In late January of 1863 I was an idler; assigned to the War
Department office at 88 Whitehall Street in the city of New York
after my ship, USS Tisdale, burned when the Rebels took
Time weighed heavily upon me. The war, which some had at
first expected to be over in a matter of weeks -- or a few months
at most -- would soon be entering its third year, and I could not
fail to perceive that matters stood at a most perilous juncture.
In the west, the free movement of our forces up and down the
Mississippi still broke upon the rock that was Confederate-held
Vicksburg; to the east and south, in the Atlantic and the Gulf of
Mexico, Rebel commerce raiders and blockade runners ranged
freely. Everywhere, my brother officers were gaining rank and
experiencing sea-time, whether in gunboats on the inland
waterways or in more conventional warships on the open seas,
maintaining the blockade and chasing Confederate raiders.
Meanwhile, I sat filing papers in an obscure office.
President Lincoln had freed all the slaves in Rebel territory.
My daily hope was that some similar edict would arrive to free me
from my own labors. From my window overlooking the harbor, I
could watch the Navy's vessels come and go -- a species of keen
torture, since I feared that such a long period of shore duty
would see my career stalled, if not derailed entirely, the
ultimate goal of command at sea forever placed beyond my reach.
So it was that on the morning of January 31st
found me laboring at my desk, checking one long bureaucratic list
against another. He had an envelope from the Navy Department in
his hand, with my name on the front. I fairly tore the envelope
from his grasp and opened it.
What it contained was indeed the answer to my nightly
prayer. I was detached immediately from my current assignment
and ordered to travel by fastest available means to the Naval
Arsenal at Watervliet. There I was to inspect and take
possession of a dozen ten-inch Rodman guns, thence to accompany
them to the place where USS Nicodemus might lie, in
order to take
my position as head of her gunnery department.
Nicodemus was new
construction; I would be a plank owner. I was further informed
that Nicodemus was even then being fitted out in
her sea trials.
The remainder of the morning I spent in checking out of my
temporary billet, drawing my health and pay records, and turning
over my responsibilities to a hapless civilian clerk.
I had been staying at a hotel under per diem. I
time in packing, and the afternoon saw me at the Hudson River
Railroad station in my dress blue uniform, purchasing a ticket to
Albany. It was long past dark by the time a hired carriage
deposited me at the gates of the arsenal.
A Marine guard directed me to the duty officer, who saw to
my placement in the bachelor officers' quarters. There I said my
prayers and went to sleep, wondering what kind of craft
might be. I had not heard of her before, though in an eddying
backwater such as my office at Whitehall Street that would not be
a surprise. Still, a sloop of war mounting a broadside of six
Rodmans and, I supposed, lesser pieces besides, would be
sufficient. I was well satisfied with my prospects.
Morning found me in the Arsenal commander's office,
presenting my compliments and my orders. The commander, a
pleasant enough fellow named Winchell who had preceded me by two
years at the Academy, greeted me and offered to accompany me
himself on my inspection tour of the guns. I felt it was hardly
my place to refuse, and I was just as glad to talk again with a
sailor; my previous tour had placed me among civilians and
invalided Army men, landsmen all.
As it turned out, he wanted to do more than talk of mutual
acquaintances while showing off his command to an outsider. He
wanted to pump me for information, information that I sadly
lacked, and which baffled me as well.
"You see, Johnny," he said as we entered the sheds facing
the Hudson where the guns stood, "they're cast to spec, though
why the devil the specs were written that way eludes me."
The guns stood in a burnished rank, gleaming the yellow-gold
"Brass cannon," I said.
"Yes, brass, as ordered," Winchell said, and here he
gestured to a petty officer standing by. "And virgin brass too;
never before made into any other shape."
The petty officer strode over and presented his leader with
a sheaf of paper, which he reviewed, then handed to me. It was
the casting history of each of the Rodmans, from the first
smelting of the copper and zinc to the present.
I checked over the cannon carefully. I was no stranger to
ordnance; the lives of myself and my shipmates, not to mention
the defeat of our enemies, were dependent on the flawless
construction and operation of the cannon. I requested an
inspection mirror and a light, and examined every inch of the
barrels, inside and out. They did in fact appear to be without
scratch, crack, or other imperfection.
I turned to Winchell at length. "You can be proud of your
work," I said.
"Do you wish to examine the ammunition as well?" he
"To the same specifications?" said I.
"The same, virgin brass."
"I can't believe it will be necessary to handle each ball,"
I said, which brought a smile to his lips. Winchell gave orders
that the cannon were to be crated and loaded on a barge for
transport. He then invited me to join him for a belated lunch.
I accepted with pleasure.
Over cigars at the officers' club, I made bold to breach the
"Where is it that these guns that I just signed for are to
"To Brooklyn, for the Navy Yard. So say the lading
documents. They are being loaded onto a barge even now. A steam
tug will tow them. Beyond that, I know nothing."
Across the river in Manhattan I had not heard of a ship
under construction that required brass cannon. I asked Winchell
directly if he had ever heard of such a vessel.
"No, indeed not. But I can scarcely hear of everything.
Perhaps she's been laid in Charlestown."
He kindly walked me to the barge at quayside where my dozen
Rodmans, neatly crated, now lay side by side on a barge. Crates
that I supposed contained brass shot filled a second barge. We
shook hands, saluted, and I presented my orders to the master of
the civilian tug that was to take me down the same river that I
had only lately ascended. The pilothouse of the tug was cramped,
and the smell of the engines pervasive, but I eagerly accepted
the offer to make the journey there.
A brisk wind was blowing, adding its bite to the winter air,
while the sun dipped toward the western hills. A young enlisted
man brought my seabag from my quarters on shore and laid it on
the fantail of the tug, lashed to the rail. Towing hawsers were
made fast to the barges, and with our whistles screaming out we
made way down river. The sun set as we steamed along, the
lighthouses of the Hudson illuminated, as we made our way to the
East River of Manhattan and to the Navy Yard on its eastern
We came alongside a brig, TRIUMPH lettered on her
in gold leaf, where we were evidently expected. The watch soon
appeared with a lantern, a ladder dropped to our deck, and a
working party swung out booms to load the cargo from the barge to
the brig's hold.
I clambered up the ladder, my boat cloak swirling around me,
to salute the quarterdeck and the officer of the deck.
The degree of activity surprised me, and I said as much. I
had expected the guns to be loaded at first light, no sooner, for
the night was a dark and a bitter one.
"Dark and cold, you'll get used to 'em where you're going,"
the officer said. "We sail with the tide or miss a day, and that
won't make the old man happy, not a bit."
He concluded reading my orders by the binnacle lamp, then
handed them back to me and instructed the messenger of the watch
to take me below and show me to the captain's quarters, then to
The captain, as it turned out, was "Uncle Joe" Suffern, of
whom I had heard good report. He was a seaman's seaman, and a
fighting captain. Why he was assigned to such a small vessel and
such an insignificant role as running coastwise cargo I could not
at that time imagine.
"Last of the Nicodemus wardroom," he said,
having offered me
a seat in his cabin and a glass of port. "I envy you. The
outfitting should be done soon. I imagine sea trials shortly."
"Nicodemus, sir? While my orders assign me to
confess that I do not know her."
"You are not aware? You and your guns are being
transshipped to the Naval Experimental Shipyard, Thule."
"I've never heard of that shipyard either, sir."
"Neither had I, until I was assigned to run cargo there.
Not to breathe a word about the place to anyone, not even to a
sweetheart or a wife, those are our instructions."
"I have neither," I said. "But what can you tell me about
"Nothing," he replied, "for I have not seen her myself,
though I have been involved in her construction for over a year
Our conversation was interrupted by a messenger who
announced the loading complete and the cargo made fast for sea.
Captain Suffern excused himself, directed the boy to show me to
my cabin, and took to the deck. I followed the messenger toward
the waist, where I was to be placed in a cabin shared with
another lieutenant. My seabag was already there, lying on the
deck beside a stanchion.
I traded my boat cloak for a short jacket of thick wool and
ascended the ladder to the main deck. The boatswain piped
up all lines, and the crew, well drilled, hurried silently to
"Cast off," came a voice from the quarterdeck, and the
line-handling party on the pier dropped the mooring lines from
the bollards. The same tug that had carried the guns from
Watervliet pulled us stern first into the stream, then cast off.
We hoisted sail, and beneath topgallants and the glittering
stars we passed beneath the Battery. I could see the War
Department building, one window on the top floor illuminated by
the lantern of a late worker. I imagined that it might be my
relief burning the midnight oil, and raised my hat to him as we
As we entered the Narrows the word was passed to make full
sail, and the little brig fairly bounded forward under a fresh
breeze. By sunrise we were out of sight of land, the ship's head
east by north, shaping a course for who knew where.