150 Years Ago Today: USS Cairo, Preserved by Gunpowder

Posted December 12th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Ironclads and Gunboats

“…I heard an explosion from the Cairo, and on looking up (from a small boat on the river) I saw her anchor thrown up several feet in the air.” – Ensign Walter E.H. Fentress

“…just as we were training on the battery (gun emplacement or torpedo), we were struck by a torpedo, which exploded under our starboard bow, a few feet from the center and some 35 or 40 feet from the bow proper just under our provision store room, which crushed in the bottom of the boat so that the water rushed in like the roar of Niagara.  In five minutes the Hold was full of water and the forward part of the gunboat was flooded… One of our heaviest bow guns had been dismounted by the force of the explosion, injuring three men. ” -George Yost.

On December 12th, 1862, the  American Civil War saw yet another military first: USS Cairo became the first warship sunk by an underwater mine, or torpedo as they were known at the time.  The Union Navy had known of Continue Reading »

After Antietam: Regrouping

Posted November 14th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Iron Brigade

After the Battle of Antietam, the Union Army took time to lick its wounds.  President Lincoln and many in the Washington command structure champed at the bit and wanted McClellan and the army in pursuit of the Confederates to follow up on the victory.  McClellan, though, stood by his decision to rest his battered forces and regroup.

The men of the 19th Indiana and the Iron Brigade rejoiced at the break.  They’d been roughly handled in their first three battles, and their numbers depleted drastically.  Immediately after the battle the unit camped on the battlefield near the Dunker Church, their objective the morning of the battle.  As the fortunate began to trickle in from the hospital, the survivors walked the fields, burying the dead men and feeding huge bonfires to burn the dead horses and mules; inky black smoke towered skywards for weeks afterwards while Gardner’s photographers walked the battlefield and photographed the carnage.

As they sat in camp, Continue Reading »

Location, location, location

Posted October 18th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History

I’d lived in Hoboken for a half-dozen years before I realized that Stevens Institute of Technology, right down the road from where we live, has a collection of original USS Monitor drawings.  It took a bit longer for me to get it together and query the school about visiting to view the plans.  Since then I’ve been going through their original letters and log books on the Stevens Battery, looking for elusive drawings of that cursed ship.

Yesterday, though, it was back to the USS Monitor, as I helped staff, students, and another volunteer, pull all of the drawings and begin photographing them.  Our photos are mere reminders of what is there, and their present condition, before they are to be packed up and sent to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA, for full digitizing, so that others can see what is there.  And there are some amazing items: several drawings done in pencil by Ericsson himself, two plans that were obviously used in the machinist shop as they’re covered with fingerprints and spots of oil and dirt, and two color inked drawings of what appear to be Swedish gunboat prototypes that Ericsson designed and drew.

I’m really looking forward to finishing up the project and getting the plans to the Mariner’s, and I’m really hoping we’ll find some more cool stuff in the process.

The Battle of Antietam: September 17th, 1862

Posted September 17th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Iron Brigade

Wars are about attrition.  They start out with patriotic slogans, promises to protect those who can’t protect themselves, or the notion of righting horrific wrongs, but the series of battles themselves come down to attrition: each side kills as many of the other side until one has lost too many lives or they’ve expended all of their resources in the contest, and they then surrender.  That’s it, and it’s rarely more evident than in the Civil War (although World War I has my vote for the most effective campaign to thin humanity’s population), and there’s no greater monument to the loss of life in the Civil War than the Battle of Antietam.

Following the Battle of South Mountain, Union General McClellan had the Confederate armies on the run.  Continue Reading »

Battle of South Mountain: September 14th, 1862

Posted September 14th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Iron Brigade

The Battle of South Mountain is obscured and ignored by history, so much so that it’s difficult to write about it.  The reason to bring it up in discussion of the Iron Brigade is that they earned their permanent moniker during the battle.  While that happened, men fought there, died there.  No small skirmish — large portions of both the Union and Confederate armies engaged throughout the day of September 14th in and around the three mountain passes named Fox’s, Crampton’s and Turner’s gap – the battle claimed over 2300 Union and 2600 Confederate casualties.

Unlike Brawner’s Farm, Antietam, or Gettysburg, Continue Reading »

Battle of Brawner Farm: August 28, 1862

Posted August 29th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Iron Brigade, Travel, Uncategorized

Yesterday evening, August 28th, I sat on our deck in Hoboken, New Jersey, right before sunset.  I watched the sun sink below the horizon and thought about what was kicking off down in Virginia, 150 years ago.  The battle at Brawner Farm began just before sunset, at about 6 p.m. in 1862, but now with time zones and other factors, it was nearly 8 p.m. here by the time the sky had turned to a gradient of orange upwards to dark blue, and everyday objects replaced their hard lines with shadows.

Brawner Farm was the first battle for the Union unit known as The Iron Brigade, a unit I’ve developed a particular fondness for.  They didn’t have that name 150 years ago at Brawner Farm, though, not yet.  They’d earn that at the battle of South Mountain in less than a month.  On August 28th, they were known as the Black Hats.  The unit was made up of entirely “western” soldiers, men from Wisconsin and Indiana; the only brigade in the eastern theater to be made up so.  In order to further distinguish them, their commander John Gibbon outfit them in the regular army uniform of tall black hats, long blue frock coats, and even dress leggings.  Imagine going into battle wearing that.

The unit was formed in late 1861, Continue Reading »

USS Constitution’s most famous fight

Posted August 22nd, 2012 by Devin and filed in History

This past Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of USS Constitution’s victory over the British frigate HMS Guerriere.  During the battle Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” when enemy cannonballs bounced off of her oak hull.

In honor of the event, the old ship sailed under her own sail power again on Sunday, making it only the second time she has done so in the past 116 years.  It takes a lot of upkeep to keep a modern boat in good sailing shape, but make that boat 200+ years old, construct her of wood, and soak that wood in water for two centuries, and you can imagine how much of an achievement it was to get the old girl underway once more.

USS Constitution and her battle with the Guerriere was one of those major naval milestones for the United States (much like USS Monitor’s encounter with CSS Virginia during the Civil War), and after a visit to the ship herself in Boston when I was a child, it was a major formative milestone for me as well.  Continue Reading »

The USS Arizona Memorial

Posted April 24th, 2012 by Devin and filed in History, Travel

When I was in the sixth grade and at a book fair, I chose a book based on its cover: a listing ship ablaze, black smoke in the sky, aircraft hurtling overhead. It intrigued me, to say the least. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d just selected my first book of many about WWII in the Pacific.  That book wasn’t about Pearl Harbor, and I’ve never been a big student of that particular battle for several reasons, but I’ve always known the Arizona Memorial was one of the few places that I could “be where it happened” for a WWII naval battle. And so, for most of my adult life — and for a good chunk of my childhood — I’ve looked forward to visiting the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor.

We got to the memorial visitor’s center early, and even at 8 a.m., Continue Reading »

150 Years Ago Today: USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia

Posted March 9th, 2012 by Devin and filed in Civil War, History, Ironclads and Gunboats, Travel

In a state-of-the-art museum and conservation lab in Newport News, Virginia, sit large tanks of fresh water that hold large rusting chunks of iron that are over 150 years old.  150 years isn’t a long time for some museum artifacts; in Manhattan one can visit the Metropolitan Museum and see Buddhist statues over 500 years old, then walk several yards down the hall and see mummies thousands of years old.  But the significance of the rusted iron from USS Monitor that rests in The Mariner’s Museum in Virginia isn’t in its age; it’s in the revolution that it brought.

The battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia 150 years ago today is one of the few naval battles, Continue Reading »

Sailors and Fruit Loops

Posted March 6th, 2012 by Devin and filed in History, Travel, Whatever

I wouldn’t say being in Hawaii particularly reminded me of my Navy days, but there were triggers, prompts to my memory of how, once upon a time, I sailed in large gray aluminum and steel warships, not unlike those that were stationed nearby at Pearl Harbor.  But it wasn’t the proximity of those warships that brought back my Navy days.  It was the Fruit Loops.

I hadn’t had them in years, but at the breakfast buffet our first morning in Waikiki, there they were.  In one of those tall clear glass cylinders that look like a gumball machine.  You turn a knob and out comes the sweet, crispy goodness inside.

As I munched on my cereal and my wife gave me the “really, you’re eating that?” look,  I was reminded Continue Reading »