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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 15 —… Carpenters and mechanics generally have been at work on board all day, repairing the damage done by the fire. I have been patiently waiting ever since I came aboard this vessel to see her cleaned and made at least respectable. This happy end has not yet been attained and she remains in the most filthy condition. There is no system, no order. All is confusion.
One of our ensigns went on a spree last night, got drunk and did not return to the ship until this morning. He came over the side at 10 A.M. with his head swelled up and face scratched, presenting the appearance of a man who had spent the night elsewhere than in his own bed. He was promptly put under arrest by the Captain as soon as he arrived and I have to stand his watch. I have often thought that it is rather hard that a worthless, good-for-nothing fellow can go on shore, get drunk, and raise the Old Boy generally, then come aboard, be put under arrest and have a good loaf in his comfortable quarters while some other officer who is foolish enough to be a gentleman has to bear the punishment of his misdeeds.
July 17 —… Divine services aboard, conducted by the Captain. He stated to the crew this morning that probably within ten days they would have an opportunity to test the relative strength of this vessel and a fort. Our day of sailing was postponed until tomorrow. We will probably leave in the morning for Mobile. Although I feel confident that all is for the best, yet I cannot but wish that we may go to work at once, finish up the fight and return home.
I find myself constantly wishing I was at home. Visions of my sweet wife and of the happy hours we have spent together constantly attend me. I wish to be with her, to be always near her. I begin to think that the whole course of my future life has probably been turned by that sweet girl. I cannot go to sea and leave her at home. She is necessary to my happiness. Be with her I must and will. I think it is unkind to her and unjust to myself to be thus separated. Together we would be happy; but separated we will always be dissatisfied. …
July 18 —This morning just as we were heaving up our anchor preparatory to starting for Mobile, the fire bell was rung most fiercely, the ship having been discovered to be again on fire. We proceeded as usual in such cases and succeeded in quenching the flames in a short time. The fire initiated in the galley and we were obliged to tear the whole apparatus to pieces, in consequence thereof we have been compelled to eat crackers and cheese all day, having no stove on which to cook any kind of a meal. By the time we have served in the Manhattan a few months more I think we will be respectable candidates for admission to the New York Fire Dept. …
July 19 —We finished coaling ship this afternoon for the second time, got under weigh and steamed up the river to a good anchorage, ready to start at daylight tomorrow morning, provided the ship does not burn up or sink before that time. This evening at 10:20 we were roused up by the old familiar sound of the beat to “General Quarters,” cast loose the battery, and got everything ready for action in ten minutes.…
July 20 —This morning we got under weigh from Pensacola and started for Mobile. The weather has been squally with heavy rain all day. After rather a boisterous passage of seven hours we came near the flagship of the Blockading Squadron off Mobile about five miles from the beach, in full view of the Rebel steamers plying between it and Mobile. The Tennessee ’s smokestack is visible over the point on which the fort is situated. She has steam and appears to be quite ready for us. I suppose we will have a nearer view of her.
Fort Morgan looks like a huge pile of sand. We can see the Rebels at work in it quite plainly. All the guns are mounted “en barbette,” the casemates being entirely closed by a wall of sand forty feet thick, which the Rebs have thrown up as an additional protection against our shot. It is said that three lines of torpedoes have been sunk across the Channel. If such is the case they are by far the most formidable enemy we will have to contend with and we will probably lose some of our vessels in passing them.
The word “torpedo” (see drawing opposite) then meant what the word “mine” means today. The Confederates had sown a large number of floating mines in the channel leading into Mobile Bay. Most of these were simply kegs of powder armed with firing pins, designed to explode on contact; unfortunately for the Confederate cause, the firing pins in many cases corroded and failed to function. After the action, a number of Union ship captains reported that their ships had struck mines that did not explode. One of the monitors, however, the U.S.S. Tecumseh, struck a mine whose firing apparatus was in good condition, and the Tecumseh was lost .
We are lying in the open sea and the waves are making a clean break on our decks. Everything is closed airtight. The wardroom is at almost boiling heat. The turret is the only inhabitable part of the ship and the open air is constantly so crowded with officers and men passing up and down that we can scarcely find standing room. …