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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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It is curious often to trace the causes which have given bent to a man’s whole life, and made or marred his fortunes. Sometimes there seems to be a strong natural tendency to a certain profession or calling; but, on careful examination, it will usually be found that this has arisen from some circumstance—perhaps from a single biographical sketch, which the child has read—making an impression upon him that nothing could efface; often, again, some tradition or character in the family has produced it.

It is more than probable that the subject of this sketch would never have chosen the naval profession had not his mother been sister of the gallant Lawrence, whose last words were: "Don’t give up the ship!" It could not be otherwise than that the gallant character of such a man should make an indelible impression on his nephew—especially when the story of his battles and heroic death was told by another, who revered the memory of her dead brother. What to the mother was the ideal of a noble man would naturally become so to the son; at all events, he early determined to enter the naval service. It would appear from tradition that other plans had been formed for him, and attempts made to dissuade him from this course, but in vain.

He was born in New Brunswick, N. J., January, 1811, and was sent at an early age to Captain Partridge’s celebrated military academy, at Middletown, Connecticut. It is related that one day some of his friends, in attempting to dissuade him from a maritime life, said: "Why, Charles, you can’t be a sailor, for you don’t know how to climb." He instantly turned, and, for an answer ascended quickly to the roof of the house, and descended by the lightning-rod. This practical argument was conclusive.

On the 1st of November, 1826, when he was fifteen years old, he was appointed midshipman, and, the next July, joined the sloop-of-war Warren, and sailed for the Mediterranean. The eastern portion of the sea at that time swarmed with Greek pirates, and the vessel in which young Boggs served was very active in protecting our commerce, and suppressing piracy among the Grecian islands. So valuable were the services of Captain Kearney, his commander, that they were spoken of in the British Parliament. At that time, our navy was a sore subject to the English, and it required a strong motive to wring from them a compliment to any of our ships.

This was a good school for the young midshipman. The intricate and narrow channels of those islands furnished hiding-places for the small Grecian crafts, and hence, there were necessarily many boat expeditions sent in search of them, which required the utmost vigilance and calmness to carry out successfully. Young Boggs there learned that quiet, yet quick, prompt resolution, for which he was afterward so distinguished. In these dangerous expeditions, and sudden bold dashes, he saw that perfect self-possession, and the ability to decide on the spur of the moment what course of action to adopt, was as indispensable to a naval officer, as the ability to command a ship.

Winding among the beautiful islands of Greece, and sailing along the classic coast of the Mediterranean, and visiting the cities and mementoes of ancient greatness, Boggs passed three years of his life, and, when he returned, was no longer a boy. He now made two cruises to the West Indies, and, in 1832, passed his examination successfully, preparatory to his promotion. His duties for the next five years did not differ from those common to all officers in times of peace.

In 1836, he joined, as master, the ship of the line North Carolina, which had been ordered to the Pacific coast. When the vessel arrived at Callao, he received an appointment as acting lieutenant, and was ordered as executive officer to the schooner Enterprise, which appointment was confirmed by his promotion in 1833.

For nearly two years, Lieutenant Boggs now saw much active service. The little schooner sailed up and down the coast, from Valparaiso to Lower California, exploring it thoroughly.

In 1839, he returned home in the North Carolina, and served about a year on board of her in New York harbor, as lieutenant, in charge of the apprentices. He here exhibited two very strong traits in his character—mildness and gentleness of manner, and yet strictness in enforcing discipline. The hand was iron in maintaining order; but it was so gloved, that none felt its hardness. Perhaps no man could be more free and easy with his pupils or subordinates, and yet not relax one jot of strict discipline.

He was highly complimented for his conduct and management of these boys.

His next cruise was in the Saratoga, which composed a part of Commodore Perry’s squadron, on the coast of Africa, and he took an active part in the bombardment and destruction of the Barbary towns.

When the Mexican war broke out, he was ordered to the steamer Princeton, Captain Eagle, and took part in the grand bombardment of the Castle of St. Juan de Ulloa and of Tampico. The United States brig Truxton, having got aground on the bar of Tuspan River, surrendered to the Mexicans, and the Princeton was ordered down to destroy her. Arriving off the wreck, a boat was manned, and Lieutenant Boggs put in command of it, with orders to destroy the vessel. The boat, impelled by the strong rowers, swept steadily over the water, and had nearly reached the Truxton, when a gale suddenly arose, lashing the sea into fury, and causing it to break with such violence over the stranded vessel that he found it impossible to board her. The current setting strongly in shore, together with the increasing gale, also rendered it impossible to return to the. Princeton. The waves were running high; and Boggs, in spite of his efforts, was carried towards the shore. As he approached it, he saw a company of Mexican soldiers drawn up on the beach with a field piece, covering the approach. This was an unexpected dilemma. He could not force the boat out to sea, and he knew, before he could land and charge the soldiers, his little crew would be annihilated. With that quickness of decision which distinguished him, he immediately ordered the only white shirt on board to be torn up, and fastened on a boat-hook, and hoisted as a flag of truce. He then told his men to turn, and pull boldly for shore. Springing on the beach as the bow grazed the sand, he advanced to the Mexican commander with his strange flag of truce, and told him he had been sent to destroy the Truxton—that he was carried against his will to the shore, and had no intention of molesting the town, and that if he was not interfered with, he would do it no injury. If, on the contrary, the former attempted to prevent him from carrying out his instructions, the Princeton would steam in, and open her fire on the place. The Mexican officer, seeing that discretion was the better part of valor, promised not to attempt any interference—on the contrary, he entertained him hospitably till the gale subsided. Boggs then thanked his would-be captor for his civility, and, bidding him adieu, pushed off to the Truxton, and soon she was a mass of flames on the water.

The Princeton was soon after ordered to the Mediterranean, and Boggs visited once more the scenes of his early service. This steamer was a propeller—the first, ever seen in the Grecian seas—and when she entered the Piraeus, the captain ordered the smoke-pipe lowered. No smoke being visible, as she burned anthracite coal, she moved majestically up the bay, without any apparent means of propulsion, much to the astonishment of the Greeks. Seeing no steam-pipe, and no wheels, she seemed to them a living thing, endued with a vitality of her own.

The Italian revolution of 1848 was now in full progress, and during the cruise Boggs saw much of it.

Two years after, we find him executive officer of the St. Lawrence, which had been designated by the Government to carry the American contributions to the World’s Fair in London. On his return, he was appointed First Lieutenant of the New York Navy Yard, and afterwards Inspector of Clothing and Provisions in the same yard. In this new field of duty, he showed great ability—introducing reforms, and putting a stop to many abuses which had crept into the department.

When the Government made a contract with the California Steam Company to carry the mails, one condition of it was that a United States officer should command their passenger boats, and Boggs was selected to command the Illinois. This was in 1855. The position was a very responsible one, and the duties connected with it most arduous. The gold fever was at its height, and the vessels were crowded with passengers, sometimes a thousand in number; many of whom were rough, lawless adventurers, requiring the greatest tact and nerve to keep proper subordination. But no better man could be found than he for that very duty. He possessed the suatviter in modo and fortiter in re a in a remarkable manner, and he succeeded in maintaining order, and acquiring the esteem and respect of all.

Captain Boggs, with his wife and daughter, were at Panama during the massacre of 1856, and narrowly escaped falling victims to it.

He served as commander of the Illinois for three years, and then was transferred to the coast of California. The lighthouse system needed extension, and in 1859 and 1860, he was appointed Inspector of Lights. The steamer Shubrick was placed under his command, and he was required to make two annual trips along the coast from Vancouver’s Island to Lower California, inspecting old lights, and carrying supplies to them, and surveying sites for new ones.

In performing this duty, he was enabled, at the same time, to complete the exploration of the western coast of the continent, which he had partially carried out so many years before.

In steaming amid the rocks and narrow channels of these comparatively unknown shores, he had several narrow escapes from shipwreck.

He was thus engaged when the rebellion broke out. Commander Boggs now found himself in an unpleasant position, and his feelings respecting it, as well as his views of the rebellion, may be gathered from the following extracts from a letter written at the time to a friend:


I am heart-sick of the state of our country—we are in a great state of excitement here. * * * The time has arrived for every one to define his position—those who are not for the Government, as it is, should be denounced as traitors, and meet a traitor’s doom. I shall stick by the flag that I swore, thirty years ago, to protect. I am disagreeably and peculiarly situated—on special duty—so that I dare not leave and return East, as my inclinations would prompt; out of funds to carry on this duty—no special orders to govern me in the peculiar state of the country. Should a privateer of Jeff. Davis appear on these waters, my force is not able to meet her, and I have no authority or means to increase my crew, or mount a heavy gun, without which I should be cut to pieces at long shot, by any thing that might come along.

I have obtained a very excellent silver-mounted Mexican saddle, valued at over two hundred and fifty dollars, bridle, spurs, &c., complete. I wish you would present it to the most daring and gallant soldier from our little county of Middlesex, N. J., or from the State, if you learn who distinguishes himself on the side of the Constitution and the Union. * * *

Give my regards to all who know me, and say that I am for the Constitution and Union, and down with traitors! I only wish the Government would order me home. * * *


Thus, from the far-off coast of California, which was trembling in the balance between the North and South, came his voice for the Union. No wonder he chafed in the position in which he found himself—no funds to go on with his peaceful duties—no heart to do it, if he had. Helpless, if attacked, and no authority to place himself in a state of defence, he felt pressed down as by a nightmare.

Fortunately his letter to the Government, begging for active employment afloat, where he could strike, at least, one good blow for the honor of the flag, and the salvation of his country, was favorably received, and he was ordered home. Never was an order more welcome, and it took him but little time to prepare for his departure. On reaching home, he was placed in command of the Varuna, a passenger steamer, which had been bought by the Department, and changed into a gunboat, and ordered to join Farragut’s fleet below New Orleans.

When Farragut had determined to run past the forts with his fleet and proceed on up to the city, he gave precise and detailed orders to each of the commanders, and assigned them their respective positions.

Boggs, who knew what a frail thing his gunboat was, sought an interview with him and told him that his vessel would never bear any long pounding from the heavy guns of the fort, which he would be compelled to endure if he was required to move slowly, and asked permission to go ahead of his station, which he knew he could do, as the Varuna was a very fast boat. Farragut good naturedly complied with his request, provided he would not run down and sink’ any rebel craft in the channel, as that might obstruct the free passage of the rest of the fleet.

Boggs’ plan was now soon formed, and on the morning of the advance he moved up the stream, second from the flagship of his division. Ordinary fuel, he knew, would not get up steam fast enough, and he had the pork, which formed a part of his ship’s stores, already prepared to throw into the furnace. At the proper time, it was cast on to the hissing coals —the fires blazed up, and with a full head of steam on, he dashed ahead. When abreast of the forts, he fired his starboard battery, loaded with five-second-shell. "Now!" exclaimed Boggs, "fire with grape and canister as fast as possible," and the frail boat shot ahead, wrapped in flame, and was soon above the forts. Looking around him in the early twilight, he saw that he was in a perfect nest of rebel gunboats, ranged on both sides of the river. He instantly gave orders to "work both sides, and load with grape." Cool, and apparently unexcited, the men trained their guns with such precision, that scarcely a shot failed to hit its mark, while the forward and aft pivot-guns also kept up their steady fire. The first rebel vessel that received his fire, seemed crowded with troops. At the first discharge, her boiler exploded, and she drifted ashore. Three other vessels, in quick succession, were now driven ashore in flames, and blew up. At this moment, just as the sun had risen above the horizon, lighting up the strange scene, he saw a vessel, iron-clad about the bows, bearing down full upon him. As the rebel vessel approached, she fired a thirty-two-pound rifled gun, which raked the Varuna terribly, killing and wounding thirteen men. The marines now poured in a galling fire, which swept the gunners clear of the piece, so that it could not be fired again. The next moment she struck his vessel in the port gangway, athwart the mainmast, crushing in her timbers, and causing her to careen over in the water. Backing off, she again came on, hitting nearly in the same place, staving in: the side. But Boggs ordered the engineer to go ahead, and the Varuna, pushing up stream, swung the rebel steamer around, leaving her wooden side exposed. Instantly, Boggs poured in abaft her armor eight-inch shells. Five in quick succession entered her side, bursting with such destructive force, that the captain afterwards said they swept his decks of nearly every living object. "This," said Boggs, "settled her, and drove her ashore in flames"

The feeble, but gallant Varuna had hardly recovered from these two staggering blows, when the Stonewall Jackson, an iron-clad, came full upon her, striking her with a tremendous crash, and staving in her sides, so that the water poured in torrents into the vessel. She was also on fire, and there was now no alternative but to run her ashore, and her bow was headed for the banks. The Oneida, Captain Lee, seeing her condition, rushed to her assistance, but Boggs, finding that he could do him no good, waved him on toward the Governor Moore, which, though in flames, kept up a heavy fire, that swept the deck of the Varuna. Fast settling in the water, as she struggled towards the shore, her guns kept booming over the bosom of the Mississippi, until the water was above the trucks —the last shot just skimming the surface. Captain Bailey saw with pride how the wounded thing fought, and says: "I saw Boggs bravely fighting, his guns level with the water, as his vessel gradually sunk underneath, leaving her bow resting on the shore, and above water." The coolness and foresight of Boggs were strikingly shown in running his vessel ashore. When he saw her guntrucks under water, and knew the last shot had been fired, he hastened forward, and ordered a chain-cable out, and, the moment the bow struck the bank, he had it fastened round a tree, so that the vessel, as she sunk stern first, might not slide off into deep water and carry the crew with her. At the same time, the chief engineer coolly walked up to him, and, touching his hat, reported: "The engine has stopped working, sir." With him came the gunner, who, with the same salute, said: "The magazine is closed, sir, and here are the keys." This shows with what cool deliberation the vessel was fought,—no hurry, no excitement, though the hostile vessels were all around her, shells bursting along her decks, ironclad bows beating in her sides, and fire raging along her decks.

In fifteen minutes after receiving the last blow, the Varuna went down, with her guns roaring and her flag proudly flying.

During the action, a boy named Oscar Peck, only thirteen years old, whose business was to pass ammunition to the gunners, narrowly escaped death, as one of the enemy’s shells burst along the deck. Just then, Boggs came upon him, begrimed with powder, and seeing him running, asked him where he was going in such a hurry. "To get a passing box, sir," he replied; "the other was smashed by a ball." When the Varuna went down Boggs missed the boy, and thought he was among the killed. But a few moments after, he saw the lad gallantly swimming towards the wreck. Clambering on board, the little fellow threw his hand up to his forehead, in the usual salute, for his hat was gone, with the simple exclamation "All right, sir, I report myself on board!" That boy was worthy to be trained under such a man as Boggs. Delighted with his gallantry, he said in his report: "I would particularly recommend to the notice of the Department, Oscar Peck, a second-class boy, and powder-boy of the after rifles, whose coolness and intrepidity attracted the attention of all hands. A just reward for such services would be an appointment at the Naval School."

Boggs was now without a ship, but in losing it had not lost his honor, but, on the contrary, won immortal fame, and showed that he was a worthy nephew of the gallant Lawrence, who lost his life and ship together.

Boggs was now sent by Farragut to General Butler below, to request him to bring his army up, as the fleet had passed the forts. Taking the only iron life-boat of the Varuna which was saved, he passed around the forts by a bayou, and safely delivered his message.

As a reward for his gallantry in this unparalleled naval combat, his native town and state both voted him a sword.

Boggs now came north, and was ordered first to the Juniata, and afterwards transferred to the Sacramento, in which vessel he was senior officer of the blockading squadron off Wilmington. To a man of his enterprise and love of active service, this was a most disagreeable duty, especially as he had an insufficient squadron, or, at least, an inefficient one, in the speed and power of the vessels that composed it. The constant exposure and fatigue attendant on his duties here, at length broke down his health, and he was reluctantly compelled to resign his command, and return home to recruit and receive that medical treatment of which he was in pressing need.

As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he was appointed one of Admiral Gregory’s staff, on duty at New York. Here he was actively engaged in superintending the building and fitting out of a fleet of steam picket boats of his own planning. One of these, No. 1, was, by him and Engineer Wood, converted into a torpedo-boat. How well it was planned and constructed, may be inferred from the fact that it was the one selected by Lieutenant Cushing to make his memorable attack on the rebel ram Albemarle, in which that dreaded monster was sent to the bottom.

The iron-clad torpedo-boat, Spuyten Duyvil, was also fitted out under Captain Boggs’ directions.

After the close of the war, Boggs was put in command of the squadron ordered to the coast of Maine, to watch the Fenian movement. On returning from this duty, he was ordered, with his vessel, the De Soto, to join the West India squadron, and is now on active duty at that station.

Last summer he was made Commodore by seniority. Some of the most striking traits in the character of Commodore Boggs are clearly exhibited in the manner he fought and handled his vessel in the passage of the Forts below New Orleans. Prompt, fearless, cool, and self-possessed, dangers cannot daunt him, and no obstacles arrest him. But, added to these qualities as a commander, he has those of a man, which make him unusually beloved by those who know him. Gentle, amiable, and indulgent in his family, he is equally so on ship, in every thing that does not interfere with the discipline and good order of the vessel. He overlooks many things that one more of a martinet would notice. Mere technicalities he cares little for, but he exacts the strictest, most thorough, performance of duty. Like many other strong men, he needs a great object to develop his real character. To an ordinary observer, he seems merely good-natured, and inclined to be lazy; but place him amid the smoke of battle, and he is like the roused lion.

Kind and sympathizing in his nature, he is very careful of the health and comfort of his men, and they repay that kindness by affection and supreme devotion.

Chapter IX

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