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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 a curious fact, in our naval history, that a commander never lost a vessel in an engagement not only without being acquitted of all blame, but absolutely winning laurels by his misfortune. The manner in which he fought his ship, the heroism he displayed, and the desperate nature of the contest, made the defeat, by the great example it furnished, worth as much to the country and the navy as a victory would have been.

Thus Lawrence, crying out on the verge of death, "Don’t give up the ship," although victory was hopeless, furnished a motto that has been worth more than a dozen victories to the Navy.

Porter, standing on the deck of his shattered vessel, in the harbor of Valparaiso, with his colors struck, was a hero greater than any ordinary victory could have made him, while the example he set of how an American commander should fight his ship, has awakened a spirit of emulation in our commanders that will exert a powerful influence as long as our navy exists. The same is true of the gallant Blake, carrying his frail vessel into a hopeless combat, and then fighting her till she was a wreck and fast sinking.

Homer C. Blake was born in Dutchess County, New York State, on the 1st day of February, 1822. His father’s name was Elisha Blake, and his mother’s Merilla Crane. When he was but a year old, his father moved into what was then considered the far West, Ohio, and settled in that section called the Western Reserve. Here he grew up from boyhood, attending the schools common to that part of the country, and laboring at intervals, as the youth of that time around him were accustomed to do.

Through the influence of friends, he, at the age of eighteen, March 2d, 1840, received the appointment of midshipman. In the following December, he joined the Constellation frigate, and in her made a cruise round the world. A mere lad, the change from a secluded life in a remote town in the West, to the wide field opened before him in this extended cruise, could not have been greater, and it matured him fast. Active, alert, and always ready for any duty, he showed at the outset that he had chosen the profession for which he was designed. His first voyage lasted for over three years, and he did not reach home until 1844. In that time he had become a man, having lived twice three years in experience.

When the Constellation reached China, all communication was cut off between the spot where the vessels anchored and Canton. But it was all-important that this should be kept open; and the duty of doing this was committed to young Blake, who, in an open boat, with only twelve men, performed it to the entire satisfaction of his commander. At this time, the price of an Englishman’s head was a thousand dollars, and as the Chinamen were not very scrupulous what kind of head they brought to market, and no one could distinguish between that of an Englishman and an American, it required the utmost care and vigilance on the part of the young midshipman to keep his head from going into their basket.

On his return, he was allowed only a short furlough, in which to visit his friends; and in a few weeks was ordered to join the sloop-of-war Preble, about to sail for the coast of Africa. He remained for a year on this inhospitable coast, engaged in the arduous, annoying, and often dangerous duty of suppressing the slave-trade.

On his return from this cruise, he entered the United States Naval School, to add scientific to his practical knowledge, and thus enable him to make the latter broader in its application, and enlarge the field of his future influence.

Here he showed the same devotion to study that he had to practical duties, and the same facility in mastering whatever he undertook. Having completed his education, for which his four years of actual service had been an admirable preparation, he graduated in 1846, as passed midshipman. Six years of practical and scientific training seems a long time before one passes the threshold of his profession, but none too long to make the accomplished officers we need in the navy.

The war in Mexico now breaking out, young Blake, ambitious of distinction, applied for active service, and was attached to his old vessel, the sloop-of-war Preble, and sent to the coast of California. He would have preferred a different vessel and a destination which placed him more directly in the vicinity of the army, where the hard fighting was expected to take place. As a rule, officers do not like sloops-of-war. In the first place, they are too small to perform any great work, while their armament makes them top-heavy, and anything but pleasant craft to be in a heavy sea.

His duties were various on the coast of California, but furnished no opportunity for distinguishing himself.

In the mean time the war drew to a close, and in 1848 the Preble was detached from that station, and ordered to the East Indies. But scarcely had the vessel, after her long voyage, reached Canton, when Blake’s health became so feeble that he was unfit for duty. There seeming to be no prospect of recovering on board the sloop and in that unfavorable climate, he was permitted to return home.

He was now employed for a short time on shore in the coast survey.

But, in 1850, we find him again afloat in the frigate Raritan, bound once more for the Pacific. He did not, however, complete his cruise in her, but was transferred to the sloop-of-war St. Mary. In this vessel he kept on to the China Seas, and so home by way of the Cape of Good Hope—thus, in about nine years, making three voyages around the world.

In 1856, he again joined the Raritan frigate, and sailed for the coast of Brazil. This vessel formed a part of the Paraguay expedition. The expedition was devoid of interest; but a little incident occurred, while Blake’s vessel lay at Rio Janeiro, which would have been forgotten had it not been related by one of the Russian officers, who visited our country a short time since, and were received with so much display in New York. Several English and French men-of-war were in the port of Rio Janeiro at the same time that the St. Lawrence was there. Soon after, the Russian ship-of-war Diana came into harbor—one of the vessels that bore a prominent part in the repulse of the English and French on the Asiatic coast. One day, some ten or twelve of her crew came ashore on leave, and were walking leisurely along, when they were suddenly set upon by a large party of French and English sailors. Near by, a group of American officers were standing, spectators of the scene. The Russians were getting badly beaten, when one of the officers stepped quickly forward amid the combatants, and, laying his hand on his sword, soon turned the scale, so that the Russian sailors came off victors. It was only a passing incident, forgotten by that officer the next hour, and never perhaps recalled again, till, five or six years after, it was told by a Russian officer on our own soil, to show the friendly relations that existed between the two nations. Forgotten by us, it had been repeated in the Russian navy, and made every sailor who heard it our fast friend. That officer was Homer C. Blake.

On his return from this cruise, in 1857, he was employed for a while on shore duty. He was then again sent to the coast of Africa, returning in the latter part of the next year.

For twenty years Blake had now been almost constantly afloat, enriching his experience by almost every species of navigation, till he was fit to command any vessel, yet apparently without any prospect of reaching the grade of captain until he should be almost old enough to be put on the retired list.

But the election of 1860 precipitated the long threatened collision between the North and South; and when, in 1861, the war actually broke out, Blake applied for active duty. No doubt or vacillation disturbed him in choosing the course he should take. His sword and his life he wished to cast together, if need be, to sustain the old flag he had sailed under in every sea on the globe, and whose folds had been his protection in nearly every harbor of the world.

He was first ordered to the Sabine, which was employed on the coast of South Carolina. This vessel formed a part of the Port Royal expedition; but, being detained in rescuing the crew of the Governor, during a violent storm, she did not arrive in time to take part in the engagement. The Sabine being soon withdrawn from thin station, and employed on recruiting duty, Blake, who could not brook such a tame employment amid the vast preparations for deadly combat going on around him on every side, requested to be detached from her and placed at the post of danger.

He was ordered to the command of the R. R. Cuyler, and, though the vessel was not one which he would have selected for active service, it was with feelings of pride that he found himself in separate command.

He was, however, soon transferred from her to the command of the Hatteras. As this vessel went, with all her armament and her brave dead, to the bottom of the sea, a brief description of her may not be out of place, especially as the southern press called her an ironclad, and the rebel congress passed a vote of thanks to Semmes, for sinking so formidable a ship, and achieving such a transcendent victory.

She was originally built at Wilmington, as a passenger vessel between Galveston and New Orleans, and of the slightest construction, for an iron ship. She was of a thousand tons burden, and drawing but seven feet of water.

The government, which in its sore need purchased everything that could by any transmutation be called a war vessel, bought this also, and, removing the after cabin, put an extra planking on her slight pine deck, to enable it to bear the light guns which were to be placed on board. These consisted of four thirty-two pounders, two thirty-pounder rifles, and one twenty-pounder rifle. The total weight of metal she flung at a single broadside was only one hundred and fourteen pounds, against the Alabama’s four hundred and thirty-six, or within a fraction of a quarter as much. The heaviest gun of. the Hatteras was a 32-pounder; the heaviest of the Alabama was a 110-pounder rifle gun, and a heavy 68, weighing nine thousand pounds—a gun which could not have been used on the Hatteras without knocking her to pieces.

The Hatteras, however, was strong enough for ordinary blockading duty, to which she was ordered off Galveston, and formed a part of the fleet under command of Commodore Bell.

On Sunday, January 11th, in the afternoon, Blake saw a signal from the flagship Brooklyn, directing him to sail to the southward and eastward. After steaming in this direction for an hour and a half, the lookout reported a steamer bearing to the southward. Blake immediately ordered all steam on, and took a long and scrutinizing survey of the stranger. As he gradually lessened the distance between them, he saw clearly that she was the far-famed Alabama, and at once ordered his vessel cleared for action—being determined to close with her. She did not try to escape, but kept under easy way to decoy the Hatteras so far from the fleet that no assistance could reach her before the conflict would be over. Blake knew that his frail vessel would not stand her fire more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Almost his only hope therefore in closing with her was that he could carry her by boarding before his vessel was hopelessly crippled. Failing in this, he hoped—though he knew it was only one chance out of a thousand—to be able, by a lucky shot, to detain her until some of the rest of the fleet could come to his assistance. Although the heart of a brave commander exults at the prospect of an even-handed encounter with a foe, it requires the loftiest heroism and the most unselfish patriotism to carry him into an encounter where he knows that defeat awaits him. We cannot conceive of a more trying position, and it awakens the deepest sympathy to see this brave officer steadily and sternly moving up to grapple with his superior enemy. One may look death, but not defeat calmly in the face. He had said in a private letter to one of his friends, when going down to Galveston: "I have much to live for, but I could not be happy to purchase my life with any neglect of the duty I owe to my country. I shall not seek danger; but if it comes I shall take it in the line of my duty, and endeavor to do credit to myself, family, and state." That hour had now arrived; and, what adds immeasurably to the interest of this combat, the crew knew perfectly well that it was the Alabama that now lay-to, waiting for them; and knew, moreover, that it was a hopeless contest on which they were about to enter. We all are aware how the hope of success braces men for the combat, and how depressing it is to enter on one when defeat is certain. Blake, fully alive to this, scanned the countenances of his crew with an anxious heart. It was enough for him if he could leave a great example to those who should come after, but: would the sailors share his feelings? It was with heroic pride, therefore, that he saw every face calm and firmly set for the struggle. He could read there the determination to fight while a plank would float them, and then sink with their brave commander, and their colors flying. No eulogy on the latter could be pronounced so great as this quiet, deep devotion of his crew. He must be a rare officer who can win it.

As the Hatteras pressed forward, night began to gather over the water, and Blake saw that his antagonist had ceased steaming and was lying "broadside on," awaiting his approach. The stranger was now only about four miles off, and loomed clearly up in the darkness. Blake, however, kept silently on, the men at quarters with strings in hand and with orders to fire at the slightest hostile movement on the part of the enemy. When within seventy-five yards, he hailed, "What steamer is that??" Back through the gloom came the hoarse reply: "Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Vixen." Blake then said he would send a boat aboard, and, turning, gave the order to have one lowered immediately. But scarcely had the boatman’s shrill whistle rung- over the water, when the stranger shouted, "We are the Confederate steamer Alabama," followed instantaneously by a full broadside. The darkness had hardly closed over the flash, when the guns of the Hatteras replied, and the terrible conflict commenced. Although almost within pistol-shot, Blake kept straight towards the Alabama, knowing that his only chance was to close with her. If he once could grapple her firmly, he knew his brave crew would sweep her decks like a storm. He at length got within thirty yards, when muskets and pistols were used, and he hoped in a minute more to hear the shout of his boarders. But Semmes knew his advantage too well, and penetrating Blake’s design, shot ahead with his swifter craft and poured in his broadsides. Blake continued to hug him close, straining every nerve to lock him in a death grapple, but in vain. With his greater speed Semmes easily avoided it, while his heavy shot was doing fearful execution. A barrel of turpentine lay in the lower part of the hold of the Hatteras, covered with stores; and a shell, entering the vessel, exploded near it, setting it on fire. In an instant the hold was a mass of flame, roaring along the vessel’s sides. The alarm was sounded, and the firemen sprang below to extinguish the fire. Blake in a moment saw that this was impossible, and ordered the firemen to return to their guns. With the promptness of men on drill they wheeled into their places, and began to load and fire coolly as ever, though the flames were coming fiercely up the hatchways. The magazine and shell room were above the water-line, and constructed of nothing but thin pine plank, and in a few moments the first lieutenant came on deck and reported that the fire was burning the bulkheads. Blake with his heroic nature now thoroughly aroused, replied: "Never mind—she won’t blow up for fifteen minutes yet, and we must fight on if we all go to the bottom,"—and they did fight on, firing with a rapidity probably never before equalled in a naval combat. Being close alongside, no training of the guns was necessary, and Blake knew that he must try to make up for disparity in weight of metal, by rapid firing, and so ordered the guns to be fought from a tight heading and not sponged. Before they were so fouled as to be useless, he knew the conflict would be over.

In a few minutes the Hatteras was in flames fore and aft, her walking-beam was shot away, her port wheel smashed to fragments, her decks a mass of splinters, and the brave vessel a hopeless wreck. Blake stood amid the ruins around him calm and collected—determined that the flag, which the flashes of his guns still revealed flying above him, should never be struck-but the next moment, he saw that his vessel was fast settling in the water, and firing his last gun, just as the water was coming on deck, he, out of feelings of humanity for his brave crew, ordered a gun fired to leeward, in token of surrender. The firing at once ceased, and Semmes hailed to know if he wanted help. Blake replied in the affirmative, and at the same time lowered his own boat. Other boats were soon in the water, and the entire crew, with the exception of Blake, were safely placed aboard them. He, with two dead men, remained alone on the wreck until all were out of her, when he also stepped off the submerged deck into a boat and was taken on board the Alabama.

The fight had lasted less than twenty minutes. Scarcely were the prisoners secured, when the Hatteras, with a heavy lurch, went to the bottom, her flag still proudly flying.

Commodore Bell saw the flashes of the guns more than twenty miles distant, and heard the rapid explosions, and immediately sent off three vessels to aid the Hatteras. But utter darkness and silence soon settled over the water, and they cruised at random all night. Next day they found the mastheads of the Hatteras standing upright, and out of water, "tops and gaves awash, and the hurricane-deck adrift." This told the story; but whether her brave commander and crew were below with her, and this was the monument above their watery graves, they could not tell.

In the mean time the Alabama bore away for Kingston, Jamaica, with her prisoners.

Blake, who knew that the short but terrific cannonading of the two vessels must have been heard by our fleet off Galveston, hoped that the Alabama would be overhauled and captured, and every day scanned the waters with an anxious eye. But no help came, and in nine days the crippled pirate reached port. The British steamer Greyhound was in the harbor at the time, and, when she heard that, the Alabama had arrived, the band struck up "Dixie’s Land." Blake, who was chafing under his captivity, could not brook this fresh insult, and immediately sent the following note to the commander of that vessel.


January 24, 1863.

To the Commander of H. B. M. ship Greyhound: "Lieutenant-Commander H. C. Blake, of the United States Navy, presents his compliments to the Commander of H.B.M. ship Greyhound, and desires to learn whether or not he may consider the playing of “Dixie’s Land’ by the band of the Greyhound, upon the arrival of the Confederate steamer Alabama, on the evening of the 21st instant, as a mark of disrespect to the United States Government, or its officers who were prisoners on board the Alabama, at the period indicated. Lieutenant-Commander H. C. Blake respectfully requests an early response.

United States Consulate, Jamaica.


To this the former returned the annexed handsome, frank, and satisfactory reply.


Commander Hickley, R. N., presents his compliments to Lieutenant-Commander Blake, U. S. N., and has to acquaint him that on the evening in question he was on board the A—, dining with Captain Crocroft. Shortly after the time of the officer of the guard reporting the Alabama’s arrival, he heard the drums and fifes of H.M.S. Greyhound playing, among other tunes, the tune of “Dixie’s Land.” He immediately repaired on board, causing other national tunes to be played, among which was the United States national air, and severely reprimanded the inconsiderate young officer who had ordered “Dixie’s Land” to be played, calling for his reasons, and writing and forwarding them forthwith, with his report to Commodore Hugh Dunlop, C.B., who severely reprimanded the officer.

As the officer in question had no idea that any U. S. officer or man was on board the Alabama, it must be evident to Lieutenant-Commander Blake that no insult was intended.

H.M. S. Greyhound, Port Royal, Jamaica, January 24, 1863.


Semmes treated Blake and the prisoners with generosity, but said to another officer that Blake had "more d—d assurance than any man he ever saw," to attack such a vessel as the Alabama with the Hatteras. But weak as the latter was, she, in the short, unequal contest, so severely handled the rebel craft, that she had to remain for a long time in port to be fit for sea again, the repairs costing $86,000 in gold.

Semmes, however, was highly complimented by his Government, and his conduct commended to the notice of Congress. Blake might say, with Paul Jones, who, when he heard that Captain Pearson, of the Serapis, had been made a knight, after the battle with him, remarked: "If I ever catch him at sea again I’ll make a lord of him.”

Though Blake lost his vessel, he broke up Semmes’ plans, which, if carried out, would have caused us more damage than the loss of a dozen such vessels as the Hatteras. He was short of provisions and coal, and intended to supply himself with these from some of our merchant steamers off Galveston, and then run into the mouth of the Mississippi, and fall in with and capture Banks’ expedition.

But, however these plans might have resulted, the noble example set by Blake and his crew was worth more than many such vessels. A great example of self-devotion lives forever, and this brave, hopeless attack of the Alabama will be remembered as long as naval heroism is recorded. Ever present to a commander’s mind, he cannot shrink from any contest, however hopeless, when his country’s good requires it.

Blake’s crew showed their appreciation of his conduct, by sending a petition to the Department, asking that the steamer Eutaw might be given him, and they be allowed to cruise after the Alabama. They say: "We assure you, that if it could be understood that a steamer was actually fitting out, under our able commander, hundreds of seamen now lost to the service would be eager to enlist." * * * And again: "It took the Alabama twenty minutes to sink the Hatteras. But if we once get alongside of her with the Eutaw, and Captain Blake for her commander, we will either sink or capture her in half that time." "We want satisfaction, and it lies in your power to place us in a position that will give us a chance to take or destroy the notorious pirate."

It must be a source of gratification to Blake, to know how the crew that fought this hopeless battle under him, longed once more to stand on the same deck with him, in another encounter with their common adversary. It is higher praise than government officials can bestow. A crew that so loves and trusts their commander, will never see their flag struck, while their guns can carry shot.

The Eutaw was given Blake, but, instead of being sent after the Alabama, was stationed in the James River. Here she was constantly engaged—now in partial engagements with the enemy, and now in transporting troops.

In the latter part of 1863, the rebel press announced that a movement would soon be made on their part which would astonish the world. It actually took place on the 24th of January, 1864.

In order to understand the object and result expected by this movement, it must be remembered, that, with our iron-clads, we could go no further than "Trent’s Reach," the greatest depth of water beyond being twelve and a half feet, while they drew thirteen and fourteen feet. Finding them useless for a direct attack on Richmond, and the Government requiring them on the coast, a line of strong obstructions was thrown across the river at this point. The iron-clad Onondaga, and a few wooden gunboats, were left to prevent the rebels from removing them (a force fully adequate to the duty, if properly used). The rebels had now their rams, and a number of other vessels. Semmes had returned, and was appointed to the command of their fleet. Longstreet, with twenty-five thousand men, moved to the right of the army of the James; Lee, to the left of the army of the Potomac; and Semmes with his fleet was to force the obstructions, pass down, destroying the pontoons, cutting the connection of the two armies, capture City Point, our base of supplies, and take possession of the James River. On the day fixed, the rebel fleet came down, driving in our pickets, and commenced the removal of our obstructions. The naval commander, instead of taking his vessel to the protection of his defenses, retired, and allowed them to be removed, thus leaving a passage for the rebel fleet. Most fortunately for us, two of the rebel rams, waiting for the opening of the channel, got aground, thus frustrating the plan for that night. The enemy, however, prepared for a second attempt at high water the following night. Blake was at this time stationed at Deep Bottom, on the "east side," to protect the right of the "army of the James." On the morning of the 25th, the commander of the naval division having been removed for his conduct on the previous day, Blake took command of it. On going on board the Onondaga, he found her port propeller disabled; yet, with her in this condition, and only a few small gunboats, he was to contend with the rebel fleet. A false step, or a moment’s hesitation, would endanger the safety of our armies. Against the advice of almost all the officers, he got the Onondaga, with the assistance of tugs, close to the obstructions, and directly under the fire of the rebel batteries, and in such a position that, if she was sunk either by the rams or torpedo-boats, as he expected, she would take the place of the removed obstructions. This action prevented a second attempt, as he was afterward informed by one of the officers who was attached to the rebel fleet.

A single extract of a letter from Admiral Porter to him, will show how great was the service he performed. The admiral says: "Had your predecessor done as well, we should now be in possession of the entire rebel navy, and on our way to Richmond." On the return of the admiral from the capture of Fort Fisher, Blake was continued in command of the iron-clads and naval picket line, and had the pleasure of taking part in the engagement which caused the fall of Richmond, and saw the old flag assume its proper place on the state house of that city.

He is now at the head of the Bureau of Navigation, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Chapter XIV

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