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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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Admiral Rowan, though he now claims Pennsylvania as his place of residence, is a native of Ireland, and was appointed midshipman in the Navy from Ohio, in February, 1826. Though an Irishman by birth, he came to this country when a mere child. His first cruise was in the Vincennes, Captain Finch commanding, who afterwards changed his name and became Commodore Bolton. In the Pacific Ocean and East Indies, he was learning his profession for four years. From Callao, this vessel sailed by way of the South Sea Islands, and, keeping on to the Cape of Good Hope, thence to St. Helena, completed a voyage round the world—the first ever made by a national vessel. In 1830 he returned home, and for the two following years was attached to a cutter in the waters of New York. In 1832 he was promoted to passed midshipman, and ordered to the West Indies, where he served as acting master or acting lieutenant, for four years. At the breaking out of the Florida war he was attached to the Vandalia, and, when the news of the massacre of Dade’s command was received, the ship hurried to Tampa B ay to aid the small garrison stationed there, in case of an attack by the Indians. Here he was busily employed in boat expeditions along the coast, to prevent the Indians from passing from the Withlacooche to the everglades. In one of these expeditions, he united his little command with Colonel, late Major General Persifer Smith, and marched into the interior in search of Indians. In 1836 he joined by invitation the South Sea exploring expedition, and remained attached to it until, after various delays and vexatious changes, it was the next year finally reorganized, when he was ordered to other duty.

The spring of this year he was promoted to lieutenant, and in the following spring ordered to the coast survey, in the duties of which he was engaged, when he was transferred to the line-of-battle ship Delaware, Captain McCauley, bearing the flag of Commodore Morris, which cruised on the coast of Brazil and in the Mediterranean for nearly six years. It will be seen, from the foregoing succinct account, that young Rowan had long cruises, and saw but little shore duty. For the first twenty years of his naval life, he was afloat most of the time.

From 1844 to 1845, he served on board the Ontario, and, the three subsequent years, in the Cyane, under the then Captain Dupont, on the coast of California and Mexico, or to the close of the Mexican war. He helped to hoist the American flag at Monterey, and with the crew of his ship, built a blockhouse and stockade for its defence. He afterwards blockaded Mazatlan—commanded the naval brigade under Stockton and Kearney, on the march from San Diego to Los Angeles, and, at the latter place, defeated the enemy.

In a fight at the Mesa with the Mexicans, he was wounded, but kept the field, and not long after commanded a boat expedition in a night attack on the advanced post of the enemy, near Mazatlan. He also bombarded a small town on the Mexican coast, and destroyed two gunboats.

When Dupont marched to the relief of Lieutenant Heywood, then closely besieged by a superior force, Rowan joined him with a body of sailors from the Cyane, and helped to swell the shout that went up in reply to the cheers of the beleaguered little band.

After the close of the Mexican war, he was ordered to the Navy Yard of New York, as Inspector of Ordnance, and organized that department. In 1852 he was detached from this service, and placed in command of the Relief. He cruised in this vessel for three years, when he was promoted to the rank of commander by the Retiring Board, and put in charge of the receiving ship North Carolina, which position he retained for three years, or till the close of 1857. The two subsequent years, he was on ordnance duty at the Navy Yard, New York. The year previous to the breaking out of the war, he was awaiting orders. When it actually occurred, he applied for service afloat, and, in January, 1861, was put in command of the Pawnee, whose commander, being a southern man, had resigned. The next month he was ordered to Washington, and his vessel became the strongest naval protection to the Capital that we had in the Potomac, and the chief reliance in keeping this channel of communication open. By order of General Scott, he covered the landing of our troops at Alexandria, at the time that Ellsworth fell.

Soon after, Rowan was ordered off Charleston, to cooperate with the army in landing stores for the garrison at Fort Sumter. He found in the offing the Baltic, under charter to the army, and the Harriet Lane.

On the very morning of his arrival, the rebels opened fire on Sumter. The heavy boom of the cannon, as it rolled down the bay, and the flashes that rent the darkness towards the rebel city, told him too well that the brave Anderson and his gallant little band had entered on their hopeless struggle. As the deepening roar made the waters tremble, he ordered the vessel to be run in, and anchored in the mouth of the nearest channel. As daylight broadened over the bay, and the tossing clouds of smoke were revealed, rent ever and anon by the terrific explosions, he could hardly restrain himself from steaming boldly in and lying broadside to the enemy’s batteries. He knew the smallness of the garrison in Fort Sumter, and though he saw, by the puffs of smoke from its side, that the few men that composed it were bravely battling for the old flag, he knew also that they could not long withstand the concentrated fire of the batteries, with which they were assailed. He paced his deck with a stern and passionate step; one moment resolved to brave the worst, and sail in, and lie alongside of the fort; but the next moment he checked himself, with the refection that his orders did not permit such action on his part. Hoping, however, that he might find some loophole in them that would justify him in such a case, he read them over again. His heart sunk within him as he saw that his orders were peremptory—no permission to act on his own judgment being given him.

He was to await the arrival of the frigate. With means for carrying out the object of the expedition, he felt that he had no right to hazard the only naval ship present in the opening fight, and thus derange the whole plan for reinforcing the fort. But it was a trying position for a gallant and intrepid commander like Rowan to be placed in. To stand within sight of the beleaguered garrison, whose desperate situation called to him so pleadingly for help, and listen to the frightful cannonading that he knew was steadily pounding the fort to pieces, and find his hands tied by orders that he dared not break, was far harder to bear than the concentrated fire of a dozen batteries.

While this fearful bombardment was going on, the preparations were completing rapidly as possible to reinforce the garrison, and by next morning everything was ready, and the vessels waited only for the night to cover the movement. That was a long morning to Rowan, and he paced his deck impatiently. A little while after, as he stood watching the clouds of smoke that wrapped Sumter, ever and anon parted before the explosions of its own cannon, and was rejoicing to see how gallantly Anderson was defending his post, there suddenly leaped up through the murky atmosphere a vast volume of flame, and the "fort is on fire "burst from his lips. It was true—help had come too late—and by two o’clock the old flag came down, and the rebel flag went up amid the cheers of Charleston.

Rowan’s mission was now ended, and with a sad heart he turned the prow of his vessel north. On his arrival at Washington, he was directed to take on board a number of officers, and to receive further orders from Flag Officer Paulding.

That same evening, the Pawnee steamed down the river, and the next evening, at eight o’clock, was alongside the navy yard wharf at Norfolk. The following morning, she left with the Cumberland in tow, and the work of destruction in the navy yard was begun.

Paulding left the vessel at Old Point, and Rowan returned with her to Washington. While lying at anchor off Alexandria, he was informed that the rebels were erecting batteries at Acquia Creek, to obstruct the free passage of the Potomac. He immediately volunteered to go down and attack them. The Government gave permission, and, at nine o’clock the next morning, he lay off the battery and opened his broadsides. The enemy replied, and all day long the thunder of the guns echoed up and down the Potomac, filling all hearts with anxiety. The sky in this direction had been full of omens for a long time; but this was the first open, hostile act. Just before sundown, Rowan hauled off, having been struck nine times. He thus had the honor of firing the first gun of the navy at the rebels. He afterwards continued to blockade the river, and make reconnaissances along its banks.

In the fight at Matthias Point, in which Ward was killed, Rowan sent a party on shore, under Lieutenant Chaplin, to assist in the attack. When the latter was compelled to retreat, he first collected all his men, "steady and cool," said Rowan, "among a perfect hail of musketry from hundreds of men." The last man left the shore with him, and not being able to swim to the boat with his musket, Lieutenant Chaplin took him on his shoulders, musket and all, and safely reached the boat without a scratch, save a musket-hole through the top of his cap.

John Williams, captain of the maintop, while waiting for the retreating crew, told the sailors that every one must die on his thwarts, sooner than leave a man behind. The bullets dropped like hailstones in the boat, and one soon pierced his thigh. Another cut his flagstaff in two, letting the ensign fall. Though suffering severely from his wound, he instantly seized it and waved it over his head in defiance, to show that his colors were not struck.

But when the expedition under Stringham against Cape Hatteras was organized, Rowan was ordered to join it, and took part in the action that gave us possession of the rebel works, and the control of the Inlet. The Pawnee after the victory was ordered to remain on the spot, and Rowan fitted out an expedition which destroyed the fortifications, &c., at Ocracoke Inlet.

The Pawnee was afterwards ordered to Washington, and Rowan detached from her, and placed in command of the Brooklyn, at Philadelphia. He, however, had been in command of the latter but a short time, when he was ordered to Hampton Roads, to help Goldsborough organize a flotilla to operate in the sounds of North Carolina. He shared in all the perils and anxiety of what seemed at first this ill-fated expedition.

After the engagement that gave us Roanoke Island, and sent the rebel fleet in flight up the sound, Rowan was selected to pursue the enemy, and complete the victory. The rebel vessels, seven in number, had taken refuge behind some works near Elizabeth City, about thirty-seven miles north. Rowan, who had command of a division, with the Delaware for his flagship, took such vessels as were fit for immediate service and could be spared, and started on Sabbath morning to find the enemy. Seeing the smoke of two rebel steamers ahead, he gave chase, when they disappeared up the Pasquatank River. He followed after, but night coming on, he anchored about fifteen miles below the city in the river. The inhabitants, never dreaming that our vessels could pass the obstructions at Roanoke, were terrified at the news that they were approaching the place.

The rebel gunboats were now fairly entrapped, and Rowan could take his own time in preparing for the attack. It was a beautiful night in which he lay at anchor; not a cloud obscured the sky, and the bright moon sailed serenely through the heavens, flooding with her mellow light the placid waters of the river and the little fleet of fourteen vessels riding quietly on its bosom. Rowan now called all the commanders on board his vessel, and told them that the enemy was either drawn up behind a battery on Cobb’s Point, ten miles further up the river, or had escaped through the Dismal Swamp Canal, which joins Elizabeth City to Norfolk. He also informed them that they were short of ammunition, having only twenty-four rounds, which was not sufficient for a long combat, and therefore what was done must be done quickly. He consequently gave positive orders, that, in the attack which he proposed to make in the morning, not a shot should be fired until he gave the signal; and, moreover, that each vessel as she approached the enemy should, instead of engaging him at even short range, run him down, and make a hand to hand light of it. "With this understanding," says Rowan, "these noble spirits returned to their ships to await the events of the morrow." The night passed off quietly, and the next morning at daylight, the signal to weigh anchor was hoisted, and soon the "Yo! Heave ho!" of the sailors rang over the water. Rowan in the Delaware, with the Underwriter, Perry, and Morse, moved off in advance, followed by the remaining vessels, which had orders, the moment the battery was passed, to leave the line and attack it in the rear. Proceeding cautiously up the river, he at eight o’clock came in sight of the rebel steamers, commanded by Lynch—noted in times past as the leader of the Dead Sea expedition—drawn up behind the battery, which mounted four heavy 32-pounders. On the opposite shore, in close range, was moored the schooner Warrior, armed with two more 32-pounders. Rowan was compelled to carry his vessels between these, before he could reach the rebel gunboats beyond. As the fleet moved forward, the hostile batteries and the heavy guns from the steamers opened fire, and the balls came skipping along the water, or dropped amid the vessels. Not a shot replied, and the little fleet kept on in dead silence. The enemy seemed astonished at this, but, as Rowan steadily drew nearer, opened with smaller guns till the air around the vessels was full of shot and shell, screaming and bursting on every side. All eyes were turned on the flagship to catch her signal to commence action, but she still moved silently on through the fire, until she got within half a mile of the battery. Rowan then ran up the signal, "Dash at the enemy." In an instant all steam was crowded on, and it became a swift race between the vessels to see which should close first with the enemy. The foam parted and rolled away from the bows, as, put to their utmost speed, they drove into the fiery opening between the fort and schooner, while every gun that could bear poured in a storm of shot and shell. The sudden, swift dash forward, and the almost simultaneous opening of the heavy guns, confounded the enemy, who had expected a long bombardment. Rowan, leading in the Delaware, delivered his broadsides right and left, and, passing swiftly abreast of the fort, saw the garrison fleeing from it in affright, while on the other side the Warrior was on fire, and the crew rushing for the shore. The vessels in the mean time kept moving on in flame, driving straight for the rebel fleet. The Perry, commanded by the gallant Flusser, made for the rebel flagship Seabird, and striking her full amidships, crushed her like an eggshell—finishing her with one terrible blow. The Ceres took the Ellis, the crew boarding her with a, fierce shout and sweeping her decks like a storm, while Rowan captured the Fanny. A shell entered the Valley City, and, passing through the magazine, exploded on the berth-deck, setting it on fire. Chaplin, the commander, jumped down into the magazine himself, and, while giving directions to the men who were dashing water on the fire, passed up loose cylinders of powder. The fire-works on board ignited, and rockets whizzed and shot off, blue-lights blazed up amid the ammunition, while the vessel reeled to the heavy broadsides that never slackened. The shell-room caught fire, and for a few moments it seemed as if the vessel must be blown out of the water. But Chaplin kept the men steady, working himself like a common sailor to extinguish the fire. John Davis, the gunner’s mate, seeing the flames leaping up on every side, jumped on an open barrel of powder, and sat down on the head to cover it with his person. Chaplin, seeing him quietly seated there, ordered him in a peremptory tone to get down and help put out the fire. The brave fellow replied: "Don’t you see, sir, I can’t, for if I do, the sparks will fall on the powder. If I get down, Captain, we shall all go up." Though the danger was imminent, and the scene terrific, Chaplin could not refrain from smiling at the imperturbable coolness of the man. A more daring act cannot be conceived, and he was promoted for it, as he ought to have been. The fight was so quickly over, that Rowan did not fire even his twenty-four rounds.

It will be noticed that he has the honor of setting the example in this war, of not waiting to engage batteries, but of running past them, and thus rendering their fire harmless.

When the master’s-mate planted the stars and stripes on the fort, one long, loud cheer went up from the whole flotilla.

The rebel steamers were all captured and sunk but one, which escaped up the river past the city. Leaving most of his vessels to try and save the burning steamers, Rowan now pushed on up to Elizabeth City. As he came alongside of the wharf; he saw a battery wheeling off at a gallop down the street. The crew jumped ashore, and, dashing along the street, captured its commanding officer, who had staid behind to compel the inhabitants to set fire to their dwellings. The flames were soon extinguished, when Rowan ordered all on board, lest he should be accused of Vandalism. Some of the inhabitants, and among them women and children, rushed to the wharf, and implored him to save their houses and property from destruction; but he would not allow a man to move.

The three following days were spent in destroying the fort and machinery of those vessels which could not be raised.

Rowan followed up this victory by sending off expeditions in various directions, to complete the conquest of the coast. When Goldsborough returned to Hampton Roads, Rowan took command of the fleet, and cooperated with Burnside.

In February, he made a reconnoissance up the Chowan River, having Hawkins’ Zouaves on board. At four in the afternoon of the 10th, he came in sight of the wharves and landing of the town of Winston. He ranged up past the wharf, and was just letting go his anchor, when suddenly two batteries opened on him, accompanied by a perfect hailstorm of musketry. Volley followed volley, in rapid succession, the bullets striking the vessel like pattering rain. Being too close under the high land to return the fire, he steamed ahead, and, running up a short distance, succeeded, after much trouble, in turning round in this narrow river, when he came down and opened on the enemy with shells. The next morning he entered the town and destroyed the military stores, etc. The following month he cooperated with Burnside in the attack on Newbern. After landing the troops, he proceeded up the Neuse, toward Newbern, shelling the woods in advance of the army. The river was lined with batteries, and in one place so filled with obstructions and torpedoes, that it was thought by the enemy no vessel could pass. Fort Dixie, which was first encountered, after sustaining a bombardment all one day, was abandoned, when a boat was sent ashore to raise the stars and stripes. Rowan then steamed slowly ahead till he came under the fire of Fort Ellis. This he returned with such fierceness, that it soon blew up with a terrific explosion. He then passed on to Fort Thompson-the last fort before reaching the obstructions. He soon silenced this also, and then making signal, "follow my motions," passed slowly through the first line of obstructions. It was a bold movement, for he did not know but that at any moment a torpedo would lift his vessel out of the water. There was a line of thirty of them, each containing two hundred pounds of powder, at this point.

As he cleared them, he saw our troops mount the ramparts of Fort Thompson, cheering and waving their colors. Fort Lane was abandoned, and Rowan now steamed rapidly up towards Newbern. A second barrier, composed of sunken vessels, was also passed, although some of his vessels were injured by striking the submerged timbers. He passed six forts before he reached the city, all mounting rifle guns, ranging from 32- to 80-pounders.

Rowan also furnished Burnside with a naval battery, manned by sailors, which did good service in the battle, a quarter of the whole number being killed and wounded.

He sent home nine ships, freighted with stores, captured by him at Newbern. The subsequent fall of Beaufort gave us entire command of the waters of the North Carolina coast, and Rowan, having finished the work assigned him, was in July detached from the command of the flotilla, and ordered at first to the Susquehanna, and afterwards to New York to fit out the iron-clad Roanoke. In the mean time Congress passed a vote of thanks for his signal services. When Dahlgren took command of the South Atlantic blockading squadron, Captain Rowan was placed in command of the New Ironsides.

In the subsequent attacks on Forts Wagner and Gregg, the Ironsides bore a conspicuous part, as the numerous dents in her mailed sides evinced.

In the action of the 16th of August, she was struck thirty-nine times. The next month, however, Rowan showed what he could do with his ship unsustained by the other vessels. The Weehawken having got aground in the pass between Sumter and Cummings Point, where she was exposed to a horrible fire, Dahlgren ordered Captain Rowan to go to her help. He immediately steamed up, and, placing his vessel right between the Weehawken and the enemy’s fire, cast anchor. As the bows of the noble vessel slowly swung round towards Moultrie, a concentrated and terrific fire was opened on her. The water seemed alive with bursting shells, while the heavy bolts fell with ceaseless clatter and awful power on her mailed sides. As soon as Rowan got his port broadside to bear, he directed the gunners to fire slowly at first, fill they got the exact range. When this was done, he bade them pour in their shells rapidly as possible. Such a horrible tempest was now rained on the fort that its fire soon began to slacken. But, in the mean time, other batteries of 10-inch guns between this fort and Beauregard were pounding him fearfully. Opening suddenly on these, he soon dismounted one of their heaviest guns. He thus stood grandly at bay, his guns thundering on the right, and on the left, until all the forts ceased firing, except an occasional gun. He then directed a slow fire to be kept up on Moultrie with shells. As soon as the enemy saw this, they jumped up from behind their sand bags, and opened a rapid fire, but, Rowan immediately pouring in his shells as before, they soon retired to their shelter again. The huge missiles were sent with the unerring certainty of rifle balls, and burst around the hostile guns with such destructive force, that not a man dared to show his head. For nearly three hours he lay here and protected the Weehawken, that otherwise would have been knocked to pieces; and did not leave till he had expended all his ammunition.

His vessel was under fire fourteen times in Charleston harbor, and, in the actions of Sept. 7th and 8th, fired over three hundred rounds, and was hit ninety-four times.

While on service here, Captain Rowan was promoted to Commodore, his commission dating back to the vote of thanks by Congress.

During the first part of the year 1864, Admiral Dahlgren was absent on leave of absence, and Commodore Rowan was left in command of the South Atlantic blockading squadron.

The Ironsides, though apparently impervious to shot, came very near being destroyed by a torpedo, which exploded against her sides, inflicting considerable damage. Active operations having ceased in Charleston harbor, she was ordered to Philadelphia for repairs.

Commodore Rowan was subsequently placed in command of the Nadowasca, and promoted to Rear-Admiral. His sea service covers nearly twenty-five years. He is now in command of the Navy Yard at Norfolk.

Chapter XVIII

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