U.S.S. TECUMSEH

NW of Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan, Alabama

An iron-hulled, single-turret monitor in the United States Navy during the American Civil War.

Map 

Description 

The first USS Tecumseh was an iron-hulled, single-turret monitor in the United States Navy during the American Civil War.

Tecumseh was launched on 12 September 1863 at Jersey City, New Jersey, by Secor and Company,of New York City; and was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 19 April 1864, Commander Tunis A. M. Craven in command.

Although slated to strengthen Rear Admiral David Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron for forthcoming operations against Confederate fortifications guarding Mobile Bay, Tecumseh was ordered to serve temporarily with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, then sorely taxed by General Ulysses S. Grant's operations against Richmond, Virginia — particularly by Major General Benjamin F. Butler's planned landing to establish a bridgehead across the James at Bermuda Hundred. Early in May, she was assigned to the James River Flotilla; and she ascended the river to guard Union shipping from Confederate naval forces below Richmond.

In order to prevent Confederate warships from coming down from the upper navigable reaches of the James, the Army and Navy cooperated to block the channel. Tecumseh participated in this effort from 15-18 June by sinking four hulks; stretching a heavy boom across the channel supporting a chain cable; extending a heavy boom across the flats; and sinking a schooner along the right hand bank of the river from which a short boom was extended to the flats.

Three days after the obstructions were completed, Tecumseh's commanding officer, Cdr. Craven, noticed that the enemy was building a line of breastworks at Hewlett's Farm. Tecumseh's gunners manned their Dahlgren guns, and Craven ordered "commence fire." Five heavy shells landed amidst the enemy encampment and work gang. Craven reported, "I threw into it [the Confederate construction gang's vicinity] five 15-inch shells, two of which exploded in the right place, destroying a platform, throwing the plank and timbers in every direction." The Union shells stirred up a veritable hornet's nest. At 11:30, the enemy unmasked a battery of four guns.

Tecumseh resumed fire, and Craven ordered Canonicus and Saugus to engage as well. The enemy guns replied, and a half-hour later, Confederate ironclads near Dutch Gap commenced what Craven termed "a wild cross-fire." The enemy vessels, however, were concealed by a line of trees, and thus the Union guns could not reach them.

"Our fire was delivered slowly and with great precision," wrote Craven, "most of our shells exploding within the works of the enemy." Tecumseh ceased fire at 13:30, as Craven gave his crew a half-hour to rest and eat dinner before delivering a slow and devastating fire from 14:00 to 16:00. During the engagement, the monitor fired forty-six 15 in (380 mm) shells and was not struck by any return fire. She and her sister Union warships had turned back the Confederate threat to Grant's riverine supply line.

On 5 July, the monitor got underway in company with Augusta and Eutaw and resumed her voyage southward. Proceeding "with all practicable dispatch," Tecumseh soon arrived in Florida waters, en route to join Farragut's squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. Tecumseh lay at anchor at Pensacola, Florida on 3 August as a flurry of messages arrived from the Gulf Squadron: one from the Fleet Captain and the other from Farragut himself. Both dispatches evinced the Admiral's impatience to attack Mobile Bay. "When you do not take fortune at her offer," Farragut wrote, "you must take her as you find her." That evening, Union sailors worked under the guns of Fort Morgan and deactivated and sank Confederate moored mines — "torpedoes" — in the main channel, preparatory to Farragut's forthcoming dash into the bay.

Tecumseh arrived off Mobile Bay on the evening of the 4th, thus enabling Farragut to move into the Battle of Mobile Bay. Shortly after 06:00 on the 5th, the 18-ship Union squadron crossed the bar at the flood tide and moved into the bay with Tecumseh leading the van of monitors, Manhattan, Winnebago, and Chickasaw. The ironclads passed between the fortified headlands — to starboard of the lighter-armored wooden steam frigates — in order to take the fire from the heavy guns at Fort Morgan.

Just after 07:00, Tecumseh opened fire on the Confederate batteries and joined action in earnest. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Franklin Buchanan's Southern squadron — centered around the heavy ironclad ram CSS Tennessee — sortied to meet the attackers. Tecumseh made a hard port turn to engage the Confederate ram. Suddenly, at 07:40, a tremendous explosion shook Tecumseh to her keel as she made contact with a "torpedo".

She began to heel rapidly; and men scrambled to abandon ship. Comdr. Craven arrived at the foot of the ladder leading to the main deck simultaneously with the pilot, John Collins. Craven stepped back, saying "After you, pilot," thus permitting Collins to escape. His gallantry cost Craven his life, for the ship sank in 25 seconds. The monitor carried him down with her as she capsized. As she rolled over and exposed her hull plates, two accurate shells from Fort Morgan added the coup de grâce to the doomed ship. Besides their captain, 92 other members of Tecumseh's crew perished in the sinking.

In 1873, Tecumseh was sold for salvage by the Department of the Treasury to James E. Slaughter of Mobile for $50. After the purchase, Slaughter let it be known that he intended to use explosives to blast the wreck into salvageable pieces to recover iron and possibly the ship's safe. In 1876, the relatives of the men lost on Tecumseh petitioned Congress to stop the salvage. Congress quickly passed Joint Resolution No. 23 on 15 August directing the Secretary of the Treasury to return the $50, with 6% interest to Slaughter. The Secretary of the Navy was to assume control of the wreck and was empowered to protect Tecumseh. Congress stipulated that any salvage efforts must provide for the proper removal and burial of the vessel's dead crewmen.

In 1974, Jack Friend — a Mobile naval historian — was commissioned to examine the feasibility of raising Tecumseh and concluded that it would cost an estimated $10 million US. More modern estimates have determined a salvage cost of $80 million US. The Tecumseh sank into the soft mud of the bay and is 99% buried. Of the located Civil War era ironclads the Tecumseh is the best preserved and there are an estimated 50,000 artifacts in the wreck site including the two 15 in (380 mm) Dahlgren guns. Divers for the Smithsonian Institution removed an anchor and dishes from the ship's dining hall during a 1967 expedition. The wreck site is marked and under US Coast Guard surveillance pending continued preservation efforts.

National Register information 

Status
Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on May 14, 1975
Reference number
75000306
Area of significance
Military
Level of significance
Local
Evaluation criteria
A - Event
Property type
Structure
Historic functions
Naval facility; Water-related; Battle site
Current function
Street furniture/object
Period of significance
1850-1874
Significant years
1862; 1864

Update Log 

  • May 23, 2011: Updated by WillyT: Added Description

Sources