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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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Commodore Lee was for so long a time Acting Rear-Admiral of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and Mississippi Flotilla, that his reports fill a large space in the naval documents. But during his command over this extensive district, he was engaged in no general important movements, while the principal events that occurred in its limits are given in the sketches of those subordinate officers who were principally engaged in them.

Samuel Phillips Lee is a Virginian by birth, and was appointed midshipman from that State in November, 1825, and hence had been thirty-five years in the national service when the war broke out. Though a Southerner by birth, he did not, like so many other officers, join the Confederacy; but remained true to the old flag.

When Farragut organized his expedition against New Orleans, Lee was given the command of the United States steamship Oneida, and was assigned to Bailey’s division, that led the fleet. After the latter found that he could not get the Colorado over the bar, he selected the Oneida as his flagship in the approaching struggle; but, finding that this arrangement was displeasing to Lee, who felt that whatever honor his vessel might win, he would get no share of it, he transferred his flag to the Cayuga. Lee carried his vessel gallantly into action, standing on the forecastle and directing all the movements of the ship from that exposed position, until the obstructions in the river were passed. He says:


The Oneida was steered in for the Fort St. Philip side, passed up quickly in the strong eddy, and close under the guns of that fort, (so that the sparks from its immense battery seemed to reach us,) fired rapidly bolts from two rifled guns, (we had no shell for them,) grape and canister from the forward 32’s, and shrapnel from the two 11-inch pivot guns, whilst passing this long line of works. (It was, perhaps, the burning of the sulphur in our 11-inch shrapnel, which occasioned the officers in Fort St. Philip to inquire, after the surrender, if our shells were not filled with Greek fire.)

The terrific fire from the heavy batteries of Fort St. Philip passed over us, their guns seeming to be too much elevated for our close position.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

When just above the forts, we encountered the gunboats and transports of the enemy. The former, it seems from the subsequent reports of our prisoners, were tied to trees along the steep bank above Fort St. Philip; thence passing over to the Fort Jackson side, these gunboats came down to meet us. It was very thick from darkness and smoke. We had now got on the Fort Jackson side. A flash revealed the ram Manassas, gliding down our port-side below our guns, and passing too close and swiftly, aided by steam and the current, to enable us to bring our heavy guns to bear on her. Next came a gunboat quite near, and passing from the Fort Jackson to the Fort St. Philip side, across our bow. Ran into it with a full head of steam, and cut it down with a loud crash on its starboard quarter. Clear of our guns in a moment, it drifted down stream in the darkness. We now slowed down, and afterwards used the steam as necessary to get or keep position in fighting the gunboats, firing right and left into them as we could ascertain (from other indications than black smoke, on account of the Varuna), that we were not firing into one of our steamers; forebore to fire into those steamers that appeared to be river transports, and ceased firing into others when they made no return.

In this manner we fired into and passed several rebel boats on the right bank, leaving it for those who came after to pick up the prizes. A black gunboat, with two masts-a converted sea-steamer-ran ahead after a brief contest. At or near daybreak, we found the Cayuga on our port-side. After consultation with Captain Bailey, we concluded to wait for the fleet to come up and form in order. Captain Bailey afterwards hailed that the Varuna might be ahead. Looked for her, but could not make her out, and received reports from the first lieutenant and the officer on the forecastle, that she was not in sight. When we had steamed a mile or more ahead of the Cayuga, saw her general signal No. 80, but, as there was nothing in sight of us needing assistance, supposed the signal to refer to some vessel astern of the Cayuga. Moving ahead, reconnoitring, came up with what, in the gray of the morning, appeared to be a fort, but what, on nearer approach, proved to be a rebel camp on the right bank, with a large rebel flag flying over it. Fired into it, but no reply was made, no one was seen moving, and the camp seemed deserted. Passed on, leaving the, trophy flag flying, and soon received a report that the Varuna was ahead, and that the enemy was trying to board her. Went ahead with all speed to her assistance. Approaching rapidly, saw the Varuna ashore on the left bank of the river, where she had been driven by two rebel gunboats. At 5.30 A. M. fired on one of them-the black gunboat, our previous acquaintance with the forecastle rifle gun. He had hoisted his jib (his wheel-ropes being gone) and was trying to escape up river; but both rebel gunboats, finding they could not get away, ran on shore-the black one, which proved to be the Governor Moore, Commander Kennon, on the left bank, above the Varuna, and the _____, (name yet unknown,) on the right bank, opposite the Varuna, with her head up stream. After we had driven them ashore, their crews deserted, but not before setting fire to their vessels.

With our boats, captured Commander Kennon, (formerly of our navy,) one first lieutenant of artillery, one chief engineer, and fourteen of the crew of the Governor Moore; also, a rebel signal-book and some official papers, showing that the rebel gunboats were ordered to ram our vessels, and to distinguish themselves by showing lights, which they must soon have found prudent to haul down. Seeing that the Varuna was sinking, sent our boats and went to her assistance. Brought on board Oneida the first lieutenant, two acting masters, two mates, and forty petty officers and seamen of the Varuna, and sent ten others, seven of whom were wounded, to the Pensacola.

The Varuna had been rammed and badly stove by both of these rebel gunboats, which had kept with or after her up river, and she was filling, with her magazine flooded, when the Oneida drove off her assailants, prevented her officers and crew from being captured, and was received by them with loud and hearty cheers.

The Cayuga (Captain Bailey’s flag) also cheered the Oneida heartily for opportunely coming to his support that morning.


Lee passed up the river with Bailey, and shared in the action of the 25th, against Fort Chalmette. After the capitulation of New Orleans, Farragut sent him forward to demand the surrender of Vicksburg. The authorities refusing to obey his summons, Lee threatened to bombard the town, but forebore.

In the subsequent passage of the batteries by Farragut, January 28th, he carried his ship steadily through the fire, receiving but four shots.

Lee having been promoted, was soon after transferred to the command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, taking the place of Goldsborough, who was relieved at his own request, and became Acting-Rear-Admiral. Here he continued "discharging his duties," said the Secretary of the Navy, "in a position of great responsibility, and in some respects of great embarrassment." * * * "The rivers of Virginia, and the sounds of North Carolina have been penetrated, watched, and guarded, as well as the entire coast, so that all intercourse with the rebels has been cut off, with the single exception of the port of Wilmington." Various expeditions were fitted out; rivers were explored; guerillas dispersed, and blockade runners captured in the limits of his jurisdiction; but no naval movements of a decisive character made. While here, he received a letter from Alexander Stephens, who wished to be allowed to proceed to Washington as commissioner from Jefferson Davis. After communicating with Washington, Admiral Lee informed him, that his request was inadmissible.

When Butler commenced his movement on Bermuda Hundreds, Lee cooperated with him, and afterwards with Grant. While his subordinates were active in maintaining the blockade along the coast, and our supremacy in the sounds of North Carolina, he personally superintended affairs in the James River and adjoining waters. His- correspondence with Grant, Butler, and the authorities at Washington, covers the whole field of operations, though the duties of the navy were quite subordinate to those of the army. Keeping communications open; clearing rivers of batteries; transporting troops, and covering their landing, and holding the enemy’s vessels in check, are quite as important as naval battles; yet, a detailed narrative of all the proceedings possesses but little interest to the general reader.

Lee was anxious to have the rebel fleet come down the James and attack him; but no such opportunity was given him to distinguish himself, and he was reluctantly compelled to submit to a comparatively inactive life personally-his time being chiefly occupied in giving orders to subordinates in the various portions of his wide command, and in receiving their reports.

As a fair illustration of the character of his duties in the James River, we give one of his dispatches:





SIR: I transmit, enclosed, three (3) reports from Captain Smith, of 4th, 5th, and 6th instants, as follows: (1) enclosing report from Lieutenant-Commander Quackenbush of the capture, by a boat’s crew from the Pequot, of three confederate prisoners. A large body of cavalry approaching after the capture, the Pequot and Commodore Morris opened fire and drove them off. The prisoners had little information. (2) 5th instant, enclosing copies of two telegrams, (A and B,) dated 4th and 5th instants, from General Weitzel to General Foster, warning him of a probable attack by a rebel force of about five thousand, which the second dispatch states is probably meant as a feint to cover a heavy attack on Meade’s left; also a dispatch (C) from General Butler, of 5th instant, requesting the assistance of the naval vessels in destroying the enemy’s forage and grain in their vicinity. (3) of 6th instant, reports the destruction of a considerable amount of hay and grain on Aiken’s farm, and an attempt to capture the rebel guard stationed to protect the reapers; they escaped, however, their arms, ammunition, and clothing only being taken.

Acting-Master Lee, commanding the Commodore Morris, reports to Captain Smith, that, while destroying a field of wheat near Turkey Bend, an escaped Union prisoner, John H. Bond, who had been sent from Richmond to aid in cutting the grain, claimed his protection, and stated that there were seven (7) other prisoners sent with him for the same purpose. Richard D. Lee, Justice of the Peace for Warwick County, Virginia, was taken prisoner at the same time, and turned over to General Butler. Captain Smith also reports that he is informed that the man Aiken, upon whose premises the grain was destroyed, had assisted a party of five (5) to escape to the rebel lines. This man gave a strict pledge of neutrality, when our forces first went up the river. This report also encloses the statement of three (3) deserters from the rebel iron-clad Virginia, who came off on the 5th; they furnish no new information.

There has been no change in the naval situation, and all was quiet at the last date.

I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully,

S. P. LEE,

Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding N. A. B. Squadron.

      Secretary of the Navy.


Such events as these would be varied by an attack on a rebel battery planted on the banks of the river. The rebel ram Albemarle, in the Roanoke River, caused him much anxiety, and the engagements with her, and attempts to destroy her, were the chief naval events in the waters of North Carolina. This powerful vessel had attacked our force there, and sunk the Southfield; hence, Admiral Lee was very anxious to dispose of her in some way. On the 5th of May, she again came out of Roanoke River, when Melancthon Smith, senior officer in the sound, boldly advanced to meet her with his little squadron, but failed to capture her.

When the Department determined on the capture of Wilmington, Admiral Porter was put in Lee’s place and the latter given the former’s command on the Mississippi. The severe fighting had all been done here, but still it required a good deal of hard work to keep what we had got. The Tennessee River especially caused Lee much trouble.

In the fall of 1864, the steamer Undine was captured here, while three "tin-clads" had to be burned to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.

Lee’s important command extended from the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi, embracing not only the tributaries of the latter, but the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. This was divided into several districts, with a separate commander over each. The eleventh district embraced the Tennessee River, and here the most valuable services were rendered by the Acting Rear Admiral, in cooperating with the army under Thomas, in the campaign against Hood. The former acknowledged those services, in a complimentary letter to Lee, in which he says: "Your official cooperation on the Tennessee, has contributed largely to the demoralization of Hood’s army," and further says: "In conclusion, it gives me great pleasure to tender to you, your officers and men, my hearty thanks for your cordial cooperation during the operations of the past thirty-five days."

At the close of the war, Lee received the surrender of the last of the rebel fleet on the western waters.

Chapter XIX

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