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“this Filthy Ironpot”
Civil War ironclads were dirty, hot, cramped, and dangerously unseaworthy. An officer’s diary describes life aboard during the crucial Battle of Mobile Bay
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
In the spring of 1864, Robert B. Ely, a twenty-threeyear-old acting volunteer lieutenant in the United States Navy, was assigned to duty in the U.S.S. Manhattan , a single-turret, ironclad monitor fresh from the builder’s yard at Jersey City. After meeting the usual problems that go with fitting a new crew into an untried ship, the Manhattan sailed for the Gulf of Mexico, and on August 5 it was with Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s fleet in the momentous Battle of Mobile Bay.
Ely kept a private journal, and he found a good deal to write about. He distinguished himself in battle—apparently he was what would nowadays be called the gunnery officer—and he won promotion, along with assignment as his ship’s executive officer. What makes his journal readable today, however, is not so much his account of a famous sea fight as his unvarnished story of what life on a Civil War monitor was really like.
That life, as he quickly discovered, was about as uncomfortable as anything the Xavy has ever had Io offer. Those primitive ironclads were jusl barely seaworthy and almost completely uninhabitable. Simply living on a monitor was so trying that the. ordeal of battle struck all hands as a positive relief.
At sea, the monitors were utter slugs, needing to be towed if they were to make any headway—the Manhattan made the entire trip from New York to Mobile Bay at one end of a towrope, the other end being attached to the stern of a wooden gunboat, the U.S.S. Bienville —and in action, when the tows were cast ojj, they were slow and very hard to steer. They were shotproof, but when a solid shot hit their armor, boltheads would snap off and fly about the interior in a most lethal manner. They had so little reserve buoyancy that a leak could be fatal, as one of the Manhattan ’s sister monitors, the U.S.S. Tecumseh , found when she struck a mine going into Mobile Bay.
But it was the day-to-day discomfort of life aboard that was the real problem. In anything but a flat calm, a monitor’s deck was awash, so that the crew either had to stay below or go up on top of the turret, where most of the space was taken up by the conning tower. This meant that most of the men, whether on duty or off, had to stay below, and that was abominable because at sea the hatches were battened down and the ventilators were usually inoperative. The hot Gull const sun beat down on the iron deck, turning the interior into a veritable oven (Ely noted one time when the temperature in the engine room ran above 130 degrees), and the air in the living and working quarters was a thick fog that could hardly be breathed. Everything was wet, partly because of condensation from the humid air and partly because there was a constant seepage at the base of the turret; also, the wooden hull that carried the dead weight of armor plate “worked” hard and had a way of developing innumerable leaks.
Nevertheless, Farragut had to use monitors in order to win his battle. Mobile Bay was protected by three forts—the largest, Fort Morgan, on the east side of the entrance; Fort Gaines on the western side directly opposite; and Fort Powell covering a secondary entrance a few miles to llie northwest. In addition, the Confederates had the C.S.S. Tennessee , a recently finished ironclad ram that was more than a match for the best wooden warships Farragut had. To win, Farragnt had to pass the forts and silence the Tennessee and her consorts, three wooden gunboats. The gunboats lie could handle, and he could rush past the forts the way he had rushed past the forts at New Orleans two years earlier, but the Tennessee was likely to checkmate him unless he had monitors. So he used four of them—the Manhattan , the unlucky Tecumseh , and two double-turret affairs named the Winnebago and the Chickasaw .
Ely had gone to sea on a merchant ship before the war. He entered the Navy in i86r, serving at various times on the warships Dana , Yankee , and Mohican . He was married not long before he sailed on the Manhattan , and—like men in the armed sendees in all wars—his morale depended largely on the frequency with which he got letters from his wife, Nellie.
His private journal is owned now by his grandson, Robert B. Ely III of Philadelphia. With his permission, portions of it are published here for the first time. Our excerpt begins on June 30, 1864, when the Manhattan was nearing Key West.
The sea has been running quite high all day and … the ship presents a very strange appearance, almost ending submerged, the only dry spot being the turret about which the sea breaks and foams in impotent fury. Dr. Austin has been quite seasick all day. He wishes himself at home again and laments that he did not join the Army. It is generally understood on board today that we are bound to Pensacola, and from thence probably to Mobile. I hope we meet and annihilate the Tennssee .