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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

by
Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p146 Chapter VIII

David Glasgow Farragut (1801‑1870)

David Glasgow Farragut


[image ALT: zzz.]

If the traditions of the Service which we are considering are real and vital, their influence is felt in two ways. The first is unconscious: they create an atmosphere, a spirit, of whose existence the ordinary officer or seaman is scarcely aware, but which, diffused like the air he breathes, is a constantly purifying current of honor, loyalty, and efficiency. The second, much more definite, is less general; it is most likely to come in the experience of the earnest, aspiring leader. When he is wrestling with problems there comes to guide him the memory of what some naval officer whom he especially reverences did in his perplexity. The principals involved are the same, and thus the success of the older nerves the younger to fight on and to win. In the Royal Navy it is Nelson to whom the officers constantly hark back. In the United States Navy it is Farragut who has this electrifying influence. As will be told later, Dewey said that the thought "What would Farragut do?" led him on to victory in Manila Bay. And we can affirm without fear of exaggeration that the simple, unvarnished tale of Farragut's taking the fleet through to victory at New Orleans and Mobile Bay has induced thousands of American boys to join the navy. In the masterly handling of his fleet Farragut does not suffer by comparison with the great Nelson; and whereas in private life the British admiral p147was guilty of one terrible mistake, in which he blindly persisted, Farragut proves on scrutiny as pure and nobly true as the knights of old. Like many another American of distinction he appeals to the nation because of his democratic character. He was a native of that part of the country in which Lincoln eight years later had his birth; his earliest surroundings were almost equally humble; he had scarcely more schooling; and as he achieved highest honors he maintained a like simplicity.

His father, George Farragut, was a Spaniard, born in Minorca. Stirred by a spirit of adventure he came to America in 1776 and fought gallantly for the land of his adoption in the Revolution and in the War of 1812. His mother was Elizabeth Shine, born in North Carolina, of a good old Scotch family, being the daughter of Ellenor McIven. Shortly after his mother's death, when he was about eight years old, he was adopted by Commodore David Porter. On being taken with the Porters to Washington and then to Chester, Pennsylvania, he received at each place a few months of schooling. When he was nine years and five months old he was given a midshipman's warrant, and when he was ten he had his first cruise. Porter had just obtained command of the frigate Essex, and took his young ward with him in order that he might have a full experience of the stirring events which soon followed hard upon one another.

Less than a year later war with Great Britain was declared. Porter at once put to sea; and the tiny midshipman was destined to see an unusual amount of history during the next three years in the almost continuous cruising of the Essex. No other ship during this period voyaged so extensively.

p148 One of their five prizes was the twenty‑gun sloop of war Alert. A few days after this capture an incident occurred that revealed the spirit of the commanding officer's protégé. Here is the way Farragut saved the Essex from capture as he himself related it:

While the ship was crowded with prisoners they planned a mutiny. The coxswain of the captain's gig of the Alert, who was a leader in the affair, came to my hammock with a pistol in his hand, and stood by it, gazing intently up me. Seeing a man thus armed, and recognizing him as a prisoner, I knew there must be something wrong, and, probably from fear more than anything else, I remained perfectly motionless until he passed. Then, slipping from my hammock, I crept noiselessly to the cabin and informed Captain Porter of what I had seen. He sprang from his cot, was on the berth deck in an instant, and immediately cried "Fire! Fire!" The effect was wonderful. Instead of attempting to strike the fatal blow, the prisoners, or mutineers, became alarmed and confused, nor did they recover from their stupor until they heard the boarders called to the main hatch by the captain, whom they now saw for the first time in their midst, to secure them.

In the latter part of this year the Essex set out on a commerce-destroying cruise that was to extend over seventeen months, the longest and most successful of the war. Porter, always daring and full of initiative, having failed at the outset to meet other ships with whom he was to coöperate, decided to sail to the extreme south, around the Horn and into the Pacific. As the Essex was the first American frigate ever to round the Horn, Porter had little trouble in surprising the British whalers and merchantmen operating on the west coast of South America, especially in the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands. In his report of the cruise p149to the Secretary of the Navy he says, "I had completely broken up the British navigation in the Pacific; the vessels which have not been captured by me were laid up and dared not venture out." The injury to the British whale fishery he estimated at not less than two and a half million dollars.

Porter trusted to end this exploit with the capture of an enemy frigate; and instead of fleeing when he heard that a force had been sent against him, he lingered on the coast. He had his opportunity; but when it came he had to face the frigate Phoebe, much more heavily armed in long guns than the Essex, and in addition the sloop of war Cherub, their combined power presenting the hopeless odds of eight to one if the battle were fought at long range, where the carronades or short guns of the Essex would be useless.

After a blockade of some weeks Porter attempted to make his escape in a storm and very likely would have succeeded if the violent wind that had driven the Essex from her anchorage had not shortly afterwards carried away her main topmast.

In the desperate encounter that followed, the British constantly took positions of advantage: first, the Phoebe under the stern of the Essex and the Cherub off her starboard bow; later, both off the port quarter. When Porter with his crippled frigate succeeded in raising some headsails to close, they carefully kept their distance where their long guns were terribly destructive and Porter's carronades were useless. Such an unequal battle could have but one issue; and when it had lasted for over two hours and a half, all but two of the officers of the Essex and approximately a third of her crew had been killed or wounded. As a last resort Porter attempted to beach his ship and save his p150crew from capture, but he was thwarted by shifting winds; when in addition to all else the ship caught fire, he surrendered.

Little Farragut, not yet thirteen, had certainly had his baptism of fire. There is no story of the engagement more vivid than that told later by him, and for our present purpose the most interesting part is the description of his own duty:

During the action I was like "Paddy in the cat‑harpins," a man on occasions. I performed the duties of captain's aid, quarter-gunner, powder‑boy, and in fact did everything that was required of me. I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. He was a boatswain's mate, and was fearfully mutilated. It staggered and sickened me at first; but they soon began to fall around me so fast that it all appeared like a dream and produced no effect on my nerves. . . .

When my services were not required for other purposes, I generally assisted in working a gun; would run and bring powder from the boys, and send them for more, until the captain wanted me to carry a message; and this continued to employ me during the action.

When it was determined to surrender, the captain sent me to ascertain if Mr. ––––– had the signal-book, and, if so, to throw it overboard. I could not find him or the book for some time; but at last saw the latter lying on the sill of a port, and dashed it into the sea.

During the course of the action, when going down the wardroom ladder after gun primers Farragut was struck by the body of a gun captain who had been felled by an 18‑pound shot. The boy, being thrown on his head, was stunned and covered with the man's blood, but when he came to he continued on the errand for which he had been sent. After the surrender, when the intense excitement was somewhat lessened, his sympathies p151were all for the wounded and dying. Hearing their groans and seeing their mangled bodies he became sick and faint. But the plucky little fellow, soon recovering his nerve, hastened to assist the surgeon in dressing the wounds. This he did again next morning as the surgeon went his rounds, and he continued thus to serve until sent home a month later with the ship's complement on parole.

Porter mentioned Farragut in his report as deserving "promotion for which he was too young to be recommended." At this time he lacked three months of being thirteen; he assuredly was young, yet he had already shown the strength and character that distinguished his later years.

The four months of his parole he spent in Chester at school. He was eager to learn and always improved such opportunities as came to him. For help in his studies he was particularly indebted during a cruise two years later to Mr. Folsom, a navy chaplain on board his ship; and when Mr. Folsom was appointed consul at Tunis, Farragut secured permission from the Department to remain with him for nine months on shore that his irregular schooling might continue. At another time, while he was still a young man, he happened to be in New Haven for a few months. At once he visited Yale College and, as he happily expressed it, "amused" himself by attending lectures of the professors. "This," he remarked, "was a great treat to me." Again, twenty-five years later in Washington, he showed the same characteristic by attending lectures at the Smithsonian Institution. The information thus obtained may or may not have directly assisted him in his naval career, but there can be no doubt that the habit of mind was invaluable. On this p152point we have Farragut's own opinion reported by an officer who first met him after his flag was flying. He says that the admiral observed, "There are comparatively few men from whom one cannot learn something, and a naval officer should always be adding to his knowledge;a it might enable him to be more useful some day; it is hard to say what a naval officer might not have to do." If his mind constantly reached out and found recreation in the best of science and literature, it was certainly not less eager in that which related to his own profession. He was a constant student.

The record of his service between the War of 1812 and the Civil War can be passed over quickly. He was not commissioned lieutenant until he reached the age of twenty-four; yet, two years earlier, he had been in command of a schooner engaged in the suppression of piracy in the West Indies. In the Mexican War Farragut, like his foster brother, David Dixon Porter, knowing Vera Cruz, put forward a plan for taking the fortress of San Juan de Ulloa, but no opportunity for distinction was granted him; instead he was detailed to blockade an obscure port, where he very nearly died of yellow fever. He always performed his duty well, yet in 1861, when he was a captain, the Department seems to have had no particular knowledge of his ability.

In April of that year, while secession was being excitedly discussed in Virginia, he happened to be awaiting orders in Norfolk, which for forty years had been his home. The conflict of loyalty, the question of whether allegiance to country or to state should be supreme, was tragic to many; and some found it impossible to make a decision. There was, however, no doubt in Farragut's mind. Nor did he hesitate to express his convictions, even on the morning when it was announced that Virginia p153had passed the ordnance of secession. On being threatened that a man of his sentiments "could not live in Norfolk," his calm reply was, "Well, then, I can live somewhere else." That evening, with his wife and son, he took steamer to Baltimore and then went on to New York.

Though he applied at once for a command, he was kept waiting for seven months. The government at this time had reason to be suspicious of all Southerners. At length he was given an opportunity for active service beyond his wildest dreams.

In November and December the President and the Secretary of the Navy were planning an expedition against New Orleans. Who should command the force? Commander Porter, the first to urge the enterprise, suggested Farragut, and his name, as well as those of many other captains, was considered. The high officials conferring not only did not know him but spoke their natural distrust because of his Southern origin and affiliations. However, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox (a former naval officer and the practical man of the Department), expressing himself in favor of Farragut, pointed to his quick action in leaving Norfolk, which showed "great superiority of character, clear perception of duty, and firm resolution in the performance of it." And it was this act that Farragut had performed so simply and naturally which was destined to be the most momentous decision he made in all his life.

When he was called to Washington and informed of the expedition, he affirmed without hesitation that it would succeed, and he showed almost a boyish enthusiasm when told he was to command it. He was to have even more ships than he said were required. And though the responsibility for the enterprise was to rest entirely p154with the navy, a large contingent of the army was promised to coöperate and to hold what should be captured.

His letter to his wife announcing this most important assignment is characteristic:

Keep your lips closed and burn my letters, for perfect silence is to be observed — the first injunction of the Secretary. I am to have a flag in the Gulf, and the rest depends upon myself. Keep calm and silent. I shall sail in three weeks.

In the latter part of February, 1862, Farragut arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi. He had come in the strong and almost new sloop of war Hartford, which he continued to make his flagship. Slowly his full force was assembled, and then he had a work that required patience and resourcefulness in dragging his large vessels over the bars before the Passes, through mud into the river, where was deep water. It was almost two months before he had finished his preparation and had his force of seventeen vessels (besides a mortar flotilla under Porter) in the river and ready for active operations; and yet so quietly had he worked that the Confederates had felt little alarm, and, trusting in their defenses below the city, were still held by the obsession that any attack really dangerous to the city must come from the north.

The defenses just referred to consisted of two powerful forts, eighty miles below the city and twenty miles above the Passes. Fort St. Philip, mounting forty‑two guns, was on the left bank as one went down the river and, being at a bend, had a wide angle of fire. Fort Jackson, mounting fifty-eight guns, was lower down on the opposite bank and was the stronger. Also the Confederates p155had a flotilla of fifteen gunboats, two of them ironclad rams, and had placed across the river under the guns of Fort Jackson a barrier consisting of two heavy chains supported by a series of hulks.

The attack began 18 April with a bombardment, lasting six days, by Porter's mortar boats. The fire was well directed and, as was learned later, served to weaken the morale of the forts, but gave no promise of actually reducing them. Farragut, having once begun, resolved that he would give no respite to the defenders. On the 20th he considered the last preparations for bringing his ships into action; his plan was to turn all the guns of the fleet on the forts as he steamed past, and if the forts still held out, to leave them and advance boldly on the city.

That morning he had called all his commanding officers to the flagship, not for a council of war to decide what should be done, but for a conference to acquaint them with his plan. Some of the captains and commanders expressed the opinion that it was hazardous to leave in their rear an enemy who would cut them off from supplies. The flag officer, however, had already thought of this and was willing to take the risk, trusting that once above the forts he could command the bayous, which would provide means for bringing up troops from the Gulf. As Captain Bell, Farragut's chief of staff, noted in a memorandum of this conference, "He [Farragut] believed in celerity." Farragut's celerity in what followed was plainly a deciding factor.

The officers now joined with the flag officer in making everything ready. That evening Captain Bell with two gunboats opened a wide breach in the chain barrier. A general order instructed each commanding officer how to prepare for the exigencies that were sure to p156follow: "Trim your vessel a few inches by the head, so that if she touches the bottom she will not swing head down the river." "Have light Jacob-ladders made to throw over the side for the use of carpenters in stopping shot-holes, who are to be supplied with pieces of inch board lined with felt and ordinary nails." "Have . . . grapnels in the boats, ready to hook on to, and to tow off, fire-ships." "I expect every vessel's crew to be well exercised at their guns, because it is required by the regulations of the service, and it is usually the first object of your attention; but they must be equally well trained for stopping shot-holes and extinguishing fire."

Further, during the afternoon previous to the attack, Farragut visited each ship to make sure that the commanding officer had all in readiness and understood the orders. Though Farragut is popularly known for his simple and skillful maneuvers in battle, in which he insured victory by overwhelming concentration of power, the victory was more than half won before a gun had been fired, because of his remarkable preparation.

To his wife Farragut had written:

As to being prepared for defeat, I certainly am not. Any man who is prepared for defeat would be half defeated before he commenced. I hope for success; shall do all in my power to secure it, and trust to God for the rest.

Two o'clock in the morning, 24 April, 1862, was the time set for the attacking fleet to get under way. Two red lights displayed from the flagship gave the signal, and soon the clinkclank of the anchor chains returned a spirited answer. The ships were to proceed in single column in three divisions: the first led by Captain Bailey in the Cayuga, the second by Farragut in the Hartford, and the third by Bell in the Sciota.

p157 The head of the first division was nearly abreast of the forts before they opened fire. The little Cayuga was too light to deal with such powerful foes, so she sped along; but the Pensacola coming next, armed with twenty-three heavy guns, steamed slowly as she passed St. Philip, at times stopping to return the fire. Meanwhile the mortar flotilla had moved forward to shell the forts.

Twenty-five minutes after the Cayuga had begun the attack the Hartford was opening on Fort Jackson. The darkness and smoke, together with the terrific fire from the forts, made it difficult for the ships to keep their course or to distinguish friend from foe. Suddenly, out of the gloom, Farragut saw a fire raft coming directly for his ship. In the attempt to avoid it the Hartford straightway grounded on a shoal near Fort St. Philip. Under the heavy fire of the forts she was in a trying position; in addition a Confederate tugboat, till then unnoticed, was pushing the fire raft down upon her. In an instant the port quarter of the Hartford was a mass of flames which, licking the paint, rose halfway to the top. It was a desperate moment in which hesitation or panic would have been fatal; but Farragut had been preparing for just such an emergency. A part of the crew went to "fire quarters" to subdue the flames; a part kept their stations at the guns, doing their part in defending the ship; meanwhile the engines backed the ship off the shoal, and again she headed up the river. According to Watson, his flag lieutenant, the admiral stood during these critical moments coolly giving orders and watching the ship slowly turn, occasionally referring to a small compass on his watch chain.

The Brooklyn, Captain Craven, which followed the Hartford, also had her ordeal. On coming to the barrier p158she mistook her course, and, instead of passing through the opening, ran over one of the rafts carrying the chains. While entangled by this she fell athwart the stream and received a heavy fire from Fort St. Philip. When freed from the barrier, with her head turned again upstream, she had an encounter with the ram Manassas. Craven writes:

The latter came butting into our starboard gangway, first firing from her trapdoor, when within about ten feet of the ship, directly toward our smokestack, her shot entering about five feet above the waterline and lodging in the sandbags which protected our steam drum. . . . I was so close to him that he had not an opportunity to get up his full speed, and his efforts to damage me were completely frustrated, our chain armor proving a perfect protection to our sides. He soon slid off and disappeared in the darkness.

Craven was next attacked by a large Confederate steamer; but discharging his port broadside at a distance of only fifty or sixty yards he set fire to his last assailant and thus terminated her career. Then groping his way in the dark, under the cloud of smoke caused by a fire raft, he suddenly found himself close abreast of St. Philip. Turning his guns on the works, he deluged them with grape and canister; his crew in the tops reported that they could see by the flashes of bursting shrapnel the gunners running for cover.

For the gunboats of the first division the fight was not ended when they had passed the forts; the Confederates had a flotilla of thirteen gunboats and two ironclads awaiting them. The Cayuga, which had trusted to speed for safety, emerged from the smoke and confusion to find herself entirely alone. Lieutenant George H. Perkins,b who was acting pilot of the Cayuga, writes as follows:

p159 I looked back for some of our vessels, and my heart jumped into my mouth when I found I could not see a single one. I thought they all must have been sunk by the forts. Then looking ahead I saw eleven of the enemy's gunboats coming down upon us, and it seemed as if we were "gone" sure. Three made a dash to board us, but a heavy charge from our 11‑inch gun settled the Governor Moore, which was one of them. A ram, the Manassas, in attempting to butt us, just missed our stern, and we soon settled the third fellow's "hash." Just then some of our gunboats, which had passed the forts, came up, and then all sorts of things happened. There was the wildest excitement all around. The Varuna fired a broadside into us, instead of the enemy. Another of our gunboats attacked one of the Cayuga's prizes. I shouted out, "Don't fire into that ship, she has surrendered!" Three of the enemy's ships had surrendered to us before any other of our vessels appeared; but when they did come up we all pitched in and settled the eleven rebel vessels in about twenty minutes.

The gunboat Varuna of the first division, rammed by two Confederate gunboats in this phase of the battle, had to make for the shore to avoid sinking. She was the only ship lost. Three gunboats of the third division, the last to attempt the passing of the forts, without the support of the heavy ships, had a hard time of it. One receiving a shot through her boiler was disabled and drifted back. The other two after being entangled in the chain-barrier could not stand the concentrated fire of the forts. Finally all three joined Porter's division below.

When Farragut collected his forces at Quarantine, five miles above the forts, he had thirteen vessels. Believing that now he could coöperate with the army, he sent a messenger to General Butler, commanding the troops, and, leaving two gunboats to safeguard their landing, slowly steamed on to New Orleans.

p160 Before noon of the following day the ships had reached the city. Farragut writes:

All the morning I had seen abundant evidence of the panic which had seized the people of New Orleans.c Cotton-loaded ships on fire came floating down, and working implements of every kind, such as are used in shipyards; the destruction of property was awful. . . . The levee of New Orleans was one scene of desolation; ships, steamers, cotton, coal, etc., were all in one common blaze, and our ingenuity was much taxed to avoid the floating conflagration. . . .

"We now passed up to the city and anchored immediately in front of it, and I sent Captain Bailey on shore to demand the surrender of it from the authorities, to which the mayor replied that the city was under martial law, and he had no authority. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lovell, who was present, stated that he should deliver up nothing but, in order to free the city from embarrassment, he would restore the city authorities and retire with his troops, which he did.

In the further negotiations Farragut showed his tact and wisdom in state affairs even as he had done previously in fighting. The mayor continued evasive and exasperating, and the flag of Louisiana still flew defiantly from the city hall. Though Farragut had New Orleans helpless under his guns, he had no troops to occupy it, and he shrank from the idea of bombardment, which would involve the killing of women and children and the ruin of the city. But, simple and direct as he always was, he persisted in his demand and gained what he sought. The United States flag was raised from the city hall and the government buildings and remained there — a real evidence of the Confederates' submission to his authority.d

Four days after Farragut's arrival at New Orleans, Captain Bailey brought the welcome news that Forts p161Jackson and St. Philip had surrendered. There had been no necessity of immediate capitulation; but the boldness and power of Farragut in passing them, following right on the heels of the bombardment by Porter's mortars, had plainly demoralized them. Moreover, when Farragut had got between them and New Orleans, he had assumed a strategic position of the first importance, for he could control their communications; without fresh supplies they might hold out for days or weeks, but not for months.

Running past the forts below New Orleans was an exploit of surprising boldness. The Confederates had had the utmost confidence in their defenses and, believing they could annihilate any fleet coming within reach of their guns, had been slow in strengthening their works. Nor was doubt as to success limited to the enemies of the North. Even some officers who had taken part in the preparation were skeptical, seeing in Farragut's plan something of recklessness.

The carrying through of this difficult operation with scarcely a hitch produced a profound impression in 1862, a year generally barren of results. Farragut gained remarkable prestige; hereafter officers and men were glad to serve under him, for he led them to victory. The influence of this achievement was felt not only throughout the country but even in Europe, where at this very time Napoleon III was proposing that France and England recognize the South, send a combined fleet to the Mississippi, and demand an open port for their merchantmen. This would have been a dangerous threat to the blockade, which was absolutely essential to the winning of the war.

In recognition of the excellent service rendered by the navy, many promotions occurred at this time. The p162grade of rear admiral was created, and in July, 1862, four captains were advanced to this rank. As Farragut was the senior of the four he may be said to have been the first in the United States Navy to fly an admiral's flag.

Farragut's career in the Civil War comprises four major engagements. Of these the second, the passing of Vicksburg shortly after the capture of New Orleans (an expedition undertaken because the Department ordered it, but attempted without the support of the army and against the judgment of Farragut), was the only one that brought no lasting result. He carried his fleet through to safety and made contact with the Mississippi River Squadron to the north, but with the approach of summer and the decreasing depth of water in the river he had to fall back again unless he were to imperil his seagoing fleet. It was the first engagement directed against New Orleans, and the last, against Mobile, that gave Farragut his chief fame, but we should give a wrong perspective if we did not call attention also to the third, that directed against Port Hudson; this, though overshadowed by operations about Vicksburg occurring at the same time, was of unquestioned value in the long struggle of gaining the entire Mississippi for the Union.

In the early part of the year 1863 Farragut was in the Mississippi above New Orleans waiting for troops that had been promised to advance with him upon Port Hudson, where the Confederates, taking advantage of bluffs from eighty to one hundred feet high on the east side of the river at a point where the river makes a sharp right angle to the west, had constructed a fort inferior only to that of Vicksburg and garrisoned by sixteen thousand troops. Only a few miles above, the Red River flows into the Mississippi; and by this p163excellent thoroughfare the Confederates were bringing a continuous line of supplies from Louisiana as well as from Arkansas and Texas — supplies that maintained their forces in Vicksburg and Port Hudson and even some of those in Virginia.

Porter, operating above Vicksburg, attempted to blockade the mouth of the Red River and sent down two of his ironclads, the Queen of the West and the Indianola. As will be told in the next chapter, they were promptly captured by the Confederates. Farragut saw the necessity of intercepting their communications, and to accomplish this he determined on taking past Port Hudson the seven ships he had below waiting for Banks's army.

The formation of his column, when he had everything arranged for the passage on the night of 14 March, 1863, was unusual and well thought out. His main fighting units, three heavy sloops of war (the first of which was the Hartford), were each to have a gunboat lashed to the port side. This had the double advantage of affording protection to the lighter craft and of giving auxiliary power to the larger ship if she should be disabled by the enemy's fire. At the end of the column came the large side-wheeler the Mississippi. Since her protruding wheelhouses made her an awkward consort for a gunboat, she steamed alone.

As one considers Farragut's disposition of his force and his other preparations, there can be no comment except that of admiration. His general orders show a naval genius, and for lucidity and vigor should be compared with those of no other than Nelson. The following is an example:

The captain will bear in mind that the object is to run the batteries at the least possible damage to our ships, and thereby secure an efficient force above for the purpose of p164rendering such assistance as may be required of us to the army at Vicksburg, or, if not required there, to our army at Baton Rouge. . . . The best protection against the enemy's fire is a well-directed fire from our own guns.

The last sentence has embodied in it so much of strategy and sound principle that it has become one of the slogans of our navy.

At Port Hudson the Confederates did not repeat the mistake made at New Orleans of being caught unprepared. The moment the Hartford, with the Albatross on her protected side, approached within range, bonfires on the point opposite the city and the batteries were kindled, lighting up the scene and making the ships stand out. The Hartford and the other sloops trained their heavy Dahlgrens on the batteries, but soon they were enveloped in smoke, which, as there was no wind, hung heavy over the water. This slightly shielded the fleet from the enemy's fire, but it made navigation increasingly difficult.

Even on the leading ships the pilots had their difficulties, and Farragut stopped firing until he could draw out of the smoke. One of his wise precautions had been to station the chief pilot in the mizzentop of the Hartford, connected with the deck by a speaking-tube, and it is likely that this saved the Hartford and the Albatross. Notwithstanding all his careful preparations, when they reached the sharp bend in the river the strong current swung them around and they touched on the shoal; but by backing the Albatross hard and going ahead with the Hartford, Farragut succeeded in freeing them and heading again upstream. Not delaying further to engage the batteries, he steamed on to a safe anchorage. Then he awaited in vain the five other ships.

p165 The Richmond suffered an engine trouble because of an unlucky shot; the Monongahela ran aground, and when she was released by the aid of her companion, a crank‑pin had become heated, and her engine stopped. In consequence these two with their accompanying gunboats dropped back to their original position. The fifth vessel, the side-wheeler Mississippi, was driven by her pilot hard on the shoal, where she was a perfect target. When her captain, Melancthon Smith, and her lieutenant, George Dewey (the future admiral), had tried every expedient for releasing her, without success, orders were given to set fire to her, the crew escaping to the west shore. Farragut received the first news of her fate by watching the flames as they leaped from yardarm to yardarm and finally enveloped the whole ship. In the early morning she floated down the river and blew up.

It is manifest that Farragut, with but two ships above Port Hudson, could not patrol the river as he might have done if he had succeeded in taking all his force with him. The task was a difficult one in a country where Confederate troops and guerrilla bands abounded. But, nevertheless, he succeeded in blockading the Red River and thus made his presence very positively felt.

What Porter thought of the result of the engagement is shown by his letter to Farragut:

Your services at Red River will be a godsend; it is worth to us the loss of the Mississippi, and is at this moment the severest blow that could be struck at the south. They obtain all their supplies and ammunition in that way. . . . The great object is to cut off supplies. For that reason I sent down the Queen of the West and the Indianola. I regret that the loss of the Indianola should have been the cause of your present position.

p166 Three days after Farragut's exploit a Confederate commissary in Taylor's department, according to Mahan, thus expressed his view of the new situation:

Great God! how unfortunate! Four steamers arrived today from Shreveport. One had 300,000 pounds of bacon; three others are reported coming down with loads. Five others are reported with full cargoes designed for Port Hudson, but it is reported that the Federal gunboats are blockading the river.

Finally we have Farragut's own opinion. Always modest, he was apt if anything, to underrate his own services. He wrote to his home:

We have done our part of the work assigned to us, and all has worked well. My last dash past Port Hudson was the best thing I ever did, except taking New Orleans. It assisted materially in the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Vicksburg, as will be described in the next chapter, surrendered on 4 July, 1863, and Port Hudson capitulated five days later.

Farragut was now in need of rest, and the Hartford, the Brooklyn, and the Richmond required extensive overhauling. Accordingly he turned over to Porter the command of the Mississippi above New Orleans and sailed for New York. Long before his return in January, 1864, in fact, since the fall of New Orleans, Mobile had filled his thoughts. It was the Confederates' principal port for the shipment of cotton. Although the blockade was regarded as technically effective, it constantly happened that swift blockade runners, creeping along the shore on a dark night, would make a bold dash and gain the protection of the forts commanding the entrance to the bay before the Union ships could come up with them.

p167 Fort Morgan, the largest of the three forts defending the bay, was a strong work mounting eighty‑six guns, dominating the main channel. Its strength was augmented by three gunboats and the ironclad Tennessee, built on the general lines of the Merrimac and reputed to be the most powerful craft afloat.

After making a reconnaissance Farragut had told the Department that for a successful attack he must have an ironclad and troops. Securing them meant a delay of several months, but Farragut waited. It was late in July before the troops arrived, and the 4th of August when the four monitors designated made their appearance. On the 5th of August, 1864, Farragut steamed forward to give battle.

His well-considered preparations were like those before New Orleans; and, as at Port Hudson, since the heavy gunfire of the land batteries would be all on the starboard side, he had his fourteen wooden vessels proceed in couples, a light gunboat in each case being lashed on the protected side of a strong partner.

It was to be a desperate engagement, as Farragut realized. The letter written the evening before to his wife should be compared with Nelson's to Lady Hamilton before Trafalgar; a whole biography could not more clearly reveal his character.

My dearest Wife: I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, and as I hope He is, and in Him I place my trust. If He thinks it is the proper place for me to die, I am ready to submit to His will, in that as all other things. . . .

Your devoted and affectionate husband, who never for one moment forgot his love, duty, or fidelity to you, his devoted and best of wives,

D. G. Farragut.

p168 There were two favoring conditions that he desired in making the attack: a flood tide, and a westerly wind to blow the smoke of the guns from the ships upon Fort Morgan. Early on the morning mentioned he had both.

The Union column was led by the Brooklyn, Captain James Alden, with the Octorora, Lieutenant Commander Charles Green. Following them came the flagship Hartford, Captain Percival Drayton, and the Metacomet, Lieutenant Commander James E. Jouett. The four monitors, with the Tecumseh leading, formed a column to starboard and in advance so as to engage the forts when, during the approach of the wooden ships, the latter would not be able to use their broadsides.

Fort Morgan opened on the fleet shortly after seven, and for nearly half an hour Farragut could reply only with his bow chasers. The admiral had taken a position in the port main rigging, and as the smoke rose he climbed higher until he was close to the maintop. Drayton, feeling anxious for his safety, ordered a seaman to pass a rope about him and secure him there. As the leading ships began to draw abreast the fort they brought their broadsides into play, and soon the admiral had the satisfaction of seeing the Confederate gunners being driven from the barbettes and water batteries. But the Union advantage was of short duration; in a moment the battle was all but lost.

Commander Craven of the Tecumseh had early marked as his especial antagonist the dreaded ram Tennessee, which with the gunboats had emerged from under cover of the fort. As he saw her steaming slowly to the west, fearful that she might elude him he made a dash for her. There is a difference of opinion as to just what happened. Some thought that Craven in his impetuosity disregarded the admiral's orders to steam p169to the east of a certain red buoy reported to mark the extremity of a line of torpedoes blocking the entrance to west and leaving but a narrow ship channel between the buoy and the fort; others, also eye‑witnesses, said she was well in the channel, but ran on a mine which had gone adrift. Whatever the cause, a muffled roar was heard; the Tecumseh reeled, lurched, and sank headforemost. So quickly did she go down that one hundred and thirteen men out of a complement of one hundred and thirty-five were carried down with her. Commander Craven was among the lost. It is related by the one who was with him in the conning tower that as both reached for the ladder, the only means of escape, Craven drew back, saying, "After you, pilot." The commander's noble courtesy cost him his life.

Lookouts on the Brooklyn reporting torpedo buoys ahead, her captain, Alden, backed his engines and then stopped. He was signaled by the admiral to go ahead; but either he did not see the signal or, with torpedoes ahead and monitors close on his starboard beam, he did not know how to obey, for he remained motionless. Meanwhile the other ships behind the Hartford were still steaming forward, and the column threatened to become hopelessly tangled up right under the guns of Fort Morgan. Already the defenders, seeing the confusion, were firing with increased vigor.

Farragut from the rigging of the Hartford had seen all the sad reverses. On his starboard bow were the Brooklyn and the Octorora athwart the channel, on his starboard beam were the monitors Winnebago and Chickasaw, and the fleet was rapidly massing together so that in a minute more even retreat would be impossible. It was, as Mahan terms it, "the supreme moment p170of his life." On a right and immediate decision depended the crowning success of his long naval career. An error would mean defeat of terrible costliness to the Union and a tragic sequel to his own brilliant operations on the Mississippi. Says Mahan:

In later days, Farragut told that in the confusion of these moments, feeling that all his plans had been thwarted, he was at a loss whether to advance or retreat. In this extremity the devout spirit that ruled his life, and so constantly appears in his correspondence, impelled him to appeal to Heaven for guidance, and he offered up this prayer: "O God, who created man and gave him reason, direct me what to do. Shall I go on?" "And it seemed," said the admiral, "as if in answer a voice commanded, 'Go on!' "

Farragut decided to take the lead himself; and since he was barred from the safe course to starboard, he determined to pass to port. Ordering the Hartford to drive her engine forward, and the Metacomet to back hers, he twisted short around and headed north toward the line of torpedoes. Straightway there came from the Brooklyn a warning cry of torpedoes ahead.

"Damn the torpedoes!" shouted the admiral. "Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" And in his disdain of personal danger and his complete absorption in the high service to which he felt called, rarely has a sailor's language expressed a loftier sentiment.

The Hartford and the Metacomet crossed the perilous line, and men on board said they heard some of the primers snap, but no explosion occurred. The Brooklyn and the Octorora followed in their wake, and the column straightened out as by magic. The Tennessee, commanded by Admiral Buchanan (the first superintendent of the Naval Academy), attempted to ram each in p171turn as she entered the bay, but without success. The Metacomet was sent in pursuit of the Confederate gunboats Selma and captured her, the other Confederate gunboats with the Tennessee withdrawing to the protection of the fort.

When the Union vessels one by one had reached a position four miles above Fort Morgan, where there was a large basin, they were directed to anchor. Farragut had in part accomplished his purpose, for he had entered the bay with all his ships except the Tecumseh; but his mind dwelt on their strongest foe, which they would have to meet again, and he resolved to attack her that very evening with the monitors under the fort. Before the last ships had come to anchor, however, it was announced that the Tennessee was standing out, and later that she was heading for the Union flagship.

Mess gear was hurriedly put away, and preparations were made for another engagement. The stronger wooden ships were ordered to attack "not only with their guns, but bows on at full speed." The monitors were to join the fray as they found opportunity.

The Monongahela began the second encounter. She struck the Tennessee a blow that carried away her own iron prow and cutwater but did no injury to the Confederate. The Lackawanna followed close after and struck her at full speed, but again it was the attacking ship that suffered most. The Lackawanna received two destructive shells through her bows, but in return she fired a 9‑inch shell that destroyed one of the enemy's port shutters, driving the fragments into the casemate.

The Hartford was the third champion to challenge the ram. Her blow, however, was a glancing one, for the ram had turned on her approach. As the p172Hartford scraped past she fired her entire port broadside of 9‑inch guns, but the shot bounded off with no effect. The Tennessee was able to fire only one shell in reply, but this killed five men and wounded eight. When the two vessels were together, Farragut, who had been standing on the quarter-deck, jumped on the rail, holding to the port mizzen rigging, just above the ram.

Both the Hartford and the Lackawanna now attempted to charge again on the ram, but the Lackawanna instead came crashing into her own flagship, just forward of the mizzenmast, cutting the hull down within two feet of the water. In a moment Farragut was climbing over the side to see the extent of the damage. "Immediately," says Captain Drayton, "there was a general cry all round, 'Get the admiral out of the ship!' and the whole interest of everyone near was that he should be in a place of safety."

In the meantime the monitors were making themselves felt. The Manhattan planted a 15‑inch shot that penetrated the armor and woodwork of the casemate and was held only by the netting inside. And the double-turreted monitor Chickasaw, commanded by Lieutenant Commander George H. Perkins (the youngest of Farragut's captains), secured a position under the stern of the Tennessee, and there she stuck, as the Confederate pilot remarked, "like a leech."

A shot carried away the wheel chains of the Tennessee which, by poor designing, lay exposed on deck. Next an 11‑inch ball from the Chickasaw, striking a port cover, killed a machinist who was working there and, throwing iron splinters, mortally wounded a gunner and broke Admiral Buchanan's leg.

Johnston, to whom Buchanan then gave over the command, did his utmost to save the vessel, but that p173was very little. The relieving tackles, by which he was steering, were shot away, and the tiller was unshipped from the rudderhead. The smokestack had carried away, and steam was going down rapidly. Port covers had been so jammed that in the last half-hour the Tennessee was unable to fire a shot. During this period the Chickasaw had kept up a persistent pounding from her position under the stern, never more than fifty yards away. All together she fired fifty‑two 11‑inch shot.

Convinced that the Tennessee, which lay helpless as a log, was only a target for the Union ships, Johnston went out on the casemate and, hauling down his colors, hoisted a white flag.

The engagement ended at ten o'clock, having lasted nearly three hours. The losses of the Union fleet were large; for, in addition to those who went down on the Tecumseh, there were fifty‑two killed and one hundred and seventy wounded. The Hartford suffered more severely than any other ship; twenty-five of the killed, or nearly one half, were of her crew.

The minor forts were taken within two days. Fort Morgan defiantly refused to surrender and held out for more than two weeks. Farragut could afford to wait till he had all ready; then opening with the fleet, the three monitors, the captured Tennessee, and heavy siege guns, he took it after just one day's bombardment. He had now entire control of the bay and could seal it to all blockade runners. The capture of Mobile itself would require a large army, and with this he did not concern himself.

The victory aroused great rejoicing and was timely, for a presidential election was about to take place, and the question was to be decided whether or not the war p174policy of the preceding three years and a half should be upheld and the struggle be carried on to a victorious conclusion. As Seward remarked, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman's victory on land and Farragut's at sea knocked the bottom out of the opposing nominations.

Fifty years later the essential features of the fight below New Orleans and at Mobile Bay were met again in war, and as the tragic tale of Gallipoli is read the greatness of Farragut stands out the more boldly. Although to force the Dardanelles was assuredly a much more difficult undertaking than to run past the forts in the Mississippi, there was a much greater force of ships and troops to accomplish it. It is easy now to see that at Gallipoli the reconnaissance and the early bombardments gave the defenders warning to expect an attack and to strengthen their weak fortifications, and that the Allied offensive began when the weather was uncertain and before troops were available for coöperation. At New Orleans and Mobile Bay, it will be recalled, Farragut would make no hostile demonstration till all the fleet were assembled and ready and till troops were at hand to coöperate. At first some of his spirited young officers thought him obstinately slow; but when he struck, he moved with such swiftness as to gain all the advantage of surprise, and with a perfect shower of blows he paralyzed the defense.

It is strange, though not entirely without precedent,e that an officer who showed such genius after reaching the age of sixty‑one should have attracted so little attention before that time. In this Farragut was unlike Nelson, who from early life dominated every situation; yet, as a few that were discerning recognized, there was power behind his quiet, modest, self-effacing p175manner. When finally the great opportunity was offered him, with calm assurance we see him rising to every emergency. Fortune then inclined to his side. Though in each great engagement he suffered reverses such as might have turned back any ordinary commanding officer, yet because his carefully wrought plans were based on right principles and because he kept heroically on, he won.

The government voiced the nation-wide appreciation by making Farragut a vice admiral in 1864 and an admiral in 1866, the latter the very highest naval honor, such as had never been conferred before and has been conferred only twice since. The memory of what Farragut had done, and the desire for the future to do as Farragut would have done, was to make a new tradition in the United States Navy.


Thayer's Notes:

a Echoing another naval officer eighteen hundred years before him, the Roman author and encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, who was admiral of Rome's Tyrrhenian Fleet when he died: the younger Pliny, his nephew, reports (Ep. III.1) that he always took notes when he read, saying there was no book so bad that some part of it would not be useful: nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset.

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b He was the subject of a 1914 biography by our author: George Hamilton Perkins, Commodore, U. S. N.: His Life and Letters.

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c "Panic" is the writer's construction; much of the stores were in fact ordered fired, as is commonly the case in similar situations, so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy. A more detailed account is given in Kendall's History of New Orleans, I.260 ff.; note in particular the statement of Mayor Monroe at the top of p264.

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d The submission of New Orleans is told in much greater detail by Kendall, pp263‑269; it is a rather different account.

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e Though unusual, such outstanding military success so late in life is not unheard-of. The classic example is that of Narses, the 6c Byzantine commander, who achieved some of his greatest victories when nearly eighty years old, and was still going strong in his nineties.


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