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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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As the father illustrated the navy in our second war with England, so the two sons have shed glory on it during the unholy rebellion of 1861. The story of the illustrious sire’s heroic fight in the port of Valparaiso, doubtless had much to do in fixing the profession of the sons, and also in forming their characters, distinguished for desperate daring and unconquerable resolution.

William D. is a native of New Orleans, where he was born in 1809. He was educated, however, in a Free State—Pennsylvania—and was appointed to the navy from Massachusetts, in 1823.

When the rebellion broke out he was cruising in the sloop-of-war St. Mary; and, being a Southern man by birth, his loyalty was suspected. Being informed of this, he wrote a characteristic letter to the Government, defending himself from the aspersion. This letter caused a good deal of comment at the time. Recalled from the Pacific, he was afterward sent to the Western Department to serve under Foote, who was preparing a fleet with which to open the Mississippi. The vessel selected for his command was a St. Louis ferry-boat, which he was expected to convert into a formidable iron-clad gunboat. Named after the ship his gallant father fought so desperately in the harbor of Valparaiso in 1813, it was destined, notwithstanding its ignominious birth, to win a reputation as great. The manner in which she was transformed into the powerful gunboat she became, cannot be better described than in Porter’s own amusing language.

He says: "The commander-in-chief (Flag-Officer A. H. Foote) gave me only eighteen days to get her together. So in that time I had her off the docks, and in three days was steaming down the Mississippi River. Of course there was much to be done in that time, and no place to do it. I therefore set up on my own hook; seized three large scows, and converted them into a locomotive navy yard. One of these I made a blacksmith’s shop and ironworking establishment in general; another, my boatshed, and carpenter’s establishment; and another, my coal depot. When I move up stream, I tow them all with me; if down stream, they follow. I sometimes go into action fighting at one end, while carpenters, caulkers, blacksmiths, and painters are working at the other. You see therefore that the Essex has been built about in spots.  I have my crew divided off into gangs—wood-choppers, coal-men, carpenters, caulkers, etc.; and we are a perfect workshop in ourselves."

We venture to say a vessel was never put in a fighting condition in such a way before; and it needed no prophet’s ken to foretell that a vessel commanded by such a man would become illustrious, either by her victories, or, like her great namesake, in her death. He made her sides two feet thick with timber, packed in also India-rubber, and over all laid a thick plating of iron, so that, although she was an uncouth-looking and somewhat unwieldy thing, she possessed formidable powers of resistance. She was of five hundred tons burthen, and had for her armament three nine-inch Dahlgren shell guns, one ten-inch Dahlgren, two fifty-pound rifled guns, one long thirty-two pounder, and one twenty-four-pound howitzer. Thus, though she had but few guns, she threw heavy metal.

Foote assembled his fleet in the Ohio River, near Paducah, preparatory, it was thought, to an attack on Columbus, the highest point in the Mississippi fortified by the rebels.

In January, 1862, Foote, on watch above Columbus, was informed by General McClernand that several rebel vessels were coming up the river, towing a battery. He immediately signalled Lieutenant Paulding, of the St. Louis, to get under way and prepare for action. But just as he was starting, a thick fog settled down on the steamer, compelling him to steam slowly. A little after ten, however, it lifted, and through the thin haze he saw a large steamer at the head of Lucas Bend, which immediately blew the whistle, a signal to two other steamers, which in a few minutes hove in sight, and joined her: Porter kept steadily on, when a large shell came ricocheting towards him, and burst some fifteen rods from him, with a loud explosion. Paying no attention to it, Porter swept boldly down until he got within fair range, when he opened his bow guns. The three rebel vessels now brought all their broadsides to bear, and the cannonading became furious. In less than half an hour, the enemy, finding the contest becoming too warm, hauled off. Porter and the St. Louis pressed after, working their guns with great precision. The rebel steamers occasionally rounded-to, to bring their broadsides to bear, but they could not stop the impetuous Porter, and he finally drove them crippled under the protection of their batteries.

While on duty at this point, he endeavored in vain to get a fight out of the enemy. He steamed down to their batteries, and fired a shot in challenge; arid, having again and again chased the steamer Grampus back to her shelter, at length sent the commander a challenge to come out and meet him in a fair fight. The latter accepted it, and it was thought for a while that there would be an action between the two vessels; but the rebel commander refused to keep his promise.

When Foote was ready for his great move up the Tennessee, Porter was ordered to join him; and the Essex constituted a part of the fleet that advanced against Fort Henry. The day previous to the attack, he was sent up the river in advance, with two other gunboats, to make a reconnoissance and ascertain the exact position of the rebel batteries. Running up to within a mile and a half of them, he opened fire, which was immediately returned. The enemy, bringing a twenty-four-pound rifled gun to bear on the Essex, succeeded, in the third fire, in sending its huge missile right through Porter’s cabin. He then dropped down to join the fleet, and prepare for the grand attack the next day.

As Foote moved up against the fort the next morning, the Essex hugged him close, and, when fire was opened, at a thousand yards distant, she lay alongside. In the tremendous fire that followed she became a special target for the enemy’s guns. The heavy shot and shell pounded her mailed sides with fearful violence, causing her to quiver from stem to stern; yet Porter, side by side with the flagship, kept creeping nearer to the batteries, boldly pushing into the very vortex of the fire. Amid the horrid uproar caused by the explosion of the heavy guns, the crashing of shot and bursting of shells above, around, and against the ship, his bearing was grand and heroic. The firing of his gunners was steady, cool, and accurate, and in half an hour he had dismounted five of the enemy’s guns. The Essex was now within a few hundred yards of the fort, and was sending her enormous shot with appalling effect into the garrison, when a thirty-two-pound shot struck just above the porthole, through which Porter was watching the effect of his fire, and, breaking through the bow, flew along the ship, crashed through the bulk-heads that protected the machinery, and landed with a heavy thud in the middle boiler. Young Brittain, an aid of Porter, was standing with his hand on the shoulder of his commander, when the shot entered the ship. The huge missile struck his head, carrying away half of it, scattering the brains over the paymaster standing along. side of him. But its last mad plunge into the boiler was the climax of terror. The steam instantly rushed: forth with a sound more terrific than the crash of cannon, and filled all the vessel. The sailors, who had stood unmoved at their guns through the fearful fire of the last half hour, were appalled at this new foe. Shrieking with pain, many plunged through the port-holes into the river below for safety, others fell writhing along the deck. Porter himself lay senseless and scalded on deck. The two brave pilots, standing firmly at the wheel, keeping the vessel’s bows dead on the rebel batteries, were so absorbed in their duties, that they forgot to close the trap-door that led from their house below. The unimprisoned steam rushed up this aperture, and, quick as thought, wrapped them in its fatal embrace. They made desperate but vain efforts to get out. Locked firmly in, with no way of escape but the trap-door, through which the scalding vapor was rushing, they thrust their arms through the narrow look-outs, and, forgetful of the raining shot, strove frantically to push their heads through, in order to get fresh air. But, held as firmly as though in an iron chamber, their struggles were vain, and soon ceased altogether, and the brave fellows lay scalded to death alongside of the wheel. Twenty-nine officers and men were disabled by this single shot. The noble vessel at once began to pay off before the current, and drifted helplessly out of the fight. Animated at the sight, the rebels sent up a loud cheer, and sprang to their guns with renewed vigor. Foote’s right-hand man was gone; yet, as we have seen, he did not abandon the contest.

The boilers of the Essex were not below the water line, or this disaster would not have happened. Porter had foreseen just such a catastrophe; but, whatever else he could do with his ferry-boat, he could not get his boilers beyond the reach of danger, though he protected them in every way in his power.

The manner in which the boat was handled may be gathered from the fact that, in the short time she was in action, Porter had fired seventy-five rounds. The next day the Essex dropped down the river, carrying her sad load with her.

Porter’s wounds were thought at first to be mortal, or at least so severe as permanently to disable him. It was feared that he would become totally blind. Weeks of suffering followed; but, owing to good care and a fine constitution, he at length began to recover. The news of further naval triumphs was borne to his ears, and, though he rejoiced at every victory won by our brave tars, the feeling that he could not share in their dangers and successes made his long confinement tenfold more wearisome.

It was now determined to overhaul the Essex thoroughly and make her much stronger than ever, and she was ordered to St. Louis and put on the stocks. Porter, though partially blind, resolved to go, with her to superintend, as far as possible, the work. Here, besides attending to his own vessel, he designed and built two gunboats, the Fort Henry and Choctaw, for the Government. His original designs were not fully carried out, much to his regret, for he confidently believed that had they been, they would have proved the most powerful boats on the Western waters.

The Essex was lengthened forty feet; the pilot-house placed low, and admirably protected, and her casemates made higher, while her boilers were placed below the water-line. By the last of June she was again ready for service, and so was her gallant commander. Her forward casemate of wood was two feet and a half thick, plated with India-rubber one inch thick, and iron an inch and three-quarters thick. Her side casemates had about half the thickness of wood, the same plating of rubber, and iron three-quarters of an inch thick. She had false sides to protect her against rams, and forty-two watertight compartments, so as to render her secure against sinking, even though she should be half knocked to pieces.

Foote, having been disabled in the attack on Fort Donaldson, was at length compelled to withdraw from active service, and Davis was placed in chief command. With the aid of the army the Mississippi was cleared by him down to Vicksburg.

On the 9th of July, Porter started down the river, and, on the 13th, joined the fleet before this place. Farragut was below with Porter’s brother, who commanded the mortar fleet.

It was well known by our naval officers there that a powerful ram, called the Arkansas, had been built by the rebels, and was towed down the river after the fall of Memphis, and now lay concealed upon one of the tributaries of the Mississippi. It was also believed that she was a more formidable vessel than any we had on the Mississippi, and hence a good deal of anxiety was felt concerning her whereabouts. On the evening of the 14th, soon after his arrival, Porter took one of his officers and went ashore opposite Vicksburg to make a reconnoissance. In prosecuting it, he took two rebel prisoners, or deserters, who told him the Arkansas was up the Yazoo. These prisoners were sent to Davis, on board the flagship, and he, the next day, at daylight, sent the Tyler and Carondelet and ram Lancaster up the Yazoo, to ascertain where she lay, and what was her condition. These vessels had not proceeded far when they descried the rebel monster slowly steaming down the stream. Fearing they would be sunk, they wheeled and retreated, firing their stern guns as they fell back. The Arkansas immediately opened on them with her heavy guns, and soon the Carondelet was so disabled that she had to seek safety in shallow water, where she grounded. The fleet below heard the firing, and soon discovered that it was steadily coming nearer. Immediately everything was astir, and the vessels got in line of battle across the river, to prevent her passage down to Vicksburg. Soon only a narrow strip of land separated the heavy explosions from the Mississippi, and in a few minutes the three vessels hove in sight around this point under a full head of steam. All eyes were now turned in that direction,, when, lo! the head of the monster shoved around the point, and, a moment later, her huge form lay clearly exposed as all alone she headed boldly towards the whole fleet, that seemed to cover the bosom of the stream. Conscious of her strength and invulnerability, she proudly flung down the gauntlet to the whole. There was something grand in this solitary vessel thus sending her challenge to our combined fleet, for Farragut, with several vessels, had run the batteries, and was now with Davis. As she approached, every gun that could bear was leveled at her. Keeping on her stately way, she approached the Richmond, which gave her a broadside; but the heavy shot rattled like peas against her mailed sides. Other vessels followed suit, and at length she approached Farragut’s ship, the Hartford, when another broadside was poured in. She, however, did not deign a reply. The Essex, which was to know more of her in the future, also gave her a broadside. The ram Lancaster was, disabled; but nothing availed to stop the Arkansas, and she kept on her way, pursued by the Benton, till she was safe under the protection of the Vicksburg batteries. It was a strange spectacle which those gallant commanders witnessed on that pleasant July morning. The whole fleet had been bearded by a single boat, and it was evident there was mischief in her which must in some way be warded off. Besides, her haughty bearing had roused the indignation of the officers and men, and the insult must be wiped out. A general council of war was called of all the commanders, to take into consideration what should be done. This formidable vessel might make her way to New Orleans and destroy our entire fleet there, and take possession of the city. She seemed more impregnable than the Merrimac, the terror of whose name still filled the land. She was about one hundred and eighty feet long, with sixty feet breadth of beam, and pointed with an enormous beak of iron fastened forward, weighing 18,000 pounds, and so firmly fixed that scarcely any shock would dislocate it. Her armament consisted of six eight-inch and four fifty-pound rifled guns. She lay now in the water with slanting sides, inclining at an angle of about forty-five degrees, though not coming to a point, like the Merrimac, but ending in a fiat top. These sides were eighteen inches thick, of solid timber, covered with rail-road iron, which rendered her so impervious that our shot rattled like hail on her as she passed. She had two propellers that worked independently of each other, so that if one gave out or was disabled, the other would still move the vessel. Her engines were below the water-line, and well protected against shot and shell. It was very plain that such a formidable enemy must in some way be got rid of, or all our lighter armed boats and vessels would be in constant jeopardy.

After mature deliberation, it was resolved to make a combined attack on the batteries, and during the engagement destroy the Arkansas, which lay under their protection. This was done that very evening, and a tremendous bombardment opened on Vicksburg, during which Farragut again passed below to the remainder of his fleet, though without inflicting any damage on the Arkansas. It was becoming more palpable every day that the two fleets alone could never take Vicksburg. They needed the cooperation of a powerful land force. But it was felt on all hands that our naval reputation in the West demanded that no rebel fleet or vessels of war should exercise any control there or menace the existence of our own. Yet this ram had dared to pass leisurely through our whole fleet, compelling the lighter vessels to take refuge in flight. She was now evidently employing her time in strengthening herself still more, and was taking on munitions of war preparatory to some decided move; but, if allowed to get under way, there was no certainty of being able to stop her.

While matters were in this unsettled and perilous shape, Porter offered to go down alone, and, under the concentrated, overwhelming fire of the batteries on shore, engage single-handed this monster, that unprotected had defied the whole fleet. Officers, that no danger could daunt, looked amazed at this desperate proposition; but Porter was so confident that he could hold his own against the batteries on shore, and the ram to boot, that it was finally resolved to grant his strange request. When it is remembered that the Arkansas mounted fourteen and the Essex but seven guns, and that the crew of the former trebled that of the latter, making the encounter between the vessels alone a desperate undertaking, and that over a hundred guns on shore, trained on the Essex, increased this disparity a hundredfold, one can imagine what sort of undertaking Porter proposed to himself, and what a bold and daring commander he was. Everything being ready, he, at four o’clock on the morning of the 22d, weighed anchor, and slowly steamed down the river. Moving steadily through the fleet, greeted with many a warm wish for success, the Essex passed down alone, her flag flying proudly in the morning breeze. As she rounded the point that hid her from the enemy’s batteries, the astonished foe beheld a single gunboat in broad daylight, deliberately entering the volcano ready to receive her. The next minute her upper batteries opened, and the echoes of the heavy guns rolling up and down the river, announced to the fleets above and below that Porter had entered on his daring undertaking. Shot and shell fell fast as rain-drops on the mailed sides of the Essex, creating a din like the pounding of workmen on a boiler. Not a shot replied. Silent and stern, her flag gaily kissing the summer air, that dark form headed straight for the terrible water batteries, under the guns of which the Arkansas lay moored. It seemed impossible that under such a fire as was poured into her, she would ever be able even to reach the object she was aiming at, much less withstand the broadsides that awaited her. But she never swerved nor faltered, but kept silently, steadily, on her terrible way, till she got within close pistol-shot, when she opened her forward battery of nine-inch guns, and the ponderous shells were hurled with awful power into the motionless ram. Porter, however, had no intention of settling the conflict with his guns-he was determined, while under full headway, to strike her with his armed bow, and sink her at her moorings. The commander of the Arkansas, divining his object, suddenly let go his bowline, when the ram, caught by the current, swung out into the stream, so that the Essex missed her blow, and, grazing along the sides of her antagonist, was carried by her great headway plump into the bank, where she remained fast aground. Her engines stopped, and for a few minutes she became the target of the most terrific fire that ever was concentrated on a single vessel. Soon, however, the two vessels floated so close together that a tow-line could have been thrown aboard of either, when most of the shore batteries dared not fire lest they should hit the Arkansas. In this close proximity Porter opened his nine-inch battery. The heavy shot, backed by the most powerful charges the guns could bear, and fired with the muzzles almost touching the sides of the rain, tore up her iron plating as if it had been nothing but so much pine lumber. A yell of terror arose from the terror-stricken crew as these ponderous missiles of death crashed and burst among them. Wrapped in her own smoke, the Essex maintained this terrific conflict for some time, when, drifting down by the force of the current, she again became the target for the batteries on shore. Porter expected the fleets to divert their fire by making a combined attack on them; but, seeing no evidence that this had taken place, and fearing that he would soon become disabled in this unequal contest, he dropped down the river, running the gauntlet of the hostile fire.

The result showed that Porter had not overrated the impregnability of his vessel, for, notwithstanding the overwhelming fire to which she had been exposed, only two shots pierced her. One shell exploded in her sides, tearing away her timbers and disabling several of her crew. The other, a sixty-eight pound shot, struck her aft quarter, and, crashing through her mailed side, passed through the captain’s cabin, scattering destruction in its path, and finally stopped in the other side against the iron plating. The smoke-stack was riddled with shot, while indentations in the iron casing in every direction, showed how terrible had been the iron hail.

Porter had failed in his great object, yet he had tested the power of his vessel; and, notwithstanding the formidable character of the ram, determined, if he ever got a chance for a single-handed combat with her, he would fight her till one or the other went to the bottom of the river.

The small land force under General Williams, which was to cooperate in the capture of Vicksburg, having become a prey to the malaria that prevails in this region in the hot summer months, it was resolved to remove it. Thus the siege of Vicksburg was abandoned for the time, and Farragut with his fleet dropped down to New Orleans. But the Essex belonged to Davis’ fleet above the city, and Porter wrote to his commander for orders what to do. In reply, he received permission to cruise between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge. He was not destined to remain idle long, for, General Williams having repaired to Baton Rouge, Breckenridge determined to attack him there, assisted by the ram Arkansas and other gunboats; and, on the fifth of the next month, made his appearance before the place, driving our troops before him. Porter, who had been informed of this, stationed the Essex and two other gunboats so as to arrest the progress of the enemy. The Arkansas, while at Vicksburg, had her deck plated with iron, and still further protected with cotton bales, which the experience she had gained in that fierce encounter with the Essex, had taught her was necessary. Having communicated with Breckenridge, she left her moorings and started for Baton Rouge, to assist in the attack. But one of the engines gave way before she reached the place, and she was obliged to stop for repairs, so that she could not take part in the engagement. Porter expected her down, and had kept a sharp lookout, well knowing that if the ponderous structure once fairly struck him, he would be inevitably sunk. At length, when the rebels were repulsed—the gallant Williams falling in the very hour of victory—he determined to hunt her up. Proceeding up stream, he, at ten o’clock, came in sight of her, and at once opened fire. The Arkansas at the time was moored to the shore, and at once cleared for action. After a short conflict, Porter all the while steaming nearer, the engineer of the Arkansas reported that her engines were repaired, so that they would last half a day. This was most welcome news to her commander, and he immediately ordered the lines cut away; and moved straight down towards the Essex, determined, with one resistless blow of his iron beak, to send her to the bottom. Porter saw her coming, and, bidding his gunners take good aim, sent the heavy shot and shell from his nine-inch bow guns, which, mailed as she was, went through and through her. One of these struck either her engines or steering apparatus! so that she became partially unmanageable; and Reed, her commander, ordered her to be run ashore. This was done, when with her stern guns she continued the combat. This was just what Porter wanted. No longer compelled to manoeuvre his vessel so as to prevent being run down by his more powerful adversary, he steamed up so close that his heavy shot could pierce the mailed sides of his antagonist, and raked her with a terrible fire. At length, finding a spot where he could send in, as he says, an incendiary shell, he set her on fire, when the crew, fearful of an explosion, escaped in wild alarm to the shore. The flames made rapid headway, the smoke puffing out of her ports in vast volumes. It was soon evident that this terror of the Western waters, and hope and pride of the rebels, on which such labor and experience had been lavished, was beyond human help. As the fire gained headway, and burst forth in vast sheets of flame on every side, shooting up in the air, and wreathing in their fiery embrace the blackened form, the ropes that held her to the shore burned off, she swung heavily into the stream, and began to drift slowly downward—a deserted, helpless thing. The raging fire lit up her interior like a furnace, exposing to view the ragged holes made by Porter’s shot. Casting a baleful light on the water, she kept on her flaming pathway, till within four miles of Baton Rouge, when the fire reached the magazine, containing eighteen thousand pounds of powder! A sudden lift of the mighty monster, with a great convulsive throe—a swift rush into the air of a vast mass of smoke and flame, mingled with burning timber and fragments of iron, followed by an explosion that shook the shores, and was heard miles away—and down went the long-dreaded ram Arkansas to the bottom of the Mississippi. In reporting to the Department, Farragut said: "It is one of the happiest moments of my life that I am enabled to inform the Department of the destruction of the ram Arkansas, not because that I held the iron-clad in such terror, but because the community did."

The Essex having made the necessary repairs, steamed up the Mississippi on the 9th of August, to procure coal at Bayou Sara, some thirty miles distant. Anchoring before the town, Porter was waited on by the mayor of the place, with whom he made arrangements by which private property was to be respected if the inhabitants remained peaceable, delivering up the coal lying on the wharf and releasing the Federal prisoners confined on shore. He remained here till the 14th, when, being joined by the Sumter, he left her in charge of a guard, and returned to Baton Rouge. Hearing that it was the intention to evacuate the place, he remonstrated against it, and moreover wrote to New Orleans, begging that gunboats might be sent him, so that he could prevent fortifications being erected at Port Hudson, which he represented as a most important point. He sent a dispatch also to Washington, begging only for a small force with which he would prevent the place being fortified. He said that it was the principal point for the transmission of supplies to the Confederate armies from Texas, and the rich valley of the lied River. His representations however were unheeded, and the rebels, as he foretold, soon made it one of the strongest places on the river. The stupidity of the Government in not heeding his advice cost us afterwards thousands of brave men, whose death lies at the door of those in power at Washington.

Lying off Baton Rouge till the 23d, Porter again went up to Bayou Sara after the coal he had left there. The Sumter, which was appointed to stand sentinel over it, got aground, and the commander, fearing an attack, had abandoned her, when she was set on fire by the inhabitants.

On his arrival, he found the greatest part of it had been burned. Sending a boat’s crew on shore to see if any more could be found, it was fired upon by concealed guerrillas. The crew immediately fell back to the shore, when Porter opened on the place with shot and shell, which soon scattered the enemy. He then ordered the houses on the levee to be burned, near which the coal lay, in order to keep back any lurking guerrillas; then, taking in what fuel he wanted, steamed down to Port Hudson to see what progress the enemy was making in erecting batteries there. As he predicted, they were fast going up. He cannonaded them for awhile, when unfortunately his ten-inch pivot-gun burst. He, however, continued to lay near the place for two days, shelling the woods and the earthworks going up. Returning to Bayou Sara to get some coal he had left behind, and being again attacked by guerrillas, he burned the town to the ground, and, leaving it a desolation, proceeded up to Red River for the purpose of ascending it. The low state of water, however, prevented his crossing the bar at the mouth of the stream. But hearing that two transports loaded with cattle, cotton, and other commodities, and convoyed by a gunboat, had left the day before for Natchez, he immediately started in pursuit, but on reaching Natchez on the 1st of September he found the vessels gone. The next day he sent ashore a portion of his crew to procure ice for his sick and wounded men. No hostilities were anticipated, as heretofore the inhabitants had been peaceable and orderly. But just before the unsuspecting crew reached the shore, a sudden volley from two hundred citizens, armed with muskets, was poured into them. One seaman was instantly killed, and five others, with the officer in charge, were wounded. As these pale and bleeding men were brought over the vessel’s side, Porter’s brow grew dark as wrath, and the stern, sharp order to clear for action and to beat to quarters, showed that there was to be no demand for explanations, but swift, terrible vengeance. The next moment the heavy guns of the Essex broke the stillness, and shells went bursting along the streets of the city. For nearly an hour and a half an incessant fire was kept up, carrying havoc and destruction. The enemy, concealed in houses near the shore, swept, in the mean time the deck of the Essex with a steady fire of musketry. During the bombardment, the Essex exploded another nine-inch gun. Probably it would have been better had. Porter first given the women and children time to leave the place; but the treachery of the act and the bleeding forms of his men borne back to the ship, left no room in his heart for any other feeling but vengeance. If he was to blame, much more was the mayor, who refused to hoist a flag of truce, which would have stopped the fire.

Having taught the people of Natchez a severe lesson, Porter steamed up to Vicksburg, to see what could be done there. Finding the fortifications immensely strengthened, and that Davis’ fleet had left the place, he deemed it imprudent to join it by running the batteries, for, should he succeed in getting through, it might be in a disabled state; and, being already reduced by sickness to one officer and thirty men, and, some of these, negroes who had been trained to work the guns, he determined to go to New Orleans, which he was permitted to do in case of necessity, and recruit his exhausted stores, and repair his vessel. And so, after bombarding the batteries below Vicksburg for a couple of hours, he turned the bow of the Essex down stream; and, on the 6th of September, anchored once more in the port of Natchez. He immediately dispatched a letter ashore to the mayor, demanding the surrender of the city. An arrangement was soon effected, by which the city stipulated hereafter to respect the flag of the United States. Porter then kept on towards New Orleans, and the next day approached Port Hudson, where new, heavy batteries were erected. No sooner did he come within range of their heavy guns, than a tremendous fire was opened on him. The Essex returned it, keeping steadily on till she came to the central battery, located in the extreme end of the river, which at that point was not over five hundred yards across. Porter had to come within thirty yards of this, when he received a terrible pounding. Iron and timber gave way before the heavy shot; and for awhile it seemed as if the Essex, strong as she was, would be knocked to pieces. Porter, however, held slowly on his way, returning the fire with such precision, that he made a wreck of one of the batteries. For an hour and a half he maintained the unequal fight, when, finding his ammunition, getting low, le dropped down beyond range, and kept on to New Orleans. Here he found awaiting him his promotion to the rank of Commodore, although the navy advisory board, for some extraordinary reason, had omitted his name among those proposed for promotion. The President, however, could understand his merits and appreciate his conduct without any advisory naval board.

This promotion did not come a moment too soon, for disease was rapidly undermining his naturally strong constitution , and in a short time he was compelled to ask to be relieved, that he might go East to get medical advice. He, however, continued to grow worse, and soon after died in St. Luke’s Hospital, New York, into which he was received for the purpose of giving him the care he needed. Thus, at the age of fifty-three, in the prime of his life, passed away this able commander. A brave man, a thorough officer, a fearless fighter, had he lived he would have placed his name foremost among those naval heroes that adorn our history.

Chapter XXIII

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