1862_header.gif (113114 bytes)


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)

(Return to table of contents of this book)





Admiral Bell is a native of North Carolina, from which State he entered the navy the 4th of August, 1823. His early cruises differed little from those of other young officers. He was distinguished for devotion to his profession, and steadily rose in it till, at the breaking out of the war, he ranked as captain.

In 1855, he commanded the frigate San Jacinto, then attached to the East India Squadron, under Commodore Armstrong. While on this station, one of the ship’s boats returning one day from the shore—whither it had been sent—was fired upon by the Barrier forts in Canton River. The Commodore was inclined to negotiate on the matter, but Captain Bell and Captain (since Admiral) Foote, were aroused at this insult to the American flag and urged the former so vehemently to avenge it on the spot, that he finally consented to let these gallant officers do it in their own way. They at once manned their boats and pulled for the forts. The latter opened fire as they approached; but the rowers bent steadily to their oars until they were beached near the hostile works. Bell and Foote then formed their men, and leading them in person, rushed to the assault with such fury, that the Chinese, terror-stricken, left their guns and fled in every direction. Captain Bell then laid the trains and fired them with his own hand, blowing the forts into fragments. He thus taught the Chinese that it was a dangerous thing to touch the American flag where his ship floated.

Although Captain Bell was a Southerner by birth, and married a Southern woman, and one connected with the leading families and secessionists of Virginia, he never wavered a moment in his duty. Indeed, it can scarcely be said it got so far as a question of mere duty with him. Intensely loyal, his whole soul was aroused at the rebellious attitude of the South. The first gun fired at the old flag at Sumter, stirred his blood as did the hostile shot aimed at it in Canton River. When his native State seceded and joined the Southern Confederacy, he wrote to Washington requesting to have his name registered as coming from the loyal State of New York, as he was unwilling to appear in any way as belonging to a secession State.

In 1861, Captain Bell was employed in the responsible duty of fitting out and arming the nondescript vessels that the agent of the Navy Department was buying to be used in blockade duty.

When Farragut took command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Captain Bell was appointed his fleet captain, and took part in all the operations that led to the fall of New Orleans.

The month previous to the passage of the forts, he ran up to inspect the cable that stretched across the river, and the batteries. This bold movement drew a furious fire from the forts, but Bell coolly finished his reconnoissance. Some time after, Farragut wanted to get a peep at them himself, and so Bell took him up. He steamed up in broad midday, and could see through his glass the forts thronged with officers watching his movements. But to obtain a fairer view, Bell and Farragut mounted the rigging, and getting astride the cross-trees, began to take observations. In a few moments a puff of white smoke was seen to issue from Fort Jackson, and before’ it had melted into the air a 100-pound rifle shell came screeching towards them, striking the water about one hundred yards ahead of the vessel. After a short interval there came another puff of smoke, and another monster shot shrieked overhead, passing only fifty feet above Farragut and Bell. This was getting rather too close, for Bell had the Admiral with him, and "Back her" came from aloft. The vessel drifted down two or three ship’s lengths, when a third shell struck and burst on the very spot they had just left. In a few minutes, Bell steamed ahead again into the fire, when a 100.pound shell came like a sudden gust of wind between the smoke-stack and mainmast—its windage actually rocking one of the boats hanging to the vessel’s side.

When everything was ready for the squadron to advance, it was necessary, as a preparatory step, to cut the cable, which was strung across the river on hulks below the forts. This daring and difficult enterprise was entrusted to Captain Bell. It was a dark night, when, taking the Pinola and Itasca gunboats, he steamed up to the barrier. Petards had been brought from the north, which were to be thrown aboard one of the hulks, and discharged by electric wires from one of the gunboats—this part of the plan failed, owing to the heavy gale that was blowing.

As Bell steamed past the line of mortar schooners Porter opened fire; and, canopied by blazing shells, arching the sky overhead, the boats ran boldly up to the cable, and commenced the work of destruction. Sledges and chisels were soon busy sundering the chain; the anchors of the hulks, were slipped, and the work went steadily on. But, in the meantime, they had been discovered; a rocket from one of the forts shot into the air, and then both opened a tremendous fire. The gallant men, however, paid no heed to it till their task was accomplished.

It is said that Farragut threw his arms around Bell in delight, when he once more stepped safely on board his vessel.

In the final passage, Bell led the second division in the Sciota. His vessel set fire to two steamers in her passage, and captured a third. She was the fourth in the attack and capture of the forts at the city of New Orleans on the 25th, and the third in passing up in front of the city.

The victory having been won, he, on the 26th, hauled down his pennant, and repaired on board the Hartford to resume his duties as fleet captain. He gave Captain Donaldson of the ship, and his officers and crew great praise for their conduct while passing the forts.

It is well known what an excitement followed the pulling down of the American flag from the customhouse, after it had been raised there by order of Farragut. The New Orleans papers praised the daring act, and Mumford, who had committed it, was regarded as a hero. As the surging multitude gazed on the rebel flag flying in its place, they declared that the man who attempted to haul it down should die. Knowing that some action would be taken in the matter, the crowd assembled in large numbers in the immediate neighborhood of the custom-house; and angry, savage faces scowled out from the turbulent mass, and oaths, and threats of vengeance filled all the air. In the midst of this excitement, Bell landed on the levee with two officers and a handful of marines, and took his course for the custom-house. The mob opened as he advanced, but closed up behind him, cursing him and his little band, and swearing that the moment a head appeared above the roof of the custom-house, a bullet would pierce it. But Bell, unmoved and erect, and like Abdiel amid the rebel angels, passed


"Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained,

Superior, nor of violence feared aught."


Reaching the custom-house, he demanded the keys. They were given him; but every one refused to show him the way to the roof. He then stationed his little band in front of the building, and taking one of his officers and his coxswain, groped his way along the passage, and finally mounted to the roof. In the meanwhile, the excited multitude below watched the roof of the building, to see if he dared to show his head above it. As it appeared above the opening a deep murmur of vengeance rolled through the streets. Slowly, and with a dignified carriage, as became his solemn task, Bell rose to view, and his tall, commanding form stood in full relief against the sky. With no theatrical display-not even deigning a glance to the excited multitude below, thirsting for his blood-without haste, but calmly and slowly, he, with his own hands, lowered the rebel flag in sight of all, and hoisted the stars and stripes in its place. All expected to see a bullet pierce him, but the calm, dignified, fearless bearing of the man; the sublimity of the scene as he stood there penciled against the sky, overawed the angry passions of the mob, and breathless silence fell upon it. Here there was no excitement of the combat; no clangor of trumpets, or shouts of men to brace up the nerves and stimulate to daring deeds; nothing but love for the dear old flag, and of the honor of his country. Nothing could exceed the moral grandeur of the act—it would make a subject for a great picture. The national ships at the levee, with their guns bearing on the city; the heaving, turbulent mass blocking all the streets; the little band of marines, with firm-set front, standing across the door-way; the tall, erect form of Bell pictured against the sky from the top of the custom-house, as he slowly sends the national colors up the flagstaff, form a group of objects from which some artist will yet give us a great historical painting.

When Bell descended again to the street, he, quietly locked the door behind him, and putting the key in his pocket, placed himself at the head of his marines and marched back to his ship.

When, in the June following, Farragut ran the batteries of Vicksburg, Bell stood on the poop by his side, to direct the movements of the fleet, but the darkness and smoke soon shut the vessels from his sight, and he could tell where they were only by the thunder of their broadsides, or their blaze as it illumined the gloom, and so gave his attention to looking up the batteries of the enemy, and pointing them out to the officers in charge of the guns, and directing where to fire.

After the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Farragut, accepting a respite tendered him by the Government, turned over to Admiral Porter the entire control of the western waters above New Orleans, and Bell, who had been made Commodore, was placed in command of the squadron during his absence.

His duties were now of the most arduous kind, though connected with no important movement in which he was personally engaged. -is blockading fleet stretched with intervals from Mobile to Galveston. After dark, he always kept his ships on the move, so that blockade runners never knew where to find them. While off Galveston, he had the misfortune to lose the Hatteras—Blake commanding—which was sunk by the Alabama. He heard the cannonading, and saw the flashes of the combat, and hurried off in the Brooklyn in the direction from whence they came; but could find no traces of either vessel until next morning, when he saw the masts of the Hatteras standing out of the water, telling him of her fate.

He detailed a portion of his force to cooperate with Banks in his movements against Brownsville, Brazos, Aranzas, and Cabello Passes. Commander J. H. Strong had charge of it, and received the thanks of Banks, and the commendations of the Government for the skill, ability, and energy with which he performed his part in the expeditions. In storm and calm, under vexations, delays, and countless embarrassments, he executed every task imposed on him.

On Farragut’s return to take command of the squadron, previous to the attack on the defenses of Mobile, Bell was ordered north to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Here his incessant labors, joined to the exposures on the Mississippi and off the coast, completely broke him down, and, for a while, his friends feared he had made his last cruise. But his health rallied in the bracing air of the Highlands at Newburg, and he gradually recovered his strength.

With the old battered Hartford for his flagship, he now commands the Asiatic Squadron in the China seas, as Rear-Admiral.

Admiral Bell is a man of dignified deportment, frank, genial, unassuming manners, and a kind, noble heart. A better officer, a more gallant man, or one more beloved by all who serve under him, never trod the deck of a battle ship.

Between him and Farragut there exists the warmest affection and esteem.

Chapter XXVIII

Return to table of contents