MILITARY ORDER OF THE LOYAL LEGION OF THE UNITED STATES

War Papers


THE MONITOR "CATSKILL"
A YEAR'S REMINISCENCES 1863-1864
By
Ex. Commander Oscar Walter Farenholt, Rear Admiral U. S. Navy
Read at the Banquet of the California Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
in San Francisco, California, January 17, 1912


Transcribed by Douglas R. Niermeyer, Commander-in-Chief
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
momollus@sbcglobal.net
(November 2005)

In November, 1862, I was sent from the Steam Frigate "Wabash" to the Naval hospital at Brooklyn, N.Y., on account of wounds received during the previous October, and was discharged from the hospital and the naval service early in January, 1863. The wound in the arm had healed, but the arm was weak; the injury in the right side was still very painful.

In 1866, while on duty on the Receiving ship "Ohio" with P. A. Surgeon G. V. Franklin, who had had charge of the case at the Naval hospital, he remarked, that "the premature weeding out of patients, was due to the lack of room, new cases coming in daily from the various squadrons and often men were ordered to be discharged by the Bureaus who should have been retained, and if cured returned to duty." The navy needed them and paid no bounties; the government bounty for the Army in 1863 was $300, exclusive of the local bounties.

I had been offered by Admiral Dupont, and declined the appointment of Master's Mate for meritorious service at the battle of Pocotaligo, S. C., October, 1862. The grade, perhaps unjustly, was treated with scant courtesy by officers and men; it was neither the one or the other. The discharge, so welcome to many, was a disappointment at the time. I had begun to study navigation with an old sea captain who came daily to the hospital and taught about a dozen men at twenty-five cents a lesson. A Second Lieutenancy, in a newly recruited New York infantry regiment was offered to me, but like all young sailors, after seeing the "bounty men" recruits I had no use for the Army!

Early in February, 1863, 1 enlisted for the monitor "Kaatskill" as it was originally spelled-for one year as a seaman, at $18 per month for a Petty Officer's rate; there was no trouble about the latter, men who had seen service and re-enlisted were very scarce. Not drawing an advance pay, I was permitted to go on shore every evening and continued my studies in navigation.

The "Catskill" was built by Secor & Co., at New York, and was delivered at the Brooklyn navy yard about the middle of February. She was of 844 tons burden. Her sisterships were the Patapsco, Lehigh, Montauk, Nantucket, Nahant, Passaic, Sangamon and Weehawken. We all were in many engagements together before Charleston, S. C. These vessels were the first improvements on Ericson's original "Monitor;" later he made improvements in the "Tecumseh" and class; again in the "Miantonomah" and class, and later in the "Dictator."

The navy yard workmen and the crew of the "Catskill" worked night and day to get the ship ready for sea. "Charleston was to be captured at once, from there the monitors were to go to Vicksburg and Mobile." Under the command of Commander George W. Rodgers, with Lieut. Commander, the late Rear Admiral C. C. Carpenter, as Executive officer, a crew and officers of about ninety men; the ship left New York for Port Royal, S. C., in tow of the "Bienville," a converted side wheel merchant steamer of eleven guns. Bad weather was experienced the first night out, compelling the ship to cast off from the tow, the latter standing by". The, "Catskill" leaked through the deck, through the sides; the gun turret and gaskets worked loose and tons of water poured below; the bilges fouled, the pumps could not free the ship and bucket parties passed the water up through the turret. For four days no one on board had dry clothing or bedding, and little cooking could be done. Officers and men unused to the peculiar and untried craft, were glad when they arrived at Port Royal and found there the other monitors, all of which had had similar experiences while coming from the North.

A temporary wheel had been placed for this sea trip on the turret forward of the pilot house. Wheel ropes, from a very small tiller on deck, led amidships up to the turret and to the wheel; there was no purchase, it was like "a rope yarn over several nails"! After a try out of all the deck force, Captain Rodgers selected three men (of whom I was one) and they steered the ship during the entire voyage. Standing exposed in wet clothing to wind, snow and rain, seas breaking over the turret, vessel steering heavy and wild, a four hours' trick at the wheel, severe pain in a weak arm - it was only pride that kept one to this hard and exhausting work.

No time was lost in repairing the iron clads. The fifth of April found us all inside the inner bar off Charleston, and the "Catskill" assisted in buoying out the channel. Some bright genius had made the Navy Department believe, that tallow, smeared very thick on the turret, pilot house and decks, would deflect shot and shell. The Department sent to us tons of tallow. During the afternoon of the sixth, "all hands greased ship." It took us until late at night, and the next day it proved utterly useless. The tallow, or what was left of it, was allowed to remain until we arrived at North Edisto Inlet. One can readily imagine the condition of the ship, particularly below decks, where our shoes and clothing carried this horrid stuff; the odor of burning fat often recalls this episode.

In the afternoon of the seventh of April, we made the attack on the fortifications of Charleston. The "Iroiisides" carried Admiral Dupont's flag and was followed by the ironclads Catskill, Nahant, Nantucket, Weehawken, Passaic, Mentatik, Patapsco and Keokuk. The "Weehawken" led with a torpedo catcher - a large wooden raft secured to the bows and, it was more detrimental to the ship than to the torpedoes which we did not find. As captain of the 15-inch gun, I saw little of what was going on outside the turret.

The tide seemed to set us nearer in shore than the other monitors. The gun sights were lowered to 600 yards, and pounding away at Sumter, one could not miss it. We were struck some thirty times but no serious damage was done to our ship. When a shot hit the turret, it sounded like the ringing of many bells. We were in action over two hours, withdrew, and anchored about three miles below Sumter.

Officers and men were astounded to see the injuries done to these supposed invulnerable ironclads! Several had their turrets jammed and could not use their guns. The "Passaic" had to be sent north. A large force of navy yard workmen from New York, were on hand, and made repairs on the spot, and at North Edisto. In several weeks the monitors were ready for another attack, and many officers believed it would prove to Se successful, and should be made before the enemy could erect, as they did, other powerful batteries.

The battle of April 7th, showed up defects in the monitors, which the fight with the "Merrimac" could not demonstrate. As far as practicable, these defects were remedied at once. Considering the small, half submerged target a monitor presented, the enemy's fire was remarkably accurate. For a year and more, he had practiced, and whenever a vessel came on a certain range, a concentrated fire was delivered. His Brooke 8-rifle inch gun, made and named after an ex-Lieutenant of our Navy, was superior in penetrating power to our justly mistrusted 150 pound Parrott rifle gun. Our 15-inch smooth bore gun could "smash things" but could not penetrate masonry as at Fort Sumter.

The "Keokuk" sank next morning, April 8th, but no lives were lost. Her casemates were awash at low water. She was only a 4-inch "tinclad" and had no business to be in that severe battle. The enemy knew of her weak construction and concentrated his fire. As soon as we had left the inner bar, her two 11-inch Dahlgren smooth bore guns, were removed and remounted on fort Wagner, as we found to our cost the following August. Admiral Dupont, has been blamed for not removing the guns, or at least blowing up the vessel. For nearly two weeks after the engagement, all the ironclads were at anchor within a mile of the wreck.

And so ended our first attack on Charleston! The "Ironsides" and "Weehawken" went to Port Royal, the "Passaic" to New York and the other monitors to North Edisto Inlet, equidistant from Charleston and Port Royal. We remained there until July, making necessary repairs and strengthening the decks by bolting extra iron plates over the magazines, engine room, and a 6-inch solid base ring to the turret to protect the revolving gear, etc. The officers and men, often visited the abandoned houses of the many rice plantations in the neighborhood and brought loot on board. An enterprising "home guard" might have captured many stragglers.

Rear Admiral Dahlgren relieved Rear Admiral Dupont early in July: at the same time, Brigadier General Gillmore relieved General Hunter in command of the forces on shore; at once energetic operations were begun and we were all delighted! By July 8th, the monitors and the "Ironsides," were assembled inside the inner bar off Charleston. The rumor went around the fleet that "Dahlgren had come down only for a few months to take Charleston." He remained until the end of the war, Charleston fell through Sherman's match in its rear.

July 10th, before daylight, Admiral Dahlgren and his staff came on board the "Catskill" and hoisted his flag. The monitors moved in and bombarded the fortifications erected on the southern point of Morris Island, thus permitting our troops to land from Folly Island, capture and drive the enemy before them, until, at all times under our fire, they had reached Fort Wagner opposite Fort Sumter. The Army made an attempt to carry Fort Wagner that evening but were severely repulsed. We in the monitors, were at our guns from daylight until dark during an intensely warm day. The "Catskill" was hit sixty-five times; all the guns from Wagner, Gregg, Sumter, Moultrie and others, were directed at the Admiral's flag and many officers believed it was a mistake to have displayed it. Next morning at daylight, we resumed the bombardment of Wagner and Gregg and were struck about a dozen times. The army with all available force again made an attack on Wagner on the evening of the eighteenth July. The Monitors, at 300 yards distance, kept up their fire until the assault began and the storming party were repulsed with heavy loss.

The 54th Massachusetts, colored regiment, led the assault and its commanding officer, Colonel Shaw, was killed. The men had behaved well, and it was generally believed, if they had been supported, the fort would have been captured. The following morning bodies of colored soldiers floated by the ironclads.

Fort Wagner was taken in September by regular siege approaches and Fort Gregg was abandoned. Almost daily during July and August, the ironclads were engaged with the various fortifications. The greater number of the guns on the sea of Sumter, had been put out of commission and the fort in that direction was in ruins. One or two monitors, were on picket duty every night near Sumter, and with closed hatches it was unbearably warm below decks, so that officers and men slept on the upper deck, often under heavy fire. During the night Sumter and Moultrie resorted to mortar fire against the advanced vessels, but fortunately never hit them.

There was much sickness on all the ironclads, many men were invalided, new recruits had to be broken in, and what was left of the original crew, had often to do double duty. Captain Rodgers was appointed Chief of Staff and left the "Catskill" under command of Lieut. Commander C. C. Carpenter.

The 17th of August, had been selected by the Admiral, as the day on which to enter Charleston harbor and every preparation had been made for, it with the "Weehawken" as the monitor flagship. Captain Rodgers came on board to fight his old ship, and cheerily he was welcomed on that hot and early morning. Without paying any attention to the enemy's fire, the monitors advanced, and when within about 800 yards from Sumter, signal was made, "anchor and engage the enemy!" Rodgers expressed his surprise at the change in programme, anchored and began firing at Moultrie.

In the conning tower, five feet in diameter, were the Captain, the Paymaster, who was to take notes of the battle, the pilot, a merchant Captain and I, the helmsman. On boat picket duty from 9 p. m., the previous evening, until 4 a. m., having nothing especially to do after the ship had anchored, feeling tired, sleepy and leaning over the wheel, I was aroused by a crash, saw the top of the tower crushed in, Captain Rodgers and the Paymaster in a huddled, bloody heap on deck, the pilot apparently dead. A ragged piece of the one half inch inner plating of the top of the tower, had split open the head of the Captain, another piece had entered the shoulder of Assistant Paymaster Woodbury, cutting his body almost in two.

Captain Carpenter ordered tip anchor, and with a broken wheel, I steered the ship out of the line of fire, delivered the bodies to a tug and we returned to the engagement. , The flood tide set the vessel near to Moultrie and Bee, she received a bad pounding which, fortunately did not do much damage. The flagship made signal to "withdraw from action," and as soon as anchored, all the ships in and outside the bar, half-rnasted their colors, and for several days, the enemy believed that the Admiral had been killed.

It was thought, that the shot which had made a slaughter pen of that little pilot house, had been fired from the parapet of Sumter, a plunging fire and an accidental hit. Had the plates been of wrought, instead of cast iron, they would have deflected the projectile. During the battle of April 7th, the top of the pilot house of the "Patapsco," was struck in a similar manner, the shot merely making a grooved indentation. Commander Ammen who stood directly under it, had his neck burned by the detached white paint, heated through friction. By the death of Commander George W. Rodgers, the Navy lost one of its most efficient, brave and pure minded officers, deeply religious, whom, all on board the "Catskill" looked to as a father. Some years after this event, I gave the piece of iron which had caused his death, to his brother, the late Admiral C. R. P. Rodgers, my commanding officer on the Wabash during the previous year.

The day after the battle, Admiral Dahlgren came on board the "Catskill" to inspect the damage. He commended me for the work on the day previous, etc., said an appointment as Master's Mate would be sent. Thanking him, he was told that a similar offer had been made in October, 1862, for the "Pocotaligo" affair, and had been declined, and that I now felt confident, to be able to pass the examination for volunteer ensign.

Admiral Dahlgren was never an approachable man, over six feet in height, very slender, severe and sallow visage, wearing an old-fashioned black stock necktie, he looked more like a minister of the Gospel than a Naval officer. During this interview he was very affable, requested that a letter be written to him, stating previous service, etc., that he would approve it and recommend the appointment. He did so in strong terms and the Navy Department's endorsement read, "The minimum age for acting ensign is 24 years, the applicant is too young, he is not 19. William Faxon, Chief Clerk."

At this same period, the Department enrolled hundreds of Merchant marine officers, as Lieutenants, Masters and Ensigns, all of whom were totally ignorant regarding gunnery, naval routine, or had seen no active service, but who were all of, and the majority over the required ages. Years after, in a conversation with Mr. Gideon Welles, our naval war secretary, he remarked, that he remembered the case well, and he "was under the impression that a commission of Ensign had been sent." Advancement and promotion in the Navy during the Civil War, was a most uncertain, Bureaucratic, negligible quantity.

A few days after the 17th, the "Catskill" was sent to Port Royal for repairs, and soon returned to Charleston. During the remainder of August, the months of September and 'October, the Admiral made several determined attacks, (some at night), on the defenses of Charleston, but never advanced farther than the torpedo line. It was severe on the monitors, one or two were always at Port Royal repairing damages. The night attack, by the men from the fleet, to storm Fort Sumter, ended most disastrously, and we were repulsed with heavy loss; many of our men were killed and captured to die at Andersonville, the boat which had landed me at the fort was sunk, like many others, by the enemy's shell fire, and I swam several miles to the tug which had towed in the boats.

There was really no combined attack by the Army and Navy after September. When one was ready, the other was not, and this is not said in criticism on either branch of the service. The conditions before Charleston were complicated. The Army believed, that they had an insufficient force with which to attack the city by land, and the Navy believed, that an efficient support by the Army was necessary for success. Our many unsuccessful engagements were a bitter disappointment to Admiral Dahlgren. Never in robust health, a braver man did not live! During the severest engagements, when the enemy would concentrate his fire on the vessel displaying his flag, which lie insisted on being hoisted, he always remained on the turret outside the pilot house.

After October, the monitors would at times shell Sullivan Island, to prevent the erecting of additional fortifications. As the winter advanced, as far as the ironclads were concerned, it became mostly blockading duty. Charleston was closed to blockade runners. One or two monitors would go up every evening, anchor about 1000 yards from Sumter, leaving at daylight and sometimes remaining all day, for the enemy at this date, never fired on the ironclads excepting the latter began it. Buoys had been placed at the lower anchorage off Morris Island, to which the ironclads tied up and rode out the winter gales. The seas were breaking over the ships more than half of the time, and during the day when necessary, and always at night, the hatches were closed. It was a dreary, cold, wet, monotonous routine. Commanding officers and others came and went, some did not remain a month.

In a gale, early in December, the "Weehawken" sank at her moorings with a large loss of life. The cause of the disaster has never been clearly shown. No doubt, the vessel had been weakened, by the severe pounding she had received in many engagements, yet the deck hatch covering the anchor well, should have been closed sooner than it was.

My term of one year's enlistment had expired in February. III with fever, I was sent to the hospital and receiving ship "Home," and from her in April, to New York, on board the ordnance schooner "Rachael Seaman."

Could we have gone into Charleston harbor on the 7th of April or later? The subordinate position I held at that period, prevents me from a fair criticism, but quoting from the many and long conversations I had years afterwards with officers who were there, and many who had had command of monitors at that time - Ammen, Fairfax, Beaumont, Worden, Stevens, Beardslee and others - they said "yes, after repairs and alterations had been made." All of these officers have long ago gone to their reward, they never received it for their hard and trying work before Charleston. Almost half a century has passed, Rear Admirals Luce and Harmony, are the only officers living, who commanded monitors off Charleston during those stirring times.

After the battle of the 7th of April, the commanding officers of the ironclads signed a statement, that it was impracticable to go into Charleston harbor with their vessels tinder existing circumstances.

Admiral Fairfax said years later, "We signed that round robbin with mental reservations, for we all believed the attack would be renewed after the repairs were made..... guns were a secondary consideration, the fear of torpedoes kept us out. "Had Foote been there, he would have gone in or stink every vessel in the attempt." Beaumont. "Admiral Foote had orders to relieve Dupont, he died too soon, he had the temperament of Stonewall Jackson, very religious and fanatically patriotic, yes, he would have gone in." Ammen. "Dupont able, kind, touchy, did not believe in monitors, we lost our best chance after August." Stevens. "We should have gone in not later than August, every day after that, more torpedoes were planted. . . . we believed, every keg we saw floating between Sumter and Moultrie had a torpedo attached to it." Beardslee, Cornwell. "From what we know now, torpedoes, the great bugbear, were greatly exaggerated and feared by us. The enemy, claimed that several ironclads had been over the mines, they had 'tried to explode them but that water had damaged the powder." Confederate General Ripley.

In November, 1863, I, on scouting duty with Lieutenant Commander, the late Rear Admiral Bunce, we grappled for torpedoes, in what was known as the 'rope obstruction,' placed between Sumter and Bee to foul propellers. We found no torpedoes, the channel for blockade runners, close in to Moultrie, was always open, certainly was so in 1863. Had the ironclads appeared before the city and threatened to bombard it, would the fortifications in our rear have surrendered?


________________________________

Source:
Farenholt, O.W. 1912. THE MONITOR "CATSKILL", A YEAR'S REMINISCENCES 1863-1864, California Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Published by the Commandery, Shannon-Conmy Printing Company, San Francisco, California. 11p.

Copyright © 2005 Douglas Niermeyer, Missouri Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States


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