It was now well on towards the middle of September, and the wind ahead. I gave up the idea of going to Horse Shoe Bay, and squared away for Ayan, where I procured a stock of wood and water, and from there started on the four thousand mile passage to San Francisco: made the passage with no more than the usual amount of storms and gales and arrived the latter part of November, 1859. Here I docked the ship, made preparations for taking out the cargo, turned over both ship and cargo to the firm of Moore & Folger, placed Bethuel in charge with the understanding that she should be fitted out for another Year’s cruise with him in command, paid off my crew, and then took passage home by the way of the Panama route, bringing my brother Norman home with me, and that ended my service in the whale fishing. I left Norman at Cornwall, and your Aunt Mary and Cousin Annie came to Cotuit with me. When I left home, and the last time I heard from home, the family lived at Little River, and when we reached the road leading to that part of the village William Jones drove past. It was the first time I ever saw him. I called his attention to that fact, but he only laughed and said he knew what he was about, that my family did not live at Little River. When he stopped at the gate (right here) it was the first time I knew that we had abandoned the old home for all time. I was not any too well pleased with the change. I liked Little River, and I felt strange up here. I had made up mind that after twelve years steadily in the same ship I would spend one year at home before I sought employment again: but everything had changed before the year was out. The election in the fall of 1860 resulted in the choice of Mr Lincoln as President, and brought the Republican party pledged to oppose the extension of slavery, into power. The secession movement had started: and the following spring (1851) the boom of the first hostile gun, in Charleston Harbor, proclaimed to the world that the war of the great rebellion was upon us. The war stopped the fitting out of whaling ships. Nearly all that were lying at home ports were bought by the government, loaded with stone, and sunk in the channel leading into Charleston Harbor, in a vain attempt to close the port. Poor hydrographic engineering. A little common sense should have taught those responsible that the current would create a new channel, which it soon did. It being perfectly clear that there was no more employment for me as a whaling man for some years at least, I went part of that year with (mate) your Uncle Roland in the coasting schooner James Barrett. Then in August I shipped mate of the ship Mongolian (grain loaded) on a voyage to Le Havre, France, returning to New York the last of January. Soon after I applied for an appointment as acting master in the Navy, furnishing testimonials as to my fitness for the position. In due time I received a communication from the Navy Department informing me that my application had been favorably considered, and directing me to report to the commander of the Brooklyn Navy Yard for examination. The examination being satisfactory, my appointment as acting master, U.S.N. dated March 3, 1862 reached me a day or two later: where, on taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, and placing my letter of acceptance in Commandant Paulding’s hands, I was attached to the receiving ship North Carolina, and directed to attend a school of gunnery, established at the yard for the benefit of volunteer officers. A fortnight later I was detached from the North Carolina, and ordered to report to Lieutenant Earle English, commanding the United States steamer Somerset, then fitting out at the yard, and ordered to join the East Gulf Squadron at Key West, Florida, for service onboard the vessel.
The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.
We left the New York Navy Yard the last of March in company with the U.S.S. Fort Henry, sister to the Somerset, both bound to Key West, and kept company as far as Cape Henry, mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. There the Fort Henry’s machinery went wrong. She could steam ahead, but could not reverse. So we accompanied her into Hampton Roads, where we left her, and made the remainder of the passage alone. While at Hampton Roads I visited the Little Monitor, who had just before defeated the big Merrimac. It was a wonderful performance. She (the Monitor) was armed with two eleven-inch smooth bore, Dahlgren guns, in a movable turret, while the Merrimac carried twelve hundred pound rifled guns: but the little Monitor was such a small mark that during the five hours’ fight she was only hit four times, and not injured at all, while she hung to the Merrimac, pounding her railroad iron protected sides with 140 pound solid shot until a large number of her crew were disabled by mere concussion (I understood that a few shots entered the ports). The only man injured on the Merrimac was her commander, Lieutenant Worden. His station was in the pilot house with the wheelman (Acting Master Howard, though not belonging to the Monitor, had volunteered to act as pilot and wheelman during the battle), which was constructed after the manner of a four-sided roof: but there is always a weak point in structures. In this case it was a bar of iron ten meters thick, set perpendicular above the slit, one inch-wide, through which the pilot and his commanding officer watched and maneuvered the vessel. A shot from the Merrimac struck that bar right over the spot where Worden was looking: and the bar being set perpendicular instead of at an angle, it was a square blow, and the concussion injured Worden’s eyes so badly that he was never fit for service afterwards. The Merrimac retreated to Norfolk evidently crippled. During that fight she was commanded by Lieut. Catsby, Ap. Jones formerly of the U.S.N. (her captain Buchanan had been wounded by a musket ball the day before, when the Merrimac had sunk both the Congress and the Cumberland, sailing sloops of war.) It was a fortunate circumstance that the Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads the night before the battle. The Merrimac had already destroyed the Congress and the Cumberland. The Minnesota frigate was aground on the Rip Raps, and the Merrimac was coming that morning to finish her, when she was met by that “little chess box on a raft,” as they called her: and that little chess box was what prevented the Merrimac from steaming up the Potomac, and having the city of Washington at her mercy, with heavens knows what results.
We left Hampton Roads after replenishing our stock of coal, and fortunately had a smooth passage, arriving at Key West in due time and without accident, and were immediately ordered to cruise off the north coast of Cuba, and to keep a sharp lookout for certain vessels that were suspected of an intention to run the blockage at New Orleans, and of which we were furnished a list. I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.” This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove too) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her. A boarding party consisting of Acting Master William Dennison (Executive office) and Arthur, with the Paymaster – to assist in examining her papers – and ten armed men, were sent aboard. The examination showed she had cleared from Bordeaux, France. No destination mentioned. This was sufficient to warrant her detention, and a prize cruise was detailed with Dennison as Master, Arthur as assistant, and Peterson Chief Engineer, with one assistant and fifteen armed men, with orders to keep close company with the Somerset to Key West. But neither Peterson or his assistant had ever seen an engine of that pattern, and neither of them could start it, and the Circassian’s engineering refused to do so. But Capt. English was fully equal to the situation. We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow.
With Dennison and Arthur onboard the prize I was second in command on the Somerset, and as such the active duties devolved on me and you may well believe that I kept the deck from the time we took the prize in tow until we reached Key West: and with thirty odd prisoners to guard, and a big ship to tow, there was plenty to watch out for, Commander English being fully occupied in making out his report of the capture.
During the night the guard sent me word that one of the prisoners wished to speak with me. He, the prisoner, told me that he was a boatswain of the steamer: that he thought he was entitled to quarter separate from the common sailors, and that he had some information that would be of service to us, which he would give to no one but the commanding officer. This I reported to Captain English, who after a few minutes talk with him directed me to give him the freedom of the quarter deck, but to keep him under surveillance. I afterwards learned that the information was the effect that the English captain – after he hove to – gave him a bundle of papers with instructions to secret them in some place until after the boarding party had visited the ship. Then if they decided to detain her he – the boatswain – was to destroy the papers. If she was returned he was to return to them to his captain. As everyone was under surveillance from the time the boarding party arrived he had no opportunity to destroy them, and had so concluded to reveal the place where they were hidden. The papers proved to consist of several letters of advice to the consignee, invoices, and a copy of contract between the owners and captain of the ship and the shippers, whereby the former agreed to load [unload? Ed.] the cargo at New Orleans, if possible, and failing that to land it at Mobile, Alabama. With this evidence there was no question of the steamer being lawful prize. The District court at Key West so held, and she was sent to New York and sold by the prize commission at that port. The English owners appealed, and the case finally went to the Supreme Court. The grounds of their appeal were that New Orleans – the port for which the ship was bound – was at the date of the capture in possession of the United States: and, as under international law a nation cannot blockade its own ports, the ship was not lawfully a prize: but the final decision was that New Orleans was at the time under military instead of civil law, consequently not a port of entry: and as under the circumstances the ship’s destination was Mobile, that made her a bona fine blockade runner, and as such a lawful prize. This decision was reached about the time the war was ended. I asked the English captain how he came to bring his fast steamer within hail of a war ship, and such a slow-poking thing as the Somerset, and he said: Her decks were full of people dressed in white, which I took for some excursion party out from Havana: and she’s the d—-est looking war ship I ever saw.”
Two days after we arrived at Key West, with our prize, the news came that Farragut had run past the Mississippi forts and had taken possession of New Orleans, and each of the war ships – some six, possibly eight, were ordered to fire a salute of thirty-four guns in honor of the victory. The Somerset happened to be the third to receive the order, which came from the fleet captain as he pulled past us in his gig, and was in these words: “You will fire a salute of thirty-four guns in honor of the capture of New Orleans by the West Gulf Squadron under command of Flag Officer Farragut, and you will follow the Meredeta.” We were taking in stores preparatory to another cruise. All the officers, except Dennison and myself, were away in the boats receiving them, and Captain English was also ashore: and at least half the men were with the boats. Just as the order reached us the flagship Niagara finished her salute, and the first gun boomed from the Meredeta, each firing at fifteen seconds intervals. So we had just eight an half minutes for preparation — ample time and to spare had the men all been aboard, but short time in our then demoralized condition. Dennison gave this simple order: “Hustle Chatfield,” and hustle I did. I told off a captain and two loaders for each of the four broadside guns, directing them not to run the guns out after firing, filled the powder division with spare men, kept the remaining half dozen for emergencies, and reported all ready just as the Meredeta fired that last gun. Fifteen seconds later our first gun boomed, and we finished our salute of thirty-four guns in good shape so far as time was concerned. But the results! After the first round the guns stood at taut breeching, muzzles inside the ports. Then the saluting charge for that class of guns is four pounds but the old gunner got confused and sent up service charges of eight pounds. Consequently the concussion was very great: and with the first gun of the second round the light housework above the deck began to give way, and when the salute was finished every door was off its hinges, and scattered about the deck. Much of the partition work was also down. Every piece of crockery was smashed. The forward pilot house was swaying like a drunken man, and only kept from falling in a heap by the men holding it up until we got guy ropes and secured it: and the paymaster’s office! Everything it contained, books, stationary, broken ink bottle and spilled ink in a mingled heap on the floor. Poor Day. He was a timid little fellow just out of the Harvard Law School, and this was his first experience of life. His name was Adams, and he was a nephew of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. He complained bitterly that we would not stop firing when he told of the wrecking of his office, and declared he could never get his accounts straight again: but he did in time, and could laugh at the incident with the rest of us.
Soon after we had finished our salute Captain English came onboard. At first he seemed surprised at the condition of things. Then commenced to laugh, and continued to do so during his tour of inspection. The carpenter and his assistants replaced things in the course of the next twenty-four hours.
After a week’s, perhaps ten days, stay at Key West we were ordered to cruise between Tortugas and Bahia Honda, north side of Cuba, and proceeded to that station. But the sun was on its way north, and with it the trade wind belt. So instead of the smooth water we had on our former cruise we found a short choppy sea, created by the fresh northeast trades now blowing directly down the channel: and it soon became evident that a ferry boat with a heavy battery could not stay there without risk of foundering. She rolled deep, creaked and groaned badly, and flooded her decks constantly. The Meredeta spoke us, and her captain came aboard: and he agreed with Captain English that the Somerset must return to Key West, and made a joint statement to that effect. So we returned and were ordered to Cedar Key to relieve the gun boat Tahama, which we did: and then commenced the humdrum life of a blockade – not blockading a fortified port, but lying at anchor watching for blockade runners, which never came, but would have come quickly had the ports been left unguarded for forty-eight hours. Cedar Key consists of Sea Horse Key, on which the lighthouse stood, and is about a half mile from Depot Key, head of navigation. It has a good harbor on its east side for vessels with fourteen feet drought, with a channel of ten feet to Depot Key, on which was the principal settlement. The bay is small, fifty or seventy-five acres. Opposite, a short half mile is Way Key, terminus of a branch of the Fernandina and St. Marks Railroad. Back of that Key No. 4, separated from Way Key by a wide shoal water lagoon, and reached by the railroad over trestles, and a number of small lumps of land, one of which was called Live Oak Key. The Tahama had somehow got possession of a small schooner yacht on which we put a small Howitzer, and used as a tender, occasionally sending her on a cruise up and down the coast. On one of her cruises (Healy in command) she captured the small steamer Acorn at place called Dead Man’s Key, half way between Cedar Key and St. Marks. The crew set her on fire, and escaped to the shore, half a mile distant. Healy said he could have easily put the fire out but the steamer was hard aground, so he let her burn. Peters (our chief, who was with Healy) knew the steamer well: and said she was formerly owned by the Sandwich Glass Company, and used to transport glass ware from Sandwich to Boston: but that was before the Cape Cod Railroad was built. Twice or three times I was left to maintain the blockade while Capt. English went off on a cruise with the Somerset. I always had orders to take the schooner outside the harbor at nightfall, and to remain in the open until daylight. (This to avoid a possible night attack by boats). This we kept up for some weeks: and at the same time, with the boats, were reconnoitering among the keys, and while doing so discovered that there were salt works on boat Live Oak and Key No. 4. As soon as the schooner returned Capt. English took the Somerset up to Depot Key (head of navigation), and from there sent three boats in charge of Dennison, with Arthur and Peters, to destroy the salt works, while Healy landed with an armed party on Way Key, intending to cross on the trestles, and support the boat crews in case they were attacked. When they reached Key No. 4, Healy found the trestles had been burned just far enough to keep him out of rifle range of the landing at Key No. 4. So Dennison had the job all to himself, and a very poor job it turned out.
Dennison’s party, consisting of twenty-three all told, destroyed the works at Live Oak Key without opposition: then started for Key No. 4, his course taking him not nearer than a half mile from where Healy was standing on the trestle, near the burned portion. In the mean time Healy saw a body of armed men, evidently a coast guard company on the brow of the slight eminence just back of the salt works, and within easy rifle range of the beach. The beach at this place is semicircular sloping up to the brow of the hill some twenty feet high, and two hundred back from the beach, back from that thick Palmetto scrub, a nice place for twenty-three men to land, with some forty or fifty concealed behind that barracks building waiting for them. Dennison pulled straight for the landing, no seeing, or misunderstanding, Healy’s signals. I presume he thought Healy was just waiting to join forces with him. He landed, left three of him men to care for the boats, employed half his party half way up the hill, the rest stacked their arms preparatory to breaking up the salt works. Then the rebels rushed from behind the building and opened fire. Dennison seeing immediately that he was outnumbered, called in his skirmishers, and relined the whole party behind the salt works, a good protection: and probably he would have been able to stand off while he sent the boats (two men in each) for Healy’s party. But before he had fairly got in his work another party of rebels opened fire from the dwelling house on his right, taking his men in the flank. That was good strategy on the part of the rebels, and settled the fight. Dennison ordered a retreat en masse, and they got off bringing every man and every musket with them.
But nine of the party were hurt, two of whom had to be carried to the boats. One died of his wounds a few days afterwards. The other had to be invalided, and discharged as unfit for service some weeks after. Dennison was only a volunteer officer, just from civil life, and it was the first time he had been under fire. We thought he had done well. He himself was struck by a spent ball on the hip, which made a particularly bad bruise, and forced him to hobble around with a cane for several days.
Two days afterwards the gun boat Tahama called at the Keys. There we organized another expedition of eight boats, two of which were launches with a twelve pound howitzer in each, and about one hundred men in all, and destroyed the salt works on Key No. 4 without opposition. The rebels firing at long range as we were leaving, perhaps thirty or forty shots reaching my boat, which was the rear boat of the line, but doing no damage. This affair came off, as I remember, the last part of June, 1864.
It was during the month of July that the yellow fever made its appearance in the squadron at Key West. The news reached us by one of the smaller gunboats, which came up the coast with a staff lieutenant onboard, who signaled the fact to each of the blockading ships, and also that the local transport’s trips would be discontinued for the present. We depended upon the local transport for provisions, as well as other stores. Ours were running short. Our request for a new supply had already been sent in, and we were looking for the stores on the transports next trip. We had food sufficient to last a week, in addition to several barrels of break (condemned as unfit for use). We also had a good fish net, and there was abundance of mullet in the harbor, so we would not starve for a month. But that did not suit Captain English. So he sent Dennison and another officer to Key West (Isild his name was) in the schooner for the stores that should have reached us by the local transport, and the paymaster furnished him with a copy of the requisition. Flag Officer Lardner (commodore by courtesy) was a tough old fellow, and at his wits’ and with the yellow fever in the squadron: and so when Dennison appeared before him with his orders, he let himself out, swore at both Captain English for an old fool for sending, and at Dennison for a young fool for coming, to Key West while the yellow fever was raging, and ordered him (Dennison) to get onboard his schooner, and out of the harbor of Key West as soon as possible. But Dennison was no chicken: and being a volunteer instead of a regular officer did not have that intense fear of the court martial. So he told the flag officer that he had his commanding officer’s written order to proceed to Key West and get the provisions, and that he certainly should not leave without them unless he had the flag officer’s written order peremptorily directing him to do so. Dennison said the old fellow looked him straight in the eyes for at least a minute, then reached for the requisition, ordered it handed back, saying: “If you can find that storekeeper and get him into that warehouse to deliver those stores you will be lucky.” Dennison said he told him that he’d have those stores if he had to take the storekeeper into the warehouse by the neck to deliver them. He got the stores, turning them out of the warehouse with his own men, while a clerk checked them off: and was back to Cedar Keys in a little over a week from the time he started. We now had rations for three months. How Captain English did laugh when Dennison told him of his interview with the Flag Officer, and he said: “If you had been a regular instead of a volunteer you’d have got out of that office and out of that harbor as quick as possible without waiting for the stores or a written order either,” and he added (musingly) our men would have been here on short commons.
The yellow fever was bad enough in Key West, but none of the blockading ships had it that season. The flag ship Sabine (old time sailing frigate) lost a large number of her men: as I remember somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred.
We were relieved in Cedar Keys sometime in July, and sent to West Pass, St. George’s Sound, the harbor of Appalachicola, a much more important station, to relieve the U.S.S. Fort Henry, one of the vessels maintained at that place. The reasons for keeping a strong force at West Pass were because the Appalachicola River is navigable up as far as Atlanta, Georgia: and several river steamers were known to be inservicable, and a night attack by them with infantry was feared: and it was also known that a gunboat (Chatahoocha by name) had been building, and might be finished for all we knew: and we also knew that she was commanded by that fighting fellow Catesby A. Jones, the same that commanded the Merrimac in the fight with the Monitor in Hampton Roads: and the rumor reached us that he had sworn to clear out the blockade at West Pass, and open that port to commerce: and that with his gun boat and three river steamers, protected with cotton bales and hundred riflemen on each, he could easily do it: and I am sure he would have stood a good chance to succeed.
Soon after reaching our new station Captain English was detached from the Somerset, and placed in command of the gunboat Sagamore, and Lieutenant Alexander Crossman succeeded him in command of the Somerset: and within a short time a general change had taken place. Something went wrong with Dennison, and he was invalided and discharged from the service (he recovered and rejoined the navy before the war ended). Arthur was detached, and sent I don’t remember where, and Healy was put in command of the steamer Beauregard (a useless tub) with orders to take her north and put her out of commission, which he did. So of the five highest officers (good comrades everyone) who left New York in March, I – in August – was the only one left; and I was ordered to assume the duties of executive officer. I was lonesome. In their places we had Lieutenant Crossman commanding, a good officer and a gentleman: Acting Master Waugh, a surly Scotchman, jealous of everything and of everybody, and hard to manage: James Higly, good natured, but inefficient: and Acting Ensign Achley, a German, restless, and who could not keep his tongue still for the space of one minute. Surgeon Draper had also gone, and we had a right good fellow, Surgeon Cook, in his place: The one really good comrade now in the wardroom mess.
The gunboat Port Royal (George M. Morris commanding) a much more powerful fighting craft that the Somerset, had also been sent to West Pass. She was a double ender too as well as the Somerset. So we had fourteen heavy guns with which to meet Catesby A. Jones should he come down to clean out the blockade at that place: but all the guns were on uncovered decks, and the men exposed to rifle fire: and should the river steamers with their three hundred soldiers one get within easy range – well, it wasn’t a nice thing to contemplate.
It was a somewhat curious coincidence that both Lieutenant George M. Morris, Crossman and Catesby A. Jones had all been at the U.S. Naval Academy at the same time, and were well acquainted with each other. Morris and Jones were classmates, Crossman younger: and Morris was second in command of the Cumberland, and in actual command the day she was sunk by the Merrimac: while Catesby A. Jones was second in command of the Merrimac the day she sank the Cumberland, and in actual command the next day when she fought the Monitor: and here they were pitted against each other again, with the prospect of another fight before the year was ended. Captain Morris was a very restless sort of fellow, and after a time declared that he would not wait for Catesby Jones to come down the river to fight him: but, on the contrary, he would go up the river and fight Jones. What he did was to get the Port Royal hard and fast on the bar at the river’s mouth: and we had a week’s job lightening and heaving her off into deep water again. Then he (Morris) gave up the idea of going up, and we both lay quietly just below the mouth for a time, and finally went down the bay, and resumed our usual place at the Pass. Not long after a hurricane passed over that part of the coast lying between St. Mark’s and St. Josephs: the full strength passing over both the east and west passes of St. George’s Sound. Everything at West Pass was driven ashore and wrecked except the two war steamers: and we were hardly able to hold on each with three anchors out, and a full head of steam: while the sailing bark blockading East Pass was driven ashore, first on the island, forming the harbor, and after the wind shifted, blown from the island clear across the bay and grounded within a short distance of the main land. As soon as the blow was over we (Somerset) went to East Pass to see how affairs were at that place. We found that the captain of the bark finding his vessel (drawing fourteen feet) in only four feet of water, near the main land, and heeled over on her side, so that he could not use his guns, had blown her up, crossed to the island with his crew and small arms, and was waiting, knowing the we would surely come to his relief, if we were in condition to do so. We remained at East Pass some weeks, until we were relieved: and it was my job to recover the guns, and most of the shot and shell. The anchors and chains were not to be found, though I hunted the track that the bark was supposed to have taken in crossing the bay.