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Chapter 13: building a navy on the Western rivers.--battle of Belmont.

To enable us to keep pace with the progress of events we must now turn our attention in another direction, and see what the Navy was doing in the western rivers.

Early in 1862 the attention of the Navy Department was directed towards the West. The necessity of building gun-boats there to assist the Army in its operations had become evident to the dullest comprehension.

There were more than four thousand miles of navigable rivers, the control of which was absolutely necessary to the Federal Government to enable it to crush out rebellion, and the only way to obtain this control was to build a fleet peculiarly adapted to smooth and shallow waters, while carrying the heaviest smooth-bore and rifled ordnance.

Strange as it may at this day appear, some of the Army officers argued that gunboats would be useless to co-operate with the Army in the West, as the Confederates would establish heavy forts all along the rivers, and knock the vessels to pieces; in April, 1862, after the war had progressed for a year, General Leonidas Polk seized upon tie heights near Belmont, Ky., and mounting heavy guns there blocked the way for Army transports from Cairo to the sea. Then the Army began to talk of improvising a Navy of their own, and the Navy Department sent Commander John Rodgers to St. Louis to superintend the construction of an army flotilla.

While the North had its Ericsson, the West was fortunate in possessing, in the person of Mr. James B. Eads, the very man for the occasion. Mr. Eads undertook to build seven large gun-boats, heavily plated on the bow and lighter on the sides. which were calculated to carry very heavy ordnance.

It is strange how slowly even the cleverest of men receive new ideas. These gunboats, intended for service in the smooth waters of the western rivers, could have been plated with iron sufficient to have turned the heaviest shot, instead of which they were only partially covered, and owing to this defect met with many mishaps. In three months three of the vessels were ready to receive their armament.

As the Army were now making great demands for gun-boats, Com. Rodgers was authorized to purchase three river steamers and convert them into war-vessels without plating. These were the first gun-boats that fired a shot in support of the Union, and became well known for their many encounters with the enemy, and for valuable services throughout the war.

Flag-officer Andrew H. Foote was ordered to command the Mississippi Squadron on the 6th of September, 1861, and he took with him to the West a number of officers whose names will appear from time to time in our pages — a more gallant set of men never trod the deck of a vessel-of-war.

Foote, Rodgers, Eads and their assistants put forth all their energies to get the squadron ready for service, as the enemy were fortifying the banks of the rivers in Tennessee, and Polk's heavy batteries at [135] Columbus barred the way against vessels from above. The civilians who had charge of the building of the gun-boats were not skilled in the construction of war-vessels, and the time of the naval officers was therefore completely occupied in supervising the work of construction; but with their aid Mr. Eads soon completed an efficient flotilla, which obtained a fame in the annals of the war surpassed by no other vessels.

Rear-Admiral A. H. Foote.

One of Flagofficer Foote's first acts was to establish a depot at Cairo, Illinois, where his vessels could berepaired and could replenish their stores; and those who remember the Navy Yard at Mound City, near Cairo, and the large fleet which grew from the small squadron first put afloat, will wonder why we should require so many navy yards atthe present time when we hardly fit out a dozen vessels in a year.

Com'r A. M. Pennock was placed in command of the depot at Cairo, the navy yard being literally afloatin wharf boats, old steamers, tugs, flat-boats, or even rafts, as the government owned no land at that point; but when the station was subsequently established at Mound City, just above Cairo, the Union exulted in the possession of a real navy-yard of some ten acres, which, although sometimes under water from freshets, soon grew to a respectable size. although its machine shops, carpenter shops, etc., were all afloat in steamers. Capt. Pennock had charge of the naval station until the close of the war. and his services called forth the unqualified commendation of the several commanders-in-chief of the Mississippi Squadron under whom he served. Capt. Pennock's first assistants at the naval station were Lieutenants I. P. Sanford and O. H. Perry, Chief Engineer, Capt. Geo. D. Wise, U. S. A., Quartermaster, and Acting Naval Constructor Romeo Friganza, the latter sent from New York navy yard to fill this important position.

This, then, was all the establishment the Navy Department at that time considered necessary to keep in repair the Mississippi Squadron, that was expected to successfully control an active enemy occupying thousands of miles of navigable rivers, where the nature of the country offered every advantage to an enterprising foe.

The difficulties with which the Navy had to contend on the Atlantic coast were many, and their duty was harrassing, but at least they had generally sea-room and intervals of rest. An officer could retire to repose without the expectation of having a volley of musketry crash through his stateroom window, or, when walking on deck, did [136] not risk being knocked over by some cowardly bushwhacker, who would watch all day for the chance of picking off somebody on board a gun-boat — just as in peaceful times he had laid in wait for a coon or a wild turkey. In the West a man carried his life in his hands, yet few took pains to avoid the danger, although always in readiness to meet and repel attacks upon their vessels. Coolness and courage were at all times required, and a readiness for duty that interfered with the natural rest, so essential a preservative of vitality.

The three wooden gun-boats which formed the advance guard of the Western Flotilla, were the Taylor, Lexington and Conestoga, which had been so altered from river steamers that they became efficient vessels of war. The Taylor mounted six sixty-four-pounder guns in broadside and one thirty-two-pounder in the stern; the Lexington mounted four sixty-four-pounders in broadside and one thirty-two-pounder astern, and the Conestoga carried two thirty-two-pounders in broadside and one light gun in the stern — not a very formidable flotilla to encounter strong earthworks, many of them mounting rifle guns of great range.

The Confederates had not at first attempted to extemporize a river navy, although they were not long in following the Federal example; and the Navy Yard at Memphis, turned over to the State of Tennessee with all its appliances, by act of Congress, was soon in full blast preparing vessels to attack anything we might put upon the rivers. But our light gun-boats showed themselves not only fit for picket duty and for clearing the banks of bushwhackers, but even to take a hand in shelling heavy batteries.

At this period of the war General Grant had been transferred to the command of the District of Southeast Missouri, and on the 4th of September, 1861, he established his Headquarters at Cairo, Illinois. His district included Southern Illinois and so much of Western Kentucky and Tennessee as might fall into possession of the national forces. It comprised the junction of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and was at the time the most important point of operations in the West.

Kentucky, in the early part of the war, endeavored to preserve a neutral position between the contending sections. but the Confederate General Polk soon violated this neutrality, seizing Columbus, some twenty miles below Cairo, and threatening Paducah; whereupon Grant seized this latter place and garrisoned it. Thus the two armies were near each other. Grant had nothing but ordinary transports to operate with, and these were liable to be cut to pieces from the banks of the river by the Confederate light artillery.

On the 14th of September Commander Henry Walke, in command of the Taylor, under orders from Flag-officer Foote, proceeded down the river towards Columbus to make reconnoissance, accompanied by officers of General Grant's staff. At Norfolk, six miles below Cairo, the Taylor took on board a hundred men of the Ninth Illinois Regiment, and then approached Columbus to ascertain the strength of the batteries. “These batteries were built upon what was called the Iron Banks, at the first Chickasaw Bluff, which rose from two to three hundred feet above the river, overlooking its course for a distance of twenty miles north and south. The Confederate batteries were placed on the spurs of the bluff, one of them, fifty feet above the water, mounting two heavy guns, with a floating battery of sixteen heavy guns moored at Columbus landing. Their heaviest rifled guns were planted and pivoted on the summit of the river banks, where they commanded a long range up the river and towards their rear.”

When Com. Walke arrived off these works, he fired eight or ten eight-inch shells into them, killing and wounding several of the enemy, and the reconnoissance having been completed the vessel returned to Cairo.

The Taylor and Lexington were constantly employed on such service, and their value soon became apparent to the army officers, who had at first thought they would be of little use.

Soon after the above mentioned reconnoissance. General Grant wrote to Commander Walke, requesting the services of the gun-boats to accompany him to Belmont landing, and on the 16th of November, 1861, the General started down the river with 3.100 men in transports, convoyed by the Taylor, Com. Walke, and the Lexington, Corn. R. N. Stembel.

Grant landed his troops at Hunter's Point, on the Missouri side, out of range of the Columbus batteries, and marched direct on Belmont, three miles distant, where the Confederates had posted their camp in an open space protected by fallen timber. By nine o'clock Grant's entire command was hotly engaged, except one battalion left at the landing as a reserve, and to protect the transports.

General Grant had requested Com. Walke, with the two gun-boats, to attack the batteries at Columbus as a diversion, which was done. As the gun-boats were under fire of some twenty heavy guns having a plunging fire, it was necessary to manage them with great skill to prevent their being disabled, and they moved around in short circles, loading and firing as rapidly as [137] possible. When their object was accomplished the gun-boats withdrew, as it would have been madness to have continued longer under the fire of such heavy guns.

In the mean time Grant had been fighting four hours and his horse had been shot under him. The officers' example stimulated the men, who though novices in war fought like veterans, driving the enemy to the river, capturing all his artillery and several hundred prisoners, and breaking up the camp.

Instead of pursuing the enemy as they huddled together under the river bank, the Federal soldiers began to plunder the camp. Meanwhile, Confederate transports, crowded with men, were discovered coming up the river from Columbus, and Grant

Battle of Belmont.

endeavored to reform his men in order to get back to his own steamers before these troops could land, but it was not until he had ordered the camp to be set on fire that his men would cease plundering. The fire drew the attention of the artillerists at Columbus, who opened on the Federal troops.

The march back to the transports then began, but the defeated enemy, finding no notice was being taken of them, reformed in the woods just above Belmont, where three regiments from Columbus joined them, and this combined force was interposed between Grant and his transports. Some of the troops cried out “we are surrounded.” “Well,” said Grant, “in that case, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in; we have whipped them once and can do it again.” As soon as the men found that Grant meant to fight, not to surrender, they charged the enemy, who disappeared in the woods.

Grant pushed on to the landing and most of his men went on board the transports. A detachment was sent back to gather up the wounded, and it was, for a time. undisturbed. Then Grant in person went to withdraw his reserve force, which he found had already returned to the transports, thus leaving the General completely outside his army. Ascending a knoll he discovered the enemy advancing in line of battle in greatly increased force, with the evident intention of getting above the transports and cutting them off. The General saw that it was impossible to save the party who were out in search of the wounded. so he turned and rode slowly back towards the transports to avoid attracting attention.

The enemy's fire was opened on the transports, which were about getting under way. leaving Grant behind, but a plank was hastily run out from one of the vessels and he rode on board. At that moment the Taylor and Lexington opened upon the enemy in a corn-field about fifty yards distant with grape and canister, mowing them down “in swaths,” as General Badeau expresses it, and causing them to retreat in great confusion. By five o'clock the last of our transports was out of range of the enemy's batteries, officers and men equally pleased with having gained a victory, which [138] but for the gun-boats would have been a bloody defeat. It is true the soldiers in the transports kept up a constant fire on the enemy, but being raw troops they no doubt aimed too high, as did the Confederates, and there was very little execution done; but in the case of the gun-boats there was no mistake, their guns were handled by trained men directed by experienced officers, and such was the rapidity and accuracy of their fire that the enemy fled in all directions.

Thus Grant gained two victories in one day, and against double his own force, for the Confederates admit having 7,000 men in action. Grant lost 485 in killed, wounded and missing; 125 of the wounded fell into the enemy's hands, but in lieu of these Grant captured 175 prisoners and two guns. The Confederate loss was 685 killed and wounded, mostly by the gunboats.

Soon after the defeat of the enemy and the departure of the transports, General McClernand discovered that some of his soldiers had been left behind, and at his request Capt. Walke returned and succeeded in recovering most if not all these, together with forty of the enemy's wounded, who had been left on the field, proof positive that the Confederates had retreated in a panic.

The assistance given the army by the gun-boats disposed of the question “as to the utility and practicability of gun-boats carrying on hostilities on the rivers, where it was believed the batteries on the banks could prevent their passage.” It is strange how an opposite idea could have been entertained by those who ought to have known better.

In Gen. Grant's official report he says: “The gun-boats convoyed the expedition and rendered most efficient service. Immediately upon our landing they engaged the enemy's batteries on the heights above Columbus, and protected our transports throughout. For a detailed account of the part taken by the gun-boats I refer with pleasure to the accompanying report of Capt. Walke, senior officer.”

This was warm commendation from Gen. Grant, who was moderate in his praise of men, but it scarcely gave an idea of the service performed by the gun-boats that day. The Confederates had to land their troops that crossed from Columbus three miles below, giving the men a long march. The gun-boats Taylor and Lexington attacked the batteries three times during the day, and kept up a fire on the enemy all along the banks. When our soldiers retreated to the transports the gun-boats covered them so with their fire that they received little injury.

This battle was claimed by both sides, which is apt to be the case with raw troops; but the list of killed and wounded was in favor of the Federals, although they had less than one-half the enemy's force.

The gallant conduct of Commanders Walke and Stembel does not appear to have secured even a passing notice from the Secretary of the Navy, which was certainly a great injustice to two officers who had demonstrated so plainly the efficiency of gun-boats on the Western rivers.

It was a part of the Confederate plan early in the civil war to seize and hold Missouri and Kansas, thus threatening the free States in the Northwest, to hold Kentucky and Tennessee, cross the Ohio, and make the Northern States the theatre of war, thus punishing the Northern people for their obstinacy in declining to yield to the demands of the secessionists. This plan, which had been discussed long before the Southern States seceded, would doubtless have been carried out had it not been for the multitude of men in the North who sprang to arms and frustrated the Confederate plans. Lee had to retreat from Pennsylvania, where it was determined that the Confederates should endure all the hardships of war to teach them the folly of rebellion.

To circumvent the grand schemes of the enemy in the West, it was necessary that we should have a naval force on all the rivers, and Attorney General Bates seems to have been the first person in the government to point out the necessity of such a force to get possession of all the tributaries of the Mississippi, and finally of the great river itself to the sea. Mr. Bates' ideas were not at first considered practicable; even the veteran Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Welles, who is credited with a vast knowledge of naval matters, seemed to doubt, and stated that “there was with many great incredulity as to the utility and practicability of the use of gun-boats on the Western waters, where it was believed batteries on the banks could prevent their passage.” The Secretary might have observed that the enemy's batteries on the Potomac did not stop even ordinary transports.

At first the naval forces on the Western rivers were put under the direction of the War Department, as it was supposed the armed vessels would be a mere appendage of the land forces; and there does not seem to have been a man in the Cabinet at that time who knew the difference between a gun-boat and a transport.

In July, 1861, Quartermaster General Meigs contracted with Mr. Eads to build a number of iron-clad gun-boats for the Western waters, and from the fact that Gen. Meigs contracted for them it is presumed the War Department paid for them, and that the Navy Department had not then risen to the height of the occasion. Seven of these gun-boats were each to be about 600 [139] tons, to draw six feet of water, to be plated with two and a half inch iron, and steam nine knots. They were to be each 175 feet long and 51 1/2 wide, their sides at an angle of 35 degrees from the water line, their gun decks being but a foot above the surface of the water. The bow and stern were at an angle of 45 degrees, and the wheel for propelling the vessels was placed in the stern. Of course these vessels had many imperfections, as we were new in the business of building iron-clads, and seem to have had very little idea what thickness of iron plating was necessary to turn the heavy shot of the enemy.

The iron-clads carried four thirty-two pounders on each side, three nine or ten-inch guns in their bow ports, and two lighter

U. S. Gun-boats Taylor and Lexington.

guns in the stern. A casemate enclosed the wheel at the stern, and there was a conical pilot-house forward covered with iron. The writer is particular in describing these vessels, as they performed such remarkable service all through the war, and notwithstanding their defects and the vicissitudes they experienced, no vessels in the Navy engaged in so many successful battles or made such a record for their commanding officers.

Within two weeks after the contract with Eads was signed, four thousand men were busily engaged in constructing the vessels. The work was pushed night and day, and on the 12th of October, 1861, the St. Louis was launched at Carondelet, Missouri, forty-five days after her keel was laid. When this vessel was transferred with the others to the Navy Department, her name was changed to Baron deKalb. as there was already a St. Louis in the Navy. In the course of the succeeding twenty days the Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville. Mound City, Cairo and Pittsburg followed in rapid succession. An eighth vessel, the Benton, superior in every respect to the above, was undertaken. She was originally a wrecking boat, purchased by General Fremont and sent to Mr. Eads, whose ideas developing as he went on building, he produced from this wrecking boat an iron-clad of remarkable strength.

Thus in one hundred days this energetic man constructed a squadron of iron-clad gun-boats, aggregating five thousand tons, ready for their armament of one hundred and seven heavy guns. Such a performance needs no eulogy, and even had Mr. Eads done no more in the cause of the Union, he would have been entitled to the thanks of the nation. Since then he has gone on executing great works, and his reputation as a civil engineer is world-wide.

A ninth powerful vessel, the Essex, was afterward added to this formidable flotilla. She carried nine heavy guns, and though built in later fashion was not equal to the Benton.

When Flag-officer Andrew H. Foote took command of the Western Flotilla in September, 1862, it consisted of these nine “iron-clads” (so-called), three wooden gunboats, the Taylor Lexington and [140] Conestoga, which had been purchased and equipped by Commander John Rodgers, and thirty-eight mortars mounted on rafts.

This service was of a somewhat anomalous character, since the gun-boats were under control of the army, and their accounts were under the supervision of the Quartermaster General. There was no navy yard at first where the vessels could be refitted or repaired, but Flag-officer Foote, with his energetic assistants, overcame the impediments that retarded his operations, and displayed the highest qualities as a naval commander by establishing an efficient force on the Western rivers, and by leading it to victory in subsequent engagements with the enemy.

Previous to the time when Foote took command of the squadron, the Taylor, Lexington and Conestoga were constantly employed by General Grant, with the commanders mentioned, in making reconnoissances, during which they came frequently under fire of the enemy's batteries, which even at that early day infested the banks of the rivers. In one of these affairs the Conestoga particularly distinguished herself.

The Commander-in-Chief of a squadron may be very energetic himself and possess all the qualities necessary for his position, but he cannot succeed unless he is assisted by brave and efficient officers. The mention of subordinate officers has been too much neglected by naval historians, a fault which in this account the writer would wish to avoid. Nothing is more pleasing to an officer than to see himself credited with faithful service, though there are some officers so avaricious in this regard that they would fain monopolize all the glory to themselves. Such men should write their own histories.

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