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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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Many of our accomplished commanders had no opportunity during the war of performing any isolated brilliant action, they either being kept on stations at points where it was necessary to have a portion of our navy, or on blockading duty, where no opportunity occurred of meeting the enemy. Others were very little known outside of the navy until their names suddenly appeared near the close of the war, they then for the first time having an opportunity to show their capacity for commanding a fleet, and conducting active operations. Their services, however, were none the less valuable because not connected with any brilliant action. These may be known from the high rank which was given them. Among the latter is Rear-Admiral Thatcher. Born in Maine, he received his education in the schools of Boston, and in 1823 entered the naval service as midshipman.

He made two cruises in the Pacific Ocean, the West Indies, and the Gulf of Mexico. He afterwards made three cruises in the Mediterranean, and one on the coast of Africa to suppress the slave-trade. He also, as lieutenant and captain, saw much duty on shore in our navy yards and recruiting stations.

After the breaking out of the rebellion he was engaged in active service, being promoted to commodore, in July, 1862.

In 1863, he commanded the Colorado, and under Commodore Bell, commanding for the time the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron, he endeavored to destroy a blockade-runner, which had got aground directly under the guns of Fort Morgan, Mobile bay. It was on the 12th of October, a dark and rainy morning, when he saw her aground, and instantly dispatched his executive officer, Lieutenant Miller, in his tender—a boat of scarcely a hundred tons burden—to reconnoiter. The Kanawha, under Lieutenant Commander Mayo, observed the blockade-runner at the same time, and instantly steamed in and boldly attacked her. The fort opened a tremendous fire upon the Kanawha, and soon sent an eight-inch shell through her. She still, however, maintained her fire, while the little tender, disdaining to be outdone in boldness, though the shot and shells of the fort rained around her, kept up a vigorous fire with her howitzers, and retired only with the Kanawha. Though the attempt to destroy the blockade-runner failed, it was gallantly executed. The first important action in which Thatcher was engaged was the bombardment of Fort Fisher, under Porter. In this attack he carried his ship gallantly into action, and on the first day fired fifteen hundred and sixty-nine projectiles, his ship being hulled several times. The cool and deliberate manner in which he handled his ship and fought her to the close, received the warm commendations of his commander. In the second attack, the Colorado, in the second line, was directed to advance next to the leading ship, Minnesota, under Commodore Lanman. The latter, however, while moving up, got her propeller foul with a hawser, and Thatcher took the lead and led the line, and for an hour lay abreast of the formidable batteries, raining shot and shell in an incessant shower on the fortifications. Now, a hundred and fifty pound shot went crashing through his berth deck, soon another tore through his gun-deck, making an ugly opening. A third pierced the port side of his ship, above the water line; two more struck the sheet chain, cutting it through, while shells were incessantly exploding above and around him. But though under such an awful fire, and receiving such a terrible pounding, Thatcher fought on as coolly as though only testing the range of his guns. In the midst of the fire, he ordered Lieutenant M. L. Johnson to carry a hawser to the Ironsides, to warp round his vessel so as to bring all his guns from the port battery to bear. This gallant officer, with a crew of volunteers, rowed away, and for half an hour was the target of the guns of the enemy, who had observed his movements. It was a bold and hazardous act, and highly complimented by Thatcher.

Ensign Perry, after assisting in landing the troops, and though worn out with fatigue and drenched to the skin, took up his position, and in the language of Thatcher, "fought his guns splendidly through the action." Strange to say, that, although the vessel was hulled six times, and received several other shots, only three were killed or wounded. Of the force spared from his ship to compose the assaulting party, twenty-three were reported killed, wounded and missing. In his report of the action, Porter says: "First and foremost on the list of commodores is Commodore H. K. Thatcher. Full of honest zeal and patriotism, his vessel was always ready for action, and when he did go into it his ship was handled with admirable skill; no vessel in the squadron was so much cut up as the Colorado; for some reason the rebels selected her for a target. I believe Commodore Thatcher would have fought his ship until she went to the bottom, and went into the fight with a full determination to conquer or die. There is no reward too great for this gallant officer; he has shown the kind of ability naval leaders should possess, a love of fighting and an invincible courage." Fort Fisher having fallen, Thatcher was detached from Porter’s fleet and placed in command of the squadron in Mobile Bay, to cooperate with Canby and Granger, commanding the land forces, in the reduction of this last port that still acknowledged the authority of the Confederate Government. After landing the troops under General Canby at Danby’s Mills, and shelling the woods along the shore in the vicinity, to clear them of the enemy, he advanced upon the rebel forts commanding the inner bay of Mobile. Before sending his monitors over the shallow bar into the river, he had it thoroughly dragged for torpedoes, for it was well known that the enemy had lined the bottom with these hideous engines of destruction. Having dragged till no more could be found, the Milwaukee, Lieutenant commander E. H. Gibbs, was sent up the Blakely River, to shell a rebel transport supposed to be conveying supplies to the lower fort. Having caused the steamer to retreat up the river, he was slowly dropping down, stern first, to avoid accident—for in turning he would sweep over more ground. He had reached, as it was supposed, a place of safety, as the iron-clad Winnebago had turned there not ten minutes before, and the boats had dragged for torpedoes, when a sudden shock was felt, and the next moment the water came pouring through the bottom of the vessel. At first there was some confusion on board, for the hatches were down. But Gibbs promptly restored order, the hatches were pried open, when the men rushed on deck; and though but three minutes elapsed from the time the torpedo exploded, before the vessel went down, the entire crew was saved.

The very next day the iron-clad Osage, Lieutenant Wm. M. Gamble commanding, was also sunk inside of Blakely bar. The vessel was anchored alongside three other iron-clads in a heavy gale. Gamble, seeing that the Winnebago was dragging her anchor, drifting slowly against him, weighed anchor and moved off to a safe distance, and stopped in two fathoms water. He then ordered three bells, the signal to back, and the crew to stand ready to drop anchor, when suddenly a torpedo exploded under the bow, and in an instant the vessel began to settle in the water. Gamble immediately sent a portion of the crew to search for the killed and wounded, and ordered all the rest on the hurricane deck, except two to each boat to haul them alongside.

Two were killed and eight wounded. The latter were quickly lifted into the boats, but were scarcely safe aboard, before the vessel went down. As the spot had been thoroughly dragged, it was supposed that the torpedo was a floating one. Three days after this sad accident, the United States steamer Rodolph was also sunk. This vessel was on its way to help raise the Milwaukee, sunk a few days before, when a torpedo exploded under the bow, staving a hole ten feet in diameter, and killing and wounding twelve men. Sinking in only twelve feet of water, the most valuable part of her armament, &c., was saved.

Scarcely ten days elapsed, before the gunboat Scioto, tug Ida, and a launch of the Cincinnati, shared the same fate, losing nearly twenty men. The Althea had also been previously sunk. It will be seen by these casualties occurring so rapidly, and that, too, after the water had been thoroughly dragged, and quantities of torpedoes taken up, what a difficult and dangerous service Thatcher was called upon to perform. Nothing could be more unpleasant to a naval commander. Officers and men had rather face any battery, however powerful, or meet any vessel, however superior in strength, than to be thus constantly dreading an unseen foe. To be in momentary expectation of feeling the vessel lifting beneath you, or with one great shudder sink to the bottom, is more trying to the nerves than the most desperate engagement. The very mystery that envelops these hidden messengers of death, renders them more terrible.

Thatcher, however, worked his way steadily forward against all opposition-thanks to the indefatigable exertion of Commander Pierce Crosby, who dragged Blakely River till he took out one hundred and fifty torpedoes—and at last got his iron-clads abreast of Spanish Fort, from whence he shelled Forts Huger and Tracy with such precision, from a rifled gun under Commander Low, that both were evacuated. Taking possession of these, he conveyed eight thousand men under Granger, to the west side of Mobile Bay to attack the city. The rebels retreated, and the two commanders sent in a formal demand for the surrender of the place. It was granted, and the stars and stripes were hoisted over the city.

The capture of Fort Alexis and the Spanish Fort, completed the conquest, and the rebel iron-clad Nashville and gunboat Morgan retreated up the Tombigbee River. The two powerful rams Huntsville and Tuscaloosa had been previously sunk in Spanish River.

Thatcher immediately went to work blowing up and removing the obstructions in the main channel.

On the 4th of May, the rebel naval commander, Farrand, surrendered all the vessels that remained, four in number, to Thatcher, who had followed him up the Tombigbee River, and was ready to open on him with his heavy guns.

Admiral Thatcher now proceeded to New Orleans. Here, on the 24th of April, he was aroused by the startling intelligence, that the rebel ram Webb, that had run the blockade of the Red River, was passing the city under a full head of steam, with the United States flag at half-mast. At first she was supposed to be an army transport; but as soon as her true character was discovered, he sent several vessels in hot pursuit.

The Webb kept dashing on at a high rate of speed with a torpedo suspended at her bow-making for the open gulf. But suddenly she came upon the Richmond, on her way up, when she turned for the shore and, running her bows into the left bank of the river, was set on fire by her commander. The crew of forty-five escaped to the shore with the exception of three, two of whom were captured, while the third perished with the vessel. Her cargo consisting of cotton, rosin and turpentine, she was soon a mass of flames shooting through thick clouds of black smoke, and in a few minutes blew up with a terrific explosion. Detachments from the navy and land force pursued the fugitives through the swamps into which they plunged for shelter, capturing two of the crew, and taking the commander and five other officers prisoners.

Thatcher, in the mean time, had dispatched several vessels, to convey a force of thirteen thousand men under General Steele, to Selma and Montgomery. A month later he received a dispatch from the fleet captain, E. Simpson, at Mobile, announcing that on the afternoon of the 25th of May, an awful explosion of ordnance stores took place at Marshall’s warehouse, setting the city on fire, and causing a great destruction of life. The conflagration, flamed by a fierce south wind, spread with great rapidity, carrying terror and desolation in its path.

Amid the exploding shells on every side and the blinding smoke and flames shooting heavenward, quarter-master John Cowper, belonging to the Brooklyn, seeing a wounded man lying where certain death awaited him, dashed fearlessly in, at the imminent risk of his life, and lifting him in his arms, bore him to a place of safety.

The surrender of the defenses of Sabine Pass followed, and the last stones of the Confederacy crumbled to the ground.

Admiral Thatcher now proceeded to Galveston, where Kirby Smith surrendered to our land forces, and the national flag was soon flying over all the forts of the harbor. Thatcher, not having a sufficient force to garrison them, laid his light-draught gunboats abreast of them, until troops could arrive. This being done, he directed Captain Sands to buoy out the harbor.

Since the war, he has been most of the time commanding the Gulf squadron.

Chapter XXI

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