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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)

(Return to table of contents of this book)





Dupont, as his name indicates, is of French extraction, his father and grandfather both having emigrated to this country in 1799.

He was born at Bergen Point, New Jersey, September 27th, 1803. The remembrance of the vital aid rendered us by the French nation in our struggle for independence being fresh in our memories, it was not difficult to get a son of one of its recent citizens into our navy; and Samuel, in 1817, at twelve years of age, obtained a midshipman’s warrant and sailed on his first cruise in the seventy-four gunship Franklin, under the gallant Commodore Stewart. Being an apt scholar, he rapidly acquired the knowledge of his profession, but, promotion coming slowly in times of peace, he, though steadily rising step by step in rank, did not reach the position of commander till 1845. All this time he faithfully fulfilled his duties in whatever waters he sailed. In 1845 he was ordered to the Pacific to the command of the Congress, and saw much service, during the Mexican war, on the coast of California.

In 1848, hearing that Lieutenant Heywood, with a small party, was beleaguered in the Mission House at St. Jose by some five hundred Mexicans, he landed a hundred marines and sailors, and boldly advancing against this force, five times as great as his own, scattered them in confusion, and rescued the lieutenant. His gallant "blue jackets" were received by the rescued party with rousing cheers, which they returned with a sailor’s heartiness.

In 1856 he was made captain, and the next year placed in command of the steam-frigate Minnesota, and ordered to convey Mr. Reed, the American minister, to China. He remained cruising in the Chinese waters for two years, when he returned to the United States, and, on the 1st of January, 1861, was appointed over the Philadelphia navy yard. In the summer, while Stringham was preparing the expedition against Hatteras, the Secretary of the Navy consulted with him respecting the seizure of some Southern harbor occupying a central position, which would answer for a depot and place of rendezvous, etc., for our fleets in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. He recommended Port Royal, a place but little known at the time in the North. His views being adopted, he was put in command of the Atlantic blockading squadron, and directed to fit out an expedition to capture it.

A fleet of fifty sail—transports and all—was assembled in Hampton Roads, attached to which was a land force, some twenty thousand strong, under Gen. W. T. Sherman. The Government, having learned wisdom by experience, determined that the destination of this expedition should be kept secret; and each commander was furnished with sealed orders, which were not to be opened till out to sea. Bad management in some of the minor details delayed the sailing of the fleet later than was intended, and the beautiful month of October slipped away, leaving it still in the waters of the Chesapeake. Dupont had sent off some twenty coal vessels, with directions to rendezvous off Savannah, in order to deceive the enemy as to the real point of attack; and, at length, on the 24th of October, gave the signal to the fleet to weigh anchor. No such imposing naval force had ever before been seen in our waters, and the appearance it presented as it moved down the bay, was most grand and striking. When the news was received that it was fairly out to sea, the most intense excitement prevailed throughout the country. The secret of its destination had been well kept; and hence a mystery enveloped it which served to increase the excitement. Various conjectures were made respecting the point along the coast on which the descent was to be made. Some suggested Wilmington, others Savannah and Charleston; while but a few guessed its real destination. All were agreed in one thing, however, that it would send consternation through the South. But in a few days, however, the elation of the people was changed into gloomy forebodings, for a storm of unprecedented fury swept along the Atlantic coast, carrying wreck and destruction in its path. One might have well been filled with anxiety had the fleet been composed of thorough-going sea vessels; but it was known that many of those used as transports were never intended for the sea—being mere river steamers, and even ferry-boats. Loaded to their utmost capacity with stores and ammunition, and precious lives, how could they outride such a hurricane? Men in Washington turned pale as they heard, hour after hour, the heavy storm surging by, and it began to look as though God’s frown was on the enterprise. The Southern papers overflowed with exultation and thanksgiving, and every one called to mind the Spanish Armada, whose strength and pride were humbled by just such a storm, and left a helpless wreck on the waters.

Rumors of wreck and disaster came at intervals from along the coast; but it was many days before any definite information was received.

The fleet took the storm on the most dangerous part of our coast—off Cape Hatteras—and was scattered by it like autumn leaves in a gale. From four o’clock, Friday morning, till midnight, the tempest was at its height. Signal lights were hoisted after dark in the rigging of the vessels, which rose and fell like fireflies along the heaving deep. Now up and now down, as the laboring ships reeled from the watery summits to the yawning gulfs below; they one moment gleamed dimly through the blinding storm and rain, that fell in torrents, and then disappeared, as if quenched forever, in the tumultuous billows. Some of the vessels soon became unmanageable, others endeavored to lay-to, and all were fearful, even could they outride the hurricane, that they would be dashed against each other in the darkness. The wind howled and shrieked through the rigging, and the thousands of soldiers, unaccustomed to the sea, stood appalled at the might and terror of the angry elements. The Winfield Scott, loaded with nearly five hundred troops, labored fearfully, and soon sprung a leak. Hoisting signals of distress, she cut away her masts. This failing to relieve her, she tumbled overboard her three rifled cannon. Next, the tents, equipments, and muskets were thrown into the sea, while the pumps were kept vigorously at work. The Bienville saw her signal of distress and hove-to. It did not seem possible that a small boat could live at moment in such a sea, and Captain Steedman, unwilling to order any of his crew to attempt the perilous task of carrying a hawser to her, shouted, "Who will volunteer to save the Winfield Scott” ?”I,” “I," replied a score of brave sailors, and three boats were at once lowered, and the next moment were riding like cockle-shells on the careering waves. Two were swamped, but the lives of the crew saved. At length the two vessels drifted together, with a crash. Taking advantage of the collision, fifty soldiers leaped aboard the Bienville, some fell between, and, with a shriek, disappeared in the boiling waters. Three were caught between the grinding timbers, and, crushed out of the form of humanity, dropped silently into the deep. The chief-engineer and his assistants, panic-stricken, also escaped over the sides of the vessel while in contact with the Bienville. The remaining soldiers were now wild with terror; but the captain of the vessel, seeing the dastardly escape of the engineer, came on board, and, putting him in irons, took him and the crew back. It was midnight, and five feet of water was in the hold, and terror and death were on every side. But the return of the captain, with the engineer and crew, restored order, and the soldiers became calm and steady again. The storm at length began to abate, when they then gained on the leak, and the vessel was saved.

The crew of the transport Peerless were taken from her in a sinking condition; but the steamer Governor, with the Marine battalion on board, was soon left helpless and sinking. Under the blows of the heavy seas the brace-chains of the smoke-stack parted, and it went overboard; but breaking three feet above the hurricane deck, a little steam could be kept up. Then the steam pipe burst, while the frail vessel was leaking badly. At dark a vessel was seen in the distance, and a rocket was sent up through the storm, asking for help. An answering signal flashed out, filling every heart with hope. But she was unable to render any assistance, and kept on her way. Rocket after rocket was now sent up in the darkness—mute cries of distress, till all were gone and then the soldiers were ordered to keep up a fire of musketry; but the volleys scarcely made a sound in the louder tumult of the wind and waves. A hundred men were kept at the pumps, others held on to the braces, that threatened to part every moment, and thus the fearful night wore away.

As daylight broke slowly over the wild and stormy waste, two vessels were descried off the starboard bow. One, the Isaac Smith, commanded by Lieut. Nicholson, saw the signal of distress and stood towards her. At ten o’clock the former hailed, saying he would take off the crew. By great exertion a hawser was got on board; but through some carelessness was soon lost and dragged in the water. The Smith then stood off, and the Young Rover came up, the captain of which said he would stand by them to the last, which was answered by a loud cheer from the deck of the Governor. The Smith soon came back, and another hawser was got aboard, but again parted. All this while the water was rapidly gaining on the vessel, and every moment she threatened to go down with all on board. The Young Rover, seeing a frigate in sight, stood toward her with a signal of distress. It proved to be the Sabine, Capt. Ringgold, who soon was within hail, giving the comforting assurance that he would take all on board. But night was now coming on again, and it was not until eight or nine o’clock that her stern could be brought near enough to the bow of the Sabine to allow a boom to be rigged out, along which thirty were "whipped" aboard, when hawsers and cables parted, under the tremendous plunges of the vessels. Ringgold now determined to get alongside, hazardous as the attempt was. It seemed impossible to do this without coming in collision with the Governor with a force that would crush her like an egg-shell. It was, however, done; though the Sabine had twenty feet of her hurricane-deck carried away by the former. Forty were then got on board, while one, falling between the vessels, was crushed to death. The Sabine now started ahead, determined to tow the disabled vessel till morning. The hearts of those left on board sunk at the prospect. There were three feet of water in the hold, and rapidly gaining; and the sea running mountains high. That she could be kept afloat till morning seemed hardly possible. But every thing movable was thrown overboard, and the water casks started to lighten the ship; so that, though slowly settling, she floated nobly through the rest of the night. At daybreak, the boats of the Sabine put off to her relief; though a fearful sea was running at the time. They dared not approach the guards of the vessels lest they should be swamped, and so lay, off and called on the soldiers and crew to jump overboard. It was a fearful alternative; but no other was left. The ranks were kept in military order, and one soldier after another stepped out as he was ordered and leaped into the sea, and was hauled aboard the boats. Thus all were saved, with the exception of one corporal and six privates, who left the ranks in their fright, and were lost. The hawser was then cast loose, and the vessel wallowed for a short time heavily in the sea, and then with a heavy lurch went to the bottom.

At length the gale spent its fury, and the scattered vessels, some far out to sea, resumed their course, and, by Sabbath evening, fourteen of them were in sight of each other, though the flagship Wabash was nowhere to be seen.

On Monday these vessels arrived off Port Royal, and at noon the Wabash hove in sight, with the Susquehanna—which Dupont had taken from blockading duty off Charleston harbor—and some thirty-six more of the fleet and the gunboats.

This and the next day, while the gunboats were feeling their way up the channel and marking it out for the passage of the larger vessels, three rebel gunboats came down and attacked them, but were easily driven off. Preparations were now made to land the troops; but on consultation it was deemed best, for several reasons, that the navy should first attack alone. The following day, Wednesday, was spent in completing preparations, and every thing got ready for action in the morning.

The two islands of Hilton Head and Bay Point guard the entrance of Port Royal Sound and are nearly three miles apart. On the extreme point of these two islands two fortifications had been erected—Fort Walker, on Hilton Head, mounting twenty-three guns; and Fort Beauregard, on Bay Point, mounting fifteen guns. There was, besides, a mortar battery, mounting four guns.

Thursday morning dawned calm and beautiful, and the waters of the bay flashed like a mirror in the early moonlight. At nine o’clock the signal from the Wabash to get under way was run up, and thirteen vessels, the Wabash leading, moved majestically off toward the batteries. Dupont could get none of his large frigates up, and the battle was to be fought by the Wabash, Susquehanna, Mohican, Seminole, Pawnee, Unadilla, Pembina, Bienville, Seneca, Curlew, Penguin, Ottawa, and Vandalia. In single file, with ports open and bristling with heavy guns, these vessels swept rapidly up toward Fort Walker, presenting a majestic spectacle. Beyond the entrance of the harbor lay the little rebel fleet, under command of Tatnall, formerly of our navy, and, still farther in, a fleet of steamers loaded with spectators, that had come down from Charleston to witness the destruction of the Yankee fleet. Dupont, in the Wabash, led the imposing column, and every eye watched with the intensest interest his movements, as he steadily approached the low silent structure on Hilton Head. As he came near, it poured in a tremendous fire, but Dupont kept on in dead silence, till the second steamer came abreast, when the three forward vessels opened at once with their powerful broadsides, and the shot and shell from seventy-five guns fell in one wild crash on the fort. Dupont had determined to fight the forts while in motion, so as not to let his wooden vessels be stationary targets for the enemy’s fire; and, having delivered his broadsides, moved on. Each vessel as it came opposite the fort delivered its broadside, so that there was no cessation to the fire till the whole had passed. Having got beyond the fort, Dupont wheeled, still followed by the vessels in single file, and poured his fire into Fort Beauregard. Thus these thirteen vessels moved in the form of a flat letter O, flaming and thundering all the while with a power and terror indescribable. An eighty-pound rifle ball went clean through the mainmast of the Wabash, making an ugly hole. Another pierced her after-magazine, letting the water into it, yet she still kept on her sublime way, proudly leading the long file of flaming ships. Captain Rogers, acting as aid to Dupont, says: "The Wabash was a destroying angel—hugging the shore; calling the soundings with cold indifference; slowing the engine so as only to give steerage way; signalling the vessels their various evolutions; and at the same time raining shell, as with target practice, too fast to count. Shell fell in the fort, not twenty-eight in a minute, but as fast as a horse’s feet beat the ground in a gallop. The resistance was heroic, but what could flesh and blood do against such a fire? I watched two men particularly, in red shirts; I saw them seated at the muzzle of a gun, apparently waiting, exhausted, for more ammunition. They were so still that I doubted whether they were men. This terrible fire fell around them—I saw them move, and I knew they were men. They loaded the gun—a shell burst near them, and they dropped, doubtless blown to atoms."

In the mean time the gunboats, having found that in a cove they could get an enfilading fire on Hilton Head, took up their position there, and rendered good service. A little after noon the signal "cease firing" was made from the flagship, and the steamers swept beyond the reach of the batteries to rest the men and give them some refreshment before returning to their terribly exhausting work. The gunboats, however, from their enfilading position, kept up a galling fire. About three o’clock, just as the vessels were getting ready for action again, the rebel flag was struck. The firing ceased, and Captain Rogers jumped into a boat lowered from the flagship, and rowed swiftly toward the shore. He found the works deserted, the ramparts desolate, and planted the stars and stripes upon them.

When the thousands on board the fleet, who for five long hours had watched the terrible conflict, saw our flag go up, the excitement was unbounded. Many of the officers wept like children, but a wild enthusiasm overrode every other feeling, and from ship to ship, down the whole mighty fleet, there went up a cheer such as never before stirred the placid waters of that bay, while the various bands struck up "The Star-spangled Banner," making the air ring with the stirring strains. Upon seeing this fort abandoned, the garrison of the other left also and fled inland.

A portion of the troops were now landed, and General Sherman assumed command of the place, and issued a proclamation to the people of the State of South Carolina. This was General T. W. Sherman, not W. T. Sherman, the hero of Atlanta. Savannah could probably have been taken at this time, had he marched promptly forward, such was the terror occasioned by this victory of Dupont. His orders, however, were to fortify himself there, build piers, docks, &c., and fit up the port for a naval depot.

Port Royal, from this time through the war, sustained a prominent position in all our naval movements along the Atlantic coast.

The victory created the wildest enthusiasm throughout the North. The national flag had been planted on the traitorous soil of South Carolina, never to be displaced till every stronghold of the State was in our possession. Dupont at once became the hero of the day. Naval men were especially delighted. Our ill-successes on land thus far had been a cause of deep mortification, and this first great essay of the navy recalled to mind the halo of glory it hung round the nation during the first year of the second war with England, when successive defeats on land made the people’s cheeks crimson with shame. Whenever one met a naval man the eye of the latter brightened, and with a proud shake of the head he would say, "I told you how it would be when the ‘blue jackets’ got a chance.”  “Ah! we are all sure of the navy," was the common remark. It is said that Commodore Barron, then a prisoner in Fort Warren, when he read a description of the fight, and how gallantly his old ship, the Wabash, bore herself, forgot he was a rebel prisoner, and exclaimed, "‘ By heavens! Our navy can beat the world."

Dupont’s career was now one of continued success along the coast. Fort Clinch surrendered—the first national fort reclaimed. Captain Drayton, sending a boat’s crew on shore to raise the American flag, pushed on to Old Fernandina, where a white flag was displayed. Shortly after, and when passing New Fernandina, a few rifle shots were fired from some bushes, and a railroad train was perceived just starting. As it was naturally supposed to contain soldiers escaping, he directed Lieutenant-Commanding Stevens to try and stop it; and the road passing for some distance near the river, "and we going at full speed, there was an opportunity of firing several shots at the two locomotives attached to the train, which, however, did not prevent its escape across the railroad bridge, which is four miles from the town, and it was soon lost in the woods on the other side. We afterwards found on the track the bodies of two men who had been killed by our shots, one of whom was a soldier; and the report was that ex-Senator Yulee was on board one of the cars, and had also been struck, but this, I think, was a mistake." Thus was presented the novel spectacle of a vessel-of-war attacking a railroad train.

Dupont also visited the coast of Florida, and captured St. Augustine, keeping the whole Southern seaboard in a state of alarm. The slaves crowded to the protection of his flag, and were left sole occupants of their late masters’ plantations.

The waters of Warsaw and Ossibaw Sounds, Brunswick, Darien, and other places, owned the sway of his flag, and the whole coast of Georgia was held by his squadron. At the siege of Pulaski, one of the batteries on shore was under the command of the officers and crew of the Wabash. He also seized Stone Inlet and River, and thus secured a base of operations against Charleston, and maintained the blockade with a rigor not before exhibited, and did all a man could do with the limited means in his power.

In 1862 he was made one of the nine active rear admirals. In January of the next year occurred the famous raid of two rebel rams on his blockading squadron off Charleston Harbor. As so many conflicting statements have been given of this affair, we insert the accounts of the two commanders, whose vessels alone were seriously injured. The captain of the Mercedita says, under date of the last day of January:


Sir: I have to report that, at 4:25 this morning, two iron-clad rams, from Charleston, in the obscurity of a thick haze, and the moon having just set, succeeded in passing the bar, near ship channel, unperceived by the squadron, and made an attack upon this ship, being first encountered.

Particular vigilance was exhibited by officers and men in expedition of vessels to run the blockade.

At 3 A. M., we had slipped cable and overhauled a troop steamer, running for the channel by mistake. At 4, I laid down. Lieut. Commander Abbott was on deck giving orders to Acting Master Dwyer about recovering the anchor, when they saw a smoke and the faint appearance of a vessel close at hand. I heard them exclaim, "She has black smoke;” "watch, man the guns," "spring the rattle,” “call all hands to quarters." Mr. Dwyer came to the cabin door, telling me a steamboat was close aboard. I was then in the act of getting my pea-jacket, and slipped it on as I followed him out; jumped to poop ladder, saw smoke and a low boat, apparently a tug, although I thought it might be a little propeller for the squadron.

I sang out, "Train your guns right on him, and be ready to fire as soon as I order." I hailed, "Steamer ahoy! Steer clear of us and heave-to. What steamer is that?" Then ordered my men, "Fire on him." Told him, "You will be into us. What steamer is that?" His answer to first or second hail was, "Hallo!" The other replies were indistinct, either by intention or from being spoken inside of his mail armor, until in the act of striking us with his prow, when he said, "This is the Confederate States steam ram." I repeated the order, "Fire! fire! "but no gun could be trained on him, as he approached on the quarter, struck us just abaft our aforemost 32-pounder gun, and fired a heavy rifle through us diagonally, penetrating the starboard side through our Normandy condenser, the steam-drum of port boiler, and exploding against port side of ship, blowing a hole in its exit some four or five feet square.

The vessel was instantly filled and enveloped with steam. Reports were brought to me, "Shot through both boilers," "fires put out by steam and water," "gunner and one man killed, and a number of men fatally scalded, water over fire-room floor, vessel sinking fast." "The ram has cut us through at and below water-line on one side, and the shell has burst at the other almost at water-edge."

After the ram struck, she swung round under our starboard counter, her prow touching, and hailed, "Surrender, or I’ll sink you! Do you surrender? "And after receiving reports, I answered, "I can make no resistance; my boiler is destroyed." "Then, do you surrender?" I said, "Yes;" having found my moving power destroyed, and that I could bring nothing to bear but muskets against his shot-proof coating.

He hailed several times to send a boat, and threatened to fire again. After some delay, a boat was lowered, and Lieut. Commander Abbott asked if he should go in her, and asked for orders what to say. I told him to see what they demanded, and to tell him the condition we were in.

He proceeded aboard, and, according to their demand, gave his parole on behalf of himself and all the officers and crew. His report accompanies this. The ram having been detained half an hour or more, ran out for steamer Keystone State, which vessel and three others we had tried to alarm by lights. We saw a shell explode as it hit the ram, without injuring her. Saw the Keystone State was hit several times, and saw the smoke and steam pouring from her. The firing then receded to northward and eastward, and was pretty brisk at the head of the line.


The Keystone State, commanded by Le Roy, was also disabled, and claimed as a prize by the rebels. The details of the fight are thus given by the commander:


Between four and five A.M., 31st January, 1863, a gun was fired near, and supposed to be the Mercedita, and some lights were seen. Soon after discovered a dark object a little ahead of her, and then a column of black smoke was noticed rising from the vessel, but I supposed was either a tug out from Charleston or some stranger passing along. Another column of black smoke was seen more to the north and east of the Mercedita. My suspicions aroused, I ordered the forward rifle trained upon the first steamer, which was standing toward this ship, also other guns to be ready. Gave notice to the engineer of the watch to be ready to move, and, the steamers drawing nearer, ordered the cable slipped, and enough motion to get command of the ship. By this time the stranger was abreast the starboard waist. On hailing, "What steamer is that?" the reply was, "Hallo!" followed by some words that were unintelligible. Satisfied, from the view obtained through my night glasses, that the steamer was a ram, I ordered the starboard bow gun fired at her, which was at once responded to by a shot from the stranger, when I ordered the starboard battery fired as soon as the guns could be brought to bear, putting the helm aport. On heading to the northward and eastward, discovered a ram on either quarter. Soon after the first gun, fire was reported forward below. After extinguishing it, fire was again reported in the same place, when the ship was kept off seaward to enable us to put out the. fire and get things in a condition to attack the enemy. Ordered full steam, and about daylight discovered black smoke and stood for it, for the purpose of running her down, exchanging shots rapidly with her, striking her repeatedly, but making no impression, while every shot from her was striking us. About 6:17 A.M., a shell, entering on the port side, forward of the forward guard, destroyed the steam chimneys, filling all the forward part of the ship with steam. The port boiler emptied of its contents, the ship gave a heel to starboard, nearly down to the guard, and the water from the boiler, and two shot-holes under water, led to the impression the ship was filling and sinking, a foot and a half water being reported in the hold. Owing to the steam, men were unable to get supplies of ammunition from forward. Ordered all boats ready for lowering. Signal-books, thrown overboard, also some small arms. The ram being so near, and the ship helpless, and the men being slaughtered by almost every discharge of the enemy, I ordered the colors to be hauled down, but finding the enemy were still firing upon us, directed the colors to be rehoisted and resume our fire from the after-battery. Now the enemy, either injured, or to avoid the squadron approaching, sheered off towards the harbor, exchanging shots with the Housatonic, which vessel was in chase. Put fore-and-aft sail on the ship, sent yards aloft and bent sails; there being no wind, drifted along to the north and east, when the Memphis took us in tow. Our surgeon being killed, the surgeon of the Memphis came on board. Having accomplished this much, the rams returned to the harbor. Beauregard issued a proclamation declaring the blockade destroyed, and that foreign governments should so regard it. The pompous manifesto was not regarded by Dupont, and he continued the blockade.


Many blockade runners were captured by Dupont during the year, and he had the entire confidence of the Navy Department and the people.

The successful fight of the Monitor with the Merrimac threatened an entire revolution in maritime conflicts, especially in harbor warfare, and Secretary Welles immediately set about having a fleet of these vessels made, which he believed would put every port on the coast in our possession. In addition to these, a powerful iron-clad, the Ironsides, was built, and, in the spring of 1863, was ready for service. When the fleet was completed, it was determined the first essay of its strength should be against Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. Of its success no one seemed to entertain a doubt, for the impenetrability of these vessels to shot was assumed, while it was believed that no mason-work ever built by man could long withstand the tremendous weight of metal they could hurl from their monster guns, the like of which had never before been used on ships of war. This fleet was composed of nine vessels, and placed under the command of Admiral Dupont.

Having rendezvoused in Port Royal, he sailed from there on the 1st of April, 1863, to try the great experiment of the century, and the next day arrived at the embouchure of the Edisto River. The water over Charleston bar not being of sufficient depth in ordinary times to float them, the heavy spring tides of April, which gave a foot more of water, was selected for the passage of the vessels. On Sunday morning at daybreak the fleet moved out to sea, and in a few hours lay off Charleston harbor. The next day Dupont transferred his flag to the Ironsides, and the fleet, taking the flood-tide, passed safely over the bar, and came to anchor inside. The wooden vessels lay outside as a reserve. The rebels having destroyed all the old land-marks by which pilots were guided, the channel had to be buoyed out, which was successfully done by Mr. Boutelle of the Coast Survey. But just as everything was ready, a thick haze settled down over the water, obscuring the range, so that the attack had to be postponed. On the 7th, however, a gentle northerly breeze dissipated the mist, and the bay and forts and distant city lay basking in the clear sunshine. Just two years before, this month, the national flag was hauled down on Fort Sumter, and now it was universally believed that its anniversary day would be celebrated by salutes from national cannon from the same spot and to the same flag.

The officers of the navy, however, were not so sanguine. Dupont, like Farragut, had not unbounded faith in iron-clads, least of all in unwieldy monitors. As through his glass he surveyed the work before him, he saw that his little fleet was to be put into a crucible to which no vessels before had ever been subjected. Steeples and roofs, in the far background, and the neighboring shores, were lined with spectators, assembled to witness the Titanic struggle. As Dupont’s eye swept around that bristling harbor, it was cannon here, and there, and everywhere. In front lay Sullivan’s Island to the right and Morris Island on the left, the two points curving in towards each other till they approached within a mile. Midway in the channel between them, built on an artificial island, stood Fort Sumter. Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, was opposite Sumter, while, above and below, batteries were erected on every available point. On the left, opposite this central fortress, stood battery Bee, on Cummings Point, while beyond, should the vessels ever get there, battery succeeded battery, clear up to the city, three miles distant. Stretching down towards the fleet were other batteries on Morris Island, and among them Fort Wagner. The sight was enough to daunt the stoutest heart, for uncounted cannon lay shotted and aimed, ready to open on that little fleet. It was Dupont’s purpose to pass as quickly as possible up the channel, and get to the west and northwest of Fort Sumter, which was known to be less impregnable than the front face. That there would be great difficulty in reaching this desirable point was well known, for it had been ascertained that torpedoes, and all sorts of obstacles which engineering skill could invent, had been sunk in the channel opposite the fort. To remove these Ericsson had invented a machine which was to be fastened to the bow of the leading vessel, and pushed up amid this net of obstructions, exploding and pulling up whatever might arrest the passage of the ships.

At noon, the signal from the flagship to move to the attack was seen, and the little fleet, looking like mere rafts on the water, steamed slowly forward. There was none of the pomp or splendor of grand old frigates, towering proudly over the deep, in these low black monitors, creeping slowly to the conflict.

It was four miles to Fort Sumter, and the batteries of Morris Island commanded the whole distance. The vessels had advanced but a short distance before the Weehawken, leading the way with the strange machine in front, stopped, having got tangled up with the unwieldy, novel thing. It took an hour to free herself, and then the fleet moved on again. The spectators on shore gazed with breathless interest on the spectacle, the music in Fort Sumter ceased, and the rapid roll of the drum was heard beating to quarters, which called every gunner to his place. The fleet kept steadily on till opposite Fort Wagner, where Dupont expected to meet the first blow of the hurricane; but all its guns kept motionless and still in their places, and only curious eyes greeted the advancing vessels. Next they floated by Battery Bee, but silence like death reigned over the low works. What does all this mean? This silence is ominous, and shows a confidence in something yet to come that portends no good. Still the fleet kept on; but just as the Weehawken was rounding-to, to make the entrance of the harbor, she came within the circle of fire from Forts Sumter and Moultrie. Then the crater opened from the top of Sumter, and down came a storm of shot and shell. Moultrie joined in, and thunder answered thunder with awful rapidity. The heavy metal fell like hailstones on the Weehawken; but she kept steadily on towards her assigned position, followed by the whole fleet. But suddenly she stopped in the very vortex of the fire. She had run upon a hawser stretched from Sumter to Moultrie, buoyed up on casks, and strung with nets, cables, and torpedoes. Her propeller, getting entangled in these, became unmanageable, and she drifted helpless through the wild hurricane. The other vessels, as they come up, see the danger, and sheer off to try the channel on the other side of the fort. But here a row of piles is encountered, rising ten feet out of the water—while farther up, the channel is crossed and recrossed with obstructions, backed by three iron-clads, that can hold those vessels under a fire that nothing that ever floated could survive. To add to the perplexity, the Ironsides, in the heavy tide, suddenly refused to obey her rudder, and she drifted towards Fort Moultrie, getting foul of the Catskill and Nantucket in her passage. The plan of the battle was now irrecoverably gone, and Dupont signalled to the fleet to disregard his movements. it was therefore every one for himself; and then was seen what splendid commanders Dupont had to second him in this unprecedented struggle. Five batteries were in full play, and nearly three hundred cannon of the heaviest metal were trained on those monitors, that now had only the simple problem to solve—whether they can knock Fort Sumter to pieces with their enormous guns, before they are carried to the bottom under the tons of metal that fall with a ceaseless crash upon them.

The gallant Rhind, left to act as he pleased, lays the Keokuk boldly alongside of the fort as though it were a ship, and with his little monitor makes a broadside engagement of it. Close behind him comes Rodgers in the Catskill, and, following hard after, the heroic Worden in the Montauk. A little farther off lie the other vessels, all seeking to sound the full terrors of this awful abyss of fire. Within rifle-shot distance of the nearest batteries, they stand and hurl against them their ponderous shells. The gunners, stripped to their waists, and begrimed with powder and smoke, work their monster guns with a coolness and rapidity that tells fearfully on the solid face of Sumter. Shot weighing four hundred and twenty pounds strike like heaven’s own thunderbolts the trembling structure, but they are nothing to the answering shots that fall faster than the forge’s hammer on their sides. The din of this heavy metal striking and bursting on every side is infernal, and the deafening explosions shake land and sea. It seems one vast volcano, before which everything must be engulfed. Nothing built with mortal hands could long live there, and in thirty minutes the Keokuk came limping out of the fire, fast settling in the waters. One of the port shutters of the flagship was shot away, exposing her gun deck, while a red-hot shot buried itself in her wooden bows. The Nahant was soon disfigured with thirty wounds. The Passaic was in the same plight, with her turret so knocked to pieces that it could not revolve. The Nantucket was reduced to one gun, while the Catskill had been pierced by a rifled shot. Five of the new ironclads must now be reckoned out of the fight. But what thirty-two guns, (the total armament of this fleet) against those encircling batteries could do had been done, and now, to put only fifteen or sixteen against them, was downright madness. Besides, night was coming on, and so Dupont wisely signalled the fleet to retire.

During the evening, the commander of the iron-clads came on board the flagship, and Dupont, after a full report of the condition of the vessels, decided that it would be impossible to take Charleston with them alone.

From the following statement, made by him to the War Department, the folly of renewing the attempt with the same vessels is so apparent, that it is a matter of wonder that any one could be found so destitute of common judgment as to uphold it:


"No ship had been exposed to the severest fire of the enemy over forty minutes, and yet, in that brief period, as the Department will perceive, by the detailed reports of the commanding officers, five of the iron-clads were wholly or partially disabled; disabled, too (as the obstructions could not be passed), in that which was most essential to our success—I mean, in their armament, or power of inflicting injury by their guns.

"Commander Rhind, in the Keokuk, had only been able to fire three times during the short period he was exposed to the guns of the enemy, and was obliged to withdraw from action to prevent his vessel from sinking, which event occurred on the following morning.

"The Nahant, Commander Downes, was most seriously damaged, her turret being so jammed as effectually to prevent its turning; many of the bolts of both turret and pilot-house were broken, and the latter became nearly untenable, in consequence of the nuts and ends flying across it.

"Captain P. Drayton, in the Passaic, after the fourth fire from her 11-inch gun, was unable to use it again during the action; and his turret also became jammed, though he was, after some delay, enabled to get it in motion again.

"Commander Ammnen, of the Patapsco, lost the use of his rifled gun after the fifth fire, owing to the carrying away of the forward-cap square bolts. On the Nantucket, Commander Fairfax reports that, after the third shot from the 15-inch gun, the port stopper became jammed, several shot striking very near the port, and driving in the plates, preventing the further use of that gun during the action.

“The other iron-clads, though struck many times severely, were still able to use their guns, but I am convinced that, in all probability, in another thirty minutes they would have been likewise disabled.

“Any attempt to pass through the obstructions I have referred to would have entangled the vessels, and held them under the most severe fire of heavy ordnance that has ever been delivered; and while it is barely possible that some vessels might have forced their way through, it would only have been to be again impeded by fresh and more formidable obstructions, and to encounter other powerful batteries, with which the whole harbor of Charleston had been lined.

"I had hoped that the endurance of the iron-clads would have enabled them to have borne any weight of fire to which they might have been exposed; but when I found that so large a portion of them were wholly or one half disabled, by less than an hour’s engagement, before attempting to remove (overcome) the obstructions, or testing the power of the torpedoes, I was convinced that persistence in the attack would only result in the loss of the greater portion of the iron-clad fleet, and in leaving many of them inside the harbor, to fall into the hands of the enemy.

“The slowness of our fire, and our inability to occupy any battery that we might silence, or to prevent its being restored under cover of night, were difficulties of the gravest character, and, until the outer forts should have been taken, the army could not enter the harbor or afford me any assistance.

"So unequal was the contest, which lasted less than forty minutes, that the entire fleet of iron-clads fired only one hundred and thirty-nine shots, though, during that same period,’ Dupont says the ‘enemy poured upon us an incessant storm of round-shot and shell, rifled projectiles of all descriptions, and red-hot shot.’"


The whole affair was so palpable and complete a failure, that the Department dared not directly blame Dupont for not succeeding. Still, reluctant to acknowledge itself any way in fault, it reproached him for not saying beforehand how impossible success was. The simple truth is, the Secretary of the Navy, as well as the public generally, had come to have such a high opinion of the invulnerability of the iron-clads, that they considered Charleston as virtually ours, the moment the attack commenced. But, instead of complete success, this iron-clad fleet, the first ever set afloat and tested, effected absolutely nothing. It was too mortifying to confess the fact, without putting the blame on some one, and so it was placed on the commander, Dupont. He felt this keenly, and indignantly denounced the injustice of it. A correspondent of the Baltimore American published such a false statement of the whole matter in that paper, that Dupont felt bound, in justice to his officers as well as to himself, to notice it, which he did in a lengthy review. In a clear, concise statement of facts, he fixed the charge of deliberate falsehood against the writer, leaving no doubt as to the motive that instigated the base attack. In conclusion he says, ‘I now take leave of this, the most odious subject that I ever had occasion to notice. Some other assertions of Mr. Fulton, which might be flatly contradicted, I have not discussed, nor have I thought it worth while to consider his opinions upon purely professional points. To undergo the fire of the enemy and the stabs of an assassin of character, at one and the same time, is too much for my philosophy; and, for further protection against assaults of the latter kind, I look for and expect the countenance of the Department." Chief-Engineer Stimers joined in the attack on Dupont, and, in the steamer Arago, on which he was a passenger on his way North, indulged in such unwarrantable language towards his commander, that the latter brought charges against him, and he was court-martialled. Though no definite result was reached, the public has long since rendered its verdict in the matter. A lengthy correspondence also followed between Dupont and the Secretary of the Navy, and, although the latter avoided all direct accusation, the tone of his letters wounded the chivalrous old Admiral, who felt that he was being made the scapegoat of other men’s sins. Hie felt especially the censure pronounced against him, some time afterwards, for allowing the guns of the sunken Keokuk to fall into the hands of the rebels, for which he was in no wise to blame, and said in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy:


“Having indulged the hope that my command, covering a period of twenty-one months afloat, had not been without results, I was not prepared for a continuance of that censure from the Department which has characterized its letters to me since monitors failed to take Charleston.

“I can only add now, that, to an officer of my temperament—whose sole aim has been to do his whole duty, and who has passed through forty-seven years of service without a word of reproof—these censures of the Navy Department would be keenly felt if I did not know they were wholly undeserved.”


This was a little evasive; for "he did feel them keenly, although they were undeserved." The injustice stung him, against which there was no redress. Brave and chivalrous himself as a knight of the olden time, this deliberate infliction of wrong by others, in order to shield themselves, wounded most deeply his sensitive nature.

It ended—as all such affairs must end—in the resignation or removal of the commander, and the ultimate condemnation and exposure of those who are really the guilty parties.

In January, he sent Worden down to Great Ogeechee River, in the Montauk, to capture, if possible, Genesis Point, under the guns of which the privateer Nashville lay. During this month, he captured the steamer Princess Royal, while attempting to run the blockade at Charleston. The next month, the celebrated raid of the two iron-clads on the blockading squadron took place, in which the Mercedita had her boiler exploded by one of the enemy’s guns, and struck her flag; and the Keystone had also her steam-chest injured in the same manner, and also struck her colors, but afterwards escaped. Beauregard declared the blockade broken, and hoped to have it so regarded by foreign powers, but was disappointed.

In June, Dupont was relieved from his command, and Admiral Foote ordered to take his place. The latter, however, was taken sick in New York, just as he was about to leave for his destination, and died.

After the failure to take Charleston with the ironclads, General Hunter, who was in command of the land forces operating against the city, forwarded the most serious complaints against Dupont, for not cooperating with him, as he desired, in his contemplated movements to take the place. He declares that he has "exercised patience with the Admiral," asks to be liberated from the order to cooperate with the navy, &c., &c., and he would raise colored regiments—take Charleston—in fact, electrify the nation. His after career shows how much he probably would have accomplished.

The sudden death of Admiral Foote compelled the Department to reverse its order of removal, and to direct Dupont to resume his command. During the short interval that elapsed before he was succeeded by Admiral Dahlgren, he sent the Weehawken and Nahant down to Warsaw Sound to look after the rebel ram Atlanta, which was reported to be a most formidable vessel. They succeeded in capturing her on the 17th of June. The next month, Dupont returned to Delaware, and was no more afloat during the war.

Dupont was a superb man physically; of grand and imposing presence, he trod the deck of his battle-ship like one of Nature’s noblemen. Even those accustomed to see men of distinguished personal appearance in various parts of the world, were struck with the majesty and grandeur of his mien. A gentleman of the old school, or rather a knight of the olden time, his bearing was that of dignified courtesy to all, and impressed everyone that approached him with profound respect. Chivalrous in his own feelings, he was incapable of wounding those of others, while he was keenly sensitive to any censure upon his conduct. Insensible to fear, he never shrunk from encountering any danger, while he was too lofty and noble to rush into it to obtain mere notoriety. Master of his profession, he knew his duty better than the Department that censured him, and experienced his greatest humiliation and suffering in performing it. Proud as he was sensitive, he could not brook unmerited rebuke. Irritated at his manly independence, the Government lost one of its best officers by gratifying its spleen, and under the pretence of maintaining its dignity. Dupont’s name, however, will live long after those who persecuted him are consigned to forgetfulness, or to an immortality worse than oblivion.

Chapter VI

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