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Henry Norton Sulivan on the Baltic campaign of the Russian War of 1854-1856 (4/10)


RECONNOITRING CRONSTADT.

At anchor the east side of Seskar,
Saturday, June 24th, 1854.

On Wednesday Admiral Plumridge returned from his long trip. We were all surprised to find the fleet was to sail immediately. It soon became known that it was to look at Cronstadt. The twelve screw-ships of our fleet were to go, leaving Ajax, as too slow, with the sailing squadron. On Thursday afternoon we sailed, having six French line-of-battle ships (four towed by their own steamers and two by ours). Soon after we got outside, we went with the captain of the fleet to the French admiral, and then were sent back about twelve miles with a letter-bag for the sailing-ships. I went in a narrow direct passage that saved us a long round, and we soon got out again, and about 10 p.m. overtook the fleet again. The admiral seemed doubtful if we could have been there and back, and asked me from the stern-walk, and, when he found we had, he called out, 'Well done!' We then went off directly to Euryalus inshore off Helsingfors, to recall Arrogant and Bulldog to the admiral, and by the time I reached the Duke, again it was three o'clock in the morning, and I was quite ready to lie down. Yesterday at eight we were ordered to take Porcupine with us, and go ahead to examine Hogland Anchorage (on the east side), and we soon left the fleet behind and led the way up the gulf, no ship having been so high before. The Porcupine is a very nice steamer, a little larger than Lightning, but with much more power: she was built for a surveying-vessel, and the Hydrographer asked for her for me instead of Lightning, but as she was in commission they could not change her commander.

We ran close round the south end of Hogland, watching each wooded headland to see if there was any battery or any troops to oppose us; but we saw nothing till we came to rather a large village, where there were a number of women and children and a few men. There were two or three small schooners, and a number of boats of all kinds hauled up on the shore. Towards the north point is another and larger village, and the people stood in clusters watching us, and did not even drive away a herd of about twenty cows lying on the beach in front of the houses: it is evident they do not fear us. The women were all dressed exactly alike - a sort of loose white bodice and dark-coloured skirt. We completed all just as the fleet hove in sight. The anchorage is a bank near the shore, like Madeira, going off suddenly to thirty-five fathoms. Instead of anchoring, I found the admirals had determined to go on to Seskar Island, about twenty-five miles below Cronstadt. The chief asked me to remain to dinner.

About nine, when I left, the admiral sent me again ahead with Porcupine, to place her on the north point of the Seskar Banks to guide the fleet, and then I was to return to him. We reached the place about midnight, but it was so thick we could see nothing, and had to be guided entirely by the course and patent log. We hit the bank in four fathoms exactly, and again went back to the admiral. We found him anchored on account of the thick weather, and I was able to get to bed again at 3 a.m., not having been able to lie down all day. I slept till six, when I found we were under way, and I should have remained quiet had not our signal been made to chase a small craft between the banks to the southward; so I had to remain on deck. We caught her at 7.30, and found her a little country schooner going over to the south shore, with nothing but stones in her: there were five men - Finns. I let her go, not thinking it right to detain her, but she has been brought in as a prize by another vessel that fell in with her afterwards! I hope the chief will release her.

We anchored off this island about 11 a.m. We have lovely weather, but too warm. I fancy the smaller vessels will have a peep at Cronstadt, and that we shall take the lead in bearding the bear in his den. I suppose we are come up to try and tempt him out. We have only eighteen sail of the line. They have, I believe, twenty-four in Cronstadt, and eight the other side of us at Helsingfors.

The governor of Bomarsund has been dismissed, and a new one appointed, because he did not prevent our sounding the channels round it, nor attempt to oppose us at all.

I am almost too sleepy to write, having only had six hours' sleep in the last forty-eight, and the weather so hot and close.


Running for Cronstadt,
Monday, 11 a.m., June 26th, 1854.

Yesterday we had a quiet Sabbath, though a beautiful day. This morning at four the whole fleet weighed. The chief has issued an order that, in consequerice of the Russian flag being liable to be mistaken for ours, every ship in action is to hoist the yellow-blue-yellow pendant over the ensign at the peak and the jack at the main. I do not like it: our ensign ought to float at the peak below nothing. He might have made all hoist the white or red ensign instead of the blue, but nothing else. We are now running up in three lines, - Duke and her division the centre; Admiral Chads the port; and French ships in tow the starboard; Impérieuse, Arrogant, and Desperate ahead three miles. The chief is very full of the infernal machines, for he has made several signals about looking out for them - as if the Russians would let us see where they are. They are all submerged, we know; but to ensure the large ships against them, we in poor Lightning; instead of going ahead of all, are kept a quarter of a mile right ahead of Duke of Wellington, that we may explode any machine in her path. I have just seen the Russian fleet from the mast-head, and instead of being anchored high up the passage in line up and down the channel, I think they are in two lines across the channel; if so, they cannot be high up, but near the lower batteries, and then we might reach them with our heavy guns. In the sketch the border-line shows the limit of the channel for large ships.

4 p.m. - The fleet has anchored about eight miles from the lighthouse, and I have just been given the command of the inshore squadron, Lightning, Magicienne, and Bulldog, to go in and reconnoitre the fleet and batteries - Watson, with Impérieuse, Arrogant, and Desperate, to keep near outside and support us if necessary. We are going to anchor for the night to the southward of the lighthouse, about five miles from the fort, and to-morrow early a French steamer is to join us and we go closer in. They have several steamers with steam up, but I do not think they will attack us.

11 p.m. - We have just returned from the lighthouse, where we had a fine view of Cronstadt and the fleet, but six miles off. I think there are not more than seventeen or eighteen sail of the line, and they are all moored above their batteries. My division is at anchor about a mile inside Watson's. A schooner came towards us as we approached, but is merely acting as guard-boat, for she turned back, and is now hovering outside the batteries.

Cronstadt

Tuesday, 9 p.m. - This morning at 4 a.m. the French new steamer Phlegethon joined me; the captain came on board, and said he was directed to place himself under my orders. We then weighed with the four vessels and stood in, Lightning leading. The enemy's look-out steamer ran in as we got within shot. We stood on till we were within two miles, when I made the signal to the others to stop, and we went on to about two thousand five hundred yards from the grand fort (Risbank); but seeing them loading two very large guns on the flank nearest to us, and training them on us, I sheered out again to three thousand yards and then anchored, and had a most leisurely look at everything, getting a good sketch of port and ships and doing all we required. They had a large frigate-steamer and four others with steam up, but they did not move out. Their guard-steamer was evidently without guns, merely a fast little vessel, and she got bolder and came nearer and nearer every time. She took a look at us; but she being unarmed, I would not fire on her. One of my captains asked my signal for permission to fire, but I said 'No'. We were doing all we wished quietly, and it might have forced their other steamers out, while we could have done no good if they had come, as they could have kept under their powerful batteries. The two lines of ships I have marked are the positions we thought their ships were in from information, but we find them all above the batteries where I have marked the crosses, with their broadsides to the channels. There are only sixteen sail of the line, and a heavy frigate ready outside and one in the basin. There are three more as block-ships to the north-east, not rigged, and beyond them, to the north-east, three frigates ready for sea, and two frigates and one corvette block-ship. There is also one two-decker in dock. Having completed all, we ran out, joined Watson's squadron, and we all went on while I breakfasted with him, and then we led them all round to the north side, Watson's ships anchoring when pretty near. We ran on with the others, and I intended anchoring my squadron in five fathoms, and then going on to three in Lightning; but by this time it was blowing hard from the westward, and, not liking to anchor them in shallow water with a gale coming on, I hauled off a little to six fathoms, and we all anchored about three miles north of Cronstadt, and in front of their line of ships to the north-east, where they have also in line this evening thirteen heavy gunboats, probably to annoy us at night; but it blows too hard now. I have had three hours' sleep this afternoon, to be ready for anything to-night. It seems strange that we should be quietly lying at anchor within three miles of such an enemy's fleet; but it is all-important steam that enables us to do so. In the dusk they might push gun-boats within range unless a good look-out were kept, so I do not like to go to bed, particularly as we are the inshore vessel. A steamer has just been running rather far out on the other side, where we were this morning, but Desperate (which we left on that side to look out) has weighed and stood in, and the steamer ran back. I do not think they will attempt to molest. Their ships look rather slummy in their appearance; and as they cannot evidently make up more than seventeen or eighteen sail of the line, it is impossible for them to come out: our English screw-ships alone could destroy them. They are all placed to resist an attack, and evidently think of nothing else. The channel is certainly formidable and quite impregnable, as the following sketch of it will show. After passing all the heavy forts below, if not destroyed by them, our leading ship would have all these hundred and twenty-four guns and two three-deckers' broadsides raking her, besides those of all the ships at longer distances on her starboard bow. If she could possibly survive all this and pass between the three-deckers, carrying away their bowsprits, she would find the broadsides of three two-deckers close above pouring it into both bows. All their ships are moored head and stern, which, if you do not quite understand, I can thus explain. When Jim and Tom, at the Falklands had the cat with one lasso on her head and another on her hind-leg, pulling in opposite directions, the poor thing was moored 'head and stern.'

Cronstadt

When we landed at the lighthouse last night, we found the doors of the tower well locked; but after some time I found a shed and stack of wood enabling me to reach a window in the upstairs passage from the house to the tower, and with a chisel we got in without breaking the window, forced open the tower door at the end of the passage, and then found all the stairs in perfect order: glass above only whitewashed to prevent our seeing through it, and the revolving-frame left - merely the lamps removed.

Wednesday, 21st. - Hecla, with Odin and Valorous, have been shelling Bomarsund large fort, and burning part of the wooden roof; but I think it is not worth the shot and shell expended, for Hecla has fired away all hers, and the other ships must have wasted a good deal; and the wooden roof was only to keep off snow: under it the roof is bombproof, and probably is not hurt the least. If so, it is a victory for the Russians, as the ships left off for want of shell, and had five men wounded. I could have burnt the roof more easily with a few rockets, but it was not worth trying. A mate of Hecla named Lucas threw overboard before it exploded a burning shell that came on board: every man had lain down to avoid the explosion. The admiral has applied for his promotion.

Thursday, 22nd. - I breakfasted with the chief this morning ; and after a long discussion with him on charts, crews, gun-boats, bombarding batteries, etc., he took me with him to the French admiral, from whom I have just returned. The admiral will not go up to see Cronstadt till to-morrow afternoon. The old chief is frequently asking me whether I am sure he could go into the lighthouse safely, and seems half afraid of being caught. The cholera is increasing in some of the large ships, and they have lost several men within a few days: we have hitherto been most mercifully preserved from it, the one man ill from diarrhoea being now nearly well. But I hope the chief will move the fleet into the open water, north of Gothland, as it would be a much more healthy part, and we could blockade quite as well as here.


[Private.]
'Lightning', July 1st, 1854

The admiral went in in Driver yesterday afternoon: he would not go with us - I really believe because he wanted us to go ahead to explode any infernal machines before he came to them. His head is full of these things, though we have now run over all the ground outside the forts and actually are not blown up yet. I led him in the north side first till he turned and then sent for me, and made me point out everything to him; then we ran round to the grand position. We ran on some way ahead, and I hoped he would go where I had anchored before, three thousand yards off; but before I reached that I saw they had placed a target with a flag exactly where we had anchored, and we heard single guns all day, probably practising at their longest range. We also fancied we saw several guns all pointed for one spot, so we stopped a little outside the flag, the admiral having previously stopped half a mile outside, and was hoisting our recall as we rounded to. I asked several officers to go who had had no chance before -Hewlett, captain of flag-ship, both the engineers, the master of flag-ship (a very nice fellow), the chaplain, lieutenant, and a volunteer. The admiral would not go to the lighthouse, so I got leave to go there, and we anchored; and after all had dined with me, we spent some time in the beautiful evening on the top, returning to the fleet before dark.


July 3d, 1854.

Yesterday morning we moved from off Cronstadt down to Seskar. The afternoon before, after closing the mail, the chief told me to take all the captains and commanders in the fleet to see Cronstadt, and a signal was made that all who wished could go in Lightning. I had nearly all, besides a few junior officers; but the chief would only allow me to take them to the lighthouse - not inside. We had a fine view of the fleet; and I took a Russian prize - the first I have taken - mounting ten guns; but they are wooden ones, and the vessel is so small that I am going to send it home as a present to the boys. We would not allow anything left in the lighthouse to be touched; but I thought as I saw this little ugly model of a brig about a foot long, I might fairly take it. (The only Russian man-of-war taken during the war! - Ed.)

Yesterday we were moving about all day, so that I could not have service: the whole fleet was kept so long for the French sailing-ships to be towed. They are a sad drag on us, and yet they will not let us move alone. We anchored about 6 p.m.; my signal was made directly, and I found the chief wanted me to run through Bi"ork"o Sound, to see if there was a passage for the fleet right through and out to the northward. He gave me Magicienne, Bulldog, and Desperate, under my orders, and he told me to tell Watson to take Arrogant and Imp'ereuse, anchor the latter part of the way, and Arrogant near the sound, to enable us to communicate by signal. About 10 p.m. we anchored in the mouth of the sound; and thinking that the narrow part at Koivasto would be fortified, and wanting daylight to look at it, we remained for the night. The admiral had given me positive injunctions to have no fighting, saying he trusted entirely to my judgment to prevent it, and that if I got the ships into any scrape it would kill him. I promised faithfully I would do all I could to be peaceable; but we saw before dark that there were a number of men on the point with the trees cleared away and a telegraph station, while the thick trees close behind would shelter riflemen. I was therefore in a puzzle. If we went on and they fired at us, we could not help having a fight, as we could not then go back, and yet it would be the thing I was positively ordered to avoid, and also there might be a sore feeling about no French ships being with us if we had a brush, for the French admiral says that if our fleet had an action, and he and his ships were out of the way, all the paving-stones in Paris would not be enough to throw at his head! So after consulting with Watson, we agreed that if we saw any guns or preparations to resist our passing we would wait while I returned and got the admiral's leave to attack, and then I would take one of my ships and a French ship round by the north entrance, and so place them between two fires; but that if we saw nothing to warrant our waiting we would go past, and, if they fired, then we would anchor round the point and destroy everything. As we could cross our fire over the narrow point everywhere, we could bring off any guns there were. I would haul Lightning close in, bend a strong hawser to a gun, and stand off till we dragged it into deep water: in this way we could get them all off. This morning it was foggy, and we could see nothing for some time; and fearing that if the other ships came close, and we found there were guns and the ships retired, it would look like a victory to them, I left the other ships below and ran up in Lightning cautiously, watching the point from the mast-head. I soon distinctly saw a long parapet among the trees, though masked with small trees, and I saw about a hundred and fifty soldiers in blue marching among the trees, and also a number of soldiers in grey about the parapet, whom I took for artillery. I afterwards went through another channel to get another view, and I stood up to within twelve hundred yards, in hopes of inducing them, if they had guns, to unmask them by firing on us; but they never fired. I then agreed with Watson that we would go on, and if they attacked us the chief could not find fault with our returning their fire. We arranged that I should lead up, followed by Magicienne and Bulldog; that Impérieuse should accompany us and lay right abreast of the point, and Desperate should be below it, to cut off the low neck; while we, with the two other steamers, should cross the whole from above, so that not a man could leave the point over the low part across our fire or a gun be removed. We already speculated on how many guns we should get! Now I think it would have been a very good plan, only it wanted one thing to complete it, and that was an enemy. As we ran up, expecting every moment to see them open, we got pretty close, I found that I was quite right as to the battery; there was the parapet, evidently just finished, the whole point covered in front by the trees felled to form an abattis, arid plenty of men, whom we saw concealing themselves behind rocks, trees, etc.; but there were no guns, and they had the prudence not to fire mugketry; so we did not fire at them, though we could have destroyed them, or perhaps even cut them off. The battery had been just prepared for guns, perhaps within a week or two. The parapet was of loose stones with clay, something like a Cornish fence or hedge, and covered neatly on its top and front with sods, and hidden by young trees planted before it; so that I was quite right in my idea. And as under such circumstances there would be guns in nineteen cases out of twenty, I was right in taking precautions, as it would have ensured success with the least possible amount of loss, and nothing is so foolish as holding an enemy cheap. Perhaps I ought strictly to have fired at the soldiers; but it would have been almost a barbarous cruelty to have poured in all kinds of destructive missiles amongst men only, who had no means of retaliating. We might perhaps have killed or mangled a hundred poor wretches or more, as I could see them crouching thickly among the trees, but it would have done no good.

So now you have full particulars of our peaceable fight, which we all laugh at now after the preparations we made. But, seriously, I do indeed feel deeply thankful that we were spared the necessity of forcing a passage, and that there was no bloodshed. We are too apt to think of the glory, honour, etc., of a successful despatch, and too many, I fear, would try to write one without thinking of the cost at which it was purchased. I do trust I may be able to set such ideas on one side, and to feel that the satisfaction of preventing unnecessary bloodshed is far more desirable. I am afraid some of my colleagues deem me much too merciful. I think this battery has been prepared for their field artillery, several batteries of which (twelve-pounders) are distributed along the coast; and in case of wanting to place any to defend this passage, they have raised this parapet, fearing to put permanent guns, as we should have been sure to take them; but if they had their field-guns there, it would have been just the same, for I do not think, gallant as they are, their artillery would have limbered up and carried guns off that point under such a cross-fire as we should have poured on them: they would, I think, have been limbered up by hawsers to the Lightnings stern, and danced down the beach to the full power of her engines.

We ran up the channel afterwards, several little coasting-vessels being deserted by their crews, who dropped the anchors and then got into their boats before we could catch them: at last, by pretending to pass some way from one and suddenly going full speed to her, and firing a rifle-ball over their heads, we caugnt her with the men; I have two Finns (deserters) on board, one speaking English, which is a great convenience. He hailed them - told them to drop their anchors and come in their boat; they were terribly frightened - the master, a fine young man, and two others. After getting all the information I could, to their perfect astonishment I gave them a bottle of rum and a good lot of biscuit - two things they are fond of, though they do not drink to excess - and sent them back: they then said they had no idea we should let them go. They made sure they would be sent to England and put in prison. We ran back through the channel without anything occurring, and at 4 p.m. reached the fleet again. I trust there is a favourable turn in the sickness, particularly in the Duke: no new cases, and those there are not bad ones. We all continue quite well. Johnson (the doctor) says he has found small doses of castor oil and turpentine check all cases of diarrhoea - castor oil almost in homoeopathic quantity, and not acting as a dose.

Cowell, the junior engineer officer, has just sent me a little coloured sketch of the lighthouse to which we have paid so many visits.

The chief was much pleased with what I did, and he asked my opinion about his movements and what could be done. He wants a good position on the north of the gulf, and asked me about one. I pointed out another I thought better for various reasons, and he seemed pleased with it. He wants to anchor the fleet in a good position, and then examine the shores, etc., with the steamers, to see if there is any place where we can do anything, and I fancy from what he said I shall have the detached squadron. What a change from the time I was doing lieutenant's duty as admiral's tender, now entrusted with everything worth being sent about! I really think Lightning herself feels proud of heading her squadron, for she steps out better than ever, and the large powerful steamers have to work pretty good power to keep their stations. I feel the want of an armament for this work: we have now had to cut away our forecastle-rail and bulwark altogether, to enable us to put our two guns forward, as it is on the bows we want them going through these narrow channels.


[Private.]
Sunday, July 2nd, 1854.

We weighed this morning from off Cronstadt, and are now standing down towards Seskar, but I hope going much farther down. I think it is almost the first time I was glad to move on a Sunday, for every day seemed adding to the victims of cholera, particularly in Duke of Wellington. Yesterday they had fifty cases of diarrhoea, eight of cholera, and two died in the previous night. I was on board her some time, and I urged the admiral to go right out of the gulf to Gottska-Sand"o, as the idea to the men would be everything. I believe even this change to a fresh air and a broader part of the gulf will do much good. We have only one case of diarrhoea, and that is getting well. What a mercy it is! The last few days the cases have been milder and more like diarrhoea, and except the Duke's the cases have rarely terminated fatally. The change from the hot, sultry weather and the cooler water alongside is probably the cause, and now we have a nice fresh westerly wind, and we are all comfortably wearing blue trousers again.

I must not report about our movement in this, or it will be repeating what I must put in the journal; but I must tell you what I do not like to put in the journal, as so many see it, and that is how I am getting credit for the work I do. When dining with Commodore Martin yesterday, after returning with my boat of captains from the lighthouse, I heard him in the evening talking in another part of his cabin (and I do not think he fancied I was within hearing, as I was with another group discussing a question). After some compliments to me, he said that it was a pity for many to go in ships looking at different parts of the enemy's position, as it showed them the point we were thinking of, but that Sulivan alone ought to go and examine it all, and report what could be done, as he had such good eyes for it. Yelverton told me that a French captain asked him what position I held, and if I belonged to the Hydrographic Office, and whether I got better paid than any one else - for I did all the work of the fleet. I trust that all this being so flattering, and my position with the admiral now so satisfactory and comfortable also, will not make me think too much of these things, and forget to whom I owe the power and the health to do the work. One ought to live if possible regardless of all these things, when so many poor fellows are being taken in this sudden way.

If, as I trust, the war ends this year, and I am spared, I think I shall be sure of being able to get something worth having through the Hydrographic Department, but I feel now as if I would prefer being home to anything. As to going to sea again, if we have peace, for any advantage of serving time, I trust that will never be the path ordered for me by Providence. But how little one ought to care for all this, for how has everything been ordered better than we could arrange it ourselves! More than ever must we endeavour to say and feel from our hearts that whilst we praise Him for the past we will trust the future entirely to Him - only I do desire that, whatever that future is to be, we may be together to share either the joys or the trials, so that we can either rejoice together or else comfort each other in times of trial. This is my greatest earthly desire, and there is no other that I ever think of in comparison with it.

July 5th. - We started to-day towards Baro Sound. I hear Admiral Corry's squadron there is so sickly (chiefly small-pox) that he has gone outside, fearing the place is not healthy: perhaps that has brought the chief down. Some of my brother-officers, and the chief also, seem to think it would have been right to fire on those defenceless soldiers at Koivasto, but I am sure I did right. What good would it have done to our cause, or what credit to our navy, for five ships to pour their broadsides on two hundred defenceless men? I could not do it.

Baro Sound, July 7th. - Yesterday morning, on entering this sound, I was sent to place a steamer on one entrance shoal, and afterwards to go myself to the opposite side, where I found the buoy had been removed, probably cut off at night by the enemy, the place being left one night without a vessel. I found the rock, put down another buoy on it, and was waiting while Duke, and French ships passed, the latter towed by steamers. They were half a mile nearly outside us, when one of the ninety-gun ships ran right on a rock we did not know of before, with only three fathoms on it. She got off this morning, and I have been out to-day examining the place. We have had a very hot day. 1 am thankful to say the cholera is better, except in Majestic. She buried four men yesterday. The Duke's last cases were less severe, and she had only one to-day, not fatal. We are still preserved from it, and have only one case of diarrhoea, the same we have had for some days, and that improves slowly. To-night our men went to an island to bathe, and brought off a few most delicious Alpine strawberries.

Sunday, July 9th. - The fleet has been coaling for the last few days and preparing to start somewhere. The Duke buried two men yesterday, and there have been three funerals to-day. The Princess Royal has a hundred and eighty men in the sick-list, and the Royal George a hundred and fifty, chiefly diarrhoea; but the cases are milder, and to-day Duke has none. We had to coal after Alban, and she did not finish till eight last night. Had it been any other day, I should have put it off till this morning; but knowing we should be made to coal all to-day if not complete, I worked all night, watch and watch, having hot tea brewed for the men, thinking that for health the night would be better for working in than the hot day. It was our only chance of having anything like a Sabbath. We finished early this morning, and have had our usual service. I used the prayers 'for the time of pestilence' for those in the fleet who were suffering, and returned thanks for the mercy of being preserved in perfect health in this vessel. Our only sick man was sent to duty to-day. I read a very nice sermon on 'a more convenient season', as there was much in it applicable to the present time. Just after service my signal was made: it was to consult me about a report sent from a ship that had touched on a rock at the Aland Islands. I had afterwards a talk with the chaplain about the sickness on board, and asked him if there had been a general use of the prayer 'for the time of pestilence'. I found he had never used it, though he much wanted to, because the admiral would not have an allusion made to it in the service, saying it would depress the men. At first, when he touched in a sermon on the deaths that had taken place, he was told it would have a bad effect, and he must not allude to it again. Is not this sad?

July 10th. - We have a nice cool day, and the thermometer only 62° - the ships all healthier. The fact is, it is the large screw-ships that have been unhealthy. The sailing-ships have not had a case of cholera. The heat of the engines confined under the deck seems to cause it? In Edinburgh they have their boilers confined under the after-part of the ship, and the cockpit, where the officers sleep, is terribly hot when steam is up. She has not had a case among the men, but three among the officers, though all have recovered.


Admiralty, July 4th, 1854.

My dear Sulivan, - All your letters charm me, but especially your last from Seskar, for it gave me the very agreeable intelligence that you had at last found your due level, and were employed in your pioneering, or rather leading, capacity. Your Bomarsund adventures also much gratified me, and your soundings were quickly inserted in the Aland chart. In the meantime I send you my heartiest wishes for the sustainment of your health, and the credit due to all your exertions in the chose publique.

Always yours,
F. Beaufort.


Baro Sound, Monday, July 17th, 1854.

The only thing worth mentioning since my last is our trip to Sweaborg (Helsingfors) on Tuesday last. The admiral sent me with a flag-of-truce to take a letter to the Russian admiral on the subject of the prisoners taken at Gamla Carleby. We started from this at 5 p.m. and at 7 were steaming up the channel to Sweaborg. The Russians have removed a fine beacon on a small island, which used to form the leading-mark, and have re-erected it on another islet, thinking to deceive us and run us on a dangerous reef; but it was too palpable to deceive us a moment. They have actually put it in a position where, on with a very fine church, it clears us of the very reef they thought to run us on, while we ran up the channel full speed without ever checking the engines, so good are their charts and so easy to make out the proper marks even without the beacon, though both sides of the passage are for six miles bounded by rocks. When near the small island, and about two miles off the entrance, across which the admiral's three-decker is moored, she fired two blank guns, evidently as a signal that we were near enough. We had hoisted a white flag eight miles outside: at first it was a sheet, but it was not large enough, so I hoisted a fine large table-cloth, and took half a sheet for the boat-flag. I went to about a mile and a half off, just out of gun-shot, when they fired another gun, and we anchored. I then pulled in as fast as I could in my boat, and saw a boat with a white, flag coming out; but as we pulled much the faster, we got within less than half a mile when we met, just as another gun was fired, as a hint we were too close. The lieutenant in the boat said he was ordered by the admiral to say the steamer was too close, and that if she did not move out he would be compelled to fire on her. I told him to give my compliments to the admiral, and I should be happy to move out a little if he wished it, but it would be useless his firing, as the vessel was out of shot. The officer seemed very nervous about his orders (I had a Russian interpreter with me, who also spoke French well): he would not speak Russian, only French, apparently that his boat's crew might not hear. I had difficulty in persuading him to take the letter: when he did, I arranged that, if there was no answer forthcoming, the ship should hoist a flag at her fore; if there was an answer, it should be sent out. I said I would meet the boat half-way, but he said I must not come in the boat again, as I had come too close now, but the letter should be sent to the ship. I then returned about 9 p.m., and shifted the vessel out about a quarter of a mile, and we lay all night waiting till 1 a.m., when, as what little dark there was was just closing, we saw a small steamer coming out: she brought two lieutenants in a boat with a letter. With difficulty could I get them to come up the ladder: when I did, they would only come to the top, and all my attempts at politeness would not get them inside. I asked them how the wounded men were. The answer was, 'We know nothing about anything: anything to be said is in the letter.' They were evidently afraid of compromising themselves, and had been told not to hold any communication verbally with us. As soon as they left we started, and, though too dark to see the marks clearly, we steamed out again at full speed. I dare say they were vexed at finding that, in spite of buoys and beacons being removed, and the tower shifted to another island, we could run in and out of their passage at full speed, as if we had known it before. I would not have any angles taken or drawings made, as we were under a flag-of-truce; neither did 1 have a leadsman in the chains while near, that they might not say we sounded under cover of the white flag. We got back to the admiral at 5 a.m. The answer was that nothing could be said of exchanging prisoners till they heard from the Emperor, and that the officer and seven men were killed, twelve wounded, and eight unhurt.

Last packet brought us the news that French troops were coming out, and set all the fleet wondering what is to be done. All sorts of reports are in vogue; and being aware Admiral Chads and myself have been much with the chief, sometimes for hours at a time, and Nugent, the senior engineer, also, officers know that, whatever the plans are, we alone are in the secret, and that makes every one more curious. Till the news of the French troops coming reached us, no one had an idea that anything was in agitation, so well has the secret been kept for nearly a month. I only wonder it did not get out through the French, as the French admiral was consulted, and that was my chief fear about it. The fact is, that so many letters of officers get published that it is not safe to let anything be known; and some of them contain most arrant nonsense, that must make the writers ashamed when they see it in print. If I ever thought there was a possibility of a line I wrote being known beyond our own circle, I should never write a word on the subject of our movements again. I am glad to see that none of the papers know the real object of the troops coming out: even now it may be kept secret, or attention directed to other places than the true one. If so, you will probably be the only person outside the Government offices who will know all about it, and you certainly have been the only one during the last month who knew that there was something in preparation. You see the advantage of your large organ of secretiveness! Had you not proved so often how close you could keep a thing, I could not have ventured to write privately to you on the subject. The mail to-day brought, among other reports, one that Riga is our object. A brother-captain has been here this minute trying to find out from me if it is true. 'Where are we going?' is the common question. I try to look very ignorant and innocent, and say, 'Have you not heard it is so and so?' (the last place reported).

18th. - We sail to-day. I am now going to take buoys up, so evidently all the fleet are going. I go on ahead with some steamers to place them as marks for the big ships. It is not certain yet whether I shall find a passage for the Duke. I have three feet of water more to find. If I succeed in getting her up, it will be a great thing.

It will be well, I think, to give the following letter heere; it was written to his old Beagle messmate, Captain Hamond, of Fakenham, Norfolk:-

Guildford, 1856.

My dear Hamond, - I see that your neighbour the Marquis Townshend has defended Sir C. Napier against the attack of Sir R. Peel. I am glad he has done so; for whatever may be said against Sir Charles on other points, it is most unjust to accuse him of want of courage in not attacking with a fleet a place against which it is impossible to place ships, so as fairly to try whether their broadsides or the batteries are the strongest. No one but a madman would have run his ships into a long, narrow channel, with at most a foot of water to spare, out of which they could not pass; where there was hardly room for two ships abreast; where the slightest yaw in the smoke must have put them on shore; and where they would have been under the raking and cross fire of hundreds of heavy guns, against which they would have been able only to bring a few bow-guns to bear. The attempt could only have ended in the total destruction of every ship that went in.

On our way up the gulf I boarded an American from Cronstadt. The captain and supercargo were both intelligent men. They said they had spoken to many Russian officers, who all allowed it was useless to bring their fleet out, as they could not contend with us at sea; but said that their plan was to have their ships quite ready, to let Napier get his ships knocked to pieces against their batteries, and then to come out and finish the work. I took these persons to the admiral, to whom they repeated this statement. Common sense must show that this was the Russians' only safe plan; and had Napier played their game for them, and the result had been their destroying our fleet and getting command of the Baltic and North Seas, those who have abused both him and the Government would have been the first to cry out against the madman who lost the fleet and the Admiralty that appointed him.

Those who contend that a fleet can destroy the strongest fortress should confine themselves to places where there is space and depth enough to admit of ships being fairly placed against the batteries, such as Sevastopol and Sweaborg. In both these places, if ships were not disabled on their approach by the raking and cross fire of shells from nearly two hundred heavy guns, they could get within short range of the nearest batteries; but they would still be exposed to the fire of other batteries, especially earth-works placed higher and at longer ranges: these, aided by the broadsides of ships inside, would probably destroy the attacking ships, even if they succeeded in silencing the batteries they were abreast of. The success of two small batteries, so placed, at Sevastopol, on, October 17th, against several of our large ships, shows what the result would have been if an attempt had been made against either Sevastopol or Sweaborg with the fleet alone. No one who knows anything on the question can doubt that it would have resulted in the destruction or disabling of the whole attacking force, and in giving the command of the Baltic or Black Sea to Russia during the summer of 1854.

It is extraordinary that the public expected only Napier and the Baltic fleet to perform such wonders. Why have the Black Sea admirals not been equally blamed because they did not take Sevastopol with the fleet alone?

It is rather amusing to find ignorant persons talking and writing of what Nelson would have done, and to hear a line of block-ships and rafts at Copenhagen which he attacked compared to Cronstadt. If the Russian ships had anchored in line outside their batteries, can any one believe that Napier and Parseval would not have given as good an account of them as Nelson did of the Danish ships at Copenhagen in his almost drawn battle? For the batteries, though some distance from the attacking force, were so entirely uninjured, and, after beating off the frigates that attacked them, so annoyed the nearest ships, that Nelson was glad to avail himself of the first break in the action, caused by his flag-of-truce, to get his ships out of the channel.

If Sir Robert Peel had studied the naval history of the French war, he would have learnt that Nelson never attacked a battery with ships, except very slightly the first day at Teneriffe, when, thinking it impossible to succeed that way, he gave it up and tried to carry the place by storm.

At either Bastia or Calvi - I forget which - he opposed a proposal of the general's to bring the fleet in against the place, after a principal sea battery had been taken, on the ground that 'it had been proved ships could not stand the fire of batteries, now red-hot shot were used'. A frigate had been burnt a short time before by red-hot shot from a small battery; and the martello-tower, with one gun, had beaten off a line-of-battle ship and a frigate with great loss, setting them on fire in several places.

What would he have said if he had seen large ships so beaten by the fire of shell from a few guns as Alban and others were at Sevastopol? I should like to hear the opinions of such men as Sir Howard Douglas and Sir Harry Jones on the chance a fleet would have in the narrow channel at Cronstadt, even if the enemy were to let them get in as far as they could before they fired a shot.

These are no new opinions of mine, as I expressed the same strongly after witnessing the effect of firing against earthen batteries in the Parana. Before the failure at Sevastopol, I expressed my conviction that three guns in a well-constructed battery, properly placed, would beat off or destroy any ship in the world. This view I pressed strongly on the Government, when I tried to stop the erection of badly constructed stone batteries at Plymouth in 1846.

I saw more of the defences of Cronstadt than any other person in the fleet, having been entrusted with the close examination of them both years, and I spent many anxious days and nights trying to find an opening for doing something against them. The decision of the admirals both years was in accordance with the reports I gave them; and as that is well known to those who served in the Baltic, I feel personally anxious that injustice should not be done to our services, which hitherto I feel has been the case.

To those who know the truth about Cronstadt, the opinion now expressed, that it could have been taken the first year, but has since been made impregnable, is really amusing.

As to attacking it with the large ships by the main channel, that was just as impossible the first season as the last. No additional defences were made on that side the first two seasons, and I believe none have been added since; therefore, if it is unattackable now, it must have been so then. We had no kind of force for any other mode of attack; but no one was to blame for that, as gun- and mortar-boats had not been thought of then; and even if we had been provided with a large force of gun-boats, we could not have succeeded.

The second year we were more ready, being in a position to attack it in the only way that gave a chance of success; but we were prevented by circumstances that I cannot more particularly explain, but for which it is quite certain neither Admiralty nor admirals can be justly blamed.

This last summer, when the place has been pronounced impregnable, we should have been for the first time in a position to make the attempt. That it would have been made is certain, had the war gone on. That it would at least have been successful, so far as destroying the town and arsenal by a bombardment, I have no doubt whatever, for we know that the defences necessary to make it secure were only commenced last summer. That it would have further resulted in our destroying their fleet, and even occupying the place, is, I think, possible. But of course the struggle would have been a severe one, and the whole mode of operations would have been so perfectly new in naval warfare that no one could be very confident as to the result, particularly as the natural obstacles were so very much in favour of the defenders.

I am sure that I could convince any practical man of the correctness of these views, by explaining them in detail on the plan of Cronstadt; and, however the Grand Duke may now try to depreciate our services - or, more probably, to deceive his wondering and ignorant hearers -I am quite sure, by the nature of the exertions made during the war to increase the defences, that he knew well that it was impregnable against a direct attack by large ships from the first, and therefore he wisely directed all his efforts to the really weak points in the defence, which he knew quite as well as we did.

I do not for a moment wish to defend Sir Charles on every point, as there is no doubt that, if he had closely reconnoitred Sweaborg earlier in the season, it would have been seen how open it was to a bombardment with mortars, and that there were rocky islets at the right distance on which to place the mortars. Had that been seen by the beginning of June, mortars might have been sent out and the place destroyed that season - that is, if there were thirteen-inch mortars and shell to send. But this I am not sure of, as their value seems to have been quite overlooked early in the war; and out of fifteen we had at Sweaborg the following year, fourteen were new ones.

Sir Charles said, in his speech in the House, that it was not closely reconnoitred because those he sent could not find channels in on that side. If so, it was a great blunder on their parts; for when I first went there on July 13th with a flag-of-truce, I went in at full speed by the Russian charts and leading-marks, without having a man in the chains. It was then too late to send mortars out that season, and the bombardment was managed more easily the next season by the placing mortars in vessels, instead of having the heavy job of landing them; so that no public injury was caused, - only Admiral Dundas had the credit of doing it instead of Sir Charles Napier.

The only other thing that could have been done by the fleet was to have taken Bomarsund by landing seamen and marines. (See page 182 for the reasons why this was not done)

I wish those who are so ready to accuse our admirals of wanting the courage of Nelson and his followers would really study the career of Nelson, and also of Sir James Saumarez, one of Nelson's most distinguished seconds. He attacked three French ships at anchor, aided by two batteries, with six ships of the same class, and was beaten off, losing one ship. A few days after, with his damaged ships, he followed and defeated his late opponents, though, with the Spanish squadron that had joined them, they were double his force. No one who reads that account can doubt his firm determination to bring an enemy to action where he had the slightest chance of success, and it was certainly one of the most gallant actions of the war. But a few years after we find him opposed to a Russian force so inferior that two of his ships with the Swedish squadron had driven them into Port Baltic before he joined with the English fleet. The Russians had landed some guns and thrown up batteries to assist in the defence; and Sir James, thinking they were in too good a position to be attacked, contented himself with blockading them.

If Sir Charles Napier and Admiral Parseval are to be so severely censured for not getting at the Russian fleet inside the strongest fortress in the world (against an attack by ships), what would have been said of them if they had found an inferior force of the enemy in such a place as Port Baltic and had declined attacking it? Yet Sir James Saumarez is one of our brightest examples. This will, I think, show how very unjust it is to compare the conduct of the Baltic admirals, who never found an enemy's ship outside their batteries, with that of Nelson and others, who never attempted to attack fortified places, however inferior to those in the Baltic, but persisted in long blockades, till they forced the enemy's fleet out to meet them, or caught them at anchor unprotected by batteries, as at the Nile.

Yours, etc.,
B. J. SULIVAN.


Source: Henry Norton Sulivan: "The Life and Letters of Admiral Sir B.J. Sulivan K.C.B.", John Murray, 1896, 185 - 207.
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