“The Countersigns”


Forecastle song. Verses quote John Paul Jones, Admiral Farragut, and Captain Lawrence (of the Chesapeake), citing their actions and bravery. Each verse concludes with "And that was the Navy of long, long ago." Sung to the tune of "Spanish Ladies."

Supplemental text

Countersigns, The
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

From Joanna C. Colcord, Songs of American Sailormen (1938 edition),
p. 135. Originally from The Book of Navy Songs.

What said John Paul Jones on the brave Bon Homme Richard;
What said that good fighting man, lashed foe to foe?
 You bid me surrender! I ve not yet begun to fight! 
And that was the Navy of long, long ago!

What said Captain Lawrence on board the doomed Chesapeake;
What said he when, wounded, they bore him down below?
"Don't give up the ship!" though the Shannon had beaten him!
And that was the Navy of long, long ago!

(2 additional stanzas)


For John Paul Jones (1747-1792) and the declaration "I have not yet begun to fight," see the notes to "Paul Jones's Victory" [Laws A4]. For James Lawrence (1781-1813) and his folly in command of the _Chesapeake_, see "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]. There is some irony in the fact that this song mentions him being carried belowdecks (to the surgeon) when wounded -- but ignores the fact that this caused the midshipman who did it to be court-martialed and discharged.

David Glasgow Farragut (1801-1870) began the Civil War as a navy captain awaiting orders, but ended up (perhaps by luck as much as anything else) in charge of the fleet destined to attack New Orleans. Being, fortunately, a pretty good sailor, he captured the city -- the first really big Union success of the war (for which see, e.g., "The New Ballad of Lord Lovell (Mansfield Lovell)." His next few operations, against Vicksburg, were less successful (Vickburg was effectively impossible to attack by river), but he still was given command of the next major naval assault on a Gulf Coast city, the 1864 attack on Mobile Bay.

Despite being a lesser city than New Orleans, it was a much tougher nut to crack; the defences of New Orleans had been badly and hastily built. Farragut had wanted to go after Mobile at once, but the Navy department disagreed. They felt Farragut would need ironclads, and all of those were tied up at Charleston and other places (see Curt Johnson & Mark McLaughlin, _Civil War Battles_, p. 127).

By the time the Navy department changed its mind, their initial assessment had been made correct. Initially nearly defenseless, by August 5, 1864, when Farragut attacked, Mobile Bay was properly fortified, with only one sea channel, forts on each side, and a small fleet including the ironclad _Tennessee_ waiting -- and the harbor entrance sown with mines. (In those days, when the self-propelled torpedo had not been invented, such mines were called "torpedoes"). Farragut's fleet tried to enter the bay -- and watched a monitor hit a mine and sink almost instantly. (The things were hardly seaworthy, after all.)

Most of the fleet stopped -- right under the guns of the harbor forts. Farragut, lashed to the mast, knew what he had to do: He had to get through the channel, even if the mines took more ships. So he ordered "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead." (See James M. McPherson, _Battle Cry of Freedom_, p. 761. The Union fleet made it into the harbor, and after a hard battle captured the city.

We note that no one seems to mention the signal "For God's sake" that Farragut wanted to send after one of his own ships did its best to ram and sink him (see Curt Johnson & Mark McLaughlin, _Civil War Battles_, p. 134.)

At first, the North didn't think much of the victory; Farragut had lost over 300 men and a monitor (see Bruce Catton, _Never Call Retreat_, p. 371). But in fact it was a severe blow, since the Confederacy lost its last major Gulf Coast port; all that was left were a few heavily-blockaded East Coast ports and some minor harbors in Texas, too far from the rail net to do much good. The North eventually woke up; Farragut became first Vice Admiral and then Admiral -- the first such in American history (just as U. S. Grant was the first full General). And Farragut's words passed into folklore. - RBW

Cross references


  1. Colcord, p. 135, "The Countersigns" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. ST Col135 (Partial)
  3. BI, Col135


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1926 (The Book of Navy Songs)
Keywords: foc's'le navy sailor
Found in: US