Reunion Society of Vermont Officers
The Twenty-First Reunion
Oration, by Lieutenant-Colonel Aldace Walker
Vermont, as we all know, is the only New England State without a sea-coast. At the present day maritime affairs attract our interest but little. Yet there was once a time in the history of Vermont, which is perhaps within the memory of some of our guests upon this occasion, when a fleet was built, fitted out and manned within our own borders, and a naval battle of great importance was fought in sight of thousands of our citizens.
In the summer of 1814 the English attempted to invade the United States from Montreal; a force of about 14,000 men under Sir George Prevost was assembled with the purpose of marching southward along the westerly shore of Lake Champlain. The British at that time had also a considerable fleet of armed vessels near the Canada line, commanded by Captain Downie, an officer of distinction. The only opposition which confronted them was a force of 1500 men at Plattsburgh under Brigadier General Macomb. There was nothing in the likeness of a fleet upon the American waters of the lake. The general situation of the war was at the same time extremely serious. The campaign which resulted in the burning of the public buildings at Washington was then in progress. In the north the control of Lake Champlain was the vital point. Having command of its waters the English army could be supported at all points in its southward progress, and could be supplied or reinforced at will. Without it the attempt at invasion could not be expected to succeed. Every nerve was therefore strained upon both sides to create an efficient naval force. The enemy had every advantage at the outset. But Vermont was never laggard in emergencies. The Saratoga, which became the flagship of our squadron, was built at Vergennes, and was launched in forty days from the time when the first tree used in her frame was felled in the forest.
She was a ship carrying twenty-six guns and 212 men. it would, I imagine, be very difficult to find a citizen of Vergennes who would undertake to duplicate the contract at the present time, even with the assistance of the State Reform School. We must remember that there were then no railroad facilities, and the guns, ammunition supplies and equipment of the fleet all had to be brought from the sea-board by wagon. Yet a fleet was assembled in an incredibly short space of time, upon the waters of our placid Lake, consisting, besides the Saratoga, of the brig Eagle, twenty guns; the schooner Ticonderoga, seventeen guns; the sloop Preble, seven guns, and ten gunboats carrying one or two guns each. Our total force was fourteen vessels of war, mounting eighty-six guns, and carrying about 850 officers and men. If the same fleet were to come to anchor off Burlington to-day it would excite considerable astonishment.
The fleet of the enemy was, however, still larger, comprising the flagship Confiance, thirty-seven guns; the brig Linnet, sixteen; the sloops Chubb and Finch of eleven guns each; with twelve gunboats;--in all sixteen vessels, carrying ninety-five guns and about 1,000 officers and men.
Commodore Thomas Macdonough, a young naval officer from Delaware, only twenty-eight years of age, was in command of our little squadron, and at the earliest possible moment it was assembled in Plattsburgh Bay. The British squadron rendezvoused at Isle La Motte, and the action took place on September 11, 1814.
The British army had already advanced to the front of the slight defences of Plattsburgh, and after considerable skirmishing had prepared to storm the works as soon as the naval engagement should commence.
Macdonough meanwhile had anchored his vessels in line across the entrance to the bay, with their broadsides toward the open Lake, form Cumberland Head to the shoals off Crab Island, on which was erected a battery with a single gun. His arrangements are described as having been made with great skill and discretion, including the placing of kedges off each bow of the Saratoga, attached by hawsers which hung under water out of the reach of shot, to which precaution he owed his victory.
As the British fleet appeared around Cumberland Head, bearing down upon the American broadsides in line abreast, being compelled to approach our vessels with bows on, Commodore Macdonough knelt among his men and offered public prayer for the blessing of God. The American vessels opened fire as soon as the enemy were within range, and the English ships returned it with all their available guns. A cock confined in a hen-coop on the Saratoga's deck was released by a shot which shattered the coop, whereupon he flew into the rigging, clapped his wings and crowded (sic) lustily, to the great encouragement of the sailors, who responded with three hearty cheers.
The confiance reserved its fire until about 300 yards from the Saratoga, when it suddenly anchored, swung into line, and fired its full broadside, most deliberately, and with terribly destructive effect. Forty men upon the Saratoga were killed or wounded by that first discharge. The engagement was now at close quarters all along the line, and was exceedingly animated and sanguinary. The Finch presently became disabled, drifted down upon Crab Island, and was captured by the one gun battery, manned by invalids from the hospital. The Chubb struck to the Ticonderoga. But the Saratoga, the chief reliance of our fleet, was out of the combat, all her guns in the starboard battery having been dismounted or disabled, and she was lying abreast of the Confiance, without a single available gun, receiving the fire of her more powerful antagonist. Commodore Macdonough at this moment decided to wind, or turn his ship, and endeavor to bring his larboard battery to bear. With the aid of the kedges previously planted this was successfully accomplished, and the guns upon the other side of the Saratoga one by one opened upon the enemy as the ship swung round, until the uninjured larboard battery was at last in full play. The Confiance attempted the same manoeuvre, but failed, and having fought until she had scarcely a gun remaining that could be used, after a combat of more than two hours at close quarters, she struck her colors to the Saratoga. The Linnet was then engaged by the Saratoga and soon succumbed. The English gunboats in part escaped toward St. Johns. The American loss in killed and wounded was 111. That of the enemy was about 200. The attack by the troops on shore did not succeed, and Sir George Prevost retreated in haste, leaving much of his artillery and supplies.
The battle was undoubtedly one of the most persistent and severe ever known to the annals of naval warfare. An English marine, who was with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, insisted that the latter famous battle was a mere flea bite, in comparison with the battle of Lake Champlain. The masts, yards and sails of the Confiance were so shattered that the former were described as resembling so many bunches of matches, while the sails looked like bundles of rags. The commanders of the captured vessels were brought upon the quarter deck of the Saratoga, and formally surrendered their swords to their youthful conqueror, and "the cup of Macdonough's glory was full."
It is impossible to exaggerate the excitement caused in Vermont by the invasion , or the enthusiasm which was aroused by the almost incredible tidings of the victory. We have heard the story from our fathers and our grandfathers, who were in a moment restored from the greatest fear to the relief of complete deliverance. What has happened once may occur again. It is impossible to infer the absence of interest in naval affairs from the fact of distance from the sea. The inland waters of Lake Erie witnessed the only instance of the complete surrender of an entire English fleet. The relations of our country with the other nations of the world, touching them in every ocean and in every corner of the globe, are of moment to every citizen, and the American flag is honored abroad in large degree as it is supported by American ships-of-war.
I have, therefore, ventured to depart somewhat from the range of subjects usual upon such an occasion as this, and shall ask your attention for a short time to certain matters, historical and otherwise, connected with the past and future of the United States Navy.
The war of 1812 gave to our navy a prestige which clings about it to the present day. its success at that time was really wonderful, considering the small number of its vessels as compared with the immense naval establishment which England has always maintained. Not only in combats by flotillas upon the great Lakes, but in a large number of engagements between single vessels upon the ocean, notably those between the Constitution and the Guerriere, and between the United States and Macedonian, there was evidenced a degree of personal bravery, tenacity ans skill, that won universal admiration and attached the affections of our people most strongly to that branch of the service. Our sea-faring population have never been excelled for hardiness and nautical skill. Until within the last few years a large percentage of the inhabitants our our seaboard States have followed the sea for their livelihood, and our navy has had the best material in the world from which to draw its recruits. In the last war with England there was full opportunity for naval operations of every kind, and every opportunity was employed to the utmost. The names of our vessels became household words, and their commanders were everywhere honored and beloved, from the Penobscot to the Gulf. There was probably never written a poem which struck so universal a responsive chord throughout the land as did those three stanzas of Oliver Wendell Holmes, entitled "Old Ironsides," written at a time when it was proposed to dismantle the famous frigate Constitution, and commencing, "Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!" Every school boy could repeat it, and the electric thrill was never wanting as the concluding words were heard:
"Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail
And give her to the God of storms,
The lightning and the gale!"
Among the most stirring episodes of the war of 1812, was the celebrated cruise of the Essex under Commodore Daniel Porter, the illustrious father of our present Admiral David D. Porter. This good ship of thirty-two guns, after various engagements in the Atlantic Ocean in 1813, became detached from its squadron, and was taken around the Horn to the waters of the Southern Pacific, where for many months it sailed from port to port, and from island to island, taking prize after prize, until English commerce in those parts was almost wholly broken up. It was finally blockaded for several months in the harbor of Valparaiso by two cruises sent out expressly to capture the Essex, with orders that neither should engage her singly.
On March 28, 1814, Captain Porter undertook to run out, but was struck by a squall that carried away his main topmast, ans as the storm prevented his return to the harbor, he was forced to anchor in a small bay near by. here the Cherub and the Phoebe attacked him jointly, and though the result was never doubtful, in fact there never was the slightest chance of saving the ship, barring only accidents that would be called providential, the fiercest defence was maintained for four hours, until she was clearly in a sinking condition, and was surrendered to save the lives of the wounded who covered her decks.
There was a lad of thirteen upon the Essex during the engagement, who afterwards wrote down his recollections of the fight. This boy subsequently came to great personal distinction, but aside from that his words are worth repeating, affording as they do a most vivid representation of actual occurrences in a severe naval battle, which a landsman could not venture to describe.
"During the action," the lads says, "I performed the duties of captain's aid, quarter gunner, powder boy, and in fact did everything that was required of me. I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. He was a boatswain's mate, and was fearfully mutilated. It staggered and sickened me at first; but they soon began to fall around me so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect on my nerves. While I was standing near the captain, just abaft the main mast, a shot came through the waterways and glanced upward, killing four men who were standing by the side of the gun, taking the last one in the head, and scattering his brains over both of us. But this awful sight did not affect me half so much as the death of the first poor fellow. On one occasion Midshipman Isaacs came up and reported that a quarter gunner named Roach had deserted his post. The only reply of the captain, addressed to me, was 'Do your duty, sir.' I seized a pistol and went in pursuit of the fellow, but did not find him. Soon after this some gun-primers were wanted, and I was sent after them. In going below, while I was on the ward room ladder, the captain of the gun directly opposite the hatchway was struck full in the face by an eighteen pound shot and fell back on me. We tumbled down the hatch together. I struck on my head, and he, fortunately, fell on my hips. I say fortunately, for as he was a man of at least 200 pounds weight I would have been crushed to death if he had fallen directly across my body. I lay for some moments stunned by the blow, but soon recovered consciousness enough to rush upon deck. The captain seeing me covered with blood, asked if I was wounded, to which I replied, 'I believe not, sir.' 'Then,' said he, 'where are the primers?' This brought me to my senses and I ran below again, and carried the primers upon deck. When I came up again I saw the captain fall, and in my turn ran up and asked if he was wounded. He answered me in almost the same words, 'I believe not, my son, but I felt a blow on the top of my head.'
"When my services were not required for other purposes, I generally assisted in working a gun; would run and bring powder from the boys and send them back for more, until the captain wanted me to carry a message. When it was determined that we must surrender, the captain sent me to ascertain if Mr. ---- had the signal book, and if so to throw it overboard. I could not find him or the book for some time, but at last saw the latter lying on the sill of a port, and dashed it into the sea. Isaacs and I amused ourselves throwing overboard pistols and other small arms, to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. At length the boarding officer came on board and running up to Captain Porter, asked him how he would account for allowing his men to jump overboard, and at the same time demanded his sword. 'That, sir,' replied Porter, 'is reserved for your master.' The captain went on board the Phoebe, and I followed half an hour later.
"During the action an old quartermaster was standing at the wheel, when I saw a shot coming over the foreyard in such a direction that I thought it would strike him or me; so I told him to jump, at the same time pulling him towards me. At that instant the shot took off his right leg, and I afterwards found that my coat tail had been carried away. I helped the old fellow below, but he died before he could be attended to.
"It was wonderful to find dying men, who had hardly ever attracted notice among the ship's company, uttering sentiments with their last breath, worthy of a Washington. You might have heard in all directions, 'Don't give her up, Logan!--a sobriquet for Porter--'Hurrah for liberty!' and similar expressions. A young Scotchman named Bissley had one leg shot off close to the groin. He used his handkerchief as a tourniquet, and said to his comrades, 'I left my country and adopted the United States to fight for her. I hope I have this day proved worthy of the country of my adoption. I am no longer of any use to you or her, so good-by!' With these words he leaned on the sill of the port, and threw himself overboard.
"I went on board the Phoebe and was ushered into the steerage. I was so mortified at our capture that I could not refrain from tears. While in this uncomfortable state I was aroused by having a young reefer call out, 'A prize, a prize! Ho, boys, a fine youngster, by Jove!' I saw at once that he had under his arm a pet pig belonging to our ship, called Murphy. I claimed the animal as my own. 'Ah, said he, 'but you are a prisoner, and your pig also.' 'We always respect private property,' I replied, and seized hold of Murphy. This was fun for the oldsters, who sung out, 'Go it my little Yankee, if you can thrash Shorty you shall have your pig!' 'Agreed' said I. A ring was soon formed and at it we went. I soon found that my antagonist's pugilistic education did not come up to mine. In fact he was no match for me, and was compelled to give up the pig. So I took master Murphy under my arm, feeling that I had in some degree wiped out the disgrace."
Rather a bright boy for his age, do you think? He was a bright boy. Possibly some may feel interested to know what afterwards became of this lad of thirteen. The question is worth asking. His name graces more than one brilliant page of our country's history. Fifty years after the Essex struck her flag, on August 5th, 1864, a veteran now, of three score years and three, his hair bleached by the frosts of time, his nerves hardened into iron by constant service, a quiet, self-contained, undemonstrative man, yet a Christian hero of the finest mould, he stood lashed to the shrouds of the Hartford in the Bay of Mobile, and his name was David Glasgow Farragut.
The cabin-boy of the Essex had become the command of the finest squadron that ever floated under the stars and stripes. The Brooklyn, being equipped with an apparatus for picking up torpedoes, had been designated to lead the wooden ships, and the flag-ship Hartford was next in line. The monitors were in single column on the right. To each o the large wooden ships was lashed a smaller vessel, so that in case of accident to the machinery or boilers of either, the other cold handle her consort, as well as herself.
At six minutes after seven in the morning the leading vessels came within range of the guns of Fort Morgan, which at once poured in a terrible fire from all its artillery. Soon after the enemy's gunboats also opened, including the dreaded iron-clad ram Tennessee, the master-piece of the naval architects of the Confederacy. Farragut's fleet replied without delay, and the battle was soon ablaze on every hand. Hundreds of the largest guns known to modern science were belching forth their flames and smoke, hurling their immense projectiles across the still waters of the Bay. Suddenly, at half past seven, the leading monitor, the unfortunate Tecumseh, being well up abreast the Fort, was seen through the clouds of smoke to reel and sink with all on board, instantly destroyed by the explosion of a torpedo. The ADmiral, from his lofty perch, where a seaman had cast a line about him and made it fast to the rigging of the ship by direction of Captain Drayton, who feared lest some slight shock to the vessel might precipitate him into the sea, clearly perceived the peril of the situation; his anxiety was intensified when the Brooklyn, just ahead, suddenly stopped and began to back. The Hartford perforce stopped also. The vessels in the rear pressing upon those in the van, soon caused great confusion throughout the line. disaster seemed imminent and certain. "The batteries of our ships were almost silent," says an eye-witness, "while the whole of Mobile Point was a living flame." "What's the trouble?" was shouted through a trumpet from the flag-ship to the Brooklyn. "Torpedoes!" was shouted back in reply. Then rang out the clear determined voice of Farragut from his post above: "Damn the torpedoes! Four bells, Captain Drayton! Go ahead, Jouett, full speed!" Instantly the mighty engines of the Hartford thrilled again with motion, the Metacomet at her side responded promptly to the call, and the two noble vessels swung past the Brooklyn, assumed the head of the line, and led the fleet to victory!
Few at the North understood what had been done when the Department of the Navy designated Farragut to command the squadron, to which was assigned the duty of attempting the capture of the city of New Orleans. His very name was almost unknown. His record was to the public a total blank. Yet when we come to learn his history we find him, in training and experience, the best equipped man that could possibly have been found for that important service. He had spent his life upon the sea. When only nine years and five months old he was appointed a midshipman, or midshipmite. At the age of ten he joined the Essex. When he was twelve so many prizes had been captured by Porter that he had no officers left to place in charge of them, and when the Barclay was taken this child was sent to her as prize-master. Her former captain and mate were left on board to navigate the vessel into Valparaiso, and young Farragut was to control the handful of men sent with him from the Essex. The old captain was disgusted with the arrangement, became furious, talked of taking the ship to New Zealand, and went below for his pistols. The boy called his crew around him, explained to them the situation, notified the captain to stay below unless he wanted to go overboard, gave his orders to the sailors, and took complete command of the ship, which he brought safely into port. I spoke of him as a bright boy just now. He was a wonderful boy, and he became a wonderful man. From that time forward he sailed the waters of the world. He was early in the Mediterranean, where he spent several years, and where he obtained the best of his education from the Rev. Charles Folsom, the Consul at Tunis, and other kind friends. He became proficient in many tongues. He had his first active command in pursuit of pirates in the West Indies in 1823. Afterward he was put in charge of a receiving ship at Norfolk, where he established a school for young naval recruits, which earned him great credit. Then he served for several years off the coast of South America. Later he had a long tour of shore duty at Norfolk and Washington. This was followed by much delicate and exciting service in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, commanding ship after ship, until the close of the Mexican war. He was next detailed to organize the new Navy Yard at San Francisco, which occupied four active years, during which he participated with rare judgment and efficiency, in various official matters connected with the celebrated VIgilance Committee. Then more service at sea, until the outbreak of the Rebellion, which found him just relieved from the command of the Brooklyn, and waiting orders at Norfolk, his adopted home.
Thoroughly loyal to his country he sided with the North at once, though born in Tennessee and connected with Virginia by marriage. His wife, who was buried last Monday at Woodlawn, though a daughter of a prominent Virginian, was always outspoken against slavery.
In April, 1861, Farragut passed through New York city to Hastings, on the Hudson, where he resolved to live in quiet until called upon for active service. He was presently assigned to duty upon a retiring board in Brooklyn, and was engaged in that irksome employment until January, 1862, when suddenly, without a moment's notice, he was appointed to be the Flag Officer in the Department of the Gulf.
Then came his opportunity. The skill and experience that had been wrought out and stored up through all those faithful years found fitting exercise at last. He was a natural and great commander. He was respected and honored by all, and came to be almost venerated by his subordinates, officers and men. Full of thoughtful care for every detail, nothing was overlooked, and his brilliant victories attest that thorough preparation is the only safe assurance of success. When, after his fleet had passed the Mobile forts and had reached the inner harbor, his flag-ship was rammed by the monster Tennessee, and cut down to the water's edge, a general cry arose at once of, "Get the Admiral out of the ship!" "Get the Admiral out of the ship!" illustrating most vividly the care for their commander, which was felt by all on board when they thought themselves in danger. Meanwhile, he was coolly clambering over the vessel's side to see for himself the extent of her injury.
I cannot refrain from quoting briefly from a spirited lyric, written by Paymaster Meredith, who served with him on the Hartford on that eventful day:
Old HEart of Oak!
Daring Dave Farragut,
Watches the heavy mist
Life from the Bay,
till his flag, glory kissed,
Greets the young day.
Lashed to the shrouds that sway
High o'er the deck,
When the white clouds away
roll from the wreck,
Hear his word sternly sent
Through the hot air,
Mark his glance firmly bent
Where the guns glare.
Oh, while old ocean's breast
Bears a white sail,
And God's soft starts to rest
Guide through the gale,
Men will him ne'er forget,
Old heart of oak,
In the days of sailing vessels the United States Navy was in many respects a model institution. Though never of large numbers, care was always taken that each new vessel should be the best in its class. The officers were cultivated. The discipline was high. the noble ships cruised from port to port, challenging the respect and admiration of every nation. They were the pride and reliance of our merchants, travelers and wanderers of every degree, the world around.
The life of naval officers in times of peace is, however, a life of routine and repression. Before the war promotion was invariably by seniority. There were then seventy-eight captains at the head of the list, many of them superannuated and broken down. Several of the commanders were nearly sixty years of age, and many lieutenants were over fifty, very few of whome had ever held command of a vessel, as there were more than two hundred officers above them. The service was full of traditions and formalities, not only in methods of conduct and of action, but in modes of thought as well. Men who might have exhibited personal vigor and magnetism in high degree with suitable opportunities, had been taught simply to obey orders in a limited sphere, and to become like parts of a vast machine, with no resolution or readiness for independent action. The lower grades of the service were deficient in numbers, while the higher ranks had become overcrowded, so that when more than three hundred of the naval officers had sided with the South, it became a very serious matter to find proper commanders for the new vessels of all kinds that were soon brought into service. Even lads from the naval school were given independent commands. Volunteer officers in great numbers were enlisted from the merchant service. The use of ordnance was to these men unknown, and the regular officers, of course, filled the most important positions; but the merchant captains and mates, and especially the steamboat men and pilots on the great rivers of the West, became known as among the most efficient officers of the corps. The sailors also had to be recruited, organized and drilled, so that the development of the Navy of the Civil War was slow.
The vessels were at that time largely of old models, and in part only propelled by steam. New ships of all classes were required, and their construction was pushed with great energy throughout the war. There were ninety names on the Naval Register in 1861, including fifty sailing ships of the older type, headed by the frigate Constitution, many of them of use only as receiving ships, and several of which had never been launched from the stocks. The Navy Department under Buchanan's administration had been inactive, and as is well known those vessels of the squadron that were available for service had been scattered all over the world, with an apparent purpose to place them beyond the ready call of the new administration.
With the navy thus constituted it was, almost at the outset, called upon to undertake the active blockade of the largest coast line ever covered by cruisers. The wonder is not that it was done so well, but that it was done at all. On April 19, 1861, six days after the fall of Sumter, a proclamation was issued by President Lincoln declaring the blockade, which embraced 3,000 miles of coast from Virginia to the Rio Grande. At this time the Department possessed only thirty-five available modern vessels, and of them only three steam vessels were in the home ports.
Yet the recognized rule of international law required that "blockades to be binding must be effective, that is to say maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy." Of course the blockade of the Southern States was put into effect gradually, and from point to point as vessels could be provided. The scattered fleets were brought home. New vessels of all descriptions were purchased, from ocean steamships to ferry-boats and tugs. Every navy yard and private ship yard at the North was set at work. At the end of the first six months the blockade had become legally efficient beyond cavil, and at the end of the second year it was so stringent that it could be passed only by vessels specially adapted for the purpose. During the war 1,149 prizes were brought in, and 355 other vessels were burned, sunk or driven on shore by our cruisers. In the last year of the war the blockade throughout the entire seaboard of the South was as efficient as it is possible for such an operation to become. The fleet numbered 671 vessels, many of them monitors and iron-clads; there were 7,600 officers and 50,000 seamen in the service; there was complete efficiency and supremacy in every quarter.
In naval matters our civil war was the most progressive of modern times. The use of the heavy rifled gun had been recently introduced; and was developed day by day. Armored vessels were required to withstand the new ordnance, and were built accordingly. The ram was introduced as a factor in naval battles, a consequence upon the employment of steam as a motive power, making a weapon of the ships themselves before which many an adversary went down. The torpedo was invented, and developed by practical tests, employed especially by the rebels who were driven to its use by their deficiency in other naval resources. Thus the whole system of naval warfare underwent the greatest changes. The officers of the frigates which sailed so proudly and fought so nobly in the last was with England would have been completely at fault if called upon to command such a fleet or such vessels as captured Port Royal and New Orleans, or to pick their way amid the bayous and cypress swamps of the Valley of the Mississippi.
What is known as the Monitor was a direct invention of the war, and revolutionized the naval architecture of the globe. it was evolved from the necessity of our situation. It was a master stroke of inventive genius. THe problem presented was to create a ship propelled by steam, that should be armed with the most efficient guns that could be made, and should also be impervious to hostile shot, from fleets or fortifications.
The immediate necessity that called for its production arose from the fact that one of our best steam frigates, the Merrimac, by carelessness or treachery had been allowed to fall into the hands of the rebels at Norfolk, scuttled it is true, but easily raised and almost uninjured. It was well known that she was being converted into an iron-clad of great power and strength; in fact it was the plan and hope of the rebels that she would prove invulnerable. Her masts were removed, she was covered by an iron casemate sloping like the roof of a house, and so heavy as to be practically impenetrable; she had a powerful engine, a tremendous battery, and a cast iron ram beneath her bow. Meanwhile our fleet at Fortress Monroe was of old-fashioned wooden vessels only, though some of them had been regarded as the highest specimens of men-of-war afloat in the days before the war. It took only a few hours one afternoon to prove that they were of no value whatsoever in the face of the shipbuilding introduced by the improved methods of modern times. A new era in warfare upon the sea was about to open.
While the rebels were preparing their iron-clad, our government was diligently engaged in building a suitable antagonist. As is well said by Prof. Soley, to whose interesting little volume, entitled "The Blockade and the Cruisers," I am largely indebted for the facts I am giving, the war for the moment was being carried on, not at Hampton Roads, but at Norfolk and Brooklyn, and the victory was to depend not only upon the bravery of the officers and seamen, but upon the speed of the mechanics. The Confederates had a long start in the race. Nothing was done at Washington until the extra session of Congress, which voted an appropriation, had been followed by the red-tape and routine of bureaus and boards; and the contract for the Monitor, to be built upon Ericsson's plans, was not signed until October 4, while the rebels had been at work upon the Merrimac since early in July. But when the building of the Monitor was determined upon the work was pushed as for life. The workmen labored in three gangs of eight hours each, night and day. The thrifty contract under which she was built required her completion in one hundred days, for the price of $275,000, to be forfeited in case she should prove unable to withstand the fire of the enemy's batteries at the shortest ranges.
John A. Griswold and John F. Winslow, of Troy, N.Y., having faith in Captain Ericsson's invention, guaranteed the contract, and personally put their shoulders to the wheel in the construction of the novel vessel.
In form she consisted of a small hull, on which was carried a large iron raft, from which arose in the centre a revolving turret. An iron pilot-house also stood upon the deck in front of the turret, which proved the weak point in the vessel and was afterwards abandoned in subsequent vessels of the Monitor plan. The ship was heavily armored at all points. In the turret were two immense eleven inch Dahlgren guns. From her peculiar construction she was very unsafe at sea, for her heavy armored deck projected its raft-like structure on all sides far beyond the hull, and the waves beating against it from beneath as it overhung the water, racked it disastrously with their mighty strain, while the low smoke pipes and ventilating shafts shipped the sea in great quantities. In fact it was a matter of extreme doubt whether she could live to reach Fortress Monroe, and if she sank she would probably go down like a mass of lead, with all on board. All this was well understood by Lieutenant Worden and his crew. It required courage and devotion of the highest order to attempt to take this untried experimental vessel upon a dangerous ocean voyage, saying nothing of the ordeal by battle sure to follow speedily if they should succeed in reaching the waters of the James.
The Monitor sailed from New York on Thursday afternoon, March 6, in tow of a tug-boat. The mechanics had hardly ceased their work, and little time had been found for practising the crew in the management of their novel craft with its complicated mechanism. On Friday morning a wind arose which presently freshened to a gale. The sea poured in floods through the air holes and around the turret. The blowing apparatus failed, the engine room filled with coal gas, and the engineers and firemen, laboring to repair the machinery, were taken unconscious from the floor. Heading towards the shore, smoother water was presently reached, but at midnight a heavy head sea was struck, and the violence of the waves seemed about to wrench the raft from the hull. Water poured in on every hand, the engine failed, the steering apparatus was disabled, and the vessel became wholly unmanageable; but the tow-rope held, and after a night of disaster and almost hopeless fear, morning found the exhausted crew still able to repair the damaged vessel and push on for Cape Henry. At nine in the evening of Saturday, March 8, the Monitor anchored beside the flag-ship of what was left of the squadron in Hampton Roads.
On the afternoon of that very day the dreaded Merrimac had come down from Norfolk. The Congress and the Cumberland, old-fashioned sailing frigates, were lying off newport News. The Roanoke and Minnesota, sister ships of the Merrimac, but without armor, lay below Fortress Monroe. Other smaller vessels were at hand, but the Merrimac moved about among them with complete impunity, the shot rebounding like pebbles from her iron sides, while her tremendous ordnance carried destruction through our wooden fleet. Accompanied by two gunboats she first made for the two ships at anchor in the upper harbor. Passing under the full broadside of the congress without harm, she drove directly for the Cumberland, plunging her ram into the latter's side, and as she drew back from the blow the water rushed in and the ship went slowly down. The gunners kicked off their shoes and stripped to the waist, firing round after round at the iron-clad, continuing the fight with the energy of desperation, until the water reached the gun deck, the ship keeled over, officers and men jumped overboard for their lives, and the Cumberland sank to her top-mast, with the ensign still flying at her peak. The Congress, seeing no other chance to escape, was run aground, where she was presently raked fore and aft by the Merrimac and the gunboats; the affair becoming a wholesale slaughter she was given up and was set on fire by the rebels. The Minnesota attempted to steam up from the fort but grounded a mile and a half from the scene of action, and was presently attacked in her turn,. Fortunately, by reason of that action, the Merrimac could not get near enough to the Minnesota to cripple her, and she beat off the gunboats after two or three hours of fighting. The Roanoke was disable by a broken shaft. The old St. Lawrence also went aground while trying to reach the battle field, and at nightfall the Merrimac withdrew, confident of completing the destruction of the remainder of the fleet upon the morrow.
But as we have seen, the little Monitor arrived that evening. Hearing the guns as she came between the capes, she stripped for action. Another sleepless night was spent in preparing for the fight. At half past seven on Sunday morning, the Merrimac again appeared, and made at once for the Minnesota. Worden put the Monitor in motion, reserving her fire until close to his antagonist. We may imagine the surprise of those upon the Merrimac when one of the 11 inch Dahlgrens from the little turret on the raft hurled a 168 pound shell against the mighty iron-clad. The battle was now opened in deadly earnest between the pigmy and the giant. Musket balls, canister, grape, shell and solid shot swept over the Monitor's deck, all equally harmless. Five times the vessels were in collision as they sought to run each other down. The turret of the Monitor became jammed so that it could not be revolved, and the ship was fought by Worden from the pilot house, the guns being pointed by the vessel's helm.
After hauling off for a time to hoist more shot into the turret, the fight was renewed at half past eleven. Soon after a shell struck an opening in the pilot house through which Worden was looking; the concussion fractured the iron logs of which the pilot-house was built, and both blinded and stunned the gallant officer. The quartermaster who was with him was also dazed by the blow. It was some minutes before Greene, the second officer, came from the turret, finding Worden at the food of the ladder, his face black and bleeding. Greene instantly leaped to the wheel, and the vessel, which had been steaming at random meanwhile, once more faced toward the enemy. After two or three more rounds the Merrimac suddenly withdrew and retired post haste to Norfolk. To have pursued her would have involved too great a risk; to have saved the position and the fleet was glory enough. After a few weeks the Merrimac again came out, but did not engage the Monitor and was presently burned at her dock to prevent her capture.
No event of th was was more dramatic. No naval battle was ever more far reaching in its consequences. It changed as if by magic the situation in Hampton Roads. It revolutionized naval ships and methods.
The success of the Monitor upon this occasion was due as much to the personal character of John L. Warden as to the novel construction of his ship. Leaving a sick bed to assume command, he carried his craft through her first sea voyage, reaching the demoralized fleet after two sleepless nights, only to find the whole weight of the crisis upon him. He almost instantly took his untried vessel and his newly recruited crew into a desperate engagement with an adversary of comparatively enormous size and strength. The close of the engagement saw the fleet saved and the harbor reconquered.
We can understand something of what manner of man he was from a letter which was sent to him the following month as he lay in Washington disabled by his wounds. It was dates on the Monitor, April 24, 1862, and reads in part, as follows:
"To our Dear and Honored Captain:
Dear Sir:--These few lines is from your own crew of the Monitor, with their kindest love to you their honored Captain, hoping to God that they will have the pleasure of welcoming you back to us again soon, for we are already, able and willing to meet death or anything else, only give us back our Captain again. Dear Captain, we have got your pilot house fixed and all ready for you when you get well again. * * * * * * We are waiting very patiently to engage our antagonist, if we could only get a chance to do so. The last time she came out we all though we would have the pleasure of sinking her. But we all got disappointed for we did not fire one shot, and the Norfolk papers says we are cowards in the Monitor--and all we want is a chance to show them where it lies. With you for our Captain, we can teach them who is cowards. * * * * * But we all join in with our kindest love to you, hoping that God will restore you to us again, and hoping that your sufferings is at end now, and we are all so glad to hear that your eyesight will be spaired (sic) to you again. We would wish to write more to you if we have your kind permission to do so, but at present we all conclude by tendering to you our kindest love and affection, to our dear and honored Captain,
We remain until death,
Your affectionate crew,
The Monitor Boys."
During the next winter the Monitor started for Beaufort, again in tow. Once more the wind arose, and as Cape Hatteras was passed the gale was upon her in its fury. She was presently leaking fast and full of water from above. Being brought alongside the tug, the crew were with great difficulty rescued one by one, all but a few poor fellows, who dazed and terrified could not be persuaded to leave the turret--and suddenly the historic vessel disappeared forever.
The conduct of the war upon the water is a totally different matter from warfare upon the land. The ocean is itself a source of danger and fear, with its rocks and shoals, its fogs, and storms and howling tempests. But when a battle is on foot we may consider from the sailor's lot what true courage is. To the soldier it is at least open at the last extremity to run away. Few veterans can be found who will not readily admit that on some occasions this privilege was enjoyed. But the sailor can never leave his ship. If she goes down under the enemy's guns, all on board go with her. If she sails across the dreaded torpedo line she carries all her crew. There is no cover to be found upon her deck. There is no hospital in the rear. There are steam boilers and powder magazines which may explode. Fire is a constant danger. an unlucky shot, striking machinery, rudder, or even tiller rope, may leave all hands any instant at the mercy of the foe. And in case of any calamitous event the solid earth is replaced by yawning waves. Yet seamen upon ships of war apparently know no fear. They fight until the ship goes down, and their education tells them that such persistence is not mere idle gallantry, for in naval battles the game is not over until the last gun is fired. A chance shot at any moment may recover the day and gain the victory.
Perhaps we may better understand the hardihood and daring developed by this life upon the sea by recalling the story of how Lieutenant Cushing destroyed the Albemarle. This vessel was a powerful ram, built i the Roanoke River, upon the general plan of the Merriman. Through the Spring and Summer of 1864, she moved about the sounds and rivers of North Carolina at her will. She sank the Northfield, blew up the Sassacus, scattered a fleet of seven vessels in a general engagement, and almost drove our naval officers to despair. Finally, Lieutenant William B. Cushing received permission to attempt her destruction. he was then twenty-one years old, and was in command of the Monticello. He was six feet high, slender, graceful, poetic, humorous. He was skilled to plan and audacious to execute. He went to New York, where he procured a small steam launch carrying fifteen men. Having rigged a large torpedo at the end of a pole on the bow of his little boat he started up the river one dark night. Let him tell his own story of what followed:
"The launch made for the enemy under full head of steam. The enemy sprung rattles, rang the bell and commenced firing. The light of a bonfire on shore showed me the iron-clad made fast to her wharf, with a pen of logs around her about thirty feed from her side. Turning nearly a circle in order to ensure coming squarely upon the logs, the enemy's musketry fire by this time was very severe. Three bullets struck my clothing, and the air seemed full of them. In a moment we had struck the logs, breasting them in some feet, and our bow resting upon them. The torpedo boom was lowered and by a vigorous pull I succeeded in driving the torpedo under the overhang, and exploded it at the same time that the Albemarle's heavy gun was fired."
Of course the launch was blown in pieces by the explosion of its own torpedo and the enemy's shell; the crew sprang into the water and swam for their lives. Cushing was in the river until morning and finally got to the shore too weak to crawl out of the water. he spent a day and a night in the swamps, and at last found his way back to the fleet; when he wrote to his superior officer: "I have the honor to report that the rebel iron-clad Albemarle is at the bottom of Roanoke River."
Try for a moment to realize the picture as it has been drawn by an abler pen than mine, of that cool, determined youth, standing erect in the bow of his little launch, coming out of the darkness into the glare of the fire on shore, which threw its lights and shadows on the scene, illuminating the slender, graceful figure as he steadily kept his boat upon her course, amid the enemy's shower of rifle balls, pressing her, hard on, against the mammoth Albemarle, until he placed the torpedo with his own hands precisely where he wished it, exploded it himself at the exact moment to win success--and at the same instant received at the cannon's mouth the blast of a hundred pound rifled gun!
The scientific progress of modern times had almost totally transformed naval warfare. Contrast the trim frigate of 1830, beautiful in her lines, graceful in her motion, spreading her white sails to catch the inconstant breeze, with the ugly, though massive iron castle of 1880, presenting to the eye nothing more than an immense hulk surmounted by a sloping roof sustained by more sharply sloping sides, propelled by mighty engines, built upon two considerations only, impregnability and domination. Even in the implements of war employed the change is almost equally radical. The brass howitzers and iron twenty-four and thirty-two pound guns of 1812, supplemented by horse pistols, boarding pikes and cutlasses, have given place to machinery, under the glare of the electric light, and hurling projectiles weighing nearly half a ton, supported by revolving Gatling guns, and breach loading and repeating rifles i the tops. Only the other day there was a serious naval encounter in China. The Chinese flag-ship, a first-class English-built steam frigate of 2,000 tons, was sunk in ten minutes after she opened fire, by a swift cigar shaped boat fifty feet long, armed only with a torpedo on her bowsprit; while a single Hotchkiss gun, or mitrailleuse, upon another French vessel, at once drove every man from the decks of her stronger antagonist.
Clearly the days of the navy, as it was, are numbered. We shall hear no more of such duels on the sea as that between the Serapis and Bon Homme Richard, or the Shannon and Chesapeake, with the immortal "Don't give up the ship" of Lawrence as he fell a-dying. The brilliant combat in 1864, between the Alabama and Kearsarge, was perhaps the last of those even-handed contests, where skill and endurance struggle for supremacy until one or the other of the ships is left a wreck and charnel house upon the deep. Now the central idea of naval bureaus is to so construct their ships and devise their armor and their armament that they shall crush their way to success by sheer weight of metal.
How does our country stand in the light of the progress of the present day? Practically nowhere. We are left in the rear so absolutely that we are substantially out of sight. It may be said that we have wonderful energies as a nation, and in case of war could soon prepare the vessels necessary for protection or attack. We may be reminded of our feat in the war of the Rebellion, when from almost nothing a powerful navy was presently developed, adequate for all demands of the occasion. But certain things are here to be remembered. First, though we were weak at the outset of the war, the South was weaker still, having almost no ships or navy yards; second, the merchant marine from which we drew so largely then would be useless in any war with a foreign power to-day; and third, modern ships of war are two years or more in building; so that before we cold fairly commence our preparations, every Atlantic port would be at the mercy of the foe.
Civil war will not again return. We may hope that war with a foreign power may never again be visited upon our country, but we can not know. So long as international rivalries exist, so long the chance for international collision is open. Even the seemingly inferior kingdom of Spain may some day challenge our armed hostility. Several times events have taken place upon our Southern borders and in the waters of the Gulf, which might easily have drifted into open warfare. And if war were to be declared with Spain it is much more than a probability that before we could organize any substantial defence, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, even Washington would be destroyed. Great Britain, too, with which we assume ourselves to be tied by bonds of peaceful kinship, never hesitates to resent infractions of her rights, or to take selfish positions arrogantly, especially against clearly weaker countries. We may yet again see what our country has twice already seen, a war with England, the greatest naval power upon the globe.
There is much for a nay to do in times of peace, but not so much that large establishments would be maintained for such uses only. for our country as it is to-day, the true standpoint from which to consider the subject of the United States navy is that of necessary national defence in the event of foreign war. And this is no imaginary danger. It is not the part of wisdom to repose upon the apparent security of our commercial habits and the confidence begotten by the knowledge of our own peaceful intentions. Jealousy of our national progress is widespread and active. Sooner or later the untoward complication will arise, when arbitrations and interventions will fail, and grim-visaged war will frown once more; when
"The paths of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand, shall range
With conscience wide as hell!"
It was Washington who said: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual ways of preserving peace." It is one of the most effectual ways of preserving peace." It is a false economy to attempt to stand upon a different plane from that occupied by other nations. We can not hope to bring them to our condition of practical disarmament. Sometime, we may rely upon it, an attempt will be made to punish us for our assumption of international security that seems to criticise their methods. Then where shall we stand, and what will be the result?
"War," it is said, "was formerly an instinct; now it is a science." To master a science requires labor and time. With a war upon us there is no time to study, scarcely time to think. Probably we ought not to attempt to maintain our naval service upon a par with the world's leading naval powers; we do not live under a system of government based upon force and regulated by repression; but the question is, how far behind the other nations can we safely lag?
We must, therefore, concede that the navy is a national necessity. As has been recently well and truly said by Secretary Chandler: "It must be maintained continuously for two purposes; to avert war by making it costly and dangerous for an opponent; and to wage war when it can not be averted." There should be at least a national fleet sufficient to "keep alive the knowledge of war," to which some constant employment must be given in time of peace in order to maintain its discipline and efficiency; employment in the line of its profession and as useful as may be. And the knowledge of war that must be fostered is a knowledge of modern war, as truly and thoroughly scientific as anything to be learned in our universities and institutes of technology.
We have scarcely the elements of such a naval force upon the sea to-day. for a long term of years after the peace of 1865, it was our naval policy to disorganize and disarm. Seamen were discharged; officers were retired; vessels were sold at auction; navy yards were dismantled. The remaining ships of war and monitors were many of them laid up to decay. The fleet at last reached such a condition of decrepitude that it was justly a subject of ridicule not only abroad but at home as well. "Having taught the nations that wooden ships could no longer rule the wave, they hastened to throw aside their splendid three-deckers and equipped themselves with ships of steel; while we still paddle about in the battered relics of the war, unable to withstand collision with ordinary coasting schooners, and repose upon the barren honor of the intervention of the monitor.
There are now two general classes into which modern naval vessels are divided: "Harbor-protectors" and "commerce-destroyers." The example of the alabama shows what is meant by a commerce destroyer. The iron-clad leviathans of the English navy are the most efficient harbor protectors known. Our navy has neither class in the modern understanding and with modern capabilities. We have several fine steam frigates, it is true--of which the Kearsarge is one of the best; but their speed is from ten to twelve knots an hour at the outside, and instead of being "commerce-destroyers," there are large numbers of modern passenger boats afloat, like the Oregon and the Alaska, the America and City of Rome, greyhounds of the sea, which not only could sail round our frigates with impunity, but if armed with a few modern guns could run them down, capture them, sink them with perfect ease.
So with our methods of defence. The Chief of Engineers reports that there is not one of our harbors that has any defence by way of modern fortifications against even an enemy of very inferior character. The Admiral of the Navy reports that it is universally admitted that we have no navy either for offence or defence; that we are in fact in as bad a condition as we were at the breaking out of the civil war, when we could only conform to the law of nations in attempting to blockade the Southern ports by "buying up every old ferryboat and rattle-trap that could mount a gun."
Of course these sweeping censures passed by officers and bureaus are intended to be comparative, and are not to be understood as meaning that our country is literally destitute of a navy. There are five small fleets at sea, known as the North Atlantic Station; the South Atlantic Station; the European Station; the Pacific Station, and the Asiatic Station. These little squadrons are composed of from three to five vessels each, the character of which may be seen from the fact that the Hartford, the Richmond, and other vessels of the war of twenty years ago, are still in service3, and are the flagships of the fleets to-day. There are also a few vessels employed on occasional or special service, four or five single turreted monitors, and one new double-turreted monitor, the Miantonomah.
Within the last two or three years the navy has received much attention from Congress. Under the acts of Aug. 5, 1882, and Mar. 3, 1883, after careful investigation by the Naval Advisory Board, the department has entered upon a plan of gradual construction of modern vessels of the latest types, which in the opinion of all who have examined the subject, is now the dictate of the wisest economy.
Four new double turreted monitors are being built. They are all launched and may perhaps be completed during 8185. They are named the Puritan, Terror, Amphritrite and Monadnock. There are larger ships upon different plans in the European navies, but these compare most favorably with the best English and French vessels of similar character and purpose. The Puritan will probably come as near being impregnable and invincible as any ship of war afloat. She is to carry four ten and a half inch breech-loading rifled guns, with hydraulic apparatus, four Hotchkiss guns, four Gatling guns, an electric light and a torpedo outfit, and will be speeded to over thirteen knots an hour, with special adaptation for use as a modern ram. When these four vessels are completed we shall be provided with floating harbor defences, sufficient perhaps for present demands.
In addition to the foregoing there are in course of construction four other ships of war, unarmored, but built of steel, designed for ocean service. They are to be named the Chicago, a 4500 ton cruiser, the Boston and Atlanta, 3000 ton cruisers, and the Dolphin of about 1500 tons, called a despatch boat. The Dolphin is now just completed and is expected to serve as a model for future high speed commerce-destroyers. The Chicago will be one of the finest cruising and fighting ships of war in the whole world. She is intended to represent the maximum of unarmored fighting efficiency, with the qualities of speed, endurance, battery power and hardiness, carried to their highest development. The Boston and Atlanta will take the place of second rate ships of the Hartford class. And of course as the vessels of the present fleet deteriorate and go out of service, it will be the part of prudence and necessity to replace them by near cruisers of improved plans and consonant with the principles of modern service, large and small according to their several uses. There are now thirty-two unarmored cruising vessels in commission. They have abundant service to keep them constantly employed.
In all the wars in which the European nations are constantly engaged, if on a large scale or a small one, from the Mediterranean to the China sea, American life, property and interests are in frequent jeopardy, and protection must be provided. And there are peaceful as well as warlike uses for our navy. Explorations, soundings, surveys, the government of Alaska and its innumerable islands, the support of our diplomatic policy in all quarters of the globe, the protection and advancement of American commerce, and the maintenance of our National honor in every sea, require constant naval demonstration and activity.
It is believed that under the present administration the United States is recovering from the lethargy, torpor and decay of the previous twenty years. It is surely to be hoped that under the next administration no discredit will be thrown upon the advances in naval matters inaugurated by the last, or upon the proud record of a hundred years gone by.