By Captain J.D. Johnston, C.S.N.
Savannah, Ga., September 22nd, 1881.
To the Editor of the Southern Historical Magazine:
The June number of Scribner's Magazine contains an article under the caption of "An August Morning with Farragut," which is so replete with misstatements that I feel it incumbent upon me, as the senior living actor in the stirring scenes of that morning, to ask the publication in your valued periodical of such corrections as my personal knowledge of the facts will enable me to make. I shall endeavor to be as brief as may be consistent with a clear understanding of these facts, in view of the very partial and prejudiced account of them rendered by the army signal officer who, with unparalleled presumption, undertakes to criticize the movements of men of war engaged in a deadly struggle, and commanded by men who were competent for such commands before he was born.
Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, of the U.S. Navy, who was distinguished by his high professional attainments, published a full, accurate and impartial description of "The Battle of Mobile Bay" in a neat volume with that title, about two years ago, and I had vainly hoped that the subject was thereby exhausted, as it has long since ceased to possess any special interest with me; not only because my time and attention have been engrossed by far different pursuits, but because I felt on that day, and have felt ever since, that the "famous ram Tennessee, --" although under the command of one of the most accomplished naval officers who ever lived (Admiral Franklin Buchanan,) failed to achieve the result of which she was capable, and which was so justly expected of her by the government of the Confederate States. This failure was due in a great measure, to a defect in her construction, which was fully appreciated by the Admiral, but which could not be remedied after the vessel had been taken down to her anchorage near Fort Morgan, as it consisted of the exposure of her steering apparatus on the upper side of the after deck, or fantail, speaking technically, whereas it ought to have passed under the deck, and would thus have been thoroughly protected. That the efficiency of the vessel was seriously impaired by this defect was abundantly proved by the fact that she was compelled, by the total destruction of her steering gear, to remain as a target for the guns of the fleet without the ability to bring one of her guns to bear on the enemy for more than twenty minutes before her surrender. The result of the engagement would certainly have been changed in some degree, if the vessel could have been kept under the control of her rudder, as upon that alone depended the direction of her battery, but her ultimate destruction or capture by the tremendous power to which she had offered battle, was a foregone conclusion.
But, as it is my purpose only to correct the mistakes in Lieutenant Kinney's article, I will refrain from any further allusion to the causes of the Tennessee's failure to inflict greater damage upon her captors, and confine myself to the original object of this communication. I may be permitted to add, however, that the little squadron of four vessels, manned by about four hundred and seventy officers and men, managed in the brief period of their engagement to place quite their own number hors du combat on board the eighteen vessels of the enemy. This is shown by official reports.
Lieutenant Kinney errs in stating that the guns of the Tennessee were of "English make," as they were cast in a government foundry at Selma, Ala., under the immediate superintendence of Commander Catesby ap Rogers Jones. He also states that the "rebels" claimed that a shot from one of their heavy guns penetrated the armor of the Tecumseh and caused her to sink. It has never been questioned by those most conversant with the facts, that she was sunk by a torpedo, but there has always been some doubt as to whether that torpedo was one of those planted by the "rebels," or was attached to a spar rigged out from the bow of the Tecumseh, and whose explosion was caused by her coming in contact with a large iron buoy, anchored near Fort Morgan to indicate the channel to blockade runners. It is a well known fact that the commander of that ill fated vessel had asked it as a special favor of Admiral Farragut, before entering the bay, to let him take care of the Tennessee, and I can testify to the fact that he had reserved his fire up to the moment of the sinking of his vessel, although then within two hundred yards of his intended victim. Whether this was done for the purpose of trying the effect of the torpedo he is believed to have had suspended from his bow before using his 15 inch guns, is more than anyone now living can positively know, but the probabilities point so plainly in that direction that I am convinced of the justice of this belief.
It was the intention of Admiral Buchanan to ram the flagship Hartford and sink her, even if the Tennessee went down with her; but the only possible chance of accomplishing this object was by crossing her course as she steamed into the bay. As for catching a vessel going at a speed of twelve miles an hour with one utterly incapable of more than half that speed, it is to be presumed that even Lieutenant Kinney, of the Army Signal Corps, is seaman enough to comprehend the impossibility of such a feat. While endeavoring to cross the course of the Hartford and run into her, the bow gun of the Tennessee (a 7 inch rifle) was fired at her twice, at point blank range, but from some unaccountable cause, both shots failed to do any execution. The Hartford had avoided the blow by slightly changing her course, and had passed beyond the ram into the bay without having received any material damage.
Just at this moment of supreme disappointment the crew of the Tennessee began to cheer, and upon inquiring the cause my attention was directed to the leading monitor of the fleet, and looking through one of the narrow slits in the side of the pilot house, I discovered her to be in the act of going down, bottom upward, and one of her boats engaged in rescuing those who had managed to escape from her. Thrilling as such a scene would have been under other circumstances, the necessity for instant and assiduous attention to those who remained, and were now complete masters of the situation, precluded the possibility of giving more than a passing thought to the fate of the gallant souls who had gone down in the Tecumseh.
Lieutenant Kinney stated that the "great ram," after making an unsuccessful effort to sink or injure any of the Union vessels, and after receiving a heavier blow from the Monongahela than it had inflicted, also retired to the Fort, and almost in the same breath, he says that both that vessel and the Lackawana had their own prows destroyed, and were otherwise injured, by ramming the Tennessee, while the "huge iron frame of that vessel scarcely felt the shock." This, however, is a mere inconsistency, and conveys the truth; it can, therefore, be the more easily excused in one who attempts to become the historian of events which, although an eyewitness, he was not capable of comprehending. The same pardon cannot be extended, though, to a direct perversion of the truth, and of this he is certainly guilty when he says that the "great ram " retired to Fort Morgan, after failing to sink any of the flying fleet. The idea of retiring to Fort Morgan never entered Admiral Buchanan's mind, as his order to me, immediately after the fleet had passed into the bay, was to follow them, which was done with all the speed of which the vessel was capable, but in changing her course for this purpose it is not improbable that her head may momentarily have been pointed towards the Fort. The gunboat Gaines was run on the beach near the Fort early in the action to prevent her from sinking, having received several shots below her water line, but she had done her duty nobly up to this moment. She was burned by her own crew soon afterward. The Morgan was placed at the wharf near the Fort to avoid the fate of the Gaines, and during the following night steamed up to Mobile, through the vessels of the fleet, while their crews slept upon their victory. The Selma was chased by two gunboats and captured a few miles up the bay.
When the Tennessee had approached a point within a mile of the fleet, the entire number of vessels composing it seemed to vie with each other in the rapidity of their firing, and in efforts to prove their efficiency as rams, by endeavoring to sink the devoted "Rebel," who had failed to exhibit his qualities in this modern style of warfare, from lack of the important element of speed. It afterward appeared that in their zeal and haste some of the vessels of the fleet came near sinking their own flagship, as she was rammed twice by the Lackawana.
The result of such a contest could not have been changed except by the miraculous destruction of the opposing fleet, and if, as Lieutenant Kinney states, there ever was a "moment when he hesitated (Farragut) the fortune of the day must have been against us." I feel quite sure that were the distinguished officer to whom he refers now living, he would scout the idea of such a possibility having ever existed. The forts had virtually been passed without sustaining any injury, save the sinking of the Tecumseh by a torpedo, and nothing remained for the fleet to do but to capture or destroy three little hastily improvised wooden gunboats and one ironclad, with a force ten times their superior in every possible element, excepting only the daring and patriotism which impelled Buchanan with his single vessel of six guns and 170 men to attack such a fleet, had he been enabled by any means in his power to change the fortunes of the day, he would certainly have been justly hailed by the civilized world as the greatest naval commander who had ever lived. But, though no one could have a more exalted opinion of Admiral Farragut's qualities as an officer or gentleman than I have, I cannot avoid the conviction that he always felt within himself, however he may have welcomed the plaudits of his countrymen at this achievement, that there was a degree of buncombe about the furor created by it, which was repugnant to his nature. He was singularly insensible to the grandeur of the position he occupied professionally, and in his personal character as gentle and unobtrusive as a woman, while possessing all the qualifications of a naval officer of the highest class. There were but few of those under his command who had been favored with a more intimate acquaintance with him, or cherished more kindly personal feelings toward him than myself, and far be it from me to attempt to pluck one leaf from the laurel crown which victory placed upon his brow. But while awarding a just meet of praise to his merits, let it not be said of those who should, with equal pride, remember his gallant and distinguished adversary on the occasion under review, that sectional feeling blinded their eyes to the equally grand and noble qualities of that adversary, especially as they were both Southern men.
In this connection, I must be permitted to express my conviction that the remark which Lieutenant Kinney attributes to Captain Percival Drayton: ("Cowardly rascal, afraid of a wooden ship,") was never made by that officer. There never was the slightest cause for any such remark, and Drayton knew Admiral Buchanan too well to ascribe any action of his on such an occasion to any other motive than a brave and intelligent use of the force under his command. Before he became a "Rebel" he was ranked among the first naval officers of the world, and certainly no one in the navy of the United States before the war, was more universally regarded as the beau ideal of a naval commander; nor was there one whose personal courage had been more frequently or positively demonstrated, as could be attested by numerous anecdotes well known to a majority of the senior officers of the present day. Moreover, Drayton's first remark to me, on receiving me on the quarter deck of the Hartford, after the surrender of the Tennessee, was: "Well, Johnston, it must be said that you have nobly defended the honor of the Confederate flag today," a compliment which I cheerfully relegate to the gallant officer under whose orders I was proudly serving.
Lieutenant Kinney states that "if Buchanan had possessed the grit of Farragut, it is probable that moment would have witnessed the destruction of both vessels," referring to the moment when the Tennessee approached nearest to the Hartford, and he also states that the former vessel avoided giving the latter a direct blow with her prow, "not being desirous of so much glory," and struck her "only a glancing blow." This is such a positive and direct violation of the truth that it is difficult to ascribe it to anything short of a willful perversion of facts. As the commander of the Tennessee, I was stationed in the pilot house, on the forward part of the shield, to watch the movements of the enemy's vessels, and keep her in position to afford the best opportunities for placing her fire effectively, and it is in my power to prove, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that but for the superior speed of the Hartford and the changing of her course to prevent the contact, the prow of the Tennessee would certainly have entered her side amidships. To these causes alone are due the escape of the Hartford, and she was never touched by the hull of the Tennessee.
But as I have, so far as is practicable in this brief space, corrected the errors in the article to which it is intended as a reply, it only remains for me to disclaim any personal grievance toward its author, and to express the hope that time will point to the history of the gallant souls who shared in "The Battle of Mobile Bay," on either side of the contest, with equal pride. Both the principal actors in that tremendous scene have long since passed to others of a more peaceful nature, leaving their deeds of valor and their social virtues as the inheritance of their descendants, and it therefore devolves upon those who once had the honor of being their associates, to see that while history gives due honor to the victor, the vanquished shall not be defamed.
Capt. J.D. Johnston Dies at the Savannah Hospital
He Was the Ranking Surviving Officer of the Confederate Navy and of the Old United States Navy. His Heroic Conduct at the Battle of Mobile Bay Recalled --- The Interment to Be at Norfolk --- A Military Escort to be Tendered.
Capt. James D. Johnston died at the Savannah
Hospital yesterday afternoon shortly after 6 o'clock. Although his death
has been expected for several weeks its announcement will bring sadness
to the hearts of many who knew the gallant old officer and loved him for
his many noble qualities of head and heart.
Capt. Johnston was in his seventy-ninth year. His death was due to the gradual failing from old age rather than to any specific disease. For over a year he had practically made his home at the Savannah hospital. He spent a portion of last summer at Ashville, N.C., but returned to the hospital in the fall and has rarely left it since.
Capt. Johnston's history is well known to the veterans of the Confederate army and navy. He was the ranking officer of the survivors of the Confederate Navy, and also the senior survivor of the United States navy of ante-bellum days. As the commander of the Confederate Ram Tennessee at the Battle of Mobile Bay he won a place in history.
Capt. Johnston was a native Kentuckian. He entered the United States navy as midshipman at the age of 15, June 30, 1832. He passed through the various grades of the service, reaching that of Lieutenant in June, 1843. At the outbreak of the war he was high up on the list of First Lieutenants and where rapid promotion was certain had he remained in the service. Shortly previous to the war he served with Commodore Josiah Tattnall as executive officer to the flagship Powhatan to the China waters at the time of the Peiho rebellion and was one of the prominent actors in the historic scene when Commodore Tattnall rendered assistance to the British ships, which were being worsted by the Chinese forts.
Capt. Johnston resigned his position April 19, 1861, and entered the service of the Confederate States. He served with the Naval Department of the Confederacy in various capacities until the latter part of 1863, when he was assigned to duty with Admiral Buchanan in Mobile Bay. The Confederate ironclad, Tennessee, was then being constructed by the Confederates, the most powerful vessel of her class turned out by the Confederacy. When the ram was put into service in 1864, she was made the flagship of the squadron, being the only vessel of any size in Admiral Buchanan's command, and Capt. Johnston was made captain. The Tennessee was built at the naval station at Selma, and to Capt. Johnston was assigned the difficult task of carrying her over the low bar and mud flats intervening between that point and Mobile, which he safely and successfully accomplished and hoisted her flag the same day in the full view of the federal fleet.
The Battle of Mobile Bay was the fiercest naval battle of the Confederacy. On August 5, 1864, Admiral Farragut steamed up the bay with his full fleet of four ironclads and fourteen wooden ships. To oppose him, Admiral Buchanan had the ram Tennessee and three small wooden vessels, the Selma, the Gaines and the Morgan. The federal fleet passed the Confederate torpedo line with the loss of one of the four ironclads, the Tecumseh. After a hard fight the three wooden vessels were driven back up the bay and the Tennessee was left alone to face the whole federal fleet. Though powerfully built, there were serious defects in the construction of the ram, which hampered her greatly, her movement in particular being slow. It was this slow movement only which saved the federal fleet from destruction. Admiral Buchanan boldly passed down the line, attempting to ram each of the enemy's ships in turn and poured broadsides into each vessel as he passed. He passed the entire line in this manner and anchored under the protection of the guns of Fort Morgan, with his vessel in almost as good condition as when she entered the fight. (readers will note that Johnston, in the article above, refuted this notion---CSN Founder) After a short rest, instead of remaining under the protection of the fort, the Tennessee was faced about and boldly moved up to attack the whole union fleet.
It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the fight now. Admiral Buchanan's action was so daring that it was generally spoken of afterwards as quixotic. In naval parlance the Tennessee was mobbed by the federal fleet. She was attacked from all sides and repeatedly rammed by the enemy's vessels in turn. Owing to her slow movements, she was unable to ram the enemy's wooden ships, but did terrible damage with her guns. Her defensive powers were destroyed by the enemy's monitors. Admiral Buchanan was severely wounded, and the command of the vessel devolved upon Capt. Johnston. Capt. Johnston did not want to surrender the vessel and sought the advice of Admiral Buchanan.
"Do the best you can, Johnston, and when all is done, surrender," replied the wounded Admiral. Every vessel of the federal fleet was either banging away at the Tennessee or preparing to ram her, and she was unable to fire a gun, having only three guns left, and they could not be turned toward the enemy. The staff upon which the Confederate colors had been hoisted had been shot away early in the conflict, and the colors had been placed upon a boathook outside the casemate grating. Having decided upon a surrender, Capt. Johnston drew in the boathook that carried his ensign. The enemy continuing his fire, he mounted to the roof of the casemate and displayed a white flag.
"This was accepted as a token of surrender and the firing immediately ceased. After the battle the wounded officers and prisoners were kindly treated by their captors, Admiral Buchanan being sent to a hospital. The other officers were sent north as prisoners, but were treated with consideration, until they reached New York harbor, when they were put in irons. This action on the part of an officer of the old navy toward men with whom he had formerly been associated, caused great indignation throughout the whole country, the act being condemned by the officers of the federal as well as the Confederate Navy. Admiral Paulding, who was in command, and upon whom the responsibility for the order rested, never recovered from the stigma it placed upon him. In speaking of this matter last night Capt. Tattnall, also of the old navy and the Confederate Navy, said that Admiral Paulding was held in the highest esteem by all of the officers who had served with him. It was said that he was ill at the time the order was given, and those who knew him could not believe he was in his right mind when he gave such an order.
After being released from prison at the close of the war, Capt. Johnston returned to Mobile. Several years after the war he came to Savannah as representative of the Alabama Gold Life Insurance Company. On the failure of this company, he was appointed the representative of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, with which company he continued until the day of his death. He was remarkably successful in the insurance business, and the company showed its appreciation of his services by retaining him upon its salary roll up to the time of his death.
Had Capt. Johnston remained with the union navy he would without doubt have risen to high position. He had the elements which go to make a successful naval officer, a brave, hardy spirit, courage, a strong will, strength of mind and body, and a thorough knowledge of his profession. He was held in high respect by the officers of the regular army and on the occasions of their visits to Savannah they never failed to call upon him.
The deceased had been for several years a vice president of the Confederate Veterans Association and that body will pay proper tribute to his memory. Two weeks ago, when Capt. Johnston's death was momentarily expected, it was decided at a meeting of the officers of the Savannah Volunteer Guards that the services of the battalion should be offered as an escort to the remains. It was stated then that the interment would be at Norfolk, where the wife of the deceased was buried at number of years ago. The deceased leaves one relative, a daughter, Mrs. Poindexter of Baltimore. Mrs. Poindexter was wired last night of her father's death, and is expected to arrive here today, when arrangements for the departure of the body from Savannah will be made.
Ancient Landmark Lodge No. 231, F.& A.M.
A special meeting of this lodge will be held at Masonic Temple to-day at 12:15 o'clock, for the purpose of paying the last tribute of respect to our deceased brother, Jas. D. Johnston.
Members of sister lodges and transient brethren are cordially invited to attend.
W.H. Gordon, Jr., W.M.
Jno. S. Haines, Secretary
Confederate Veterans' Association
Savannah, Ga., 11 May 1896 -- The association will assemble at St. John's Church at 12:30 o'clock today, to pay the last tribute of respect to our late Vice President, Capt. Jas. D. Johnston.
G.M. Ryals, President
Harry S. Dreese, Secretary
The members of Lafayette McLaws Camp No. 596, U.C.V., are respectfully invited to meet with the association.
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