Civil War battles: Captain Farragut on the Mississippi

In August, 1861, an expedition was sent to Hatteras Inlet, by which Fort Hatteras was captured. In November of the same year a powerful land and naval force was sent to the coast of South Carolina. This assailed Port Royal Harbor, forced the surrender of the forts, and captured the post. It proved an important conquest, from its giving the North a convenient naval depot on the Southern coast, and the control of the richly-fertile Sea-Island district. Fort Pulaski, one of the defences of Savannah, was also captured, and that city closely blockaded, while several coast cities in Florida were occupied. About the same time the English mail-steamer Trent was overhauled by Captain Wilkes of the sloop-of-war San Jacinto, and Mason and Slidell, two Confederate commissioners to Europe, were forcibly taken from her. This unwarranted affair, which was at first sustained by the government, caused danger of war between the United States and England, which was avoided by a somewhat ungracefully performed acknowledgment of error and surrender of the prisoners. The United States was clearly in the wrong, but circumstances rendered it difficult to admit it immediately, in face of the enthusiastic popular endorsement of the action.

In March, 1862, the port of New-Berne, in North Carolina, was captured by the fleet, and in April Fort Macon, commanding the entrance to Beaufort harbor, was taken. Roanoke Island was also occupied. These successes gave control of the whole coast of North Carolina, and aided greatly in making the blockade effective. The next naval operation was directed against the lower Mississippi, with the eventual object of the capture of New Orleans. Vigorous efforts had been made by the Confederates to render this stream impassable, by the erection of strong forts and batteries, the arming of gunboats, and the building of iron-clad vessels, which were to be superior in strength to the Merrimack. Two large steam-ships of this class were being prepared, of about fourteen hundred tons each, to be strongly plated, and each mounted with twenty of the heaviest guns. One only of these, the Louisiana, was completed in time to take part in the subsequent battle. Powerful rams and fire-rafts were also prepared, while the navigation of the river was obstructed by six heavy chains, carried across the stream on a line of dismasted schooners. This was placed about a mile below the forts. The story of the succeeding events, which partly negatived the lesson taught by the exploits of the Merrimack, and proved that wooden vessels might, under certain circumstances, successfully encounter iron-plated ones.

THE month of April closed gloriously for the national cause in the Valley of the Mississippi; for it gave the Union army New Orleans, the most important city of the Southern Confederacy, and thus made certain to the Union the final possession of the entire river.

Captain Farragut, with a fleet of gunboats, and Porter, with a mortar-fleet, had long since left our Northern waters for some unknown point. Much anxiety had been felt for its success; and when at length news was received that it had left Ship Island, where it was known to have rendez-voused, for New Orleans, accompanied by a land-force under Butler, great fears were entertained of its ability to force the formidable barriers that blocked the river below the city.

Two forts, Jackson and St. Philip, nearly opposite each other, the former very strong and casemated, the two mounting in all two hundred and twenty-five guns, commanded the approach. In addition to these, a heavy chain had been stretched across the channel, buoyed upon schooners, and directly under the fire of the batteries, so that any vessels attempting to remove it could be sunk. There were, besides, heavily-mounted iron-clad gunboats, ponderous rams, before whose onset the strongest ship would go down, and fire-rafts and piles of drift-wood, ready to be launched on our advancing vessels. It was believed by the rebels that nothing that ever floated could safely pass all these obstructions; but should some few by a miracle succeed, bands of young men were organized in New Orleans to board them at all hazard and capture them.

Such were the obstacles that presented themselves to Farragut and Porter as they, in the middle of April, slowly steamed up the mighty river.

It was laborious work getting the fleet over the bars at the mouth of the Mississippi, and up the rapid stream, to the scene of action, for the mortar-boats were not steamers. Weeks were occupied in it, and the North almost began to despair of hearing any good report of the expedition, and eventually it was quite lost sight of in the absorbing news from the upper Mississippi and the Tennessee. But, though shut out from the world, its gallant commanders were quietly but energetically preparing for the herculean task assigned them.

Six war-steamers, sixteen gunboats, twenty-one mortar-vessels, with five other national vessels, among them the Harriet Lane, Porter's flag-ship, making in all nearly fifty armed vessels, constituted the entire force. It was a formidable fleet, but it had formidable obstacles to overcome.

On the 18th the bombardment commenced, and the first day nearly two thousand shells were thrown into the forts. Some burst beyond them, others in mid-air, and some not at all, while hundreds fell with a thundering crash inside the works, cracking the strongest casemates in their ponderous descent. On one side of the river the mortarvessels lay near some trees on the bank, and the men dressed the masts in green foliage to conceal their position. Decked out as for a Christmas festival, they could not be distinguished at the distance of the forts from the trees, so that the enemy had only the smoke that canopied them for a mark to aim at. On the other side, tall reeds fringed the banks, and the vessels in position there were covered with rushes and flags and daubed with Mississippi mud, which sadly confused the artillerists in the forts. The exact distance from the spot where they lay anchored, to the forts, had been determined by triangulation, conducted by the Coast Survey party under Captain Gurdes. The surveys to accomplish this had been performed under the fire of the enemy, and great coolness and daring were shown by the party. The sailors had wondered at the presence of a Coast Survey vessel, carrying a crew armed with nothing more formidable than surveying-instruments, save a few pocket revolvers, but it was now seen that science must first prepare the way before the heavy shells could perform their appropriate work.

Early in the morning of the day on which the bombardment commenced, the rebels set adrift a huge flat-boat piled with pitch-pine cord-wood in a blaze. As it came down the stream, the flames roared and crackled like a burning forest, while huge columns of black smoke rose in swift, spiral columns skyward. As it drifted near, two of our advanced vessels hastily slipped their cables and moved down stream. At first it was feared the blazing structure might contain torpedoes or explosive machines of some kind, and rifled shot were thrown into it. But it floated harmless by, lighting up the muddy stream as it receded. In order to be prepared for another, Captain Porter ordered all the row-boats of the flotilla to be prepared with grapnels, ropes, buckets, and axes. At sunset this fleet of a hundred and fifty boats was reviewed, passing in single line under the Harriet Lane, each answering to the hail of the commander, "Fire-buckets, axes, and ropes?" "Ay, ay, sir."

About an hour afterwards, just as night had set in, a huge column of black smoke was seen to rise from the river in the vicinity of the forts. Signal-lights were immediately hoisted on all the vessels, and the next moment a hundred boats shot out in the darkness, ready for action. A fire-raft was on its fearful way, lighting up the broad bosom of the Mississippi with its pyramid of flame, and sending the sparks in showers into the surrounding darkness. It made a fearful sight, and seemed well calculated to accomplish its mission of destruction. On it came, slowly and majestically, swinging easily to the mighty current, when suddenly the Westfield opened her steamvalves and dashed fearlessly into the burning pile. Burying herself amid the crashing timbers and flying sparks, her captain turned a hose upon it, and a stream of water as from a fire-engine played upon the lurid mass. The next moment the crowd of boats approached -- the bronzed faces of the sailors, with buckets and ropes, standing out in bold relief in the broad glare -- and fastened to the horrid phantom. Then, pulling with a will, they slowly towed it ashore, where they left it to consume ignobly away. It was bravely done, and as the boats returned they were cheered by the entire fleet.

For a whole week the bombardment was kept up, while shot and shell from the enemy fell in a constant shower amid the squadron.

The gunners on the mortar-boats were getting worn out, and, when released from the guns, would drop down exhausted on deck. They began at last to grumble at the inactivity of the larger vessels.

At length Farragut determined to run the rebel batteries, engage the gunboats and rams beyond, and then steam up to New Orleans, cost what it would. The chain had been cut a few nights before, and the schooners that sustained it were trailing along the river bank. On the 23d of April, everything being ready, at two o'clock signal lanterns were hoisted from the Hartford's mizzen peak, and soon the boatswain's call, "Up all hammocks," rang over the water. It was known the evening before that the desperate conflict would come off in the morning, and there was but little sleep in the fleet that night. The scene, the hour, and the momentous issues at stake made every man thoughtful. Not a breeze ruffled the surface of the river; the forts were silent above; the stars looked serenely down, while the deep tranquillity that rested on shore and stream was broken only by the heavy boom, every ten minutes, of a gun from the boats on watch. But the moment those two signal lanterns were run up on the flag-ship, all this was changed. The rattling of chains, the heaving of anchors, and commands of officers transformed the scene of quietness into one of bustle and stern preparation. In an hour and a half everything was ready, and the flag-ship, followed by the Richmond and Brooklyn and six gunboats, turned their prows up the river, steering straight for Fort Jackson. The Pensacola, Mississippi, Oneida, and Varuna, under Captain Bailey, with four gunboats, came next, and were to engage Fort Philip. The Harriet Lane, Westfield, Owasco, Miami, Clifton, and Jackson, under Porter, came last, and were to take position where they could pour an enfilading fire of grape and shrapnel into Fort Jackson while Farragut hurled his heavy broadsides into it in front.

As soon as the fleet started on its terrible mission, all the mortar-boats opened their fire, and, canopied by the blazing shells, that, crossing and recrossing in every direction, wove their fiery net-work over the sky and dropped with a thunderous sound into the doomed works, the flag-ship, accompanied by her consorts, steamed swiftly forward through the gloom. As soon as they came within range, signal rockets darted up from the low fortifications, and the next instant the volcano opened. Taking the awful storm in perfect silence, Farragut kept steadily on till he was close abreast, when his broadsides opened. As each ship came up, it delivered its broadside, and on both sides of the river it was one continuous stream of fire, and thunder-peal that shook the shores like an earthquake. For half an hour it seemed as if all the explosive elements of earth and air were collected there. The vessels did not stop to engage the forts, but, delivering their broadsides, swept on towards the gunboats beyond. Fire-rafts now came drifting down the tide, lighting up the pandemonium with a fiercer glare, and making that early morning wild and awful as the last day of time. The shot and shell from nearly five hundred cannon filled all the air, and it seemed as if nothing made with human hands could survive such a storm. The Ithaca, with a shot through her, was compelled to drop out of the fight, in doing which she came under the close fire of the fort, and was completely riddled, yet, strange to say, only two of her crew were struck. Exploding shells filled the air, hot shot crashed through the hulls, yet the gallant fleet, wrapped in the smoke of its own broadsides, moved on in its pathway of flame, while the river ahead was filled with fire-rafts and iron-clad gun-boats, whose terrible fire, crossing that of the fort, swept the whole bosom of the stream.

Sharp-shooters crowded the rigging, dropping their bullets incessantly upon our decks, yet still the commander's signal for close action streamed in the morning breeze, and still that fleet kept on its determined way. An immense iron-clad vessel, the Louisiana, lay moored near Fort Jackson, armed with heavy rifled guns, which sent the shot through and through our vessels, while ours rattled like peas on her mailed sides. The famous ram Manassas came down on the flag-ship, pushing a fire-raft before her. In attempting to avoid the collision, Farragut got aground, when the raft came plump alongside. The flames instantly leaped through the rigging, and ran along the sides of his vessel, and for a moment he thought it was all up with him. But, ordering the hose to turn a stream of water upon the fire, he succeeded in extinguishing it, and, backing off, again poured in his broadsides.

The Varuna, Captain Boggs, attacked the rebel gunboats with such fury that he sunk five in succession, their dark hulls disappearing with awful rapidity under the turbid waters. Even then his work was not done, for a ram came driving full upon him. He saw at once he could not avoid the collision, and knew that his fate was sealed. But, instead of hauling down his flag, he resolved, since he could not save his ship, to carry his adversary down with him, and, bidding the pilot throw the vessel so that her broadsides would bear on the vulnerable part of the rebel, he sternly received the blow. The sides of the Varuna were crushed by it as though made of egg-shells. As the ram backed off, the water poured in like a torrent, and he ordered the pilot to run her, with all steam on, ashore. In the mean time his broadsides, fired at such close range, made fearful openings in the enemy's hull, and she too began to settle in the water, and attempted to haul off. But those terrible broadsides were too swift for her, and they were poured in till the gun-carriages were under the water. The last shot just skimmed the surface as the hissing guns became submerged, and the gallant vessel went down with her flag flying, carrying her dead with her. A more fitting tomb for them could not be found than the full of that immortal boat.

A boy, named Oscar, only thirteen years old, was on board, and during the hottest of the fire was busily engaged in passing ammunition to the gunners, and narrowly escaped death when one of the terrific broadsides of the enemy was poured in. Covered with dirt and begrimed with powder, he was met by Captain Boggs, who asked where he was going in such a hurry: "To get a passing-box, sir; the other was smashed by a ball." When the Varuna went down, Boggs missed the boy, and thought he was among the killed. But a few minutes after he saw the lad gallantly swimming towards the wreck. Clambering on board, he threw his hand up to his forehead, in the usual salute, and with the simple, "All right, sir: I report myself on board," coolly took up his old station. Though a boy, he had an old head on his shoulders, and, if he lives and is given an opportunity, will be heard from in the future.

The Kineo was accidentally run into by the Brooklyn, and badly stove, yet she fought her way steadily forward, though receiving twelve shots in her hull, and, with twelve others, passed the terrible ordeal. The description of the conduct of one boat is a description of all. Though riddled with shot from the forts, they closed in with the rebel gunboats so fiercely that in an hour and a half eleven went to the bottom of the Mississippi.

The victory was won, and the combat ended, yet the maddened enemy could not wholly surrender, and the ram Manassas came down on the Richmond. The Mississippi, seeing her intentions, instantly steamed towards her, when the affrighted crew ran her ashore. Even after the surrender was made, and while terms of capitulation were being agreed on, the rebels cut adrift the Louisiana, which had cost nearly two millions of dollars, and sent her down past the fort amid our mortar-fleet. She failed, however, to do any damage, and soon went ashore.

The forts being passed, New Orleans was ours; yet still the former, though completely cut off, refused to surrender.

Farragut sent Captain Boggs in an open boat through a bayou, inland, to Porter, to report his success. One would have thought from his letter that he had encountered scarcely more than pretty stormy weather. "We have had a rough time of it, as Boggs will tell you," he says, and then proceeds to tell him that as soon as he goes to New Orleans he will come back and finish the forts.

The next morning he steamed up towards the astonished city. The inhabitants had deemed it unapproachable by any naval armament whatever, and in their fancied security were building vessels of offensive warfare that soon would have given us far more trouble than the Merrimack. Lovell, in command of the troops in the city, immediately left, for it lay completely at the mercy of our vessels. The mayor undertook to avoid the humiliation of a formal capitulation, and wrote a ridiculous letter to the commander; but it mattered little how it was done, -- the great commercial port of the Confederate States surrendered, and the most difficult part of opening the navigation of the Mississippi was accomplished.

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