Both vessels speedily received their complement, and leaving their docks,
started down the river. The “Thorn” steamed ahead of us, and
disappeared. Shortly after we got under way, the Colonel who was put in
command of the boat–himself a released prisoner–came around on a tour
of inspection. He found about one thousand of us aboard, and singling me
out made me the non-commissioned officer in command. I was put in
charge, of issuing the rations and of a barrel of milk punch which the
Sanitary Commission had sent down to be dealt out on the voyage to such
as needed it. I went to work and arranged the boys in the best way I
could, and returned to the deck to view the scenery.

Wilmington is thirty-four miles from the sea, and the river for that
distance is a calm, broad estuary. At this time the resources of Rebel
engineering were exhausted in defense against its passage by a hostile
fleet, and undoubtedly the best work of the kind in the Southern
Confederacy was done upon it. At its mouth were Forts Fisher and
Caswell, the strongest sea coast forts in the Confederacy. Fort Caswell
was an old United States fort, much enlarged and strengthened. Fort
Fisher was a new work, begun immediately after the beginning of the war,
and labored at incessantly until captured. Behind these every one of the
thirty-four miles to Wilmington was covered with the fire of the best
guns the English arsenals could produce, mounted on forts built at every
advantageous spot. Lines of piles running out into the water, forced
incoming vessels to wind back and forth across the stream under the
point-blank range of massive Armstrong rifles. As if this were not
sufficient, the channel was thickly studded with torpedoes that would
explode at the touch of the keel of a passing vessel. These abundant
precautions, and the telegram from General Lee, found in Fort Fisher,
stating that unless that stronghold and Fort Caswell were held he could
not hold Richmond, give some idea of the importance of the place to the

We passed groups of hundreds of sailors fishing for torpedos, and saw
many of these dangerous monsters, which they had hauled up out of the
water. We caught up with the “Thorn,” when about half way to the sea,
passed her, to our great delight, and soon left a gap between us of
nearly half-a-mile. We ran through an opening in the piling, holding up
close to the left side, and she apparently followed our course exactly.
Suddenly there was a dull roar; a column of water, bearing with it
fragments of timbers, planking and human bodies, rose up through one side
of the vessel, and, as it fell, she lurched forward and sank. She had
struck a torpedo. I never learned the number lost, but it must have been
very great.

Some little time after this happened we approached Fort Anderson, the
most powerful of the works between Wilmington and the forts at the mouth
of the sea. It was built on the ruins of the little Town of Brunswick,
destroyed by Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. We saw a monitor
lying near it, and sought good positions to view this specimen of the
redoubtable ironclads of which we had heard and read so much. It looked
precisely as it did in pictures, as black, as grim, and as uncompromising
as the impregnable floating fortress which had brought the “Merrimac” to

But as we approached closely we noticed a limpness about the smoke stack
that seemed very inconsistent with the customary rigidity of cylindrical
iron. Then the escape pipe seemed scarcely able to maintain itself
upright. A few minutes later we discovered that our terrible Cyclops of
the sea was a flimsy humbug, a theatrical imitation, made by stretching
blackened canvas over a wooden frame.

One of the officers on board told us its story. After the fall of Fort
Fisher the Rebels retired to Fort Anderson, and offered a desperate
resistance to our army and fleet. Owing to the shallowness of the water
the latter could not come into close enough range to do effective work.
Then the happy idea of this sham monitor suggested itself to some one.
It was prepared, and one morning before daybreak it was sent floating in
on the tide. The other monitors opened up a heavy fire from their
position. The Rebels manned their guns and replied vigorously, by
concentrating a terrible cannonade on the sham monitor, which sailed
grandly on, undisturbed by the heavy rifled bolts tearing through her
canvas turret. Almost frantic with apprehension of the result if she
could not be checked, every gun that would bear was turned upon her, and
torpedos were exploded in her pathway by electricity. All these she
treated with the silent contempt they merited from so invulnerable a
monster. At length, as she reached a good easy range of the fort, her
bow struck something, and she swung around as if to open fire. That was
enough for the Rebels. With Schofield’s army reaching out to cut off
their retreat, and this dreadful thing about to tear the insides out of
their fort with four-hundred-pound shot at quarter-mile range, there was
nothing for them to do but consult their own safety, which they did with
such haste that they did not spike a gun, or destroy a pound of stores.



When we reached the mouth of Cape Fear River the wind was blowing so hard
that our Captain did not think it best to venture out, so he cast anchor.
The cabin of the vessel was filled with officers who had been released
from prison about the same time we were. I was also given a berth in the
cabin, in consideration of my being the non-commissioned officer in
charge of the men, and I found the associations quite pleasant. A party
was made up, which included me, to visit Fort Fisher, and we spent the
larger part of a day very agreeably in wandering over that great
stronghold. We found it wonderful in its strength, and were prepared to
accept the statement of those who had seen foreign defensive works, that
it was much more powerful than the famous Malakoff, which so long defied
the besiegers of Sebastopol.

The situation of the fort was on a narrow and low spit of ground between
Cape Fear River and the ocean. On this the Rebels had erected, with
prodigious labor, an embankment over a mile in length, twenty-five feet
thick and twenty feet high. About two-thirds of this bank faced the sea;
the other third ran across the spit of land to protect the fort against
an attack from the land side. Still stronger than the bank forming the
front of the fort were the traverses, which prevented an enfilading fire
These were regular hills, twenty-five to forty feet high, and broad and
long in proportion. There were fifteen or twenty of them along the face
of the fort. Inside of them were capacious bomb proofs, sufficiently
large to shelter the whole garrison. It seemed as if a whole Township
had been dug up, carted down there and set on edge. In front of the
works was a strong palisade. Between each pair of traverses were one or
two enormous guns, none less than one-hundred-and-fifty pounders. Among
these we saw a great Armstrong gun, which had been presented to the
Southern Confederacy by its manufacturer, Sir William Armstrong, who,
like the majority of the English nobility, was a warm admirer of the
Jeff. Davis crowd. It was the finest piece of ordnance ever seen in this
country. The carriage was rosewood, and the mountings gilt brass. The
breech of the gun had five reinforcements.

To attack this place our Government assembled the most powerful fleet
ever sent on such an expedition. Over seventy-five men-of-war, including
six monitors, and carrying six hundred guns, assailed it with a storm of
shot and shell that averaged four projectiles per second for several
hours; the parapet was battered, and the large guns crushed as one
smashes a bottle with a stone. The garrison fled into the bomb-proofs
for protection. The troops, who had landed above the fort, moved up to
assail the land face, while a brigade of sailors and marines attacked the
sea face.

As the fleet had to cease firing to allow the charge, the Rebels ran out
of their casemates and, manning the parapet, opened such a fire of
musketry that the brigade from the fleet was driven back, but the
soldiers made a lodgment on the land face. Then began some beautiful
cooperative tactics between the Army and Navy, communication being kept
up with signal flags. Our men were on one side of the parapets and the
Rebels on the other, with the fighting almost hand-to-hand. The vessels
ranged out to where their guns would rake the Rebel line, and as their
shot tore down its length, the Rebels gave way, and falling back to the
next traverse, renewed the conflict there. Guided by the signals our
vessels changed their positions, so as to rake this line also, and so the
fight went on until twelve traverses had been carried, one after the
other, when the rebels surrendered.

The next day the Rebels abandoned Fort Caswell and other fortifications
in the immediate neighborhood, surrendered two gunboats, and fell back to
the lines at Fort Anderson. After Fort Fisher fell, several blockade-
runners were lured inside and captured.

Never before had there been such a demonstration of the power of heavy
artillery. Huge cannon were pounded into fragments, hills of sand ripped
open, deep crevasses blown in the ground by exploding shells, wooden
buildings reduced to kindling-wood, etc. The ground was literally paved
with fragments of shot and shell, which, now red with rust from the
corroding salt air, made the interior of the fort resemble what one of
our party likened it to “an old brickyard.”

Whichever way we looked along the shores we saw abundant evidence of the
greatness of the business which gave the place its importance. In all
directions, as far as the eye could reach, the beach was dotted with the
bleaching skeletons of blockade-runners–some run ashore by their
mistaking the channel, more beached to escape the hot pursuit of our

Directly in front of the sea face of the fort, and not four hundred yards
from the savage mouths of the huge guns, the blackened timbers of a
burned blockade-runner showed above the water at low tide. Coming in
from Nassau with a cargo of priceless value to the gasping Confederacy,
she was observed and chased by one of our vessels, a swifter sailer,
even, than herself. The war ship closed rapidly upon her. She sought
the protection of the guns of Fort Fisher, which opened venomously on the
chaser. They did not stop her, though they were less than half a mile
away. In another minute she would have sent the Rebel vessel to the
bottom of the sea, by a broadside from her heavy guns, but the Captain of
the latter turned her suddenly, and ran her high up on the beach,
wrecking his vessel, but saving the much more valuable cargo. Our vessel
then hauled off, and as night fell, quiet was restored. At midnight two
boat-loads of determined men, rowing with muffled oars moved silently out
from the blockader towards the beached vessel. In their boats they had
some cans of turpentine, and several large shells. When they reached the
blockade-runner they found all her crew gone ashore, save one watchman,
whom they overpowered before he could give the alarm. They cautiously
felt their way around, with the aid of a dark lantern, secured the ship’s
chronometer, her papers and some other desired objects. They then
saturated with the turpentine piles of combustible material, placed about
the vessel to the best advantage, and finished by depositing the shells
where their explosion would ruin the machinery. All this was done so
near to the fort that the sentinels on the parapets could be heard with
the greatest distinctness as they repeated their half-hourly cry of
“All’s well.” Their preparations completed, the daring fellows touched
matches to the doomed vessel in a dozen places at once, and sprang into
their boats. The flames instantly enveloped the ship, and showed the
gunners the incendiaries rowing rapidly away. A hail of shot beat the
water into a foam around the boats, but their good fortune still attended
them, and they got back without losing a man.

The wind at length calmed sufficiently to encourage our Captain to
venture out, and we were soon battling with the rolling waves, far out of
sight of land. For awhile the novelty of the scene fascinated me. I was
at last on the ocean, of which I had heard, read and imagined so much.
The creaking cordage, the straining engine, the plunging ship, the wild
waste of tumbling billows, everyone apparently racing to where our
tossing bark was struggling to maintain herself, all had an entrancing
interest for me, and I tried to recall Byron’s sublime apostrophe to the

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form
Classes itself in tempest: in all time,
Calm or convulsed-in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving–boundless, endless, and sublime–
The image of eternity–the throne
Of the invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obey thee: thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone,

Just then, my reverie was broken by the strong hand of the gruff Captain
of, the vessel descending upon my shoulder, and he said:

“See, here, youngster! Ain’t you the fellow that was put in command of
these men?”

I acknowledged such to be the case.

“Well,” said the Captain; “I want you to ‘tend to your business and
straighten them around, so that we can clean off the decks.”

I turned from the bulwark over which I had been contemplating the vasty
deep, and saw the sorriest, most woe-begone lot that the imagination can
conceive. Every mother’s son was wretchedly sea-sick. They were paying
the penalty of their overfeeding in Wilmington; and every face looked as
if its owner was discovering for the first time what the real lower
depths of human misery was. They all seemed afraid they would not die;
as if they were praying for death, but feeling certain that he was going
back on them in a most shameful way.

We straightened them around a little, washed them and the decks off with
a hose, and then I started down in the hold to see how matters were with
the six hundred down there. The boys there were much sicker than those
on deck. As I lifted the hatch there rose an odor which appeared strong
enough to raise the plank itself. Every onion that had been issued to us
in Wilmington seemed to lie down there in the last stages of
decomposition. All of the seventy distinct smells which Coleridge
counted at Cologne might have been counted in any given cubic foot of
atmosphere, while the next foot would have an entirely different and
equally demonstrative “bouquet.”

I recoiled, and leaned against the bulwark, but soon summoned up courage
enough to go half-way down the ladder, and shout out in as stern a tone
as I could command:

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