Thirty Seconds at Mobile Bay
Rebel shot and shell raked the decks of the Hartford. The fire intensified as the Union squadron’s flagship encountered the formidable defenses of Mobile Bay on the morning of August 5, 1864. As the ship approached Fort Morgan at the mouth of the bay, a sailor aboard the Hartford surveyed the federal fleet through drifts of battle smoke. Suddenly, he cried out that a sister vessel, the monitor Tecumseh, was sinking.[i]
The stricken ironclad slipped below the surface before the sailor repeated the words. Shocked and surprised eyewitnesses reported that the Tecumseh sank in 30 seconds.
The Tecumseh had gone into action just a short time earlier. Her commander, Tunis Augustus McDonough Craven, was an affable, genial man who was popular with his brother officers.[ii]
Craven’s crew was composed of volunteers from all walks of life, including George Work of Connecticut. The 42-year-old bachelor had left a career as a schoolteacher in the 1850s to become a trader. By 1860, he had amassed a small fortune.[iii] Work had sat out the early part of the war, perhaps due to his age — he was old enough to be the father of many men in the ranks. He however cast his lot with the navy, although there is no record that he had any experience as a sailor.
In February 1864, Work received a commission as an acting assistant paymaster and reported to New York, where he sat for his carte de visite portrait. He received orders to report for duty to the Tecumseh before the end of the month.[iv]
The Tecumseh was one of the newest Monitor-style warships in the federal fleet. She featured a number of improvements to the original design by engineer and inventor John Ericsson, including tweaks to the machinery and thicker iron sheathing to the hull, decks and revolving turret. Despite Ericsson’s enhancements, the Tecumseh had detractors. “She is a costly mass of iron, armed with two heavy guns, capable of being fired at the rate of once in about seven minutes each. She has cost over half a million of dollars, and we doubt if she will ever do for the coasting service enough to repay one-fourth of that sum,” opined the New York Herald on March 29, 1864.
One of the critics was Craven. “He was opposed to the Monitor system in all its details, yet he would not request any other command,” noted one biographer.[v]
There is no evidence that Paymaster Work shared Craven’s opinion. The two men, and the rest of the crew, shipped out Southern waters aboard the Tecumseh in April 1864.
Meanwhile, Rear Adm. David Farragut[vi] was gearing up for a joint army-navy operation to take out the defenses of Mobile Bay. He organized an armada of 18 vessels. A quartet of metal monitors, including the Tecumseh, would lead the attack.
Confederates mobilized land batteries, three gunboats, and the ironclad ram Tennessee. They also planted 67 mines, or torpedoes, in the bay. Packed with gunpowder and submerged below water, the use of these “infernal machines” was considered diabolical and uncivilized by many.[vii]
Farragut’s force got underway on August 5. An officer identified only as “Frank” described the scene in a letter printed in a Boston newspaper: “At sunrise we formed in line of battle, and a grand and glorious sight it was — the flower of the American navy with the national flag streaming from every ship moving to the attack of one of the strongest forts on the continent. Two monitors took the lead and opened the ball.”[viii]
The pair of ironclads were the Tecumseh and her sister ship Manhattan. The Tecumseh was out in front, and she fired the Union’s first shot. She continued on as a gentle westerly wind blew battle smoke into the face of the enemy. [ix]
“When nearly abreast of Fort Morgan,” reported two acting masters of the Tecumseh, “A row of buoys was discovered stretching from the shore a distance from one to two hundred yards. It being reported to Captain Craven, he immediately gave the vessel full speed and attempted to pass between two of them.”[x]
The Tecumseh advanced on the rebel ram Tennessee, and turned to engage her. At this moment, 7:40 a.m., the hull of the Tecumseh struck a torpedo. The two masters recalled that the explosion occurred, “directly below the turret, blowing a large hole through the bottom of the vessel, through which the water rushed with great rapidity.”[xi]
They added, “Finding that the vessel was sinking, the order was given to leave our quarters, and from that moment every one used the utmost exertions to clear himself of the wreck.”[xii] A few men escaped through a hatch in the turret. Craven, who wore a life preserver, and his pilot scrambled for a narrow ladder and safety. The pilot stepped aside to let Craven escape first, but the commander yielded. “After you, pilot!”[xiii]
Craven made it to the turret before the Tecumseh reeled heavily to her port side, then careened violently and plunged bow first towards the bottom of the bay.
“I saw the Tecumseh,” observed Adm. Farragut from his perch in the main rigging near the top of the Hartford, “disappear almost instantaneously beneath the waves, carrying with her gallant commander and nearly all her crew.”[xiv]
One of Farragut’s subordinates, Capt. James Alden[xv] of the Brooklyn also watched the final seconds of the Tecumseh. “Sunk by a torpedo! Assassination in its worst form! A glorious though terrible end for our noble friends, the intrepid pioneers of that death-strewed path! Immortal fame is theirs; peace to their names.”[xvi]
Total casualties on the 115-strong Tecumseh were 94, including Craven, who likely perished in the vortex created by the sinking vessel. Also lost was Paymaster Work, who was likely trapped somewhere inside the ship.
Farragut and the rest of the fleet went on to achieve a glorious victory. In a brief congratulatory order issued the next day, he paid tribute to Craven, Work, and their crewmates. “It has never been his good fortune,” Farragut stated in the third person, “to see men do their duty with more courage and cheerfulness, for although they knew that the enemy was prepared with all devilish means for our destruction, and though they witnessed the almost instantaneous annihilation of our gallant companions in the Tecumseh by a torpedo, and the slaughter of their friends, messmates, and gunmates on our decks, still there were no evidences of hesitation in following their commander in chief through the line of torpedoes and obstructions.”[xvii]
Farragut was optimistic that the Tecumseh might be raised. The families of the deceased sailors petitioned the government to recover the remains of the crew, but it never happened.
[i] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.). August 30, 1864.
[ii] New Hampshire-born Tunis Augustus McDonough Craven (1813–1864) began his naval career as a midshipman in 1829, and saw action in the Mexican War. Promoted to the rank of commander in April 1861, he tracked Confederate vessels in European waters and the Mediterranean Sea until his assignment on the Tecumseh. Three military vessels have been named in his honor, a torpedo boat (commissioned in 1900 and decommissioned in 1913) and two destroyers (1918–1945, and 1937–1945).
[iii] 1850, 1860 U.S. Census.
[iv] Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900, p. 603.
[v] Boston Evening Transcript, August 16, 1864.
[vi] David Glasgow Farragut (1801–1870) had achieved hero status for his role in operations that lead to the federal occupation of New Orleans and opening up the Mississippi River to Vicksburg in 1862. He added to his laurels at Mobile Bay, where he uttered words that later became paraphrased as, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Farragut received a promotion to the newly created rank of vice admiral in December 1864. Two years later he advanced to full admiral, the first officer in the U.S. navy to hold this rank.
[vii] Report of Brig. Gen. Gabriel J. Rains, C.S. Army, and Superintendent of the Torpedo Bureau. ORN, I, 21: 567.
[viii] Boston Evening Transcript, August 15, 1864.
[ix] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.). August 30, 1864.
[x] Report of acting masters Charles F. Langley and Gardner Cottrell, August 6, 1864. ORN, I, 21: 490–491.
[xiii] The pilot was John Collins. Craven’s last words were popularized after the war. C.A.S. Dwight, “After You!” The Sailors’ Magazine and Seamen’s Friend (Vol. 66, No. 7, July 1894), pp. 194–194.
[xiv] Report of Adm. David Farragut, U.S. Navy, of the Battle of Mobile Bay. ORN, I, 21: 415–491.
[xv] James Alden Jr. (1810–1877) of Maine started his navy career as a midshipman in 1828. Promoted to lieutenant in 1841, he served in this capacity during the Mexican War and participated in the capture of Vera Cruz, Tuxpan, and Tabasco. Few navy officers saw as much action as Alden during the Civil War. He played in numerous operations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. He took charge of the Brooklyn in 1863, and went on to perform admirably at Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1864 and Fort Fisher, North Carolina, in 1865. He remained in the navy after the end of the war, and received a promotion to rear admiral in 1871.
[xvi] Report of Capt. James Alden Jr., U.S. Navy, commanding the Brooklyn. ORN, I, 21: 445.
[xvii] General Order of Rear Adm. Farragut, U.S. Navy. ORN, I, 21: 438.
Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books, and a contributing author to the New York Times series Disunion. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visitfacesofwar.comfor more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron onFacebook and Twitter.
This profile originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Civil War News.