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The ram “Tennessee” at Mobile Bay.

by James D. Johnston, commander, C. S. N.
The Confederate naval force at Mobile at the time of Admiral Farragut's attack was commanded by Admiral Franklin Buchanan, of Merrimac fame, and consisted of the iron-clad ram Tennessee, armed with four 6.4-inch rifled guns in broadside, and two 7-inch rifles, one at each end of the shield; the gun-boats Morgan and Gaines, carrying six guns each, chiefly of smaller caliber; and the Selma, carrying only four, making in all 22 guns. The entire force of officers and men was about 470. Admiral Farragut's fleet consisted of six first-class steam sloops of war, eight smaller sloops and gun-boats, and four monitors, two of which had double turrets. The total number of guns carried by these vessels was 159, and 33 howitzers; and the officers and crews numbered about 3000.

The hull of the Tennessee was constructed on a high bluff near the Alabama River, a short distance above the city of Selma, and all the timber used was cut in the immediate vicinity. She was 209 feet in length and 48 feet in. breadth of beam. The shield for the protection of her battery and crew was 78 feet 8 inches long and 8 feet high above the deck, which at each end of the shield was only about 18 inches above the surface of the water when the — vessel had been prepared for service. Sponsons of heavy timber projected about five feet from the sides in a line with the deck, extending seven feet below it, the lower edge of the shield covering the outer angle or apex of the sponsons. The sides of the shield were of yellow pine and white oak, 23 inches thick, placed at an angle of 33 degrees with the deck.

When she was prepared for launching, I was ordered by Admiral Buchanan to charter two steamboats and proceed with them to Selma, to tow her down to Mobile, as soon as she was launched. I found on arrival at Selma that every preparation had been made for that purpose by the naval constructor in charge (Mr. Henry Pearce). She was immediately taken in tow by the steamboats and towed down to Mobile, to receive her machinery and battery, the latter having been cast at the Government foundry in Selma, under the superintendence of Commander Catesby ap Roger Jones, late commander of the Merrimac, who had acquired great distinction as an ordnance officer of the United States navy. The armor plating had been prepared at the rolling-mills of Atlanta, and was rapidly arriving. It consisted of plates of exceedingly tough and malleable iron seven inches wide, two inches thick, and 21 feet long. Three layers of the 2-inch plates were bolted on the forward end of the shield as far as the after end of the pilot-house (which extended about two feet above the top of the shield), and from that point to the termination of the shield two plates of 2-inch and one of 1-inch were used.

While this tedious work was progressing, the machinery and guns were placed in position, and about the 1st of April, 1864, the vessel was ready to receive her crew. As executive officer of the station under the admiral, I had superintended the completion of the vessel, and by his request I was now selected for the command, being immediately afterward promoted to the grade of commander.

But as the draught of the vessel was over thirteen feet, and there were only nine feet of water on Dog River bar, at the mouth of the Mobile River, it became a serious problem to solve as to the means of floating her over this bar. Naval Constructor Thomas Porter conceived the idea of building heavy camels or floats, to be made fast to the sides of the ram; the surfaces in contact with the ram to conform to the model of the hull; and the camels were to contain a sufficient weight of water to counterbalance in part the weight of the vessel. This plan was immediately adopted, but the timber for the purpose had yet to pass from the forest, through the saw-mill, some ten miles up the river, down to Mobile. Time was precious, and the newspapers were beginning to express the impatience of the people to see the powerful ram of which so much was expected taken down the bay to attack the blockading fleet. The camels were being constructed with all possible dispatch, but just as they were nearly ready they were totally destroyed by fire. Undaunted by this calamity, Admiral Buchanan, with his usual energy and pluck, soon had them rebuilt, and about the middle of May the Tennessee, drawing less than nine feet of water, was towed over the bar by two steamboats, one of which contained her coal, and the other her ammunition. Her crew were employed during the passage down the bay in transferring these supplies, and by the time she reached a sufficient depth of water to float [402] without the aid of the camels, she was quite prepared for action. But unfortunately it was now near midnight, and by the time the camels had been sent adrift, the tide had fallen so much that she was found to be hard and fast aground. Here was an insurmountable and most unlooked — for end to the long-cherished hope of taking the enemy by surprise, dispersing the blockading fleet, and capturing Fort Pickens, at the entrance of Pensacola Bay. Such was the work Buchanan had mapped out for the ram , and but for the fact that her presence in the bay was soon revealed by daylight, this attempt would certainly have been made.

When the tide rose sufficiently to float the ship, she was moved down to an anchorage near Fort Morgan, where she remained nearly three months, engaged in exercising the crew at their guns. Having realized from the first that the running of the steering gear was very defective, I addressed a letter to the admiral soon after reaching our anchorage, suggesting certain necessary alterations therein, and he sent the naval constructor down from the city to make plans for the purpose; but before they could be perfected we were compelled to take the consequences of the defect, which proved to be disastrous.

On the evening of the 4th of August, 1864, it was plainly to be seen that the blockading fleet, which had recently been augmented by the arrival of the heavier wooden vessels and the monitors, was making preparations to attempt the passage of Forts Morgan and Gaines, situated on either side of the entrance to the bay, and to attack the Confederate squadron. Similar preparations were made by our vessels, which had been anchored just within the bay for nearly three months, in daily expectation of the impending encounter. During the night a blockade-runner entered the bay and was boarded by the executive officer of the Tennessee.

At about 6 o'clock on the morning of the 5th, the fleet was discovered to be under way toward the bay, the monitors on the right and the wooden vessels lashed together two and two, each of the heavier ships having a gun-boat lashed alongside. All the light spars had been sent down, leaving only the lower and top masts standing, while the boats had been hauled upon the beach at Sand Island just within the bar, on the morning previous.

All hands were immediately called on board the Confederate vessels, and after hurriedly taking coffee, the crew were set to work to slip the cable and buoy the anchor. This being done, they were assembled at their quarters for action, as the distance from the bar to the entrance of the bay is only about three miles, and the Federal vessels were already within range of the guns of Fort Morgan and were receiving its fire without damage.

As the leading monitor, the Tecumseh, reached the center of the channel between the forts, the Tennessee steamed out to meet her, but the speed of both vessels was so slow that the steam-sloops advanced beyond them, and the Tennessee was directed toward the leading ship, with the hope of reaching her in time to run into her broadside and sink her; but by slightly changing her course, and with her superior speed, the ship easily avoided the intended ramming, and seemed to fly up the bay. This was the admiral's flag-ship Hartford, and while she passed ahead of the ram, the Brooklyn, leading the other vessels of the fleet, passed astern and followed the admiral. I learned after the fight that her commander had obtained the admiral's permission to take the lead, but an event occurred just after the Tennessee had moved down to the

The “Monongaheala” ramming the “Tennessee.” from a War-time sketch.


The “Hartford” in collision with the “Tennessee.” from a War-time sketch.

middle of the channel1 which disconcerted him for a moment and caused him to stop his ship, thus compelling the admiral to take the lead. himself. This event was the most startling and tragic of the day, causing the almost instantaneous loss of 93 lives. The monitor Tecumseh, at her commander's special request, had been detailed to “take care of the Tennessee,” and had reserved her fire until she had approached that vessel within a quarter of a mile, when she was suddenly struck by a torpedo, and disappeared beneath the water. But for the cheering of my men as they saw her sinking I should not have seen her go down. Twenty-one of her crew escaped from her, of whom four landed at Fort Morgan.

Meantime the other vessels of the Confederate squadron were doing their duty faithfully by raking the enemy's ships as they advanced head on, and they killed and wounded a large number of men.

As soon as Admiral Buchanan realized that his enemy had escaped for the moment he ordered me to follow him up the bay; but meanwhile the lashings between each two vessels of the fleet had been cast off, and four gun-boats went immediately in pursuit of the three hastily improvised wooden vessels of our squadron. The Selma was speedily captured by one of these, the Metacomet, after a gallant resistance, during which seven of her crew and her executive officer were killed, and her commander, Lieutenant P. U. Murphy, was slightly wounded. The Gaines, commanded by Lieutenant John W. Bennett, which was run ashore near Fort Morgan to prevent her from sinking, had. received several shots below the water-line, and at night was burned by her own crew. The Morgan, Commander George W. Harrison, ran alongside the wharf at the fort to escape capture, and during the night passed safely through the enemy's fleet up to the city of Mobile. She afterward rendered good service in the defense of the city.

While this sort of by-play was in progress the heavier ships of the fleet, together with the monitors, steamed up the bay to a point about four miles above Fort Morgan, where they were in the act of anchoring when it was discovered that the ram was approaching with hostile intent. Upon this apparently unexpected challenge the fleet was immediately put in motion, and the heavier vessels seemed to contend with each other for the glory of sinking the daring rebel ram, by running themselves up on her decks, which extended some thirty feet at each end of the shield, and were only about eighteen inches above the surface of the water. So great was their eagerness to accomplish this feat that the Lackawanna, one of the heaviest steamers, ran bows on into the Hartford, by which both vessels sustained greater damage than their united efforts in this direction could have inflicted upon their antagonist.

Early in the action, the pilot of the Tennessee had been wounded by having the trap-door on the top of the pilot-house knocked down upon his head by a shot from one of the enemy's ships, which struck it on the edge while it was thrown back to admit of his seeing more clearly the position [404] of the vessel. Thereafter I remained in the pilot-house, for the purpose of directing the movements of the ram.

The monitors kept up a constant firing at short range. The two double-turreted monitors (Chickasaw and Winnebago) were stationed under the stern of the Tennessee, and struck the after end of her shield so repeatedly with 11-inch solid shot that it was found at the close of the action to be in a rather shaky condition. One of these missiles had struck the iron cover of the stern port and jammed it against the shield so that it became impossible to run the gun out for firing, and Admiral Buchanan, who superintended the battery during the entire engagement, sent to the engine room for a machinist to back out the pin of the bolt upon which the port cover revolved. While this was being done a shot from one of the monitors struck the edge of the port cover, immediately over the spot where the machinist was sitting, and his remains had to be taken up with a shovel, placed in a bucket, and thrown overboard. The same shot caused several iron splinters to fly inside of the shield, one of which killed a seaman, while another broke the admiral's leg below the knee. The admiral sent for me, and as I approached he quietly remarked, “Well, Johnston, they've got me. You'll have to look out for her now. This is your fight, you know.” I replied, “All right, sir. I'll do the best I know how.” While returning to the pilot-house I felt the vessel careen so suddenly as nearly to throw me off my feet. I discovered that the Hartford2 had run into the ram amidships, and that while thus in contact with her the Federal crew were using their small-arms by firing through the open ports. However, only one man was wounded in this way, the cause of all our other wounds being iron splinters from the washers on the inner ends of the bolts that secured the plating. I continued on my way to the pilot-house, and upon looking through the narrow peep-holes in its sides to ascertain the position of the enemy's ships, I discovered that the wooden vessels had mostly withdrawn from the action, leaving it to the monitors to effect the destruction of the ram at their leisure.3 At this time both of my most efficient guns had been placed in broadside, because both the after and forward port covers had been so effectually jammed against the shield as to block up the ports. The steering apparatus had been completely destroyed, as it had been plainly visible on the after deck, and the smoke-stack had fallen, destroying the draught in such a degree as to render it impossible to keep steam enough to stem the tide, which was running out at the rate of over four miles an hour.

Realizing the impossibility of directing the firing of the guns without the use of the rudder, and that the ship had been rendered utterly helpless, I went to the lower deck and informed the admiral of her condition, and that I had not been able to bring a gun to bear upon any of our antagonists for nearly half an hour, to which he replied: “Well, Johnston, if you cannot do them any further damage you had better surrender.” With this sanction of my own views I returned to the gun-deck, and after another glance about the bay to see if there was any chance of getting another shot, and seeing none of the enemy's ships within range of our broadside guns, I went to the top of the shield and took down the boat-hook to which the flag had been lashed after having been shot away several times during the fight. While I was thus engaged repeated shots came from the enemy's vessels, but as soon as I returned to the gun-deck and had a flag of truce attached to the boat-hook the firing ceased. Having returned to the top of the shield, I saw one of the heaviest ships of the fleet approaching rapidly, apparently for the purpose of making another attempt to sink the ram. Seeing the flag of truce, the commander stopped his ship, but her momentum was too great to be overcome in the short intervening space, and she struck the ram on the starboard quarter, but without injuring it. As she did so her commander hailed, saying: “This is the United States steamer Ossipee. Hello, Johnston, how are you? Le Roy — don't you know me? I'll send a boat alongside for you.” The boat came and conveyed me on board the Ossipee, at whose gangway I was met by her genial commander, between whom and myself a lifelong friendship had existed. When I reached the deck of his ship, he remarked, “I'm glad to see you, Johnston. Here's some ice-water for you — I know you're dry; but I've something better than that for you down below.” I thanked him cordially, but was in no humor for receiving hospitalities graciously, and quietly followed him to his cabin, where he placed a bottle of “navy sherry” and a pitcher of ice-water before me and urged me to help myself. Calling his steward, he ordered him to attend to my wishes as he would his own. I remained on board six days, during which time I was visited by nearly all the commanding officers of the fleet.

Within an hour after I was taken on board the Ossipee Admiral Farragut sent for me to be brought on board his flag-ship, and when I reached her deck he expressed regret at meeting me under such circumstances, to which I replied that he was not half as sorry to see me as I was to see him. [405]

Surrender of the “Tennessee.” from a War-time sketch.

His flag-captain, Percival Drayton, remarked, “You have one consolation, Johnston; no one can say that you have not nobly defended the honor of the Confederate flag to-day.” I thanked him, but gave all the honor due to its defense to Admiral Buchanan, who was the true hero of the battle; and when the disparity between the forces engaged is duly considered, I am constrained to believe that history will give him his just meed of praise.

The casualties on board the Tennessee were two killed and nine wounded. Her armor was never penetrated, although she was under the heaviest fire for nearly four hours. One solid 15-inch shot struck her shield, at point-blank range, between two of the ports and caused an indentation of about twelve inches, but did not break the iron plating.4 Her speed did not exceed six knots under full steam in slack water, owing to her heavy draught, which exceeded the original calculation by more than a foot. Her engine had been removed from an old Mississippi River steamboat and adapted to a propeller, and its power was totally inadequate to the performance of the work expected of it.

After I left the Tennessee Admiral Buchanan was transferred to a small transport steamer and taken to the hospital in the navy yard at Pensacola, where he was accompanied by his own fleet-surgeon, Dr. D. B. Conrad, and his aides. Five days after the admiral's departure I was transported to Pensacola and transferred to the receiving-ship Potomac, lying off the navy yard; but as soon as Admiral Farragut's fleet-surgeon, Dr. James C. Palmer, heard of my arrival he had me removed to the hospital, owing to the fact of my suffering at the time with a painful disease. On reaching the hospital I found myself placed in a room near to that occupied by Admiral Buchanan, and immediately adjoining that of Captain J. R. M. Mullany, who had commanded the steamer Oneida of the fleet, and had had the misfortune to have his left arm shot away during the action. I had known him long before the war, and called upon him at once to offer my condolence.

After remaining in the hospital about three weeks I was placed on board a small ordnance steamer in company with Lieutenant-Commanding Murphy, late of the Selma, with Lieutenants Bradford and Wharton of the Tennessee, accompanied by my servant (whom Admiral Farragut had kindly allowed me to retain), for transportation to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We reached our destination after a pleasant passage of five or six days, and on arrival the commander of the steamer, Captain Tarbox, reported to Admiral Hiram Paulding, commandant of the yard. On returning to the steamer he informed me that he had obtained the admiral's permission to escort the party to the navy yard at Boston, and that it was his intention to take us all down to his home at Cape Ann to spend a few days [406] with him before turning us over to the officer commanding Fort Warren, which was to be our abode until we were exchanged. We were all delighted at the prospect of this pleasing respite from prison life, and expressed our gratitude to the kind-hearted captain. But we were awakened early on the following morning by the announcement from the distressed captain, who had had a second interview with the admiral, that we were all to be placed in irons and conveyed to Boston by rail. We remonstrated gently against this unprecedented mode of treating prisoners of war, but to no purpose.

When we reached the wharf at Fort Warren, the commanding officer, Major A. A. Gibson, inquired the cause of our being in irons, and upon being informed that they were placed upon us by order of Admiral Paulding, he made the further inquiry whether or, not we had been guilty of any rebellious conduct as prisoners of war; this being answered in the negative, he replied that he had never heard of such treatment, and that we could not be landed on the island until the irons were removed.

Soon after becoming settled in my new quarters I addressed a communication to the Secretary of the Navy, inquiring whether or not he had authorized the action of Admiral Paulding, which was answered by Assistant-Secretary Fox, who disavowed the act, but excused it on the ground of repeated attempts of prisoners to escape.

An order for the exchange of all the prisoners in the fort had reached the commanding officer previous to our arrival, and after ten days we left for City Point on the steamer Assyrian. We naturally supposed that on our arrival at City Point we would be immediately forwarded to the landing on James River, at which exchanges were usually made. But when General B. F. Butler, whose lines were between us and that point, was advised of our presence he refused to allow us to pass through them, on account of President Davis's proclamation declaring him an outlaw. The Commissioner of Exchange informed General Grant of the fact, and he came alongside the Assyrian with his steamer, and informed us that we should be forwarded to Richmond on the following day. True to his promise, he had us landed near Dutch Gap the next morning, whence we were conveyed

Commander J. D. Johnston, C. S. N.

in ambulances to Varina Landing, where we found a Confederate steamer awaiting us with the Federal prisoners on board. We soon exchanged places to the tune of “Dixie.” After a delightful visit of five days at the house of Mrs. Stephen R. Mallory, the charming wife of the Secretary of the Confederate Navy, I was ordered to return to Mobile and report for duty under Commodore Ebenezer Farrand, who had succeeded Admiral Buchanan in command of that station.

1 I In this statement, Captain Johnston's chronology is undoubtedly at fault. The testimony of eye-witnesses makes it certain that the Brooklyn had stopped before the sinking of the Tecumseh.--editors.

2 All the official reports show that the only contact between the Hartford and the ram was bows on, a glancing blow (see Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1864, pp. 402, 407, and 410). Captain Johnston undoubtedly mistook the Lackawanna for the Hartford. Admiral Farragut in his report (ibid., p. 402) says:

“The Lackawanna, Captain Marchand, was the next vessel to strike her, which she did at full speed; but, though her stern was cut and crushed to the plank ends for the distance of three feet above the water's edge to five feet below, the only perceptible effect on the ram was to give her a heavy list.” editors.

3 This statement is not sustained by the official records of the fight. Admiral Farragut in his report says:

She [the ram] was at this time sore beset; the Chickasawz was pounding away at her stern, the Ossipee was approaching her at full speed, and the Monongahela, Lackawanna, and this ship [Hartford] were bearing down upon her.

Here is direct mention of four wooden ships, and the Brooklyn, Richmond, and others were not out of the fight. Editors.

4 The Board of Survey appointed by Admiral Farragut, and consisting of Captain T. A. Jenkins, Captain James Alden, Commander W. E. Le Roy, and Chief-Engineer Thomas Williamson, reported in part as follows on the injuries received in the action, by the Tennessee.

On the port side of the casemate the armor is also badly damaged from shot. On that side nearly amidship of the casemate, and between the two broadside guns, a 15-inch solid shot knocked a hole through the armor and backing, leaving on the inside an undetached mass of oak and pine splinters, about three by four feet, and projecting inside of the casemate about two feet from the side. This is the only shot that penetrated the wooden backing of the casemate, although there are numerous places on the inside giving evidence of the effect of the shot.

(Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1864, p. 455.)

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