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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.

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