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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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The hero of the first Monitor, and the first prisoner of war, was born at Mount Pleasant, Dutchess County, March 12, 1818. He entered. the navy in 1834, and was promoted to lieutenant in 1840. After nine years of service, he was ordered to the National Observatory at Washington, where he remained till the Mexican war, when he was transferred to the store-ship Southampton, of the Pacific squadron. At the close of the war, he was made first lieutenant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In April, 1861, when war was found to be inevitable, he was sent by the Government as bearer of dispatches to Captain Adams of the frigate Sabine, commanding the fleet at Pensacola. These dispatches he committed to memory and then destroyed them. This fleet had been sent to Fort Pickens with two companies of artillery, to reinforce it whenever orders were sent to do so. These dispatches contained such orders, and were destroyed lest the rebels should get possession of them, and prevent them reaching their destination. Lieutenant Worden arrived at Pensacola by way of Richmond and Montgomery on the 11th of the month. He here had an interview with General Bragg, and obtained from him a permit to visit Captain Adams, stating in reply to an interrogation as to his object, that he had a verbal communication from the Secretary of War to him. Going on board he delivered his message, and received a written reply in return, acknowledging the reception of the dispatches, and stating that they should be carried out.

Fort Pickens was reinforced by Captain Vogdes that night. In the meantime, Worden was on the cars, whirling north. But when within five miles of Montgomery, five officers of the rebel army came in and arrested him, and took him to the Adjutant General. Montgomery was at that time the rebel capital, and a cabinet meeting was immediately called to consult on his case. He was finally remanded to the custody of the Deputy Marshal, in whose rooms he remained a prisoner for two days, and was then placed in the county jail. Worden boldly demanded the reason for his arrest and confinement, but could get no answer. He heard, however, it was because he had violated his word of honor, as well as Captain Adams, who, Bragg declared, had made an agreement with him, that no attempt either to reinforce or take the fort without previous notice, should be’ made by either party. It afterwards turned out, that Bragg had actually resolved to seize the fort the very night it was reinforced.

Worden remained in prison for seven months, or until the 13th of November. He was well treated and allowed to purchase such provisions as he chose. A great many Southern officers who were formerly acquainted with him in the service visited him, and used every effort, but in vain, to obtain his release on parole. Until mail connection with the North was cut off he was allowed to write to his friends and receive letters from them, but all except those from his family were opened and read before he was allowed to see them. After the fight at Santa Rosa Island, Major Vogdes and twenty-two of Wilson’s men were placed in prison with him.

His confinement during the hot summer months broke down his health, and on the 13th of November, Quartermaster Calhoun informed him that he was released on parole, and ordered to report himself to the Adjutant General at Richmond. Having given his word not to divulge anything which he might learn on his journey to the disadvantage of the Confederacy, he next morning set out for Richmond, where he arrived on Sunday evening the seventeenth. After an interview with the Adjutant General and Acting Secretary of War Benjamin, he was sent to Norfolk and exchanged.

His health was so much impaired, that he was compelled to remain in New York till the next February, to recruit.

The following month, March, he was placed in command of Ericsson’s Monitor, and ordered to proceed to Hampton Roads. He arrived there on the evening of the eighth, and immediately went out to the protection of the Minnesota, lying hard aground just below Newport News.

Worden found a terrible state of things on his arrival. The iron-clad Merrimac had come out that very day, and sent two of our vessels to the bottom. The most intense excitement prevailed, and all wondered what the morning would bring forth. Lieutenant Morris, in temporary command of the Cumberland, had fought his ship bravely, but his terrific broadsides had no effect on the monster, and she kept on her way shaking the heavy shot like peas from her mailed sides, and struck the frigate with a force that careened her far over, and stove a hole in her side as big as a hogshead. Delivering a broadside as she backed off, she came on again, striking her amidships. She then lay off and deliberately hurled the shells from her 100-pound Armstrong guns into the sinking ship. These monstrous missiles of death tore through the wooden sides of the Cumberland with a destructive power that was awful to witness. Guns went spinning over the deck, great masses of splintered timbers flew about like straws in a gale, while dismembered, mangled bodies lay strewed over the gory deck. But Morris, aided by Lieutenants Davenport, Selfridge, and other subordinate officers, disdained to surrender, and poured in the heavy broadsides with a rapidity and power that would have sent any wooden vessel that ever floated to the bottom. But they made no impression apparently on this mailed monster. To the report that the ship was sinking, these noble officers replied only with fiercer broadsides. They determined that the flag above them should never be struck, and like Paul Jones, when told that his vessel was on fire and sinking, replied: "If we can do no better, we will sink alongside," they too resolved to fight on, while a gun could be fired, and then go down with their colors proudly flying. At length the waters rushed through the port-holes, as the noble frigate slowly settled over them. Still not a man faltered, and the pivot-guns on deck gave a last shot as with a sudden lurch the vessel went to the bottom, carrying her dead and wounded with her.

Some attempted to escape by swimming, and many were picked up by a propeller, but nearly a hundred of the gallant crew went to the bottom with her, and among them the Chaplain.

The work of destruction had been completed in forty-five minutes, and then the Merrimac, turned to the Congress, which, seeing the fate of the Cumberland, hoisted sail and endeavored to escape, but got hopelessly aground. The Merrimac now steamed to within about a hundred yards, and then lay to and deliberately raked the frigate from stem to stern with her enormous shells. The carnage was awful. The rebel steamers Jamestown and Yorktown also came up and poured in their fire, and soon the decks of the Congress presented a ghastly spectacle. Added to all, she was set on fire in three places, and the flames, fanned by a brisk wind, soon roared along her decks. Out of feelings of humanity to the wounded, who would be roasted alive in the burning ship, the colors were hauled down. But while a boat was coming to take off the prisoners, some sharpshooters on shore kept up their fire, which so incensed the commander of the Merrimac, that he ordered another broadside to be poured into the surrendered vessel, which caused great slaughter.

Leaving the Congress to consume away until her magazine was reached, the Merrimac now turned to the Minnesota and Lawrence, both of which had unaccountably got aground. That all these vessels should get aground, and thus become helpless targets for the enemy, is certainly very strange.

As the Merrimac approached the Minnesota, she received one of the broadsides of the latter, and fired in turn, but she could not get within a mile, and fearing to get aground in the dark she retired to her anchorage, behind Craney Island, to wait till morning before completing her work of destruction.

This was the state of things at the time of Worden’s arrival. The Monitor was a small vessel, mounting only two guns in her revolving turret, and wholly untried in combat. Those who hailed her arrival as a savior were confounded at her insignificant appearance. It required a great deal of faith to believe she could cope with a vessel that had just destroyed two frigates.

It was a sad Saturday night—Fortress Monroe was thronged with fugitives, the heavens were aflame with the burning Congress, which at last exploded with the sound of thunder—the Merrimac was apparently uninjured, and, "What will the Sabbath morning bring?” was the mournful question that trembled on every lip.

Worden lay all night alongside of the Minnesota, in case a nocturnal attack should be attempted.

The morning broke bright and beautiful-not a cloud obscured the sky, and every glass was turned in the direction from which the Merrimac was expected to come. Soon she was seen approaching, accompanied by her consorts of the day before. The Minnesota at once beat to quarters. Worden ordered the iron hatches to be closed, the dead light covers put on, and the little Monitor put in perfect fighting trim, while he and some of his officers stood on the top of the turret and watched the movements of the approaching vessels. These were followed by steamers filled with gentlemen and ladies from Norfolk, who were coming out to see the crowning victory. As the Merrimac approached the Minnesota, Worden steamed out and ran boldly down to meet her. The enemy seemed nonplussed at the bold approach of what seemed scarcely big enough to be a New York ferryboat. It looked more like a raft with a round tub upon it nine feet high, and twenty feet in diameter. The commander of the Minnesota watched her progress with the deepest anxiety, for on the success of this new, untried experiment rested the salvation of his ship. To his astonishment, he saw Worden lay her right alongside of the Merrimac, where she looked like a fly beside an ox. But small as she was, her guns threw shot weighing a hundred and seventy pounds, and the first that struck the Merrimac woke her commander up to a sense of the danger that menaced him, and he opened a whole broadside on the tiny structure; heavy enough, one would think, to blow her out of the water. But the turret was the only thing to fire at, and most of the shot flew harmlessly over her, while those that did strike the turret, glanced off. It was a marvelous spectacle that little thing holding at bay and worrying such a monster.

The Merrimac, finding that she could do nothing with her pertinacious little adversary, turned her attention once more to the Minnesota, and steaming towards her, received a broadside from the latter, which, as Van Brunt, her commander, said, "would have blown out of the water any timber-built ship in the world." The heavy shot, however, rattled harmlessly against the sides of the Merrimac, when she, in turn, sent a rifled shell into the Minnesota, which tore through the chief engineer’s state-room, the engineers’ mess-room, amidships, and bursting in the boatswain’s room, knocked four rooms into one in its headlong passage, and set the vessel on fire. A second exploded the boiler of the tug Dragon alongside, causing for a while, great alarm. But all this time, Worden in his "cheese-tub," as the rebels called her, was crowding all steam to overtake his powerful adversary, and by the time the latter had fired his third shell was again between the two vessels, covering with amazing audacity the Minnesota. Exasperated at her inability either to shake off her puny antagonist or cripple her, the Merrimac now determined to run into and over her, and sink her by mere weight—and turning, ran full speed upon her. She struck the little Monitor with tremendous force, and her bow passed over the deck. But at that close range Worden planted one of his heavy shot square on the iron roof; with such resistless force that it went clean through. The monster backed off with a shudder, and then, enraged at the invulnerability of her antagonist, concentrated her entire fire on the turret. Worden was stationed at the pilothouse, while Green managed the guns, and Stimers turned the turret. The two vessels at times almost touched, and the explosion of their monster guns at this short range was most terrific. Titanic hammers seemed incessantly falling on their iron armor—so fierce and fast flew the shot. One shot struck the turret with such force that it knocked down Lieutenant Stimers and two men. Another struck the pilot-house, breaking in two an iron log a foot thick. It hit just outside of where Worden had his eye, knocking him senseless, while the small particles of iron driven off by the concussion, flew into his eyes, completely blinding him for the time being. But it was soon evident that the Merrimac was getting the worst of it. Worden had found his way into her vitals, and would soon send her to the bottom, and so she wheeled out of the conflict and under the convoy of two tugs, limped away to her moorings. The Monitor followed her a short distance, but Worden having received orders to act strictly on the defensive, and not leave the fleet, he soon ceased to follow his thoroughly humbled antagonist.

Lieutenant Wise, who had watched the conflict from the shore, now jumped into a boat and rowed off to the Monitor. As he descended through the "man hole" to the cabin below, everything was as calm and quiet as though nothing extraordinary had happened. One officer stood by the mirror, leisurely combing his hair, another was washing some blood from his hands, while the gallant commander lay on a settee with his eyes bandaged, but giving no sign of the excruciating pain that racked him. The first words he uttered on recovering from the stunning effect of the shot was:

"Have I saved the Minnesota?"

"Yes," was the reply, "and whipped the Merrimac."

"Then," said he, "I don’t care what becomes of me."

He had saved more than the Minnesota—how much that more was, one shudders to contemplate. It is a wonder—when we remember how the iron-clads afterwards suffered before Charleston—that the turret did not get jammed so that it would not revolve; or one, at least, of the two cannon, did not have its muzzle broken off under the close and awful cannonade to which she was exposed.

Some will call it a wonderful piece of luck, while the devout man will see in it a remarkable interference of Providence in our behalf. Never was a government so warned as ours had been of this very catastrophe, and never did one show such apathy under it.

Lieutenant Worden was now laid up for some time; but as soon as he was able, he again asked for active service, and being promoted to commander, was placed in command of the Montauk, attached to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In January, 1863, Dupont sent him down to operate up the great Ogeechee River; to capture, if he could, the fort at Genesis Point, and destroy the Nashville that lay under its protection. With four other vessels, he for nearly four hours bombarded the fort, and withdrew only after his ammunition was expended-very little damage, however, was done on either side. A few days after he renewed the attack with like results-though his vessel was hit forty-six times.

The last of this month, having ascertained that the Nashville had got aground just above Fort McAllister, he steamed up, and though under a tremendous cannonade from the latter, set her on fire with his shells, completely destroying her.

In the attack of the iron-clads on Sumter the following April, he carried his ship into action with his usual gallantry, and retired only on the signal of Dupont. He was hit fourteen times, and though no one had had greater experience than he in the power of iron-clads, he said that if the attack had been continued, it would have ended in disaster. Worden was afterwards detached from this ship—his health having failed him, and he was engaged in no other important action during the war. He is now on duty on the coast of South America.

Chapter XXVII

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