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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
July 5 —We have been favored with unusually fine weather since we joined this vessel, having had no heavy blows and not one rain storm. Anything but bad weather in an ironclad. We are obliged to live on deck at sea and if it rains it makes it very disagreeable. … I can’t help envying the officers of the Bienville . We can see her decks very plainly. Everything is neat and clean and the officers are nicely dressed, and look as comfortable as possible. I suppose they have their own fun at our expense, seeing us all crowded up on the turret, looking over the iron railing, with wistful glances at the deck, like a lot of old hens with broods of ducks who persist in going into the water.
July 6 —… Our men have never been drilled yet, and being the officer in command of the turret and guns I do not feel altogether satisfied about it but perhaps I shall do better than I anticipated when the time comes. The drill is very simple and in a fight I trust a great deal to the good sense of the gun’s crews. We broke out and whitewashed the hold under the wardroom this afternoon, and find that it makes the air much more pure. Too much care cannot be taken aboard an ironclad to keep her clean.
July 7 —This afternoon at 1:20 made Pensacola lighthouse and came to our anchor in the harbor of the Navy Yard We at once took oil our hutches and allowed fresh air to circulate fully through the ship. The wardroom is like a different place this evening. We have cleared our decks of all lumber and are now ready for action. The Admiral is at Mobile to which place we will proceed as soon as some few slight repairs to the engine arc completed. 1 suppose we will soon have our reckoning with the Tennessee . …
I wrote a letter to Nellie this evening but the mail left in such a short time after our arrival that I had only time enough to state our safe arrival and wish lier health and happiness. We have regular mail communication between the Gulf and New York twice a week and I promise myself the pleasure of hearing from my dear wife very often during the time I may be attached to this squadron. …
July 9 —We have been busy all day taking in coal, getting provisions aboard, etc. The weather lias been excessively warm and 1 have been very uncomfortable in consequence thereof. … We are very much in want of fresh provisions and vegetables. In consequence of an order issued by the Admiral forbidding all communications between the ship and the shore we are unable to do any marketing. …
July 10 —Excessively hot all day. At 10 inspected the crew at general quarters. Read them the Riot Act, etc. At 11 the Captain [Commander J. W. A. Nicholson] conducted divine services on the quarter deck. We have been visited by officers and men from several of ships lying in the harbor. All seem to think that a fight between this vessel and the Tennessee is a settled thing as soon as we arrive off Mobile. We have all been having a social chat on the quarter deck this evening with our shirt collars unbuttoned, chairs pitched back, feet on the life lines and pipes in a cheerful glow, to keep away the mosquitoes. … In the intervals of silence I thought of my dear little wife, far away, and wished I could be spending this Sabbath evening in her dear company. I suppose the single gentlemen are thinking of their sweethearts and visions of them and other dear ones are now floating in the clouds of smoke before the eyes of us all. …
July 12 —Fine weather all day. Have been visited by several parties of ladies and gentlemen. We had got the ship all nicely cleaned, coaled, and provisioned ready for sea, when just at luncheon the alarming cry of “The ship’s on fire!” was heard from the engine room. All hands were at once called to fire quarters, pumps were rigged and we had our fire buckets get to work. AVe closed all the air ports, hatches, smoke stacks and every opening by which any draught could get to the fire. All the officers and men worked with a will and at 11 o’clock we had the fire well under command. Several of the officers fainted from heat and exhaustion. I escaped with only a slight stifling and a bad headache. …
July 13 —Today all hands have been employed cleaning away the muck left by the fire. I was called into the cabin this ming by the Captain and told emphatically that he was very much dissatisfied with the manner in which the First Lieutenant carried on the duties of the ship, stating that he was dirty, disorganiz.ed, etc.; said he was fully satisfied that I was in every way qualified to carry out the executive duty of the ship to his satisfaction, and asked me if I was willing to undertake it. I told him that I was. He said that he was going on board the flagship and would at once make application for another ensign in place of our present 1st Lt., and ask that he might be detached.
I am sorry for some reasons, and of course I am glad for others that the case stands as it does. Whether I shall succeed remains to be seen alter I have made the attempt. There are a great many things aboard an ironclad to discourage a first lieutenant, but yet I think a strict attention to duty will carry him safely through. For the present, things remain in status quo.
Ely’s assignment as executive officer was finally made, but not until after the battle of Mobile Bay.