Arts & Life
8:41 am
Sun August 24, 2014

"Damn the Torpedoes"

One hundred and fifty years ago, the battle of Mobile Bay helped bring the U.S. Civil War to a close. Historians also credit the engagement with helping Abraham Lincoln win a second term as President. This Friday at seven p.m., Alabama Public Radio will look back on the battle and Alabama’s role in the Civil War in 1864. Stan Ingold will examine the Mobile campaign from the perspective of the man who lost. Ryan Vasquez will explain how Mobile resulted in more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other U.S. Naval battle. And, Pat Duggins will look at how civil war history has become an expensive hobby that can get pretty loud. 

“It’s one of the best. It’s not really as big as some of the others. But they consider themselves, but they do a great job on the realism.” When it comes to Civil War re-enactments, Terry Alley considers himself a connoisseur. The Rome, Georgia man is tromping along a muddy path in an open field on this rainy Saturday. His two sons are toting their Iphones today, but most of the people surrounding us aren’t. Alley says that’s the point… “I’m a history teacher. So, I like the realism. I taught about half the re-enactors. I tell them they better get it right or I’ll get you the next time I have you in class.”

The rolling hills here are dotted by white canvas tents. Inside are men and women all in Civil War period costumes. The men are in military uniforms, many of the ladies are wearing hoop skirts and bonnets. The whole scene is located just over the border between Alabama and Georgia near a little town called Resaca.

“The story goes, the women here are so ugly, they had to “re-sack her.”

That’s Ken Padgett. History teacher Terry Alley may train today’s re-enactors, but Padgett bosses them around. He’s the General in charge of this re-enactment of the Battle of Resaca. It took place one hundred and fifty years ago today. “We’re got folks from California, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio. Nearly every state in the nation is represented here. As it was during the war.”

Roughly one hundred troops are forming an infantry line. They’re all wearing the gray uniforms of the Confederacy. In another spot, other re-enactors are in Union blue—they call them Federals here. These are the two-legged participants. Others have four…

“Okay, man with the beard--bring up buddy!” shouts the squad leader with a Union artillery unit.

Buddy is a dark red horse who will lead a team of six horses pulling a caisson. It’s a wagon with a six foot long black cannon complete with ammunition. “A couple of our horses…this will be their first re-enactment. Steve Cameron of Blaine, Tennessee is the Captain of this artillery unit. “We’ve trained with them quite a bit. But this is their first time out. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.” The re-enactors don’t use real bullets.

Still, it’s the shooting everyone comes for… “And the most important thing is kind of watching the battlefield, Remember Terry Alley, the history teacher from Rome, Georgia? He and his family are about to head off to find a viewing spot on the rolling hills overlooking the battlefield. “So you see the horses, the messengers, you see the cannon, the riflemen, and all that…” And Alley’s favorite part? “Umm, I think the cannon. When the cannons start going off, it’ll rattle your teeth.”

As the battle reached its climax, General Ken Padgett explains just what the re-enactors are re-enacting.

“Well, the battle took place between Confederate general Joe Johnston, and the federal army of William T. Sherman. The Confederate forces were heavily entrenched here at Resaca. And, the Federal troops attack this position and suffered heavy casualties. There were about fifty five hundred casualties over a two day period here.”

One unit that took place in the actual battle was a rag tag group from Madison County called the 1st Alabama Cavalry. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of them. Historians have.

“Actually, they did a lot,” says Dr. John Kvach. He teaches history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, not far from where the First Alabama Calvary first formed. “They served and they fought and they died, and they sacrificed just like every other unit that was fighting throughout the war.”

But, this is where the story gets a little complicated. During the Presidential election of 1860, not everybody in Alabama liked slavery or the thought of the South breaking away from the Union. Kvach says that left the men of the 1st Alabama Cavalry in a bind on election day. “You might be voting for your very own destruction by voting for secession,” he says. “Yet, you’re also voting for how you feel about the direction of your party, your country, and the future of your family. So, for many people, this was a very, very difficult decision.” And, that decision may have raised eyebrows in Alabama in 1860… “Their convictions pushed them toward supporting the Union, by becoming part of the Union forces. They fought a number of skirmishes and major battles, and in fact became a guard for General William T. Sherman.”

“Sherman is a bad word around Alabama. He’s not one of our favorites,” according to Sallie Cox of Birmingham. She found out about the 1st Alabama Cavalry while researching her family tree. Judging from the pile of documents on her dining room table, Cox has been keeping busy. She wanted to qualify to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. After a little digging, she found something a little different. Namely, Captain Fernando Cortez Burdick of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. He went by Frank.

“Great. Great…I think it’s two greats. Grandmother…..yeah, it’s great great grandfather, right,” she recalls.

Cox considers herself an Alabamian, even though she was born in Tennessee. She does have relatives up north, and when word got out that one of her ancestors fought for the Union. Well, you know… “Nobody up there seem to think it’s all that odd,” says Cox. “Frankly, I do.” A small black and white photograph of Burdick appears to resolve any doubt about his loyalties. Cox found it during her research. In it, a young looking Burdick has a closely trimmed beard. His military uniform is Union blue… “To me, it looks like he’s been sleeping in it….but, they did that!

The fact that Frank Burdick was a southerner who fought for the Union doesn’t bother historians like John Kvach. What does bug him are the stereotypes about the North and South that can make stories like Burdick’s such a novelty. “What I tell my students is that history isn’t black or white, it’s gray,” he says. But, getting that idea across has been an uphill climb. Kvach says most people think of the North in the 1860’s as industrial and the South as a bunch of wealthy plantation owners sipping mint juleps. Kvach says that’s bunk popularized by books like “Gone With The Wind.” “In 1860, if taken as a separate nation, the South was the fifth most industrialized nation in the world,” says Kvach. “In the upper South there were a lot of iron foundries, railroads were huge. In the deep South, there were cotton factories that were making yarn, that were making cloth.”

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is how war pitted brother against brother. Remember Ken Padgett, the general in charge of the re-enactment of the battle of Resaca? That hobby has helped turn him into an amateur historian. Padgett says he heard a lot of stories across the South similar to the 1st Alabama Cavalry… “And you had relatives who were loyal to the Union, and those who were rebellious and were loyal to the Confederacy,” says Pagdett. “So it was not uncommon for soldiers on both sides to come across some of their wounded relatives on the field.”

And that idea hits close to home for Sallie Cox. There’s a portrait that hangs on the wall in her dining room. It’s a painting of two men, one in Union blue and the other in gray.” “This is Fernando Cortez Burdick, and the other is Robert Alexander Hill. Their children married. His son married his daughter,” she says. “These are my great great grand parents.” And it should come as no surprise that while Burdick fought for the Union, Hill was for the Confederacy. “The thing that I thought was so interesting what that both of them was at the battle of Shiloh, and we always joke in the family that great great grandpa Burdick shot great great grandparent Hill, which didn’t happen, but it makes a great story.” Cox admits if he had, she wouldn’t be here as their descendent. Burdick and Hill returned to Madison County after the war to form Cox’s branch of the family tree. So, it appears everything was resolved…

“I consider myself Southern. I’m no Yankee,” says Cox.

Okay, not everything.

In Civil War history, you usually hear about the battles. Afterward, many of these soldiers wound up in prisoner of war camps. Stan Ingold visited the site of one of the biggest Confederate camps near the town of Cahaba.

It is quiet now in the Old Cahaba Archaeological Park outside of Selma, but this area was once home to a bustling city. At its center was a prisoner of war camp. Many of the captives called it ‘Castle Morgan”. “This is the wall that originally supposed to be a cotton warehouse, but was then converted into a prison for the captured federal soldiers….” Linda Derry is the site director at the park. We walk around the grounds of the prison that once held up to three thousand men at one time… “Now we should move fast because if the guards caught you here next to the wall this was called the “deadline” and they could shoot you dead, and there wasn’t any marking so you just had to remember not to get close to the wall and reportedly several men were shot by the guards.”

And it’s the guard and the prisoners that give historians the most vivid details on life at Castle Morgan. Both captor and captive wrote letters home or kept journals. Prison Melville Cox Robertson was a member of the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry…

“I write this evening because I have nothing else to do – not because I have anything of importance to record. I have tried life in a good many ways, but prison life is rather the most monotonous thing yet. There is so little of congeniality of spirit among those with whom I am associated that I often feel myself almost completely alone in the midst of 500 men.”

This monotony even carried over to the guards. Confederate soldier G.M. Wilson’s job was to watch over men like Robertson…

“My dear brother and sister…it seems a long time since I heard from you or any of my connection. I am very anxious to hear from you all. I am still at cahaba, the same place you heard from me last. I have not heard from you since last spring, I want to know what has become of you. I have not heard from home since I was at your house, I have wrote and wrote and still no answer. If you have ever heard from my family please do not delay to let me know.”

Castle Morgan opened its gates in June of 1863 and housed in all around nine-thousand captives during its active years in the war. Despite the horror stories associated with POW camps, park director Linda Derry says Castle Morgan only lost around one hundred forty-four men. “If I was fighting in the Civil War and I was captured and could pick where I was sent I would come to Cahaba. It was probably the best conditions anywhere. When they went to parole at the end of the war, they were noticed for being the healthiest of all the prisoners, ‘cause they were far from the front, there was food for them to eat, it wasn’t great but it was almost as good as what the Confederate soldiers were getting.”

Derry says they’re able to know about the conditions from letters they have collected from the descendants of the men held at Castle Morgan. Along with the hardships of captivity, there were signs of normality too. Early on, the union prisoners were allowed to stroll around the town of Cahaba like First Sergeant Charles Sumbardo of the 12th Iowa…

“An English merchant tailor invited me into his store, our few moments conversation in a backroom seemed to be mutually enjoyed. He was opposed to the war, but dare not make it known, his two sons were in the southern army, but not even they were aware of his sentiments. He gave me a quantity of reading matter that afforded much pleasure as it was read and circulated until worn out.” Sumbardo recalls Even the women of the town seemed to take a liking to the captive union soldiers… “ I was walking on the principle residents street when two young ladies drove leisurely along in a single carriage. In passing I must have glanced at them, for they tossed a rose from the back of the carriage I secured the flower and pressed it to my lips, they waved their pretty hands and drove away.”

Many of the men held at Castle Morgan at the end of the war did not make it home. After surviving combat and for some, years in a prison camp, Derry says another tragedy was waiting on their way home… “They thought they were going to go home and see their children, their girlfriends, their wives and their mothers and their families. And what happened is they crammed them on this ship called the “Sultana” on the Mississippi and somewhere right above Memphis the boilers exploded and killed most of them and most of those men were from here. It’s considered the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.”

“As far as my friends and people really knowing this information, very few of them do.” Julia Hinson lives in Mobile. Her little secret is her family tree and the critical role it played in the history of the city and of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864… “Buchanan went to sea when he was fifteen years old.” There’s a hint of pride as Hinson talks about Franklin Buchanan.

The Confederate Admiral is Hinson’s great, great, great grandfather… “Ended up being the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. He went to Japan with Perry when he opened up Japan. And then, he was head of the Washington Naval Yard when the Civil War broke out.” Hinson’s memories of Buchanan come from stories told by parents, and from the writings of Buchanan’s daughter. She was Hinson’s great great grandmother. Her manuscript is sitting on Hinson’s lap. She reads how famous Buchanan was among residents of Mobile, especially when he went to the theater… “Buchanan was given a private box for the season, draped with the Admiral’s flag. Every evening when we were not previously engaged, we would went to the Theater. Whenever my father entered his box, the audience applauded until he stood and bowed, and the band played Dixie.” Of course, that was before the battle of Mobile Bay. Things changed afterward because Admiral Buchanan was the man who lost…

The sounds of cannons and muskets near the mouth of Mobile Bay are just ceremonial now. It’s all part of the show modern day re-enactors do for visitors to Fort Gaines. The scene was a lot different in 1864 when Confederate and Union forces fought over Mobile Bay. Naval forces from the north were led by Admiral David Farragut while the Confederate ships were commanded by Buchanan… “Fort Morgan was the major post because the main ship channel running through Mobile Bay ran directly under the guns of Fort Morgan.” Mike Bailey is the site director of the Fort… “It was turned over to the Confederacy in march 1861 by the state of Alabama. And it served as a fort to guard the entrance of Mobile Bay for blockade runners who were bringing necessary supplies into Mobile.” Bailey says the forts were just the first obstacle Farragut and Union forces encountered… “The confederates to bolster their defenses planted torpedoes and obstructions and built up a four ship confederate naval force centered around the CSS Tennessee which was one of the most powerful ironclads the confederates ever constructed.”

“After being wounded during the battle of Mobile bay, he was taken prison and shipped up to New York.” Julia Hinson prefers the good stories about her famous ancestor. In this account from her great grandmother, Hinson says Buchanan’s fame in Mobile held up even after his defeat… “After the war, when my poor father was left without his profession and penniless, his kind friends there gave him a position in the mutual insurance company which he accepted until he was offered the position of president of the agricultural college in Blandensburg Maryland.”

The battle for Mobile Bay was a turning point in the war, the confederacy was effectively cut off from outside supplies and the union received the morale boost it needed. It considered by some to be the first modern naval battle. And it attracted a lot of attention from newspapers of the day. Pat Duggins explains more coverage didn’t mean faster coverage…

Before radio, television, and the web—this is how most people got their headlines. We’re in the press room of the Birmingham News. The edition you hear on the presses now will wind up on doorsteps in a few hours. Back in 1864, the earliest news on the Battle of Mobile Bay took six days to get out.

“The Daily Ohio Statesman, August 17, 1864. We have our first installed of the glorious news from Admiral Farragut’s victorious squadron. The reports furnished are full of the most intense interest, and this latest achievement of the ‘old salamander’ will place him at the list of all Naval commanders of the world.”

“One source I read said it was the Naval equivalent of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg,” says Dr. Debra Van Tuyll. She teaches history at Georgia Regents University in Augusta. “That tells me that the writer thought it was indeed a turning point.” Van Tuyll’s speciality is Civil War journalism, and how it worked. The Battle of Mobile Bay appears to have been hot news in 1864. Just how hot? “It made page one. Prior to the Civil War, page one was all advertising usually. News actually ran on page two. But, during the war people wanted news so quickly, newspaper editors realized that they needed to put the news on the front page.”

“Chattanooga Rebel, August 26, 1864. The flag of the truce boat returned last evening. The Yankees say Fort Morgan capitulated at two o’clock on Tuesday last. On Monday evening, they concentrated their fire on the fort, which replied sharply. On Tuesday the bombardment was renewed.”

Papers ranging from the New York Times to the Chattanooga Rebel sent correspondents or collected eyewitness accounts on the battle between Admiral David Farragut of the Union and Franklin Buchanan for the Confederacy. This is where historians start to differ on the value of news accounts…

“Newspapers are not necessarily the best place to go to find out what happened,” says Dr. Craig Symonds. He taught for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Symonds also wrote over thirty books on American military history. His criticism focuses on how, in the 1860’s, newspapers took sides… “So, there were Republican newspapers and Democratic newspapers. And the Republican newspapers would generally say something like ‘what a tremendous victory this is to substantiate our great President’s war policy,’” says Symonds. “And the Democratic paper would say ‘okay, we won this one, but the costs were very heavy and that proves the policies aren’t working and we should throw this rascal out of office.” And that was just in the North. And the rascal Symonds is talking about was Abraham Lincoln who was a Republican.

“You certainly did a majority of Northern newspapers who were yay Union, and the majority of Southern newspapers who were yay Confederacy,” says Debra Van Tuyll. She says Southern papers appeared even more critical of their president Jefferson Davis. “They used terms like despot,” she recalls. “In fact, the Augusta Chronicle once wrote if they had to have a despot, they maybe they should stay part of the Union and have Abraham Lincoln.”

“Richmond Inquirer, August 15, 1864. Fort Gaines has done the Hatteras, Roanoke Island, Pulaski, and Hilton Head. Its isolated position was exposed to the concentrated assault of the Yankee Navy, and a flanking operation of troops debarked upon commanding points. Perhaps the officer in command of the fort may have proven himself a traitor. In that case, eternal infamy awaits him.”

If there’s one thing news coverage didn’t resolve, it’s what Craig Symonds says is the holy grail connected to the Battle of Mobile Bay. It’s one of the famous sayings he used to hear around the campus during his teaching days at Annapolis… “Phrases like ‘don’t give up the ship,’ and ‘we have met the enemy and they are ours,’ those kinds of things,” he says. “And with along with them is ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” As catchy as David’s Farragut’s might have been, Symonds contends a navy man wouldn’t have said it like that. “Another theory is that he said ‘damn the torpedoes, go ahead, four bells’ which doesn’t have the same ring as ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. So, instead of ‘full steam ahead’ like a land lubber might say, he probably said ‘four bells.’” And apparently, no newspaper account says who’s right and who’s wrong.

I’m Ryan Vasquez in Tuscaloosa. Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts is the most recent recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The honor is awarded to military personnel for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. Pitt joins an exclusive fraternity, numbering just under 3,500 soldiers out of the millions of men and women who have fought for the United States. It also connects soldiers today to some of the first recipients of the award.

“John Lawson is serving in the shell whip it’s the area where they are bringing powder and shells up from the storage lockers up to the guns and an incoming shot goes off in that confined space.” Ken Johnston is the executive director of the National Civil War Naval Museum.

“He’s stunned, knocked unconscious, wounded there are dead men on top of him you know these smoldering fragments choking smoke” says Johnston. He gets up and continues passing the much needed ammunition and gun powder up and goes on about his job.”

For this action during the Battle of Mobile Bay, John Lawson received the Medal of Honor. Lawson and 114 men received the U.S. military’s highest honor for Mobile Bay which makes it second only to the Battle of Vicksburg for the most decorated battle in U.S history.

“And now we are below deck, we are on the birth deck of the Hartford…” Ken Johnston takes us through a replica of the U.S.S Hartford. “It’s accurate down to the details of the rat sitting on top of the gun rack over there, the guy eating his dinner just on the floor there with a piece of canvas for his table cloth, another guy swinging in the hammock because it lets you know that even at rest, even when you’re not in battle you just say anchored the ship is moving.) Farragut would steer the Hartford and the rest of his fleet into Mobile Bay for a clash with Confederate forces on August 5th.

Site director at Fort Morgan Mike Bailey says it was the fight of Farragut’s life. MB-23 “David Farragut himself said it was the hardest battle he was ever involved in and that’s saying a whole lot because he was involved in fighting on the Mississippi River, intense fighting there. But just the nature of the fighting, it’s the largest naval battle that was during the Civil War and just the intensity that went down. At the very beginning of the battle you lose your lead monitor and then the fighting with the Tennessee up the bay later on.”

So we have a strategically important port that if taken could cripple the Confederacy and intense fighting between Union and Confederate forces in the war’s largest naval battle. Any other explanations? “One of the reasons so many of them are being awarded in the Civil war is it’s the only medal the Navy has,” says John Beeler, who teaches history at the University of Alabama.

“There are Navy Stars and other forms of commendation for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the call of duty which don’t quite rise to the level of the Congressional Medal of Honor. There are plenty of those now, but there’s nothing else in the Civil War so it becomes this sort of all or nothing mentality. If you’re going to give a naval sailor an award basically the only one you can give him is the Congressional Medal of Honor.” Which may explain John Smith’s Congressional Medal of Honor. Again Mike Bailey.

“A confederate sailor looked up through the gunport of the Tennessee and looked at Commander Marchand who is the commanding officer of the Lackawanna and yelled you Yankee so and so and John Smith’s hearing that ran to his commanding officer’s aid took a holy stone and through it through the gun port of the Tennessee and hit the Confederate with it and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for that.”

“Soldiers who were here, who fought at Vicksburg, said they’d never seen any like the bombardment at one point,” says Bailey. “And today, we come together to recognize them. And for the first time, we’ll have a monument here. So, everyone can come and be able to recognize the sacrifice the men did as they came and fought here.”