Monday, July 4, 2011

How Did They Deal With It ??

In a prior post, I have mentioned that one of the things that most intrigues me about participating in living history events is the opportunity to experience what the “old salts” did in the Civil War. That thirst for experiences stops just a bit short of the ultimate event; naval combat (although a little piece of me still wants to know what it was like). A buddy at work is a fan of the War of 1812 Navy; both he and I have read the book “Six Frigates” by I. W. Toll, and we always ask ourselves, “How did those sailor-guys deal with the combat? How could they stand there and blast away at each other and stay sane?”

John Keegan in his book “The Price of Admiralty” makes a really interesting point. If you visit a terrestrial battlefield, there is always an element of uncertainty for the historian or history buff. Take Gettysburg (the 148th Anniversary just celebrated this past weekend): no matter how detailed your knowledge of blackpowder infantry, cavalry, or artillery tactics, you have to ask, did Buford post Calef’s battery here, or further down the road? Was Chamberlain standing here on Little Round Top when he ordered the bayonet charge, or over there? Did Lo Armisted’s brigade emerge from the woods here on Pickett’s Charge, or a hundred yards over?

Keegan goes on to note that when you set foot on a warship, many of these uncertainties vanish. Step onto the main gun deck of HMS Victory, or USS Constitution, and instantly visualize where the personalities stood; the gun division officers at their posts, the Captain on the quarter deck, the gun crews, etc. Stand beside one of the guns and peer over the barrel through the gunport; 200-some years ago, guys were doing this very same thing for real, surrounded by the crash of shot into wood, the roar of your ship’s guns, the squeal of the trucks on the deck as the guns were run out, the smoke, the screams of the wounded. On a warship, you get a much closer feel for what the experience of combat may have been like than you might visiting a battlefield.

In his book “Quarter-Deck and Fo’c’s’le”, J. M. Merrill reproduces a description of the battle between Farragut’s squadron and Forts Jackson and St. Philip on the Mississippi, as he moved upriver to take New Orleans. Written by Seaman Bartholomew Diggins, he describes the height of the battle (unedited and reproduced as published in Merrill’s book):

The broad side guns were now in full action and ever man had all he could attend to . . . the nois and roar at this time was teroble, and cannot be described, but to help the emagination, there was over three hundred guns and morrtars of the largest calabre in full blast, double this, by the explosion of shells fired by them then add to this the hissing and crashing through the air . . . confine this in a half mile square, it may give some idea of the nois and uproar that was taking place.”

For his action in this engagement, Diggins was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Having served on gun crews now for several types of field pieces (3” ordnance rifle, a couple different calibers of mountain howitzer, and of course my favorite, a 12 pdr Dahlgren boat howitzer), I think the rhythm of the gun drill itself created almost a “hypnotic control” which kept the guys focused (the gun captain calling out the drill to the crew; “Worm”, “Sponge”, “Load”, “Run the gun out”, etc.). During the battle between the CSS Alabama and USS Kearsarge, Seaman John Bickford was on the crew manning the Kearsarge’s forward 11-inch pivot gun (Naval History, December 2010). After an extremely close miss (the passing of the shell literally took his breath away), his gun captain asked him why he didn’t try to dodge the shot. He is said to have replied “Haven’t got time, sir. I’m busy.” which seems to lend some credence to my idea.

Any folks out there with a psychology background who could lend some insight into this? It really does boggle the mind when you think about what these guys dealt with in combat (ship to ship or ship against fort).


Delaney, Norman C. I Didn’t Feel Excited a Mite. Naval History: December, 2010. Pp. 36-41.

Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty. The Evolution of Naval Warfare. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1988.

Merrill, James M. Quarter-Deck and Fo’c’s’le. The Exciting Story of the Navy by the Men Who Served. Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1963.


  1. I had read that John Bickford was a Captain not a seaman on the Kearsarge.

  2. He held the title of "captain of the watch," which made him a senior enlsited sailor. The captain of Kearsarge was John Winslow.