David Dixon Porter
No American naval officer of distinction saw more continuous fighting in the Civil War or in any other conflict than Porter saw between the years 1861 and 1865. At the beginning of the war he was a lieutenant; at its end he was a rear admiral; a year later he rose to vice admiral; and four years after that he reached the supreme rank, which only Farragut had enjoyed before him.
If there is such a thing as a man's being prepared by family tradition for special service, Porter had that fortune. His grandfather and granduncle commanded ships in the American Revolution; his father, the renowned Commodore David Porter of the War of 1812 (having previously served in the French and Tripolitan wars), had linked his name for all time with that of the frigate Essex. So perhaps it is not strange that in the next generation David Dixon Porter (the subject of this sketch), his three brothers, and his foster brother, Farragut, should have added renown to an already distinguished family.
Young Porter, like Farragut, sailed on his first cruise at the age of ten. At fifteen, as a midshipman in the Mexican Navy, he took part in a battle with the Spaniards in which the commanding officer, his cousin, was killed, a third of the complement were killed or wounded, and he himself was taken prisoner. On attaining p177the age of sixteen he became a midshipmen in the United States Navy. In the years of somewhat commonplace duty which followed it is interesting to note that in 1845, when assigned to the Naval Observatory, he came under the gifted naval scientist Maury. Already he had had six years of duty in the Coast Survey, service he was to turn to good account later in the making of reconnaissances.
At the outbreak of the Mexican War he had applied for active duty, and he chafed on being sent to New Orleans for three months of recruiting. Finally, in February, 1847, he was ordered to Vera Cruz just in time for the attack on that place. He was first lieutenant of the Spitfire, a tiny side-wheeler of 200 or 300 tons' burden under Commander Josiah Tattnall. At once he formulated a plan for effecting a breach in the walls of the imposing fortress San Juan de Ulloa at the entrance of the harbor by exploding at night a submarine charge and then seizing the fortress with fifty picked men. He had known the fortress as a boy, and he desired nothing better than to lead the men in person. The plan, however, got no farther than an obscure pigeonhole of the Navy Department.
As General Scott with the army began an attack on the city, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, commanding the fleet, lay in a safe position outside. Porter, however, longed to take part in the fighting, and to his joy Tattnall was of the same mood. The night before the attack Porter had crept about in a boat making soundings in the harbor. Next morning, as the troops fired on the city, the little Spitfire followed by the Vixen, each with two schooner in tow (constituting the Mosquito Division), boldly steamed in between the forts San Juan and Santiago. Porter, piloting the p178division, led them on until they had reached a position within grapeshot distance of Santiago and almost as near San Juan, and then opened on the city. Perry had not been informed of their design; with the fleet and the army he looked on with amazement as the flotilla fired away and soon drew the combined fire of the forts. Shot and shell splashed about them, but they calmly continued their attack. Perry had no liking for the surprise and signaled them to withdraw, but Tattnall saw only the enemy he was fighting and doggedly held to the attack until Perry sent his fleet captain Mayo on board the Spitfire and peremptorily ordered the division to withdraw. Tattnall and Porter had rightly estimated the ineffective gunnery of the Mexican forts. Of course the little flotilla could not have reduced them; but daring of this kind was contagious, and it was such spirit that enabled the small American forces to win against absurd odds.
The adventure brought Porter neither promotion nor official recognition; and at the beginning of the Civil War he was, as he had been for twenty years, only a lieutenant. Nevertheless, before fighting actually began he received, to his surprise, a note from the Secretary of State requesting his presence. At the Secretary's a captain of the army also appeared, and all went to the White House to confer with President Lincoln as to how Fort Pickens and the Pensacola Navy Yard might be saved for the Union. Porter was sure it could be done; and almost immediately he was given command of the Powhatan and sent on a secret mission for this purpose. Unfortunately, at Fort Pickens he found officers, higher in rank, who through timidity or inefficiency blocked every move on his part; and so the yard with its valuable guns was lost.
p179 During the latter part of the spring Porter took a minor part in the great blockade of the Southern coast, being stationed off the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi. For every officer blockade duty was dreary business. But even though his ship was lolling lazily about, Porter's mind was busy. As a result, on his return to Washington in November he presented a carefully worked out plan for the capture of New Orleans. He was full of enthusiasm, and he was himself so thoroughly convinced of the practicability of his plan that he quickly won over two senators and then the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, before whom he laid the scheme. The Secretary took him to the President, who at once grasped its essentials and remarked: "This should have been done sooner. The Mississippi is the key to the whole situation." Within twenty-four hours after Porter's arrival his plan had secured adoption.
Had Porter's rank admitted it he would undoubtedly have been given command of the expedition. As the work of preparation went forward he was constantly consulted; and he had the pleasure of suggesting the leader, an officer little known to the Department at Washington, Farragut. Furthermore, he was placed in command of the mortar flotilla, a separate division consisting of twenty-seven craft, which was to work in coöperation with the fleet under Farragut. Though only a commander, he was given a responsibility such as was bestowed upon no one of the dozen officers under Farragut who were his seniors, each of whom commanded but a single ship.
When Farragut's fleet had in April, 1862, been led over the bars at the Passes and assembled in the lower reaches of the Mississippi, there came the highly necessary p180work of reconnaissance. This Farragut placed entirely in Porter's hands. Before the forts could be attacked or passed it was imperative that the Union forces should know the course of the rapid and tortuous river, the nature of the obstructions, and also the position of the batteries and the ranges. Because of Porter's experience with the Coast Survey he was particularly well qualified to direct the force, borrowed from the superintendent of the Coast Survey, which he had brought with him in anticipation of just such a need. According to Soley, Porter's biographer, he had a consultation each morning with the chief of the Coast Survey party and laid out their work:
Each day the surveying parties set out in their boats under the protection of steamers of the flotilla assigned to the duty, and were landed with their theodolites at the selected points on one bank or the other, with an armed escort to keep off the enemy's scouting parties, and pursued their appointed tasks until the work of the day was finished. Each evening they returned to the Sachem and mapped out the localities from their notes. In four or five days the course of the river and both its banks, for a distance of •seven miles, were triangulated and mapped, and the maps were supplied to the fleet.
After this Porter had the surveyors mark points with flags one hundred yards apart on both banks where the mortar vessels were to take stations. When the actual attack on the forts began, the mortars gave their attention chiefly to Fort Jackson, each firing every ten minutes, making two shots a minute for the whole flotilla. They were concealed in part by the shrubbery of the banks; and in order that the masts of the schooners might not give away their position to the enemy (who fired furiously in reply, attempting to p181search them out), Porter had the mastheads dressed with bushes, which were renewed as often as they were shot away. Occasionally the enemy got the range, and their fire would become destructive; but then Porter would move the schooners a few hundred yards to a new position where for a while there was safety.
Porter's careful study of position and range had its result. General Duncan, commanding the Confederate defenses below New Orleans, spoke in his official report of the first day's bombardment as follows:
The quarters in the bastion were fired and burned down early in the day, as well as all the quarters immediately without the fort. The citadel was set on fire and extinguished several times during the first part of the day, but later it became impossible to put out the flames, so that when the enemy ceased firing it was one burning mass, greatly endangering the magazines, which at one time were reported to be on fire.
The bombardment continued for six days, and though it did not reduce the forts, it served to shake the morale of the defenders. It is doubtful if Porter, after he had made his reconnaissance, expected more than this; but, like the terrible artillery preparation before general attacks on the western front in the World War, his mortar fire had no small part in the ultimate success.
When Farragut began the passage of the forts early in the morning of 24 April, as has been described, every effort was made to enable the head of the column to slip past unobserved; but when the gunners in the forts had espied the phantom ships and were seeking to overwhelm them by their concentrated fire, the mortars began a terrific bombardment, directing their fire, as they had hitherto, on the nearer and more p182formidable Fort Jackson. On this the mortars fired ten shells a minute, and so nearly smothered it that the fleet passed without difficulty and had only Fort St. Philip seriously to reckon with.
When the fleet had reached a point of safety up the river, Porter signaled by rocket for the mortar schooners to cease firing, and he withdrew his force down the river. When dawn came he sent under flag of truce a demand for the surrender of the forts. This being refused, he began another day's bombardment, which brought very little return from the fort. "The fight had all been taken out of them," commented Porter. Three days later he sent another demand for surrender; and since by this time a mutiny had occurred among the disaffected troops in Fort Jackson, this demand was soon complied with, and both forts capitulated. There was justice in the fact that the officer who had suggested and assisted in planning the expedition, and who had labored untiringly with Farragut to make it a success, should have been the one to receive the surrender of the forts.
A few months after this, when Porter had been ordered with his mortar flotilla to engage in important operations on the James River, an accident occurred, seemingly rather trivial, but containing an important lesson, for it well-nigh cost Porter his career. While waiting for troops he had gone to Newport to snatch a brief rest with his family. He was always impulsive and at the club in Newport he allowed himself to be drawn into a semipolitical discussion on the comparative merits of Union and Confederate generals. Apparently a secret-service agent who heard him so reported his words as to raise a doubt as to his loyalty. He was promptly called to Washington to find that his p183orders had been changed. He was now slated for some subordinate and unimportant duty of inspection at St. Louis. He tried to see the Secretary of the Navy, but without success. Before he left Washington he called upon the President, who, instead of treating him as a suspect, made him go over all the incidents of the New Orleans campaign and explain the further problems of the Mississippi. As a result of this talk with the President he soon received a communication informing him that he had been selected to command the Mississippi Squadron:
You will therefore proceed to Cairo, Ill., by the 12th instant and report to Acting Rear Admiral Charles H. Davis, who will transfer the command of that squadron to yourself, when you will immediately hoist your flag as acting rear admiral.
Porter was to command the forces on the Mississippi and its tributaries from St. Louis to Vicksburg. Below Vicksburg operations were still under the direction of Farragut. Here began what is probably Porter's greatest service in the war — coöperation with Grant in his famous campaign against Vicksburg, which ended in its capture the following summer.
Vicksburg was almost the last stronghold left to the Confederates on the Mississippi, and it was one of remarkable strength, the city occupying an impregnable position on high bluffs which extended from Haynes's Bluff, •thirteen miles northeast on the Yazoo, to Warrenton, •six miles south on the Mississippi. The Union Army had come south from Cairo, following the river on solid land and depending on the fleet for communications, but as they neared Vicksburg they found it impossible to go farther during the winter and spring. p184There were no roads; and the country, being low and swampy and cut up by rivers and bayous, was absolutely impassable. In the fall of 1862 Grant had attempted to take Vicksburg by a wide detour from the north and east, but Washington had so reduced his force as to prevent his success. The avenue of approach which he was eventually to employ — from the west and south — he had considered; but he was forced to delay campaigning from this direction for the reason that the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg dominated the river, making it hazardous for armored gunboats to attempt the passing and worse than hazardous for army transports. Swollen streams had inundated much of the country, so that the army could not be marched down on the west bank until the bottom lands dried up. Meanwhile Porter was willing to see what could be done in turning the Confederates' right flank through the Yazoo Delta. Two attempts were made, both calling for a combined expedition of the army and the navy and both devised by Porter. Though both were failures, the second, in which Porter commanded the naval forces in person, was noteworthy for the initiative and determination he exhibited.
The plan depended for success on surprise. It required that five ironclads, together with mortar boats and tugs, followed by Sherman's corps in transports, reach the Yazoo River above the formidable batteries at Haynes's Bluff by traversing Steele's Bayou and a complicated network of rivers and creeks, all together •about one hundred and thirty miles in length, which led to the rear of Vicksburg's defenses.
During the first of their course, progress was rapid; but as the river narrowed, trees which overhung the banks caught the smokestacks, and water-soaked logs p185had to be fished out to afford a channel. Then their speed slowed down at time to •half a mile an hour.
Even then there was a possibility of success if there had not been a lack of coördination in the movements of the army and navy. The former, through a misunderstanding, for several days delayed their advances. Thus, when news of the enterprise reached the Confederates, and a small force of cavalry was dispatched to fell trees on the narrow river and delay progress until adequate numbers could be assembled, Porter had not the support necessary to protect his force against sharpshooters and to remove obstructions.
Retreat was imperative. The river was so narrow that he could not turn the boats, but he had them unship their rudders and back their way out. Meanwhile planters had employed their negroes to fell trees behind them, so that for the Union forces to retrace their course, clearing away the increasing obstructions, was slow and painful work. The enemy were now constantly increasing in numbers and closing in, using sharpshooters in a most annoying fashion. It looked to Porter as if he were trapped, and he thought of the unpleasant possibility of blowing up his gunboats to prevent their falling into the enemy's hands.
At length Colonel Giles A. Smith with eight hundred Federal troops marched forward to the rescue; but danger was not yet past, for the Confederates, increasing their force and enveloping the slowly moving gunboats, now threatened to capture both the army and the navy. They might have done so but for the determination and exhaustless energy of Porter and the timely relief brought forward by Sherman, the latter marching on foot with two or three thousand men. He thus describes meeting Porter, as with p186his men he suddenly swept across a cotton field into full view:
I soon found Admiral Porter, who was on the deck of one of his ironclads, with a shield made of a section of a smokestack, and I doubt if he was ever more glad to meet a friend than he was to see me. He explained that he had almost reached the Rolling Fork when the woods became full of sharpshooters, who, taking advantage of trees, stumps, and the levee, would shoot down every man that poked his nose outside the protection of their armor; so that he could not handle his clumsy boats in the narrow channel.
This expedition had occupied from the 15th to the 25th of March, 1863, and was such a nerve-racking performance that any ordinary commander would have felt the need of at least a temporary relief from duty after it. Yet only four days after his return, when Grant wrote proposing the next move against Vicksburg, again requiring hazardous service of the navy, Porter immediately assented. It was nearly April, and as yet not a single real gain had been made. Grant now planned to march his army south along the western bank — an operation made possible for the reason that the swamps were partially dried — and then, ferrying it across below Vicksburg, to move against the Confederate defenses from the south. For this purpose he needed gunboats and transports.
Porter immediately assented and, dividing his squadron, prepared seven ironclads for the purpose. On the night of 16 April, leading the column in the Benton, he steamed down the river toward Vicksburg. The gunboats were not discovered until they were opposite the upper batteries, when Confederate picket boats gave the alarm. At once houses on the opposite shore, p187fired by the pickets, illuminated the scene and made the gunboats a perfect mark as they ran the gantlet. As the first vessels reached a sharp bend in the river an eddy caught them and whirled them about in a circle right under the enemy's heavy guns. This may have somewhat disturbed the gunners' aim, but it also broke up Porter's column, confusing the helmsmen and causing great danger of running aground.
The Benton and the other ironclads attempted to protect themselves by maintaining a heavy fire, but the advantage was naturally with the land forces. Early in the engagement a shot penetrated the casemate of the Benton and tore about inside. Another opened up a hole •six feet wide in her plating. A third tore open the planking, and other missiles worked similar havoc; but none disabled her machinery or guns, and though she passed within forty yards of the Vicksburg shore she went through to safety below. The ironclads that followed had like experiences. However, one of the three army transports accompanying them, loaded with supplies, was set on fire and burned, and a coal barge was sunk. When they had reached a point •twenty or twenty-five miles below Vicksburg, they found their friends of the army anxiously awaiting them.
Six days later the attempt was made to bring down past the batteries more army transports without troops, and only one out of six was lost. Grant's plans were progressing rapidly; nevertheless he moved cautiously, for the Confederates had a larger number of troops in Vicksburg and the vicinity, where the railroads enabled them to move rapidly, than he had at this time in his total force. Even if the enemy did not dispute his crossing, there was a strong fortification on the p188height at Grand Gulf, •about twenty-five miles by direct line southwest of Vicksburg; and this must be taken, or Grant would leave an enemy on his flank or rear. About the last of April, or two weeks after the ironclads had run past Vicksburg, Porter, in obedience to the wish of Grant, tried to take this fort by a purely naval attack. He had no false optimism as to the outcome; but for four or five hours the ironclads hung doggedly on, firing their heaviest volleys and receiving much more damage than they inflicted.
Meanwhile the Federal forces elsewhere were moving in such a strange manner that Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, was misled and did not guess Grant's real intent. A Union cavalry contingent under Grierson made a raid from Tennessee through Mississippi and, though numbering only seventeen hundred, ripped up railroads and destroyed military equipment with such energy as to give the impression of a very much greater force. Also Sherman, with ten gunboats and several scantily manned army transports, proceeded cautiously up the Yazoo toward Haynes's Bluff and, as the gunboats bombarded the batteries, landed a few regiments. In the evening he embarked them again, and repeated the operation on the following day. Pemberton, coming to the conclusion that Grant's operations to the south below Vicksburg were only a feint and that the real attack was to be from the north, hurriedly ordered the return of troops he had sent to Grand Gulf.
Nothing could have been more favorable for Grant. On the 30th of April he embarked his forces, and Porter took them safely across and down the river to a landing where there were good roads. By sunset that evening Grant had twenty thousand men on the east bank, in a p189favorable position to begin on the morrow the march toward the rear of Vicksburg. Soon he was joined by Sherman and had his army united. He was operating against a strong enemy; but he defeated the hostile forces in detail and succeeded in enveloping Vicksburg, shutting up Pemberton in the city and holding off Johnston, who was endeavoring to come to the rescue from the east.
It was two months before Vicksburg was to fall. Meanwhile Porter was constantly alive: at one time running down the Red River and shutting off supplies from that quarter; at another time leaving his division below Vicksburg and proceeding by land to the gunboats above. Here a little later he was able to make connections with Sherman, as, in the enveloping movement, the right flank of Grant's army pushed through to the Yazoo. For weeks the Federal Army had been living off the country. Now it was the navy's duty to reëstablish communications and to forward supplies and additional troops. All kinds of duty devolved upon Porter. First, Grant wished to try the effect of a general attack; and the navy as well as the army engaged in this, though without material effect. Sherman wanted a gunboat to silence a certain battery which he thought had been left without support by the withdrawal of heavy guns; Porter sent the Cincinnati, and thereby lost one of his strongest units. Later, as the siege progressed, Grant needed more siege guns; and Porter mounted three batteries of naval guns in the army lines, supplying also naval crews to operate them. Moreover, Porter was constantly patrolling the Mississippi to prevent troops and supplies from reaching the besieged city from the west. During the two months of investment he was doing on the water side what Grant and his generals were doing on the land side.
p190 On 4 July, 1863, Pemberton surrendered unconditionally, and Vicksburg was taken. A week later Port Hudson fell, and the Mississippi was opened to the Gulf. The Confederacy had been split in two.
Nothing shows so well that the army and navy had been working harmoniously together as the official reports of the two commanding officers. Porter wrote:
The conception of the idea originated solely with General Grant, who adopted a course in which great labor was performed, great battles were fought, and great risks were run.
Grant commented not less emphatically on Porter's service:
The navy under Porter was all it could be during the entire campaign. Without its assistance the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged. It could not have been made at all in the way it was, with any number of men, without such assistance.
Coming at exactly the same time, the two great Union successes, Vicksburg in the west and Gettysburg in the east, marked the turning point of the war. Still there was the possibility of a long-protracted and indecisive conflict. The general who was to save the situation was Grant. Strangely enough, in the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign Grant had been held in marked disfavor by many in Washington, who urged that he be relieved. When, however, Pemberton had surrendered and with him thirty thousand troops (the greatest number taken by either side at any one time during the war), doubt vanished. Thus an important part of Porter's service was the saving of Grant for still greater achievement. What Porter had done was publicly recognized by action of Congress, who gave him a vote of thanks. The following month he was p191promoted from commander to rear admiral, being placed sixth on the list of the highest grade then existing in the navy. Furthermore, the Department, taking into consideration the exhausting and continuous service which he had been performing for nine months, in a country where malaria abounded, wrote offering him an extended leave of absence. His answer was most characteristic:
While there is a prospect of anything to be done I do not desire to leave my post. I have still a great deal to do regulate the different stations, and if the Department will permit me, will take some more favorable opportunity to avail myself of the leave.
Nor is the narrative complete without recounting some events farther south in which also Porter had had part. Five months before the fall of Vicksburg he had considered the shutting off of supplies from Red River. Red River was included not in his command but in Farragut's. However, since Farragut was at this time on the Mississippi at a point below where the Red River empties into it, held there by the heavy batteries of Port Hudson, he was powerless. Therefore Porter sent one of his ironclads, the Queen of the West, past Vicksburg to make a raid up the Red River and, surprising the enemy, to take everything in sight. The Confederates had secreted there one ram gunboat, the Webb, and some supply steamers, supported by several batteries. The Queen of the West at first was successful, and various small craft were her prey, though the Confederate ram escaped capture by flight. But then came reverses, and, going aground under enemy batteries, she in turn was taken. Before news was received of this disaster Porter had sent down also the Indianola, p192one of his strongest ironclads. Her commanding officer showed bad judgment in handling her, and on being outmaneuvered in a joint attack by the Webb and the Queen of the West he was obliged to surrender.
These reverses were mortifying to Porter, and the situation had something of seriousness if he was going to keep control of the river below Vicksburg, as was necessary to assist Grant. Just then a gigantic hoax which he had been preparing proved to be of material assistance. Porter, even at sternest moments, loved a joke, and the advantage gained at this time did not lessen his keen delight in deluding his adversaries.
Wishing to ascertain the position and strength of the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, he had built a dummy monitor to draw their fire. It was a raft of logs •three hundred feet long with sides built up to suggest a ship's rail. In the center was a log hut resembling a casemate, with huge wooden guns protruding. Forward and aft of the casemate were terrifying turrets made up of canvas stretched on frames. Large smokestacks in the center were devised by fastening pork barrels one on top of another, in which pots filled with tar and oakum to make smoke were concealed.
When all was ready the monster was towed at midnight down the Mississippi to Vicksburg, the tar furnaces were lighted, and she was set adrift.
Soon all the guns of Vicksburg were blazing away at her, but in haughty silence she pursued her way, not deigning an answer. Undoubtedly she was struck repeatedly; but such was her resistive power that she kept on as before, and the pork barrels remained in place. Below Vicksburg she was caught by an eddy and went ashore on the west bank. This was shortly before sunrise. The Union troops with great labor p193pushed her off, and down the river she went. It happened that a working party of Confederates below were hurrying repairs on the injured Indianola, their latest prize, which had been run to the bank to avoid sinking. When telegraphic news from Vicksburg announced the approaching monster, the Queen of the West and the Webb fled to safety without risking an engagement. The crew of the Indianola, feeling that they had been ignominiously deserted and realizing their inability to contend with such a foe, decided that if they could not float their craft they must promptly abandon her. The dummy, by good chance, had grounded again, this time only •two and a half miles above the former Union vessel. The wretched crew looked apprehensively all the afternoon for the monitor to appear; that night their lieutenant decided to take no chances, and throwing overboard some guns, he destroyed the others, blew up part of the casemate, and sank the wreck in shoal water. Even four days later Colonel Wirt Adams, commanding the Confederate cavalry in the vicinity, had not discovered the ruse, and in his report gave it as his opinion that the Confederates should have hazarded a battle: "With the assistance of our two vessels, the Queen of the West and Webb, there is scarcely a doubt that we could have saved the Indianola and possibly have captured the other gunboat of the enemy."
While operations against Vicksburg were in progress, but two months before it was taken, an appeal had come from both General Banks and Admiral Farragut for two or more gunboats to assist Banks in an expedition planned against Alexandria, the important city and transportation center on the Red River. Four days after Porter had transported Grant's army to the p194eastern bank to begin the final campaign against Vicksburg, he discovered that in the next week there was nothing further for him to do; accordingly he took four gunboats and hurried •two hundred miles to the mouth of Red River. There he met Farragut, who was making a reconnaissance, and received from him an addition to his force, with which he pushed on up the Red River. So rapid were his movements that he got to Alexandria and took possession of it a few hours before Banks's arrival. Then, with equal dispatch, he turned the city over to Banks and, leaving part of his boats to coöperate and patrol the river, returned to his own especial duty looking toward the reduction of Vicksburg.
The following winter (1863‑1864) plans were formulated for a combined military and naval movement against Shreveport and the various depots of supplies which the Confederates were receiving from the Red River country and northwestern Louisiana. About the middle of March, 1864, the expedition set out, Banks commanding the army and Porter the gunboats.
Porter experienced difficulty and delay at Alexandria in getting his larger ironclad gunboats above the falls. Had he been cautious he would have declined to go farther, for here was a hint of the dangers before them. But, eager as ever to do his part, he was intent only on victory. When the combined forces had gone the larger part of the way and were almost within striking distance of Shreveport, Banks's progress was temporarily checked by a considerable force of Confederates under Kirby Smith. Although in a later engagement Kirby Smith was badly worsted, the first reverse had been sufficient for Banks, and he began his retreat.
The gunboats were now in a precarious situation, and every day that followed made this more apparent. p195Banks was retreating without reference to their difficulties or safety. The river was low, and many stretches which they had traversed the month before without trouble presented formidable obstacles on their return. Moreover, they were now in the center of an enemy country; not only did sharpshooters constantly annoy them, but batteries had been erected at various points to greet them in case of misadventure. Thus it happened that when one of the transports, becoming disabled, ran to the bank to make repairs, and two ironclads at about the same place got aground, the cavalry leader, General Thomas Green, with two thousand soldiers suddenly appeared and made a spirited attack. The gunboats that were under control fired grape and canister, and the transports used such guns as they had. The fight lasted an hour and a half, the Confederates not giving up the attack until they had lost a fifth of their number, their leader being among the killed.
A serious mishap occurred when the Eastport, one of the strongest of Porter's gunboats, ran on a torpedo in the shallow water. She could not sink very far; so Porter sped •one hundred and fifty miles down to Alexandria in his flagship, the tiny tinclad Cricket, in order to bring back two steam-pump boats. They succeeded in floating the Eastport, and on the first day took her •twenty miles. But she was constantly grounding and, with the shores lined with enemies, getting her off was painful work. This continued for •sixty miles; an equal distance more would have brought her within Union lines. The Federal officers were congratulating themselves that the worst obstacles were past when she went aground in a perfect network of logs with next to no water under her. When Confederates were seen approaching, the order was given to blow her up.
p196 •Twenty miles below this place the little Cricket with the other tinclads received a terrific bombardment from a battery erected on the shore, supplemented by a perfect hail of musket fire. Nearly all the vessel's guns were quickly rendered useless and half her crew were killed. In the middle of the action Porter found that the Cricket had stopped. Going to the engine room he discovered that the engineer had been killed, his hand on the throttle, and his two assistants wounded. Porter himself opened the throttle, and the engine, which was not disabled, carried through to safety those who were living.
When the force reached Alexandria, "Red River had run out," as Porter described the situation, leaving the vessels above the falls with little chance of getting over them until there should be a rise in the river. This was the time of year for high water, and in no May for eighteen years had the river been so low. There was but •four feet of water, and the boats required •seven or eight feet. A large part of the Mississippi Squadron was in jeopardy, and yet Banks was planning in a short time to march on.
In his desperation Porter was open to any plan that gave a ray of hope, and he listened carefully to a young engineer from Wisconsin, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, who proposed that they build a dam at the bottom of the rapids, leaving but a small opening through which, as the river rose, they should flood the boats on the escaping flood.
Many officers ridiculed the idea, and Porter's early comment was, "If damning would do any good, we would soon have the ships afloat." Though not over-confident, he determined to give it a trial since he knew of nothing better. The gunboats must be saved.
p197 It was an engineering problem, and the army turned to in a wonderful way as they worked it out. A Maine regiment made up largely of lumbermen began felling trees. Other select details from Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa also showed their aptitude. The river was •seven hundred and fifty feet wide; but from the two banks were run the two wings of the dam, made up of trees, stone, parts of buildings, and everything that was at hand, leaving only a sluiceway •twenty feet wide through which the rising current passed. Part of their work was swept away and they had to change the original plan in some details; but within less than two weeks all the vessels had been saved by this means. The following is Porter's own account of how the first of the ironclads, the Lexington, went through:
She then steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her. . . . She entered the gap with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into deep water by the current, and rounded to safely into the bank. Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening cheer, and universal joy seemed to pervade the face of every man present.
The Red River expedition was a failure, but not because the Mississippi Squadron had left anything undone that could have been done. An evidence of this was shown when, during the latter part of this year (1864), the government decided on a large joint army and navy expedition against Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina. The command of the naval contingent was offered to Farragut, but he asked to be excused because of ill health; whereupon Porter was the immediate choice.
p198 Porter discussed the plans with Grant and was keenly disappointed when he discovered that it was not to be Grant but Butler (for whom he had no liking) who was to be associated with him in the enterprise.
Fort Fisher was a strong work; and because the Confederates knew that soon it would be made the object of attack, they had employed their best engineering skill in strengthening its defenses. Supplies for Lee's army in and about Richmond came though this port, and it was vital to the Confederacy that it should be held. The Union cause demanded just as positively that it should be taken. To accomplish this Porter was given sixty vessels, five of them ironclad, the largest force up to this time ever assembled under the American flag. Butler had sixty-five hundred troops.
Butler was slow in arriving; and Porter, who never was given to restraint in speech, voiced his irritation over the delay. He gave the fort a heavy bombardment; and later, when he had assisted in landing the troops and had followed this with a second bombardment, he declared that the fort could be taken by a determined attack of the troops. But Butler thought differently and, to Porter's surprise, soon began reëmbarking his troops. Butler then announced that the place could not be taken by assault and withdrew his troops to Hampton Roads.
Porter, however, would not give up, and wrote to Grant in no uncertain language as to the cause of the failure. It was Porter's anger and tenacity, supported by Grant's calmer but not less positive resolution, that won. Within less than a week there came a letter from Grant asking Porter "to hold on where you are for a few days" and promising an increased military force commanded by Major General Terry to coöperate with him.
p199 The troops were sent with the greatest dispatch, and almost immediately Porter proceeded to the attack. He had divided his huge fleet into four lines, and to each he assigned very definite sections of the enemy's position. Thus on the morning of the first day (13 January, 1865), line No. One shelled the woods to the north of the land face of the fort to clear the way for Terry's troops. Shortly afterwards the reserve line, No. Four, began landing-operations and by afternoon had six thousand troops safely disembarked on the beach. Meanwhile lines One, Two, and Three were bombarding the designated parts of the land and sea faces of the fort, firing with deliberation during the day and through the night and making the guns of the fort their target. All through the following day and intermittently through the night the bombardment continued, and it was resumed again with great intensity at eleven o'clock on the morning of the third day. That afternoon at three o'clock, on the sounding of the blasts of whistles from fifty ships, the fire suddenly ceased. Sixteen hundred bluejackets armed with revolvers and cutlasses, and four hundred marines with muskets, came across the sand dunes on the double; this was in obedience to Porter's order "to board the fort on the run in a seamanlike way."
While they were attempting thus to occupy the east, or sea face, the army was advancing on the west, or land face.
Porter had thought that the Confederates would be so much engaged with the major attack of the troops that the sea forces might enter practically unobserved; but just the opposite happened. The garrison concentrated on the sailors, delivering such a withering fire that over three hundred were killed or wounded; the p200remainder broke and fled. Too late the defenders realized that this was but a small part of the attack. Already three national flags had been planted on their parapets to the west, and the rest of the battle was but a flanking movement in which the Confederates lost traverse after traverse. By nine o'clock that evening the fort was in the possession of the Union forces.
After the surrender of Fort Fisher, Porter indulged his sense of humor by sending a lieutenant to establish decoy signals and range lights, thinking he might have a visit from some of the blockade runners before news of the Confederate reverse had reached them. Here is Porter's own story of what followed:
On the night of the 19th of January two long, light-colored objects were seen moving up Cape Fear River, and in a few moments came to anchor near the flagship. These were the Stag and the Charlotte, two blockade-running steamers, and they had hardly got their anchors down before our boats boarded them and summoned them to surrender.
The officers and passengers of the Charlotte were just sitting down to an elegant supper, in honor of their safe arrival, when the boarding officer walked into the cabin and announced to the astonished company that they were prisoners.
The fall of Fort Fisher opened the way to Wilmington, which was taken a few weeks later. Scharf, the Confederate historian, remarks:
The fall of Wilmington was the severest blow to the Confederate cause which it could receive from the loss of any port. . . . With Wilmington open, the supplies that reached the Confederate armies would have enabled them to maintain an unequal contest for years; but with the fall of Fort Fisher the constant stream of supplies was cut off.
p201 Porter continued to have important billets assigned him to the very close of the war. Just before Appomattox he was in charge of naval operations up the James River, and thus, when President Lincoln left Washington by steamer and spent two weeks in and about the James River, near to Grant's last battle front, the admiral was almost constantly with the President. During the latter part of the time the President occupied a cabin on Porter's flagship. There was a warm personal friendship between the two, and the assassination of Lincoln, immediately on his return to Washington, brought the greatest distress to Porter.
On the termination of hostilities Porter was given shore duty of greatest importance, being placed in charge of the Naval Academy. He was superintendent from 1865 to 1869. On him devolved what amounted almost to the rebuilding of the academy. He changed the entire character of the institution by introducing rowing, baseball, and boxing; in short, he organized athletics. Furthermore, he permitted the midshipmen to give amateur theatricals, an idea which only a few years earlier had been sternly frowned upon. His impulsive, generous sympathy, his common sense, his frankness, and his most distinguished war record made him a potent influence. When the vice admiral of the navy, fifty-three years old, was so young and exuberant that he would go to the gymnasium and put on boxing-gloves to battle with midshipman champions, there is need of no further comment.
It is not surprising that juniors liked to serve under Porter. Where he went there was activity and achievement, and no commanding officer was more prompt to recognize and mention in his official reports the meritorious service of his subordinates. Porter was a marvel p202of endurance, and few are the leaders of history who could have gone through all he underwent for four years, most of it on the Mississippi, without quickly wearing out. His strength was in part due to his buoyant temperament and his optimism. Even in desperate situations he never lost the opportunity of indulging in a jest; he knew things were going to turn out all right, and somehow in the end they did turn out right. He had remarkable quickness in thought as well as in execution. He saw a plan at a glance, grasping at once the essential ideas. And when he began moving, all with him felt his energizing influence. If the American who followed a generation later had preceded him, the nation would have said, "Porter was a naval Roosevelt."
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