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The First ironclad. [from the Houston, Texas, Chronicle, November, 1902.]

It was constructed and commanded by a Texan.

C. W. Austin had the honor.
Ante-dated the Virginia (Merrimac) and the Monitor—Story of daring deeds that Surpass Fiction—a terrible Journey— individual acts of courage.

Contrary to all the teachings of history, to a Texan belongs the honor of having constructed and commanded the vessel that revolutionized naval warfare and displaced wood hulls for those of steel.

Throughout the world it is stated that the Merrimac and Monitor were the first successful opponents of ironclad architecture. This idea is taught in the public schools from one end of this land to another, and teachers have impressed and continue to impress upon their pupils.

But it is not true history.

Designed conjointly by Captain John A. Stevenson and Captain Charles W. Austin, and constructed and commanded by the latter, the Confederate ram Manassas was the first ironclad ever built. Captain Austin was a Texan, a relative of Stephen F. Austin, and his family resides to-day in Houston at No. 2712 Fannin street. But for the success of this vessel the Merrimac would never have been built, and Ericson would never have submitted his plans for the ‘cheese box on a raft.’

The first ironclad, the Enoch Train, a towboat on the Mississippi river, was purchased by Mr. Stevenson before the Federals had been driven from the field of Bull Run. It was a powerful vessel, with twin screws, and mammoth engines for a craft of its size. One hundred and eighty feet in length, it was registered at about 100 tons. Hauled upon the ways at New Orleans, builders swarmed over its hull, while all the city laughed at the plans laid down by the two captains. It was sheathed above the water line, under the direction of Commander Austin, with two thicknesses of railroad rails, and was fitted with a ram of iron pointing out beneath about five feet in length. [197]

Before the vessel had been completed the blockade of the Mississippi was established. A commodore stationed at New Orleans refused to man the vessel, and shared the accepted belief that she was useless. Permission to call for volunteers was given, however. With a crew of nineteen she steamed down the river to the mouth. There lay four sloops of war, bearing a total armament of 56 guns.

Of all the twenty souls aboard, Captain Austin alone stood upon the deck. Bearing down at full speed upon the blockading fleet, he aimed for the steam sloop of war Richmond, 22 guns. In the teeth of a hail of fire thundering from half a hundred cannon the intrepid commander, standing alone and in open sight from every vessel, commanded the engineer to pile more coal under the boilers. Broadside after broadside came crashing about him like the fury of hell. Plowing through the water with all the speed of which the vessel was capable, it was seen too late that a coal schooner lay between the ram and its victim. Without swerving, the Manassas steamed on. Solid shot crashed and broke upon the iron sides, but still Captain Austin stood unhurt. With an awful shock the ironclad cut through and through the sailing vessel, and plunged her spur far into the wooden sides of the Richmond, just as every cannon aboard belched forth its load of canister and shell.

The Manassas backed away unhurt, with its gallant captain still standing on the deck. His clothes were torn to shreds, but, burned and blackened as he was, not a wound appeared upon his body. The Richmond, however, was a wreck, while the coal schooner was already at the bottom of the sea. In hot haste the remainder of the Federal fleet were steaming away from the monster that had attacked them. The Confederate vessel was left alone and the blockade was temporarily broken. But in getting away from its victims the port engine of the ram had been broken. Pursuit was impossible. Slowly the Manassas steamed back to New Orleans, only to be later vitally injured. She was run upon a sand bank to save the crew, and was there abandoned by force of circumstances, never to sail the sea again.

But the advantage of an ironclad vessel of war had been demonstrated. The Manassas had been unarmed. At the same time the power of a craft of her stamp, manned by a sufficient crew and mounted with guns of large bore, was recognized. Upon similar lines the Merrimac was built on the Atlantic coast, and the Monitor was evolved from the brain of a Scandinavian. Captain Austin and Captain Stevenson had won their victory in more ways than one. [198] They had taught the scoffing world a lesson, and in doing so developed a hero for the Southern States whose record is unsurpassed.

And yet his name is almost unknown, while those of lesser lights have been brought into a publicity that will live forever. There was much to be desired in the chronicled histories of the Southern navy and its official records. No man who ever fought upon the seas showed more intrepid valor than did Captain Austin in his service beneath the Stars and Bars. In the North his name is unknown, while in the South few recognize the fact that a hero came out of Texas who set a standard for the world in fortitude and daring. With his death in 1889 the major part of his life's history was lost. Like all true men, he seldom talked of his achievements.

A distinguished family.

Roger Sherman, one of the New England ancestors of Captain Austin, signed the Declaration of Independence. Another of his relatives, Stephen F. Austin, is known as the ‘Father of Texas.’

His home was in the Lone Star State. At the breaking out of the war, he commanded one of the Harris and Morgan Line steamships plying between New Orleans and Galveston. He built and fought with the Manassas. He has a brother who was an officer in the Confederate army, now a resident of Atlanta, Ga. For four years his life was filled with daring exploit after exploit. Three times he was in prison, twice escaping. Now, but few of his adventures are to be remembered, but those few are enough to brand him as one of the greatest naval heroes of the age. After the Manassas had been abandoned he took to blockade running, and from that time one feat of daring crowded rapidly upon another.

Capture of the Fox.

From New Orleans he went to Mobile, where the blockade was close. A great fleet was anchored off the town which practically forbade all entrance to the harbor. The days dragged by until finally Captain Austin, driven by waiting to an uncontrollable desire for something to turn up, sailed out of the harbor in the murky darkness of a cloudy night on a tour of investigation. There, in the offing, he discovered a steamer, loaded with arms, ammunition, and supplies for the waiting fleet. Back in the city he proposed his plan to the commanding officer. It was too daring for official recognition, but permission was given to enlist volunteers for the desperate mission. [199]

On the first favorable night, in a small steam launch. Captain Austin and six brave men went gliding out of the harbor. Unobserved they steamed to the steps leading down from the steamer's side. Confident of security, but one man had been left on deck, and he hailed the launch as it tied up to the vessel's side.

“This is launch no. 7,” came the response from Captain Austin. ‘Where's the captain of this ship?’

“He's asleep in the cabin,” answered the watchman.

“Lead me to him?” demanded Captain Austin.

Without a thought of danger the sailor turned and led the way along the deck, the leader of the expedition following. As he climbed up the side of the vessel the remainder of the crew came close behind. Each had been instructed as to his duty, and without a word they went to their different posts.

Without knocking, the watch led the visitor into the captain's cabin. When he was awakened he was looking down the barrel of a revolver.

The hatches had been closed on the crew, and the six men were in control. Quickly slipping anchor chains, the vessel was headed toward the harbor. She was lying to the westward of the channel and must necessarily cross the mouth. Scarcely had she started when she was hailed.

‘Transport Fox, bound for Key West,’ came the response from the deck of the vessel as she glided past.

Again she was hailed, but the same reply took her safely on toward the goal. Once in the channel, she was quickly put about, and the next morning found her tied up at the Mobile wharves. Thousands of muskets and a hull full of ammunition were turned over to the Confederacy with the ship. Captain Austin became the lion of the hour, and was presented with an elegant gold watch by the citizens of the town.

This surpasses fiction.

It was after the capture of New Orleans that Captain Austin fell into the clutches of the enemy and was lodged there in prison. But jail walls could never hold him. Within a few days he was assisted to his liberty and secreted in the home of a sympathizer. For ten days he remained in hiding before a means of escape from the city was devised. Finally one dark night a friend from the outside came to the house and led Captain Austin with his companion to the water front. Swimming out in the muddy water, the two men climbed [200] over the side of a coal schooner and hid themselves in the hold. The vessel was going out light, bound for Havana, a haven of safety for the prisoners.

At the appointed time a shuffling of feet on deck told the men below that the ship was under way. Until far out at sea, they remained in the hold, stifled with the odor of bilge and dust of coal. Their friend from the outside had shipped as mate. When darkness came he opened the hatch and the men were released.

Stealthily creeping to the cabin occupied by the master, they opened the door and walked in. The captain was a German and all of his Teutonic wrath blazed up at the sight of the dust-begrimed stowaways. He demanded their story. Very frankly they admitted that they were escaping prisoners of war and wanted to go to Havana. With a great Prussian oath the master rushed toward the door with the intention of giving the order to 'bout ship. Coolly producing a revolver, Captain Austin pointed the muzzle in the German's face.

“Stay where you are,” came the hoarse command.

Obedience seemed necessary. The stowaways agreed to pay their passage if allowed the freedom of the vessel as passengers to Cuba. In the face of the circumstances the demand was complied with and the ship sailed on its course.

But it was not for long. Morning dawned, and with the light a ship of war bearing the stars and stripes appeared in the distance. The captain rushed to the rail and made an attempt to signal the vessel. Suddenly he felt himself held in a grasp of steel. He was forced hastily back in his cabin, the door was locked on him, and Captain Austin took command. A week later the schooner was tied up at the Havana wharves and Captain Austin was still in charge. Turned over to the Cuban authorities, his further immunity from captivity was avoided by virtue of a previous meeting with the captain general of the island. How this was brought about is another story.

A terrible journey.

The details of the capture of the blockade runner commanded by Captain Austin in the year 1862 is forgotten history, but the fact remains that he, in company with his second in command, was confined in a dungeon in Fort Taylor at Key West. From their cell a window looked out over the waves of the Gulf of Mexico that beat fully fifty feet below. For weeks they languished in captivity, until finally help arrived. One day a rope was hastily thrust through a [201] grating, followed by a jug containing a surplus supply of water and a package of bread.

Below the window of the prison a ship floated at anchor, and at her stern was tied a small boat used as a tender. The location of the ship was marked.

That night was dark. Securing the rope within the cell, Captain Austin, with the water jug tied around his neck, climbed from the high aperture and swung out. Hand over hand he went down to freedom. Owing to the necessary haste his companion was just above him, bearing the bread.

When fully twenty feet above the water Captain Austin found himself at the end of the rope. It was too late to go back up. Letting go, he went crashing feet downward into the waves below. His companion was fairly on top of him when they went under. Fortunately the noise was not noted, but the water in the uncorked jug was lost, as was also the bread. With bridges figuratively burned behind them, and terrible suffering ahead, they struck out, according to previous agreement, for the ship. Securing the yawl, Captain Austin crawled aboard the vessel. The watch was napping. Working fast and quietly, he unscrewed the compass from its place and dropped back with it into the small boat. It would have been suicidal to have attempted to secure provisions to replace those lost, and so the two sailed away destitute, shaping their course for Havana.

Day dawned, and still the two men rowed on, assisted by a makeshift sail. The heat of the summer sun blazing over a tropic sea was intense. They were out of sight of land, with ‘water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.’ Still they kept on. Hunger gnawed at their vitals, but safety was in front, not behind. With the coming of night their suffering had increased to a point that seemed maddening.

Another and another day passed. Still there was nothing but the burning sun and the salt sea. Havana was ahead of them. Loaves of bread and bunches of fruit appeared piled up in luxurious plenty on the sea beside them, only to vanish under touch. Clear, cool springs rippled from the bottom of the boat, but the water was not for their parched and swollen throats. Land appeared just ahead, only to fade away, as with renewed efforts they rowed toward it. With sailor instinct they kept to their course. Another night found the two men raving, stark, starving mad, lying in the bottom of the yawl too weak and emaciated to even cry for help. Before another day [202] came, that would have assuredly brought death, the men were picked up by fishermen just off the Cuban coast a few miles below Havana. Water and food were forced down their throats a little at a time. At first it seemed as though relief would be as likely to prove fatal as suffering had been before, but slowly, under the ministering hands of the fishermen, they improved. Almost worn out by their awful experience, they were taken to Havana and turned over to the authorities. They were taken before the captain-general and told their story. Struck by the tale and by the appearance of the prisoners, he released them on parole. The freedom of the city was theirs.

But the publicity given the event reached the army authorities in the North, and an officer was dispatched to bring them back. When he arrived Austin and his companion were summoned to appear before the Governor of the island. A young lieutenant in his blue uniform was there awaiting them in the private office of the captain general, who sat at his desk writing. At last he turned toward the group. In his hand he held a document which he handed to Austin. It was a certificate of citizenship in Cuba. Snapping their fingers at the officer who had come to get them, they left the Palace free men.

During the remainder of their stay in the Cuban capital Captain Austin and his companion struck up a close friendship with the Governor, who had given them their liberty. This fact proved their salvation later.

The Blockader's last Run.

But it was in Galveston harbor that the last and most brilliant event in a civil war career occurred under the eyes of the entire city. Old men tell of it yet, although with years the memory of the deed is dimmed. In broad daylight Captain Austin ran the blockade of the port with his ship, the Susanna, and brought provisions and war supplies to a distressed land.

It was the last year of the struggle, the result of which was already foregone. Almost all of the blockaded ports along the Atlantic and the Gulf had been captured, and the entire Southern squadron was blockading the harbor. The story of the event, as told by the commander of the United States ship Seminole, which led the chase, has already been published in the New York World under the title of ‘A Dash Through a Fleet.’ The authority for the tale already told was unacquainted with the identity of the captain of the vessel [203] he had chased, but with due consideration gives him credit for being ‘the coolest man that ever walked a quarterdeck.’

The Susanna was built on the Clyde, and was a long, low steamer built for speed and concealment. Time after time she had run into Galveston harbor through the fleet collected outside, but always before at night. Her arrival was regular and always on time. When expected she always turned up tied at the wharf in the morning.

Her last run was momentous. Leaving Havana with a cargo of gunpowder and provisions, calculations had been made, as formerly, to arrive off the harbor under cover of darkness, but a break in the machinery caused delay. Steaming along, Captain Austin found himself one morning but a few miles off Galveston and in sight of the blockading fleet.

As yet he was unseen, owing to the low construction of his ship, and he decided to run out to sea; but inquiry below elicited the information that the supply of coal would not be sufficient for twelve hours more. The only alternative was to make for a place of concealment under the shore, and thither the prow was turned.

But the overhanging smoke had attracted the attention of the fleet, and a ship of war was fast bearing down upon the daring blockade runner. Without a moment's hesitancy Captain Austin determined to run the gauntlet. The course was again changed and the Susanna headed directly for the bar. A dozen shipps barred her way.

Rushed to destruction.

With great clouds of smoke pouring from the funnels and all attemps at concealment thrown to the winds, the swift Susanna rushed on, seemingly to sure destruction. Soon she came within range and every vessel opened up on her from a long distance. The Seminole was in the lead and sent solid shot across the bow of the long, dark ship that fairly skimmed the water. Foam splashed up over the deck, but the warning had no effect.

Cutting in, the warship decreased the distance between it and the Susanna until objects could be plainly seen from one deck to the other. Shot after shot went screaming through the air toward the blockade runner, but still she kept her course. The regular channel was blocked, but she went straight ahead. Raked fore and aft, the Susanna, quivering like a frightened animal, rushed on. All Galveston was on the wharves watching the engagement, hoping and praying for the safety of their vessel.

Suddenly the course of the Susanna was changed. Doubling [204] around the Seminole, she made straight for shallow water and the bar. On board the sloop of war they believed her captain had decided to beach her, and the chase was taken up in hope of capturing the crew and preventing the absolute destruction of the vessel.

But it was a part of the trick. Another turn, that sent the water swirling under the prow, and the course was again changed. Crossing at a dangerous and generally unknown place on the short bar, the Susanna entered the deeper channel of the bay. Her prow had been shot away and both smokestacks were wrecked, but, riddled with shot and shell as she was, she steamed slowly to the wharves and discharged her cargo.

During the entire engagement Captain Austin, according to the commander of the Seminole, coolly paced the bridge with his hands in his pockets and a cigar between his teeth. Not once did he leave his place or show a sign of trepidation, in spite of the fact that half a ton of black powder was stored directly beneath him. In the shower of shot and shell he stood as he had on the deck of the Manassas, facing almost certain death while his ship was being shot away beneath him. Cool courage, perfect seamanship, and an absolute knowledge of the harbor assisted him in performing another exploit that has never been equaled, and that only emphasizes the fact that some of the credit given to others belongs to him.

On the next voyage the ship commanded by Captain Austin was cornered and captured at sea by a Federal sloop of war and he was taken to Philadelphia in his own vessel, there to be thrown into prison. A short time afterward the struggle was ended.

Returning to Galveston, the hero went back to the merchant marine and again took command of a Morgan liner. It was at this time that he met and married Miss Georgia Grafton who resided in the Texas seaport. During the struggle Captain Austin was unknown to the girl he later took for a wife, but his vessel, the Susanna, had brought her many good things from foreign lands, and his reputation as the handsomest and most daring man in Texas was common property.

Some time later the couple removed to Savannah, where Captain Austin took charge of the construction of the jetties at the mouth of the river. There the family of two sons and one daughter grew up from childhood to maturity.

In 1889 this naval hero of the South died as a result of exposure during the war, and to-day his body rests upon the shores of the Atlantic, while the everbeating waves pay tribute to his greatness.

‘Nor should his glory be forgot while fame her record keeps.’

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