Wednesday, December 31, 2014

There is a (RED) Light That Never Goes Out: Monitor Looks at 152

By Matthew T. Eng
Naval Historical Foundation

We are closing another calendar year on the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It is the last December of the war years. Civil War naval enthusiasts will note the importance of today’s date across the landscape of the social media blogosphere: the 31 December sinking of USS Monitor.

Monitor put to sea under tow from USS Rhode Island on the final days of 1862. A violent storm soon developed off Hatteras, forcing Monitor’s Commanding Officer John P. Bankhead to signal a red lantern to the crew of Rhode Island for help. The lamp hung with the running lights on the turret, the highest point of the vertically challenged vessel. By the time the Monitor survivors arrived safely on board Rhode Island, their beloved ship began to pitch and roll under the strain of the sea. Sailors recall seeing the red light atop of the turret flickering in and out in the distance as they began to break off. By 1:00 AM on 31 December 1862, the red light was underneath the turbulent waves.
“We watched from the deck of the Rhode Island the lonely light upon the Monitor's turret – a hundred times we thought it had gone forever, – a hundred times it reappeared, till at sank and we saw it no more."-       Surgeon Samuel Gilbert Webber (USS Rhode Island)
The red lantern and several other important artifacts from the ironclad are back on the surface. Resting underneath the waves are the remains of the ship and the bodies of fourteen sailors. Two of their comrades discovered inside the recovered turret now rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Such A Heavenly Way to Die?
Significant dates are a tricky form of understanding history, especially in today’s social media-centric society. Anybody can write down or post about WHEN something happened in naval history. Maybe a few historical photos will accompany the brief text. You may “like” it on Facebook. Hell, you may even share it on your wall or tweet it to your followers. But the learning stops there. The dialog dies. We can’t afford to do that when there is so much more to talk about, especially Monitor. It takes talent to convey to others WHY and HOW it happened.

Most stewards of the craft are simply telling you when something happened in the grand timeline of naval history. Fort Fisher falls in January. Mobile Bay was an early August event. The Battle of Hampton Roads is celebrated for two days every March. So much more happens in between a calendar year and a time and place. Merely telling the general public about a significant date in history seems like an empty gesture. The public demands and deserves more. Thanks to a dedicated group of historians, museum specialists, curators, and underwater archaeologists, we continue to learn more about America’s first ironclad every day.

History in the Darkened Underpass
It’s been a tough set of years to mark the current Civil War commemoration. Anyone who tells you differently has not paid close attention to the pulse of the general public. Controversy is a yearly event.

A centennial seems like a nice round number – one that is easily recognizable to the general public. World War I fans are currently reaping the benefits of this in the same way the public honored the recent War of 1812 bicentennial. Looking back at 150 years is more difficult. These years mark the halfway point on the road trip to the bicentennial. It is as if the public is sitting in the back seat of the car, asking leading historians, museum specialists, and authors “are we there yet?” We are there. In fact, there is less than 150 days left in the entire sesquicentennial commemoration. How will it fair during the 175th in 2036?

Monitor was not immune to this harsh criticism in the wake of the Conservation Lab’s closure. The year for Monitor began on 9 January with news from the Washington Post that the USS Monitor lab would close its doors due to a lack of federal funding. The news shocked everyone, in and out of the field. Many of the comments posted on the Post article were anything but helpful. Many questioned why we support such aged history in the first place. Supporters of Monitor soon came to their aid when funding proved short, calling for others to help preserve the lab and artifacts. Thankfully, the lab reopened only a few months later this summer. Monitor was back, and the interest continued to grow.

The Monitor Center Reopens (Adrin Snider / Daily Press)
That interest stayed at this year’s 10th Maritime Heritage Conference in Norfolk, Virginia. A special panel shed light on the recent efforts and partnerships between the Mariners’ Museum, Monitor Conservation Lab, and NOAA. Leading experts on the ship spoke positively about the future of the artifacts. I had a chance to write a nice piece about some of their more recent artifact conversation projects. The sea state was calm. The subject of Monitor and shipwreck history even came up at this year’s World War I Centennial Conference at the MacArthur Memorial. There is so much more to the mystery of Monitor than a single date in time.  

It would seem that the red lantern, which became a central artifact in the discussion of the Monitor’s recovery, is still on. Dave Krop and the fine folks at the lab are still doing the diligent work necessary to preserve one of the Civil War’s most treasured relics.

Monitor is a figurehead of American naval history. One may argue the ship’s supreme importance within the timeline of naval history in general. Monitor is WHY and HOW Civil War naval history is alive and well today. Such an important ship deserves our respect and admiration.

“Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine” to continue to work with those who would see the red light never extinguished from the memory of Monitor. Thank you to all who keep it lit.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Battle of Mobile Bay III - The Aftermath

Sailors at the helm of the USS Hartford, probably taken after the battle. Naval History and Heritage Command.
In the days after the battle, officers of Farragut’s squadron composed their after-action reports to the Admiral. Some of these contain almost humorous recollections. Captain John B. Marchand of the USS Lackawanna wrote that he closed with the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee, and for a brief period the two warships lay side-to-side. As he gazed into one of the open gun-ports on the Confederate ironclad, he found himself in a stare-down with a Confederate sailor manning one of the Tennessee’s guns. The Confederate sailor unleashed a blistering epithet of profanity at the Union officer. His men adjacent to him heard this and, insulted by this affront to their officer’s honor, redoubled the pace of their re-loading and discharge of small arms fire into the open gun-ports of the enemy ship, along with throwing anything solid in their possession at Confederate sailors visible through the ports, if they did not wield a weapon. 

After the surrender of the Tennessee, Cdr. William E. Le Roy, captain of the USS Ossipee, lay alongside the stricken Confederate ironclad and called out to his good friend, CSN Cdr. James D. Johnston, to come aboard for some cold water and “something better than that for you down below.” Interestingly, Farragut himself did not go aboard the Tennessee to accept Buchanan’s surrender. He sent Acting Volunteer Lt. Pierre Giraud to take possession of the Admiral’s sword, and subsequently sent Fleet Surgeon Palmer aboard to assist CSN Surgeon Conrad in caring for Buchanan and the other wounded. Although Farragut and Buchanan had served together aboard USN warships, and knew each other, the relationship was purely professional and a friendship between the two had never developed. Buchanan was sent to Pensacola to recuperate, despite Confederate Gen. Page’s request that he be sent to Mobile. 

Losses on the Confederate side were remarkably light, considering the overwhelming superiority of the Union in terms of number of guns. Twelve Confederate sailors were killed (most on the other gunboats, only two on the Tennessee), and 20 wounded, although every Confederate warship was lost (sunk or captured). The “butcher’s bill” on the Union side was quite a bit more severe; 93 men lost when the Tecumseh went down, and Farragut reported 52 of his sailors killed and 170 wounded on the other ships. Landsman John Lawson, an African American sailor on the Hartford serving on a gun crew, received the Medal of Honor authorized by the US Congress (now called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”) for his gallantry during the action.

View of the Union fleet from Ft. Morgan after capture. Alabama Historical Society.
Forts Powell and Gaines surrendered not long after the defeat of the Confederate flotilla, and after a few days of bombardment, Fort Morgan also surrendered. Although the City of Mobile would not be taken by Union forces until the spring of next year (April 1865), the Union now had complete control of Mobile Bay and essentially closed down Mobile as a destination for blockade runners for the rest of the war. 

Much legend has accumulated over what Farragut actually said in the early stages of the battle, as things appeared to deteriorate after the loss of the monitor Tecumseh. An article in the most recent Naval History magazine analyzes this in detail based on “ear-witness” accounts. It appears obvious that he made a statement that struck a chord with those around him. No matter what exactly he said, I think we have to acknowledge that it ranks right up there with other legendary statements in U.S. Navy history, including John Paul Jones’ “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight.” and George Dewey’s “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

U.S. Navy recruiting poster from WW I, showing Farragut and his famous order. Wikipedia/U.S. Navy archives.

The Best Place to Experience The Battle of Mobile Bay is at the NMUSN

Fife Rail and Wheel of USS Hartford

On this day 150 years ago, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut made history. After a dazzling victory at New Orleans early in the war, Admiral Farragut spent the next several years fighting through the Mississippi River. By the middle of 1864, it became necessary to capture Mobile Bay, the South's last major port city on the Gulf Coast. Capturing it would help tighten the anaconda-like grip on the southern coastline.

Hartford Cathead
The bright August morning proved to be one of the most surprising achievements in Farragut's long and distinguished career. Now a century and a half later, many of the relics left to commemorate the ships and men of the battle are long gone. The Hartford, one of the most iconic ships of the Civil War, is broken up and scattered to different museums and institutions around the United States. How then do you decide where to see the best collection of artifacts from the battle during the Civil War sesquicentennial?

For those of us who could not make the trek down south for the sesquicentennial anniversary, many visitors commented it was an event worthy of its name and place in history. Fortunately, Civil War enthusiasts still have an opportunity to see several some of the relics of the battle. There is no better place to share this connection between past and present than the National Museum of the United States Navy (NMUSN) at the Washington Navy Yard.

NMUSN Curator Jennifer Marland took me around to several of the artifacts of Admiral Farragut and the Battle of Mobile Bay. She showed me her favorite piece of the collection, a small series of sketches depicting the battle. "So many paintings and sketches surfaced after the battle, some coming weeks and even years later," said Marland. "I really like this sketch from crew members present at the battle. You get a better sense of what these sailors really experienced." The sketch, albeit crude and hastily put together, tells the story of a sailor's front row seat to one of the United States Navy's greatest battles.

Other interesting items in the National Museum of the United States Navy collection includes Admiral Farragut's presentation cane, a large model of Hartford, a cathead, ship bell, and surrender letter from Ft. Gaines.

Naval Mine at NMUSN

Why are these torpedoes important today? 
Although Admiral Farragut may or may not have said the immortal words "Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead," the crafty countermeasure still proved an effective defense on the 5th, sinking the Tecumseh in the process. The artifacts on display at NMUSN are a constant reminder that every great piece of naval history comes with a price.

The National Museum of the United States Navy is open Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 5:00pm.

Special Thanks to Jennifer Marland for giving me an in depth tour of the NMUSN gallery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Battle of Mobile Bay II - The Battle 5 August 1864

Painting depicting the Battle of Mobile Bay. This is the "header" illustration at the Home Page of this Blog Site. In the right center, the monitor USS Tecumseh is going down after hitting a Confederate torpedo. The two columns of Union warships (ironclads in the foreground and double-lashed warships in the background) are shown. Fort Morgan is on the left, with the Confederate Navy warships in the lower left corner of the image. Library of Congress.

Early on the morning of August 5, 1864, aboard his flagship USS Hartford, Adm. David G. Farragut finished breakfast with his flag captain, Capt. Percival Drayton. Rising from the table, he said, “Well, Drayton, we might as well get under way.” Orders to the deck were passed through the Boatswains and their mates aboard 18 Union Navy warships (14 wooden ships and 4 ironclads). The Union fleet formed up and began steaming towards the entrance to Mobile Bay. Aboard four Confederate Navy warships (one ironclad and three gunboats), and in Forts Morgan and Gaines, Confederate sailors and soldiers eyed the approaching fleet and finished loading their guns. 

Similar to what he had done at Port Hudson on the Mississippi River, Farragut had his crews lash each of the smaller gunboats side-by-side with a larger steam sloop-of-war. The thinking was that if one of the warships became disabled, the other could power it to safety. The sloops were also all “screw” sloops, powered by a propeller beneath the stern of the ship. A few of the gunboats were side-wheel steamers; the sloops could take more punishment from Confederate gunfire as opposed to the highly vulnerable side-wheels on the gunboats. As the squadron entered the mouth of Mobile Bay, the larger sloop was on the starboard, or eastern, side of each pair of warships, facing nearby Fort Morgan. Adm. Franklin Buchanan, aboard his flagship the ironclad CSS Tennessee, positioned his flotilla of CSN warships inside the mouth of the Bay and northwest of Fort Morgan where they could rake the ships of the incoming Union squadron with maximal effect.

The first shot was fired at 6:45 AM by one of the Union monitors and by 7:15, the action was general, with almost all of Farragut’s warships engaging the Confederates and the forts firing on the Union ships. As the action proceeded, smoke from the discharge of the guns began to accumulate, despite a westerly breeze blowing. Farragut gradually inched his way up the main ratlines to see over the smoke and observe what his fleet was doing, ending up just below the main top. Someone eventually noticed the Admiral’s precarious position and pointed it out to Drayton, who sent the Quartermaster up with a line to wrap around the Admiral and secure him to some main shrouds.

Drawing of the USS Hartford engaging the CSS Tennessee. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Farragut had organized his fleet in two columns; the wooden warships lashed together in pairs in one column, and the four ironclads in a separate column in front of the warships. As the ironclads entered the Bay, Buchanan had the Tennessee moved to the west a bit to get a better angle of fire on the Union ships. Captain Tunis A. M. Craven of the monitor USS Tecumseh spied the Confederate ironclad and ordered his ship to make straight for her to engage. This resulted in the Union warship entering a mine field of “torpedoes” placed by the Confederates to restrict the entrance into Mobile Bay. The Tecumseh detonated one of these and sank in minutes, taking 93 men down with her, including Capt. Craven. Farragut’s carefully conceived battle plan was falling apart, as the lead pair of warships, the Brooklyn and Octorara, began to back their engines to avoid the sinking ironclad and her three consorts which followed. The entire Union fleet was in danger of degrading into an entangled mass of warships under the guns of Fort Morgan and the Confederate Navy flotilla when Farragut ordered that the Hartford and Metacomet steer around the Brooklyn, which would take the two ships deeper into the mine field. When told of this, he then uttered his now legendary order “D___ the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” (other accounts indicate he said “go ahead, go ahead” and still others that he said “Ring four bells, eight bells, sixteen bells!”, emphasizing the signal to the engine room to go full speed ahead).

The battle then became somewhat “pell-mell” after its beginning. Buchanan attempted to ram several Union warships, starting with the Hartford, and several of the Union warships attempted to ram the Tennessee. Farragut ordered the Metacomet unlashed from aside the Hartford to begin dealing with the three CSN gunboats, while he focused on the Tennessee. At one point, the two flagships were side-by-side against each other, what guns could bear blasting away at point blank range. Eventually the remaining three Union ironclads joined the fray and began to pound away at the Tennessee with their XI- and XV-inch Dahlgren guns, damaging many of the shutters covering the Confederate warship’s gun-ports and rendering them unable to open so the guns could fire. Eventually a shot from the ironclad USS Chickasaw damaged the vulnerable steering chains of the Tennessee. Relieving tackles were rigged, but these too were soon shot away. The Tennessee was crippled; she couldn’t maneuver and she couldn’t bring a gun to bear on the Union warships.

Painting showing the Hartford and Tennessee engaged, with the Union monitor gunboats closing in on the combat to attack the Tennessee. Library of Congress

The CSS Tennessee surrendered about 10:00 AM that morning. The Confederate gunboat CSS Morgan ran into shallow water to escape the Union gunboats and grounded. The CSS Gaines was hit by Union gunfire and ran into shallow water under the guns of Fort Morgan. Eventually this CSN warship sank. The CSS Selma tried to escape back to Mobile but the faster USS Metacomet ran her down, delivered some punishing blows from her guns, and forced the surrender of the Confederate warship. 

As the gunfire died out, the clouds of powder smoke began to dissipate, and dazed sailors looked around to see whom of their mates might still be alive.

Painting showing the surrender of the CSS Tennessee. In the left center of the image, Confederate flag captain Cdr. James D. Johnston can be seen hauling down the Confederate flag at the stern of the Tennessee. Naval History and Heritage Command.