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Lewis Randolph Hamersly.

The records of living officers of the U. S. navy and Marine corps: with a history of naval operations during the rebellion of 1861-5, and a list of the ships and officers participating in the great battles online

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Online LibraryLewis Randolph HamerslyThe records of living officers of the U. S. navy and Marine corps: with a history of naval operations during the rebellion of 1861-5, and a list of the ships and officers participating in the great battles → online text (page 30 of 42)
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and entered the town of Washington, and would probably have obtained posses-
sion of this important point, but for the timely action of Lieut. Benshaw, of
the gunboat Louisiana, who immediately opened fire and soon succeeded in
driving the rebels from the town. The navy also, upon numerous other occa-
sions, rendered very material assistance to the army in its movements.

Major General Dix having requested the co-operation of a naval expedition in
a proposed attack upon Franklin, Va., a town upon the Blackwater river, about
twenty miles above its confluence with the Chocan, and somewhat more than
that distance southwest from Portsmouth, Lieut. Commander Flusser, of the
Perry, was directed to act in concert with the land forces. The expedition, con-
sisting of the Perry, Hunchback, Acting Lieut. Commander Colhoon, and the
Whitehead, Acting Master French, ascended the river on October 2d, and lay
over night within three miles of the town. Very early next morning the vessels
got under way, but the stream was narrow and very tortuous, the banks high
and offering safe refuge for the riflemen of the enemy, who kept up a contin-
uous scattered fire upon the crews. The vessels were several times aground,
and the barricades placed in the channel helped to make a passage almost im-



266 NORTH ATLANTIC SQtIADEON.

possible. But courage and determination forced a way through every difficulty,
until the town was almost within sight. But here a fresh impediment was en-
countered, a barricade which it was impossible to pass or to remove under such
a fire, and so all further progress was stopped. The long expected fire of the
co-operating land forces was now opened, and the enemy seemed determined to
make it impossible to move backward as well as forward. After the woods had
been well shelled in every direction, the vessels were ordered to drop down
the narrow, winding channel with high bluffs on either side. Under a heavy
fire of musketry, and over and through all obstructions made by the enemy,
the gallant little vessels pushed on, and at nightfall reached the point from which
they started. Like many another expedition at this time, this one_ proved
almost barren of results, beyond the confidence in themselves and in their
leaders which was inspired in the men. Several of them are reported as worthy
of especial commendation. One swam ashore with a line through a heavy fire;
another put out the burning fuse of a shell which had dropped on the deck ;
and so of others. Lieut. Gushing was especially commended to the notice of
the Department.

An expedition, undertaken by Lieut. Gushing, of the steamer Ellis, was
boldly conceived and carried out with great spirit. The object was the destruc-
tion of salt works and of vessels engaged in contraband trade, and the capture
of mail matter and public property at Jacksonville, in all of which it was very
successful. Entering the New river inlet on the morning of November 23d,
Lieut. Gushing burned a valuable outward-bound trader, captured other
schooners, and had the happiness of seeing the county town in possession of his
men. There they found a valuable mail made up for Wilmington, and also some
public arms; but such men and officers as were in the town escaped. No time
was to be lost, however, and at 2 P. M. the Ellis started to return, but this_ did
not prove to be so easily accomplished. The enemy had put guns in position
at several places; and near where the vessel fired in the morning was still
burning they collected in some force, but were put to flight after a few
rounds of shell. Unfortunately, daylight began to fail before the mouth of the
river was reached, and the two pilots declared it impossible to pass through a
narrow and crooked channel, except by day and with high water. So the night
had to be passed at anchor, with the enemy in force on either bank ; but it
was better to risk a night attack than to lose the vessel on the rocks. How-
ever, the enemy kept quiet till morning ; but grew troublesome when the ves-
sel got under way, and soon opened a battery of two pieces. A sharp fight
followed; but the rebels were driven from their guns, and all would have gone
well, for the Ellis was but five miles from the bar, had not the pilots, mistaking
the channel, run the vessel hard and fast aground. All attempts to lighten her
proved in vain. Everything was removed except the pivot gun and a few
stores ; six men volunteered to remain with the commander, and all the rest were
allowed to go aboard the schooner, and it dropped down out of reach of
the shot.

In the morning the enemy opened a heavy cross-fire, which soon disabled the
engine, and before long, cut up the vessel in every part, but the brave little
crew held to their gun as long as it could be worked. The time came at
last, however, when they must either surrender, or undertake a perilous escape
in the small boat, and this the gallant commander resolved to attempt, though
escape from a fire concentrated from every side seemed hardly to be dreamed of.
The vessel was fired in five places, and the little crew managed to reach the
prize in safety, and the schooner was quickly on her way to sea, but did not
pass the bar and breakers without great peril. Everything that could be



NOETH ATLANTIC SQUADRON. 267

moved was brought away from the steamer, and she blew up soon after she was
abandoned.

The year 1862 closed with a disaster, in the loss of the Monitor, the little
vessel which had rendered such signal service in saving the fleet in Hampton
Boads from the destructive attack of the Merrimack. She left the Roads on
the 29th of December, in tow of the steamer Rhode Island, but off Cape Ilatte-
raa she foundered in a heavy sea, the utmost efforts of her officers and crew
being insufficient to keep her afloat. Commander Bankhead acted with the
greatest coolness and gallantry, and succeeded, though with great danger and diffi-
culty, in transferring most of his crew to the boats of the Rhode Island, with
the loss, however, of four officers and twelve men.

The year 1863 was spent by the vessels of the North Atlantic Squadron in
constant activity, guarding the extended coast, penetrating the rivers and sounds
of Virginia and North Carolina, repelling attacks upon points already occupied,
and protecting and helping the army in times of difficulty and embarrassment.
A number of expeditions have been heretofore described, which will serve as
examples of many more, carried out with skill and bravery at various times.

On the 11th of April, Admiral Lee received information that the enemy in
large force was about to attack the town of Suffi)lk, then held by General
Peck, and he at once dispatched Lieutenant Lamson, of the Mount Washington,
with three other small vessels, to occupy the Nansemond between Suffolk and
the mouth of the Western branch, with instructions to render all the assistance
in their power to the army, while Lieutenant Gushing, with the Barney, occu-
pied the lower Nansemond. The stream is a very narrow one, and the vessels
were constantly exposed to the fire of both artillery and musketry. The occupa-
tion of the river extended through a considerable period, and was condueted
with skill and courage. At about the same time the enemy again made a
demonstration against Washington, N. C., appearing before the intrenchments on
the 8th of March, and investing the town until April 15th, when he suddenly
abandoned his works and retired ; the naval forces, under Commander Daven-
port, being constantly and severely engaged during this time.

In Virginia, also, the navy continued to co-operate with the land forces in
various expeditions, intercepting mails, destroying stores, etc., while the vessels
all along the coast made frequent captures of valuable prizes ; although, notwith-
standing their vigilance, numerous vessels succeeded in eluding the blockade at
Wilmington and other points. On the 18th of August the iron propeller Hebe
attempted to enter Wilmington, but, being headed off, was run ashore and
abandoned. A boarding party from the Niphon was captured by the enemy,
who had brought a battery to protect the wreck. They were, however, soon
driven away, the battery captured and the wreck destroyed. This was but one
of many instances of the same sort, in which vessels with cargoes of great im-
portance to the insurgents were captured or destroyed under perilous circum-
stances.

In order to secure the most thorough performance of the duties imposed upon
the blockading squadron, Admiral. Lee, in the summer of the following year,
(1864,) by direction of the Navy Department, established four divisions of the
North Atlantic Squadron вАФ one on the James river, one on the sounds of North
Carolina, and two off Cape Fear river and adjacent inlets, and removed his head-
quarters from Hampton Roads to Beaufort.

Major General Butler, on the 5th of May, removed his army from Newport
News up James river, under convoy of a naval force, and landed on the follow-
ing night at City Point. Two of the gunboats were destroyed in this move-
ment, by the explosion of formidable torpedoes which the enemy had planted in



268 NOKTH ATLANTIC SQUADRON.

the bed of the river. The enemy had been for two years previous engaged in
the preparation of a fleet of iron-elads and rams, with which the naval forces
anticipated an engagement ; but the military commanders, considering that the
safety of the army transports was of vital importance, and should be placed be-
yond any contingency, ordered the obstruction of the channel by the sinking of
vessels. This, although doubtless conducing to the security of the army opera-
tions, greatly restricted the movements of the fleet, and was not very favorably
regarded by the naval commanders. A number of short but severe engage-
ments, however, took place at various times between the gunboats and the many
powerful batteries with which the enemy had lined the shore of the James, in
many of which the navy acquired great credit.

In the sounds of North Carolina important events were in preparation. The
value of the possession of these waters was evidenced by the frequent and persis-
tent efforts made by the enemy to repossess himself of them and of the impor-
tant points upon their shores, held by the army and navy. In the spring of
1864, the possession of the sounds seemed very insecure ; the land force was
small and scattered; most of the gunboats were slightly built, the iron-clads
then at the disposal of government being unsuited for operations in shallow
waters ; and far up in the almost inaccessible waters of the Roanoke and the
Neuse, it was known that the construction of armored vessels, as well as of
others of lighter draught, was in progress.

On April 17th, the enemy besieged Plymouth, and two days after the ram Al-
bemarle, a formidable iron-plated battery, descended the Roanoke and attacked
the wooden gunboats lying off that town. Lieutenant-Commander Flusser, in
anticipation of tlie attack, had chained together his vessels, the Miami and the
Southfield, intending to fight the ram in that way, but at three o'clock in the
morning she made her appearance, and in half an hour had sunk the Southfield,
disabled the Miami, whose gallant commander was killed, and obtained posses-
sion of the river. The next day the defences of the town were carried, the
garrison taken prisoners, and thus the entire command of the upper sound passed
into the hands of the enemy.

To prevent further disaster, vigorous measures were at once adopted. Cap-
tain Melancthon Smith was ordered to assume command in the sounds, with in-
structions to attack the ram at all hazards, in the best manner to insure its
destruction. On the 5th of May, the enemy besieged Newborn, and on the
same day the ram again came out. Captain Smith promptly engaged her, with
four vessels, the Matabessett, Wyalusing, Sassacus and Whitehead. The en-
gagement began about half-past four and continued furiously for three hours,
the gunboats firing rapidly and repeatedly, and ramming the battery, (but this
unsuccessfully,) with such effect that at dark she retired up the river, and did
not again make her appearance until the 24th, when she was seen near the
mouth of the river, but on a shell being thrown from the Whitehead immedi-
ately returned.

The next day, a bold attempt was made by five volunteers from the Wyalu-
sing to destroy the ram by means of a torpedo. The attempt was, however,
unsuccessful, and the gunboats remained throughout the summer awaiting her
movements. As no cause could be assigned for her non-appearance, a consider-
able force was required to be constantly on guard, and this being not only so
wearisome service, but embarrassing to a great extent the operations of the
navy, it became important to make a decided attempt for her destruction. For
this perilous service, Lieut. W. B. Cushing was selected ; a torpedo of extra-
ordinary power was properly arranged in a light picket boat, and placed at his
disposal, and on the night of October 27th, accompanied by fourteen brave officers



NORTH ATLANTIC SQUADRON. 269

and men who had volunteered for the service, he ascended the Koanoke to Ply-
mouth, approached the ram under a heavy fire, exploded his torpedo, and sunk
her. A shot from the ram sunk the torpedo boat just as its work was completed,
and Lieut. Gushing, with four of his party, escaped, the remainder being killed
or wounded. This daring achievement removed the main defence of Plymouth,
and Commander Macomb at once availed himself of the opportunity, and with
the naval force at his command pressed up to the town, drove the rebels from
their works, took possession of the place with all its armament, and re-established
the supremacy of the Government in the waters of North Carolina.

At two o'clock on the morning of April 9th, 1864, the flag-ship Minnesota, then
anchored off Newport News, at the mouth of James river, was struck and
slightly injured by a torpedo boat. Acting Ensign Birtwistle, who was officer of
the deck at the time, discovered a boat a little forward of the port beam, and
about one hundred and fifty yards distant. He hailed, and ordered the boat to
keep off, or he would fire into her. As she continued to approach. Acting Ensign
Birtwistle hailed the tug Poppy, tender to the flag-ship, and lying astern, and
ordered her to run the boat down. For some reason, which has never been
satisfactorily explained, the tug did not obey the order, and before a gun could
be brought to bear on the torpedo boat, she had struck the flag-ship and
steamed off, and was soon lost sight of in the darkness. Fortunately the injury
to the Minnesota was very slight.

About the middle of April, 1864, an expedition under Acting Volunteer
Lieutenant Breck was sent to destroy the extensive salt works belonging to the
State, situated at Masonboro, N. C. The expedition was entirely successful,
and returned to the squadron without the loss of a man, after destroying prop-
erty of immense value to the rebel confederacy. Early in July a joint expedi-
tion from the army and navy was sent to cut the Wilmington and Weldon Hail-
road, but the rebels, having obtained information that the expedition was on
foot, were enabled to defeat its object.

In July, 1864, Lieutenant-Commander William B. Cushing, accompanied by
Acting Ensign J. E. Jones, and Acting Master's Mate William Howertt and
fifteen men, left the squadron for the purpose of making a reconnoissance of
Wilmington, N. C. ; they approached within two miles of the city, and returned
to their ships fully informed in regard to the rebel fleet and the fortifications
of Wilmington. Lieutenant-Commander Cushing displayed his usual gallan-
try in several trying positions in which he was placed.

In September, 1864, Acting Kear Admiral Lee was enabled to transmit to the
Navy Department a package of Wilmington newspapers, in which were editorial
articles bitterly complaining of the stringency of the blockade. No finer compli-
ment could have been paid to the ability of Admiral Lee and the efficiency of
his squadron.

For a long time, since early in 1862, in fact, the Navy Department had been
fully aware of the importance of closing the port of Wilmington. It was the last
port remaining to the rebels, and it was through it that supplies and muni-
tions were obtained; through it cotton was sent to Europe, and the rebel
credit abroad chiefly sustained. Owing, however, to the many claims upon
its attention, the co-operation of the War Department, though often asked for,
could not be obtained until, in the fall of 1864, Lieutenant-General Grant,
having given the subject the closest consideration, was of opinion that under
cover of the guns of the navy a landing might be effected on the beach. A
part of the naval vessels might, he thought, force a passage beyond the batteries,
and thus the works on Cape Fear being isolated, a combined attack upon them
might be followed by their reduction.



270 NORTH ATLANTIC SQUADRON.

This plan of operations the heads of departments adopted, and it became
necessary to select for the command of the very large fleet which would be
required; that officer whose past career would -be the best guarantee of future
services. The choice fell upon Admiral Farragut. But the health of this
distinguished officer had been so impaired by long and arduous service in the
gulf, that he was obliged to decline the command, and Eear Admiral David D.
Porter, who had become well known in connection with the operations of the
Mississippi Squadron, was selected in his place, and ordered to take command
of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. This plaoed the port of Wil-
mington and its defences within the sphere of his operations. Major-General
Butler was to have command of the land forces.

The 1st of October was first named for the sailing of the expedition, but so
many delays occurred, that it was not until the month of December that the
expedition was in motion. This delay seems to have been unavoidable on the
part of the army, owing to the many operations in which it was engaged, but
the naval preparations were complete long before. In the meantime every
squadron was suffering a depletion to furnish the vessels which lay idle at
Hampton Koads and Beaufort. At length, however, all was in readiness, and
on the 16th of December the troops were embarked in transports, only to be
once more delayed, however, by a severe gale, which lasted three days, and
caused them severe suffering in their crowded quarters.

On the 18th, Admiral Porter sailed from Beaufort with all the monitors and
smaller vessels, and was joined at the rendezvous, twenty miles east of New
Inlet, on the North Carolina coast, by the larger war vessels and by the trans-
ports which had there assembled. The next day another heavy gale set in,
which lasted two days. This somewhat scattered the fleet, but a calm succeeded,
with weather so favorable, that at length the propitious time seemed to have
arrived.

A novel experiment was, however, to be first made : a powder magazine was to
be exploded, so close to the fort that it was thought by many that the fort
itself would be leveled to the ground, or that the magazines of the fort would
be ignited, and that thus the rebels and all their works would be swept from
the earth. A vessel called the Louisiana, which had been brought from Nor-
folk, loaded with an immense charge of powder, and carefully fitted with long
fuses and machinery, was to do this deadly work. On the night of the
23d, she was towed by another steamer close in shore, so near that the guns
in the casemates of Fort Fisher could be distinguished from her deck. The
rebels, mistaking her for a blockade runner, welcomed her with the usual sig-
nals, and the brave little party having her in charge lighted their fuses and
fires in the cabins almost in sight of the garrison. They then took to their
small boat, and escaped to the vessel which had towed the powder boat to the
shore. An hour after, the explosion followed, but the result was by no means
what was hoped for. The enemy was somewhat stunned for a time, but little
real damage was done.

In the meantime the fleet remained at a distance of twelve miles from the
bar, and the transports an equal distance down the coast, but with orders to
stand in shore as soon as the noise of the explosion should be heard. A care-
fully prepared plan had been distributed to each commander of a vessel and
early in the morning they were to take their places accordingly, and to open fire
as each got its assigned position. The whole fleet, consisting of about fifty
vessels, was formed in three divisions, each with its reserve close at hand, and
all plaoed upon the radius of a circle about a mile from the fort. At 11.30 the
New Ironsides took its position and at once opened fire, followed by the Monad-



NORTH ATLANTIC SQUADRON. 271

nock, Canonicus and Mahopao. At first the enemy replied briskly, but as the
larger vessels were followed by the others, each adding to the deadliness of the
fire, his guns were served with less vigor, and, in an hour and a quarter after
the first shot was fired, the fort relapsed into silence. The effect within the
fort of such a concentrated fire must have been fearful. Two of the magazines
were blown up, and shot and shell so rained upon the garrison that no living
thing could stand it. The bravest would have been forced to take refuge in the
bomb-proofs. A moderate fire was continued for three hours after the enemy
had ceased to reply, but the army transports not having arrived, the fleet retired
for the night to a safe anchorage.

During this day's operations, a few of the vessels were struck, and one or two
were severely injured, but they were of the smaller and less serviceable class.
Much damage, however, was done by the bursting of large guns in the fleet.
No less than six of the one-hundred pound Parrots thus exploded, killing and
wounding a large number of ofiScers and men. The next day was Christmas,
and all the transports had come in. After consultation with General Weitzel,
oa the part of General Butler, a plan of operations was decided upon. The
forts were to be attacked again by the navy, while the army should be landed
and an assault made. A hundred small boats were to assist in landing the
troops. At seven o'clock on the 25th, signal was made to get under way, and the
vessels proceeded to take position as before, which they did promptly and in
the best order. Again the terrible rain fell around and over the fort, but this
day little reply was made from the fort. The landing of the troops was
begun about five miles further up the beach, and was quite unopposed. Three
thousand men were put ashore, and a reconnoisance made of the neighborhood
of the works. One soldier even went inside the fort ; an orderly with dispatches
was captured, and the flag-staff, which had been shot down, was brought away ;
but the enemy kept himself so close that scarce a human being was to be seen.

Two light batteries and a few men were captured. But General Butler
decided that the fort was substantially uninjured as a place of defence; that so
soon as the fire of the fleet should be withdrawn the enemy would be as strong
as ever, and that only a regular siege, for which he was not prepared, could
reduce the works. He therefore decided to withdraw the troops to the trans-
ports again. This he did, and the next morning the army returned to Fortress
Monroe. The war vessels in the meantime remained, keeping up a slow but
constant fire, hoping to tire out the enemy or to dismount their guns.

On the 29th of December, the Secretary of the Navy again addressed General
Grant, at the suggestion of the President, asking that a new and more formi-
dable attempt might be made by the army ; telling him that the fieet could
maintain itself for the present, prevent the erection of new works, and be ready for
any service which might be required of them. General Grant decided to send
immediately a competent force, under command of Major General A. H. Terry.
He arrived at Beaufort on the 8th of January, and a new plan of operations was
arranged. Two days of stormy weather succeeded, but on the 13th every pre-
paration had been made, and the vessels got under way once more, ranged in
three lines, with the transports in company.

This time the order of attack was different. The New Ironsides went in first,
followed by the monitors, all of which got promptly into position, undisturbed
by the fire from the fort, which opened at 7.30, and at first was quite spirited.



Online LibraryLewis Randolph HamerslyThe records of living officers of the U. S. navy and Marine corps: with a history of naval operations during the rebellion of 1861-5, and a list of the ships and officers participating in the great battles → online text (page 30 of 42)