CHAPTER VII. TAKE A NEW DEPARTURE IN LIFE
As this day was the turning point of my life, the incidents which led to it and the day itself are never to be forgotten. There seems to have been a fate in it all to which everything had led with that mysterious invisible force which controls our lives. To state in a brief and practical manner, what happened on that bright, clear Sunday seems best. Before the day was over I was formally engaged to be married to Miss Susan Bainbridge Hayes. I came to the city the night before, worn out, dirty and hungry, with no earthly possessions to speak of beyond a few dollars in my pocket and the contents of a handbag. I had no idea of marriage or of contracting an engagement to marry. So far as my future lay before me it was dim, misty, uncertain in any way I looked at it. My recent profession abandoned, my former one resumed, a War impending, the end of which no one could pretend to foresee. I was only an Acting Lieutenant on temporary service, with the very smallest chance for any distinguishment, and an absolute certainty of so small a remuneration, should I be lucky enough to escape the dangers of the sea floods and combats, that I would have enough to do to support myself in all reasonable conscience.
When I awoke late that morning, I found that I should have to wait for the afternoon train to New York, where the "Wabash" was in waiting to swallow me up for an indefinite time, and it came into my mind that I would call upon the acquaintances formed years before, when fitting out the "San Jacinto" and "Jamestown."
Perhaps, lingering in my mind like the almost forgotten strains of a pleasant tune, was the agreeable recollection of Miss Hayes and the moments passed in her society, and the charming hospitalities extended to me by her mother and all the Bainbridge family, when as a boy I needed just such kindly interest at the outset of my career.
Whatever was the inducement, the determination took form that I could not better employ my idle hours in Philadelphia than in the renewal of the acquaintance. So I brushed my clothes, had my shoes polished, submitted by shaggy head and face to the barber, made myself as presentable as my circumstances and limited wardrobe permitted, looked up the address in Spruce Street, and at about church time rang the bell at No. 1344, and inquired very casually if the ladies were in? Had they not been at home I would in all probability left a card, wandered away, taken the evening train and - well, I don't know what my future life would have been. They were, however all in, and ready for church. I will not say more than I was immediately made at home, and responding rather reluctantly to the invitation to join in the procession to the church, that of the Reverend Dr. Morton, I marched by the side of Miss Susan, sat by her, listened to her devotional murmurs, more than to the fervent patriotic prayers and sermon, returned to the house with her, in rather a disturbed state of mind - requiring some self-communing before action. I declined staying to dinner. I just wanted to think a little all by myself, went back to my hotel, which seemed a hateful, barren place and the hungry strangers there vulgar nomads. Before leaving the delightful home life of Mrs. Hayes, I intimated that if agreeable, and they had no engagements, I would return there for tea. Mrs. Hayes urged me to come, and Miss Susan joined in the wish, and I was given to understand that four or five o'clock would find her at home and very glad to see me.
Wireless telegraph is called a new invention, and I suppose it is - for commercial purposes - but the wireless intelligence which passes quicker than the electric fluid, in a single glance of the eyes, conveys to a man and woman a mutual understanding of a reciprocal feeling which is known the world over as love! I knew from that moment that I was a gone coon, and that if she would take me, my destiny was fixed, and that she should be informed of my state of mind that very afternoon and decide my fate. If I were writing a love story for the magazines I could make it fairly interesting to the young folk who delight in such things; how Claude stood before Claire, proclaiming his poverty and devotion, and spreading his pocket handkerchief carefully on the floor at the feet of his idol in economic effort to spare the knees of his best trousers, threw himself frantically into a praying posture and awaited his doom. I did the poverty act all right, and if we had passed the rest of our lives in the poorhouse, Sue could not have complained that I had deceived her.
At all events, my poverty, the war and its dangers, the certain separations, the impossibility of any immediate fulfillment of engagements - these and all other contingencies fled like dew before the sun, and - well you expectant listeners, just imagine what happened!
Sue and I (I called her Sue then and always thereafter) communicated the news to her family that afternoon, whose objections, if they had any, were not apparent, and we walked off that evening to spread the intelligence through the town, and particularly to Mrs. Rogers and Cornelia, Sue's most intimate friends.
I am inclined to believe, that had news of a battle, the capture of Washington, the blowing up of the Capitol and the enemies approach to our vicinity been promulgated, we would have regarded the intelligence as a trifle, not worthy of our consideration. Mrs. William Rogers, living in a fine house on Rittenhouse Square, was wealthy, handsome and wise. I had a very slight acquaintance with her and her daughter, Cornelia, but I knew that they were of Sue's dearest and most intimate friends. She did not express surprise at a condition that was so great a one to me, and by some process of divination, said she knew it was coming.
However, there was little time at our disposal for receiving congratulations and best wishes, and I left Philadelphia the following day for Albany, reaching there on the 6th of May, found my appointment and orders to report to Commodore Breeze, commanding the New York Navy Yard, on the 22nd of May. I took the oath of allegiance, and with my acceptance of the appointment, forwarded the same to Washington, packed up my books, papers and superfluous belongings, closed up as far as possible outstanding business affairs, working like a beaver every waking hour, bade goodbye to relatives and friends, astounded many by the announcement of my engagement, rushed over to Springfield, where I created the same astonishment, and perhaps consternation amongst my family. I rushed to New York, bought some semblance of a Naval uniform, and on the day named in my orders, reported for duty to old Commodore Breeze, and was immediately directed to report to Captain Mercer, commanding the "Wabash," as the Navigating officer. She was still at the dock, nearly ready for sea, so that at four o'clock that afternoon, I found myself again on the deck of a man-of-war, in charge of anchors and cables, bawling out orders, and responding "Aye, aye, sir!" to those from the Quarter deck, as the huge frigate hauled out into the stream, and slowly pushed her away to an anchorage off the Battery. It did not seem queer to me, this transformation - I fell into it as naturally as a duckling into water. My experiences as a young pettifogger vanished from mind and memory as completely as though they had never been. It was just as if I had passed the last few years on leave of shore duty. I knew just what I had to do and how to do it, without advice or assistance from any one. The work assigned to the Navigating officer by the practice and customs of the service was as familiar to me as though it had never been interrupted since I resigned and left the "Jamestown." What one learns in his youth, I fancy is the best learned, and I am sure that after all said and done, I was better fitted for the Navy than for the Bar or any other occupation.
I can here "clap a stopper" on this long spun yarn, and refer for a recitation of my Naval exploits and experiences during the long, bloody and disastrous war which followed, to the letters written by me to Sue, and to her as my wife during the four years of its continuance. Those letters which she preserved, numbering several hundreds, she was unkind enough to bring out against me, many years afterwards, when, with our grown-up children, seated by our fireside, induced by some references to our young life, she produced several and read aloud to them. They are only remarkable for the egotism which naturally enough appears in what may be called "Love letters," although that particular phase of mental condition, was suppressed or only intimated by my wife when she read them - by mutterings of 'so - on, so - on' to which the irreverent children would cry out, "Give us the 'so-ons' mother!" Also, naturally I did not hide my little light under a peck measure, and perhaps my sweetheart and wife was ready enough to construct a Naval hero out of the scanty material I gave her, and thought my criticisms of leaders of armies and oracles of Senates so just and true, as to be worth preserving for future historians; perhaps she then thought them marvels of composition. Whatever she thought about them, she kept every one, and asked for more of the same sort, as I have abundant proof in her answers to them, also preserved in the archives of the Maison de Barnes.
My elder son, James, who was at the time these particular effusions were brought to light, a magazine and book writer upon naval subjects, thought them of some commercial value in his line of business, so I spliced them together in consecutive form, sent them to Appleton's Magazine, which produced them with numerous illustrations, as one of the personal relations of the last month of the life of President Abraham Lincoln, and for this contribution the publishers paid me $400.00. I would like to sell the entire lot at the same price. Such as they are, omitting the "So-ons," they have been typewritten, illustrating with prints, portraits and autographs, bound by Bradstreet in three heavy portentious volumes, and if any curious persons wish to know how I lived, what I did, what I saw, what I thought, when and where I fought; the great and little men I knew, or was associated with, my opinions of them; how I would have managed things to end the Civil War instantly - like another "Mickey Free," all they have to do is to borrow those books and wade through them.
The "Wabash," commanded by Captain Mercer, with Lieutenant Corbin as executive officer, went at once upon the blockade off Charleston, where she laid mostly at anchor within plain sight of Fort Sumter now flying the stars and bars, all that summer a beacon, lighthouse and guide, to any blockade runner desiring to enter or come out of the harbor. Her huge hull and lofty spars made her a conspicuous object day or night. Still, her presence, sometimes alone, constituted a legal but ineffectual blockade. Had the federal government a real, instead of a sham navy, I know that it could readily have assailed and driven out the defenders of every fort and battery then on the Atlantic seaboard. We were daily surrounded by fishing boats manned by negroes, but did not molest them - there were no contrabands during the first few months - nor did we communicate with them as they passed and repassed, bowing and scraping. We almost grounded on our beef bones, occasionally getting under way, moving in a little closer for a better view of Sumter and its detestable flag, but never near enough for an exchange of shot. An occasional flag of truce on some frivolous errand would come out, on one of which I met Phil Porcher. We fished for edible fish, and also killed sharks, which in great numbers, and of immense size, attracted by the ship’s offal swarmed about the ship. One of our crew falling overboard was torn to pieces and devoured by them, in plain sight of us. Lieutenant Luce and a seaman, bravely but uselessly, jumped overboard to attempt his rescue, but clinging to the life buoy had a narrow escape from the same fate. It was a tragic scene, fully related elsewhere.
We managed to stop several sailing vessels who almost ran into us, bound into the harbor, and sent them home as "prizes," but many passed out unmolested at night. The "St. Lawrence," another big frigate, fell in with a privateer,the "Petrel", that got to sea past us and sunk her with a broadside. This was the first hostile shot exchanged, for the impudent little craft actually blazed away at the "St. Lawrence" before sinking.
However, the war was progressing, and plans for its prosecution projected on the coast, which took form in an expedition for the capture of the forts at Hatteras Inlet, the troops all new recruits under the command of General B. F. Butler, and the fleet under Commodore Stringham.
Of course the "Wabash" jointed the fleet, and after about as bungling an affair - hardly to be called a battle - as ever occurred in any war, the forts were captured, occupied and held throughout the war. This was heralded as a Great Victory, and as the first joint operation of the army and navy, comforted our friends and greatly disheartened our foes, causing the rebels to practically abandon their defense of the inlets to the sounds as untenable. There is no doubt, had the affair been followed up, every town and place of importance on the coast of North Carolina, and the rivers of that State, including Wilmington, could have been taken possession of without resistance. Parker, in his "Recollections" in summing up the account of this event, in which he figured on the rebel side, says:
"The enemy made a great mistake in not taking complete possession of the sounds immediately after capturing Hatteras. There was nothing to prevent it; two of the small steamers under Stringham could have swept the sounds, while a small force could have occupied Roanoke Island; had the Federals seized their opportunity, but they failed to make use of it." In this connection he further says:
"Another striking instance of this occurred when Butler landed at Bermuda Hundreds in 1864. Had he advanced promptly and boldly he could easily have taken Fort Darling and even Richmond itself."
But whoever knew Butler to do anything boldly. He played to the galleries ever. He never landed at Hatteras until it surrendered to the fire of the fleet, made a hasty visit to it, with Stringham, and embarking on what he called his flagship, went off home to receive the plaudits of the country amidst a flourish of self-blown trumpets.
This was my first "battle," and so little corresponded to my ideas of what a battle was or should be, that I confess that I was somewhat chagrined that it was so absolutely a commonplace target shooting match with no one hurt on our side, although the constant roar of our heavy guns and the very apparent destruction of the enemy's works by the bursting shells and sure loss of life within them, was dramatic and to a notice highly exciting. We were all novices in those days. I find in my letters such scathing denunciations of the conduct of this affair, the management of the fleet and the conduct of Butler, that I won't further discuss it, than to say that while I worked my gun division as steadily, took as careful aim, and hit our enemy as often as any, if this was a "baptism of fire," it was a very rose water christening. I do not think there was a man scratched in the fleet, except perhaps, on the little "Monticello," ordered by Stringham to enter the inlet when he thought the fort had surrendered, but had not, and got a peppering when close up to Fort Clarke, and Braine had a tight squeeze to get out again.
Immediately after the surrender, proud of one or two shots embedded in our hull, we were signalled to proceed off Charleston and resume our monotonous and ineffectual blockade.
The "Wabash" was a grand ship, had a fine set of regular officers, a splendid crew in perfect discipline. The ship was in perfect order and condition for any war-like purpose suited to her class.
Captain Mercer was a very small man in stature, but a thorough gentleman, although his advanced age made him timid or rather cautious in taking responsibilities or initiative. As navigating officer, my personal relations became intimate and my contact with him close and of daily frequency, and I had his complete confidence. As others did afterwards, he rather leaned upon my experience in civil life in his official correspondence, in dealing with prizes, and flags of truce, etc., as well as upon my skill as a navigator, consulting me often as to the questions arising, and trusting my computations in navigation completely. Corbin, the first Lieutenant, one of the few Southerners who stuck to the old flag, was as fine a specimen of the gentleman sailor and as rigid a disciplinarian as ever trod a deck. The other ward room officers had no superiors in any service. We had a happy ship, although we all growled, sailor fashion, at our enforced idleness. It was soon ended by orders North to receive on board Rear-Admiral DuPont and staff, who was to take charge of the South Atlantic Squadron, a new division and ostensibly for active operations supposed to be against Charleston. On our way North, we fell in with the "Seminole," and came near blowing her out of water, mistaking her for one of the rebel cruisers, which were already playing havoc amongst our merchant fleets on the coast, she corresponding in appearance in the darkness, to descriptions of them.
The "Seminole" had not responded intelligently to signals nor to hail, as we drew nearer and nearer to her with the crew at quarters, guns loaded and trained upon her, awaiting the command, to give her a broadside which would have annihilated her. She changed her course suddenly, someone singing out lustily: "This is the United States Ship 'Seminole'!" and in a minute we were crashing together, boats smashing, yards breaking and falling, as we rolled in the swell, fortunately slight and the sea very smooth. We cleared her after a few moments of chaos, and I was sent on board of her to ascertain her condition. The "Wabash" was not materially impaired. I found her Captain almost dumb and overwhelmed with apprehensions. He was just out of port, had a green set of volunteer officers, had a green crew, and complained bitterly of his helpless condition. However, his ship was not in any danger. We lay by him and helped repair damages that night, and he went on his way, not exactly rejoicing, although had he known it, he had cause for it. The "Seminole" had another commander very soon after.
The day following this scrape, we fell in with a brig off Frying Pan Shoals, chased, fired at her from our bow pivot, and finally brought her to. I was sent as boarding officer, and as we pulled up under her stern, saw painted on her stern "Mary Alice - New York." Her people were not active in giving us a line, but I clambered on board, met her skipper, demanded and received her sea letters - finding that she was ladened with sugar bound from Ponce Puerto Rico to New York - everything seemed "en regle," although the general bearing, sullen and rather uncivil answers to my questions by the skipper had made me suspicious, and caused me to make a more thorough examination of the brig's crew.
I had everyone mustered on deck in a line, and calling out the names found on her shipping list, I compared their persons with the descriptions of each name, finding discrepancies in height, colors of hair, eyes, etc. I was framing some conclusions in my mind when my attention was called to the staring eyes, frightened face and wistful look of a negro, rated as cook on the muster roll. He stood next the skipper who had a scowling, threatening bearing or attitude towards him. I called to the darky to step out of the line, which he did with wonderful alacrity as though for refuge. Turning to the skipper I taxed him with deception and demanded the truth, whereupon another man who had claimed to be a passenger came forward saying: "Well, I suppose the jig is up, this brig was a prize to the Confederate privateer 'Dixie,' captured on the 25th; all of us except that nigger belonged to the 'Dixie,' and I am in charge as prize master."
Meantime, Captain Mercer, getting impatient at the delay, sent another boat with a message that the "Wabash" could not be longer delayed, and if I was doubtful about the brig, to let her go, but I finished the examination as above, and in an hour or two we transferred the privateers men to the "Wabash," substituted a new prize master and crew, and sent her to her original destination. I think she was the first prize or recapture at sea of the war. Every officer and man later received his share of the prize or salvage money, paid him in person by me, under a proceeding in court never after followed, as all questions of prizes thereafter were through the regular decrees of the admiralty court and the moneys disbursed through the Treasury Department. The most interesting feature of the affair was the conduct of that poor darky. He told me that had I passed the brig, he had determined to jump overboard as my boat left her; that the real skipper had sworn that he would kill him if he made a sign to me, even if he hung for it; that he was an escaped slave, and knew they would return him to his old master, etc. But he had promised to keep quiet and had told them he would be glad to get back South; that he hated the Yankees, etc., and apparently he had gained their confidence. If ever there was a happy and grateful man, it was he, when I left him.
During this affair the "Wabash" had been drifting about, hove to or working in circles about the brig, and it was noon before we parted company with her. Owing to my protracted seance on the "Mary Alice" no one had thought of taking the meridian altitude sight at noon, so that in plotting the position of the ship and shaping the course, I had to use the log writings for the reckoning with the uncertain allowances for drift, leeway and erratic courses during the three hours and more that the "Wabash" had been dancing attendance upon the brig. However, I gave the prize master his positions, and shaping a course well clear of the shoals, we had hardly got straightened out upon it, when another sail hove in sight, another short chase, another prize, this time a schooner just out of the sounds of North Carolina with a cargo of turpentine and rosin bound for England. Again I boarded her - Captain Mercer impressed with my handling of the "Mary Alice" case, selecting me. There was no trouble here. She was a clear case, and the "Sarah Starr" was soon with a new skipper and crew, sent home a genuine prize. She had only been one day out of New Inlet. While transferring her crew, the "Rhode Island" supply ship, came up, and from her we took much needed supplies of fresh meat and vegetables to which we had long been strangers. It was nearly dark before we got free from our second prize, and the "Rhode Island," and again by Dead Reckoning shaped our course northward. I made large safety allowances, enough I thought to carry us at least 15 miles east of the point of shoals, but owing to currents, drifting, faulty steering, irregular hourly records on the log slate, and the excitements of the day causing the watch officers to be rather careless in noting her run and drift during the ten hours we were knocking about and my absence at noon, my allowances were insufficient. The ship had got inside the Frying Pan Shoals more than the 15 miles I had allowed her so that the N. E. by E. course given her, fetched her up on the extreme eastern point of the worst and most dreaded shoals on our coast, and there, but for what the religious people would call the kind care "of that sweet little cherub who sits smiling aloft," the bones of the stout old "Wabash" would be resting and those of her crew would be awaiting the final call of "All hands!"
I was tired but supremely contented with my day's work, had a first rate dinner upon the "Rhode Island's" fresh meat and trimmings and was forward on the gun deck, smoking my pipe, and chatting with Corbin and Mr. Monroe, a very gentlemanly Southerner, taken out of the "Sarah Starr." The sea was smooth, no wind to speak of, the night dark but clear, sails all furled, yards pointed sharp, speed the ship's best, about 6 or 7 knots - hour about 9-30. My intention was to keep the course until midnight, when I would haul her up to N. N. E. I remember being particularly interested in Mr. Monroe's views of the conflict between the North and South from a Southern standpoint. He was intelligent, well educated and reasonable for a slave owner in his views of the great question; when suddenly a tremor seemed to pass through the ship, then a slight thud, another, a little heavier. Like a flash I knew we were on those shoals. With a rush up the fore hatchway, followed by Corbin we were on the bridge; the engine stopped, but the ship was forging ahead bumping on every swell of the sea! Reversing the engine, she kept afloat, but continued to strike the bottom; her head slowly paid around to the eastward, and when, on watching the compass I found her head pointed to the south of east, I insisted upon going ahead full speed with helm a port, with some faint objection on the part of Captain Mercer, who did not think we had gone far enough astern. The argument was short, and the good ship faithful to her helm, glided off with only one or two more bumps, and was soon in deep water safe and sound. Of course there were reports and correspondence, but I may add that so far as I was concerned, there was never any unpleasant criticism. but it was a 'close shave' and taught me a good lesson on the reliability of Dead Reckoning, which, all said and done, is only guess work at best, and which had its fruits when later in the same ship I navigated her at the head of the big fleet of Admiral DuPont around the projecting shoals of Cape Hatteras in a furious gale on our way to Port Royal.
On October 7th, 1861, the "Wabash" was in New York harbor, and Captain Mercer left us and Rear Admiral DuPont and his staff, consisting of Captain C.R.P. Rogers and Lieutenant Preston came on board, the "Wabash" hoisting the broad pennant of the Flagship of the South Atlantic Squadron.