One of the central aims of the Civil War Bluejackets Project is to facilitate the “linking” of Civil War sailor’s data across different record types. Perhaps the richest of all of those records are the pension files of naval dependents. They were claimed when a serving or pensioned sailor passed away. Within files relating to men who died during the conflict, we occasionally come across original correspondence- submitted to prove a dependent’s relationship to the sailor. In our occasional “Crew Correspondence” series, we will be examining some of these letters- which are often the last words a sailor ever wrote home.
The first in our Crew Correspondence series relates to Thomas Brown, who served as a Paymaster’s Steward aboard USS Tecumseh. Thomas served under an alias (Burger) during his time in the Navy, though this was nto an attempt at subterfuge- rather he adopted the name of the man (Thomas J. Burger) who he had lived with since he was 6-years-old, and whom he considered his adoptive father. Thomas’s birth-father Charles Brown, an emigrant who was recorded as born variously in Berlin and Austria, had died in New York City on 14 May 1852. The letter in Thomas’s file was written some two months after his April 1864 enlistment, from aboard the Tecumseh on the James River:
U.S. Monitor Tecumseh
June 25 1864
Your favor of the 14th inst was received with much joy and I am very glad to here you are well and all the folks the same you say you saw an article in the paper stating the capture of Fort Darling it is intireley false for the Gun Boats have not been within 7 or 8 miles of it as yet. I am affraid they draw to much water especially the moniters. We had a nice little fight on Weds the
24th22d inst with the battery I have spoke to you before it is on a high piece of land or hill about a mile and a half from where we lay they opened on us on the mornig of the 22d with a good will to do us damage if they could but they failed to do so to aney great extent but I forgot to say that we was under a cross fire from the Rebel Rams but they could not quite reach us and I am glad they did not for whill I was on deck it was all I wanted to do to dodge the Shot and Shell from the hill battery It was funn to be on deck and here the steel pointed shot come singing along like a Locust and the minute we would here them we would all run behind the Turrett and hu ng it up close and see the shot and shell go singing over our heads and drop in the water just astern of us.
The monitor named canoncus from Philadelphia laid close along side of us so you could jump from one to the other one was more unofortuinate than us one shot went through the Top of her smoke stack and made three holes and an other came along and struck her deck and made a dent about 4 inches deep and jumped up and tore her awning and skiped overboard
andthe Boston monitor called the Saugus just a little to our left got struck inon the front of her Turrett with a rifle ball and it made a large dent and bounced clear back about 20 feet and fell overboard that is the onley damage thats been done yet.
I think the Rebs are sick of us for we put the shot and shell in there at a fearful rate we knock there battery most all to pieces dismounting three of ther guns they stoped firing at sundown and have not fired since and we have remained quiet as they have repaired their works and remounted their guns and I supose already for us again so goes the war. but since I commenced this letter we have weighed anchor and are now on our way down the river so I will letter stop untill we get to our destination I think we are bound for norfolk.
[The action that Thomas is referring to here took place at Howlett’s on the James River. You can read the U.S.S. Tecumseh’s Official Report of that action here].
we arrived at Norfolk saturday at 12 O Clock we are at anchor of the citty I dont think the weather could be much warmer than it is at presant here. While I write the presperation is running of me like water a good many of our men ar sick with the Dier’h and I have it quite bad myself. The report is as soon as we get repaired wich will onely take about 6 days then we are bound for mobile I would give two months pay to be out of her the distance to mobile is about 1,500 miles right at sea all the time we will be battened down for about 10 days if we do not get swamped. I am affraid we will smother of the heat and after we get there we will be battened down al the time for it is very rough weather of mobile and the sand flies and mosquitoes will eat a fellow up. I will write you as soon as we reach our destination if ever we do wich I am sorry to say is doubtfull for it is the first monitor that has dared to my knowledge to venture so far at sea.
Give my love and best wishes to all the folks and tell them I will write to them personaly if I should survive the passage ask mother to forgive me for not writing to her but will do so soon if —- I think I will take your advice about the Segars & Tobaco you need not send them for I think I will need them no more —–
God be with you all your adopt Son
Excuse the look of this I hope not my last letter
Remember me to my little Florence
It is extremely apparent that Thomas was hugely concerned about the prospect of the Tecumseh being swamped on the open ocean. Monitors sat extremely low in the water, and as such were vulnerable in heavy seas. This risk was a common complaint among sailors aboard the vessels, and the conditions aboard even led to offers of extra pay in an effort to entice men onto them. When writing this letter, Thomas was no doubt painfully aware of the fate of the famed U.S.S. Monitor, which had been lost at sea off North Carolina in 1862. As it happened, the Tecumseh and her crew made it all the way to Mobile, where they were quickly assigned a key role in the upcoming battle. Shortly after that engagement commenced, on 5 August 1864, the Tecumseh struck a Confederate torpedo, sinking in a matter of moments. Only a handful of her crew managed to escape to the stricken vessel- unfortunately, Paymaster’s Steward Tom Brown was not among them.