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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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Louis Malesherbes Goldsborough was born in Washington, D. C., on February 18th, 1805. His father and friends, living at the very focus of political influences, were not compelled to work, through some Congressman from a remote district, to secure an appointment for him in the Navy, and he was entered as midshipman, at the extraordinary age of seven years. A mere boy, he could learn but little, and do but little in his profession. It is probable that he was appointed at that time, in order to secure a vacancy that might not again occur for a long time. At all events, he did not enter the service till four years after. When eleven years old, he joined the frigate Independence, under the gallant Bainbridge. From 1817 to 1824, he cruised in the Mediterranean and Pacific, being most of the time in the Franklin, commanded by Stewart. In 1825, he was made lieutenant, being then but twenty years of age. In a time of peace, to reach so early the grade of lieutenant, was almost unprecedented, and shows that his friends had great influence at headquarters. This was still further evinced by his obtaining leave of absence to visit Europe. He settled himself down in Paris, and prosecuted his studies there for some time, and then joined the North Carolina, in the Mediterranean. He was transferred from this vessel to the schooner Porpoise. The schooner, while cruising in the Grecian Archipelago, fell in with a craft that had been captured by pirates. Lieutenant Goldsborough, then only twenty-two or three years old, was ordered to take the boats of the schooner and recapture it. Thirty-five officers and men were put under him, and the young officer shoved off to execute the order. It was a hazardous undertaking, for the captured vessel swarmed with pirates. He, however, rowed boldly up to her and opened a close, fierce fire. It was returned, and a severe conflict followed. The vessel was at length taken, but not till every officer and man had killed, upon an average, nearly three pirates apiece. The decks were slippery with blood, and a horrible sight met his gaze as he stepped upon them, for ninety men had fallen in the engagement.

In 1830, he returned to the United States in the Delaware, and was placed in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments. This bureau, or whatever it may be termed, was changed on his own suggestion into the National Observatory.

He had some time previously married the daughter of the distinguished orator, William Wirt. The latter had purchased a large tract of land in Florida, on which he wished to found a German colony, and, in 1833, Goldsborough took charge of the emigrants and moved thither. He was there when the Seminole war broke out, and took command of a company of mounted volunteers. He afterwards was placed in command of an armed steamer.

Becoming tired of the kind of life he was compelled to lead in Florida, he resumed his profession, and, in 1841, was promoted to commander.

When the Mexican war broke out, a few years after, he was placed second in command of the Ohio, which formed a part of the fleet that bombarded Vera Cruz.

After the place fell, he took charge of a body of sailors, detached for shore service, at the taking of Tuspan.

At the close of the Mexican war, he was appointed senior naval member of a joint commission, appointed to explore California and Oregon, and report upon various military matters. He showed the same ability here that he had in all the trusts which had heretofore been committed to him, and was, in 1855, made Captain.

At the commencement of the rebellion, he was in command of the Congress, on the Brazilian station. He returned to the United States in August, 1861, and was appointed flag-officer; and, next month, placed in command of the North Atlantic blockading squadron, with the Minnesota as his flagship.

Although we had taken possession. of Cape Hatteras, thus cutting off one of the channels of ingress and egress to blockade runners, still, the shallow inlets and sounds on the North Carolina coast furnished other avenues of approach, through which arms, ammunition, clothing, and stores were brought into the Confederacy, and cotton taken out; and hence, it became of vital importance that the waters of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds should be under our control. A joint expedition of the army and navy was, therefore, organized with great secrecy, to be sent thither; and all through the autumn was being assembled at or near Hampton Roads—-the land force to be under Burnside, and the fleet under Goldsborough. Although it was well known that the coast, in the neighborhood of Hatteras, was very stormy and dangerous in winter, by some strange fatality the expedition lingered out the mild autumnal season in Hampton Roads, and was not ready to sail till near the middle of January, 1862. The fleet consisted of twenty-three light-draught vessels, carrying forty-eight guns. The land force numbered sixteen thousand men, and were carried in thirty transports. Five vessels more carried the horses, eight or ten the siege-train, supplies, &c., making in all a fleet of nearly eighty vessels.

This was an imposing force, and, when it was all assembled in Hampton Roads, presented a magnificent appearance, the like of which had never before been seen on our continent.

On Saturday night, the 11th of January, the signal to make sail was hoisted, and by ten o’clock this magnificent fleet was in motion. It was a beautiful moonlit night, and, as the vessels in one vast crowd moved off seaward, it seemed as if nothing along our coast could resist such an armada. As it approached the Atlantic, however, a heavy fog enveloped it, which continued more or less dense all the fore part of the next day, Sunday. But, in the afternoon it cleared up, and just as the sun was sinking in a blaze of glory over the Carolina shore, the fleet swept around Cape Hatteras, and hove-to off the inlet, twelve miles distant, to wait for the morning light, before attempting to cross the bar. Monday morning dawned bright and beautiful, and a gentle south wind breathing of spring stole over the waters. Everything seemed propitious to the expedition. Still, Goldsborough felt some anxiety, as he saw the heavy breakers bursting over the bar—for, although there was but little wind, a heavy swell was rolling in, indicating that a storm was raging not far distant. The lighter vessels, however, one by one passed the bar safely, and anchored inside of the inlet, under the lee of the land. Thus Monday, the 13th, passed, but when night came on several of the heavier vessels were still outside, while a dark cloud in the north, accompanied by a heavy squall, showed that a change of weather must be expected on this tempestuous coast. The next morning—the worst of all winds for that region—a northeasterly gale was upon them, lashing the ocean into fury. Goldsborough saw with the deepest anxiety the increasing storm, for the City of New York lay aground on the bar, loaded with ammunition, tents, blankets, and valuable stores, and wallowing amid the breakers that leaped above her decks, like malignant spirits seeking her destruction. The foremast had been cut away, which, in its fall, carried away the main topmast, while amid the blinding spray a signal of distress was seen flying. In this terrible situation, the long, gloomy day wore away, and night closed in around the ill-fated vessel. With the first gleam of dawn, Goldsborough cast his eye towards the spot where she lay and saw her crew lashed to the masts. All her boats but one had been carried away, and, no help coming from the fleet, two mechanics from Newark, named William and Charles Beach, volunteered to make the desperate attempt, with this one, to pull through the breakers and obtain assistance. They succeeded, with three others, in launching it safely, and though, at times, entirely lost to view amid the combing billows, at length reached the fleet. Life and surf boats were now manned, which, impelled by strong arms, succeeded in reaching the vessel and taking off the crew, when she was left to her fate.

A transport laden with stores went down on the bar; the gunboat Zouave sunk at her anchorage; one transport was blown out to sea, and several got aground.

The Anne E. Thompson, with the New Jersey Ninth Volunteers, lay outside in imminent peril of wreck, and Colonel Allen and Surgeon Weller took a boat and pulled over the bar to ask for help. On their return, the boat swamped, and they both perished. The Pocahontas, with a hundred and twenty-three horses, was wrecked, and all but seventeen drowned. Gale now followed gale in quick succession, and the ships, in their miserable anchorage, lay grinding against each other and tossing heavily on the swell, while the shrieking of the wind through the cordage, and the thunder of billows falling with incessant crashes along the shore, continued to make a scene of terror and gloom sufficient to sadden the stoutest heart. To add to his misery, Goldsborough was taken down with the rheumatism, and groaned aloud over his helplessness in this trying hour. The whole week passed without anything being done. Of course, the destination of the fleet, which had so long and laboriously been kept secret, was now known, and all hopes of surprise were at an end.

When, at last, nearly all the surviving fleet had succeeded in reaching the inlet, Goldsborough found that he still had an almost insurmountable difficulty to overcome, before he could enter the waters of the Pamlico Sound. There was another bar still to be crossed, called the Bulk-Head, or Swash, which, Goldsborough said, under the most favorable circumstances, furnished only seven and a half feet of water, while some of his heaviest vessels drew eight feet. By what strange fatuity vessels were sent where there was not water enough to float them, has never been satisfactorily explained. One by one, however, by taking advantage of high tides, and high winds bringing in a heavy sea, and using every expedient that ingenuity could suggest, Goldsborough finally got his vessels over into deep water.

On Monday the 26th, he sent home a dispatch announcing that seventeen vessels were safely within the Sound. But other delays took place, and it was not until three weeks after his arrival at the Cape, that the expedition, which was to be a great surprise, finally got under way.

On the 5th of February, the same day that Foote was moving up the Cumberland River to attack Fort Henry, the fleet of gunboats and transports carrying the army, sixty-five in all, moved off towards Roanoke Island, on which were erected works that commanded the channel leading into Albemarle Sound.

The storms had blown themselves out, and the day was mild and balmy as spring, as the imposing fleet moved majestically forward over the smooth waters.

When within ten miles of the southern point of the island, it being near sundown, the signal to anchor was hoisted from the flagship, and in a few minutes the fleet lay at rest on the water. It was a beautiful moonlight. night, and as the mellow radiance flooded the scene, it did not seem that death and havoc lay slumbering there.

The morning, however, dawned dark and gloomy. Heavy clouds lay along the horizon, as the fleet once more moved slowly onward, and by eleven o’clock a storm broke over the sound, when it again came to a halt. After some time it cleared up, and the signal to advance was given. The weather, however, was too heavy to undertake to pass the batteries that night, and the vessels came to anchor. The next morning the sun rose in a sky mottled with fleecy clouds, indicating a quiet day, and preparations were at once made to attack the enemy’s works. As Goldsborough approached them, he came in sight of the rebel gunboats, eight in number, drawn up behind a double row of piles and sunken-vessels, placed there to obstruct the channel. Besides these obstructions, and rebel steamers to defend the passage, there were two strong works mounting twenty heavy guns—three of them one hundred pound rifle guns—and four other batteries mounting twenty guns, together with a garrison of from three to five thousand men.

At eleven o’clock the first gun from the flagship broke the ominous silence, and, as the loud report rolled away over the water, Goldsborough ran up Nelson’s famous signal: "This day our country expects that every man will do his duty." By noon the combat was raging in all its terror, and the signal for close action was seen flying amid the smoke of the guns that curled lazily up in the atmosphere. Goldsborough directed his fire at first against the rebel gunboats, which gradually fell back to draw his vessels in close range of the works. The fleet steadily advanced until it reached the obstructions, which had been planted just where the rebel forts could pour in their most destructive fire. To these Goldsborough gave his exclusive attention, and the ponderous shell of our vessels dropped thick as hailstones within them. The enemy replied, and soon one eighty-pound rifle shell entered the fore-hold of the Louisiana, setting her on fire. In six minutes however the flames were extinguished, and the vessel was again hurling shot and shell into the rebel works. At half past one the barracks behind the fort at Rock Point were set on fire by our shells. All efforts to extinguish them proved abortive, and the clouds of smoke that arose, making a fearful background to the fire of the batteries, imparted additional terror to the scene. The fire raged for nearly an hour before the buildings were wholly destroyed. In the mean time the bombardment went on, and at a little after 2 o’clock a 32-pounder round-shot struck the steamer Hetzel, Lieut. H. R. Davenport commanding, compelling her to haul off to repair damages. In a little over an hour and a half she was again at her position, pouring in her shot as before.

The bombardment of the forts, which had commenced before noon, was kept up till dark. Goldsborough says:

At 6 p. m. the firing of the enemy being only from Pork Point, and at long intervals, darkness coming on, and, not wishing to waste ammunition, I ordered the signal "cease firing " to be made. In the course of the afternoon, our six launches, under the command of Midshipman Benjamin H. Porter, landed their howitzers and joined the army, for the purpose of commanding the main road and its two forks during the night, and assisting in more active operations the following morning. By midnight some 10,000 of our troops had been safely landed at Ashby’s harbor, the Delaware having taken on board from the Cossack some 800, and put them on shore at 10 p. m.

February 8—As it was arranged by General Burnside that his forces should move, at a very early hour this morning, from where they had been landed, and begin their attack upon the enemy, and, as the direction they were required to take would, in all probability, soon bring them in the line of fire occupied by the navy, it was agreed between us last night that to-day the vessels should not renew operations until I could receive word from him that their missiles would not be destructive to both friends and foes. At daylight none of the enemy’s vessels, except the Curlew, could be discovered.

At 9 A. M. a continuous firing in the interior of the island told us that our forces were hotly engaged about midway between Ashby’s harbor and Pork Point battery, and, as this intelligence also assured us that our forces were not then in the range of our line of fire, our vessels, without waiting to hear from General Burnside, at once moved up to re-engage the forts. At this work they continued until the firing in the interior evidently slackened. Then, taking it for granted that our troops were carrying everything before them, and thus fast approaching the rear of the batteries, I again ordered the signal "cease firing" to be made. At the time, however, the work on Pork Point was so reduced that it did not use but one gun against us. Shortly afterwards, on being informed by one of General Burnside’s aids, of the actual state of things on shore, I was induced to order another demonstration on the part of our vessels, but before firing had generally commenced Commander Rowan came on board the Southfield just from General Burnside, with the suggestion that it would be better to desist, and accordingly they were recalled.

At 1 P. M., judging that the time had arrived for clearing a passage-way through the obstructions alluded to above, by the accomplishment of which both the battery on Redstone Point and the Curlew might be destroyed, and our advance up Albemarle Sound would be secured, the Underwriter, Valley City, Seymour, Lockwood, Ceres, Shawsheen, Putnam, Whitehead, and Brincker, were ordered to perform the service. By 4 P.M., one of them had overcome the difficulty for herself, and reached the other side, and in less than an hour more a sufficient way for all the rest was opened. This important duty could not have been undertaken one moment earlier than it was without exposing our vessels, huddled together, to the converging and crossfire of the four batteries at Pork, Weir’s, and Redstone Points, and another one situated between the former two. About the same time that our vessels succeeded in bursting through the barricades the American flag was hoisted over the battery at Pork Point, and in a few minutes afterwards the enemy himself fired the works at Redstone Point, and also the steamer Curlew. Both blew up in the early part of the evening. These events closed the struggle, which had now lasted throughout two days, and were essentially the last scenes enacted in securing to us complete possession of the island of Roanoke.

The casualties were few, considering the length of the combat, and showed poor firing on the part of the rebels. The Hetzel suffered most, not from the enemy’s shot, but from the bursting of her own 80-pounder rifled gun. This took place at a quarter past five. The concussion was so fearful, that every man at the piece was knocked down and six of them wounded.

The muzzle fell on the deck; a part of the breech leaped into the sea, carrying away the bulwarks in its mad plunge; another portion rose high in the air, and a third went downward, breaking through the deck, magazine, and deck below, and lodged on the keelson. Davenport, the commander, says: "The magazine was set on fire, and only extinguished in time to avoid an explosion by the presence of mind, promptitude, and intrepidity of Lieutenant Charles L. Franklin, Executive Officer." The accident so disabled her that she had to haul off and anchor out of reach of the enemy’s guns. The Commodore Perry was hit seven times, but not materially injured. The Hunchback, Calhoun commanding, was struck eight times, and fired over three hundred shot and shell, yet not a man on board was wounded. All the commanders handled their vessels with great skill. The Stars and Stripes got aground, and remained so for two hours, under the fire of the battery, and all that time returned shot for shot, her officers behaving with great coolness and courage. Goldsborough, who had transferred his flag to the Southfield, remained on deck during the whole of the engagement. The total loss on board the ships was only thirteen, though Midshipman Porter, who commanded a howitzer-battery on shore, lost twenty-three. The works were finally carried by the troops, which had been landed the night before, and advanced in three columns under the command of Reno, Foster, and Park. The rebel steamers fled up Albemarle Sound, whither, the next day, Monday, Rowan pursued them and sunk or captured all but two.[1]

Goldsborough now sent off various expeditions into the bays and rivers, to complete his conquest of the coast. A month later Newbern fell under a joint expedition of the army and navy, the latter commanded by Rowan. In the mean time, Goldsborough’s presence was needed in Hampton Roads, for the Merrimac had made her daring raid in those waters. After the destruction of the Merrimac, he cooperated with McClellan—keeping vessels in both James and York Rivers. Much hard work was done by the various commanders, but the only engagement worthy of particular mention, was that at Drury’s Bluff, eight miles below Richmond. Heavy guns were here mounted, which completely commanded the river, so that our vessels could not ascend above it.

In May, Goldsborough sent up the Galena, Aroostook, Naugatuck, Port Royal, and the Monitor, to silence, if possible, the works erected there, called Fort Darling. The Galena in advance, John Rodgers commanding, cleared the shores of the enemy. He says:  

We met with no artificial impediments until we arrived at Ward’s Bluff, about eight miles from Richmond, where we encountered a heavy battery and two separate barriers, formed of piles and steamboats and sail vessels. The pilots both say that they saw the Jamestown and Yorktown among the number.

The banks of the river we found lined with rifle-pits, from which sharpshooters annoyed the men at the guns. These would hinder all removal of obstructions, unless driven away by a land force.

The Galena ran within almost six hundred yards of the battery, as near the piles as it was deemed proper to go, let go her anchor, and with a spring. He swung across the stream, not more than twice as wide as the ship is long. Then, at 7:45 A.M., opened fire upon the battery.

The wooden vessels, as directed, anchored about thirteen hundred yards below.

The combat lasted for two hours, the heavy echoes of the guns breaking with startling distinctness over Richmond, filling the inhabitants with terror. But the fight was too unequal, for the shot of the vessels could not be thrown with any accuracy up the hill, a hundred and fifty feet high, while the plunging balls from the fort went through and through the Galena. The vessel being compelled, on account of the narrowness of the river, to remain stationary, the enemy, when he once got the range, made his shots tell so fatally, that in a short time twenty-four of the crew of the Galena were killed or wounded, and she had been struck some eighteen times. The 100-pounder rifle-gun on board the Naugatuck burst early in the action, and she became useless. She had but two wounded, and the Monitor one.

This was the first reverse our iron-clads had met with, and the people of Richmond were highly elated at the result. Rodgers could not run the batteries, on account of the obstructions that were placed across the river, directly under fire of the fort.

Admiral Lee, succeeding Goldsborough (who asked to be relieved on account of disagreement with Wilkes), in the command of the North Atlantic blockading squadron in the forepart of September, the latter was employed afterward on shore duty. At Washington, he rendered the Government good service, and was active in his department until the close of the war. He was then placed in command of the European squadron, which position he at present holds.

[1] The particulars of this splendid achievement will be found in the sketch of Admiral Rowan.

Chapter X

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