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Farragut & Our Naval Commanders

By J. T. Headley
Comprising the early life and public services of the prominent naval commanders who, with Grant and Sherman and their generals, brought to a triumphant close the great rebellion of 1861-1865. (First edition 1867)

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Admiral Stringham was born in New York State, and entered the service in 1809, in 1810 as midshipman, and served under the gallant Rodgers in the frigate President till 1815. In 1811, the year before the second war with England was declared, though then but thirteen years of age, he got a taste of the life he might expect in his profession. In May of that year, Commodore Rodgers, whose vessel was then lying at Annapolis, heard that an American had been impressed on board an English frigate, near Sandy Hook. Impressment of Americans on board of British men-of-war was at that time one of the outrages against which we remonstrated, and for which we finally declared war. Its repetition, right on our coast, was too gross an insult to be overlooked, and he immediately weighed anchor and hastened northward to get the man released, or fight the English vessel. On the 16th of May, at noon, a sail was made, and the President immediately stood towards it. The latter bore away, and the President gave chase. Rodgers did not come up with the stranger till after dark, and so did not know his strength. But when he got within hail, he demanded the name of the ship. No answer being returned, except to send back, word for word, his own hail, the question, after a short interval, was again put, when a shot came for a reply from the stranger, striking the mainmast of the frigate. Three more guns followed, in quick succession, when the President opened her broadsides. After a few shots, Rodgers, finding that his insolent enemy made but feeble resistance, ordered the fire to cease, and again hailed the vessel. This time he got an answer. Seeing that his antagonist was disabled, and having finally compelled him to answer his hail, he thought he had given him a sufficient lesson in good manners, and so gave the name of his own ship. He then wore round, and, running a short distance to leeward, hove to for the night. The next morning he sent an officer aboard, who reported the vessel to be the English ship of war Little Belt. She was sadly cut up, having lost thirty-one of her crew by the President’s broadsides. The captain, Bingham, angrily refusing any assistance, both vessels bore away to their respective ports, to report this momentous event to the two nations, already on the verge of war, and needing only a spark to kindle the smoldering embers into a blaze. No one at this day can imagine the tremendous excitement this affair created on both sides of the water. Rodgers was assailed on all sides; but his officers stood by him.

The next year war was declared. Our little navy at this critical period was so insignificant, compared to that of the English, that it was at first determined not to send it to sea at all, but to keep it for harbor defenses; but this fatal decision was changed by the resolute determination of two naval officers—Bainbridge and Stewart.

A large fleet of Jamaica men was reported to have sailed, and should be at this time off our coast, and Rodgers, who was then in New York harbor, was ordered to intercept it. The amount of abuse he had received for his attack on the Little Belt had not lessened his antipathy to the English; and, in an hour after he received the orders—as if fearing they might be revoked-his squadron, with all sail set, was standing proudly down the bay. Stringham was now fourteen years old, and the scene he witnessed left an indelible impression on his memory. The gallant officers and sailors of that squadron had none of the misgivings of the Government. They wanted no shelter in port, and asked no favors but an unfettered command and the broad ocean, and the privilege, with their flag flying in the breeze, to lay alongside of the proudest frigate in the proud English navy. When the order to weigh was given, never was anchor to the cathead sooner, or with a heartier "yo-heave-ho," nor topsail sheeted home sooner, for every pulse on board that little squadron was bounding with joy. As the vessels bore majestically down the bay, the men were beat to quarters, and all told, if any among them disliked the coming contest, or a single one who had not rather sink alongside, giving gun for gun, than surrender, he might leave at once and go ashore in the pilot boat. Fore and aft, like a rising storm, went "not one, not ONE!" and then three thundering cheers rolled over the placid waters of the bay. Stringham’s voice joined in the shout, and, though a mere lad, he panted for the fight. That little squadron was to make the first claim for equal rights on the sea. Two days after, just at sunrise, an English frigate was seen in the northeast, and all sail crowded in pursuit. The chase led down the wind and, the President being a fast sailer, when going free, soon left the squadron far astern, and all day long bore steadily down on the Englishman, gaining slowly but steadily. At four o’clock he got within gunshot, and in a very short time the excited crew expected to be alongside. But at this critical moment the wind lulled, and the Englishman began to creep away from the President. Rodgers then determined to cripple his antagonist, so that he could come up, and, training the first gun himself, pulled the lanyard. The well-aimed shot struck the stern of the British frigate, and, crashing through her timbers, plunged into the gun-room. Shot after shot was now fired in quick succession; but at the fourth discharge the gun burst, killing and wounding sixteen of our own men, and flinging the Commodore into the air, who fell back on the deck with such violence that his leg was broken. The enemy, seeing the accident, now opened fire; but the President, recovering from her disaster, soon began to heave her shot with such precision, that the Belvidere (the name of the English vessel) was compelled to cut away her anchors, throw overboard her boats, and spring fourteen tons of water, in order to lighten herself. By this sacrifice she gained in the desperate chase, and the President was compelled to give up the pursuit. This was the first real engagement with a foe of equal size that young Stringham was in, and his disappointment at the result was intense. He was in no after engagement during the war, though the navy covered itself with imperishable glory. In 1815, he was transferred to the brig Spark, Capt. Gamble, which constituted a part of Decatur’s squadron in the Algerine war, and helped to take an Algerine frigate. The next year, while his vessel was lying at Gibraltar, he performed one of those acts of gallant daring that have always distinguished our navy. A French brig, attempting to come into the bay in a heavy gale, was capsized, and lay wallowing in the sea, totally helpless. The crew of the Spark saw her distress, and Stringham, though a stripling of only eighteen years of age, volunteered to go to her assistance. Gamble gave his consent, and the former, with six seamen, leaped into a small boat and pulled through the turbulent sea towards the Frenchman. He reached the brig, and, with great difficulty and danger to his boat, succeeded in taking off five of the crew, and then bore away to transfer his burden to his vessel and return. But the wind and waves beat him back, and he could make no headway in that direction. He then turned and pulled for the Algerian shore; but as he approached it he saw the surf, lashed by the gale, breaking furiously upon it. There was now no alternative, however, but to pass through it; and the rowers bent to their oars with all their strength. The breakers caught the frail, heavily-laden boat, and, lifting it high into the air, hurled it, bottom side up, on the beach. Each one now had to struggle for his life. Stringham got ashore; but, one of his crew and two of the Frenchmen were borne away by the surf and drowned.

In 1819 we find Stringham on board the Cyane, conveying the first settlers to Liberia. While on the African coast he was put with an armed crew in command of a boat, and sent out in search of slavers. He succeeded in capturing four, and was made prize-master, and sent home with his prizes. In 1821 he was promoted to a first-lieutenancy, and ordered to the Hornet, then on the West India station. There he captured a notorious pirate-ship and slaver. From 1825 to 1829 he was at the Brooklyn navy yard, and afterward went as first lieutenant of the Peacock in search of the Hornet, supposed to be lost. During the search he was transferred to the Falmouth, and sent to Cartagena, and in 1830 returned to New York. For the next five years he was engaged on shore duty. He then was sent to the Mediterranean, but in 1837 was again in command of the Brooklyn navy yard. In 1842 he was ordered to the razee Independence, but the next year returned to the navy yard. He was here when Marshal Bertrand visited the country, and helped to honor the illustrious Frenchman. In 1846 he was placed in command of the ship-of-the-line Ohio, and took part in the bombardment of Vera Cruz during its investment by Scott. Afterward, for a short time, he commanded the Brazilian squadron, but in 1851 took charge of the Gosport navy yard. The three subsequent years he commanded the Mediterranean squadron—his flagship being the ill-fated Cumberland. He was then ordered again to the Gosport navy yard, where he remained till 1859. In March, 1861, he was called to Washington as a member of a naval court-martial. The rebellion breaking out, he was appointed flag-officer of the Atlantic blockading squadron. In August he was sent with General Butler, commanding a land force, to capture Fort Hatteras. This fort commanded the inlet to Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds—a great rendezvous for rebel privateers, and the waters of which commanded nearly the whole coast of North Carolina. No secret was made of the expedition, and the Confederate authorities had ample time and notice to prepare for defence. The expedition consisted of the flagship Minnesota, the United States steamers Wabash, Monticello, Pawnee, Harriet Lane, and the chartered steamers Adelaide, Peabody, and the tug Fanny. The Adelaide and Peabody were transports carrying the troops, and towing schooners loaded with surf-boats, in which to land them. These were a part of two regiments—five hundred of the Twentieth New York Volunteers, Colonel Weber commanding, and two hundred and twenty of the Ninth, Colonel Hawkins commanding, with one hundred of the coast-guard, under Captain Nixon, and sixty of the Second United States Artillery, under Lieutenant Larned—making nine hundred in all. The expedition sailed on the 26th of August, 1861, at one o’clock, and the news of its departure was soon telegraphed all over the country, causing the greatest excitement, for all were eager to have something done to offset the mortification caused by the defeat of Bull Run.

Light summer airs prevailed, and the next morning, at half past nine o’clock, Cape Hatteras was sighted. At five the squadron came to anchor south of the Cape, and the boats were hoisted out ready to commence landing the troops in the morning. At four next morning the drum roused the men, and, a hasty breakfast being taken, between six and seven the signal was made to disembark the troops—the Pawnee, Monticello, and Harriet Lane, in the mean time to cover the landing, which was to take place about two miles east of Fort Clark. Fort Hatteras, a regularly constructed earthwork, with bomb-proofs, and guns mounted en barbette, was some one hundred and thirty rods inland, while fort Clark was a redoubt lying between it and the ships, and near the shore.

At ten o’clock the Wabash, Cumberland, and Minnesota opened their broadsides, and, running backwards and forwards past the battery, rained shot and shell without intermission upon it. An hour later, the Susquehanna came up, and the four vessels poured in a continuous fire on the doomed earthwork. The smoke from fifty-seven guns rolled away over the water, and, settling in the still air, shut out, except at intervals, the fort, whose guns replied, but could not reach the ships. While this tremendous cannonading was going on, three miles away the surf-boats were pulling for the shore. Although the weather was calm, a heavy southerly gale had prevailed just before the fleet arrived, and was evidently still blowing farther down the coast, from the effect of which the surf was breaking with tremendous power on the exposed beach and momentarily increasing in force. The boats, as soon as they entered the breakers, were hurled violently forwards, then left aground, so that the soldiers had to wade ashore, wetting their guns and ammunition. It was impossible in the heavy seas to launch the boats again, and return after the remaining troops, lying off in smooth water. All this time Stringham kept up the bombardment, though expecting every moment the signal of the land attack, which was to be the signal to cease firing. But, despite all their exertions, but three hundred men could be got on shore, with only two howitzers, one of which was disabled in the landing. This little force however, immediately formed and marched along the beach toward the fort. The vessels ceased firing, and watched its steady progress. The garrison at the battery also saw it advancing, and fled inland to the protection of Fort Hatteras. At two o’clock the American flag was flying above it. The Monticello, Capt. Gillis, was now ordered to feel her way into the inlet. In doing so, however, she came within range of the guns of Fort Hatteras, and was struck several times; while inside, a rebel steamer was seen towing a schooner filled with troops, toward the fort. Stringham immediately hoisted the signal "engage batteries," and the ponderous shot and shell again rained against the fortifications. The cannonade was kept up till a little after six, when the signal “cease firing" was displayed from the flagship, and silence once more reigned over the waters. The wind now rising, the squadron hauled off to get an offing in case of a gale, with the exception of the Monticello, Pawnee, and Harriet Lane, which were ordered to lie close in shore and protect the troops. The condition of the latter was any thing but pleasant. Cut off from their comrades, cut off from the ships, and, if a storm arose, which might be expected at any moment on that inhospitable coast, sure to be captured, the prospect before them was gloomy enough. Wet through, with but little ammunition, and no provisions, they, as night came on, fell back toward the shore. As they did so they luckily came upon some sheep and geese, which they at once appropriated and carried back to the beach. Camp fires were then built, and the hastily dressed mutton and fowls spitted on bayonets and cutlasses, and roasted. As darkness closed around them, the rain began to fall, foretelling a stormy night. The few fires burned dimly along the strand, on which all night long the white-crested billows broke with a deep monotonous roar. The hours passed slowly away, and the poor fellows looked forward to a southern prison as their doom. But at length it began to lighten in the east, and as the early dawn brightened over the broadly heaving Atlantic, they saw with joy the vessels again standing towards the land. A little after seven the signal was again run up to “engage batteries," and now Fort Hatteras took all the storm. After a couple of hours, however, Stringham saw that many of his shot fell short, and ordered the firing to cease, and the gunners use fifteen-second fuses only, with ten-inch guns. He had been using ten-second fuses. The fire was then renewed, and, the Harriet Lane coming up with her rifled guns, the fort took a terrible pounding. Commodore Barron, of the rebel navy—in whose charge the defenses of the North Carolina coast had been placed—came to the fort the previous evening, and assumed command. A few months before, his flag had waved from the Wabash, that he as a federal officer commanded, and now he saw her guns turned on him, a traitor. He soon noticed that the guns of the. fort were too light to reach the ships, which with their heavy metal could, while keeping out of his range, hurl shells and shot, with unerring precision, into his works. He saw at once it was a hopeless fight, yet he could have kept to his bomb-proofs, and waited for a storm to disperse the fleet, which might be expected any hour on that coast; but the wooden ventilator of his magazine taking fire from our shells, a panic, it was supposed, seized the troops, and they demanded that the fort should be surrendered. So just before noon a white flag went up—the firing ceased, and the little band on shore began to move towards the fort. The crews of the squadron, when they saw this, simultaneously sent up three rousing cheers. Gen. Butler went in to receive the surrender, and soon returned with Barron and the officers on board. Seven hundred and fifteen men, a thousand stand of arms, seventy-five kegs of powder, five stand of colors, thirty-one cannon, besides provisions, stores, and cotton, were the fruits of this victory. The wild delight with which the news was received, showed how deeply the nation had felt the disgrace of Bull Run, and how eager it was to seize on any success that would help to wipe out its remembrance.

The Harriet Lane, in trying to cross the bar, grounded, and it was feared for a while that she would be lost, but she was finally got off. The fleet returned to Fortress Monroe amid the acclamations of the people, and ovations were freely tendered to Stringham. But the plaudits that were rained on him soon gave way to unmeasured and unmerited blame, for not taking his fleet into the sound, and prosecuting his victories along the coast. It was said that he was in a hurry to get back, and be feted and lionized, and an attempt was made to throw ridicule upon him. It afterwards turned out that his vessels drew too much water to go over the bar, and, moreover, that his orders were to return immediately, after the reduction of the forts, to Fortress Monroe. When this was finally ascertained, the denunciations were turned from him on the navy department, for its shiftless management; but too late to soothe the wounded feelings of the brave commander. Whether it was owing to the unmerited abuse he received, causing him to be dissatisfied with the service, or not, he, for some reason, the next month, at his own request, was relieved from his command. The next year, Aug. 1st, he was made rear-admiral on the retired list.

Chapter V

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