England never has forgotten and never will forget Sir Phillip Sidney. For more than three centuries his chivalric spirit has been an inspiration to the British youth. At the battle of Zutphen he cast aside his greaves because some one said the commander of the enemy was not wearing such armor. Then when a bullet pierced his thigh he asked for water. The day was frightfully hot and the fever of death was upon him. He was only thirty-two and was the most popular man in England. Poet and statesman and the handsomest man of his time, he was the favorite of Queen Elizabeth. It took a long time to get the water and when it arrived Sidney reached eagerly for the bottle to put it to his parched lips. As he raised it he saw beside the road a dying soldier, whose eyes were on the water with the agony of longing.
"Give it to him." said Sidney.
And then he died.
Knightly and glorious was this act of the dying Sidney, that of Tunis MacDonough Craven in the battle of Mobile bay was more magnificent. In no war and in no time was there anything to surpass it. If the dying Sidney, refusing the cooling draught in order that a lowly soldier's sufferings might be eased, furnishes inspiration for the British youth, surely America has an inspiring an example in the case of Craven, whose "After you, pilot," meant the pilot should live and Craven should die.
Americans know the Battle of Mobile Bay best by the fact that Farragut, lashed to the rigging of the Hartford, directed the fight from that cerise point. Really, it was one of the greatest contests of the civil war. Mobile was the most strongly fortified city in the south, and the fleet that Admiral Farragut commanded was the most formidable ever placed in the charge of one man up to that time. It was more powerful that the combined fleets of England, Spain and France that met at Trafalgar. To lead his great fleet into the bay and open the battle Farragut chose the monitor Tecumseh, which Tunis MacDonough Craven commanded.
No man in the navy deserved the honor more. He was of the navy born. His father was an officer in the navy and his mother was a daughter of Commodore Tingly. His brother was an admiral and his nephew, son of the admiral, was a lieutenant commander. He himself had entered the navy when he was sixteen. In the Mexican was, as lieutenant of the Dale, he had taken part, under Commodore Stockton, in the conquest of California. At the opening of the civil war it was through is instrumentality largely that the fortress at Key West had been saved from falling into the hands of the Confederates. Later he had been placed in charge of the Tuscarora, and had been search the seas for that wonderful man, Ralpahel Semmes, whose exploits with the Sumter were paralyzing American shipping. After a long and weary hunt he caught Semmes, blockaded him in Gibraltar, and keeping him a close prisoner there for two months, only missed capturing him by Semmes' clever move in discharging his crew and selling his ship.
On his return home Craven was made commander of the Tecumseh and sent to the James River. A few months later he was ordered to join the great fleet that Admiral Farragut was assembling for the attack on Mobile.
No precaution that ingenuity could devise had been overlooked by the Confederates to strengthen the defenses of Mobile. Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island was well equipped and had a garrison of 864 men, and Fort Powell commanded the principal pass into Mississippi Sound, while Fort Morgan, the chief fortification, had three tiers of guns and had a garrison of 640 men. The ship channel had two rows of torpedoes. The naval force of the Confederates was in charge of Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who had been commander of the Merrimac at Hampton Roads. He had in the Tennessee an ironclad even more powerful than the Merrimac, except that her steering gear was exposed and her speed was ridiculously slow. There was no lack in daring in Buchanan. Had it not for an accident he might have startled the world. When the northern fleet was blockading Mobile, Buchanan planned a surprise. He started one dark night to go out and engage the blockading fleet with his great ironclad. He believed the guns of the Union vessels could do little damage to the heavily armored sides of his warship. He had little doubt of the ability of the Tennessee to destroy the wooden ships of the blockading squadron. Once they were destroyed he intended to capture Fort Pickens at Pensacola. Next he would make a dash for New Orleans and cripple or sink such Union vessels as were there. Next he planned to go north and attack New York, Boston or Philadelphia.
But it was not to be. The night he started out to begin operations, the Tennessee ran aground. It took a long time to get the monster afloat again and then all chance of surprising the Union fleet had passed, so the Tennessee anchored under the guns of Fort Morgan.
It was shortly after 6 o'clock in the morning of August 5, 1864, that Farragut, with four monitors and twenty-one wooden ships, crossed the bar and moved majestically up the channel in battle line. The Hartford was the flagship, and the admiral, in order to have a clear view of all that happened, took position in the main shrouds on the port side. When the battle opened and the smoke obscured his view he gradually went higher and higher. His men, alarmed for his safety, insisted on lashing him to the rigging. There, spyglass in hand, he gave his orders.
At a few minutes before 7 the Tecumseh opened the contest, Craven firing two shells at Fort Morgan. For more than twenty minutes there was no response from the fort. THen there was a puff of smoke, a flash of flame, and the great guns of the fort began to hurl projectiles at the fleet. The monitors had moved so slowly that the wooden vessels had overtaken them. Apparently the fort had paid little attention to the monitors, reserving its fire for the wooden ships.
Farragut's plan was to pass up the channel close under the guns of Fort Morgan, where an unobstructed channel had been left for the blockade runners. When the whole fire of the fleet was concentrated on the fort the Tennessee and three Confederate gunboats were seen coming out from behind Fort Morgan. They took position within the line of torpedoes and opened fire on the approaching fleet. Soon the smoke was so dense that only now and then could those on the ships clearly see the fort, or those in the fort get a clear view of the ships.
Farragut, climbing higher and higher in the rigging, saw with dismay the Tecumseh leave her place at the head of the column and make straight for the Tennessee. Craven, eager to close with the gigantic ironclad, had determined to run the hazard of the torpedoes. Straight as a die went the monitor toward the ironclad, and then suddenly there was a muffled explosion, a great volume of water shot into the air, the Tecumseh lurched to port, righted herself again and then, tipping until her stern was high out of the water, suddenly sank from view.
To add to this tragedy disaster threatened the whole fleet. In endeavoring to avoid the torpedoes the fleet had been so embarrassed by the heavy fire of the fort and the strong tide that the vessels not only got out of position, but became so tangled that there was imminent danger of collisions. With consummate skill Farragut disentangled the vessels, and then, believing there was only one course to follow if victory were to be his portion, he ordered the monitors to go head regardless of torpedoes. As for himself, he sent the Hartford directly into the next. Torpedoes grazed her side, but did not explode. But when the Hartford had passed the sunken explosives the Tennessee tore a great hole in the side of the flagship, and then the ironclad came on to ram her as Buchanan had rammed and sunk the Cumberland two years before with the Merrimac in Hampton Roads. The steering gear of the Tennessee was faulty and Farragut dodged the blow. Next the Tennessee tried to ram the Metacomet, but again failed. Then she proceeded down the channel to attack the remaining vessels, while Farragut swept up the harbor.
Broadsides from the Union fleet glanced off the iron sides of the Tennessee without damage. But if the broadsides of the Union vessels did little injury the same was true of the shots fired by the Tennessee. Through haste or bad gunnery most of her shots missed their target. The machinery of the ram, too, worked so poorly that Buchanan had difficulty in handling the vessel. He tried to ram the Lackawanna, missed, and was soon surrounded by Union vessels. They poured a terrific fire against the iron sides of the big ironclad, and then the Monongahela tried to turn the tables on Buchanan by ramming the Tennessee. The blow was only a glancing one, but it hurt, and a little later the Tennessee took position near Fort Morgan to make hasty repairs.
Mobile bay was in the possession of Farragut. One of the three Confederate gunboats, the Selma, had been captured after giving a terrific fight to the Hartford and the other two had been driven off, but so long as the Tennessee remained, Farragut's fleet was endangered. He determined to re-engage Buchanan later in the day. But Buchanan did not wait to be attacked. So soon as hasty repairs were made he came out for a death grapple with Farragut's three monitors and twenty-one wooden ships. As guns had proved useless, Farragut ordered the Lackawanna and Monongahela to ram the ironclad. The Monongahela succeeded in striking her full amidships, but the only damage to the Tennessee was the starting of a slight leak, while the prow of the Monongahela was torn off. Then the Lackawanna struck Buchanan's vessel. This blow hurt. Another blow from the Lackawanna increased the leak in the Tennessee and a shot from the Lackawanna pierced the armor of the ironclad.
Buchanan, although he must have known the struggle was hopeless was not content. Getting clear of the Lackawanna, he made to ram the Hartford. The distance between them was short and the flagship seemed doomed, but the faulty steering gear of the ironclad saved the Hartford. The Tennessee swerved and the vessels grazed each other. Failing in his attempt to ram the Hartford, Buchanan ordered that a broadside be fired at her. Only one gun was discharged. The powder of the Tennessee was as poor as her steering gear. Had the broadside been delivered, the Hartford, no doubt, would have been destroyed.
Now the three monitors came up and began to hammer the Tennessee with their big guns. The plates of the big ironclad were loosened, some of her guns dismounted and the smokestack shot away. With his rudder chains gone and the smoke from the engine pouring into the gun-room so the men were almost stifled, Buchanan determined to seek safety in flight. He gave orders to run for Fort Morgan. A few moments later he fell, desperately wounded. He turned the command over to Capt. Johnston. It was no use. There was no escape for the Tennessee. Her steam was failing, most of her guns were out of commission and she could only grope along. Meanwhile the Union ships hung to her, pounding her with their heavy shot. Johnston, with Buchanan's sanction, hauled down the stars and bars and ran up the white flag. This ended one of the most furious water fights of the great war.
It was not until the battle closed that Farragut got the full story of Craven and the Tecumseh. Craven had paid no attention to the fire of the forts. His one idea was to grapple with the Tennessee, to repeat in Mobile Bay what had been done in Hampton Roads by the Monitor to the Merrimac. The better to direct the movements of the Tecumseh he had gone into the pilot house and stood beside John Collins, the pilot. The orders of Farragut to his captains were to pass to the eastward of a certain red buoy in order to avoid the torpedoes. A movement of the Tennessee led Craven to believe the big ironclad was retreating. Determined to force the battle, he went to the westward of the buoy directly over the line of torpedoes, in order to engage her. The Tecumseh had reached but the first of the chain when an explosion beneath her shook her from stem to stern, turned her until it seemed as if she would topple over on her port side, and then when she partially righted herself, tipped her until her prow was submerged and her stern was high in the air and her screw was spinning at a furious rate.
As the monitor tipped Commander Craven and Pilot Collins, realizing the warship would sink in a few moments, instinctively made a dash for the opening at the top of the little ladder leading from the pilot house. Delay meant death. Every moment was precious. The ladder was so narrow that only one could pass down it at a time. A fraction of a second the two men halted at the top of the ladder. Then, with a knightly chivalry which will forever clothe his name, Craven stepped back. "After you, pilot," he said.
But there was no "after" for Tunis MacDonugh Craven. By the margin of a second the pilot got clear of the ladder. Then the monitor seemed to "drop from under him." It was only thirty seconds from the explosion of the torpedo to the sinking of the ship.
A buoy that swings to and fro in the ebb and flow of the tide marks the spot where the Tecumseh sank and Craven died, but "After you, pilot," will live as long as the nation endures.