy defenses, the Tecumseh let fly two shots at one of the Confederate gunboats, and was the first to attempt the crossing of the dangerous line of submarine mines. Gaining these after some hard fighting, and crushing a passage through the stakes, she was unlucky enough to strike a torpedo. There was a great explosion, the water under her bow spurted high, and the stricken ship plunged by the head to the bottom of the Bay, with her colors still flying.
Meanwhile the other ships were being engaged one by one with the Southern craft. The two gunboats of the enemy fired with incredible accuracy, and were so quick in their movements that for a brief space of time the Union vessels were thrown into confusion. They backed upon one another, owing to their bunched order, and became entangled in what seemed an inextricable mess. To add to their distress this happened in a part of the waters where they were exposed to the full brunt of the enemy fire, both from water and land.
There is no telling how this situation would have resulted had it not been for the prompt decision and prompt action of the Admiral himself. Like Dewey at Manila, he solved the problem at the critical moment when a moment's further delay would have resulted disastrously, snatching victory out of the very flames of defeat.
Seeing that the Brooklyn, which had been following the ill-fated Tecumseh when the latter went down, was wavering before the line of submarine mines, Farragut sent up the signal, "What's the trouble?"
The answer came back, "Torpedoes ahead."
Then followed the gallant Admiral's famous reply: "Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead. Four bells [full speed]!"
Still the Brooklyn hesitated apparently. At least she was so slow that the Hartford swept past her and took the lead. On went the flag-ship, under full head of steam, lashed by the iron hand and indomitable will of her fearless commander. Straight on—right into the first line of touchy, ugly, death-dealing torpedoes, any one of which, should she brush it at all, would have let loose its titanic energy and ended her career then and there.
A pallor crept over the suntanned faces of her crew. Men who would have faced death unflinchingly from a cutlass or bullet blanched at thought of being blown up by hundreds of pounds of powder that they could not see or locate. They glanced at their commander. Noting the stern, determined look upon his face, their white faces flushed with shame—and they were men again, real men; the kind of men who, entirely forgetful of self, have saved many a nation and many a cause from being ground under the heel of defeat.
In a silence like death, the Hartford passed safely through that path of deadly mines. Behind her, following her course unerringly, knowing that to deviate meant disaster, her sister ships also came through the lane, the constant targets for the missiles of the enemy from the forts. Already the Confederate ships had been captured or put to flight. Now the entire Union squadron came to anchor around their admired flag-ship in the upper part of the Bay, and the cheering of the crews rang out over the waters in all directions.
Upon taking inventory of damage it was found that the vessels, while pretty badly torn of rigging, were all in very fair shape, and while a good many men had suffered wounds of a minor character, a surprisingly small number had met death or serious injuries. As the crew of the Hartford worked clearing up the decks, a cry suddenly arose.
"The ram! The ram's coming!"
Looking, they saw the ironclad of the enemy, which had taken refuge under the batteries of Fort Morgan, coming boldly and rashly forward, with the evident intention of attacking the squadron single-handed.
Instantly the order was given by Farragut to treat the ironclad to some of her own medicine; and as she came up at full speed, his ship came at her, bow on, and gave the astonished Tennessee such a bunting as she had never dreamed of. Blow after blow was given, while the broadsides of the Union vessels poured against her a merciless but harmless storm of grape and shrapnel.
Not until the monitors of the squadron joined in the fracas did the Southerner seem to show any ill effects of the abuse she was receiving, putting up a wonderfully good fight. Harassed by these, at last her rudder-chains were shot away, her smokestack was torn off, and she began to leak from giving timbers. Admiral Buchanan, who had commanded her, was wounded in the leg. At last, badly battered and crippled, she ran up the white flag.
In this manner the great fight virtually ended, for the forts soon capitulated, and Farragut gained mastery of the Bay.