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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Personal Account of the
Battle of Mobile Bay by Harrie Webster,
Third Assistant Engineer, USS Manhattan

About half past seven, while the action was at its height, our gun had just been revolved for a shot at Fort Morgan, a momentary view was had of the Tecumseh, and in that instant occurred the catastrophe whereby a good ship filled with men, with a brave captain, in the twinkling of an eye vanished from the field of battle.

A tiny white comber [a long curling wave] of froth curled around her bow, a tremendous shock ran through our ship as though we had struck a rock, and as rapidly as these words flow from my pen the Tecumseh reeled a little to starboard, her bows settled beneath the surface, and while we looked her stern lifted high in the air with the propeller still revolving, and the ship pitched out of sight like an arrow twanged from the bow. We were steaming slowly ahead when this tragedy occurred and, being close aboard of the ill-fated craft, we were in imminent danger of running foul of her as she sank. "Back hard" was the order shouted below to the engine room, and, as the Manhattan felt the effects of the reversed propeller, the bubbling water round our bows, and the huge swirls on either hand, told us that we were passing directly over the struggling wretches fighting with death in the Tecumseh.

The effect on our men was in some cases terrible. One of the firemen was crazed by the incident. But the battle was not yet over. After coming to a standstill for a few minutes, during which the commotion of the water set up by the foundered ship passed away, the Manhattan steamed ahead into line and took the duty by now being performed by her lost consort. As the Tecumseh sank to the bottom, the crew of the Hartford sprang to her starboard rail and gave three ringing cheers in defiance of the enemy and in honor of the dying.

Perhaps some drowning wretch on the Tecumseh took that cheer in his ears as he sank to a hero's grave, and we may imagine the sound as it pierced the roar of battle, giving courage to some fainting heart as his face turned for the last time to the light of that sun whose rising and setting was at an end for him.

But Mobile Bay was yet before us. Immediately following the events just related, my tour of duty in the turret ended for the time being, and I once more returned to the engine room. The first effect of going from the cool air of the turret to the terrible heat of the engine room was that of a curious chilliness. This, in a minute or two, was succeeded by a most copious perspiration, so violent that one's clothing became soaking wet, and the perspiration coursing down the scantily clothed body and limbs, filled the shoes so that they "chuckled" as one walked.

At 150 F. the glass in a lantern will crackle and break, the lamps burn dimly, and it is impossible to handle any metal with the bare hands. Pieces of canvas, like flat-iron holders [flat irons were heated on a hot stove and then used to press or iron clothing; holders were similar to hot pads] alone enable one to grasp a hand-rail or valve handle. Of course frequent bulletins of the fight were brought to the poor devils sweating their lives out in the engine room, and we got some idea of what was going on through the signal which at frequent intervals came from the pilot house.... The sounds produced by a shot striking our turret were far different from what I had anticipated. The scream of the shot would arrive at about the same time with the projectile, with far from a severe thud, and then the air would be filled with that peculiar shrill singing sound of violently broken glass, or perhaps more like the noise made by flinging a nail violently through the air. The shock of discharge of our own guns was especially hard on the ears of those in the turret, and it seemed at times as though the tympanums must give way.... At about eight o'clock the fire on our port hand began to slacken, and the word was passed below that the wooden fleet had entered the bay and that the fight was over.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Is it clear from Webster's account why the USS Tecumseh sank? Why would a torpedo make the ships sudden sinking seem so mysterious? Would a torpedo, or cannon fire, from Fort Morgan cause more immediate and lethal damage? Why?

2. How did Webster and his mates respond to the sinking? Why do you think the crew of the Hartford gave three cheers for the fallen mates aboard the USS Tecumseh? How does Webster's account reveal the camaraderie that develops among a ships' crew in time of war?

3. Beginning with the sentence, "But Mobile Bay was yet before us," underline passages that give clues to the hardships of serving on board a monitor. How did the new technology of the monitors create additional hardships? What was Webster's impression of the battle from below board? How might that differ from the impression of the battle by a defender at Fort Morgan?

4. Explain how first-hand accounts help people appreciate the hardships battles place on individuals.

Reading 3 was excerpted from Harrie Webster, "An August Morning with Farragut at Mobile Bay," in Civil War Naval Chronology: 1861-1865 (Compiled by Naval History Division, Navy Department, Washington: 1971), VI-94-95.

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