Crazy Drunk on the Mohongo

12195907_1112179488807200_6969892862215216807_nLieutenant Sylvanus Backus was crazy drunk. Stumbling around the quarterdeck of the Mohongo after midnight with a drawn sword, his raucous behavior stirred the sleeping crew. The warship’s executive officer soon arrived on the scene, relieved Backus from duty and sent him below decks under guard.

But Backus broke free. The Mohongo’s commander, Capt. James Nicholson,wakened and was apprised of the situation. He ordered Backus to be confined to his room and a sentry posted at the door.

Nicholson went back to bed. “Immediately after I heard a great noise in the wardroom and got up and went into the wardroom where Mr. Backus was endeavoring to break open the door of his room. As I entered the wardroom he said ‘that damned old cuss wishes to frighten me with a court martial.’”

Nicholson said, “’Mr. Backus, unless you keep quiet, it will be necessary to put you in irons. Mind, this is no ill threat, so you had better keep suit’ — or words to that effect.”

Read the rest of Backus’s story.

The Smell of Warship Smoke

13911410882_85d64c0405_oNavy secretary Gideon Welles fretted about the safety of California after the outbreak of war in 1861. The threat of rebel privateers preying upon mail steamers loaded with treasure and secessionists seeking to take the southern part of the state was real. Welles had but six vessels in the Pacific Squadron to patrol an immense area.

The flag officer in command of the Pacific Squadron, John B. Montgomery, summarized the situation to Welles on August 23, 1861, “My very limited force of four steamers and two sailing ships will prove wholly inadequate for the protection of our commerce with the numerous ports along this coast, extending from Talcahuano to San Francisco, a distance of 7,000 miles.”

Montgomery asked Welles for four additional steamers. In the meantime, Montgomery assigned the ships at his disposal to cover critical areas. He dispatched one of his most reliable vessels, the Narragansett, to a 400-mile stretch of Mexican coast from Acapulco Bay to Manzanillo.

The Narragansett, a screw-propeller sloop that had joined the Pacific fleet a year earlier after a stint in the Atlantic Ocean, was armed with five guns. Her crew of 50 men and officers included John Sullivan, pictured her, center, a career navy man known for honesty and integrity.

 

Read the rest of Sullivan’s story.

Taking on the Rebel Ram Tennessee

There came a moment during the Aug. 5, 1864, Battle of Mobile Bay when Rear Adm. David Farragut’s most powerful warships went up against the Confederate ironclad ram Tennessee.

The Hartford, Brooklyn and Richmond lined up abreast and bore down on the Tennessee, hell bent on taking her out of action.

The Richmond’s crew included one of the navy’s youngest officers, Philip Henry Cooper, pictured here, center. A recent Naval Academy graduate, he had served aboard the Richmond for about a year.

Cooper and his shipmates, and the crews of the other two Union vessels, traded shot and shell with the Tennessee for more than an hour before the rebel ram called it quits and raised the white flag.

The crew of the Richmond was lucky—no casualties and minimum damage. For Cooper, it was the beginning of a long career in the service of the navy that included cruises around the globe and stints on the staff of his alma mater. He posed for this carte de visite with two of his comrades, Lt. Cmdr. Charles W. Tracy and a secretary named Procter, during a South American cruise about 1866-1868.

Cooper retired as a captain in 1904 and died in 1912 at age 68.

This image is new to my collection and is available on PinterestTumblr, and Flickr.
Taking on the Rebel Ram Tennessee

Crisis in Pensacola

m2My latest profile in the Civil War News Faces of War series is Confederate navy officer William Thomas Morrill. An excerpt from his story:

By early January 1861, mechanic W. Thomas Morrill, pictured here, and other employees of the Pensacola Navy Yard in Florida were caught in a humanitarian crisis. They had not been paid for two months—the result of civil unrest that disrupted the flow of money and materials to military outposts in the Southern states as the country drifted towards civil war. Hunger became a real and present danger.

Morrill had a wife and two infants to feed. Many of his fellow workers also had families to support and no relief was in sight. On January 8, the workers rallied at a mass meeting at a Masonic hall in Warrington, a village outside the walls of the Yard.

They appointed a committee who promptly met with the commander of the Yard and requested that provisions be issued in lieu of pay. The sympathetic officer in charge, Cmdr. James Armstrong, acted promptly to relieve their sufferings. Flour, sugar, rice, coffee and butter were distributed on January 10—the same day Florida legislators voted by a wide margin to secede from the Union.

Read the rest on Medium.

 

Early Defender of His Homeland

montageLt. John Grimball was in the Civil War from the Star of the West incident in January 1861 through the surrender of the Shenandoah in November 1865. His story is featured in the current issue of Civil War News. An excerpt:

Later that year he reported for duty to the Shenandoah. Grimball and his shipmates hunted Yankee merchant ships on the high seas during a yearlong cruise. Their exploits inspired Southerners during the waning months of the Confederate nation and prompted Northerners to brand them pirates. The Shenandoah continued to operate for months after surrender of the gray armies and dissolution of the government. The crew had heard rumors of the downfall of the Confederacy but had no confirmation of it.

“We were now the only Confederate cruiser afloat, and as we continued our course around the world, passing from ocean to ocean, meeting in turn ships of various nationalities, I always felt that whenever our nationality was known to neutral ships the greetings we received rarely warmed up beyond that of a more or less interested curiosity, and while we had many friends ashore who were most lavish and generous in welcoming us to port, underlying it all there appeared to exist a wish of the authorities to have us ‘move on.’”

Read his full story.

Captured on Patrol

beville-collageFrancis Bartow Beville of Savannah, Ga., suffered a severe wound that ended his combat service at the First Battle of Manassas. Still willing to serve, he joined the Confederate navy and wound up enduring great privations as a prisoner of war. His story was just published in the Civil War News. An excerpt:

On July 21, 1861, during the First Battle of Manassas, Bartow was shot and killed as he led a desperate charge against a Union battery. Casualties in the Eighth were heavy, and they included Beville. A minié bullet struck him on the right side of the chest below the collarbone. His comrades carried him from the battlefield and a surgeon operated to cut the Yankee lead out of his back. Beville recuperated from his wound in a private home in Richmond. Nerve and muscular damage limited motion to his right arm and hand, and he received a discharge from the army before the end of the year.[i]

No longer able to perform in combat but still eager to serve, Beville found a way back into the military and a return to his Savannah home: In early 1862 he received an appointment to the navy as a midshipman and was assigned to the formidable casemate ironclad Atlanta. Here he received basic training on active duty—the Confederacy would later establish a naval school ship in Richmond for this purpose.

Meanwhile, the Union blockade choked the life out of the Southern economy and slowed the flow of supplies to the Confederacy military. Savannah was no exception. Desertions by soldiers and sailors increased, including one trio that escaped into the marshes below Savannah on or about March 14.

Read his full story.

“Firsts” at Book Talk in Charlottesville

02Two “firsts” distinguished last night’s discussion at the Senior Center in Charlottesville, Va.

For the first time in the all the presentations I’ve made, this was focused on a book yet to be completed—my navy volume. Although the manuscript will not be completed until the end of the year, I am comfortably past the halfway point. The talk provided me an early opportunity to build a Powerpoint and begin to talk publicly about the sailors at the heart of the volume.

For the first time ever, I was late. I allowed an extra hour for travel and it was not enough. Numerous slow-downs for police activity caused me to be six minutes late. Host Rick Britton, always the gentleman, kept the crowd engaged until my arrival.

A huge thanks to Rick and all those who attended for their patience, warm welcome, and good questions. Also thanks to Bill Krause, a Civil War living history impressionist. His ancestor, William B. Newman, was acting master on the warship “Southfield” in 1864. Captured at Plymouth, N.C., he spent the majority of the war as a prisoner.

Out of Retirement

shipleySamuel Shipley is representative of older Americans who came out of retirement to fight for the Union. His profile is the latest Faces of War column in the Civil War News. An excerpt:

The need for Union warships to support the massive Southern blockade prompted the re-commission of mothballed vessels. One of the ancients to be recalled to service, the 44-gun frigate Brandywine, had been launched in 1825 and on her maiden voyage had carried Revolutionary War hero Lafayette home to France.

Her sails were furled in 1850.

A decade later she was called out of retirement. In late September 1861 the New York Tribune reported, “The old frigate Brandywine is being rapidly converted in a storeship — about the only thing she is fit for. When completed she will present a rather patched appearance, but she will no doubt answer the purpose for which she is intended.” Other newspapers referred to her as the “Hulk Brandywine.”

Her new crew included a veteran officer who had also come out of retirement. Samuel Shipley, a 47-year-old lieutenant, had resigned his commission in 1852.

Read the rest of his story on Medium.

Redemption at Mobile Bay

dana-collageMy latest Civil War News profile is the story of William Starr Dana and his navy experience. An excerpt:

A hailstorm of rebel artillery pounded Union Rear Adm. David Farragut’s flagship, the Hartford, as she steamed into Mobile Bay at the head of the attacking fleet on August 5, 1864. Shells tore through her planking as heavy metal fragments and wood splinters careened through the air at lightning speed and took a deadly toll on officers and men.

Cmdr. Richard Starr Dana, U.S. Navy, standing, and his brother, Richard Starr Dana. Carte de visite by an unidentified photographer, about October 1863. Collection of the author.
One well-aimed projectile ripped through the Hartford’s battle-scarred wooden hull and blasted the forward berth deck. The commander of this section of the ship, Ensign William S. Dana, recalled, “Fragments of the shell flew over my head and I was covered by the brains and blood of the man next to me.” This single shot killed three and wounded two, which removed more than a third of his 13-man crew.

Read the rest on Medium.

Thirty Seconds at Mobile Bay

workUnion navy officer George Work and his crew mates on the monitor Tecumseh went into the historic attack on Mobile Bay full steam ahead—until an underwater torpedo ended in destruction and death.

An excerpt:

“When nearly abreast of Fort Morgan,” reported two acting masters of the Tecumseh, “A row of buoys was discovered stretching from the shore a distance from one to two hundred yards. It being reported to Captain Craven, he immediately gave the vessel full speed and attempted to pass between two of them.”

The Tecumseh advanced on the rebel ram Tennessee, and turned to engage her. At this moment, 7:40 a.m., the hull of the Tecumseh struck a torpedo. The two masters recalled that the explosion occurred, “directly below the turret, blowing a large hole through the bottom of the vessel, through which the water rushed with great rapidity.”

Read Work’s profile and learn his fate.