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Chapter 20.

  • The blockade
  • -- Hatteras Inlet -- Roanoke Island -- Fort Pulaski -- Merrimac and Monitor -- the Cumberland sunk- -- the Congress burned -- battle of the ironclads -- flag -- officer Farragut -- forts Jackson and St. Philip -- New Orleans captured -- Farragut at Vicksburg -- Farragut's second expedition to Vicksburg -- return to New Orleans
    In addition to its heavy work of maintaining the Atlantic blockade, the navy of the United States contributed signally toward the suppression of the rebellion by three brilliant victories which it gained during the first half of the year 1862. After careful preparation during several months, a joint expedition under the command of General Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag-Officer Goldsborough, consisting of more than twelve thousand men and twenty ships of war, accompanied by numerous transports, sailed from Fort Monroe on January II, with the object of occupying the interior waters of the North Carolina coast. Before the larger vessels could effect their entrance through Hatteras Inlet, captured in the previous August, a furious storm set in, which delayed the expedition nearly a month. By February 7, however, that and other serious difficulties were overcome, and on the following day the expedition captured Roanoke Island, and thus completely opened the whole interior water-system of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds to the easy approach of the Union fleet and forces. [278]

    From Roanoke Island as a base, minor expeditions within a short period effected the destruction of the not very formidable fleet which the enemy had been able to organize, and the reduction of Fort Macon and the rebel defenses of Elizabeth City, New Berne, and other smaller places. An eventual advance upon Goldsboroa formed part of the original plan; but, before it could be executed, circumstances intervened effectually to thwart that object.

    While the gradual occupation of the North Carolina coast was going on, two other expeditions of a similar nature were making steady progress. One of them, under the direction of General Quincy A. Gillmore, carried on a remarkable siege operation against Fort Pulaski, standing on an isolated sea marsh at the mouth of the Savannah River. Here not only the difficulties of approach, but the apparently insurmountable obstacle of making the soft, unctuous mud sustain heavy batteries, was overcome, and the fort compelled to surrender on April II, after an effective bombardment. The second was an expedition of nineteen ships, which, within a few days during the month of March, without serious resistance, occupied the whole remaining Atlantic coast southward as far as St. Augustine.

    When, at the outbreak of the rebellion, the navy-yard at Norfolk, Virginia, had to be abandoned to the enemy, the destruction at that time attempted by Commodore Paulding remained very incomplete. Among the vessels set on fire, the screw-frigate Merrimac, which had been scuttled, was burned only to the water's edge, leaving her hull and machinery entirely uninjured. In due time she was raised by the Confederates, covered with a sloping roof of railroad iron, provided with a huge wedge-shaped prow of cast iron, and armed with a formidable battery of ten guns. Secret information [279] came to the Navy Department of the progress of this work, and such a possibility was kept in mind by the board of officers that decided upon the construction of the three experimental ironclads in September, 1861.

    The particular one of these three especially intended for this peculiar emergency was a ship of entirely novel design, made by the celebrated inventor John Ericsson, a Swede by birth, but American by adoption — a man who combined great original genius with long scientific study and experience. His invention may be most quickly described as having a small, very low hull, covered by a much longer and wider flat deck only a foot or two above the water-line, upon which was placed a revolving iron turret twenty feet in diameter, nine feet high, and eight inches thick, on the inside of which were two eleven-inch guns trained side by side and revolving with the turret. This unique naval structure was promptly nicknamed “a cheese-box on a raft,” and the designation was not at all inapt. Naval experts at once recognized that her sea-going qualities were bad; but compensation was thought to exist in the belief that her iron turret would resist shot and shell, and that the thin edge of her flat deck would offer only a minimum mark to an enemy's guns: in other words, that she was no cruiser, but would prove a formidable floating battery; and this belief she abundantly justified.

    The test of her fighting qualities was attended by what almost suggested a miraculous coincidence. On Saturday, March 8, 1862, about noon, a strange-looking craft resembling a huge turtle was seen coming into Hampton Roads out of the mouth of Elizabeth River, and it quickly became certain that this was the much talked of rebel ironclad Merrimac, or, as the Confederates had renamed her, the Virginia. She steamed [280] rapidly toward Newport News, three miles to the southwest, where the Union ships Congress and Cumberland lay at anchor. These saw the uncouth monster coming and prepared for action. The Minnesota, the St. Lawrence, and the Roanoke, lying at Fortress Monroe also saw her and gave chase, but, the water being low, they all soon grounded. The broadsides of the Congress, as the Merrimac passed her at three hundred yards' distance, seemed to produce absolutely no effect upon her sloping iron roof. Neither did the broadsides of her intended prey, nor the fire of the shore batteries, for even an instant arrest her speed as, rushing on, she struck the Cumberland, and with her iron prow broke a hole as large as a hogshead in her side. Then backing away and hovering over her victim at convenient distance, she raked her decks with shot and shell until, after three quarters of an hour's combat, the Cumberland and her heroic defenders, who had maintained the fight with unyielding stubbornness, went to the bottom in fifty feet of water with colors flying.

    Having sunk the Cumberland, the Merrimac next turned her attention to the Congress, which had meanwhile run into shoal water and grounded where the rebel vessel could not follow. But the Merrimac, being herself apparently proof against shot and shell by her iron plating, took up a raking position two cables' length away, and during an hour's firing deliberately reduced the Congress to helplessness and to surrender --her commander being killed and the vessel set on fire. The approach, the maneuvering, and the two successive combats consumed the afternoon, and toward nightfall the Merrimac and her three small consorts that had taken little part in the action withdrew to the rebel batteries on the Virginia shore: not alone because of the approaching darkness and the fatigue of [281] the crew, but because the rebel ship had really suffered considerable damage in ramming the Cumberland, as well as from one or two chance shots that entered her port-holes.

    That same night, while the burning Congress yet lighted up the waters of Hampton Roads, a little ship, as strange-looking and as new to marine warfare as the rebel turtleback herself, arrived by sea in tow from New York, and receiving orders to proceed at once to the scene of conflict, stationed herself near the grounded Minnesota. This was Ericsson's “cheesebox on a raft,” named by him the Monitor. The Union officers who had witnessed the day's events with dismay, and were filled with gloomy forebodings for the morrow, while welcoming this providential reinforcement, were by no means reassured. The Monitor was only half the size of her antagonist, and had only two guns to the other's ten. But this very disparity proved an essential advantage. With only ten feet draft to the Merrimac's twenty-two, she not only possessed superior mobility, but might run where the Merrimac could not follow. When, therefore, at eight o'clock on Sunday, March 9, the Merrimac again came into Hampton Roads to complete her victory, Lieutenant John L. Worden, commanding the Monitor, steamed boldly out to meet her.

    Then ensued a three hours naval conflict which held the breathless attention of the active participants and the spectators on ship and shore, and for many weeks excited the wonderment of the reading world. If the Monitor's solid eleven-inch balls bounded without apparent effect from the sloping roof of the Merrimac, so, in turn, the Merrimac's broadsides passed harmlessly over the low deck of the Monitor, or rebounded from the round sides of her iron turret. When the [282] unwieldy rebel turtleback, with her slow, awkward movement, tried to ram the pointed raft that carried the cheese-box, the little vessel, obedient to her rudder, easily glided out of the line of direct impact.

    Each ship passed through occasional moments of danger, but the long three hours encounter ended without other serious damage than an injury to Lieutenant Worden by the explosion of a rebel shell against a crevice of the Monitor's pilot-house through which he was looking, which, temporarily blinding his eyesight, disabled him from command. At that point the battle ended by mutual consent. The Monitor, unharmed except by a few unimportant dents in her plating, ran into shoal water to permit surgical attendance to her wounded officer. On her part, the Merrimac, abandoning any further molestation of the other ships, steamed away at noon to her retreat in Elizabeth River. The forty-one rounds fired from the Monitor's guns had so far weakened the:Merrimac's armor that, added to the injuries of the previous day, it was of the highest prudence to avoid further conflict. A tragic fate soon ended the careers of both vessels. Owing to other military events, the Merrimac was abandoned, burned, and blown up by her officers about two months later; and in the following December, the Monitor foundered in a gale off Cape Hatteras. But the types of these pioneer ironclads, which had demonstrated such unprecedented fighting qualities, were continued. Before the end of the war the Union navy had more than twenty monitors in service; and the structure of the Merrimac was in a number of instances repeated by the Confederates.

    The most brilliant of all the exploits of the navy during the year 1862 were those carried on under the command of Flag-Officer David G. Farragut, who, [283] though a born Southerner and residing in Virginia when the rebellion broke out, remained loyal to the government and true to the flag he had served for forty-eight years. Various preparations had been made and various plans discussed for an effective attempt against some prominent point on the Gulf coast. Very naturally, all examinations of the subject inevitably pointed to the opening of the Mississippi as the dominant problem to be solved; and on January 9, Farragut was appointed to the command of the western Gulf blockading squadron, and eleven days thereafter received his confidential instructions to attempt the capture of the city of New Orleans.

    Thus far in the war, Farragut had been assigned to no prominent service, but the patience with which he had awaited his opportunity was now more than compensated by the energy and thoroughness with which he superintended the organization of his fleet. By the middle of April he was in the lower Mississippi with seventeen men-of-war and one hundred and seventy-seven guns. With him were Commander David D. Porter, in charge of a mortar flotilla of nineteen schooners and six armed steamships, and General Benjamin F. Butler, at the head of an army contingent of six thousand men, soon to be followed by considerable reinforcements.

    The first obstacle to be overcome was the fire from the twin forts Jackson and St. Philip, situated nearly opposite each other at a bend of the Mississippi twenty-five miles above the mouth of the river, while the city of New Orleans itself lies seventy-five miles farther up the stream. These were formidable forts of masonry, with an armament together of over a hundred guns, and garrisons of about six hundred men each. They also had auxiliary defenses: first, of a strong river [284] barrier of log rafts and other obstructions connected by powerful chains, half a mile below the forts; second, of an improvised fleet of sixteen rebel gunboats and a formidable floating battery. None of Farragut's ships were ironclad. He had, from the beginning of the undertaking, maintained the theory that a wooden fleet, properly handled, could successfully pass the batteries of the forts. “I would as soon have a paper ship as an ironclad; only give me men to fight her!” he said. He might not come back; but New Orleans would be won. In his hazardous undertaking his faith was based largely on the skill and courage of his subordinate commanders of ships, and this faith was fully sustained by their gallantry and devotion.

    Porter's flotilla of nineteen schooners carrying two mortars each, anchored below the forts, maintained a heavy bombardment for five days, and then Farragut decided to try his ships. On the night of the twentieth the daring work of two gunboats cut an opening through the river barrier through which the vessels might pass; and at two o'clock on the morning of April 24, Farragut gave the signal to advance. The first division of his fleet, eight vessels, led by Captain Bailey, successfully passed the barrier. The second division of nine ships was not quite so fortunate. Three of them failed to pass the barrier, but the others, led by Farragut himself in his flag-ship, the Hartford, followed the advance.

    The starlit night was quickly obscured by the smoke of the general cannonade from both ships and forts; but the heavy batteries of the latter had little effect on the passing fleet. Farragut's flag-ship was for a short while in great danger. At a moment when she slightly grounded a huge fire-raft, fully ablaze, was pushed against her by a rebel tug, and the flames caught in the [285] paint on her side, and mounted into her rigging. But this danger had also been provided against, and by heroic efforts the Hartford freed herself from her peril. Immediately above the forts, the fleet of rebel gunboats joined in the battle, which now resolved itself into a series of conflicts between single vessels or small groups. But the stronger and better-armed Union ships quickly destroyed the Confederate flotilla, with the single exception that two of the enemy's gunboats rammed the Varuna from opposite sides and sank her. Aside from this, the Union fleet sustained much miscellaneous damage, but no serious injury in the furious battle of an hour and a half.

    With but a short halt at Quarantine, six miles above the forts, Farragut and his thirteen ships of war pushed on rapidly over the seventy-five miles, and on the forenoon of April 25 New Orleans lay helpless under the guns of the Union fleet. The city was promptly evacuated by the Confederate General Lovell. Meanwhile, General Butler was busy moving his transports and troops around outside by sea to Quarantine; and, having occupied that point in force, Forts Jackson and St. Philip capitulated on April 28. This last obstruction removed, Butler, after having garrisoned the forts, brought the bulk of his army up to New Orleans, and on May i Farragut turned over to him the formal possession of the city, where Butler continued in command of the Department of the Gulf until the following December.

    Farragut immediately despatched an advance section of his fleet up.the Mississippi. None of the important cities on its banks below Vicksburg had yet been fortified, and, without serious opposition, they surrendered as the Union ships successively reached them. Farragut himself, following with the remainder of his fleet, [286] arrived at Vicksburg on May 20. This city, by reason of the high bluffs on which it stands, was the most defensible point on the whole length of the great river within the Southern States; but so confidently had the Confederates trusted to the strength of their works at Columbus, Island No.10, Fort Pillow, and other points, that the fortifications of Vicksburg had thus far received comparatively little attention. The recent Union victories, however, both to the north and south, had awakened them to their danger; and when Lovell evacuated New Orleans, he shipped heavy guns and sent five Confederate regiments to Vicksburg; and during the eight days between their arrival on May 12 and the twentieth, on which day Farragut reached the city, six rebel batteries were put in readiness to fire on his ships.

    General Halleck, while pushing his siege works toward Corinth, was notified as early as April 27 that Farragut was coming, and the logic of the situation ought to have induced him to send a cooperating force to Farragut's assistance, or, at the very least, to have matured plans for such cooperation. All the events would have favored an expedition of this kind. When Corinth, at the end of May, fell into Halleck's hands, Forts Pillow and Randolph on the Mississippi River were hastily evacuated by the enemy, and on June 6 the Union flotilla of river gunboats which had rendered such signal service at Henry, Donelson, and Island No.10, reinforced by a hastily constructed flotilla of heavy river tugs converted into rams, gained another brilliant victory in a most dramatic naval battle at Memphis, during which an opposing Confederate flotilla of similar rams and gunboats was almost completely destroyed, and the immediate evacuation of Memphis by the Confederates thereby forced. [287]

    This left Vicksburg as the single barrier to the complete opening of the Mississippi, and that barrier was defended by only six batteries and a garrison of six Confederate regiments at the date of Farragut's arrival before it. But Farragut had with his expedition only two regiments of troops, and the rebel batteries were situated at such an elevation that the guns of the Union fleet could not be raised sufficiently to silence them. Neither help nor promise of help came from Halleck's army, and Farragut could therefore do nothing but turn his vessels down stream and return to New Orleans. There, about June I, he received news from the Navy Department that the administration was exceedingly anxious to have the Mississippi opened; and this time, taking with him Porter's mortar flotilla and three thousand troops, he again proceeded up the river, and a second time reached Vicksburg on June 25.

    The delay, however, had enabled the Confederates greatly to strengthen the fortifications and the garrison of the city. Neither a bombardment from Porter's mortar sloops, nor the running of Farragut's ships past the batteries, where they were joined by the Union gunboat flotilla from above, sufficed to bring the Confederates to a surrender. Farragut estimated that a cooperating land force of twelve to fifteen thousand would have enabled him to take the works; and Halleck, on June 28 and July 3, partially promised early assistance. But on July 14 he reported definitely that it would be impossible for him to render the expected aid. Under these circumstances, the Navy Department ordered Farragut back to New Orleans, lest his ships of deep draft should be detained in the river by the rapidly falling water. The capture of Vicksburg was postponed for a whole year, and the early transfer of Halleck to Washington changed the current of Western campaigns.

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