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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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The naval profession is not favorable to strict scientific pursuits. Its duties are active and practical, requiring the application rather than the investigation of the principles of science. It is rare that we find the practical accomplished sailor and the abstruse scientific man combined. It is only now and then, in any department of life, that the deep thinker and the effective worker are united in one person. Admiral Davis, however, is one of these men—combining rare scientific ability with great practical skill and power. But scientific attainments, largeness of view, and thorough knowledge of all the branches and details of the naval profession, being rarer than those qualifications which will make a good commander afloat, they are needed at the centre of influence to guide, direct, and perfect. Hence the man possessing them often performs a greater service to his country than if he won a battle. Yet, that service is wholly unappreciated by the popular mind. So far as mere fame is concerned, his rare endowments are a misfortune to him.

Charles Henry Davis was born in Boston, Massachusetts, January 10, 1807. His father was the late Hon. Daniel Davis, for thirty-two years Solicitor-General of that State, and the son of the Hon. Daniel Davis of Barnstable, who was a representative of his town in the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, during the Revolutionary War, and subsequently Judge of Probate, and Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of his county.

His mother was the daughter of Constant Freeman, Esq., a merchant of Boston; and among her brothers were Colonel Constant Freeman, of the Revolutionary Army, and Rev. James Freeman, of King’s Chapel, Boston. Thus on both sides he came of good Revolutionary stock. He received his early education at the Boston Latin School, and entered Harvard College in 1821; but remained there less than two years.

In 1841, he received from the University the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts, and his name may be found in the list of his class of 1825, in the triennial catalogue.

After leaving college, he was appointed an acting midshipman in the United States Navy, by President Monroe, on the 12th August, 1823, being then sixteen years of age, and received in the following October orders to join the frigate "United States," in which vessel he sailed on a cruise of three years and a half in the Pacific Ocean, in the squadron of Commodore Hull. During the cruise, he became one of the officers of the schooner Dolphin, commanded by the late Captain John C. Percival, on the somewhat famous expedition into the remote, and, at that time, little known seas of the Western Pacific, in pursuit of the mutineers of the whaleship Globe. The Marquesas and adjoining group of islands were then almost terra incognita to the civilized world, and revealed an entirely new phase of life to the young midshipman.

On his return Acting Midshipman Davis received his warrant, and was ordered to the Erie, Commodore Turner, to do duty in the West Indies. After a year’s service in these waters, he again returned and passed his examination for lieutenant; and, on this occasion, received a very handsome letter of approbation from his first commanding officer, Commodore Hull.

In 1829, a few months later, Mr. Davis joined the Ontario, sloop of war, Captain Thomas H. Stevens, as Master, and sailed for the Mediterranean in the squadron of Commodore Biddle. While on board the Ontario, he entered upon the study of the modern languages, especially French and Spanish; and began a life-long friendship with his shipmate, the late Rear-Admiral (then Lieutenant) S. F. Dupont. His commission as lieutenant was received during this his third cruise, and dated March, 1831. His fourth cruise was again in the Pacific, in the Vincennes, the flagship of Commodore Wadsworth. It was on this vessel that Lieutenant Davis began those mathematical studies which have since given him such distinction in the scientific world. On this cruise he was employed as interpreter between Commodore Wadsworth and the authorities of the State of Ecuador, which had sought the aid of the former in settling the embarrassments of a civil war then raging. He returned to the United States in command of the whaleship Vermont, her captain having been killed by a mutineer. In October, 1836, two years and a half after his return from the Pacific, he was ordered to report for duty to the late Commodore Nicholson, and in the fol. lowing year sailed in the razee frigate Independence, the Commodore’s flagship, for St. Petersburg, carrying Mr. Dallas, the American Minister to the Imperial Court of Russia. While the Independence was in the harbor of Kronstadt, she was visited by the Czar, Nicholas I., who sought to improve his own navy by studying the finest specimens of foreign naval architecture. The Independence, after leaving St. Petersburg, proceeded to her own station, the Brazilian, where she cruised for two years.

On his return to the United States from this fifth cruise, Lieutenant Davis, at the age of thirty-three, had completed seventeen years of service in the Navy, and during more than twelve years of that time, had been on active duty at sea. His commanding officer on every cruise had been a hero of the war of 1812. The names of Hull, Turner, Stevens, Biddle, Wadsworth, and Nicholson, are inseparably associated with the exploits of our early naval history; and, as before remarked of other commanders, these associations must have had a strong effect upon the character and patriotism of Davis.

After an interval of repose, Lieutenant Davis, in 1842, was appointed to the United States Coast Survey, then under the superintendence of Mr. Hassler; and he continued on that work under his successor, Mr. Bache, until 1849. The principal investigations which he conducted for seven years in this service, in the command of a Coast Survey vessel, belong more especially to the department of science, and can only be briefly enumerated as follows: 1. Ascertaining the direction, &c., of currents in New York Bay and vicinity, and in the entrances of New York harbor. 2. Hydrographic and physical examination of the Gulf Stream. 3. Surveys and soundings off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, resulting in the discovery of shoals and banks in the direct line of navigation between New York and Europe, of which mariners had been hitherto entirely ignorant, numerous losses having thereby occurred; and in the discovery of the rock on Cash’s Ledge, which had been long sought for by that eminent British surveyor and hydrographer, Admiral Owen. 4. A memoir communicated to the American Academy in 1848 on the "Geological Action of the Tidal and other Currents of the Ocean”—the result of most careful observations of the formation of shoals, especially on the Nantucket coast; and a second memoir, on the "Law of Deposit of the Flood-tide," published in the Smithsonian Contributions in 1851. During his services on the Coast Survey, Lieutenant Davis commenced those investigations into the laws of engineering in tidal harbors, the fruits of which are shown in the numerous reports upon the great harbors of the United States, written by himself and his associates, General Totten, Chief Engineer United States Army, and Professor Bache, Superintendent United States Coast Survey, either as members of an independent commission, or, as in the case of New York harbor, as advisory council to the State commission. The harbors of Portland, Boston, and New York, have been particularly benefited by these investigations and discussions.

In 1842, Lieutenant Davis was married to the youngest daughter of the late Hon. Elijah H. Mills, of Northampton, United States Senator from Massachusetts. He has three sons and three daughters; the second son, bearing his father’s name, is a midshipman in the United States Navy, and now serving (May, 1866), on the United States Steamer Colorado.

In July, 1849, Lieutenant Davis was relieved from duty on the Coast Survey, receiving on his departure a strong official expression of appreciation and regret from the Superintendent, Prof. Bache, and was immediately assigned to the duty of superintending the preparation of the American ephemeris and nautical almanac. Up to this time, the United States naval and merchant marine had been obliged to use the nautical almanac of the English, and this necessity had proved especially annoying in the labors of the United States Coast Survey; so that the establishment of a national ephemeris had long been urged, and by none more earnestly than by Lieutenant Davis. Accordingly, in the last session of the Thirtieth Congress (1849-’50), a law was passed authorizing such an establishment; and in accordance with its provisions Lieutenant Davis was appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, Hon. William B. Preston, to superintend it. In this undertaking were encountered some formidable obstacles to success; but all were at length overcome by energy and perseverance; and the Nautical Almanac, once established, not only fulfilled all the purposes contemplated in its creation, but fostered and stimulated the mathematical and astronomical ability of the country in an eminent degree. The names of Pierce, Chauvenet, Walker, Winlock, Runkle, Bartlett, Wright, and Newcomb, are necessarily associated with the success of an undertaking which their genius and labors so materially assisted to perfect. It is sufficient to say that this work, which, from its nature, must be regarded as a fair exponent of the science of the country, was everywhere abroad received with unqualified approval. Lieutenant Davis, having triumphantly organized the Ephemeris, retained his position as Superintendent for seven years, and during that time, besides the duty of administration, occupied himself in preparing a translation of Gauss’ "Theoria Motus," (published in Cambridge, 1857), as well as treatises on "Mechanical Quadratures," the computation of a planetary orbit, and other mathematical tracts.

In 1854, Davis received his commission as commander, and in 1856, at his own request, prompted by a desire to renew the regular duties of his profession, a love of which he had never relinquished during his scientific pursuits, he was appointed to the command of the sloop-of-war St. Mary, to cruise in the Pacific Ocean. Professor Winlock, United States Navy, having been named to succeed him as Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, he sailed for Aspinwall, and joined his ship at Panama in the autumn of 1856. During this cruise, Commander Davis received the capitulation of General Walker, while besieged by the allied armies of Central America, in the town of Rivas, and reduced to the extremest necessity. He also took possession, in the name of the United States, of Jarvis and New Nantucket Islands, in the remote Pacific, and cruised for some time on the western coast of Mexico, at that time, as usual, distracted by civil wars.

After commanding the St. Mary for two years and a half, Commander Davis returned home from his sixth cruise, and resumed the superintendence of the Nautical Almanac, in which office he remained until the breaking out of the rebellion.

Immediately upon the commencement of hostilities, the Government and the Navy Department perceived the urgent necessity of calling to their aid the counsels of experienced officers, in deciding questions of immediate practical importance, and in forming plans for future conduct.

In May, 1861, Commodore Davis was ordered to Washington on duty connected with the efficiency and discipline of the Naval service, and at about the same time was appointed member of two boards. On one of these he was associated with Commodores Paulding and Smith, with orders to investigate the subject of armored ships and floating batteries. To them were submitted some fifteen or sixteen proposals, of which they accepted but three-one for the building of the Monitor—one for that of the Galena, and the other for the Ironsides. The result showed the wisdom and sagacity of the commissioners.

The other board—of which Captain S. F. Dupont, United States Navy, Major (now Major General), J. G. Barnard, United States Engineers, and Prof. A. D. Bache, were the other members—was organized for the purpose of considering not only the general blockade of the southern coast, but the seizure of available harbors along it. The result of the labors of this second board, of which Commander Davis was junior member and secretary, was the organization of several combined naval and military expeditions against southern ports. Of one of those, directed against the coast of South Carolina, Captain Dupont was appointed flag-officer, and Commander Davis his chief of staff, and captain of the fleet.

There was no officer in the fleet of more importance to Dupont than Davis, and of this he was fully conscious. In his report from Port Royal, he says "The Department is well aware that all the aids to navigation have been removed, and the bar lies ten miles seaward, with no features on the shore line with sufficient prominence to make any bearing reliable. But owing to the skill of Commander Davis, the fleet captain, and Mr. Boutelle, the able assistant of the Coast Survey, the channel was immediately found, sounded out, and buoyed." And, again, he says: "By three o’clock, I received assurances from Captain Davis that I could send forward the lighter transports, those under eighteen feet, with all the gunboats, which was immediately done." As before, so in the terrific battle that followed, Davis exhibited the same skill and coolness that subsequently distinguished him. He was of more service to Dupont in achieving this great victory than half a dozen gunboats.

The next winter he was placed in charge of the expedition sent to sink the stone fleet in Charleston harbor, and block up the main channel by which blockade runners evaded our squadron. He took sixteen old whaleships loaded with stone; and, towing them into the channel, scuttled and sunk them. This caused an outcry from the people of Charleston, and provoked a remonstrance from the English Government, which seemed to be shocked at the barbarity of a nation that could thus forever, as it was said, destroy a great seaport.

It was no easy task to get these old, heavily-loaded vessels from Port Royal to Charleston, and sink them in the right spot; but a better man could not have been found to perform the labor than Davis, who, from 1842 to 1849, was chief of a hydrographic party in the coast survey, and who, in 1851, was one of the commanders appointed by the Government, at the request of South Carolina, to superintend the improvement of Charleston harbor, in which work he was engaged for several years. No one knew the channel better; and hence, though his present work stood in singular contrast to the one he was then engaged in, his knowledge was none the less valuable.

A witness of this extraordinary scene says: "It was sufficiently novel and striking to satisfy any one. At half past ten the last plug was drawn, and every ship of the sixteen was either sunk or sinking." None of the vessels wholly disappeared from sight, and those which keeled over farthest, and were most under water, had subsided in a very deliberate manner. An impassable line of wrecks was thus drawn for an eighth of a mile across the channel. All but two or three were soon under water—some on their beam-ends, some down by the head, others by the stern, and the masts, spars, and rigging of the thickly-crowded ships were mingled and tangled in the greatest confusion. They did not long remain so. The boats which had been swarming about the wrecks were ordered to cut away the masts. The snapping of stays and shrouds, as one after another tumbled into the sea, sounded like irregular vollies of musketry. For two hours this work went on, while the heavy boom of cannon from Fort Sumter, as it came down the bay, sounded a requiem to the dying fleet. One ship out of the sixteen had her masts left standing, adding by contrast to the desolation of the scene. As night came on, this was set on fire, and blazed up over the waters of the bay like a funeral pyre. The rebels from Sumter, Moultrie, and Sullivan’s Island, could see what was going on, but were powerless to prevent it, and could only vent their indignation in unavailing curses.

A witness of the operation said, "An effort to blockade a tidal harbor like this presented a wholly new problem, which was worked out by Captain Davis, with great ingenuity and scientific skill." In the following January, Davis was sent by Dupont with some ten vessels, accompanied by three transports, which carried twenty-four hundred men, to flank Fort Pulaski, by the Little Tybee river. On the 26th he passed the fort, the commander of which was so taken by surprise to find vessels on that side of him, that he did not even fire upon them. The telegraph wires were cut leading to the city, and all the surveys and examinations made, necessary to form a conclusion as to the propriety of seizing Wilmington Island.

While he was engaged in this work, Commodore Tatnall, with five rebel steamers, attempted to pass down the river to the fort. Davis at once opened fire upon them, and, after a half hour’s engagement, drove two off. The other three succeeded in reaching Pulaski. In two or three hours the latter returned and renewed the attack, and though there was heavy firing, owing to the intervention of the banks of the river which separated the vessels, but little damage was done.

Early in the following month he accompanied Dupont on an expedition against Fort Clinton, and Fernandina, Florida, which were captured with little fighting.

In March, 1862, Captain Davis was detached from the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and in April ordered to relieve Flag-Officer Foote, and assume the command of the Mississippi flotilla. He entered upon this duty on the 9th of May. On the following morning, May 10th, he gained the naval victory off Fort Pillow.

Soon after daylight, the mortar-boats were towed down to open on Fort Wright, and had hardly taken their positions, when the rebel ram, Louisiana, appeared round a point below, accompanied by four other gunboats, and made for the Cincinnati, which was in advance. The ram endeavored to run the latter down; but the captain turned the vessel’s head, so that his powerful antagonist, instead of striking him, came fairly alongside, when the former opened his batteries; and, drawing his pistol, coolly shot the rebel pilot dead at his wheel. At the same time, however, he himself was struck on the shoulder by a musket-ball, and severely wounded. The opposing crews, now in close proximity, opened a fierce fire of small arms, while shouts and curses helped to swell the din and tumult. The next moment the Cincinnati opened her steam batteries, which sent a cloud of hissing, scalding vapor into the rebel vessel, clearing her decks instantaneously, and causing her to haul off in consternation. Three other boats now joined in the attack, and among them the Mallory; but before she could inflict any damage, the St. Louis, obeying Davis’ signal, came down on her under full headway, and, striking her amidships, cut her almost in two, sending her to the bottom with most of her crew. The rest of Davis’ fleet now came up, and a close, fierce conflict followed, in which the firing was so rapid, that the loud explosions seemed like one continued report. In a few minutes, there came out of the clouds of rolling and enfolding smoke a report louder than the explosion of cannon. A rebel gunboat had blown up, and in a few moments went to the bottom, leaving only scattered fragments, covered with struggling swimmers, to tell where she had gone down. But a short interval elapsed, when there came out of the bosom of the sulphurous cloud, another report, telling that another rebel vessel had gone to join her consort. Davis, on the flagship Benton, directed every movement—making no mistake from first to last. He handled his fleet amid all this confusion and obscurity, with a coolness and sagacity that elicited the warmest admiration, and showed that Foote had left a worthy successor.

The action lasted for an hour; and, when it was over, the remains of the rebel fleet were seen steaming back to their old position.

After the evacuation of Fort Pillow, Davis passed on down to Memphis. He led the squadron in the Benton, which swept majestically down the river towards Fort Randolph, that lay between it and the city. As the fleet approached it, Davis was seen pacing his quarter-deck with a measured yet impatient step, turning his eye in the direction of the fort. As he drew near, he saw the stars and stripes floating above it—the garrison having fled to Memphis. The city was only twelve miles distant; and yet there were no signs of the enemy, except the smoke and flames along the shore, arising from the burning cotton, which they had set on fire to prevent its falling into our hands. At a little after four o’clock, as he swung around a bend, he saw ahead the rebel steamer transport Sovereign. The next moment an eighty-four pound shot passed over her to bring her to. She not obeying the summons, Davis said: "Fire again, Captain Phelps; bring her to." The Benton now fired nine shots in rapid succession, when the Sovereign, unhurt, swept around a bend, and was lost to view. The tug Spitfire started in pursuit; and, after an exciting chase, overhauled and captured her. Davis, in the mean time, kept steadily on with the fleet; and, a little before nine o’clock in the evening, came in full view of Memphis, the lights of which could be seen twinkling along the banks. He then signalled to anchor; and the vessels soon lay gently sleeping on the bosom of the Mississippi. It was a beautiful night; the air was mild and balmy, and the moon sailed quietly above amid her islands of stars. In the mean time the transports landed troops on the Arkansas shore, to serve as pickets during the night, while the men slept beside their guns, ready at a moment’s notice to receive the enemy, should he venture on a night attack. The quiet, however, remained unbroken until midnight, when a bright light was seen down the river, near the Tennessee shore, where a rebel tug, which, having got so hard aground, it was found impossible to heave off, had been set on fire by the crew, and now blazed brightly up in the darkness.

At five o’clock in the morning, Davis, from the Benton, which was lying only a mile and a half from Memphis, cast his eye towards the city, glittering in the early rays of an unclouded sun, and saw the bluffs black with citizens, who at that early hour had come forth to witness the battle that they knew was soon to come off.

A little before six, several dark gunboats were seen coming around the bend below. A few minutes later, and Davis issued his orders: "All hands to quarters!" and soon the entire fleet (Davis, in the Benton, leading the van) slowly advanced. Eight rebel rams, commanded by Commodore Montgomery, steamed boldly up to meet him, while the shore was lined with thousands of spectators, gazing with breathless interest on the exciting spectacle. The "Little Rebel," as she came opposite the city, fired the first shot, to which the Benton replied. A moment later, and another of her heavy shot went booming along the Mississippi, and then the conflict opened. In the midst of the heavy firing, down came Colonel Ellet, with the two rams Queen of the West and Monarch; and, passing through the fleet under a full head of steam, drove straight on the rebel boats. The hostile rams now dashed furiously into each other, while the guns of the other vessels poured in their heavy shot and shells. Swift-rolling clouds shut out the morning sun, and out of their involving folds came the crash of colliding vessels, and cries and shouts of men. In an hour and twenty minutes it was all over. The General Beauregard and Little Rebel were blown up, the General Lovell sent to the bottom, while the rest of the fleet was clapping on all steam to escape destruction in flight.

Davis, the victory being won, now pressed after the fleeing enemy, chasing him for ten miles down the river. One vessel after another was captured, until the Van Dorn alone was left of the entire rebel squadron that moved so confidently to battle scarce an hour before. She escaped only by her superior speed.

It was a great victory, and Memphis now lay at the mercy of Davis, and soon the national flag was waving above it.

A few days after, he received the news of the capture of two batteries at the St. Charles, sixty miles up the White River, by a portion of his fleet under Captain Kelty.

The steamer Mound City had her steam-drum exploded in the fight, and blew up, killing, and wounding over a hundred-and fifty, out of a crew of a hundred and seventy-five. Davis, in reporting the victory to the Department, says:


The victory at St. Charles, which has probably given us the command of White River, and secured my communication with General Curtis, would be unalloyed with regret, but for the fatal accident to the steam-drum and heater of the Mound City. * * *

After the explosion took place, the wounded men were shot by the enemy while in the water, and the boats of the Conestoga, Lexington, and St. Louis, which went to the assistance of the scalded and drowning men of the Mound City, were fired into, both with great guns and muskets, and were disabled, and one of them forced on shore to prevent sinking. The forts were commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Fry, late of the United States Navy, who is now a prisoner and wounded.

The Department and the country will contrast these barbarities of a savage enemy, with the humane efforts made by our own people to rescue the wounded and disabled, under similar circumstances, in the engagement of the 6th instant.

Several of the poor fellows who expired shortly after the engagement, expressed their willingness to die, when they were told that the victory was ours.


Davis now kept on down to Vicksburg, where he met Farragut, who had, with a portion of his fleet, run the batteries from below. With him he planned an expedition up the Yazoo, to procure correct information concerning the obstructions and the defenses of the river. The Carondelet and Tyler, with the ram Queen of the West, composed the vessels, but they had entered the river only a short distance, when they encountered the rebel ram Arkansas coming down. Their shots had scarcely heralded her approach, when she appeared at the mouth of the stream, steering straight for Vicksburg, although her course lay right through the combined squadron. Guns opened on her from every side, but she passed on unhurt, and anchored safely under the batteries, much to the chagrin of Farragut and Davis. The Benton pursued after; but, as Davis said, "at her usual snail’s pace, which renders any thing like pursuit ludicrous." He, however, attacked the batteries, maintaining the bombardment for half an hour. In the course of the morning he renewed the attack with Farragut on board—his object at this time being to reconnoiter the rebel works.

Farragut now determined to run the batteries again, for the double purpose of joining the rest of his squadron below, and destroying the ram “Arkansas" in his passage. In the mean time, to cover the movement, Davis steamed up, and again engaged the batteries.

The attempt to destroy the ram having failed, Porter, in the Essex, determined to try his hand on her, and the next morning, shortly after daylight, started on his perilous mission, while Davis diverted the rebel fire on himself, by moving boldly against the upper batteries.

This attempt also failed, and, Farragut having gone down the river, followed by General Williams with the army, Davis abandoned his position before Vicksburg as useless and untenable, and moved up to the mouth of the Yazoo River. He here sent out an expedition under Captain Phelps, which succeeded in destroying the fort at Haines’ Bluff, and capturing its guns.

With his force now materially reduced by sickness, he moved up the river to Helena, to close up his lines, now too extended, to open again the sources of communication and supply, and resume his conjunction with the army.

During this time, Davis was occasionally Flag-Officer, Commodore, and Acting Rear-Admiral of the naval forces, on the Mississippi and its tributaries, sending off expeditions here, and cooperating with the army there, until autumn. In July of the same year, Commodore Davis was confirmed by the Senate as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. After having effected the transfer of the Mississippi flotilla from the army to the navy, under the provisions of an act of Congress, he returned to Washington in November, 1862, and entered upon the duties of his new office, in which he remained until the spring of 1865.

On the 7th Feb., 1863, Commodore Davis received a vote of thanks from Congress, for his services in the war; and, on the same day, was commissioned Rear-Admiral in the U. S. Navy. He also received a vote of thanks for his services from the legislature of his native state.

In May, 1865, Admiral Davis was appointed Superintendent of the National Observatory, a position which he now holds.

He is a member of the Light-House Board, chairman of the Permanent Commission of the Navy Department, and chairman of a Joint Commission of Officers of the Army and Navy on Harbor Obstructions.

He is also one of the United States commissioners of Boston harbor, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and of the National Academy of Sciences. Although it seems hard to take a commander from active service, in which he is winning distinction, and confine him to shore duty, while his companions in arms are winning fame, yet, men of marked ability must be had at the head of affairs, and personal preferences yield to the public good. As before remarked, there were many afloat to whom our vessels could be trusted without fear, yet, there were few possessing the scientific attainments of Admiral Davis, or those qualities so much needed in the successful administration of affairs at Washington.

Chapter XIII

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