The Miracle of Mobile Bay

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The Miracle of Mobile Bay

by Rear Admiral Casper S. Goodrich, U.S. Navy
Deseret Evening News Saturday August 20 1910
Transcribed by Terry W. Platt
Enhancements & Modifications © 2019 Terry W. Platt

 

ALTHOUGH A GOOD SWIMMER I WAS NOT ABLE TO GET FAR ENOUGH AWAY AND SOON I FELT MYSELF PULLED UNDER THE SURFACE

This story is not fiction. It is an amazing account of an episode in connection with the naval battle in Mobile bay, on August 5 1864, when the monitor Tecumseh was sunk in action. The names in the story, as told by Rear Admiral Goodrich, are real, and with the historic facts set forth are in the records of the great Civil war.

The story was told to me by my friend and shipmate, Gardner Cottrell, who died many years ago in early manhood, a splendid, handsome officer, full of energy and animated by the loftiest professional ideals. Such men are hard to replace, but the memory of their gallantry and their patriotism remains to stimulate those who follow them.
At the time of which he spoke Cottrell was an acting master in the navy, serving on board the new monitor Tecumseh, the most formidable vessel in the squadron which Farragut took into Mobile bay that bright summer morning in 1864 to deal another of his crushing blows for the preservation of the Union.

Several years after the war had ended, Cottrell and I, with some of our messmates, had gathered on the hurricane deck of the good ship Frolie in Gibraltar harbor to smoke our after-dinner cigars and to enjoy the cool evening breeze that came softly through the historic straits a few miles distant from our anchorage. The lights of the old walled town were beginning to appear. In the west the rosy hues of the setting sun threw a soft veil of color over the Spanish hills back of Algiers, over the tranquil waters of the great bay and over the Ape’s Hills and the Moroccan mountains looming grandly above the African shore line. They came back to us reflected from the sails of scores of peaceful merchant vessels passing into and out of the Mediterranean by its only gateway (for Suez was yet an unpierced isthmus), and they brought out in gilded relief the towering and impressive silhouette of the famous rock, Great Britain’s only foothold on the continent of Europe. The time and scene alike favored reminiscence. One word led to another, the chambers of memory were opened, and without realizing what he was doing Cottrell glided into his narrative. As well as I can recall it after the lapse of four decades, this is what he said:

“I wonder if any of you can forget his sensations on the eve of battle. Today has been exactly like that preceding the Mobile fight; something in the air has brought it all back to me, and I have been living over again the experiences of that thrilling event. The extraordinary nature of one of its happenings I have never understood, for it borders on the miraculous. It was, of course, a coincidence pure and simple, and yet it remains fresh in my thoughts to this moment, marvelous and inscrutable as ever. What was it? Well, I’ll tell you if you care to listen.

READY TO GO ON

“As you all remember, Farragut had moved his vessels from the Mississippi river to the eastward in the summer of 1864 and had stationed them off Mobile bar. For weeks they swung to their anchors, maintaining a strict blockade of the port now rolling slowly and steadily from side to side in the low ground swell of the gulf, now streaming ahead to keep from dragging when a norther blew heavily off shore or a short lived southeaster threatened to set them adrift to pile up on the hostile beach. It was a dreary existence, enlivened only by the occasional advent of a mail boat from New York or Hampton Roads or the welcome visit of a supply steamer bringing fresh provisions to vary the monotony of salt beef., ‘soup and bully’ and hard tack.
“There was little intercourse between the various ships, for it was war time and every one had to be ready for the call which might come at any moment, but each ship’s company learned, nevertheless that the – – existed on all the vessels there, both large and small. Everywhere the question was whispered, ?What is the mad man going to do and why doesn’t he do it?” There is nothing so gulling to the souls of fighting men as – – and we – under it, forgetting in our youthful impatience that Farragut’s habit was not to advance until quite ready, undeterred by criticism or by counsels of haste. We know now the incomparable grasp of his mind, how he selected the exact moment to strike when wind and tide, fog or clear weather, sunlight or moonlight should be all on his side.
“The grand old man left nothing to chance which he could foresee and forestall. Then too, he know my ship,the Tecumseh, was to join his flag, and he preferred to postpone the action he had determined upon until reinforced by the most powerful craft afloat in those days, the newest of our monitors. Yet even after our arrival he disappointed us in tot pushing ahead at once where ever he intended to go, and so we in our turn, forced for a brief while to share the irksomeness of expectation, became even more pronounced grumblers than those whom we had found on the spot chafing under what they deemed needless delay. We had come with our magnificent ironclad – why wait any longer? Such was the burned of our talk as we walked the Tecumseh’s deck, pausing now and then to scrutinize the entrance to Mobile Bay, strongly guarded by Forts Morgan and Gaines and by other works thrown up by the rebels to keep us out, for the conviction was borne in on us that Farragut would repeat his maneuver at New Orleans – get behind the batteries and from the security of the harbor within bring the enemy to terms.
“It was not long before this conviction was strengthened, as we heard rumors of an impending advance, too positive and definite, we thought, to be wholly without foundation and they gave fresh snap to our drills and exercises in preparation for the approaching conflict. At last the glad tidings were officially given out on August 4 that on the following day the fleet would enter the harbor. Our joy knew no boumds We would rush past the forts and make short work of the Confederate Admiral Buchanan and the vessels when he meant to set in opposition to our progress; we would ‘sink, burn and destroy’ as the old time war instructions used to run, unless they hauled down their flag in unconditional surrender. Such was the burden of our song as my messmates and I sat at the wardroom table that night and discussed for the hundredth time exactly what we would do to justify the confidence the admiral reposed in our good Tecumseh.

“Assurance rather that expectation was the prevailing sentiment; a reverse or even a disaster we dismissed as wholly out of the question. Lieutenant Kelly, our executive officer, suggested that no fight was over until either lost or won and that there was always a possibility of the event proving widely different from the anticipation.
” ‘It is not well for us,’ he said, ‘to blind our eyes to the fact that our enemy is brave and determined and that he will not flinch or give up until forced to do so. So we must do our very best, shoot quick and true, exactly as if the odds were all against us.” The rest of us did not challenge this plain statement of duty, even though regarding it as wholly superfluous in our case, and the talk veered around to the prescribed order of battle and how much comfort our neighbors astern of us in the line would derive from being near so grand a ship, for the Tecumseh was selected to lead the monitors close under the guns of Fort Morgan itself.

PREPARING FOR FIGHT

“‘Has it ever occurred to any of you,’ asked Dr. Blank, ‘that there may be torpedoes planted in the channel and that the Tecumseh is no better, if she is not indeed rather worse, than a wooden vessel in the event of running upon one of them?’
“Now, our excellent surgeon was a pronounced pessimist, always looking on the dark side of things and imagining all sorts of mishaps, which fortunately had never yet materialized, so we scoffed at him and his baleful suggestion and told him that, thanks to our heavy armor, his job during the fight would be a sinecure, since no man would be so much as scratched.
“‘I hope so,’ he replied, ‘but there’s always a chance that something may go wrong. Ce n’st que l’impre qui arrive toujours, you remember.’
“‘Oh, speak English!’ we shouted. ‘We don’t understand your Dutch!”
“‘It isn’t Dutch, a you know perfectly well, and I’m not going to insult your intelligence by translating what you’ve heard and taken in for yourselves.’
” ‘Don’t get mad, doctor,’ we answered, ‘tu, for goodness’s sake, cheer p! This is no time for gloom; it’s what we’ve been looking forward to and praying for ever since we were ordered to this grand ship.”
“‘I’m not gloomy in the least, but I can’t forget my early teaching that he who seks to do battle with his enemy should first count the cost.’
“I confess the menace of torpedoes had scarcely entered by mind as serious, and, even when mentioned on such an occasion, I gave it little weit. Anything happen to the Tecumseh Nonsense! She was impregnable and practically invulnerable. At this moment the captain’s orderly came into the wardroom and whispered something in the ear of the executive officer, who immediately called the mess to attention and announced that the store ship which was to remain outside during the engagement would receive and care for any papers or valuables their owners desired to send to her for safe keeping. Shortly afterward coffee was served, and then the other officers left the table to form tittle groups, each deeply occupied in speculation as to the exact hour of starting, the weight of the rebels’s fire, the likelihood of our capturing his little fleet unharmed, the pleasure we should have in pitting the Tecumseh against his armord flagship, the Tennessee, the amount of prize money we would divide among us, the unreliability of our cannon primers, the prper length of use to put in our shells, etc., etc. Yu know that they said as well as if you had been there. It’s the same talk always whenever similar conditions arise.
“It so happened that I was left alone at th table sipping my coffee while my thoughts reverted to the conversation during dinner. Of course, nothing could really hurt the Tecumseh, she was too stout and strong. Still, there would be no harm in spending on board the store ship a few papers I valued and some trinkets I should not care to lose. Why not? I could never regret doing so, no matter what the event. It might be and it doubtless was, foolish – and yet – and again I asked myself, Why not?
“Rising from my seat I went tinto my stateroom, selected the things I had in mind and put them in a tin document case which bore my name on the outside. ‘They scarcely covered its bottom, so insignificant were my belongings, and they left in it a large empty space. Bring it out into the wardroom I told my messmates thatI for one had decided to leave some things in a place of safety until we either came out again or the store ship joined us inside.
“Well you are a fine fellow to serve on board the Tecumseh,’ was their greeting. ‘Have you no pride in your ship? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, ‘ etc., etc.
“‘You’re all wrong.’ I replied. ‘I am proud of my ship and I’m not ashamed of myself. I have here some papers I should not care to lose, that’s all. I’m as sure as any of you that nothing will occur tomorrow to make me regret having sent them out of the ship, but all the same, I’m going to send this box to the store ship, and if any of you would like to put into it letters or valuables of your own there’s lots of room left and you’re welcome to do so.

THE THREE MEN

My remarks were received with jeers from all but two officers. These remarked, after a few minutes, ‘It’s absurd, of course, and entirely unnecessary, but I think I’ll accept Cottrell’s offer.’ With this they put some letters and other articles in my document case, on the inside of the lid of which I pasted a paper bearing our names:’Acting Master Charles F. Langley, U.S.N.; Acting Master Gardner Cottrell, U.s.N.; Acting Ensign John P. Zettick, U.S.N.;,’ and we sent the box to the store ship by the guard boat that same evening.
“You all know what happened; how we steamed bravely into the harbor. Alden leading the wooden ships in the Brooklyn, a smaller craft being lashed alongside of a larger, so that if one were disabled in the channel the other could take both out from under the heavy guns of Fort Morgan; how the Tecumseh took her position at the van of the monitors, the Manhattan, the Winnebago and the Chickasaw; how, when the Brooklyn stopped and reported, ‘Torpedoes in the channel,’ Farragut from his post aloft in the Hartford shouted down to Percival Drayton, here captain, ‘Damn the torpedoes; go ahead!’ How the Hartford replaced her at the head of the column; how it was the Tecumseh that fired the first gun at 13 minutes to 7 a.m.; how both sides fought like madmen, the gunners stripped to the waist and bathed in the sweat of that fierce struggle under a blazing August sun, and how our great admiral justified the expectations of his countrymen by winning another glorious victory.
“It’s a great story, but I won’t repeat it, as most of you were there, too, although you know also that the battle was not won without serious loss; that, blown up by a torpedo 30 odd minutes after opening the engagement, our noble Tecumseh sank, an iron coffin entombing nearly a hundred officers and men; that history records no more gallant act or more perfect courtesy than was displayed by our brave captain, Tunis A.M. Crave, who, as the ship was going down, held back at the foot of the ladder leading to safety, saying, ‘After you, pilot,’ this giving his life for another, since of the two only one could hope to escape the torrent of water now engulfing the doomed vessel.
“I was fortunate enough to be on the berth deck. Just under the turret, at my station in the powder division, when the shock came and the sea began to pour in. I shouted to the few men near me to climb up through the turret, and joining them all of us hurried to keep ahead of the water. We crawled through the 15-inch gun port and, among the last, I reached the deck as the ship gave s lurch and settled heavily. Running to the side I jumped overboard and struck out as hard as I could, fearing to be sucked down with the Tecumseh, which I realized was hopelessly lost. Although a good swimmer I was not able to get far enough away, and soon I felt myself pulled under the surface, as I had feared I would be. It seemed an eternity before I came to the top again. I was nearly exhausted, but I struggled to regain my breath and had barely succeeded when a heavy wave came along from I don’t know where and swamped me entirely. I suppose I was born to be hanged, for once more I saw the light of day, filled my lungs with fresh air and managed to keep afloat by treading water. It seemed a long while, yet probably it was very short, before I was picked up by one of our own boats. Langley was in her and later I heard that Zettick had been rescued elsewhere.
“Much of all this you know already, but you do not know that of the Tecumseh’s 20 officers the only ones who survived to tell the tale were the three whose names were written on the lid of my document case.”
A long silence followed this conclusion of Cottrell’s narrative, and then only one by one the members of the group stole away to marvel in private over the inscrutable ways of Providence, each asking himself this question, to which no answer was ever received, “But was it after all a mere coincidence?”

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