THE BAY STATE MONTHLY
A MASSACHUSETTS MAGAZINE.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1884, by John N. McClintock and Company, in the office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
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CAPTAIN GEORGE HAMILTON PERKINS, U.S.N.
By CAPTAIN GEORGE E. BELKNAP, U.S.N.
In passing up the Concord and Claremont Railroad from Concord, the observant traveler has doubtless noticed the substantial and comfortable-looking homestead with large and trim front yard, shaded by thickly planted and generous topped maples, on the right-hand side of the road after crossing the bridge that spans
"Contoocook's bright and brimming river,"
at the pleasant-looking village of Contoocookville in the northern part of Hopkinton.
There, under that inviting roof, the subject of this sketch, GEORGE HAMILTON PERKINS, the eldest son in a family of eight children, was born, October 20, 1836.
His father, the Honorable Hamilton Eliot Perkins, inherited all the land in that part of the town, and, in early life, in addition to professional work as a counsellor-at-law and member of the Merrimack County bar, built the mills at Contoocookville, and was, in fact, the founder of the thriving settlement at that point.
His paternal grandfather, Roger Eliot Perkins, came to Hopkinton from the vicinity of Salem, Massachusetts, when a young man, and by his energy, enterprise, and public spirit, soon impressed his individuality upon the community, and became one of the leading citizens of the town.
His mother was Miss Clara Bartlett George, daughter of the late John George, Esquire, of Concord, whose ancestors were among the early settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts. He is said to have been a man of active temperament, prompt in business, stout in heart, bluff of speech, honest in purpose, and never failing in any way those who had dealings with him.
As "the child is father of the man," so the boyhood and youth of Captain Perkins gave earnest of those qualities which in his young manhood the rude tests of the sea and the grim crises of war developed to the full. "No matter" was his first plainly spoken phrase, a hint of childish obstinacy that foreshadowed the persistence of maturer years. Among other feats of his boyish daring, it is told that when a mere child, hardly into his first trousers, he went one day to catch a colt in one of his father's fields bordering on the Contoocook. The colt declined to be caught and after a sharp scamper took to the river and swam across. Nothing daunted, the plucky little urchin threw off his jacket, plunged into the swift current, and safely breasting it, was soon in hot pursuit on the other side; and after a long chase and hard tussle made out to catch the spirited animal and bring him home in triumph. Always passionately fond of animals and prematurely expert in all out-door sports, he thus early began to master that noblest of beasts, the horse.
When eight years old, his father removed with his family to Boston, and, investing his means in shipping, engaged for a time in trade with the west coast of Africa. The son was apt to run about the wharves with his father, and the sight of the ships and contact with "Jack" doubtless awoke the taste for the sea, that was to be gratified later on.
Returning to the old homestead on the Contoocook after the lapse of two years or more, the old, quiet, yet for young boyhood, frolicsome out-door life was resumed, and the lad grew apace amid the rural scenes and ample belongings of that generous home; not over studious, perhaps, and chafing, as boys will, at the restraint imposed by the study of daily lessons and their recital to his mother.
At twelve years of age, he was sent to the Hopkinton Academy, and afterwards to the academy at Gilmanton. While at Gilmanton, General Charles H. Peaslee, then member of Congress from the Concord congressional district, offered him the appointment of acting midshipman to fill a vacancy at the Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, which, after some hesitation, his parents permitted him to accept, and he was withdrawn from Gilmanton and sent to Concord to prepare for entrance at Annapolis, under a private tutor. He remained under such pupilage until the age of fifteen, when the beginning of the academic year, October, 1851, saw him installed in "Middy's" uniform at that institution, and the business of life for him had begun in earnest.
To a young and restless lad, used to being afield at all times and hours with horse, dog, and gun, and fresh from a country home where the "pomp and circumstance" of military life had had no other illustration than occasional glimpses of the old "training and muster days" so dear to New Hampshire boys forty years ago, the change to the restraint and discipline; the inflexible routine and stern command; the bright uniforms and novel ways; the sight of the ships and the use of a vocabulary that ever smacks of the sea; the call by drum and trumpet to every act of the day, from bed-rising, prayers, and breakfast, through study, recitation, drill, and recreation hours, to tattoo and taps, when every student is expected to be in bed,—was a transformation wonderful indeed; but the flow of discipline and routine are so regular and imperative that their currents are imperceptibly impressed upon the youthful mind and soon become a part of his nature, as it were, unawares. So we may conclude that our young aspirant for naval honors proved no exception to the rule, and soon settled into these new grooves of life as quietly as his ardent temperament would permit.
The discipline at the Academy, in those days, was harsher and more exacting, and the officers of the institution of a sterner and more experienced sea-school, than now; and the three months' practice cruises across the Atlantic, which the different classes made on alternate summers, when the "young gentlemen" were trained to do all the work of seamen, both alow and aloft, and lived on the old navy ration of salt junk, pork and beans, and hardtack, with no extras, were anything but a joke. The Academy, too, was in a transition state from the system in vogue, up to 1850 inclusive, prior to which period the midshipmen went to sea immediately after appointment, pretty much after the fashion of Peter Simple and Jack Easy, and after a lapse of five years came to the school for a year's cramming and coaching before graduating as passed midshipmen. The last of such appointees was graduated in 1856, and the sometime hinted contaminating influence of the "oldsters" upon the "youngsters" was a thing to be known no more forever, albeit the hint of contamination always seemed, to the writer, questionable, as, in his experience, the habit and propensity of the youngsters for mischief appeared to require neither promotion nor encouragement. Indeed, their methods and ingenuity in evading rules and regulations and defying discipline were as original as they were persevering, and could the third-story room of the building occupied by the subject of this sketch be given tongue, it would tell a tale of frolic and drollery that would only find parallel in the inimitable pages of Marryatt. Convenient apparatus for the stewing or roasting of oysters, poaching of eggs, or the mixing of refreshing drinks, could be readily stowed away from the inspecting officer, or a roast goose or turkey be smuggled by a trusty darkey from some restaurant outside; and it was but the work of a moment after taps to tack a blanket over the window, light the gas, and bring out a dilapidated pack of cards for a game of California Jack or draw-poker; or to convert the prim pine table into a billiard-table, with marbles for balls, with which the ownership of many a collar, neckerchief, shirt, and other articles of none too plentiful wardrobes, were decided in a twinkling, while the air of the crowded room grew thick and stifling from the smoke of the forbidden tobacco. One of the company would keep a sharp lookout for the possible advent of the sometimes rubber-shod passed midshipman doing police duty, and, if necessary, danger signals would be made from the basement story, by tapping on the steam-pipes, which signal would be repeated from room to room, and from floor to floor, generally in ample time for the young bacchanalians to disperse in safety. If, perchance, the revelers got caught, they would stand up at the next evening's parade and hear the offence and demerits accorded, read out in presence of the battalion, with an easy sang-froid that piqued the sea-worn experience of the oldsters while they marveled. Let no one judge these lads too harshly, for the day came, all too soon, when they were to stand up in face of the enemy, and, with equally nonchalant but sterner courage, go into battle in defence of the flag they were being trained to defend, many winning undying honor and fame, some meeting untimely but heroic graves, in "the war that kept the Union whole."
Our midshipmite soon became a favorite with all, from the gruff old superintendent down to the littlest new-comer at the school. His bright, cheery, and genial disposition, and frank, hearty ways, were very winning, and if, in his studies, he did not take leading rank, nor become enraptured over analytics, calculus, and binomials, he was esteemed a spirited, heartsome lad of good stock and promise, bred to honorable purpose and aspiration, with seemingly marked aptitude for the noble profession, which, more than any other, calls for a heroism that never hesitates, a courage that never falters; for, aside from its special work of upholding and defending the flag, and all it symbolizes, on the high seas to the uttermost parts of the globe, "they that go down to sea in ships" come closer to the manifestations of the unspeakable might and majesty of Almighty Power than any other. The seaman, with but a plank separating him from eternity, never knows at what moment he may be called upon to put forth all the skill and resource, the unflinching effort and sacrifice, that his calling ever, in emergency, unstintedly requires.
"Where'er the surge may sweep, the tempest's breath prevail, He searches all its stormy deep, its dangers all unveil."
Of medium height, slight and trim of figure, clear complexion and piercing gray eyes of peculiar brilliancy, softened by a merry twinkle betokening latent mischief, young Perkins was a youth fair and interesting to look upon. He walked with quick, elastic step, carried his head a little on one side, and had a habit, when anything struck his fancy pleasantly, of shrugging his shoulders and rubbing his hands together in a vigorous way, that seemed to declare in unmistakable terms that he was glad all over!
During one of the wonted summer cruises, he made himself somewhat famous at great-gun practice, the details of which are given in one of his home letters, as follows:—
"We had target practice one day, and it came my turn to shoot. There was quite a swell on, which made it very difficult to get any kind of a shot, but when I fired I hit the target, which was a barrel with a small flag on it, set up about three quarters of a mile distant. Such a thing as hitting a small target at sea, with the ship in motion, and a swell on, is considered almost out of the question, so they all said it was 'luck.' But another target was put out, and I fired again and stove it all to pieces. Then the crew all cheered, and made quite a hero of me. Still some said it must be luck, and another target was put out in exactly the same manner. This one I did not quite hit, but the shot fell so near, that all gave it up it was not luck, and that I was a first-rate shot with broadside guns."
After such demonstration, it is not strange that he was looked upon as having a very correct eye for distances, and was ever afterward called upon to fire whenever experiments were wanted. Naval gunnery, be it remarked in passing, is quite a different matter from army practice: in the former, with its platform never at rest, it is like shooting a bird on the wing, when distance and motion must be accurately gauged and allowed for; in the latter, from its gun on a fixed platform, it is but a question of measurement from the object, by means of instruments if need be, and of good pointing. The seaman stands immediately in rear of the gun, with eye along the sight directing its train, now right, now left, now well, and with taut lock-string in hand in readiness to pull the moment the object is on, and on the alert to jump clear of the recoil. The soldier handles his piece with greater deliberation, sights it leisurely on its immovable platform, and, if mounted en barbette, retires behind a traverse before firing.
Graduating in June, 1856, the now full-fledged Midshipman Perkins could look back upon his five years' probationary experience with many pleasant recollections, though doubtless thanking his stars that his pupilage was over.
During his time there had been two superintendents at the academy. The first was Captain C.K. Stribling, a fine seaman of the old school, of rigid Presbyterian stock, stern, grim, and precise, with curt manners, sharp and incisive voice that seemed to know no softening, and whose methods of duty and conception of discipline smacked of the "true blue" ideal of the Covenanters of old in their enforcement of obedience and conservation of morals. The second was Captain L.M. Goldsborough, a man of stalwart height and proportions and a presence that ennobled command; learned and accomplished, yet gruff and overwhelming in speech and brusque and impatient in manner, but possessing, withal, a kindly nature, and a keen sense of humor that took in a joke enjoyably, however practical; and a sympathetic discrimination that often led him to condone moral offences at which some of the straight-laced professors stood aghast. His responses at church-service resounded like the growl of a bear, and when reprimanding the assembled midshipmen, drawn up in battalion, for some grave breach of discipline, he would stride up and down the line with the tread of an elephant, and expound the Articles of War in stentorian tones that equaled the roar of a bull! But if, perchance, in the awesome precincts of his office, he afterwards got hold of a piece of doggerel some witty midshipman had written descriptive of such a scene, none would enjoy it more than he!
After an enjoyment of a three months' leave of absence at home. Midshipman Perkins was ordered to join the sloop-of-war Cyane, Captain Robb. That ship was one of the home squadron, and in November, 1856, sailed for Aspinwall, to give protection to our citizens, mails, and freight, in the transit across the Isthmus of Panama to California, back and forth. At that period safe and rapid transit in that region of riots and revolution was much more important than now,—the Pacific Railroad existing only in the brains of a few sagacious men,—and the maintenance of the thoroughfare across the pestilential isthmus was a national necessity. For years our naval force on either side had had frequent occasion to land expeditions to protect the life and property of our citizens, and a frightful massacre of passengers had but lately occurred at the hands of a mongrel mob at Panama. The situation was critical, and for a time it looked as though the United States would be obliged to seize and hold that part of Colombian territory. But time wore on without outbreak on the part of the fiery freemen of that so-called republic, the continued presence of ships, both at Panama and Aspinwall, doubtless convincing them of the folly of further attempts to molest the hated Yankees.
Meanwhile the notorious Walker had been making a filibustering raid in Central America, which ended in failure, and the Cyane went over to Greytown to bring the sick and wounded of his deluded followers to Aspinwall for passage to New York. Some hundred and twenty officers and men found in the hands of the Costa Ricans were taken on board, most of them in a deplorable condition. Some died before weighing anchor for Aspinwall, and as midshipmen have no definable duties except to obey orders, whatever they may be, Midshipman Perkins was sent in a boat one day to take a chaplain's part in the burial of one of the victims. "When we got out to sea," he wrote, "I read some prayers over him, and then he was thrown over the side, the sailors saying 'God bless you!' as the body sunk." This sad duty made him feel solemn and reflective, but more than likely as not he was called upon immediately on arrival on board, as "master's mate of the spirit-room," to attend the serving out of grog to the ship's company! Extremes meet on board a man-of-war, and the times for moralizing are short and scant.
So time sped, Midshipman Perkins performing his multifarious duties with alacrity and approval, and having some perilous adventures by flood and field in pursuit of wild game, until July, 1857, when the monotony of the cruise was broken by a trip to the banks of Newfoundland for the protection of our fishing interests, and including visits at Boston, St. John's, and Halifax.
The people of the Provinces were very hospitable, and the contrast between the dusky damsels of the isthmus and the ruddy-cheeked belles of St. John's and Halifax was brightening in the extreme; and young Perkins, ever gallant in his intercourse with the sex, and a good dancer, found much favor with the Provincial beauties, and doubtless made up for past deprivations, in the alluring contact with their charms.
Returning southward in the fall, the ship cruised among the West Indies, visiting, among other ports, Cape Haytien, the old capital of the island of Hayti, to inquire into the imprisonment of an American merchant captain. This place, before the French Revolution, had been a city of great magnificence and beauty—the Paris of the Isles; and the old French nobility, possessing enormous landed estates and large numbers of slaves, lived in a state of almost fabled grandeur and luxury; but negro rule, the removal of the seat of government to Port-au-Prince, and the great earthquake of 1842, have destroyed all but a semblance of its former glory and importance.
Among other sights visited by the officers was the old home of Count Cristoff, a castle of great size and strength, built on one of the highest hills, some twelve miles back of the town. It was told of the old Count that he used every year to bury large sums of money from his revenues, and then shoot the slave who did the work, that the secret of the spot might be known only to himself.
In January, 1858, Midshipman Perkins was detached from the Cyane, and he bade adieu forever to her dark, cramped-up, tallow-candle lighted steerage, baggy hammock, and hard fare, where the occasional dessert to a salt dinner had been dried apples, mixed with bread and flavored with whiskey! There were no eleven-o'clock breakfasts for midshipmen in those days, and canned meats, condensed milk, preserved fruits, and other luxuries now common on shipboard, were almost unknown.
A few brief days at home and orders came to join the storeship Release, which vessel after a three months' cruise in the Mediterranean returned to New York to fill up with stores and provisions for the Paraguay expedition. That expedition had for its object the chastisement of the Dictator Lopez for certain dastardly acts committed against our flag on the River Parana.
Owing to the paucity of officers, so many being absent on other foreign service, Midshipman Perkins was appointed acting sailing-master, a very responsible position for so young an officer, which, with the added comforts of a stateroom and well-ordered table in the wardroom, was almost royal in its contrast with the duty, the darksome steerage, and hard fare on board the Cyane. It would be difficult to make a landsman take in the scope of the change implied, but let him in imagination start across the continent in an old-fashioned, cramped-up stage-coach, full of passengers, with such coarse fare as could be picked up from day to day, and return in a Pullman car with well-stocked larder and restaurant attached, and he will get a glimmering as to the difference between steerage and wardroom life on board a man-of-war.
The Release was somewhat of a tub, and what with light and contrary winds and calms took sixty-two days to reach the rendezvous, Montevideo, arriving there in January, 1858. She found the whole fleet at anchor there, and officers and men soon forgot the weariness of the long passage in the receipt of letters from home, and in the joyous meetings with old friends. All admired the fine climate, and, as that part of South America is the greatest country in the world for horses, the young sailing-master rejoiced in the opportunity offered to indulge in his favorite pastime of riding. He also showed his prowess as a devotee of the chase in the fine sport afforded on the pampas that enabled him to run down and shoot a South American tiger.
Meanwhile Commodore Shubrick, in command of the expedition, had completed his preparations for ascending the Parana, and the fleet soon moved up to a convenient point, the Commodore himself continuing on up the river in a small vessel to Corrientes to meet Lopez and convey to him the ultimatum of the United States. After some "backing and filling," as an old salt would characterize diplomacy, Lopez concluded "discretion to be the better part of valor," and making a satisfactory amende, the Paraguayan war came to a bloodless end, and the hopes of expectant heroes with visions of promotion dissolved like summer clouds.
Young Perkins was now, August, 1858, transferred to the frigate Sabine for passage home to his examination for the grade of passed midshipman. Passing that ordeal satisfactorily, aided by handsome commendatory letters from his commanding officers, he spent three happy months at home, and then received orders for duty on board the steamer Sumter, as acting master, the destination of that vessel being the west coast of Africa, where, in accordance with the provisions of Article 8 of the Webster-Ashburton treaty (1842), the United States maintained a squadron, carrying not less than eighty guns, in co-operation with the British government, for the suppression of the slave trade. That article continued in active observance nineteen years, when the United States, having a little question of slavery to settle at home, gave the stipulated preliminary notice and recalled the ships.
The Sumter arrived on the coast in October, 1859, making her first anchorage in the lovely harbor on the west side of Prince's Island. That island, in about 1 30' north latitude, covered with all the luxuriance of tropical growth and verdure, and broken into every conceivable shape of pinnacle, castellated rock and chasm, and frowning precipice, streaked with silvery threads of leaping streams in their dash to the sea, is indeed one of the most enchanting spots the eye ever rested on. The chief inhabitant of the lovely isle was Madame Ferrara, a woman of French extraction, who lived alone in a big, rambling house, surrounded by slaves, who cultivated her plantations and prepared the cocoa, palm oil, yams, and cocoanuts, for the trade that sought her doors.
Filling up with water, the Sumter proceeded to the island of Fernando Po, a Spanish possession close in to the mainland, in the Bight of Biafra, where she met several English and French men-of-war, and received orders for her future movements.
The first thing to do, in accordance with the custom of the squadron, was the enlisting of fifteen or twenty negroes, known as Kroomen, whose home is in the Kroo country in upper Guinea, just south of Liberia. They did all the heavy boat-work of the ship, thus lightening the work of the crew, and saving them as much as possible from exposure to the effects of the deadly climate. Great, strapping, muscular fellows, many of them, with forms that an Apollo might envy, they were trained from infancy to be as much at home in the water as upon the land, and could swim a dozen leagues at sea or pull at the oar all day long without seeming fatigue. Wonderfully expert in their handling of boats, especially in the heavy surf that rolls in upon the coast with ceaseless volume and resistless power, its perilous line almost unbroken by a good harbor, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Gibraltar, their services in communicating with the shore were simply invaluable. The head Kroomen exercised despotic power over their respective gangs, and the men were given fanciful names, and so entered on the purser's books. Bottle-o'-Beer, Jack Frying-Pan, Tom Bobstay, Upside Down, and the like, were favorite names; and our fun-loving young sailing-master hints, in his letters of the time, that the archives of the fourth auditor's office at Washington may possibly embalm the names of certain Annapolis belles that had been borne by some of these sable folk!
The cruising ground embraced the coasts of Upper and Lower Guinea, and the coast of Biafra, with occasional visits of recruit and recreation to Cape Town and St. Helena. The work was arduous, monotonous, and exhausting, especially during the rainy season, when the decks were continually deluged with water, and dry clothing was the exception, not the rule. The weather was always hot, often damp and sultry, and the atmosphere on shore so pestilential, that no one was permitted to remain there after sundown. But that rule was no deprivation, as the dangers of the passage through the relentless breakers, alive with sharks, were so great, that few cared to visit the shore except when absolutely necessary. The vessels cruised mostly in sight of the coast to watch the movements of the merchantmen, all more or less under suspicion as slavers, watching their chances to get off with a cargo. On one hand was the rounded horizon dipping into the broad Atlantic; on the other, the angry line of rollers with their thunderous roar, backed by white beach and dense forest, with occasional glimpses of blue hills in the distant interior. This and nothing more, from day to day, save when a small village of thatched huts came into view, adding a scant feature to the landscape; or a solitary canoe outside the line of breakers; or strange sail to seaward; or school of porpoises, leaping and blowing, windward bound; or hungry shark prowling round the ship, lent momentary interest to the watery solitude. It was a privilege to fall in with another cruiser, whether of our own or of the English flag. On such occasions, down would go the boats for the exchange of visits, the comparison of notes, and sometimes the discussion of a dinner. The English officers had numerous captures and handsome sums of prize-money to tell of, while our people, as a rule, could only talk of hopes and possibilities. Our laws regulating captures were as inflexible as the Westminster Catechism, and a captain could not detain a vessel without great risk of civil damages, unless slaves were actually on board. Suspected ships might have all the fittings and infamous equipage for the slave traffic on board, but if their masters produced correct papers the vessels could not be touched; and our officers not infrequently had the mortification of learning that ships they had overhauled, and believed to be slavers, but could not seize under their instructions, got off the coast eventually with large cargoes of ebon humanity on board.
Not so with the English commanders, whose instructions enabled them to take and send to their prize-courts all vessels, except those under the American flag, under the slightest showing of nefarious character; and their hauls of prize-money were rich and frequent.
The intercourse with the English officers, notes Master Perkins, at first cordial and agreeable, became, after a few months, cold and indifferent. Her Majesty's officers no longer cared to show politeness or friendly feeling. The first premonitions of the Rebellion in the John Brown raid, the break-up of the democracy at Charleston, and the violence of the Southern press concerning the probable results of the pending presidential election, convincing them that the long-predicted and wished-for day—the breaking up of the Republic—was nigh at hand, and their real feelings as Englishmen cropped out but too plainly; but of this, more anon.
Despite the perils of the surf, the dangers of the inhospitable climate, and the unfriendly character of some of the savage tribes to be met with, the adventurous spirit and dauntless courage of Master Perkins was not to be balked. Volunteering for every duty, no matter how dangerous, hardly a boat ever left the ship that he was not in it. The life of the mess through his unfailing good humor and exuberant flow of spirits, he was the soul of every expedition, whether of service or pleasure; and before the cruise of some twenty-two months was up, he came to know almost every prominent tribe, chief, and king on the coast. Now dining with a king off the strangest of viands; now holding "palaver" with another; now spending a day with a chief and his numerous wives; now visiting a French barracoon, where, under a fiction of law, the victims were collected to be shipped as unwilling apprentices, not slaves, to be returned to their native wilds, if they lived long enough; now ascending a river dangerous for boats, where, if the boat had capsized, himself and crew would but have served a morning's meal to the hungry sharks held as fetich by the natives along the stream, who yearly sacrifice young girls reared for the purpose to their propitiation; now scouring the bush in pursuit of the gorilla or shooting hippopotami by the half-dozen, and other adventures and exploits wherein duty, excitement, and gratified curiosity were intermingled with danger and hairbreadth escape that few would care to tempt.
On one occasion, he volunteered to go with a boat's crew and find the mouth of the Settee River, not dreaming of landing through the unusually heavy surf. "But," said he, "in pulling along about half a mile from shore, a roller struck the boat and capsized it. Of course we were obliged to swim for shore; in fact, we had little to do with it, for the moment the boat was upset we were driven into the surf, and not one of us thought we should ever reach the shore, for if we were not lost in the surf, the sharks would eat us up. As I rose on the top of a wave I could look ahead and see the stretch of wild, tossing surf, which it seemed impossible for any one to live in; but when I looked back I could count all my men striking out, which was very encouraging, as I feared one or two might be under the boat. I thought for a moment of you all at home, and wondered if mother would not feel a little frightened if she knew how strong the chances were against her son's receiving any more letters from home. Just then a roller struck me and carried me down so deep I was caught by the undertow and carried toward the sea, instead of the land. When I came to the surface I tried to look out for the next roller, but it was no use; the first one half-drowned me, and the next kept me down so long that when I rose I was in the wildest of the surf, which tumbled and rolled me about in a way I did not like at all. My eyes, nose, and mouth were full of sand, and, in fact, I thought my time had come. Just then I looked on shore, and saw two of my men dragging some one from the water, and at that sight I struck out with one despairing kick, and managed to get near enough for two of the men to reach me; but that was all I knew of the affair until a little after sunset, when I became conscious of the fact that I was being well shaken, and I heard one of the men say, 'Cheer up, Mr. Perkins! Your boat and all the men are on shore.' This was such good news that I did not much mind the uncomfortable position in which I found myself. I was covered with sand and stretched across a log about two feet high, my head on one side and my feet on the other. The men had worked a long while to bring me to. Three of the men were half-drowned and one injured. We managed to get the boat in the river, but suffered awfully from thirst. The next morning we lost our way, and, after pulling around till mid-afternoon, we stumbled on some natives fishing. We followed them home, but found them such a miserable, bad-looking lot of negroes that we expected trouble. Knowing that the native villages in the daytime are left in charge of the old men and women, and not knowing what might happen when the men came back, we killed some chickens, and, with some sweet potatoes, made quite a meal. The strongest of us, myself and three others, got ready for a fight, while the rest manned the boat ready for our retreat. Shortly after this the chief came back, and about a hundred men with him. I told the chief I had come to pay him a visit, and we had a great palaver; but he would not give us anything to eat, and we made up our minds that it was a dangerous neighborhood; so we moved down on a sand-spit in sight of the ship, and there we stayed three days and nights. We built a tent and fortification, traded off most of our clothes for something to eat, and slept unpleasantly near several hundred yelling savages. All this while the ship could render no assistance; but on the third day the Kroomen came on shore with some oars, and, after trying all one day, we managed, just at night, to get through the surf and back to the ship. It was a happy time for us, and I may say for all on board, as they had been very anxious about us. Not far north of this, if you happen to get cast ashore, they kill and eat you at once, for cannibalism is by no means extinct among the negroes."
The sequel of this perilous experience was that all of them were stricken down with the dread African fever which, if it does not at all times kill, but too often shatters the constitution beyond remedy; and the fact that five officers, including one commanding officer, and a proportionate number of men, had been invalided home, and another commanding officer had died, all due to climatic causes, attests the general unhealthfulness of the coast. Other interesting incidents and narrow escapes, in which Master Perkins had part, might be told, did not lack of space forbid; but enough has been shown to impress the fact that African cruising, even in a well-found man-of-war, is not altogether the work and pleasure of a holiday; yet, in looking over young Perkins's letters, we cannot forbear this description of the expertness of the Kroomen in landing through the surf.
"When the boat shoves off from the ship, the Kroomen, entirely naked with exception of breech-clout, strike up a song, and pulling grandly to its rhythmic time, soon reach the edge of the surf, and lie on their oars. All eyes are now cast seaward, looking for a big roller, on the top of which we shall be carried on shore, and there is a general feeling of excitement. In a short time, the looked-for roller comes; the Kroomen spring to their oars with a shout, the natives on shore yell with all their might, the boat shoots forward on top of the wave at incredible speed, the surf thunders like the roar of a battery, and altogether it seems as if the world had come to an end and all those fellows in the infernal regions were let loose. Now we must trust to luck wholly; there is no retreat and no help, for the boat is beyond the power of any human management, and go on shore you must, either in the boat or under it. The moment the boat strikes the beach, the Kroomen jump overboard, and you spring on the back of one of them, and he runs with you up on the beach out of the way of the next roller, which immediately follows, breaking over the boat, often upsetting it and always wetting everything inside. If you have escaped without a good soaking, you may consider yourself a lucky fellow."
In the midst of this work came the startling news of the portentous events at home. The infrequent mails began to bring the angry mutterings, the fateful tidings, that preluded the Rebellion. Every fresh arrival but added to the excitement and increased the bewilderment that had so unexpectedly come upon the squadron; for, far removed from the scene, and not daily witnesses of the overt acts of the maddened South, they had mostly believed that the threatened conflict would be tided over, and the government be enabled to continue on in its wonted peaceful course. Now a wall, as of fire, rose up between the officers; every mess in every ship was divided against itself; brothers-in-arms of yesterday were enemies of to-day; and no one spoke of the outlook at home except in bated breath and measured speech, from fear that the bitter cup would overflow then and there, and water turn to blood. Many Southern officers sent in their resignations at once, and all, both from North and South, were anxious to get home to do their part on one side or the other.
"For some time past," wrote Master Perkins, "the foreigners here have shown us but little respect, and seem to regard us as a broken power; and this has been very provoking, for in my opinion it will be a long time before any power can afford to despise the United States." And he notes the fact that no more money could be had,—that the credit of the government was gone! Ah! how happy the day to loyal but wearied hearts on that inhospitable shore, when the news came of the President's call for seventy-five thousand men, giving assurance that we still had a government, and meant to preserve it through the valor, the blood, the treasure of the nation, if need be!
After unaccountable and vexatious delay, the Sumter received orders, July, 1861, to proceed to New York; meanwhile she had captured the slave brig Falmouth, a welcome finale to the cruise, and what with the officers transferred to her and the resignations that had taken place, Mr. Perkins now became executive officer, a fine position at that day for one of his years.
Making the homeward run in thirty-six days, the officers and men dispersed to their homes for a brief respite before entering upon the stern duties that awaited them, and Mr. Perkins had the satisfaction of receiving his commission as master.
Recruiting his shattered health for a short time at his welcoming home, he was ordered as executive officer of the Cayuga, one of the so-called ninety-day gunboats, carrying a battery of one eleven-inch Dahlgren gun, a twenty pounder Parrott rifle, and two twenty-four pounder howitzers, and commanded by Lieutenant-Commanding N.B. Harrison, a loyal Virginian, who had wavered never a moment as to his duty when his State threw down the gauntlet of rebellion.
The exigencies of the war had soon exhausted the lists of regular officers and the few thousand seamen that had been trained in the service, and large drafts of officers and men were made upon the merchant marine as well as big hauls of green landsmen who had never dreamt of salt water; and First Lieutenant Perkins, as the only regular officer on board except the captain, soon found himself an exceeding busy man in organizing, disciplining, drilling, and shaping into place and routine, some ninety officers and men, all equally new to man-of-war life and methods, and requiring the necessary time and instruction to fit them for their new duties. A fair soldier may be made in three months—a good seaman not in three years.
The vessel was ordered to join Farragut's fleet in the Gulf, but, with the usual delays incident to new ships, did not get off from New York until the first week in March, arriving at Ship Island on the thirty-first, by way of Key West, and having made a prize on the way. As the young executive had been promoted to a lieutenancy on the eve of departure from New York his visions of prize-money were doubtless proportionately enhanced by the capture!
The next day she sailed for the mouth of the Mississippi, where, and at the head of the passes, the rest of the fleet was assembled, and Flag-Officer Farragut busily engaged in completing the preparations for the attack on New Orleans.
The fleet consisted of four heavy sloops-of-war of the Hartford class; three corvettes of the Iroquois class; nine gunboats of the Cayuga class, and the large side-wheel steamer Mississippi, carrying in the aggregate one hundred and fifty-four guns, principally of nine-inch and eleven-inch calibre; but as the large ships carried their batteries mostly in broadside, the actual number that could be brought to bear, under the most favorable conditions, on every given point, would be cut down to the neighborhood of ninety guns.
Supporting this force as auxiliary to it, for the bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, was Porter's mortar fleet of twenty schooners, each mounting a thirteen-inch mortar, and a flotilla of five side-wheel steamers, and the gunboat Owasco, carrying, in all, thirty guns.
The forts in question, forming the principal defences of New Orleans, were heavy casemated works with traverses on top for barbette guns, some ninety miles below the city at a point where the river makes a sharp bend to the southeast. Fort St. Philip, on the left bank, mounted forty-two guns, and Fort Jackson, including its water battery, had sixty-seven guns in position, all of calibre from the long twenty-four pounder to the heavy ten-inch Columbiad, and including several six-inch and seven-inch rifles.
Stretching across the river from bank to bank to bar the channel, nearly opposite Fort Jackson and exposed to the perpendicular fire of St. Philip, were heavy ship's chains, supported and buoyed by hulks, rafts, and logs, and half a dozen large schooners. The rebels had also established some works on the banks of the river about four miles from town, known as the McGehee and Chalmette batteries, the latter being located at the point ever memorable in American history as the scene of General Jackson's overwhelming defeat of the British in 1815.
Their reliance afloat was in the Louisiana, an ironclad, carrying nine rifles and seven smooth bores of heavy calibre; the ram Manassas, one gun; the McRae, seven guns; the Moore and Quitman with two guns each; six river steamers with their stems shod with iron to act as rams, and several iron-protected tugs.
Assembling the fleet at the head of the passes, after much difficulty in getting the heavy ships over the bar, Farragut ordered the ships to strip like athletes for battle. Down came mast and spar till nothing was left standing but lower masts,—and even those were taken out of some of the gunboats,—and soon everything best out of reach of shot was landed, leaving clear decks, and no top hamper to be cut away by the enemy's projectiles, and come tumbling down about the heads of guns' crews.
About this time the English and French men-of-war that had lain before New Orleans, giving aid and comfort to the enemy and making merry in singing rebel songs on board, especially on board the English vessels, left the river, their officers declaring it an impossibility for the fleet to pass the forts and obstructions.
In this connection, it may be mentioned that the cruisers of John Bull prowled along the coast during the entire war, with sometimes permission to enter the blockaded ports, conveying information and lending encouragement to the enemy, and rejoicing at every disaster that befell the Union arms, which, together with the tacit connivance of the British government in letting out the Alabama, and other hostile acts, ought to be treasured against Great Britain so long as the Republic endures.
On the sixteenth of April, Farragut moved up to a point just below the forts, and on the eighteenth, having established the vessels of the mortar fleet at distances ranging from twenty-nine hundred and fifty yards to four thousand yards, from Jackson, and partially hidden by trees on one side the river, and disguised with bushes on the other, opened the bombardment, which was kept up with little interruption for six days and nights; the corvettes and gunboats taking part by turns in running up, delivering their fire, and dropping down with the current out of range again. The forts replied vigorously, and every night the enemy sent down fire-rafts, but to little purpose.
Meanwhile, under cover of the night and the fire of the fleet, Fleet-Captain Bell, and Lieutenants-Commanding Crosby and Caldwell of the gunboats Pinola and Itasca, had succeeded in forcing a channel through the obstructions, a piece of duty that had required the most robust and dauntless courage, and in which Caldwell—a son of Massachusetts—shone pre-eminent by the coolness of his methods and thoroughness of his work. And now, on the night of the twenty-third, after a last examination by Caldwell in a twelve-oared boat, all was pronounced clear, and the fleet was to weigh at two o'clock in the morning.
The fleet was formed in three divisions, the first comprising the Hartford, flagship, the Brooklyn, and Richmond; the second composed of eight vessels with the divisional flag of Captain Bailey on board the Cayuga; and the third of six vessels, with Fleet-Captain Bell's flag flying from the Sciota; but was ordered to pass through the obstructions in one column or single line ahead, the Cayuga leading. Farragut had intended to lead himself, but at Bailey's urgent request yielded that honor to him.
The letters of Lieutenant Perkins, ever glowing with ardor for the good cause, were, at this time, full of patriotic fervor and aspiration, and when he said: "I hope the Cayuga will go down before she ever gives up, and 'I guess' she will," he certainly meant it! And the supreme moment had now come for him to inform this hope by valorous deeds, and all unfalteringly did he walk in the blazing light of heroism that none but the brave may dare to tread.
The signal to weigh was promptly made at two o'clock, A.M., but work at night is always behind, and it was half-past three o'clock before the little Cayuga, leading the line, pressed gallantly through the obstructions at full speed, eager for the fray, closely followed by the heavy Pensacola, and ship after ship in the order assigned; but lack of space forbids a general description of the battle, and we propose to do hardly more than to follow the fortunes of the Cayuga.
Lieutenant-Commanding Harrison had paid his executive the high compliment of allowing him to pilot the vessel, and Perkins took position in the eyes of her, on the topgallant forecastle, while Lieutenant-Commanding Harrison and Captain Bailey stood aft, near the wheel, and all the men except the helmsmen were made to lie flat on the deck until the time came for them to serve the battery. Prone on the deck at Perkins's feet, and with his head close down over the bow, was the captain of the forecastle, to watch the channel and give timely warning of anything barring the way that might escape the wider-ranging eye of the intrepid young pilot; and as the Cayuga pressed on, receiving the first shock of the outburst from the forts, what finer subject for the painter, than that lithe young figure standing up in bold and unflinching relief, at the extreme bow of the ship, peering ahead in the morning starlight to pilot her safely on her way, amid the blinding flame and screaming bolts, the hurtle of shot and crash of shell, the explosion and deafening roar of a hundred shotted guns, as the vessel steamed into the jaws of death, leading the fleet into one of the most momentous and memorable conflicts in naval annals. Nor should cool and phlegmatic Harrison nor grand old Bailey be overlooked, as the constant flashes of the thick exploding shells revealed them standing, calm and grim, at their posts, in readiness to direct the movements of vessel and column, and engage the foe, ashore and afloat; nor the impatient officers and crew, who eagerly waited the order to spring to their guns and make reply to the withering fire pouring in upon them as yet unavenged.
"Noticing," said Perkins, "that the enemy's guns were all aimed for midstream, I steered right close under the walls of St. Philip, and although our masts and rigging were badly shot through, the hull was hardly damaged. After passing the last battery, I looked back for some of our vessels, and my heart jumped into my mouth, when I found I could not see a single one. I thought they must all have been sunk by the forts. Looking ahead, I saw eleven of the enemy's gunboats coming down, upon us, and I supposed we were gone. Three made a dash to board us, but a charge from our eleven-inch settled one, the Governor Moore. The ram Manassas just missed us astern, and we soon disposed of the other. Just then, some of our gunboats came to the assistance of the Cayuga, and all sorts of things happened; it was the wildest excitement all round. The Varuna fired a broadside into us instead of the enemy. Another attacked one of our prizes; three had struck to us before any of our ships came up, but when they did come up we all pitched in and sunk eleven vessels in about twenty minutes."
The brief encounter with the Moore had been very exciting. The vessels were alongside each other, and both were reloading,—the guns muzzle to muzzle, and but a few feet apart. The gun that could fire first would decide the fate of one or the other. Perkins sprang down, and, taking personal charge of the smoking eleven-inch, put fresh vigor into its loading, and firing the instant the rammer was withdrawn, swept the Moore's gun from its carriage, and killed or disabled thirteen of its crew.
The Cayuga still leading the way up the river came upon a regiment at daylight encamped close to the bank, and Perkins, as the mouthpiece of the captain, hailed them and ordered them to come on board and deliver up their arms or he would "blow them to pieces."
It proved to be the Chalmette regiment, and, surrendering, the officers and men were paroled and the former allowed to retain their side-arms, "except," said Perkins, "one captain, whom I discovered was from New Hampshire. I took his sword away from him and have kept it!"
Now Farragut came up in the Hartford and signalled the fleet to anchor. This was near Quarantine, some five miles above the forts. All the vessels had succeeded in running the gauntlet of their fire except three gunboats, and New Orleans was now practically at the mercy of the fleet; but the Varuna had been rammed and sunk in the hot fight with the enemy's flotilla just above St. Philip.
The Cayuga had received forty-two hits in mast and hull, and six men had been wounded.
The hurricane of projectiles had passed mostly too high to do mortal harm to her crew, due in part to the skilful manner in which Perkins had sheered in toward the bank from midstream so early in the fight.
Resting until the next morning to care for the dead and wounded, and the repair of damages, the fleet again weighed, the Cayuga still in advance; and when the spires of the city hove in sight from her deck, "three rousing cheers and a tiger" went up from her gallant crew. But the plucky little gunboat was getting ahead too fast, for arriving close abreast the Chalmette battery, which seemed to be deserted, she suddenly received a fire that compelled a halt. Over-matched five to one, and having been struck fourteen times, with shot and shells dropping thick and fast about her, she slowed and dropped back a little with the current, until the Hartford and Brooklyn coming up quickly silenced the enemy with their heavy broadsides, while the Pensacola cared for the hostile works on the opposite bank in like manner. The fleet then kept on without further obstruction, and arrived and anchored off the city about noon; finding the levee along its entire length aflame with burning cotton, coal, ships, steamboats, and other property the infuriated enemy had devoted to destruction.
The loss to the fleet in this daring and brilliant feat had been thirty-seven killed and one hundred and thirty-seven wounded.
It is needless to say that Lieutenant Perkins not only received high commendation from Captain Bailey and Lieutenant-Commanding Harrison, but won the praise and admiration of all on board and in the fleet, by the coolness and intrepidity shown by him in every emergency of the fight and passage up the river.
The first tidings received in Washington foreshadowing the success of the attack was through rebel telegrams announcing, "one of the enemy's gunboats"—the Cayuga—"above the forts." Some question subsequently arose between Bailey and Farragut as to the Cayuga's position in the passage, which in the diagrams accompanying the official reports contradicted the text, putting the Cayuga third instead of first in the van. Farragut cheerfully made the correction.
Soon after anchoring, Bailey was ordered to go on shore and demand the unconditional surrender of the city, and he asked Lieutenant Perkins to accompany him. This duty was almost as dangerous and conspicuous as the passage of the forts had been, for an infuriated and insolent mob followed them from the landing to the mayor's office, and while there with the mayor and General Lovell, besieged the doors, demanding the "Yankee officers" to be given up to them to be hung. The demonstration at last became so threatening, that the mayor drew off the attention of the mob by a speech to them in front of the building, while the Union officers took a close carriage in its rear and driving rapidly down to their boat, reached the ship in safety.
Bailey had managed to hoist the flag over the mint, which a party of rebels tore down the next day, but the authorities refused to surrender the city or to haul down the insignia of rebellion. Then ensued a correspondence which, to read at this day, makes the blood boil at rebel insolence, and the wonder grow at Farragut's forbearance; but on the twenty-ninth of April, he sent Fleet-Captain Bell on shore with two howitzers manned by sailors and a battalion of two hundred and fifty marines and took possession of the city. Meanwhile the forts had surrendered to Porter of the mortar fleet, and General Butler, arriving on the first of May, relieved Farragut of further responsibility as to the city.
The Cayuga had been so badly cut up by shot and shell that she was selected to take Captain Bailey north as bearer of dispatches, and landing him at Fortress Monroe, proceeded on to New York to be refitted. This enabled Lieutenant Perkins to make a short visit to Concord, where his father, now become judge of probate of Merrimack County, had removed, and both himself and the family received many congratulations, personal and written, at the brilliant record he had made in the recent memorable operations on the Mississippi.
Modest and unassuming, with a genial frankness of manner that told pleasantly alike on quarter-deck or street, in family-circle or drawing-room, he wore his honors in the quietest way possible, never speaking of his own part in the brave deeds of the time, except when pressed to do so, and then with a reticence all too provoking, from the well-grounded suspicion that he kept back the pith of the real story of personal participation he might tell without tinge of exaggeration or boastfulness.
Returning to the Cayuga he found a new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commanding D. McN. Fairfax, another loyal Virginian, who not only stood faithful to the flag under all circumstances, but had, as the officer from the San Jacinto, boarded the Trent and taken from her the arch-conspirators, Mason and Slidell, suffering the contumely of rebel womanhood in the reception accorded him by Mr. Commissioner Slidell's daughter.
Fairfax and Perkins had known each other on the coast of Africa, and it was the meeting of old friends made doubly pleasant by the senior's hearty appreciation of the laurels so gallantly won by the junior, and self-congratulation in the promised comfort of retaining an executive of so much energy, ability, and reputation.
Rejoining Farragut's squadron, Perkins saw other gallant and varied service in the Cayuga until November, 1862, when he was transferred to the Pensacola, and the following month commissioned lieutenant-commander, a new grade created by Congress to correspond with that of major in the army.
In June, 1863, General Banks, then besieging Port Hudson, sent word to the now Rear-Admiral Farragut, that he must have more powder or give up the siege, wherefore the Admiral ordered the gunboat New London on the important service of powder transportation and convoy, and assigning Perkins to the command until the officer ordered from the North by the department should arrive. The enemy had possession at that time of some three hundred miles of the river below Port Hudson, with batteries established at various points and sharpshooters distributed along the banks.
Five times Perkins ran the fiery gauntlet successfully, but on the sixth his vessel was disabled in a sharp fight at Whitehall's Point. One shot from the enemy exploded the New London's boiler, and another disabled her steam chest. In that critical condition, directly under the guns of the hostile battery, and exposed to the fire of sharpshooters on the bank, and deserted by his consort, the Winona, his position seemed desperate almost beyond remedy; but fertile in expedients and daring to rashness in their execution, he finally succeeded, after almost incredible exertion and perilous personal adventure, in communicating with the fleet below, and the vessel was saved.
Now the commanding officer from the North having arrived, Perkins was transferred to the command of the ninety-day gunboat Sciota, the best command at that time, in the squadron, for an officer of his years, and assigned to duty on the blockade off the coast of Texas. To one of his social disposition and active temperament, the blockade, ever harassing and monotonous, was, as he wrote, a "living death," adding that "we are all talked out, and sometimes a week passes and I hardly speak more than a necessary word." Venturing ashore several times on hunting excursions, he at last came near being captured by the enemy, and held after that, that "cabin'd confinement was preferable to a rebel prison," and so kept on board. Once during that weary nine months, the tedium was broken by the capture of a fat prize—a schooner loaded with cotton. Let us hope that the prize-court and its attendant officials did not absorb too big a share of the proceeds!
Relieved from that command late in May, 1864, with leave to proceed home, he arrived at New Orleans in June, to find active preparations for the Mobile fight going on, and though he had not been at home for two years, he could not stand it to let slip so glorious an opportunity for stirring service, and so volunteered to remain. Farragut, delighted at such determination, quite different from the experience he had had with some officers, assigned to Perkins a command above his rank—the Chickasaw,—a double-turretted monitor, carrying four eleven-inch guns and a crew of one hundred and forty-five men and twenty-five officers. She had been built, together with the Winnebago, a sister vessel, at St. Louis, by Mr. Joseph B. Eads, the eminent engineer, on plans of his own. Of light draught and frame, and peculiar construction, some officers distrusted her strength and sea-going qualities. The Chickasaw, too, was not yet completed, the mechanics being still at work on her machinery and fittings, and her crew, with exception of a half-dozen men-of-war's-men, were river-men and landsmen, knowing nothing of salt-water sailing or of naval discipline. But time pressed: every moment was of priceless value; and Perkins, declining all social invitations, set about with characteristic energy to prepare his ship for the coming conflict. Nor did his work of preparation and drill cease, either in the river or outside, until well into the night preceding the eventful day in Mobile Bay that was to add another brilliant page to the annals of the navy.
On the twenty-eighth of July, he left New Orleans to join the fleet off Mobile, and on the way down the river an episode occurred that came nigh settling the fate of the Chickasaw without risk or chance of battle; for on nearing the bar, Perkins left the pilot-house a moment to look after some matters requiring attention outside. He had hardly reached the spot he sought, when, turning round, he saw that the pilot had changed the ship's course and was heading directly for a wreck close aboard, which to strike would end the career of the Chickasaw then and there. Springing back into the pilot-house, he seized the wheel and brought the ship back on her course, then snatching a pistol from his belt, said to the traitorous fellow: "You are here to take this ship over the bar, and if she touches ground or anything else, I'll blow your d——d brains out!" Pale with suppressed rage, and trembling with fear, the pilot expostulated that "the bottom was lumpy, and the best pilot in the river could not help touching at times."
"No matter," rejoined Perkins, "if you love the Confederacy better than your life, take your choice; but if you touch a single lump, I'll shoot you!" Needless to say, no lumps were found, nor that the pilot made haste to get out of such company the moment he was permitted to do so; neither may we doubt that the recording angel traced, with lightest hand, the strong language used by the nearly betrayed captain!
The Chickasaw arrived off Mobile bar August 1, where all was expectancy and preparation for the coming fight, a fight which perhaps had more in it of dramatic interest than any other naval battle of the war. The wooden ships pushing into the bay through the torpedo-strewn channel and under the fierce storm of shot and shell from Fort Morgan, lashed together in pairs for mutual support in case of disaster; the sudden and tragic sinking of the Tecumseh by torpedo stroke, with the loss of the heroic Craven and most of his brave officers and men; the halt of the Brooklyn in mid-channel in face of that dire disaster, which, with the threatened huddling of the ships together by the inward sweep of the tide, portended swift discomfiture and possible defeat; the intuitive perception and quick decision that literally enabled Farragut to take the flood that led to fortune, in the instant ordering of the Hartford to push ahead with his flag and assume the lead he had relinquished only at the urgent request of the Brooklyn's commander; the restored order and prompt following of the fleet, regardless of torpedoes, on the new course blazed out by the eagle eye and emphatic tongue of the fearless old admiral as he grappled with the emergency from the futtock-shrouds of the flagship; the little boat putting off from the Metacomet, suddenly lighted up by its saucy ensign, in the midst of the fiery chaos and thunderous roar of battle, to save the few souls struggling in the water from the ill-fated Tecumseh, calling forth admiration, alike from friend and foe, at the intrepidity of its mission; the dash of the enemy's powerful ram Tennessee, clad in heaviest armor, down the Union line, endeavoring to strike each vessel in turn; the separation of the coupled ships when beyond the reach of Morgan's guns, and the dash of the gunboats led by Jouett, of the Metacomet, like hounds released from the leash, at the enemy's flotilla; the reappearance of leviathan Tennessee and the fierce tournament that ensued, with turtle-backed Chickasaw following close under her stern with bulldog grip that knew no release; the intrepid skill and desperate valor never surpassed, with which the ram manoeuvred and withstood the hammering and ramming of the wooden ships, the pounding and shattering of the ironclads, before she yielded to the inevitable fate that awaited her,—all conspired to form a scene of grand and dramatic circumstance almost without parallel in naval warfare.
The youngest officer in command on that day,—the fifth of August,—so fateful to the fading fortunes of the Confederacy, so glorious to the reascendant star of Union, no one contributed more to its glories and success than Perkins of the Chickasaw; and in any other service under the sun he would have received immediate promotion for what he did on that day. Had he been an Englishman, the honors of knighthood would have been conferred on him, as well as promotion, but as an American he still waits adequate recognition for deeds as brave as they were conspicuous and telling.
Said Mr. Eads, the builder, when he heard the results of the battle and the surpassing part of the Chickasaw in it: "I would walk fifty miles to shake hands with the young man who commanded her!" And remembering the disparagement that had been put on the vessel and her sister ship, the Winnebago, his enthusiasm knew no bounds, and he took pains to gather all the details of the Chickasaw's brilliant work.
With the loss of the Tecumseh, the ironclad portion of the fleet was reduced to the Manhattan, armed with two fifteen-inch guns, and the Chickasaw and Winnebago of two eleven-inch guns each; but one of the Manhattan's guns became disabled early in the action, by a bit of iron lodging in the vent, and the Winnebago's turrets would not turn, so that her guns could be pointed only by manoeuvring the vessel. But the Chickasaw, owing to Perkins's foresight and hard work, was in perfect condition, as illustrated in all her service on that eventful day, as well as on all subsequent occasions, until the capitulation of Mobile ended the drama of rebellion on the Southern seaboard.
The wooden ships, stripped as at New Orleans for the stern work in hand, numbered fourteen, and the number of guns carried by the fleet was one hundred and fifty-five, throwing, by added facility of pivot and turret, ninety-two hundred and eight pounds of metal in broadside, from which thirteen hundred and twenty must be deducted through the early loss of the Tecumseh and the disabled gun of the Manhattan.
The enemy's defences consisted of Fort Morgan, commanding the channel at Mobile Point, mounting seventy guns; Fort Gaines, on the eastern point of Dauphin Island, some three miles northwest of Fort Morgan, armed with thirty guns, and Fort Powell, about four miles from Gaines northwest, at Grant's Pass, with four guns.
Across the channel, which runs close to Morgan, several lines of torpedoes were planted, and just beyond them to the northward of the fort, in line abreast waiting their opportunity, was the rebel squadron, comprising the Tennessee, flagship of Admiral Buchanan, and the gunboats Morgan, Gaines, and Selma, carrying in the aggregate twenty-two guns—eight rifles and fourteen smooth-bores. The Tennessee, the most powerful ship that ever flew the Confederate flag, was two hundred and nine feet in length, and forty-eight feet in width, with a heavy iron spur projecting from the bow some two feet under water. Her sides "tumbled home" at an angle of forty-five degrees and were clad in armor of five and six inches thickness, over a structure of oak and pine of twenty-five inches. Her guns, six heavy Brooke's rifles, were arranged, by port and pivot, for an effective all-round fire, and her speed was six knots.
All was ready for the attack on the evening of the fourth of August, and at half-past five the next morning the signal was thrown out to weigh, and fall into the order prescribed; the wooden ships in couples, and the ironclads in line by themselves; the Tecumseh in the van and the Chickasaw in rear, according to the rank of their commanding officers.
At half-past six the fleet was across the bar and in order of battle. No starlight or favoring clouds now, to partially mask its movements as at the passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, but the joyous sunshine, flooding land and sea with its brightness, and mirroring its revealing gleams upon fort and ship and pennon, serving friend and foe alike impartially. Alas! for the brave souls to whom that gracious morning light was the last of earth, but we may hope they awoke in a light of still more radiance and glory, and amid paeans of a joyous host, choiring "Well done, thou good and faithful servants, that didst give thy lives to God and country!"
The soft south wind of that fair morn came like a benediction to the fleet now sweeping on with the flood tide, and stillness like a sentient presence, only disturbed by the sound of screw or paddle-wheel as they turned ahead, hung over the ships till broken by the belching roar of the Tecumseh's monster guns, as she threw two fifteen-inch shells into Morgan—her first and last! And now, at seven, "by the chime," the action became general, and the Tecumseh, having loaded with heaviest charge and solid steel shot, steamed on ahead of the Brooklyn to attack the Tennessee; but Craven, thinking he saw a movement on the part of the ram to get out of the way, together with the seemingly too narrow space between the fatal buoy and the shore for manoeuvre in case of need, gave the order to starboard the helm, and head directly for the watchful Tennessee, waiting with lock-strings in hand to salute the monitor as she closed—gallant foeman worthy of her steel! So near and yet so far, for hardly had the Tecumseh gone a length to the westward of the sentinel buoy, than the fate, already outlined, overwhelmed her, and her iron walls became coffin, shroud, and winding-sheet to Craven and most of the brave souls with him, and all so suddenly that those who had seen the disaster could hardly realize what had taken place.
Ours is not the purpose to follow further the details of the fight, but to go with Perkins in the Chickasaw and see things as he saw them on that stirring day, as gathered from his letters and as fortified from other sources. Of tireless energy and restless activity, and sternly intent upon making the Chickasaw second to none in the grand work demanded of the fleet, he imparted nerve and enthusiasm throughout the vessel; now in the pilot-house, looking after the helmsman; then in the forward turret, personally sighting the guns; anon on top of the turret, taking in the surroundings.
His fine spirit and high moral courage had characteristic illustration when, the night before the fight, calling his officers into the cabin, he thus addressed them: "Gentlemen, by this time to-morrow, the fate of this fleet and of Mobile will be sealed. We have all a duty to perform and a victory to win. I have sent for you to say, that not a drop of wine, liquor, or beer, is to be drunk on board of this vessel from this hour until the battle is over, and the victory won, or death has come to us. It is my wish that every officer and man shall go into battle with a clear head and strong nerves. I rely upon you to comply with this requirement, confident that the Chickasaw and her crew can thus best perform their whole duty."
An officer, who held high position on board the flagship, writes: "Perkins went into the fight in his shirt-sleeves and a straw hat, and as he passed the Hartford, he was on top of the turret waving his hat and dancing around with delight and excitement."—"The ironclads," said Perkins, "were ordered to follow inside the fleet, between fleet and fort. I had orders to be reserve force and remain with wooden vessels after passing obstructions. Our course was between a certain buoy and the shore. This passage was known to be free from torpedoes, and was left for the blockade runners. All the vessels had orders to keep between that buoy and the shore, but in other respects the ironclads had separate orders from the wooden vessels. In the confusion resulting from the destruction of the Tecumseh and the movements of the Brooklyn, the monitors received no orders and followed in the line of the other vessels." Be it said in passing, that Perkins had no pilot, and at sight of the Tecumseh's doom, one of the men in the pilot-house fainted, leaving only Perkins and one man to steer the vessel until the vigorous methods applied brought the man to, and freshened his pluck! The pilot-house was abaft the forward turret, not on top, as in the case of the Tecumseh class, and was entered through a trap-door which was kept open during the fight, for the vessel being unfinished, there was no way of opening it from inside when closed.
"I pushed forward as rapidly as possible, but my ship anyway was stationed last of the ironclads, as I was youngest in command. We fired at the fort to keep down its fire till the wooden ships had passed. When the Tennessee passed, it was on my port side; she then steamed toward Fort Morgan. Some of our vessels anchored, others kept under weigh, and when the Tennessee approached the fleet again, she was at once attacked by the wooden vessels, but they made no impression upon her. An order was now brought to the ironclads by Fleet-Surgeon Palmer for them to attack the ram, but as they stood for her, she seemed again to move as if retiring toward the fort, but the Chickasaw overtook her, and after a short engagement, succeeded in forcing her to surrender, having shot away her smoke-stack, destroyed her steering gear, and jammed her afterparts so that her stern guns were rendered useless. As she could not steer she drifted down the bay, head on, and I followed her close, firing as fast as I could, my guns and turrets, in spite of the strain upon them, continuing in perfect order. When Johnston came on the roof of the Tennessee and showed the white flag as signal of surrender, no vessel of the fleet was as near as a quarter of a mile, but the Ossipee was approaching, and her captain was much older than myself. I was wet with perspiration, begrimed with powder, and exhausted by long-continued exertion. I drew back and allowed Captain Le Roy to receive the surrender, though my first lieutenant, Hamilton, said to me at the time: 'Captain, you are making a mistake.'"
Knowing full well that the Chickasaw's eleven-inch shot would not penetrate the stout side-armor of the Tennessee, Perkins made for the weakest part of the vessel—her stern, and hung there close aboard, pouring solid shot of iron and steel into that vital part with the accuracy of pistol-shooting, until the ram surrendered; then taking her in tow, carried her near the flagship. He had fired fifty-two shots, and, says the officer of the Hartford already quoted: "The guns of the Chickasaw jammed the steering gear of the ram, also the port stopper of the after port disabling the after gun, and a shot from the Chickasaw broke Admiral Buchanan's leg."
But said Commander Nicholson of the Manhattan, in his official report: "Of the six fifteen-inch projectiles fired from this vessel at the rebel ironclad Tennessee, I claim four as having struck, doing most of the real injuries that she has sustained"; then enumerating the injuries inflicted, which included most of those claimed for the Chickasaw. Upon which claim put forth by the Manhattan, the writer ventures the opinion: First, that four hits out of six shots was poor shooting for a monitor at a target like the Tennessee, and suggestive of considerable distance between the vessels; second, that eye-witnesses have affirmed that only one of the Manhattan's shot took effect, a solid shot that struck the ram on the port beam, crushing her armor and splintering the backing, but not entering the casemate, though leaving a clean hole through; third, that the effect of that one shot showed what the Manhattan might have accomplished had she taken as favorable a position as that chosen by the Chickasaw; fourth, that it is believed the report of a board of survey confirmed the opinion as to that one shot; fifth, that, as between the great difference of sound in the firing of the fifteen-inch gun and an eleven-inch, and the greater destructive effect of the larger projectiles which could not but be felt by those receiving it, the enemy would best be likely to know from what source they sustained the most vital damage; sixth, that the concurrent opinions of the day, as given by press correspondents, eye-witnesses to the conflict, magazine summaries, official reports, the praise of Perkins on every lip, the talk of his promotion by distinguished officers, and the testimony of the enemy themselves, including Admiral Buchanan and Captain Johnston, all go to show that the surrender of the Tennessee was due more to the dogged and unrelenting effort and skilful management of Perkins of the Chickasaw than from any other cause.
Asked the Tennessee's pilot of "Metacomet" Jouett: "Who commanded the monitor that got under our stern?" adding, "D——n him! he stuck to us like a leech; we could not get away from him. It was he who cut away the steering gear, jammed the stern port shutters, and wounded Admiral Buchanan."
Said Captain Johnston, in the same vein: "If it had not been for that d——d black hulk hanging on our stern we would have got along well enough; she did us more damage than all the rest of the Federal fleet."
"The praise of Commander Perkins," wrote a son of Concord, himself an active participant in the fight, "on the superb management of his command, and the most admirable and efficient working of his ship, was upon the lips of all."
Pages of similar commendation might be quoted, but what need multiply testimony so direct and conclusive as to Perkins's gallantry and achievement, questioned only in quarters where the discretion of silence and suggestion of modesty had best been observed!
It only remains to add, in this connection, that so long as the Tennessee continued to flaunt her flag in face of the fleet, so long the work of that glorious day was of naught; that her capture, due in greatest part to the efforts of the Chickasaw, completed the work and ensured, without embarrassment, the continued operations against Fort Morgan and other defences in the bay.
Perkins, not content with laurels already won, got under weigh after dinner, and steamed up to Fort Powell, taking that work in rear. The shots from the Chickasaw destroyed the water-tanks, and Captain Anderson reported that, believing it to be impossible to drive the ironclad from its position, and fearing that a shell from the Chickasaw would explode the magazine, he decided to save his command and blow up the fort, which was done that night at 10.30. In the afternoon, the Chickasaw had seized a barge loaded with stores, from under the guns of Fort Powell, and towed it to the fleet.
The next afternoon, the ever-ready and alert Chickasaw, under her indefatigable commander, went down to Fort Gaines and shelled that work until dusk with such telling effect, that, coupled with the fact that the landforce under General Granger, investing its rear, was now ready to open fire in conjunction with the fleet, the rebel commander capitulated the next morning.
Morgan was now the only remaining work of the outer line of Mobile's defences to be "possessed and occupied," and General Granger, after throwing a sufficient garrison into Gaines, transferred his army and siege-train to the other side of the bay, and landing at Navy Cove, some four miles from Morgan, began its investment.
While this was going on, the Chickasaw was not idle, but continually using her guns at one point and another, with occasional exchanges of shotted compliments with the rams and batteries across the obstructions in Dog River, forming the inner line of defence of the city, some four miles distant.
On the twenty-second of August, the approaches having been completed, the land and naval forces opened a terrific fire on devoted Morgan, and continued it throughout the day with such effect that General Page, commanding the garrison, struck his colors and surrendered the next day.
The Chickasaw was as conspicuous in the bombardment as she had been in all her work since entering the bay. It was not in Perkins's temperament to be otherwise, and said an eye-witness at the time: "It was a glorious sight to see the gallant Perkins in the Chickasaw, nearly all the morning almost touching the wharf, and pouring in his terrible missiles, two at a time, making bricks and mortar fly in all directions, then moving ahead or astern a little to get a fresh place. He stayed there till nearly noon, when he hauled off to cool his guns and give his men some refreshment. In the afternoon, he took his ship in again, and turret after turret was emptied at the poor fort."
Perkins sent home the flag that had flown over the fort during the bombardment he obtained it in this wise: "The sailors from this ship," said he, "hauled down the flag, and one of them seized it and hid it in his bosom; there was not much left of it; it was riddled and torn. He brought it to me, declaring that no one had a right to it but the captain of the Chickasaw. I hardly knew what to do about it, but the man seemed so earnest I could not refuse to take it from him."
The bay was now sealed to blockade runners, and Mobile, measured as to its commercial importance to the Confederacy, might as well have been located among the mountains of northern Alabama as on the Gulf; and owing to strategic reasons, operations for its immediate reduction came to a halt. But on the twenty-seventh of March, 1865, the land and naval forces began a joint movement against the defences surrounding the city, and on the twelfth of April the Union forces were in full possession. In these last operations, which cost the loss of two light draught ironclads, a gunboat, and several other smaller vessels by torpedoes, we may know that the Chickasaw was never in the background.
In July, Perkins was relieved from the command and ordered home. He had volunteered for the Mobile fight but had been detained on board the Chickasaw nearly thirteen months.
On his arrival home, he was overwhelmed with congratulations upon his gallantry and achievements in Mobile Bay; but his friends felt indignant that no promotion had followed them, believing that at least the thirty numbers authorized by statute, "for eminent and conspicuous conduct in battle," could not be reasonably denied him. But he would not work personally toward that end, nor pull political wires to attain it. With him, the promotion must come unasked or not at all. It never came, and others disputed, with unblushing effrontery, the laurels he had won. Not only that, but he has seen, as well as others, those who did the least service during the war, given recognition and place over those who "bore the heat and burden of the day," during those four years so momentous in the annals of the Republic.
The following winter he was stationed at New Orleans, in charge of ironclads, and in May, 1866, was ordered as executive officer of the Lackawanna, for a cruise of three years in the North Pacific. The "piping times of peace" had come, and officers who had had important commands, now had to take a step back to the regular duties of their grade. Returning from the Pacific in the early spring of 1869, he was ordered to the Boston Navy Yard on ordnance duty, and in March, 1871, received his commission as commander. Two months later, he was selected to command the storeship Relief, to carry provisions to the suffering French of the Franco-German war. On his return, after a lapse of six months, he resumed his duties at the Boston yard, until appointed lighthouse inspector of the Boston district, which position he held until January, 1876.
Meanwhile he had taken to himself a wife, having, in 1870, married Miss Anna Minot Weld, daughter of Mr. William F. Weld, of Boston. The issue of the marriage has been one child, a daughter, born in 1877.
From March, 1877, until May, 1879, he was in command of the United States steamer Ashuelot on the Asiatic station, making a most interesting cruise, and having, for a time, the pleasure of General Grant's company on board, as a guest.
Since his return from that cruise he has been on "waiting orders," varied by occasional duty as member of courts-martial, boards of examination, and the like.
In March, 1882, he was promoted to a post-captaincy, as the grade of captain in the navy was styled in the olden time, which grade corresponds with that of colonel in the army.
Captain Perkins has a house in Boston, where he makes his home in winter, but nothing has ever weakened his affection for the old Granite State, and nothing delights him more, when possible to do so, than to put behind him the whirl and distraction of the city for the quiet enjoyment of the fresh, exhilarating air, unpretentious, wholesome life, and substantial ways that await him among his dear native hills.