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Chapter 57:

  • Author sets out for Richmond
  • -- is two weeks in making the journey -- interview with President Davis; with General Lee -- author is appointed a Rear-Admiral, and ordered to command the James river squadron -- Assumes command; condition of the fleet -- great Demoralizationthe enemy's armies gradually increasing -- Lee's lines broken.

I telegraphed my arrival, immediately, to the Secretary of the Navy at Richmond, informing him of my intention to proceed to that capital after resting for a few days. The following reply came over the wires, in the course of a few hours. ‘Congratulate you, on your safe arrival. When ready to come on, regard this as an order to report to the Department.’ I did not, of course, dally long at home. The enemy was pressing us too hard for me to think of sitting down in inglorious ease, so long as it was possible that I might be of service. At all events, it was my duty to present myself to the Government, and see if it had any commands for me. Accordingly, on the 2d of January, 1865, 1 put myself en route for Richmond. I was two weeks making my way to the capital of the Confederacy, owing the many breaks which had been made in the roads by raiding parties of the enemy, and by Sherman's march through Georgia. Poor Georgia! she had suffered terribly during this Vandal march of conflagration and pillage, and I found her people terribly demoralized. I stopped a day in Columbia, the beautiful capital of South Carolina, afterward so barbarously burned by a drunken and disorderly soldierly, with no officer to raise his hand to stay the conflagration. Passing on, [800] as soon as some temporary repairs could be made on a break in the road, ahead of me, I reached Richmond, without further stoppages, and was welcomed at his house, by my friend and relative, the Hon. Thomas J. Semmes, a senator in the Confederate Congress from the State of Louisiana.

I had thus travelled all the way from the eastern boundary of Mexico, to Richmond, by land, a journey, which, perhaps, has seldom been performed. In this long and tedious journey, through the entire length of the Confederacy, I had been painfully struck with the changed aspect of things, since I had left the country in the spring of 1861. Plantations were ravaged, slaves were scattered, and the country was suffering terribly for the want of the most common necessaries of life. Whole districts of country had been literally laid waste by the barbarians who had invaded us. The magnificent valley of the Red River, down which, as the reader has seen, I had recently travelled, had been burned and pillaged for the distance of a hundred and fifty miles. Neither Alaric, nor Attila ever left such a scene of havoc and desolation in his rear. Demoniac Yankee hate had been added to the thirst for plunder. Sugar-mills, saw-mills, salt-works, and even the gristmills which ground the daily bread for families, had been laid in ashes—their naked chimneys adding ghastliness to the picture. Reeling, drunken soldiers passed in and out of dwellings, plundering and insulting their inmates; and if disappointed in the amount of their plunder, or resisted, applied the torch in revenge. Many of these miscreants were foreigners, incapable of speaking the English language. The few dwellings that were left standing, looked like so many houses of mourning. Once the seats of hospitality and refinement, and the centres of thrifty plantations, with a contented and happy laboring population around them, they were now shut up and abandoned. There was neither human voice in the hall, nor neigh of steed in the pasture. The tenantless negro cabins told the story of the war. The Yankee had liberated the slave, and armed him to make war upon his former master. The slaves who had not been enlisted in the Federal armies, were wandering, purposeless, about the country, in squads, thieving, famishing, and dying. This was the character [801] of the war our brethren of the North—God save the mark —were making upon us.

To add to the heart-sickening features of the picture, our own people had become demoralized! Men, generally, seemed to have given up the cause as lost, and to have set themselves at work, like wreckers, to save as much as possible from the sinking ship. The civilians had betaken themselves to speculation and money-getting, and the soldiers to drinking and debauchery. Such, in brief, was the picture which presented itself to my eyes as I passed through the Confederacy. The Alabama had gone to her grave none too soon. If she had not been buried with the honors of war, with the howling winds of the British Channel to sing her requiem, she might soon have been handed over to the exultant Yankee, to be exhibited at Boston, as a trophy of the war.

My first official visit in Richmond was, of course, to the President. I found him but little changed, in personal appearance, since I had parted with him in Montgomery, the then seat of government, in April, 1861. But he was evidently deeply impressed with the critical state of the country, though maintaining an outward air of cheerfulness and serenity. I explained to him briefly, what, indeed, he already knew too well, the loss of my ship. He was kind enough to say that, though he deeply regretted her loss, he knew that I had acted for the best, and that he had nothing with which to reproach me. I dined with him on a subsequent day. There was only one other guest present. Mrs. Davis was more impressed with events than the President. With her womanly instinct, she already saw the handwriting on the wall. But though the coming calamity would involve her household in ruin, she maintained her self-possession and cheerfulness. The Congress, which was in session, received me with a distinction which I had little merited. Both houses honored me by a vote of thanks for my services, and invited me to a privileged seat on the floor. The legislature of Virginia, also in session, extended to me the same honors.

As soon as I could command a leisure moment, I paid General Lee a visit, at his headquarters near Petersburg, and spent a night with him. I had served with him in the Mexican [802] war. We discussed together the critical state of the country, and of his army,—we were now near the end of January, 1865, —and I thought the grand old chieftain and Christian gentleman seemed to foreshadow, in his conversation—more by manner than by words—the approaching downfall of the cause for which we were both struggling. I had come to him, I told him, to speak of what I had seen of the people, and of the army, in my transit across the country, and to say to him, that unless prompt measures could be devised to put an end to the desertions that were going on among our troops, our cause must inevitably be lost. He did not seem to be at all surprised at the revelations I made. He knew all about the condition of the country, civil and military, but seemed to feel himself powerless to prevent the downward tendency of things. And he was right. It was no longer in the power of any one man to save the country. The body-politic was already dead. The people themselves had given up the contest, and this being the case, no army could do more than retard the catastrophe for a few months. Besides, his army was, itself, melting away. That very night—as I learned the next morning, at the breakfast table—160 men deserted in a body! It was useless to attempt to shoot deserters, when demoralization had gone to this extent.

After I had been in Richmond a few weeks, the President was pleased to nominate me to the Senate as a rear-admiral. My nomination was unanimously confirmed, and, in a few days afterward, I was appointed to the command of the James River fleet. My commission ran as follows:—

Sir:—You are hereby informed that the President has appointed you, by and with the advice of the Senate, a Rear-Admiral, in the Provisional Navy of the Confederate States, ‘for gallant and meritorious conduct, in command of the steam-sloop Alabama.’ You are requested to signify your acceptance, or non-acceptance of this appointment.

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.


An old and valued friend, Commodore J. K. Mitchell, had been in command of the James River fleet, and I displaced him very reluctantly. He had organized and disciplined the fleet, and had accomplished with it all that was possible, viz., the protection of Richmond by water. I assumed my command on the 18th of February, 1865. My fleet consisted of three iron-clads and five wooden gunboats. I found my old first lieutenant, Kell, who had preceded me to Richmond, and been made a commander, in command of one of the ironclads, but he was soon obliged to relinquish his command, on account of failing health. As reorganized, the fleet stood as follows:—

Virginia, iron-clad, flag-ship, four guns, Captain Dunnington.

Richmond, iron-clad, four guns, Captain Johnson.

Fredericksburg, iron-clad, four guns, Captain Glassel.

Hampton, wooden, two guns, Captain Wilson, late of the Alabama.

Nansemond, wooden, two guns, Captain Butt.

Roanoke, wooden, two guns, Captain Pollock.

Beaufort, wooden, two guns, Captain Wyatt.

Torpedo, wooden, one gun, Captain Roberts.

The fleet was assisted, in the defence of the river, by several shore batteries, in command of naval officers; as Drury's Bluff; Battery Brooke; Battery Wood, and Battery Semmes—the whole under the command of my old friend, Commodore John R. Tucker.

I soon had the mortification to find that the fleet was as much demoralized as the army. Indeed, with the exception of its principal officers, and about half a dozen sailors in each ship, its personnel was drawn almost entirely from the army. The movements of the ships being confined to the head-waters of a narrow river, they were but little better than prison-ships. Both men and officers were crowded into close and uncomfortable quarters, without the requisite space for exercise. I remedied this, as much as possible, by sending squads on shore, to drill and march on the river-bank. They were on half rations, and with but a scanty supply of clothing. Great discontent and restlessness prevailed. Constant applications were coming to me for leaves of absence—almost every one having some [804] story to tell of a sick or destitute family. I was obliged, of course, to resist all these appeals. ‘The enemy was thundering at the gates,’ and not a man could be spared. Desertion was the consequence. Sometimes an entire boat's crew would run off, leaving the officer to find his way on board the best he might. The strain upon them had been too great. It was scarcely to be expected of men, of the class of those who usually form the rank and file of ships' companies, that they would rise above their natures, and sacrifice themselves by slow but sure degrees, in any cause, however holy. The visions of home and fireside, and freedom from restraint were too tempting to be resisted. The general understanding, that the collapse of the Confederacy was at hand, had its influence with some of the more honorable of them. They reasoned that their desertion would be but an anticipation of the event by a few weeks.

To add to the disorder, the ‘Union element,’ as it was called, began to grow bolder. This element was composed mainly of Northern-born men, who had settled among us before the war. In the height of the war, when the Southern States were still strong, and when independence was not only possible, but probable, these men pretended to be good Southerners. The Puritan leaven, which was in their natures, was kept carefully concealed. Hypocrisy was now no longer necessary. Many of these men were preachers of the various denominations, and schoolmasters. These white-cravatted gentlemen now sprang into unusual activity. Every mail brought long and artfully written letters from some of these scoundrels, tempting my men to desert. Some of these letters came under my notice, and if I could have gotten hold of the writers, I should have been glad to give them the benefit of a short shrift, and one of my yard-arms. If I had had my fleet upon the sea, it would have been an easy matter to restore its discipline, but my ships were, in fact, only so many tents, into which entered freely all the bad influences of which I speak. I was obliged to perform guard-boat duty on the river, and picket duty on shore, and these duties gave my men all the opportunities of escape that they desired.

With regard to the defence of Richmond by water, I felt [805] quite secure. No fleet of the enemy could have passed my three iron-clads, moored across the stream, in the only available channel, with obstructions below me, which would hold it under my fire, and that of the naval batteries on shore by which I was flanked. Indeed, the enemy, seeing the hopelessness of approach by water, had long since given up the idea. The remainder of the winter passed slowly and tediously enough. A few months earlier, and I might have had something to occupy me. For a long time, there was no more than a single iron-clad in the lower James, the enemy being busy with Charleston and Wilmington. An attack on City Point, Grant's base of operations, and whence he drew all his supplies, would have been quite practicable. If the store-houses at that place could have been burned, there is no telling what might have been the consequences. But now, Charleston and Wilmington having fallen, and the enemy having no further use for his iron-clad fleet, on the coasts of North and South Carolina, he had concentrated the whole of it on the lower James, under the command of Admiral Porter, who, as the reader has seen, had chased me, so quixotically, in the old frigate Powhattan, in the commencement of the war. At first, this concentration looked like a preparation for an attempted ascent of the river, but if any attempt of the kind was ever entertained by Porter, he had the good sense, when he came to view the ‘situation,’ to abandon it.

I usually visited the Navy Department, during this anxious period, once a week, to confer with the Secretary on the state of my fleet, and the attitude of the enemy, and to receive any orders or suggestions that the Government might have to make. Mr. Mallory was kind enough, on these occasions, to give me carte blanche, and leave me pretty much to myself. At length the winter passed, and spring set in. The winds and the sun of March began to dry the roads, and put them in good order for military operations, and every one anticipated stirring events. As I sat in my twilight cabin, on board the Virginia, and pored over the map of North Carolina, and plotted upon it, from day to day, the approaches of Sherman, the prospect seemed gloomy enough. As before remarked, Charleston and Wilmington had fallen. With the latter, we [806] had lost our last blockade-running port. Our ports were now all hermetically sealed. The anaconda had, at last, wound his fatal folds around us. With fields desolated at home, and all supplies from abroad cut off; starvation began to stare us in the face. Charleston was evacuated on the 17th of February —General Hardee having no more than time to get his troops out of the city, and push on ahead of Sherman, and join General Joseph E. Johnson, who had again been restored to command. Fort Anderson, the last defence of Wilmington, fell on the 19th of the same month. Sherman was, about this time, at Columbia, South Carolina, where he forever disgraced himself by burning, or permitting to be burned, it matters not which, that beautiful city, which had already surrendered to his arms. The opportunity was too good to be lost. The Puritan was at last in the city of the cavalier. The man of ruder habits and coarser civilization, was in the presence of the more refined gentleman whom he had envied and hated for generations. The ignoble passions of race-hatred and revenge were gratified, and Massachusetts, through the agency of a brutal and debauched soldiery, had put her foot upon the neck of prostrate South Carolina! This was humiliation indeed! The coarse man of mills and manufactures had at last found entrance as a master into the halls of the South Carolina planter!

It was generally expected that Sherman would move upon Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the most extensive depots of the South, and thence to Danville, and so on to Richmond, to unite his forces with those of Grant. There was nothing to oppose him. In ten days at the farthest, after burning Columbia, he could have effected a junction with Grant before Petersburg. But the ‘great commander’ seemed suddenly to have lost his courage, and to the astonishment of every one, soon after passing Winsboroa, North Carolina, which lies on the road to Charlotte, he swung his army off to the right, and marched in the direction of Fayetteville! His old antagonist, Johnston, was endeavoring to gather together the broken remains of the Army of the Tennessee, and he was afraid of him. His object now was to put himself in communication with Schofield, who had landed at Wilmington and at Newbern with a large force, [807] and establish a new base of operations at these points. He would be safe here, as his troops could be fed, and in case of disaster, he could fall back upon the sea, and upon Porter's gunboats. He effected the contemplated junction with Schofield, at Goldsboroa, North Carolina, on the 21st of March. He had not touched any of Lee's communications with his depots since leaving Winsboroa; the destruction of which communications Grant had so much at heart, and which had been the chief object of his—Sherman's—‘great march.’ At Goldsboroa he was still 150 miles from Grant's lines, and he took no further part in the campaign.

His junction with Schofield had not been effected without disaster. At Kinston, Bragg gained a victory over Schofield, utterly routing him, and taking 1500 prisoners; and at Bentonsville, Johnston checked, and gained some advantage over Sherman. As the reader is supposed to be looking over the map with me, we will now stick a pin in the point representing Goldsboroa, and throw Sherman and Schofield out of view.

In the latter part of March, Sheridan, having overrun Early's small force, in the valley of the Shenandoah, found himself at liberty to join General Grant. He brought with him from 10,000 to 12,000 excellent cavalry. Grant's army was thus swollen to 160,000 men. Adding Sherman's and Schofield's forces of 100,000, we have 260,000. In the meantime, Lee's half-starved, ragged army, had dwindled to 33,000. With this small number of men he was compelled to guard an intrenched line of forty miles in length, extending from the north side of the James River, below Richmond, to Hatcher's Run, south of Petersburg. As a mere general, he would have abandoned the hopeless task long ago, extricating his army, and throwing it into the field, but cui bono? With Virginia in the enemy's possession, with a beaten people, and an army fast melting away by desertion, could the war be continued with any hope of success? If we could not defend ourselves before Richmond, could we defend ourselves anywhere? That was the question.

Grant's object was to force Lee's right in the vicinity of Hatcher's Run; but he masked this intention, as much as possible, by occasionally threatening the whole line. I had frequent [808] opportunity, from the deck of my flag-ship, to witness terrible artillery conflicts where nobody was killed. Suddenly, on a still night, all the enemy's batteries would be ablaze, and the heavens aroar with his firing. The expenditure of powder was enormous, and must have gladdened the hearts of the Yankee contractors. I would sometimes be aroused from slumber, and informed that a great battle was going on. On one or two occasions, I made some slight preparations for defence, myself, not knowing but Porter might be fool enough to come up the river, under the inspiration of this powder-burning, and booming of cannon. But it all amounted to nothing more than Chinese grimaces, and ‘stink-pots,’ resorted to to throw Lee off his guard, and prevent him from withdrawing men from his left, to reinforce his right.

The final and successful assault of Grant was not long delayed. The lines in the vicinity of Petersburg having been weakened, by the necessity of withdrawing troops to defend Lee's extreme right, resting now on a point called the Five Forks, Grant, on the morning of Sunday, the 2d of April, made a vigorous assault upon them, and broke them. Lee's army was uncovered, and Richmond was no longer tenable!

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