Henry Norton Sulivan on the 1845 Anglo-French action in Uruguay (3/3)
ASCENT OF THE PARANA.
After Obligado, the men of the squadron had been destroying and burning all on shore that was of no use to them. Sulivan, with eighty men, searched the woods and houses, and exchanged a few shots with a party of cavalry. Captain Hope went on with three boats to attack a schooner (the Chacabuco) and sent a lieutenant back for more boats and men, who were to come up another channel, to prevent the schooner escaping that way. The French commander, thinking it too hazardous, refused his boats, for the vessel had three pivot twenty-four-pounders and eighty men, and there was another vessel with two guns. Hope had only three boats and forty men, and went with such a strong tide, that, if he failed in his attack, he could not escape, there being a chain of boats across at the spot. Sulivan thought his friend Hope was wrong to go with such a small force, when by waiting a day or two he could have got other boats and the Fanny. He wrote, "There may be occasions when, to save an army, or a ship, or to prevent a defeat, it may be right to risk a number of lives against great odds"; but he thought this attempt was not justified. Being anxious, Hotham sent the Firebrand and two of the Philomel's gigs under Richards, and also Sulivan to take the lead, in case Hope had been defeated. Fortunately Hope, having heard there were two hundred men with the schooner, did not attack. The incident, together with the following remarks, may be recorded for the sake of the lesson they convey:-
"It would be a dreadful thing to have three boats destroyed, and such a number of men with poor Hope and others, when the sacrifice is not necessary. My own mind is made up not to care for what people may say or think; but if I am sent on service, and have reason to think that, from the position, force, or other causes, the losses are likely to be more than the thing is worth, I will not attempt it, and I do not think that any man with proper prudence and reasoning faculties would. I hope the breeze will enable me to get on to-morrow, as Philomel may be able to get up to the vessels, if Firebrand cannot; and then we might cause the enemy to do what I wish to see, as it would save bloodshed - that is, destroy their own vessels and go on shore. Our point would then be gained without risk to ourselves or to others. I never got hold of a Falkland bull by the horns, but by his tail, because I thereby accomplished my purpose with less risk to myself, and this I think should be one's object on occasions of this kind."
On December 3rd they were nearing Rosario, where resistance was expected. "We are all living on salt meat, while thousands of head of stock of all kinds are looking at us from the shore." Doyle was doing so well that it was resolved to take off his arm. He bore it wonderfully. Lieutenant Mackinnon, in his book, mentions the wonderful healing power of the Parana air, despite the heat. The Firebrand was chasing the Chacabuco and two other schooners, which the enemy were trying to save, towing them up-stream with horses. After a long chase, when close to them, the steamer struck on a bar. Not knowing this, the enemy blew up the Chacabuco.
"Directly these vessels (Comus was returning to Obligado, Dolphin and Fanny to Monte Video for boats and to convoy merchant-vessels up the river) are gone, the rest go on up the river as fast as possible. When we get a little higher, the French chief goes into the steamer, and San Martin remains in the river at that place. A little higher, at Punta Gorda, Firebrand leaves us, and she then takes charge of the river, visiting the different ships and places occasionally, so as to keep the river open. Hotham will probably take Gorgon or Philomel on to Corrientes and Assumption in Paraguay, where no vessel-of-war has ever yet been. It is certainly the most interesting trip ever undertaken. The Paraguayan people have for years been shut out of all intercourse with the world by the tyranny of Dr. Francia, and since Francia's death Rosas has kept the river shut up; so that, except to a few people who reached it, and were imprisoned in the country for years by Francia, it is really a new country. Our only attempt to open diplomatic intercourse with them failed through the folly of the person sent; and now, if we are able to reach them with the steam-vessels, and give them some idea of what the opening of their river may lead to, it will be a most important event. It is singular this chance should have fallen to my lot. You may recollect I asked before I left England to take the Philomel up, and was told it interfered too much with the internal policy of these states. I have often since said that the only thing that should tempt me to serve again would be the command of a vessel to go to Paraguay, should any mission ever be sent there. But I have not finished about our plans. If it is found that there is every chance of getting Gorgon up to Assumption, Philomel will be left at anchor in the river; but I go on with Hotham in Gorgon, so that the plan of the river and observations, etc., may be carried on all the way up. If anything after all prevents Gorgon getting right up, we can go on in the tender; but I hope Gorgon will get up, as she is such a very large ship, that her getting so far up will have a great effect on those who have never seen a vessel larger than a small coasting-vessel. When the Paraguayan envoys were at Buenos Ayres and saw the Pearl, they were astonished, and said, 'Why did you not send Mr. Gordon [the British envoy] in a vessel like this, instead of smuggling him across the country in a cart?' and they expressed their wish that such a vessel could be seen at Assumption. What then will they say if they see the Gorgon there? It will be a most interesting thing. We shall be eleven hundred miles from the sea, in one of the most splendid countries in the world, where the largest population of any South American state have been shut out from all communication with the rest of mankind, and with whom (if we can establish commercial intercourse) a trade may be opened that will materially tempt our manufacturers, and through them all classes of our people; in fact, would more than compensate for any loss our trade may suffer through the Brazilians not taking our goods, as in that case the whole of Brazil could be supplied with them through Paraguay and Corrientes, where the frontiers are so extensive that the Brazilians would find it impossible to prevent smuggling to any extent.
"December 4th. - I am thankful to say that, instead of meeting with any resistance at Rosario, we found all the inhabitants - men, women, and children, as well as many soldiers - outside their houses on the slope, to see the (to them) wonderful sight of such a squadron passing. From some people who were in Rosario since our action at Obligado we have heard many particulars. They lost four hundred men killed (I suppose this includes wounded). But the most important thing is that numbers took advantage of the defeat to desert, having probably been years from their homes, compelled to serve, and, belonging to the distant inland provinces of Cordova, Tucuman, etc., they were glad of the chance to get away. Out of all the two thousand five hundred to three thousand troops Mancillia had the day of the action, he has only been able to collect four hundred under arms; so that, allowing for the killed and wounded, nearly two thousand men must have deserted. They went off in large parties for their homes; in fact, every one belonging to the distant provinces that could get a good horse started off. All this will have a great moral effect. And if it is true (as we hear) that Prudentia Rosas (Rosas' brother), who was sent against the 'rebels' at Santa Fe', has joined them against Rosas, why, the thing is up with him altogether. From what we hear, it is not likely that we shall meet with any more resistance up the river. We also hear that they knew all our plans through Monte Video, and they were quite prepared for our landing, and they had still, when we landed, two large bodies of troops drawn up in the rear out of fire. When we were landing, the general having, as he thought, got one body to advance, went to the other to get them to go on; but while he did this, the first body had gone to the right-about; and out of all the force, only the men that resisted us in the battery at first could be kept. There were about two hundred and fifty men. Had they stood well, they would have caused us much loss; for the advance that I took into the battery was not more than fifty-five men. They might easily have overpowered us, and driven us back down the slope, had they come out of the wood and charged us, as our men, having to scramble up a steep slope, arrived in the battery out of all formation, and the marines were then a little way behind. But I suppose that they were panic-stricken at seeing such rushing into the battery, and thought that we were much stronger than we really were."
In a letter written on board the schooner Obligado, off Esquina (December 21st, 1845), he describes the ascent of the Parana, the ships struggling with a contrary breeze against a current of three to four knots, the thermometer eighty-eight in the cabin. The rate of progress was about ten miles a day, sometimes the ships being warped at the rate of a mile in four hours, at others being hauled along the bank, when they did a mile an hour. As many of the men showed symptoms of scurvy, they were anxious to press on to Esquina, the farthest point occupied by the Corrientino forces - therefore the first where fresh meat could be obtained. By the giving way of a bank, Sulivan fell into the four-knot stream. He had hold of a twig. A man coming to help him also went overboard, and caught him by the arm, and said he could not swim. Fortunately the twig held until assistance came. The ships soon passed the Fulton ashore, and pushed on to Goya, Hotham and Tréhouart having started on horseback for Villa Nueva, the headquarters of Paz. Three Corrientino gun-boats came to meet the ascending vessels.
"It is certainly a satisfaction to be taking up the first British flag - the first vessel-of-war of any nation that has been up the river. The mosquitoes are troublesome... trying to get the latitude by stars, with my head and neck black with the flies, while I held the sextant, which I had to put down every moment to brush away the mosquitoes."
The French steamer coming up, gave them a tow, but ships were constantly touching the ground. They reached Goya, the second place of importance. There being not water enough near the town, they had to go eight miles above it, where they found an encampment of Paraguayan troops.
"Most important things have occurred lately, affecting the politics of these countries. The government of Paraguay, having failed on every side to get Rosas to acknowledge their independence, and give them the free navigation of the river, at last have made a treaty with the Corrientinos, by which they assist them in their war against Rosas with all their means, and offer as many men as are wanted. The vanguard of their army, two thousand five hundred men, arrived two days before us, and the vessels bringing the second division are daily expected. We are now anchored fifty yards off their tents; and it is altogether a most interesting subject, when we consider that for thirty years Dr. Francia, the dictator, not only shut up Paraguay, but by a system of terror also shut up the ideas and minds of all the inhabitants, and that till his death occurred four years since no one dared even to express his thoughts on any public question. It is most interesting to observe what the effect of being brought up under such a system has on the character of the people. ... Paz takes all his Corrientino troops against Rosas; he has about six thousand that he can advance with, and Lawrence says they are the best he has seen in these countries, some fit to be compared with English troops. Hotham and Lawrence, with the French captain, returned from the army the day we arrived here, and are staying at Goya, which is about eight miles off. ... The manifesto of the Paraguayan Government declaring war against Rosas is very well and sensibly written. It points out to the world how they had tried for years to obtain from Rosas the recognition of their independence, and the free navigation of their river, the only highway they have for foreign trade. All they could obtain from him was a denial of their independence, and a declaration in which the province of Paraguay was termed one of the Buenos Ayrean states - a thing it never had been, having been independent from the first year the Spanish dominion was overthrown. Having explained all the negotiations which were entered into, and the determination of Rosas to deny their independence and prevent their trade, the manifesto goes on to show that, should Rosas conquer the Banda Oriental, he can assert all his forces against Corrientes, which, though it has held out for so many years against him, may be overpowered, in which case the Paraguayans may feel certain that Rosas would then invade them, to endeavour to force them to become part of the Buenos Ayrean confederation, and that it was better to assist Corrientes - which was the outpost of Paraguay - than risk its being conquered, and then the horrors of war carried into their own country.
"On January 2nd the authorities of Goya gave a grand ball in honour of our visit; and as the thermometer was above a hundred, they rigged up a very nice place under a canvas roof."
Again he writes on January 15th, describing a week's hard work piloting the Gorgon, with Philomel and Fanny in tow, up the Parana. Very hard work indeed it was for him and the master of the Gorgon, they having at the least difficulty to go ahead in boats to find the channel - on the paddle-box or in the boat, under a burning sun, from 4 a.m. until 7.30 p.m. At one place, after three hours in the boats, he gets Gorgon over passes with only one foot under her keel. They were anxious to push on fast; for many men in Gorgon - though none in Philomel - were down with scurvy, one man having died. They had no lime-juice, and had been three months on salt provisions. Providentially, Sulivan saw and successfully chased two cows swimming in the river, which gave three days' fresh meat to all. Captain Hotham then decided to leave the Gorgon, and to go on in the schooner with Sulivan as fast as possible, the latter to survey the upper river. Lieutenant Richards, taking command of the Philomel, was to go in her to Esquina, a distance of forty miles, to procure the much-needed beef for the Gorgon, etc. During the time of Sulivan's absence, Lieutenant Richards continued the work of survey and pilotage in the Philomel.
Sulivan, in the schooner, arrived at Corrientes from Goya on January 20th, Hotham having gone on in the French steamer to Assumption, the capital. News had come that Paz was retreating before Urquieza. Rosas had sent a large force, and appeared inclined to try the issue of a battle, with the object of gaining possession of the produce before the convoy arrived. If he succeeded, he would upset the policy of our ministers, and make the victory of Obligado useless. This had never been anticipated by our authorities. Numbers of merchants were calculating to make fortunes out of the expedition. But their goods could not be landed if there was any fear of Rosas succeeding. Rosas' force had already got so near Goya that that place had been abandoned. Sulivan feared - as did take place - that Rosas might get possession of the cliffs and intercept the convoy on its way up. He was anxious for Hotham's return, as there were no instructions for the combined fleet to attack Rosas' army. Paz was a prudent general, who had never lost a battle, because he never allowed himself to be drawn into a combat at a disadvantage. The female population of Goya had taken refuge in ships.
"CORRIENTES, January 25th, 1846.
"It is really sad to see even here the poor families in terror talking of embarking - large families of females (the males being all with the army) with no one to protect them or assist them, and all knowing what treatment they would receive if taken in the town. There are about ten thousand inhabitants, of whom nearly all are women and children; and even were all the men (six thousand) now with the army at their homes, such has been the destruction in the constant civil wars, that there are in the provinces six females for one male."
The Gorgon had been left three hundred miles below Corrientes, above passes with only just water enough for her, and two hundred miles from the squadron off Santa Fe. Above the Gorgon, at Corrientes, Captain Hotham and Captain Tréhouart had only a small French steamer, a brig, and a schooner. At this crisis news arrived that the army of Rosas had invaded the province, defeated the army friendly to us, and was marching on Corrientes, having already reached a point on the river nearly two hundred miles above where the Gorgon was left among the islands. As it was impossible to leave Corrientes undefended, and also important to get the Gorgon down at once, and bring up the smaller steamers expected from England, Captain Hotham was in a very anxious state. Sulivan saw that, unless he went down himself, Gorgon could not be moved, and no other vessels could ascend the river until the convoy - all sailing-vessels -worked its way up. He therefore offered to go in the dinghy with two boys, going as much as possible through the islands, and trusting to escape notice in places where he would be obliged to pass the main bank of the river. Captain Hotham at first refused to sanction it, as he thought the risk too great; but eventually he allowed Sulivan to proceed. Sulivan thus describes his adventurous expedition:-
"CORRIENTES, February 28th, 1846.
"Hotham returned from Paraguay on January 28th, but determined to remain here till the result of the invasion was known; and yet he wanted Gorgon taken down the river before it fell. Having only the schooner with few men, he could not spare any to send down; and seeing he was pushed how to manage it, I offered to go down in the Philomel's dinghy with my steward and boy. He was very much pleased. It is three hundred miles from this to Gorgon; but I took advantage of a small vessel going to Goya, and so saved half the voyage in the dinghy. From Goya to Gorgon was a hundred and fifty miles: it took us two days and nights in the dinghy. You would have been amused if you had seen us start. I had in her all my clothes, instruments, chronometers, tiger-skins, etc. Horn and Worthing composed the crew. We could not venture to land in the night for fear of tigers, and, still worse, mosquitoes; but we had some preserved meat and biscuits for provisions. I was never more tired of anything than I was of sitting so long in a boat without moving. We anchored a few hours one night to get a little sleep. The day after we reached Gorgon we started in her down the river. It was the most anxious work I ever had - very narrow channels with numerous banks, a three- and four-knot stream setting down, and a heavy ship that took many minutes sometimes to answer her helm. Some of the bars had only six inches or one foot more water than she drew, with a very hard bottom; but we got over all these well, and I began to think we should have no mishap. But at last, running along a narrow channel in a bay close to high cliffs, she would not answer her helm, and ran on shore with all the force of steam and stream, within fifty yards of cliffs on the enemy's shore - a nice position, had they attempted to molest us. You may fancy my anxiety for the two days it took us to get off. The river fell six inches a few hours after we went on shore; and had it gone on falling, Gorgon would have remained there at least till next year. But the next day it rose again, and Dolphin and Fanny arrived with the convoy, and with their assistance and three bower-anchors out we got off. Having done this, I took Dolphin and Fanny back with me, as I knew then that Hope, who commands in the river during Hotham's absence, and who was to have been at the Baxada to station the vessels, was not coming up, as there were batteries lower down he wished to pass near, and therefore I had to station the vessels, so as to provide for this difference in the plans. Rosas had prepared all the force he could to attack the convoy coming up; and knowing now that permanent batteries were of no use, as we were sure to take them, he adopted the much wiser plan of movable artillery, and had about twelve heavy field-pieces, with about two thousand men, at the cliffs of San Lorenzo, which are about four miles long, about seventy feet high, and the vessels had to pass within a quarter of a mile of the cliff the whole way. The ground behind being quite level, nothing can be seen from the river but the cliff, so that all the men are safe from the fire of the vessels, unless looking over the cliff. There were sixty vessels. The Dolphin led with the first division of the convoy, Key in Fanny with the next division, while Hope was behind to cover them. [With a light breeze they were stemming the tide only at the rate of one or two knots.] The guns kept galloping up to the cliff, just showing the muzzle over, firing, and then withdrawing again, and, when loaded again, appearing at a new place. In this way they pounded the convoy for three hours in passing, hitting every vessel several times. One merchant-brig had thirty-four shots in her - Firebrand twenty-two, four through her funnel; yet providentially no one in all the sixty vessels was killed, and only two in Firebrand wounded. Hope had a very narrow escape; his seat on the paddle-box was shot away, and the ridge-rope he was holding on by shot close to his hand. Yet so well did the enemy work their guns that it was quite impossible to hit them, the muzzle only showing for a moment, and then going to another place; so that before we could get a gun trained at it, it had fired and disappeared. If the ships fired a foot too low, the shot buried itself in the cliff; if a foot over, it went inland over the heads of all the troops. Though the Dolphin and Fanny fired fifty rounds a gun, and the French corvette Coquette also, they do not think they did the enemy the least damage. At the end of the cliff the channel veered right away, and the vessels all had to turn their sterns to the cliff; and they would have suffered much there had not there been a little rising ground behind the cliffs, so the enemy could not bring a gun to that point without exposing it. Levinge remained near that point in the Dolphin, and directly they brought two guns there in sight, one of his shot either struck one of the guns or went so close to it that they withdrew them, and did not attempt to bring any more there, which saved the vessels from the worst fire they would have received. The enemy fired beautifully, and worked the guns as smartly as the best artillery in the world could have done. If Rosas adopts that kind of warfare, he may give us great trouble, as we can do him little damage; but it costs him so much in shot and powder, and he is afraid to trust his guns too far from Buenos Ayres, for fear of the Orivinus rising, so that this was merely got up for the convoy, Rosas being bitter at vessels of all nations availing themselves of our protection to force the trade he has always prohibited, and he has declared the people on all these vessels, except the French and English, who are only enemies, to be pirates, and orders all his authorities to treat them as such. There are many American vessels among them. Tom Hamilton is in one, and he does not half like passing down again; two young Lafones are also in other vessels, and many amateurs who never expected such a fire on them. One Italian buried himself up to the neck in a cargo of salt, and a shot nearly took his head off, and he got so pickled that he has been ill ever since! At Tonnelero, a little lower down, they had four guns, and fired a good deal. One shot took the leg of a French midshipman; but that was the only damage, - he is doing well. (From the Defence Commission evidence, illustrating how ships can pass batteries: "I may mention one thing, which Captain Key perhaps would not like to mention - namely, that in his little brig, after passing with the sixty vessels, mistaking the signal, he repassed the cliff, and, finding it a mistake, had again to repass alone against the fire of all these guns which had been pounding the whole sixty vessels; and though they hulled him repeatedly, he went by at about two knots over the ground. Now if that can be done with a light breeze, and with small vessels, what would not a steamer do passing rapidly, at the rate of ten knots?").
"Having reached the lanito(?), I left Gorgon there, and took Dolphin on to Philomel at the Baxada, and you may fancy our delight when the next morning the Alecto arrived direct from England, and bringing the mails; but our pleasure was much damped by hearing of the death of poor Doyle and of Chartres. Doyle had nearly recovered, when, by a mistake either of the surgeon or the druggist, he was given five grains of morphine at once, enough to kill three men. The quantity made him vomit it up again; but the excitement caused an artery in the stump of his arm to break out afresh, and put him to the pain of another operation: the consequence was, he could not stand it, and, after three weeks more, he sank under it. We also heard that both the young officers of Captain Tréhouart had died of their wounds, one from not having his leg cut. off soon enough, every case of amputation from the action having recovered. We were sorry to hear that, after Martin had organised a force, and after three months' trouble had got possession of Maldonado, Flores with the Monte Videan soldiers against positive orders went outside and was surrounded and defeated by the enemy, having two hundred infantry cut off and put to death. This obliged Martin to give up Maldonado again and embark. I had not even time to read my letters before we were off again in the Alecto for Corrientes. We did not wait an hour. She was ordered to wait Hotham's coming down at Liguina; but I thought, knowing his ideas and wishes, I had better take on myself to alter this, and take her to Corrientes, and I was obliged to go in her, for her pilot would not take charge of her above the Baxada, as she drew so much water for the upper passes.
"We reached Corrientes in the Alecto, having only grounded once in a distance of four hundred miles: that once detained us two days. I sent Lieutenant Mackinnon on by land with the mails. He rode the hundred miles in the afternoon of one day and the forenoon of the next. The people of Corrientes were delighted at an English steamer arriving, and have been flocking on board her, hundreds of ladies coming and going as fast as possible. Sometimes the engine-room was so crowded with them that there was no moving. I am happy to say we all go down the river shortly, as Urquieza has returned out of the province, and there is no more fear of its being conquered. But I must tell you the further particulars about the invasion. Paz retired before Urquieza till he was nearly in the extreme of the province. Unfortunately, through the rashness of General Madanager, who commanded the rearguard of Paz's army, it was surrounded, and had to disperse to escape, Madanager being taken prisoner. This misfortune injured our cause very much, and broke the confidence of the army - besides which, even among themselves, there have been intrigues and disputes that have bothered Paz very much, and no doubt prevented his success. Still, he was able to harass Urquieza so much, that at last he (Paz) drew up his army in a good position and offered battle. Urquieza was afraid to attack him, and again retreated, followed by Paz, each party being afraid of the other. He is now out of the province, and Paz has again taken up his quarters on the frontier. Both parties are so done up by the month's work (that is, their horses are knocked up), that it is not likely either can resume the offensive. They will spend the coming six months in making preparations for the next campaign. I fear there is so much intrigue and jealousy at work among the Corrientinos, that we cannot depend on them for a moment, and I see more strongly than ever the necessity of our confining ourselves to the independence of the Banda Oriental, and not mixing ourselves up with the civil wars of the Buenos Ayrean provinces. If we do, there is too much risk of Rosas defeating us, as on shore we have only to depend on the people of these provinces; and it appears almost impossible they can succeed against the power of Rosas, even if they were united. But they are not. Every leading family hopes to reap the most benefit, should they succeed; and each is jealous of the other, and this thwarts all their plans and makes them dangerous allies."
"H.M.S. 'ALECTO,' GOYA. March 4th, 1846.
"We left Corrientes on the 2nd in the Alecto, having Fanny and Obligado lashed alongside us, and the French steamer following us. This was anxious work for me, as I only thought the passes safe for Alecto, drawing twelve and a half feet, or at most thirteen feet, and the Fulton drew fourteen feet, having just filled up with coals and provisions. However, we came down a hundred miles the first day without touching. Yesterday morning we got over the worst pass. Fulton, following, got on shore. As soon as we were over, I went back to her and got her through also, but touching all the way. We arrived here yesterday; and as we do not go till to-morrow, I have a day's rest, and you cannot fancy how much I value that now. No school-boy ever enjoyed an extra holiday more. Yesterday was, I think, the hottest day we have had, and being from daylight to dark either in a boat or on the paddle-box was very trying. However, I have been wonderfully well, considering the work. I have never been off work one day. To-day I have a headache: fortunately it is a day at anchor. What tends soonest to knock me up is the stretch my mind is kept on, and the anxiety for fear of getting on shore, particularly in coming down, when the rapid stream would prevent you stopping if going the wrong way, and when even sounding is of no use, as before the vessel could stop she must be on shore. I will try and explain the kind of navigation. A multitude of islands, sometimes leaving a channel of a mile wide, sometimes not a quarter of a mile; in every part sand-banks running off the islands, leaving a narrow channel, winding like a serpent. These banks are all under water, and not to be seen, and one has nothing to trust to but the eye and recollecting at which points to cross from one shore to another. Then in the eight hundred miles we have gone up the Parana there are at least eight hundred bends and crossings in the channel, and all the islands are so much alike - very low, with thick wood. This will give you an idea of the constant anxiety as to whether one can be sure to cross at the right spot fifty or a hundred times a day. I could not continue this kind of work much longer; but the pilots cannot or will not take charge of the large vessels, and they do not really know the deepest channels. I have now two always with me on the paddle-box as pupils - two or three officers besides. But the pilot will not take this vessel up again; and I have offered, if she goes up, to take her up once more and down again, when the pilots say they will know the channel, and after that trip will take the vessels up. I hope the officers will be able to do so by that time also. At all events, I mean to strike work after that, and I hope we shall go out of the river. They cannot keep Philomel out much longer, as her keel came up alongside the other day, and all her fore-foot is off, so that the cables catch in it."
"H.M.S. 'ALECTO,' CERRITO, March 9th, 1846.
"We reached the Gorgon safely last night - got her over all the bad passes without touching, Fulton following us. It is a great relief to me. The three last days have been intensely hot, and I could hardly stand it, so anxious did it make me."
(This passage of the Aleclo is thus described in "Steam Warfare in the Parana," by Captain Mackinnon, R.N., lieutenant of H.M. steam-sloop Alecto. The Alecto was one of three lighter draught steamers sent out by the Admiralty in January 1846. She brought out a supply of Congreve rockets:-
"After going up above the town, so as to turn, full power was now put on, and with the Fanny alongside, and the Obligado astern, she tore down the torrent-like current, and shot round the point with almost the speed of a rocket, once again, and for the last time, in full view of our friends. So sudden and unexpected a reappearance of the Alecto came upon them as a surprise. With one accord they raised a scream of pleasure, which continued as we flew past them, for about two minutes, when another point shut us out from Corrientes, and we were once more in a perfect desert.
"As the difficulty in ascending the river has been sufficiently explained, it will easily be imagined that the danger was aggravated a thousand times in going down with so rapid a current. A thorough seaman may, from constant practice, have nerves of iron; but it is indeed awful to find several vessels thus in a body, propelled by the full power of mighty steam, in combination with a rapid current, tearing down a river at almost railway speed. Although not on duty, I could not leave the deck, being fascinated by the velocity with which we were threading narrow and tortuous passages. Sometimes, when the channel ran close to an island, the whirl of trees, as the vessels appeared to fly past and the branches brush the paddle-boxes, made me giddy.
"'If we were only to touch the bottom at this pace,' thought I, 1 what would become of the Alecto? I don't believe the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty would give much for her safety now, it they had a bird's-eye view of her.'
"All this time the usual routine of the vessel was carried on as if nothing uncommon was going forward. Of course, to descend at this apparently reckless pace with safety, it was necessary to have a good pilot. There was only one person in South America who had either the nerve, knowledge, or ability to do it. It is natural to suppose that this person must have been a native of the country, brought up on the river, and who had spent a long and active life in getting such a thorough and precise knowledge. With pride do I say it, this was not the case. The pilot was a brother-officer, Captain B.J. Sulivan, who coolly stood on the paddle-box, and conned the vessel by a motion of his hand to the quartermaster. The whole of the river, up to Corrientes, is now surveyed by the above-mentioned officer, and better known, by his means, in London than at Rosas' capital, Buenos Ayres.")
"Shortly after the Alecto left, the Firebrand came up to the Baxada with the account that they were preparing batteries at San Lorenzo and Tonnelero, to attack the convoy going down. They had fired at the Firebrand coming up with field-pieces, hulled her eight times, and killed one man.
"On March 26th the French steamer Gassendi arrived from Monte Video. She had not been attacked on the river, but had seen the enemy working at the batteries, and heard from deserters that guns were on their way from Buenos Ayres to mount in them. She brought orders from the admiral to Hotham to send Philomel down the river if he could possibly spare her, as he wanted to see me to get information about the rivers and the Buenos Ayrean coasts. He had previously sent similar orders, but Hotham could not let us go then; but as there was such a large force assembled, he had no more excuse for keeping the Philomel, particularly as Hope knew the lower part of the river better than I did, he having gone up and down it so often. The Firebrand had to tow some vessels as far up the river above the Baxada as she could go, and Hotham determined that as soon as she returned (I having to go up in her as pilot) the Philomel should go to Monte Video. We went as far as the pass of San Juan (about a hundred miles), which is as high as vessels of the Firebrand class can go with a high river. Above that there is not more than thirteen and fourteen feet in the passes, while below it there is seventeen and eighteen feet, and the navigation is not so difficult. In the Firebrand on our return we went eighty miles in six hours, going ten and eleven knots sometimes through the water, beside three and four that the stream was running.
"I returned to the Baxada on March 31st, and on April 2nd left for Monte Video. The same evening we reached Lorenzo cliffs. I could not see the battery, as from up the river it is hid by a projecting bluff till you are nearly abreast of it; but as there were many soldiers near, and some making signals, I fancied that they might have got some guns in it; and as it is useless attempting to return their fire when going rapidly past, when by doing so the men must be exposed by being kept at quarters, I thought by running close under the cliff, and sending all but Lieutenant Richards below (for fear of musketry), they might not be able to depress their guns to hit us. So we ran round the bluff, going about three knots (with stream, over the ground six knots), and, as we opened the first embrasure, saw a gun with a man standing with port-fire over the touch-hole. But though I could see the muzzle was down to the ground, we were so close (about thirty yards) the shot went a few feet over our heads, and fell about that distance outside us. They had only three guns, which they had but time to reload once before we were past. So we only received six shots, all of which, like the first, passed close over and struck a little outside us, doing us no damage, but cutting a few ropes. We were not a cable's length off, and had we been a few yards farther every shot would have told. They have built mounds between each gun, as traverses to protect them from a flank fire; and at Tonnelero they have adopted a still better plan, and are preparing for placing each gun singly between two mounds, and the guns fifty yards apart. As Tonnelero is not accessible like Lorenzo, I expect to hear that these guns are brought off when the convoy comes down, as the form of the ground there will enable them to sweep it from the ships. We met the Alecto going up with three vessels in tow. The Buenos Ayrean papers since state that in passing San Lorenzo she got a good hammering.
"On our arrival at Monte Video, we found that a revolution had just taken place among our friends, the government party, in Monte Video. Riviera had turned out the existing government after some bloodshed. In consequence of this, the ministers wanted to send despatches home as soon as possible, and the Lizard was about to start for the Baxada with orders for Firebrand to come down to go home with the despatches; but our arrival altered this, the admiral considering that we could start at least ten days before the Firebrand, so that we might get home as soon as she would, and he would then have Firebrand's services still for the river; and as she is the only efficient steamer on the station, she could not well be spared. It was then arranged that we should start directly with the despatches; and Mr. Turner (our minister at Monte Video) and the French secretary, who take them, being ready to go, we sailed on April 20th.
"We are very much crowded on board, having fifty-five extra people, invalids and prisoners. We also picked up a boat in latitude six south with the crew of the Hamburg schooner Adler, that had foundered four days before, as the master said, from springing a leak. But the day after we took them on board the crew accused him of having scuttled her, and said that they were going to report to me. He tried hard to prevent them, offering them money if they would not inform; but finding that they were determined to do so, directly he saw them come aft to report it he jumped overboard. We were going eight knots at the time. The life-buoy was let go close to him; but though a very good swimmer, he would not go to it, and before the boat reached him he had sunk. It is evident he sank the vessel to get the insurance on a thousand hides which he said he had on board of his own, and which he had insured for, when he had not one single one."
On the arrival of the Philomel at Falmouth, after a voyage quicker than that made by any packet-boat, all the men from that district were given leave for forty-eight hours, with orders for them to join the ship punctually at Plymouth, where she was to pay off. The brig, on entering Plymouth Harbour, owing to the strong tide, overshot her appointed moorings. Sulivan called out, "Now, my men, as we are all soon going to land, it will be hard if the brig does not have a run on shore too." He turned her instantly into a little pebbly cove, and ran her bow gently up the beach, thus taking the way off her. A rope was got off to the buoy, and all the men were run aft to the quarter-deck. This was enough to cause the brig to float forward, and she was quickly moored. An officer from another ship had previously come on board and told them that all leave on paying off ships had been stopped, owing to the general bad behaviour of the seamen when on shore during the process. Sulivan said at any rate he had not yet received orders to this effect. The moment Philomel was moored, he told the men to take shore-boats, and get away as fast as they could, but to be back strictly at the hour appointed for beginning work. On his reporting his arrival to the admiral, the latter said, "Mind, there is no leave given now whilst paying off." Sulivan replied that his men were already all on shore! "Then they must not have leave again until the work is completed." After much trouble, and explaining how well his men had behaved during the commission, and that the ship's company had returned after a four years' cruise without a single desertion - a thing almost unprecedented in the days before continuous service - he obtained the admiral's permission to test the men's behaviour.
All but one of the Falmouth men returned at the time appointed. This one had been married in the interval, and overstayed his leave a few hours. In consequence, after the work of each day was over, he was put in irons until the next day's work began. The men went ashore every evening, and not one failed to be on board at the appointed time every morning, perfectly sober. Many officers then at Devonport told Sulivan that for weeks afterwards they were constantly meeting the Philomel's men, and never saw one that was not perfectly sober and not in his best clothes. This shows that the strict discipline and kind treatment of the men not only affected their behaviour when under the eye of their commander, but influenced their characters for good.
For some months in each year at Monte Video, at their own request nearly all the crew were landed every Sunday afternoon to attend the service in the English Church. No officer was ever sent with them, but they were considered pledged never to enter a house or drink anything on these occasions; and from what Captain Sulivan heard from some of the men after the ship was paid off, he had every reason to believe that not one man ever broke his pledge.
Captain Sulivan was, on his return, desired by Lord Palmerston to call and give him some information on the state of affairs in the river Plata. In the course of the interview that ensued, the former expressed his opinion pretty freely on the question of our interference.
By returning home when he did, Sulivan lost the opportunity of being "gazetted" a second time for the action which ensued on the return of the convoy, when the hundred vessels composing it passed the batteries of San Lorenzo. A judiciously masked rocket-battery, under the command of Lieutenant Mackinnon, formerly of the Arrow, placed on the island opposite the forts, so discomfited the Spanish gunners at the right moment that they could do little harm to the ships. As has been stated, the Philomel passed these batteries alone; but not wishing to make a despatch of such an event, Sulivan had merely recorded it in a private letter to Captain Hotham.
The French authorities fully recognised the services of their own officers and men at Obligado. Captain Tréhouart was made an admiral (a special promotion of which their regulations admit), and honours were freely given to their other gallant officers engaged. The French share of the captured guns is still to be seen in Paris, and the action is kept in memory to this day by two of their men-of-war being named Obligado and Tréhouart. At the Louvre is a very good painting of the engagement. But no such fitting recognition of the services of our navy in the Parana can be recorded. Our guns were returned with an apology, Lord Aberdeen having publicly declared we had no right to force Rosas to open the rivers. No medal was granted for the eight months' arduous service in the Parana, nor for any of the actions in connection therewith. The commanders were immediately promoted, and I believe one or two first lieutenants; but the other first lieutenants and the officers of other grades were overlooked, presumably owing to the omission of their names in Hotham's despatch, which was much criticised for its brevity.
On his return to England, Sulivan urged at the Admiralty the claims of the first lieutenants of the ships engaged, and of his own junior officers. Poor Doyle had been promoted; but as he died of his wounds, Sulivan put forward the claims of Richards for promotion as senior surviving lieutenant of the Philomel, also those of Key, whose services he brought to the notice of the authorities, and after persistent efforts he obtained the promotion of several of these officers, dated back to the day of Obligado. This was done at the final meeting of the then Board, the day before their vacating office.
The fact of their receiving no medal was felt greatly by the officers and men of the squadron. One officer said, "I have two medals I am ashamed to wear, as I was not within a hundred miles of the enemy; but if I get a medal for the Parana, I shall have some pride in wearing it."
In 1869 Sulivan drew up a petition, which was signed by the principal officers then surviving, who had served in the Parana, requesting that a medal might be granted for the work in the river, with a clasp for Obligado. In the petition were recorded the main facts of the services performed - the work of the San Martin and the Dolphin, and the cutting of the chains by Hope and his party, being prominently mentioned. It went on to say, "Yet the men who served in such an action have nothing whatever to show for it; while they have the mortification of seeing some of their comrades wearing medals for very trifling service - others who had never been under fire - employed only in blockade or transport service, not only during the Russian war, but more recently for Abyssinia."
The request was refused, on the plea that the "duty of the Admiralty was to exercise the greatest caution in granting medals; and if they entertained this application, it would be necessary to consider other cases, and this their lordships were not prepared to do"!
The name "Obligado" is not even to be found in modern maps.
Both Captain Hotham and Admiral Beaufort brought Sulivan's services specially to the notice of the Admiralty, and asked for the C.B. for him, Hotham making the statement mentioned below. The reasons for refusing it show the want of judgment with which honours, were then given and withheld. "They could not give it to Sulivan because, if they did, they would have to give it to Captain Talbot, R.N., for his gallant action against pirates in Borneo." Actions against pirates, however, were not considered deserving of honorary rewards. Yet at the very time captains in the army were granted the C.B. for service in India, although by the rules of the order they were too junior for it. At the same time, for a single New Zealand skirmish, a commander R.N. received both promotion and the C.B., the Board saying "they had to give way then, because the army majors were receiving it for the same action." Captain Hotham considered that by refusing the C.B. to Sulivan, and giving it in the other instance, a slight had been thrown on Obligado and all who were there engaged. Lord Auckland said his claims should be given consideration at the next distribution of honours. But the death of Lord Auckland prevented this, the succeeding First Lord not knowing anything of, or not recognising, the promises of his predecessor.
"He astonished English as well as French by his energy and activity. He piloted the Gorgon into places heretofore deemed impregnable. In the Parana he in reality conducted the heavy ships, and trained such officers as were willing to learn in a system whereby our squadron was rendered quite independent of local pilots. He took the principal part on three occasions at the battle of Obligado. He made a plan of the ground, he commanded a division of ships, and he led the advanced guard of the landing-party."
"I now flatter myself I am a pretty good pilot for the navigation of this intricate river ... under the auspices and tuition of my friend Captain Sulivan, one of the best surveyors and practical seamen in the service. He is lately gone home; and I have lost a valuable friend - indeed, a man I have looked up to as a model for my future professional career: ... To our Parana squadron his loss is irreparable."
Captain Hotham in his despatch (which Beaufort criticises as too "meagre compared with the China despatches") says:-
"I should be unmindful of the ability and continued zeal of Commander B.J. Sulivan did I not bring him especially to your notice. By his exertions we were furnished with a chart which enabled us to complete our arrangements for the attack."
Sulivan returned to England with the rank of post-captain. Naturally he expected to have to wait a short time before being appointed to another vessel. But he was not idle, as will be seen from the accounts given in the Appendices of his endeavours to improve the badly constructed forts at Bovisand, to establish a system of small-arm drill for our seamen, and to increase the inadequate supply of sailors for manning our fleet, etc.
In 1848 he was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of the Staff of the Royal Dockyard Volunteer Brigades. A full account of his services in this position will be found in Appendix A. When his appointment suddenly terminated, he found himself without employment, and without any immediate prospect of obtaining a ship. His health had also suffered somewhat from continued disappointment. He therefore obtained three years' leave of absence, and went with his family to the Falkland Islands. In Appendix B will be found a brief narrative of this trip, which was not of a professional nature.
He came back to England in the autumn of 1851, and again endeavoured to obtain employment, but without success. Even one of the several appointments in connection with the sea fencibles, for which he was specially qualified by his volunteer work, was denied him. Yet all turned out well. To this period of enforced jnaction is probably due the original idea which, started, or at least greatly helped to start, the Army Volunteers. His eight years of half-pay left him, moreover, free to be selected -if only at the eleventh hour - for service in the great war, the approach of which he had been for some years watching.