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)





Commodore Rodgers is a native of Maryland, but was appointed to the navy from the District of Columbia, of which he is a resident. He entered the service as midshipman in March, 1825.

At the breaking out of the war he was sent West to assist in the building of an iron-clad fleet, in which he exhibited the enterprise and skill which distinguish him.

Having done such good service here, he was given the command of the Galena, one of the three first armored vessels built on the Atlantic coast, and sent to Hampton Roads. As in one of these, the Monitor, Worden had tested their power of resistance in combat with another mailed vessel, so he now was to prove their strength in conflict with shore batteries, and in May, 1863, steamed up the James River to engage Fort Darling. If this could be silenced the obstructions above could be removed, and our war vessels pass up to within a short distance of Richmond. He had with him the Aroostook, the Monitor, Port Royal, and Naugatuck. The wooden vessels anchored thirteen hundred yards below, while the Galena ran up to within about six hundred yards, and let go her anchor, and with a spring swung across the stream, which here was not more than twice as wide as the ship was long. The Monitor also anchored near her, and the commander, Lieutenant Jeffers, gallantly engaged the batteries, but found it impossible to elevate his guns sufficiently to make them effective until he dropped farther down stream. The Galena, being unable to change her position in the narrow river, became a stationary target for the Rebel guns mounted on Drury’s Bluff, and hence took a terrible pounding. The heavy shot coming from so great a height fell with tremendous power, while the sharp-shooters picked off every man that showed his head. Yet Rogers lay here motionless for nearly four hours, exposed to this plunging fire. In that time he lost twenty-four men killed and wounded, while thirteen shot and shell pierced the iron armor of his vessel, shattering her bulwarks and starting the seams in her side and deck.

Rodgers held on in his desperate position until he had but six Parrott charges left, and not a single filled nine-inch shell.

He was afterward placed in command of the Weehawken, and ordered to bring her from New York around to Fortress Monroe. Although the pilots attempted to dissuade him from starting, predicting bad weather, he determined to go, wishing to test the sea-going qualities of the vessel. When two days out he encountered a terrific gale, and Rodgers, cutting the line that united his vessel to the tug Boardman, determined to ride out the storm alone. Captain Case, who was convoying him in the Iroquois, then offered to tow him; but Rodgers declined the proffered aid. Case, however, would not leave him, and stood nobly by him through all the fearful night that followed. Lashed by the tempest the waves rose thirty feet high, and poured in such wild torrents over the shuddering vessel that no one could go on deck to heave either log or lead. In a private letter to his father-in-law describing the gale he said: "I stood on the turret and watched her movements with great interest. * * * No boat from the Iroquois could have lived, for she was rolling her guns under; our fate, therefore, depended on the safety of our own vessel. The waves swept over the deck with great violence, an iron plate two inches thick and eleven feet long, weighing three thousand pounds, was broken loose from its lashings and carried forty feet against the iron stanchions, and another plate, as much as two men could slide along the deck, was lifted and thrown upon some kedges. We could neither throw the log nor sound, as no one could live on the deck to do either."

It was a fearful night, and a commander never witnessed a more appalling sight than that which met the eyes of Rodgers as he stood on the top of the turret, and watched the great angry black waves fall one after another with the sound of thunder over the shivering deck, burying it from sight and surging up around him until the spray swept like a driving rain over his high perch.

He was delighted with the behavior of his vessel, and brought her safely into port, though leaking badly. In the following April the Weehawken formed part of the iron-clad fleet in the attack on Fort Sumter. The raft with the torpedo which was to blow up the obstructions was attached to her, and impeded very much her movements. It proved useless, yet, crippled as he was with this bungling apparatus, Rodgers boldly laid his vessel alongside of the rebel batteries, and was struck fifty-three times, withdrawing from the horrible fire only as he saw the signal to do so.

In the following June, Rodgers distinguished himself by capturing the rebel ram Atlanta. This vessel, sometimes called the Fingal, ran the blockade of Savannah a few days after the forts of Port Royal were taken, and was now ready to attempt a passage by Wilmington River into Warsaw Sound, and attack our blockading vessels there as well as those farther south. To prevent this dangerous movement Rodgers in the Weehawken and Downes in the Nahant were dispatched to look after her.

A little after daylight on the 7th of June Rodgers saw this formidable iron-clad coming down at the mouth of Wilmington River, accompanied by two other steamers. He immediately beat to quarters and cleared for action. In a few minutes the bow of his vessel was pointing toward the Atlanta, followed by the Nahant. When about a mile and a half distant the Atlanta fired a rifle-shot which passed across the stern of the Weehawken. The hostile vessel at this time was lying across the stream waiting the approach of Rodgers, who kept silently and steadily on, determined to waste no time or ammunition in firing at long range. At a quarter past five, being then within three hundred yards, he commenced firing, planting his huge shot with an accuracy probably never before equalled in a naval combat. The first, a 15-inch cored shot, broke with a crash through the iron plating, and wooden backing, strewing the deck with splinters, knocking down forty men by the concussion, and wounding several others with the broken iron and shivered timbers it hurled on every side. Making a hole nearly four feet in circumference, it was as if the head of a barrel had been driven through the side of the vessel, and caused consternation among the crew.

The second, an 11-inch solid shot, broke some of the iron plates. The third, a 15-inch cored shot, struck like a falling rock the pilot-house, knocking it into fragments, and killing two pilots and stunning the men at the wheel. The fourth struck a port stopper in the centre,- breaking it in two and driving the fragments through into the vessel. Appalled at the destructive power of these enormous shot, before which his iron-clad became no more than a wooden vessel, the rebel commander hauled down his flag. It was all over in fifteen minutes. So quickly did Rodgers do his work that Downes in the Nahant, though steaming gallantly forward to join the combat, was too late to share it.

The Atlanta had a crew of over a hundred and fifty men, of which sixteen were wounded.

It was a great victory, and, had the battle been a long and doubtful one, would have made the land echo with applause. But Rodgers did his work so quickly, the public could not feel that it had required much effort. Not so, however, with the Department. This iron-clad had caused it much anxiety; and when it heard that she was not only overpowered, but in good condition for efficient service in our own navy, it was highly gratified and sent the following complimentary letter to Rodgers. After speaking of the engagement of the Monitor with the Merrimac, the Secretary of the Navy says:

Your connection with the Mississippi flotilla, and your participation in the projection and construction of the first iron-clads on the western waters-your heroic conduct in the attack on Drury’s Bluff-the high moral courage that led you to put to sea in the Weehawken upon the approach of a violent storm, in order to test the sea-going qualities of these new craft, at the time when a safe anchorage was close under your lee-the brave and daring manner in which you, with your associates, pressed the iron-clads under the concentrated fire of the batteries in Charleston harbor, and there tested and proved the endurance and resisting power of these vessels, and your crowning, successful achievement in the capture of the Fingal, a.k.a. Atlanta, are all proofs of a skill, and courage, and devotion to the country and the cause of the Union, regardless of self, that cannot be permitted. to pass unrewarded. To your heroic daring and persistent moral courage, beyond that of any other individual, is the country indebted for the development, under trying and varied circumstances on the ocean, under enormous batteries on land, and in successful encounter with a formidable floating antagonist, of the capabilities and qualities of attack and resistance of the monitor class of vessels and their heavy armament. For these heroic and serviceable acts I have presented your name to the President, requesting him to recommend that Congress give you a vote of thanks, in order that you may be advanced to the grade of commodore in the American navy.

Soon after this great victory, Rodgers was detached from the Weehawken. Next winter she went down in a gale in Charleston harbor.

Chapter XXX

Return to table of contents