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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 Palmer is a native of New Jersey, from which State he entered the Navy, the 1st of January, 1825. Between this date and the breaking out of the war, he saw nearly twelve years of sea service—was engaged on shore duty about five, and was unemployed between eighteen and nineteen years. Altogether, he had been about thirty-six years in the service.

Soon after the commencement of hostilities, the Confederate Government sent the privateer Sumter to sea, to prey on our commerce, when Palmer, in the Iroquois, was dispatched in search of her. His cruise was a fruitless one; and constantly led astray by false reports, he had almost begun to despair of stopping her depredations; when, in the fall of 1861, while coaling in St. Thomas, he heard that she had just put into Port Royal, Martinique. This time the information came so direct, that he gave it full credence, and immediately ceased coaling—got his engines together, and started off for Martinique—arriving in St. Pierre in thirty-six hours. As he turned into the harbor, he saw a suspicious looking steamer moored to the wharf, which, on nearer approach, proved to be the notorious Sumter, boldly flying the secession flag. His arrival threw the town and shipping into the greatest excitement; for it was not certain that Palmer would not attack this bold rover even in a neutral port. This, however, he could not well have done, had he been so inclined, without firing into the houses of the inhabitants. But fearing that she might slip out under cover of darkness, Palmer cruised around the harbor all night, never going more than half gunshot from her.

In the morning, a French man-of-war came round from Port Royal, the seat of government, some twelve miles distant. The Sumter had been there for two days, and although the government had refused to give her any coal, allowed her to come around to St. Pierre, where she easily obtained it from some English merchants. Palmer said "she had evidently been received with courtesy at the seat of government, and this farce of the non-recognition of the Confederate flag is played out in both France and England." He at once addressed a note to the governor, in which he said: "As your Excellency cannot be aware of the character of this vessel, I denounce her to you as one who has been, for some time, engaged in pirating upon the commerce of the United States, robbing, burning, and otherwise destroying all American vessels that come within her reach. May I not hope, therefore, that your Excellency, upon this representation, will not allow her to enjoy the privileges I complain of, but direct her to leave the protection of the French flag, and the immunities of the French port."

To this the governor replied that he could not depart from strict neutrality. The captain of the French war steamer also addressed Palmer a note, in which he said that he had been requested by the governor to ask him not to compromise the neutrality of the French waters by establishing a blockade within their jurisdiction, but come to anchor, when every hospitality and facility would be afforded him, or else take up his position a marine league from shore. He decided to anchor, when the French commander visited him, and after the usual exhibitions of national courtesy, politely called his attention to the law of nations that one belligerent could not depart till twenty-four hours after the other had sailed.

Suspecting that the Sumter, aware of this fact, was about to slip away, as her steam was up, he immediately weighed anchor and put to sea until he had reached the marine league, when he hove to. He passed the night in much anxiety, fearing that in the darkness and under cover of the high land, the Sumter would escape. He knew the people of the town generally sympathized with the rebel craft, and hence he need expect no aid or information from them. Besides, where he lay was almost an open roadstead fifteen miles wide, while the surrounding land was very high, with bold shores. He needed at least two more steamers to keep watch and ward over the rebel cruiser. Although the nights were moonlight, he knew she could steal out under shadow of the land in spite of him. It was a very disagreeable position to be placed in; for, while painfully conscious it would be almost impossible to prevent her escape; he was also aware that it would be equally impossible to convince his countrymen that he was not to blame if she did. He thus lay off for nine days, waiting for her to put to sea, while she all the time lay moored to the wharf surrounded by sympathizing crowds, who wished her to escape.

At length, on the 23d of November, when the moonlight nights had ended, the Sumter prepared to leave. Signals which Palmer had arranged beforehand were at once made from shore that she was under way, and steering to the northward. He immediately steamed in that direction, but found no Sumter. Probably, made aware of the course Palmer was pursuing, she doubled like a hare in the chase, and shot out to sea in the opposite direction. The next morning Palmer cruised in every direction, but the privateer was nowhere to be seen, while it was impossible to guess whither she had gone.

The public were irritated at her escape, and great injustice was done Palmer for a time. The people were impatient and unreasonable, and the Government, if not equally so, was more or less influenced by the state of feeling, and nothing short of impossibilities would satisfy either. Palmer was at once relieved from command of the Iroquois; but subsequent investigation showed the injustice of the act, and that he had done all that a wise and efficient officer could do. The next year he was given his vessel again, and just after the passage of the batteries below New Orleans, joined Farragut, and was sent by him up the river to demand the surrender of Baton Rouge. He did so, but the mayor returning a pompous, ridiculous answer, Palmer said: "I was determined to submit to no such nonsense, and accordingly weighed anchor and steamed up almost abreast of the arsenal, landed a force, took possession of the arsenal, barracks and other public property of the United States, and hoisted over it our flag." From this point he proceeded to Natchez and demanded its surrender, offering the same terms which had been granted to Baton Rouge. But the authorities refused to receive the communication at the landing, which conduct, Palmer said, "being rather more dignified than wise, I instantly seized the ferryboat, then on this side, occupied in filling herself with coal, which I intended to secure also, and placing on board of her a force from this squadron of seamen and marines, and a couple of howitzers, under the command of Lieutenant Harmany of this ship, sent her across to the landing, with orders that if there were not some of the authorities to receive my communication, he was to land his force, march up to the town, which was about half a mile distant, with colors flying, and there cause the mayor to receive and read my letter. But when the party had reached the landing, they found two members of the common council, sent with an apology from the mayor, to receive my communication. They begged that the force should not be landed, as they intended to make no resistance, and seemed disposed to acquiesce in anything I demanded."

This settled the matter. The next month, June, hearing that earthworks were being thrown up at Grand Gulf, he sent down the Wissahickon and Itasca, under command of De Camp, who had commanded the Iroquois in the passage of the forts below New Orleans, to ascertain the fact. The latter found there a battery of rifled guns, and five hundred artillerists to defend it. A sharp conflict ensued, in which one vessel was hulled twenty-five times, and the other seventeen. Palmer then dropped down abreast of the town with his squadron, which composed the advance division of Farragut’s fleet, and shelled the enemy out of it.

In the passage of the batteries of Vicksburg this month, Palmer, in the Iroquois, led the line. In speaking of it, he says, in the most business-like manner: "We so fought our way up, running close into the town, having a raking fire from the fort above, and a plunging fire from the batteries on the hill, together with broadsides from the cannon planted in the streets; and, what is most strange, through all this heavy concentrated fire, with the exception of cutting away both our mainstays, and some other immaterial damage to the rigging, we escaped without injury. One shell burst on board of us, scattering its fragments around, and yet no casualty occurred.

"We remained off the upper battery until joined by the flagship, when, following your motions, we anchored out of range. My men and officers behaved with the same coolness which, I learn, so distinguished them in the attack on the forts below New Orleans."

In speaking of the action, Farragut said: "No one behaved better than Commander J. S. Palmer of the Iroquois."

When, in the following month, Farragut determined to drop down below Vicksburg, and endeavor in his passage to destroy the ram Arkansas, which, coming out of the Yazoo, had boldly passed through the combined fleets, and anchored under the batteries of the city. Palmer was again selected to lead the line in the Iroquois. When under the concentrated fire of the enemy, his worn-out engines suddenly stopped, and for nearly half an hour he lay helpless under it, and had it been better directed, would probably have sent him to the bottom. But being wild, and hence comparatively harmless, it "very soon gave him no concern." The moment he could get his engines in working order again, he stood up for the batteries, thinking the flagship was above; but learning that she had passed below in the darkness, he also dropped down and anchored beside her. The high estimation in which Farragut held Palmer may be inferred from the fact that the next spring, in March, when he resolved to run the terrible batteries of Port Hudson, Palmer commanded his ship, and stood on the poop-deck by his side in the awful conflict that followed. Farragut, in reporting it, said: "This ship moved up the river in good style, Captain Palmer governing with excellent judgment her fire according to circumstances, stopping when the smoke became too dense to see, and re-opening whenever a fresh battery fired upon us; but we always silenced their batteries when we fired."

In 1864, Palmer was commodore, commanding at New Orleans. The next year he commanded the Western Gulf Blockading squadron. While here, he captured and destroyed several blockade runners. Later in the season, he cooperated with Admiral Thatcher in the movements that resulted in the fall of Mobile. With the overthrow of this last stronghold of the rebellion, he returned north. To show the high estimation in which he was held by Admiral Thatcher, and the important aid he rendered him, we quote the following highly complimentary letter of the latter to the Secretary of the Navy:





SIR: The Department was informed by Commodore Palmer, under date of February 10, 1865, that he would avail himself of the permission granted by it, to return north after the fall of Mobile; and as he is now about to leave this squadron, I beg leave to say that he has rendered me most efficient and untiring service throughout the attack upon the defenses of the city, which has resulted so favorably to our arms; and I am indebted to him for the admirable manner in which the vessels to be employed for this service were prepared under his supervision, previous to my arrival on the station, and I part with him with reluctance and regret.

It was the belief of the enemy that it would be impossible for our monitors and gunboats to cross the Blakely River bar, owing to the shallowness of the water; but should we succeed in doing so, their hope rested in our entire destruction by the innumerable torpedoes with which they had filled the river, combined with their marsh batteries; and they well knew that our success in overcoming these obstacles would be fatal to them; but by great exertions night and day, under fire, we succeeded.

Commodore Palmer commanded the first division, consisting of the monitors and Octorara, and successfully ascended the Blakely with them, coming down the Tensas, directly in front of the city; the remainder of the gunboats, led by the flagship, convoying General Granger’s command, for the purpose of making a joint attack in flank and front. These movements having been anticipated by the enemy, led to the evacuation; and although Commodore Palmer did not have the satisfaction of bombarding the city, he had placed himself in position to do so effectually, had not the rebels deprived him of the opportunity by flight.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Acting Rear-Admiral, Com’dg West Gulf Squadron.


Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.


Notwithstanding the rank to which Admiral Palmer has attained, he may, in one respect, regard himself an unlucky man. Had fortune favored him in the commencement of the war, when he so faithfully blockaded the Sumter, and enabled him to catch her as she steamed out of the harbor, he would have been promoted at once, and placed at the head of some of those expeditions in which the leaders of them won such renown. From the bravery, resolution and ability of the man, we may be assured that he would have won a reputation second to none.

In 1866 he commanded the West India Squadron.

Chapter XXVI

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