Thursday, November 18, 2021

Review - "The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad" by David Smithweck

[The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad by David Smithweck (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, line drawings, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pp 158. ISBN:978-1-4671-4974-7. $21.99]

On August 5, 1864 a US Navy squadron commanded by Admiral David G. Farragut comprised of single and double-turret monitors and wooden warships steamed in parallel columns past the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay and engaged a much weaker defending Confederate squadron. The ensuing action resulted in a complete Union victory, highlighted by the capture of the bay's most powerful Confederate ship, the ironclad CSS Tennessee, and the surrender of the forts. Tragically, however, the first of Farragut's ships to enter the bay, the USS Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and sank so rapidly that 93 crew members could not escape. Presumably, many of those unfortunate souls remain entombed within the sunken wreck to this day.

In order to frame reader expectations regarding David Smithweck's The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, it needs to be mentioned up front that the volume is very different from the popular-style narrative histories typically released through this publisher. Though there is bridging text and patches of interpretive narrative sprinkled about, the vast majority of the volume's content is comprised of useful reference material in the form of reports, source excerpts, photos, illustrations, drawings, survey notes, and biographies.

The design, construction, deployment, and wartime history of the vessel are very briefly summarized in a pair of chapters only a few pages each in length. Discussed in them are several new design features aimed at addressing flaws made apparent during the original Monitor's active service. The background overview sections, like the rest of the book, are thickly populated with block quotes from firsthand accounts and contain all manner of visual aids of the variety referenced earlier.

Contents are loosely organized as a collection of largely independent chapters related to the ship and the Battle of Mobile Bay. One addresses the topic of torpedoes, noting how singularly unlucky the Tecumseh was given the age of the torpedoes deployed in the bay (these were emplaced as much as two years earlier) and considering how so many others, presumably waterlogged or with corroded mechanisms, failed to detonate during the battle. Another chapter looks at the bay forts (Morgan, Powell, and Gaines), mostly highlighting their weaponry. Perhaps that material was included to provide context for outlier reports that the ironclad was sunk by cannon fire. Eyewitness accounts of the sinking from a variety of shipboard and onshore observers are collected in another section, and some officer profiles and newspaper reports are compiled inside another pair of chapters.

Many readers are probably unaware that Civil War Centennial plans existed to raise the ironclad and display it in all its restored glory at a new Smithsonian-operated Bicentennial Park in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, those highly ambitious plans fell through due to lack of legislative interest and funding. However, before that, the Smithsonian commissioned an extensive survey of the wreck site, and the book includes a fascinating selection of dive notes. The transcribed notes offer a multitude of insights into the process of conducting mid-twentieth century underwater archaeology and ship/artifact preservation. As another good example of archaeology working hand in hand with eyewitness and documentary accounts, the divers found and mapped the battle damage to the hull (which faced upward and at an angle, as the ship rolled over as it sank), and they confirmed that the fatal blow was due to a torpedo. Evidence discovered around the ironclad was highly suggestive of the killing blow having been dealt by a frame torpedo. In another example of archaeological investigation complementing eyewitness history, the position of the rudder confirmed that the ship had veered away from its planned course and into the marked minefield just before it was fatally struck. The notes also insightfully highlight many of the more general challenges to underwater archaeology, namely weather, tides, visibility, and funding.

Before the survey was completed and the hull resealed (but unfortunately not reburied), a number of artifacts were recovered, and these are also pictured and labeled in the book. The results of later surveys, mostly conducted on a monitoring basis, are also summarized. Sadly, evidence of looting attempts (by cutting through the hull) were discovered during surveys performed subsequent to the Smithsonian "Tecumseh Project" of July 1967, and the uncovered hull has suffered some deterioration. Happily, the latest NPS survey from 2019 showed no recent damage.

While a full history of the Tecumseh and its crew prior to its sinking remains to be written, Smithweck's book nevertheless houses an important and often engrossing collection of reference material for students of Civil War naval engagements, ironclad warship technology, and underwater conflict archaeology to consult and appreciate.

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