The History of the Navy During the Rebellion

By CHARLES B. BOYNTON, D. D,, Chaplain of the Mouse of Representatives, and Assistant Professor at the U. S. Naval Academy, Illustrated with numerous engravings. 2 Vols. New York: Appleton & Co.
THE false impressions conveyed by this work begin with the title-page. The author has never reported at the Naval Academy. Probably he has been appointed Assistant Professor, and assigned to duty as an historian.
Cf the numerous engravings with which these volumes are illustrated, three are heads of naval officers, and six of politicians or contractors. The frontispiece is the venerable countenance of Mr. Secretary Welles. The original appointment of this gentleman was a piece of poetical justice. Mr. Secretary Toucey having betrayed his trust, his successor was chosen from the same rural town. President Lincoln had humor, and a good-natured confidence that any man could do anything if he tried. He himself became the embodiment of Northern public sentiment, with all its faithful courage and cheerful justice. During the President’s lifetime, Mr. Welles displayed a measure of the same spirit. At the outset of the war he sustained Commodore Stringham in protecting and employing colored refugees ; and, although the veteran sailor soon shared the fate of General Fremont, the government vessels continued to be a safe refuge for runaway slaves. In the navy it was hardly an innovation for blacks and whites to sail and fight side by side in the same ship ; while, in the army, the utmost that was done at any period of the war was to enroll the blacks in separateregiments, which were usually assigned to separate service.
On the legal questions which arose in the administration of the Navy Department Mr. Welles was frequently mistaken. He desired the President to close the Southern ports instead of blockading them. He sustained Captain Wilkes in the Trent case. And, to this day, gallant officers are deprived of prize money, on the ground that the statute at the time of capture regulates the distribution. It is true that prize-money is a relic of more barbarous times. It is also a lottery tainted with favoritism. The Admiralty can send whom it pleases to watch the rich avenues of hostile trade. There is a premium laid upon sufficient connivance to keep the golden current flowing ; and, at best, low motives are substituted for sterling patriotism. Good pay at all times, and good work everywhere required, are the conditions of sound service. Profitsand perquisites belong to the Republic. So long, however, as prize-money is given, it should follow well-known rules ; and no rule is better settled than that the statute at the time of adjudication determines the distribution.
Dr. Boynton’s history and Mr. Beecher’s late novel resemble each other in consisting largely of bits of sermons afloat in a war-story ; but Dr. Boynton nowhere alludes to the sin of nepotism. Whatever becomes the ordinary way of the world ceases to appear objectionable ; and yet we punish crimes, not for their novelty, but for their criminality. Perhaps, however, we ought to thank Mr. Welles for his moderation with such a wide field for jobbery before him. The whole commercial marine was driven from the seas just when the government wanted a large extemporaneous force to blockade the Southern coast. It is not in political human nature to manage such a vast transaction without enriching one’s friends.
In the construction of new ships for the permanent fleet, both Mr. Welles and Mr. Assistant Secretary Fox deserve credit for accepting the monitor scheme. The elementary principles of building war steamships are even now so dimly discerned, and so much involved in costly and various experiments, that the sole success of the new fleet might easily have been missed. The wooden clipper ship was the latest triumph of American ship-building. The appropriate application of steam to this model was the side-wheel, as in the case of the Adriatic ; and the natural armament consisted of broadside batteries of moderate-sized rifled guns. Instead of the long and high lines of the clipper, the screw requires a broad and low ship, which affords great buoyancy and lateral steadiness. This suggests a central battery of heavy shellguns, and the iron-clad, turret follows. The single-turret monitor of moderate size, for coast service, is right in principle and practice. The large, sea-going, iron-clad, screw man-of-war is yet to seek.
Neither Mr. Welles nor the historian of his administration has clearly set forth the valuable lessons taught by the Confederate naval operations, namely, how to encounter steam and cuirass, First, with regard to steam, the simplest resource was submarine obstruction, which at least detains the enemy under fire of shore-batteries, and prevents that rapid running of tire gantlet which is one of the capital advantages of steam. The next question is, If the enemy will not come to the snag, how can the snag be launched against the enemy ? The practical answer is the steam ram ; and how effective this may prove against long and high ships at rest was seen at Lissa. Secondly, with reference to cuirassed ships, the first observation is, that they are virtually impregnable above the water-line. Can they not, then, be assailed from below, as the negro kills the shark? The rebels were not slow in trying the experiment ; and more than one of our stoutest monitors lie at the bottom of Southern bays, blown up by electrical torpedoes. The five military ports of France are already defended with these terrible engines ; while Austria is making them more deadly by using guncotton, and Prussia is experimenting in nitroglycerine. The problem not yet satisfactorily solved, in this method of warfare, is how to send out a torpedo to assail the enemy, in case he will not approach the channel where the earthquake lies. The rebels were bold, and sometimes successful in their attempts to do this with submarine boats, or “Davids,” as they were called, in allusion to our Goliaths in armor.
Mr. Welles was naturally more attentive to the positive introduction of steam and armor than to the methods of resisting them; but the results of his labors are by no means commensurate with the great expenditure of money. We have a number of wooden ships, whose delicate clipper hulls are tortured with monstrous ordnance, propelled by screws, and encumbered with a full cargo of fanciful machinery burning prodigious quantities of coal, and logging rates of speed very properly described as fabulous. For iron ships, we have a large assortment of monitors, some of them costing a million apiece, half of them totally unserviceable, and thirty or forty of them incapable of floating. The real state of the case would become manifest, if the good monitors were designated by numbers, and the senseless jargon of Algonquin names was reserved for those which are virtually extinct. In view of these facts, it is not strange that the “line” of the navy call with singular unanimity for a Hoard of Survey, composed of naval officers, to control naval construction. The creation of such a board is perhaps wrong in theory, but apparently necessary under present circumstances, just as the State of New York has found it necessary to put the most important interests of the city into commission. Under President Grant, however, the Board may cease to be required. With his masterly eye for men, he may be expected to man the Navy Department with a view to thorough efficiency ; and the only innovation we may then desire is an admiral commanding the navy, and residing at Washington, like the General commanding the army.
The most animated opposition to the Board of Survey has come from the corps of naval engineers. This corps has risen into importance during the war, gaining influence in Congress, and favor with the Department. They aspire to the position of the engineer corps in the army, but unfortunately in many cases without corresponding social qualifications or scientific attainments. Latterly, however, they have endeavored to secure young graduates of scientific schools, and to make the examinations for promotion more stringent. But the surest way to create a scientific corps in harmony with the rest of the service is to assign annually, from the best graduates at the Naval Academy, a certain number, who shall then enjoy the advantage of two or three years' technical training. Of course these young gentlemen would not expect to drive engines, at the termination of this extended course of study. The engine-driver should be a master-mechanic and a warrant officer. Moreover, there is no reason why officers of the marine corps, and also of the surveying and revenue services, should not be drawn from the Naval Academy.
The Secretary has done well in establishing the system of school-ships, where apprentices are taught the mariner’s trade, for the supply of the navy ; but at present the boys have too much the air of galleyslaves, and the schooling is said to be merely nominal. They ought to be quartered ashore, like the midshipmen, six months in the year, and receive a thorough common-school education. Considering the great demand made upon the merchant service, during the war, for ships, men, and officers, something should be done to promote the efficiency of this grand naval reserve. In every considerable maritime country but ours, masters and mates are subjected to examination. The perfectworking of this system would call for a marine college at every large seaport, where aspirants for the merchant service might receive professional training.
Passing from the discussion of naval construction and administration to the more stirring record of naval achievement, we find in these volumes a popular sketch of important events, but we are soon impressed with the belief that some abler and less partisan hand is wanted to complete the picture. For instance, we find no mention of the important service rendered by the navy just after the battle of Bull Run, which threatened to be a second Bladensburg, and to lay the capital at the feet of the enemy. A disciplined naval force under Lieutenant Foxhall A. Parker quickly and quietly occupied Fort Ellsworth, got heavy guns into position, stopped the enemy’s advance upon Alexandria, and probably saved that city, if not Washington. We see no mention of Rodgers’s agency in organizing the naval force on the Western waters, previously to Foote’s taking the command there; nor of the service rendered by the navy about the time of the seven days’ fight, when the enemy, alluding to the size of the navy missiles, said we pitched Dutch-ovens at them, and the rebel historian Pollard says, that the gunboats prevented the march of their forces along the river-banks.
No mention is made of the fights wife the Fort on Drury’s Bluff, May 15, 1862 ; nor of the gale weathered by the Weehawken, in which the sea-going capabilities of a monitor were first well ascertained. And in the account of the Weehawken’s fight with the Atlanta, where the fifteen-inch gun was first practically proved efficient, no mention is made of the name of Captain John Rodgers, the commander of the Weehawken, although he received the thanks of Congress for that action, and was promoted to the rank of Commodore.
The case of Commander Preble, who was hastily dismissed the service for not preventing the Oreto (or Florida) from running into Mobile, is not fairly stated in this work. It was not known off Mobile that the rebels had a man-of-war afloat, and the Oreto had the appearance of a large English gunboat. The blockading squadron had accidentally been reduced to two vessels, one of which was the Oneida, commanded by Preble. One of the Oneida’s boilers had been undergoing necessary repair, and steam was hardly raised in it when the Oreto hove in sight. She was steering directly for the Oneida’s anchorage ; and when she had approached within about five miles, the Oneida was got under way, and went out to meet her. The Oneida rounded to across the bow of the Oreto, hailed her, fired three guns in as rapid succession as possible across her bow, the last to graze her stem ; and then, three minutes after the first gun was fired, and when she was only about four hundred yards distant, the whole broadside was fired into her. After that broadside, the Oreto hauled down her English colors, and rapidly gained on the Oneida, which pursued the chase until the Oreto was under cover of Fort Morgan, and the rapid shoaling of the water showed that another minute’s continuance of the chase would put the Oneida aground on the southeast shoal. Dr. Boynton says the Oreto ran in unscathed ; the rebel account says that she was struck several times, four men killed, and several wounded. She afterwards ran out through a squadron of seven vessels, and no officer was punished.
After Commander Preble was reinstated, he led the fleet brigade, which was organized from the officers, seamen, and marines of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and which did good service in preparing for the arrival of General Sherman from his celebrated march, participating in all the actions, which were often severe. Dr. Boynton makes no mention of this brigade. He says that he had not time or space to give a full account of the doings of the South Atlantic Squadron.
The account of the Fort Fisher attack and capture is very meagre. Only the names of the iron-clads and of their commanding officers are given. There is no list of vessels composing the squadron, or of their commanders ; and the names of the commodores who commanded divisions are not mentioned.
The account of the cruise of the Kearsarge is also meagre and inaccurate. Captain Winslow was not placed in command of the Kearsarge “ in the early part of 1862.” The Rappahannock was not blockaded by the Kearsarge. Semmes did not send Winslow a challenge. The Kearsarge had no intention to close with .the Alabama. The reason for fighting in circles seems to have been simply the accident that both vessels had pivoted to starboard. The name of the only person whose death resulted from the action was not “Gorrin,” but Gowan. No shots were fired by the Kearsarge after the white flag had been seen, although the Alabama did fire two shots after she had surrendered. Mr. Lancaster, of the Deerhound, was asked to assist in rescuing the drowning men. The Kearsarge was close by, and made no objection to his departure. The officer who came aboard the Kearsarge stated that he was an Englishman, and master’s mate aboard the Alabama; that Captain Semmes did not instruct him to surrender the Alabama, but ordered him to urge the Kearsarge to hasten to the rescue of the former vessel’s crew. It is true that this officer was allowed to depart with his boat’s crew, and he sought the protection of the English flag.
We are forced to conclude that a good history of the navy during the Rebellion is still to be desired. Our next war will very possibly be a naval one, inasmuch as France and England are not likely to relinquish the Pacific to the American and Russian flags without a struggle. There are four points which we require: San Francisco and the Sandwich Islands in the south, Victoria and Sitka in the north. Of those we have already two. We shall need a firstclass yard with ample docks and shops, at San Francisco, and eventually another at Victoria. We shall need a thoroughly efficient Navy Department, and a large list of brave, sensible, and Scientific officers. And we want to see the service cheered by a wise, impartial, and patriotic history of its past achievements, which have, perhaps, been only preliminary to the grand contest of the future.