Memorial Day Stories 1: USS Tecumseh

For Memorial Day 2022 Civil War Bluejackets took to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share the stories of some of the men who lost their lives aboard USS Tecumseh at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1864. Covering the vessel and four of her crew, the stories were presented as threads, and are replicated together here for the benefit of readers. This is not the last will be hearing from the USS Tecumseh– some more of her crew’s stories will be featured here shortly. For now, here are the stories we featured for Memorial Day, beginning with the story of the USS Tecumseh herself:

Thread 1: USS Tecumseh

Our first #CWBMemorialDay thread explores the background of USS Tecumseh. She was a Canonicus-Class Monitor (named for USS Canonicus, seen here). Building commenced in Jersey City in 1862, and Tecumseh was commissioned into the U.S. Navy on 19 April 1864.

USS Canonicus, the vessel for which the monitor class of which Tecumseh was a part was named (Naval History & Heritage Command)

The Tecumseh was 223 feet long and a little over 43 feet wide. Initially the class was supposed to have a crew of 85. Tecumseh went to war propelled by a steam-engine that gave her a speed of 8 knots. She also boasted 2 15-in. Dahlgren guns and 5 in. steel armour on her sides.

USS Tecumseh under construction in Jersey City (Navsource images)

Upon her commissioning in New York, USS Tecumseh was ordered to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In May she began service on Virginia’s James River, where in June along with the Canonicus and Saugus (below) she engaged Rebel batteries at Howlett’s Farm.

USS Saugus, fitted with a rake to detonate mines (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Shortly after her baptism of fire on the James, the Tecumseh received orders to steam south, to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Her crew were nervous about the open-sea passage, but successfully linked up with the Squadron on 4 August 1864- off Mobile Bay, Alabama.

The Tecumseh underway towards Mobile Bay. Many of her crew were nervous about her passage on the open water (Navsource Images)

The Confederate port of Mobile Bay had long been a target for the U.S. Navy. With the arrival of the Tecumseh, Admiral David Farragut now had 18 vessels with which to engage the Confederate forts and ships that sought to protect one of the Confederacy’s last major ports.

Mobile Bay at the time of the Civil War (Wikipedia)

Battle commenced on 5 August 1864. That morning USS Tecumseh led 4 monitors past Fort Morgan, shielding the fleet’s wooden ships to their port from that position’s guns. At about 7.35 am, she moved to intercept Confederate vessels moving to the attack, led by CSS Tennessee.

Sketch of the attack by the U.S. Navy at Mobile Bay. The USS Tecumseh is showing going down at the lead of the monitors, having turned to engage the CSS Tennessee (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Positioning to engage the Tennessee, USS Tecumseh moved through a field of Confederate mines, then called torpedoes. Suddenly an explosion rend the air. Tecumseh went down in a matter of seconds- Farragut recalling she disappeared “almost instantaneously beneath the waves.”

The Tecumseh going under (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Some figures place the Tecumseh crew at 114 men that day. As many as 93 of them perished, a fatality rate of more than 80%. The tragedy is often considered the largest loss of life from a single command during a single action in the American Civil War.

Another depiction of the Battle of Mobile Bay, showing the Tecumseh keeling over having detonated the torpedo (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Despite the Tecumseh’s loss, Farragut (below), supposedly cried “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” and continued the Battle, which ended in victory. Today the Tecumseh still rests in the waters off Fort Morgan, a buoy marking the spot where she-and her crew-rest.

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (Library of Congress)

The horrifying final seconds of her crew remain the defining image of USS Tecumseh. But what of the individual stories of the men who perished, those names on the Muster Roll? Some will be the focus of later #MemorialDay threads. Follow along using the hashtag #CWBMemorialDay.

A page of the reconstructed USS Tecumseh muster recording the names of men who transferred to the vessel from New York (NARA)

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