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Tecumseh: Then And Now

March 2023
1min read

A light breeze had dissipated the last wisps of a lingering log and was ushering in a clear, sunny August morning as the ironclad monitor Tecumseh led the line of Union warships up the channel and into the Battle ol Mobile Bay. At 6:45 the Tecumseh fired the first shot, a range-seeking 15-inch shell that exploded over Fort Morgan. Half an hour later the ironclad was at the narrowest part of the passage; only a few hundred yards separated the Scylla of the fort and the Charybdis of the field of submerged “torpedoes.” The Federals were aware of the mines, even to knowing that a certain red buoy marked the edge of their farthest encroachment into the channel. But, either to keep as far as possible from the menacing parapets or to maneuver for an encounter with the approaching Confederate ram Tennessee , Captain Tunis A. M. Craven ordered the Tecumseh to swing inside the crucial buoy. Detonating a mine, the ironclad lurched and sank posthaste, carrying with her Craven and ninety-two others. Of the twenty-one survivors, seventeen were picked up by Union ships; four swam to shore and were captared. The Tecumseh ’s pilot, John Collins, lived to relate an incident that made Craven a hero. Just alter the explosion, the two met at the foot of the ladder leading up through the turret to safety. Craven, as if to say Collins was not at fault, said, “After you, pilot.” Collins ascended and found “there was nothing after me; when I reached the upmost round of the ladder, the vessel seemed to drop from under me.”

The Smithsonian Institution and the Navy’s Department of Salvage are undertaking to raise the Tecumseh from her log-year sleep on the muddy floor of Mobile Bay and to give her a permanent berth in Washington, D.C. The project’s overseer is Colonel John H. Magruder III, director of the National Armed Forces Museum Advisory Board, who is shown at the left with an anchor retrieved from the ironclad shortly alter she was located and positively identified in February of 1967. (Incidentally, Colonel Magruder is the son of the late Commodore Magruder, seen accepting the Japanese surrender of the Bonin Islands in a photograph on page 62.) The salvage job, still in the planning stages, must be executed with extreme delicacy: there is a trove of artifacts encased in the Tecumseh , and the hull will have to undergo desalini/ation to reacclimate the metal to the atmosphere. But once she breaks surface and is relocated —Magruder hopes by 1970—it will have been worth the time and expense, for the will be the only extant specimen of a Civil War monitor, the antecedent of today’s fighting ships.

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