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Chapter 30: the Confederacy afloat.

  • Who the southern sailors were
  • -- regular and provisional Navy-bills -- popular estimate of Mr. Mallory -- iron-clads vs. cruisers -- the parole of “Pirate Semmes” -- what iron-clads might have done -- Treasury and Navy -- the “Merrimac” -- Virginia fight in Hampton Roads -- the white-flag Violation -- those wonderful wooden shells -- other flashing achievements -- comparison of the two navies -- doubtful torpedo results -- Summing up the hue-and-cry -- Nashville and New Orleans -- the Tatnall -- “Virginia” Court-martial -- who did more than they?
    Measured by the popular test, success, the Confederate States Navy would, perhaps, be accorded little merit. Even cursory examination into the vast difficulties and discouragements with which it contended, will do it prompt justice.

    No men who joined the southern service sacrificed more than her navy officers. The very flower of the old service, they had grown gray in their slow promotion to its positions of honor; their families depended for sole support upon the pittance of pay they received. Still they hesitated not a moment to range themselves under the banners their native states had unfurled. Once there, no men labored more faithfully-and efficiently. Subject to misconstruction, to jealousy, to petty annoyances-and later, to the most pinching straits of poverty — they were ever uncomplaining and ever ready.

    Many and varied were the calls upon them. They commanded land batteries, trained raw gunners and drilled lubberly conscripts; they were bridge-builders, carpenters, wood-cutters, chemists and colliers; and, at the best, it was hard for the veteran who had, for forty years, trod the deck of a frigate, to be cooped in the contracted limits of a razeed tug, or an armed pilot boat. But once there he made the best of it; and how well he wrought in the new sphere, the names of Hollins, Lynch, Buchanan and Tucker still attest.

    At the time the first Army Bill was passed by Congress, a law was also made securing to resigned naval officers the same rank they held in the United States service. But there was scarcely a keel in Confederate waters, and small indeed was the prospect for the future; so these impatient spirits, panting for active work, were put into unsuitable positions at the very outset. Later, a bill was passed for a provisional navy, but there was no fleet for their occupation. The department, therefore, used the discretion given it to confer a few honorary titles, and to appoint a vast number of subordinate officers, for shore duty in its work-shops and navy-yards. [260]

    The acceptability of Mr. Mallory to the people, at the outset of his career, has been noted. They believed that his long experience in the committee of naval affairs was guarantee for the important trust confided to him. Moreover, he was known to be relied upon by Mr. Davis as a man of solid intellect, of industry and perseverance. If his knowledge of naval affairs was entirely theoretical, it mattered little so long as he could turn that knowledge to practical account, by the counsel and aid of some of the most efficient of the scientific sailors of the Union.

    Mr. Mallory took charge of the Navy Department in March, 1861. At this time the question of iron-clads had attention of naval builders on both sides of the Atlantic; and deeming them indispensable to naval warfare, the Secretary's first movement was a strong memoir to Congress, urging immediate and heavy appropriations for their construction at New Orleans and Mobile. With a treasury empty and immovably averse to anything like decisive action, the astute lawgivers of Montgomery hesitated and doubted. The most that could be forced from them were small appropriations for the fitting out of privateers.

    The first venture, the “Sumter,” was bought, equipped and put into commission at the end of April; and in the course of a few weeks she ran out of New Orleans, in command of Raphael Semmes, and the stars and bars were floating solitary, but defiant, over the seas. The history of her cruise, the terror she spread among the enemy's shipping, and the paralysis she sent to the very heart of his commerce, are too well known to need repetition here. Badly-built craft as she was for such a service, she was still more badly equipped; but so eminently successful was she that both Government and Congress must have been incurably blind, not to put a hundred like her upon every sea where the Union flag could float.

    Had one-twentieth the sum frittered away in useless iron-clads, and worse than useless “gunboats,” been put into saucy and swift wasps like the “Sumter,” their stings must have driven northern commerce from the sea; and the United States ports would have been more effectually blockaded, from a thousand miles at sea, than were those of the southern fleet-bound coast.

    It may not be irrelevant here to allude to the finale of the Confederate cruisers; and to recall the most inane farce of all those enacted by the madmen who held power in 1866. [261]

    In the January of that year, Raphael Semmes was seized and thrown into prison. He was now charged — not with having violated his parole given to General Grant, who was personally and morally responsible for his persecution — not with doing aught but “obeying the laws themselves ;” but he was charged with having escaped, the year before, from the custody of a man whose prisoner he was not and had never been — with having broken from a durance that ought to have existed! From incontrovertible testimony, we know that Captain Semmes only raised the white flag, after his vessel began to sink; that he stayed on her deck until she went down beneath him; that no boat came to him from the “Kearsage,” and that he was in the water full an hour, before the boat of the “Deerhound” picked him up and carried him aboard that yacht.

    But radical hatred, and thirst for vengeance on a disarmed enemy, raised the absurd plea that Semmes became a prisoner of war by raising the white flag; that by so doing he gave a moral parole! and violated it by saving himself from a watery grave and afterward taking up arms again. It is only a proof that the country was a little less mad than the radical leaders, that the unheard — of absurdity of its Navy Department was not sustained by popular opinion. It would have no doubt been chivalric and beautiful in Raphael Semmes to have drowned in the ocean, because the boat of the “Kearsage” would not pick him up after accepting his “moral parole;” but, as he did not see it in that light, and as he was never called upon to surrender by any officer of that ship, he was perfectly free the moment his own deck left him in the waves. The white flag was but a token that he desired to save the lives of his men; and would surrender them and himself, if opportunity were given. But even granting the nonsensical claim that it made him a prisoner — the laws of war demand absolute safety for prisoners; and the fact of the “Kearsage” leaving him to drown was, in itself, a release.

    There is no necessity for defense of Captain Semmes' position; but it may be well to record how blind is the hate which still attempts to brand as “Pirate” a regularly-commissioned officer in service, whose long career gained him nothing but respect under the northern-nothing but glory under the southern flag. If Raphael Semmes be a “pirate,” then was the northern recognition of belligerents but an active lie! Then was Robert E. Lee a marauder-Wade Hampton but a bushwhacker, and Joseph E. Johnston but a guerrilla! [262]

    When the “Sumter” began her work, she was soon followed by the “Florida” --a vessel somewhat better, but still of the same class. Under the dashing and efficient Maffitt, the “Florida,” too, wrought daring destruction. Her record, like that of her rival, is too familiar for repetition; ag is the later substitution of the “Alabama” for the worn-out “Sumter.”

    During the long war, these three vessels-and but two of them at one time — were the only cruisers the Confederacy had afloat; until just before its close, the “Shenandoah” went out to strike fresh terror to the heart and pocket of New England. Then, also, that stronghanded and cool-headed amphiboid, Colonel John Taylor Wood, made --with wretched vessels and hastily-chosen crews-most effective raids on the coasting shipping of the Northeast.

    One popular error pervades all which has been said or written, on both sides of the line, about the Confederate navy. This is the general title of “privateer,” given to all vessels not cooped up in southern harbors. Regularly-commissioned cruisers, like the “Alabama” and “Florida,” the property of the Navy Department, and commanded by its regularly-commissioned officers, were no more “privateers” than were the “Minnesota,” or “Kearsage.”

    There was a law passed, regulating the issue of letters of marque; and from time to time much was heard of these in the South. But after the first spirt of the saucy little “Jeff Davis,” not more than two or three ever found their way to sea; and even these accomplished nothing.

    At one time, a company with heavy capital was gotten up in Richmond, for the promotion of such enterprises; but it was looked upon as a job and was little successful in any sense.

    So, with all the ports of the world open to belligerent ships; with unsurpassed sailors “panting for the very lack of element” in musty offices, privateers did not increase in number; and one of the most effective engines of legitimate warfare was but illustrated, instead of being utilized.

    Meantime, the Navy Department had ceased to importune for appropriations to build iron-clads at New Orleans; an omission that carried the grave responsibility for loss of that city, and for the far graver disaster of the closing of the whole river and the blockade of the trans-Mississippi. For had the “Louisiana” been furnished with [263] two companion ships of equal strength-or even had she been completely finished and not had been compelled to succumb to accidents within, while she braved the terrific fire from without — the Federal fleet might have been crushed like egg-shells; the splendid exertions of Hollins and Kennon in the past would not have been nullified; the blood of McIntosh and Huger would not have been useless sacrifice; and the homes of the smiling city and the pure vicinage of her noble daughters might not have been polluted by the presence of the commandant, who crawled in after the victorious fleet.

    Norfolk, however, had comeinto southern possession, by the secession of Virginia; and the vast resources of her navy-yard-only partly crippled by the haste of the Federal retreat-stimulated the Government. A meager appropriation was passed for the construction of the “Merrimac;” or rather for an iron-clad ship upon the hull of the half-destroyed frigate of that name. Had the whole amount necessary for her completion been given, the vessel would have been ready weeks before she was, under the dribblet system adopted. Then, indeed, it would be hard to overestimate her value; damage to shipping in Hampton Roads; or her ultimate effect upon McClellan's campaign.

    No appropriation for an object of vital import could be shaken free from its bonds of red tape; and this one was saddled with an incubus, in the bill for the “construction of one hundred gunboats.” The scheme to build that number of wooden vessels of small size seemed equally short-sighted and impracticable. They could only be built on inland rivers and creeks, to prevent attacks by the enemy's heavier vessels; and hence they were necessarily small and ineffective. The interior navy-yards had, moreover, to be guarded against surprises by the enemy's cavalry; and as men were so scarce, it was generally arranged that the navy-yard should follow the army lines. Constantly shifting position-caused by the rapid movements of the enemy, left these impromptu ship-yards unprotected; and then a small party of raiders would either burn them, or force their builders to do so. It was not until the appropriation was nearly spentalthough not one efficient gunboat of this class was ever finished-that the system was abandoned as utterly worthless and impracticable.

    Had the large sum thus wasted been applied to the purchase of swift and reliable cruisers-or to the speedy and energetic complex [264] tion of one iron-clad at a time — it would have read a far more telling story to the enemy, both in prestige and result.

    But even in the case of these, energy and capital were divided and distracted. On completion of the “Merrimac,” there were in the course of construction at New Orleans, two mailed vessels of a different class-one of them only a towboat covered with railroad iron. There were also two small ones on the stocks at Charleston, and another at Savannah. The great difficulty of procuring proper iron; of rolling it when obtained; and the mismanagement of transportation, even when the plates were ready-made the progress of all these boats very slow. Practicality would have concentrated the whole energy of the Department upon one at a time; not have left them all unfinished, either to prove utterly useless at the trying moment, or to fall a prey to superior force of the enemy.

    The plan of the “Merrimac” was unique, in the submersion of her projecting eaves; presenting a continuous angling coat of mail even below the water-surface. She was built upon the razeed hull of the old “Merrimac,” of four-and-a-half-inch iron, transverse plates; and carried an armament of seven-inch rifled Brooke guns, made expressly for her. There was much discussion at one time, as to whom the credit for her plan was really due. It finally was generally conceded, however, that her origin and perfection were due to Commander John M. Brooke; and the terrible banded rifle-gun and bolt, she used with such effect on the “Cumberland,” was his undisputed invention.

    Much wonder had the good people of Norfolk expressed in their frequent visits to the strange-looking, turtle-like structure. Day by day she slowly grew; and at length, after weary work and weary waiting, took on her armament; then her crew was picked carefully from eager volunteers: her grand old captain took his place, and all was ready for the trial.

    During all this time Hampton Roads had been gay with Federal shipping. Frigates, gunboats, transports and supply ships ran defiantly up and down; laughing at the futile efforts of the point batteries to annoy them, and indulging in a dream of security that was to be most rudely broken. The “Susquehanna” frigate, with heaviest armament in the Federal navy, laid in the channel at Newport News, blockading the mouth of James river and cutting off communication [265] from Norfolk. The “Congress” frigate was lying near her, off the News; while the “Minnesota” lay below, under the guns of Fortress Monroe. The Ericsson Monitor — the first of her class, and equally an experiment as her rebel rival-had come round a few days before to watch the “Virginia,” as the new iron-clad was now rechristened.

    The great ship being ready, Flag-Officer Buchanan ordered the “Jamestown,” Captain Barney, and the “Yorktown,” Captain Tucker, down from Richmond; while he went out with the “Raleigh” and “Beaufort” --two of the smallest class of gunboats, saved by Captain Lynch from Roanoke Island. This combined force-four of the vessels being frail wooden shells, formerly used as river passenger boats-carried only twenty-seven guns. But Buchanan steamed boldly out, on the morning of the 8th of March, to attack an enemy carrying quite two hundred and twenty of the heaviest guns in the United States navy!

    It was a moment of dreadful suspense for the soldiers in the batteries and the people of Norfolk. They crowded the wharves, the steeples, and the high points of the shore; and every eye was strained upon the black specks in the harbor.

    Slowly — with somewhat of majesty in her stolid, even progressthe “Virginia” steamed on-down the harbor-past the river batteries-out into the Roads. Steadily she kept her way, heading straight for the “Cumberland;” and close to her stuck the frail wooden boats that a single shell might have shattered. On she went --into full range. Then suddenly, as if from one match, shipping and shore batteries belched forth the great shells hurtling over her, hissing into the water-bounding from her side like raindrops from a rock! On she headed-straight for the “Cumberland;” the crew of that ship steadily working their heated guns and wondering at the strange, silent monster that came on so evenly, so slowly-so regardless alike of shot and shell. Suddenly she spoke.

    The terrible shell from her bow-gun tore the huge frigate from stern to bow; driving in her quarter, dismounting guns and scattering death along its course. Shocked and staggered, Uncle Sam's tars still stuck to their work. Once more the “Cumberland” delivered her whole broadside, full in her enemy's face at pistol range. It was her death volley. The submerged ram had struck home. A [266] great rent yawned in the ship's side; she filled rapidly-careened --went down by the bows — her flag still flying-her men still at quarters!

    On past her-scarce checked in her deadly-slow course-moved the “Virginia.” Then she closed on the “Congress,” and one terrific broadside after another raked the frigate; till, trembling like a cardhouse, she hauled down her colors and raised the white flag. The “Beaufort” ranged alongside and received the flag of the “Congress,” and her captain, William R. Smith, and Lieutenant Pendergrast as prisoners of war. These officers left their side-arms on the “Beaufort” and returned to the “Congress;” whennotwithstand-ing the white flag — a hot fire was opened from shore upon the “Beaufort,” and she was compelled to withdraw. Lieutenant Robert Minor was then sent in a boat from the “Virginia” to fire the frigate; but was badly wounded by a Minie-ball, from under the white flag; and Captain Buchanan was seriously hit in the leg by the same volley. Then it was determined to burn the “Congress” with hot shot.

    There is no room for comment here; and no denial of these facts has ever been made, or attempted.

    Meanwhile, the frigates “Minnesota,” “St. Lawrence” and “Roanoke” had advanced and opened fire on the “Virginia;” but upon her approach to meet it, they retired under the guns of the fort; the “Minnesota” badly damaged by the heavy fire of her antagonist, while temporarily aground.

    Next day the “Virginia” had a protracted but indecisive fight with the “Monitor;” the latter's lightness preventing her being run down and both vessels seeming equally impenetrable. Later in the day the victorious ship steamed back to Norfolk, amid the wildest enthusiasm of its people. The experiment had proved a success beyond the wildest expectation: and a new era seemed opened in naval warfare.

    But however great the meed of praise deserved by the iron ship and her crew, at least as much was due to those of the wooden gunboats that had so gallantly seconded her efforts. All day long had those frail shells been urged into the thickest of that terrific fire. Shot flew by, over and through them; and it seemed miraculous that they were not torn into shreds!

    The success of the “Virginia,” while it gave food for much comment [267] at the North and in Europe, had the effect of stimulating the Department to renewed exertions elsewhere. At the same time it raised the navy greatly in the estimation of the people, who began now to see of what material it was composed, to accomplish so much with such limited means and opportunity. And this opinion was to be strengthened, from time to time, by the brilliant flashes of naval daring that came to illumine some of the darkest hours of the war.

    Who does not remember that defense of Drewry's Bluff when Eben Farrand had only three gunboat crews and three hastily mounted guns, with which to drive back the heavy fleet that knew Richmond city lay helpless at its mercy?

    And those desperate, yet brilliant fights off New Orleans, against every odds of metal, numbers, and worse, of internal mismanagement. Do they not illustrate the character of the navy, and bring it out in bold relief of heroism? Nor should we forget the brief but brilliant life of the “Arkansas” --born in danger and difficulty; surrounded on every side by numberless active foes; and finally dying, not from the blow of an enemy, but from the fault of those who sent her forth unfinished and incomplete!

    Those trying times recall the conduct of Captain Lynch and his squadron of shells; and of the veteran Cooke in the batteries, on the dark day that lost Roanoke Island. Nor may we lose sight of the splendid conduct of that latter grim old seadog, when, returning wounded and prison-worn, he bore down on Plymouth in the “Albemarle” and crushed the Federal gunboats like egg-shells.

    And conspicuous, even among these fellow-sailors, stands John Taylor Wood. Quick to plan and strong to strike, he ever and anon would collect a few trusty men and picked officers; glide silently out from Richmond, where his duties as colonel of cavalry on the President's staff chained him most of the time. Soon would come an echo from the frontier, telling of quick, sharp struggle; victorious boarding and a Federal gunboat or two given to the flames. I have already alluded to his dashing raid upon the fishery fleet; but his cunning capture of the gunboats in the Rappahannock, or his cool and daring attack on the “Underwriter,” during Pickett's movement on Newberne, would alone give him undying reputation.

    The United States had a navy in her waters that would class as the third maritime power of the world; and this she rapidly increased [268] by every appliance of money, skill and energy. She bought and built ships and spent vast sums and labor in experiments in ordnance, armoring and machinery. As result of this, the Federal navy, at the end of the second year of the war, numbered some 390 vessels of all grades, carrying a fraction over 3,000 guns. Before the end of the war it had increased to near 800 vessels of war of all grades; the number of guns had doubled and were infinitely heavier and more effective; and the number of tenders, tugs, transports and supply ships would have swelled the navy list to over 1,300 vessels.

    To meet this formidable preparation, the Confederate Navy Department in May, 1861, had one gulf steamer in commission; had the fragments of the Norfolk Navy Yard; the refuse of the harbor boats of Charleston, New Orleans, Savannah and Mobile to select from; and had, besides, the neglect of Congress and the jealousy of the other branch of the service.

    Spite of all these drawbacks, the rare powers of the navy officers forced themselves into notice and use.

    Before the close of the war, the only two rolling-mills in the Confederacy were in charge of navy officers. They built powder-mills and supplied their own demands; and, to a great extent, those of the army. They established rope-walks and became the seekers for the invaluable stores of niter and coal that both branches of the service so much needed. More than this, they made from nothingand in spite of constant losses from exposure to the enemy and incomplete supplies — a fleet of iron-elads numbering at one time nine vessels; and a wooden navy at the same moment reaching some thirty-five.

    But these-scattered over the vast area of water courses, far from supporting each other — were unable to cope with the superior strength of metal and construction brought against them.

    That much-discussed torpedo system, too-regarding the utility of which there was such diversity of opinion-had its birth and perfection in the navy. It was a service of science and perseverance; frequently of exposure to every peril. It required culture, nerve and administrative ability; and it was managed in the main with success. Still the results were hardly commensurate with the outlay involved; for though James river, some of the western streams, and Charleston [269] harbor were literally sown with torpedoes, yet only in rare and isolated instances-such as the “De Kalb” and “Commodore Jones” --did the results equal the expectation. Thousands of tons of valuable powder, much good metal and more valuable time at the work-shops were expended on torpedoes; and, on the whole, it is very doubtful if the amount destroyed was not more than balanced by the amount expended.

    Thus, with varying fortunes-but with unceasing endeavor and unfailing courage — the navy worked on. That hue and cry against itwhich a brilliant success would partially paralyze-soon gathered force in its intervals of enforced inaction. Just after the triumph of Hampton Roads was, perhaps, the brightest hour for the navy in public estimation. People then began to waver in their belief that its administration was utterly and hopelessly wrong; and to think that its chief had not perhaps sinned quite as much as he had been sinned against.

    The old adage about giving a bad name, however, was more than illustrated in Mr. Mallory's case. He had no doubt been unfortunate; but that he really was guilty of one-half the errors and mishaps laid at his door was simply impossible. Not taking time-and, perhaps, without the requisite knowledge — to compare the vast discrepancy of force between the two governments, the masses only saw the rapid increase of the Federal navy and felt the serious effects of its efficiency. Then they grumbled that the Confederate secretary-with few work-shops, scattered navy-yards, little money and less transportation-did not proceed pari passu to meet these preparations. Every result of circumstance, every accident, every inefficiency of a subordinate was visited upon Mr. Mallory's head. Public censure always makes the meat it feeds on; and the secretary soon became the target for shafts of pitiable malice, or of unreflecting ridicule. When the enemy's gunboats-built at secure points and fitted out without stint of cost, labor or material-ascended to Nashville, a howl was raised that the Navy Department should have had the water defenses ready. True, Congress had appropriated half a million for the defenses of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers; but the censorious public forgot that the money had been voted too late. Even then it was quite notorious, that in the red-tape system of requisition and delay that hedged the Treasury — an appropriation and the money it named were totally diverse things. [270]

    When New Orleans fell, curses loud and deep went up against the Navy Department. Doubtless there was some want of energy in pushing the iron-clads there; but again in this case the money was voted very late; and even Confederate machine-shops and Confederate laborers could not be expected to give their material, time and labor entirely for nothing. Had Congress made the appropriations as asked, and had the money been forthcoming at the Treasury-New Orleans might not have fallen as she did.

    Later still, when the “Virginia” was blown up on the evacuation of Norfolk, a howl of indignation was raised against Secretary, Department and all connected with it. A Court of Inquiry was called; and Commodore Tatnall himself demanded a court-martial, upon the first court not ordering one.

    The facts proved were that the ship, with her iron coating and heavy armament, drew far too much water to pass the shoal at Harrison's Bar-between her and Richmond. With Norfolk in the enemy's hands, the hostile fleet pressing her-and with no point whence to draw supplies-she could not remain, as the cant went, “the grim sentinel to bar all access to the river.” It was essential to lighten her, if. possible; and the effort was made by sacrificing her splendid armament. Even then she would not lighten enough by two feet; the enemy pressed upon her, now perfectly unarmed; and Tatnall was forced to leave and fire her.

    People forgot the noble achievements of the ship under naval guidance; that, if destroyed by naval men, she was the offspring of naval genius. With no discussion of facts, the cry against the navy went on, even after that splendid defense of Drewry's Bluff by Farrand, which alone saved Richmond!

    As a pioneer, the “Virginia” was a great success and fully demonstrated the theory of her projector. But there were many points about her open to grave objections; and she was, as a whole, far inferior to the smaller vessels afterward built upon her model at Richmond. Armed with the same gun, there is little doubt but the “Monitor” would have proved — from her superior lightness and obedience to her helm — no less than from her more compact buildat least her equal. Officers on the “Virginia” shared in this belief of her advantages over her terrible antagonist.

    On the whole, the experience of the war tells of honest endeavor [271] and brilliant achievement, under surpassing difficulty, for the Confederate navy. That it was composed of gallant, noble-hearted men, none who were thrown with them can doubt; that they wrought heart and hand for the cause, in whatever strange and novel position, none ever did doubt.

    They made mistakes. Who in army, or government, did not?

    But from the day they offered their swords; through the unequal contest of the Sounds, the victorious one of Hampton Roads; pining for the sea in musty offices, or drilling green conscripts in sand batteries; marching steadily to the last fight at Appomattox-far out of their element — the Confederate sailors flinched not from fire nor fled from duty. Though their country grumbled, and detraction and ingratitude often assailed them; yet at the bitter ending no man nor woman in the broad South but believed they had done their devoir-honestly-manfully-well!

    Who in all that goodly throng of soldiers, statesmen and criticsdid more?

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