War Papers

Ex. Commander Oscar Walter Farenholt, Rear Admiral U. S. Navy
California Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Read at the First Annual Banquet given by the Junior Companions to the Senior Companions
of the California Commandery in San Francisco, California, April 22, 1910

Transcribed by Douglas R. Niermeyer, Commander-in-Chief
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
(July 2005)


I have frequently been requested by companions of the Loyal Legion and of the Grand Army, and have more than once been approached by book publishing firms, to write my naval reminiscences, and to tell particularly how I rose from an "Ordinary Seaman" (a Seaman second class) to the rank of Rear Admiral the only precedent in our navy to this date!

Please do not consider me as speaking egotistically; I have here, merely briefly stated officially condensed facts, so as to come within the fifteen minutes allowed to those who address you this evening.

I am sure there were many other enlisted men in the navy during the Civil War who deserved honor and promotion, but who may not have been so fortunate in opportunities as I was. After all, opportunities as they occur, and doing one's duty promptly, to the best ability, leads to success in life in every sphere.

You all well know how many brave and deserving men have risen in the army from a private to high rank, even to the command of the army; my first reference, I dare say, applies to many here this evening; but in our regular navy it was always traditionally held that every commissioned line-officer must enter the service as a midshipman, never direct from the enlisted forces.

Some years after the Civil War, several enlisted naval apprentices entered the Naval Academy as midshipmen and graduated; they now hold the well deserved rank of Rear Admiral.

Within the last ten years, the laws and regulations bearing on this question have been relaxed and modified; thus making it possible for a warrant officer of the navy, who previously entered the service as an enlisted man, to rise to a commissioned line-officer.

To be intelligently understood, it is necessary for me to give a short summary of my early life; to explain how I, who never saw the ocean until almost fourteen years old, came to choose a sailor's life, and thus made it possible for me to enter the navy.

My parents, during the German immigration to Texas in 1842, settled on a ranch on the Salado River, near San Antonio, not many miles from the famous Alamo mission. Until I was eight years old, I spoke, and was taught, only in the German language; hence my accent. You may learn to speak every foreign language and pass as a born native, but if a child is not taught to speak English from the cradle up, it will retain a certain accent to its dying day.

At the age of eight I was sent to New Orleans to a French school, and there learned my first English. I remained in this school until I was twelve years old, and then entered what was called the Preparatory University-school at Donald-sonville, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Some years later, with several other scholars, I got into a boyish scrape, and think-ing it meant dismissal-which I found out afterwards was not the case-I went to New Orleans, and following the strong inclination I always had for the sea, I shipped as a boy on board the American sailing ship "Saint Charles," bound for New York with a load of cotton.

The life at sea, as I found it, rather disillusioned me, and upon my arrival at New York, I called on a relative who several years later was killed at Brandy Station, Virginia. I received a cold welcome, went back to a sailors' boarding-house, and in a few days was shipped as an ordinary seaman on board the American sailing ship "Petronilla," bound for Callao, Peru. She was what was called in those days a "man-killer"; brutal treatment to all sailors. I learned my early practical profession in a rough school. We had heavy gales off Cape Horn; the ship sprang "a leak," and it was steady pumping until our arrival at Callao after a ninety-six days' passage!

Discharged, I shipped as an ordinary seaman on board the American sailing ship "Rock Light," of Bath, Maine, bound for New York with a cargo of guano. We had a crew of "beach-combers," a wretched set. Out of twenty-four so-called sailors not more than six could "reef and steer." I did a full seaman's duty on the pay of eleven dollars per month, for my wages were not increased. Off the "River Platte," on the Brazilian coast, during a heavy "Pampero," our cargo shifted, and for four days and rights we were shoveling the constantly moving guano. I shall never forget the strong ammonia stench. Often the men were overcome and had to be hauled on deck. We arrived in New York after a one hundred and twenty-six days' passage. I made several voy-ages to the West-India Islands in coasting vessels, and was visiting at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, when we heard of the firing on Fort Sumter.

Full of boyish patriotism, although born and brought up in the South, I went to New York and joined the "Naval Brigade," raised by an ex-Lieutenant of our navy, a "Captain" Washington Bartlet. In a few days he enlisted over one thousand merchant-sailors. No provisions were made for quarters or subsistence, and general bad management broke up the force as quickly as it had been enlisted.

I then presented myself at the navy rendezvous for enlistment and was told that "no persons born in a Southern state" were desired for the navy. Next day I went back and informed the recruiting officer that I had lived in the South but was born in Germany. When I told my age I was informed that I was "too young; the minimum age for ordinary seaman being eighteen years."

Not discouraged with these many rebuffs, in a few days I visited another rival recruiting station, and now having my story "pat" regarding age and nativity, I was enlisted after a thorough mental and physical examination on April 22, 1861, forty-nine years ago today, as an ordinary seaman (sea-man second class), at fourteen dollars per month for three years, or the war, for few persons believed in those days that the war would last more than three months!

I may mention here that it took me years to have my record of birth and nativity corrected at the Navy Department so as to condone the patriotic fraud I was guilty of in 1861. Companions, no doubt, remember that neither branch of our service was very particular after the war had lasted one year. They took "any male that walked upon two legs and could carry a musket."

After enlisting, I reported on board the receiving ship "North Carolina," stationed at Brooklyn Navy-Yard. She was an old, wooden, two-decker line of battleship. The rapid enlistments soon filled her up with men. We were crowded like a prison ship. When the four hundred eighty men detailed for the "Wabash," of which I was one, left the ship there still remained over two thousand on board!

In 1856 our Government built six wooden steam frigates of about four thousand tons each, and each armed with fifty guns with full sail and auxiliary steam power. Their names were the "Wabash," "Niagara," "Colorado," "Roanoke," "Minnesota" and "Merrimac." The latter was seized by the Confederates at Norfolk, altered into an iron-clad battery, and you all remember her history. These six ships were the most powerful armed vessels afloat at that date, the pride of the maritime world, and their plans were freely copied and adopted by foreign naval powers.

The "Wabash" is the only one of these vessels afloat today. She is stationed at Boston as a receiving ship for recruits. In the eighties I was twice, for a term of shore duty her executive, and part of the time her commanding officer; my first ship in the navy I served on board an ordinary seaman.

In May, 1861, the "Wabash" was ordered to blockading duty off Charleston, South Carolina, and in the following August we, in company with several other war-ships, bombarded and captured the fortifications erected at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, the first important naval engagement of the Civil War. It was my first time under fire and I frankly admit when I heard the shells whistling over the ship, and some of them hitting her, I wished myself back in Texas under the lee of my mother's barn!

In October, 1861, Flag Officer Dupont-for we had no Admirals at that time-hoisted his broad-pennant on the "Wabash," and on the seventh of November we were the leading ship in the battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, and the capture of that place. From that date until October, 1862, I volunteered for all of the many expeditions sent from the ship. Very often, in the armed boats of the "Wabash," we were assisting tile army in the various expeditions and en-gagements in the rivers and coast-waters of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Sometimes we, in the armed launches, were months away from the ship. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was in many, what I consider now, very foolhardy undertakings and engagements against the enemy. My name was officially mentioned to the crew of the "Wabash" for gallantry at the bombardment and capture of Fort Pulaski, Savannah River, Georgia, and in the capture of the Confederate steamer "Darlington," near Fernandina, Florida. I was promoted to a petty officer. I begged off from this honor, knowing full well the jealousy it would create among my shipmates, many who were double, and even treble, my age and had been in the naval service from boyhood.

In October, 1862, a combined expedition of the army and navy, under the command of Generals Ormsby, Mitchell and Branuan, attempted to destroy the railroad between Charleston and Savannah. Many light draft gunboats and the four rowing launches of the "Wabash," each armed with a twelve-pound "howitzer," cooperated with the army. We landed our "howitzers" and participated in the engagement of " Cossawhatchie, " Richardsonville, and the final and disastrous battle of "Pocotaligo," South Carolina, where the four "howitzers" covered the retreat of our army. At this latter fight I was twice severely wounded-in my right side and having my left fore-arm shattered by a bullet.

With much loss and many difficulties, our forces reached the shelter of the gunboats' fire. I was sent to the naval hospital at New York, was recommended for a medal of honor for refusing to leave the gun when wounded, and also for an appointment as "Master's mate." The latter I declined; the position in those days was neither an officer nor an enlisted man. While at the hospital I began to "study navigation," being anxious to rise in my profession.

In January, 1863, I was discharged from the hospital and the naval service. Through the influence of my uncle, who was a Brigade-Surgeon in the army, I was offered a second lieutenancy in a newly enlisted New York infantry regiment. I declined the honor. The army paid large bounties at that time; the navy none. I reenlisted in the Navy in February, 1863, for the iron-clad monitor "Catskill," and was appointed a petty officer. Our vessel and other monitors were engaged in the unsuccessful attack on the defences of Charleston, South Carolina, April 7, 1863, when the iron-clad "Keokuk" was sunk under fire from Fort Sumter. The "Catskill" was hit over thirty times that day. June the seventeenth I was present at Wassaw-sound, Georgia, when the monitor "Weehawken" captured, after firing but four shots, the Confederate iron-clad rain "Atlanta," "the second Merrimac," as she was fondly called in the South. It was one of the neatest, shortest, most decisive engagements I ever witnessed.

In July, 1863, the army, protected by the fire of the iron-clads, occupied Morris Island, South Carolina, and by slow approaches, later in the summer, captured the celebrated batteries, Forts Wagner and Gregg, and the steady siege of Charleston began. August 17th, Admiral Dahlgrean, who had succeeded Admiral Dupont, made a determined attack to enter Charleston Harbor. He was repulsed with heavy loss. I steered the "Catskill" into action. The so-called "pilot-house" of these early iron-clads was a round, stationary tower, five feet in diameter and six feet high, placed on top of the gun-turret, and was protected with seven-inch iron plates, pierced with narrow "peep-holes" to see through. The top of the tower was covered with one and threequarter -inch concave iron plates.

On that hot August morning there were in that small, stifling tower, the Captain, his aid the Paymaster, the Pilot, and I at the wheel. Within five hundred yards of Fort Sumter, a chance plunging shot from the parapet crushed the plates of the top of tile tower, instantly killing the Captain, Commander George W. Rodgers, and the Paymaster; wounding the Pilot, a Master's Mate, and stunning me. Up to this date I had seen many violent deaths, but never such bloody shambles in such a small place. With a broken wheel, I steered the ship out of action, removed the bodies from the tower, and after we had made temporary repairs, we returned to the engagement.

Again I was offered by the Admiral, the appointment, of Master's Mate. In declining, I stated that I felt competent to pass the examination for Ensign. My letter was approved by the Admiral. The Navy Department replied that I was "too young; the minimum age for volunteer Ensigns being twenty-four years." At this same period the department enrolled hundreds of merchant-marine officers as Lieutenants, Masters and Ensigns, all who were totally ignorant regarding gunnery, naval routine, or who had seen no active service, but who were all of and many over, the required ages.

Years afterwards in a conversation with Mr. Gideon Welles, our naval War-secretary, he remarked that he remembered my case very well and was under the impression, the commission of Ensign had been sent to me after the "Catskill" affair.

September 8, 1863, I participated in the foolhardy and disastrous night attack by the men of the navy to capture Fort Sumter by boarding it with "cutlass and revolvers." The boat that landed me at the Fort was sunk, like many others, by the enemy's shell fire. Many of our men were killed, and many captured, to die in Southern prisons. I saved myself by swimming to a tug-boat that had towed in the boats.

From this date to the spring of 1864, we, in the monitors, were almost daily engaged with the defences before Charles-ton. I was often one of the boat-crew of that daring and genial "fleet-scout," the late Rear Admiral Bunce. Many time, at night, we pulled into the inner harbor, even tied up to the wharves at Charleston, and went on shore to spy out some means to assist in the escape of a large number of our officers who were imprisoned under federal fire in a ware-house near the wharf.

It was due principally to Lieutenant-Commander Bunce and Captain, the late Vice-Admiral Rowan, that I, in August, 1864, after passing a strict examination, having served over three years as an enlisted mail, received my commission as an Ensign in the volunteer navy, a grade corresponding to a second-lieutenant in the army. There is no doubt, had I at an earlier date accepted the appointment as Master's Mate the commission of Ensign would have come to me sooner' Officers and men looked on the former position with scant courtesy, it being neither "fish, flesh or fowl"!

Promotion in the Navy during the Civil War was a most uncertain, bureaucratic, neglected quantity. You companions of the army were treated more liberally in this matter. Youth, doing a man's duty, was the only "official" hindrance to ad-vancement in my case. What a contrast to the promotions and rewards given for the Spanish-American War! A skirmish it was, compared to the four years of the Civil War!

In the fall of 1864, I served part of the time in com-mand of a gunboat, in the inland-waters and sounds of North Carolina. Though not being actually engaged in the destruction of the Confederate rain "Albemarle," Lieutenant Cushing acknowledged that my assistance to him in repairing his launch at Roanoke Island made it only possible for him to keep on his way to Plymouth, North Carolina. I participated at the bombardment and capture of Plymouth; the cutting out of the steamer "Philadelphia"; in numerous boat expeditions; was blown up on board the double-ender gunboat "Otsego" when she was sunk by a torpedo in the Roanoke River, North Carolina, and was in the assault and cap-ture of Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865, when we, from the fleet, stormed the fort from the sea-face, while the army attacked from the rear.

The end of the Civil War found me not twenty-one years old.

In the spring of 1866 Congress passed a law, and if I remember rightly regarding the actual numbers, that "one hundred and fifty volunteer navy line-officers, after due and competitive examinations, should be admitted into the regular navy." The grades were to be from Commander to Ensign. The Navy Department ordered a large corps of regular officers to Hartford, Connecticut, as an examining board and established the synopses for the examinations, which were rigidly adhered to. The examinations were very severe. I was told afterwards by several of the board that few of them could solve the questions in mathematics.

Some sixteen hundred out of the many thousands of volunteer navy line-officers presented themselves. Many were rejected physically; there was no age limit, and many left when they read the rigorous, almost prohibitory, questions. After nearly two years-the work might readily have been done in one year-the examining board reported in 1868 that fifty-six officers had qualified; five for Lieutenants, twenty for Masters (corresponding to a First Lieutenant in the army) and the remainder for Ensigns. My name was number seven as Ensign. I was the youngest officer in age. Several officers were over fifty years old. Two-thirds of them had held a higher rank in the Volunteer Navy. Many of them had served gallantly as Lieutenants and Lieutenant-Commanders. You companions of the army, who held high rank in the volunteer forces, and who in 1866 entered the regular service, had a similar experience.

During the two years of our so-called examination whole classes from the Naval Academy were promoted. One class in one month, from Midshipmen to Masters, in a year to Lieutenants and in another year to Lieutenant-Commanders; thus filling up the extra numbers created for us by Congress and out-ranking us when in March, 1868, we were admitted into the regular navy. Years afterwards, we tried to have this "wrong made right, " but we were unsuccessful.

After the Civil War, I advanced through the various grades in the line of seniority of slow promotion. The Span-ish-American War found me in command of the cruiser, "Monocacy" on the Asiatic Station, but unhappily, I was not with Admiral Dewey at Manila. I was kept in the Yangtze River for the protection of missionaries, and how we did bless them! In April, 1901, after serving forty years, I asked for voluntary retirement. I had yet many years to serve before I would have to retire, according to existing laws, at the age of sixty-two. My request for retirement was granted in September, 1901.


Farenholt, O.W. 1910. FROM ORDINARY SEAMAN TO REAR ADMIRAL, War Paper #22, 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

Return to Top of Document

Return to MOLLUS Internet Published War Papers

Return to MOLLUS Home Page

Return to MOLLUS Web Site Index Page