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I propose to you a new arm of war, as formidable as it is economical. Submarine navigation which has been sometimes attempted, but as all know without results, owing to want of suitable opportunities, is now a problematical thing no more.
Brutus de Villeroi in a letter to President Lincoln, 1862
Captain J.F. Winchester drew deeply on his pipe as he leaned on the aft rail with his back to the wind. The stiff breeze was unusually warm for this early in the spring. The captain removed his hat and wedged it under his left arm as he looked beyond the stern of the vessel at the odd wake that snaked into infinity. He knew the object dragging behind his ship might affect their mobility if the storm intensified. Captain Winchester turned and looked up at the smoke ripped from the stack as the U.S.S. Sumpter churned through the night. He contemplated putting up sailcloth, but would wait until morning. He knew the ship was close hauled with the bow to the wind, but quickly realized this as irrelevant because they were, at the moment, under power. Nonetheless, his years at sea ingrained a visceral knowledge of wind and tide that he felt with every fiber of his being. The destination of the Union steamship was Port Royal, South Carolina. Winchester knew that under good circumstances, navigating this area known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic” was dangerous under optimum meteorological circumstances. The large man turned his face toward the wind, took a sniff of the moist air. The weather had a tropical smell with a distinct ozone overtone. As if on cue, a shaft of lightning arced through the sky spreading a broad latticework of light in the black clouds. In that instant, the captain got a glimpse of the tempest looming overhead. The momentary light was followed by a low, rolling rumble that Winchester could feel more than hear. It resonated through the ship and bellowed as if God was clearing his throat.
First mate Charles C. Smith, a thin man who looked as though he constantly smelled something foul, wobbled with rookie sea legs toward the captain. Winchester had never liked the man, but knew that this journey would be over soon and he and Mr. Smith would part ways. He wondered how Mr. Smith got this appointment. As the wiry man walked toward the captain, he kept one hand on the rail, still not in full control of his sea legs. The other hand was clutching an oversized leather-bound book. The captain only knew a few crewmen from previous voyages and his first mate was not among them. This man, brought up to operate in academic military fashion, had a school-room stuffiness that gushed from every pore and lacked the intuition for the chaos of the sea borne of years on the water.
“Your report sir,” said the young man. He handed Winchester a piece of paper from the worn leather book. From an unseen part of the ship, the brass bell was struck indicating the changing of the watch. The bell resonated in a muted tone and echoed with an eerie undulation of foreboding. Crewmen moved swiftly in concert with the pitch of the craft to their position as the watch changed hands. The momentary traffic of personnel went nearly unnoticed as the captain drew a lantern closer to the page he held in his hand. He had trouble seeing in the daylight hours and the golden glow was barely enough illumination to make the report legible. He squinted at the details, trying to comprehend and assimilate information about his ship and the surrounding environment. The report was only an ancillary component to what his body told him about the change in weather. While certain details in the report added insight, in his knees he could feel the barometric pressure dropping rapidly.
“Is this correct?” he asked, his brow furrowing at a detail half way down the page. He pointed a stubby finger at a lone number indicating the latest water temperature reading.
“I checked everything myself, sir.” The lean man looked over the page, his nose high in the air exaggerating his already unusual facial features.
“The water is too warm… too warm,” the captain muttered to himself. The ship rose over a large swell and a spray came over the bow as the boat entered an aquatic valley in the ever changing dark waters below.
“Sir?” the first mate asked, inclining his ear to hear over the wind.
“Nothing… I am sure it is nothing. Thank you. You may be dismissed.”
The first mate paused. He wanted more than the curt orders from his superior. He’d made no friendly or professional connections to either the captain or the other crew members. Fresh out of school, he felt his degree should afford him a modicum of respect. Yet Captain Winchester felt the rules of the sea overruled any of his academic knowledge. Winchester gave more respect to the bosun’s mate than he did to him. Realizing there would be no further comment from Captain Winchester he tipped his hand to his forehead in salute, turned, and then returned to the pilot house.
The captain ruminated on the water temperature. The storm they were entering had the power to move millions of gallons of tropical sea water this far north. Given this time of year, it should be much cooler. He hoped that the clouds would part enough for him to get another fix. He had purposely strayed from the shoals, but wondered if he had gone out too far. The Gulf Stream could impede his progress to their destination.
Once Captain Winchester had made delivery of the war machine that trailed behind Sumpter, he would be on his way northward, earning some much needed time home with his family. The journey got off to a bad start. The mission was detained because of mechanical difficulties with the Sumpter and his patience for this hybrid vessel was wearing thin.
A rogue wave hit the ship broadside. It was significant. The craft groaned as the paddle wheel dug into the murky depths and objected to the outside force demonstrating its superior strength. The Sumpter listed for a moment and recovered. The captain turned back around and looked beyond the deck to the two lines which groaned at the cleats as the war machine, lagging behind on its twin leashes, pulled in the opposite direction. He briefly felt the Sumpter strain under the opposing forces with a strange twisting motion that, if conditions worsened, would rend the two vessels apart. The large metal submarine at the end of the two lines bobbed far too close to his ship. Before the bad weather set in he would order the crew to play out the lines, increasing the distance between the submarine and his ship. He had kept it close, the submarine riding in the Sumpter’s wake, so they could try and make up time. But with the uncertain sea, the submarine might transform into a hungry leviathan.
Captain Winchester longed to see the shore and placid seas. He’d only napped for the last two days and was fatigued, but didn’t trust the rocky shoals of Pamlico Sound which lay in the darkness somewhere off to starboard. He’d spotted the Hatteras lighthouse in the wee hours of the morning and kept a good distance from it — more than usual. He was leery of the Sumpter. Only a few days earlier, the Sumpter had been forced to find a port for repairs because of engine trouble. If something would happen in the midst of the storm he wanted ample time to set the sails before he heard the crash of waves against the rocks.
Another man approached the captain. He stopped and hunched over as he lit a match. He quickly puffed on his cigar until the tip started to glow red. The man was much smaller than Captain Winchester, his thinning jet black hair was tossed by the wind howling across the beam of the ship. The two leaned against the stern rail and remained silent. Each had the experience to know the worst weather was yet to come. The two scanned the sky like birds on a fence post. Winchester sniffed the air again. Only after the two completed their momentary meteorological assessment did the smaller man turn toward the captain.
“Evening Captain Winchester,” the smaller man said as he tapped the cigar against the rail to free the ashes.
“Evening Captain Eakins,” replied Winchester, nodding his head in a sign of mutual respect.
Both said nothing for minutes, each enjoying their smoke and the warm moist air. Captain Samuel Eakins looked out at the black cylindrical ghost barely visible at the edge of the darkness. More lightning and the boom of distant thunder in rapid succession lit the dome of clouds in an orange and blue lightshow, heralding bad tidings. The cylindrical beast that seemed to stalk the Sumpter glowed as if animated by a plasma purple aura. For a moment, there was the illusion that the unmanned craft was gaining on them.
“We’ll have to distance the Alligator, don’t ya think?” said Captain Eakins. He placed a hand on the starboard line that ran from the aft cleat, beyond the point where his fingers could get pinched. This was the best way to feel the play and tension of the almost invisible craft pitching to and fro in the distance.
“Indeed, sir,” Winchester responded. “I was thinking the same thing.”
The submarine Alligator had a metallic conical bow, developed to clear any sunken or partially submerged ships that might block passage along a Union canal or waterway. The same reinforced steel cone might also sink the U.S.S. Sumpter if the submarine rode up the stern.
The two captains stood motionless, yet totally aware of their surroundings. Both had been on the water since they were boys. Winchester admired the younger Eakins for embracing the currently unmanned new technology of maritime warfare. Eakins exuded natural leadership, self confidence, and intelligence.
Captain Winchester was usually wary of people he didn’t know, but when he first shook the hand of Captain Samuel Eakins, he felt the calluses of a working seaman. He knew in an instant that this small man had hauled many a line in his years on the water. Though not a secret sailor handshake, this meeting of palms told Winchester that Captain Eakins was worthy of the responsibility for the first Union submarine built for warfare.
Winchester also appreciated the keen intellect of Captain Eakins. The construction of the Alligator ran both over schedule and over budget. The original designer, who had no formal military training, was replaced by Samuel Eakins. In true military fashion, Eakins modified the design to get the craft done on time and on budget. He was then put in command of the vessel. Over meals, the two captains shared stories of the sea, stories of the Union Navy and their strategies of engagement with the Confederates. The Alligator was one of the Union’s “secret weapons” and had already proved itself by taking out a railroad bridge in Virginia.
Its name, Alligator, came from the green camouflage paint which made it resemble the creature that stalks its prey with only its eyes and keeps its snout barely visible in the rivers and inlets of the South. Like its stealthy namesake, the Alligator was all but submerged save for the turret that rose like a single eye, spying the increasing violence of the elements. Though it was painted green, on this night the forty-seven foot craft looked black in the churning waters that ran behind the Sumpter.
“There’s gonna be a blow,” said the submarine captain. Captain Eakins hadn’t often travelled this expanse of the coast line. He was more familiar with the territory between New York and the Washington Navy Yard. He knew stretches along that coastline where he could “hove to” in a storm. He felt the sticky warmth that made his outfit itch. He flicked the moist, well-chewed stub of his cigar into the ocean. “I’ll be in my quarters should you need me.”
“Aye,” replied Winchester. “We may be calling on all hands if this weather comes to bear with all its fury. I can count on your men?”
“Of course,” answered Eakins. “We would be happy to assist in any way.”
Eakins was relieved that Winchester had thought to include his men in tending to Sumpter. Eakins knew his men to be both good soldiers and good sailors. But on this mission Eakin’s men had been chastised by Sumpter’s crew. Because the submarine was being towed, they were nothing more than passengers. Though the sailors all wore the same outfits and shared the same rank, the crew of the Alligator idled as Sumpter’s crew worked twenty-four hours a day. Eakins thought that if his men could exercise some of the tasks aboard this vessel, it may help stabilize and bring harmony to the whole vessel.
With each passing hour the wind whipped into a gale. By morning, the sky swirled like a grey cauldron of evil stew. The sky was burnished steel and the ocean boiled like molten lead. The wind ripped off the crests of the waves into salty sea spray that mingled with the rain, stinging anyone who had the displeasure of having to make their way along the outside of the ship. The captain second guessed himself. He had opted to remain further out to sea than normal to keep a safe distance from shallow waters, but if anything went wrong, he would have a bear of a time getting the two crafts to safe harbor. The winds came from the southwest, which kept both ships from making headway, and the direction of the tempest kept driving the lumbering duo further out to sea. Navigation was inhibited because the tons of steel that labored behind the Sumpter acted as a sea anchor, dragging them always into the wind so the bow crashed mercilessly into the never abating waves.
By noon, no one could venture on deck. Captain Winchester was content to ride out this blow, but it was much larger than he had anticipated. The sky had turned black and the wind screamed across the length of the ship. Even with Captain Winchester’s experience, the Alligator was threatening to place Sumpter into imminent danger. Because Alligator’s hawser lines had been played out, the submarine would retard the acceleration of the Sumpter as it attempted to ride the waves that now crested over the bow. This “push and pull” action threw the nose of Sumpter into the oncoming wave. The waves now smashed the bow all the way to the foremast.
Every man below deck succumbed to the illness of the rolling sea. Those feeding the engine room had burns as airborne charcoal lit against them, landing on their sweaty skin and extinguishing with an infernal hiss. Downdrafts made the interior of the engine room a vision of Dante’s hell. Smoke, flame, and infernal heat surrounded the strong, but ill, men who were covered black with soot.
As the Sumpter fought through a gust that stopped any progress, a massive rogue wave broke across its front quarter. The boat groaned in agony and appeared to twist amidships. The galley stove pipe was wrenched from its footing. Timbers splintered as the pipe succumbed to the aquatic force. After the wave subsided, the large metallic pipe clanged against the bow and wedged between the foremast and pilot house until the ship recovered and rebounded in the opposite direction. The large metal tube bounced once, smashing the wood beneath it, rolled, bounced again and then hurled through the air, taking some of the secured running rigging with it. Water poured into the open wound as the ship dove into another oncoming wave. The decks below flooded as the bow sunk again and again into the aquatic onslaught.
Captain Winchester tried turning the ship to starboard, hoping that the storm was centered over the deep water with fairer seas closer to shore. This put strain on the port-side tow line of the Alligator. The result of this navigational attempt turned Sumpter broadside to the wind and waves. The waves, which had crashed over the bow, now slammed across the beam of the struggling boat with the full ferocity of the Almighty’s backhand, furiously rocking the Sumpter and threatening to roll her into the violent water. The Alligator was reluctant to follow and now started a violent tarantella as it swayed first to port and then to starboard. If the submarine broke from either tow line, it would spell doom for both ships. The swaying of the metal submarine, which was partially submerged, made holding a steady course nearly impossible.
Captain Winchester cursed as the forces of God and nature prevented him from navigating to safer waters. At one point, the captain bellowed, “Infernal machine! Cigar borne from hell, that thing is… best laid upon the deep to save our souls!”
The crew said nothing, both out of fear of the raging storm and the fury of the captain.
Eakins, concerned for his vessel, donned an oil-slick jacket and tied a rope around his waist. He took his life into his hands by trying to walk along deck. He slipped and fell a number of times. He could barely keep his eyes open as he was pelted with rain that ran horizontally as the wind bellowed like a chorus of angry angels. At one point a particularly strong burst of air whipped the breath from his lungs forcing him to stop his slow progress to the back of the ship. The short man finally made his way to the spot where hours before he enjoyed his tobacco.
Eakin’s fears were realized as he observed that the Alligator had taken on water and sat low in the water. Its hind third was completely submerged. This only added to the strain on the parent ship. Given the weather, the tide and the dead weight, there was no way the two ships could find safe harbor in an inlet along the sound. Captain Eakins turned away, realizing the fate of his craft. Pulling on the line he’d tied around his waist, he returned to the pilot house.
“She’s taken on water,” Eakins reported to Winchester. Eakins untied the line from his waist and was wrapping it around his hand, still dripping wet.
“I could a told you that,” said Winchester as he manned the helm. “The goddamn thing is gonna carry us to our graves unless this storm lets up.” A wave broke over the bow and the ship temporarily went backward as the submarine kept the bow buried much longer than a normal craft. It pulled itself out like a knife withdrawn from a sheath.
The Alligator was in control of this maneuver, and the only thing Captain Winchester could do was to straighten the rudder to prevent it from snapping.
“Dammit!” exclaimed Captain Winchester. “A ship can’t sail backward. If you are a Christian man,” he raged, “now’s the time to be calling on your maker.”
He compensated as both the submarine and the steam vessel glided down an extremely large wave. Winchester turned the Sumpter to starboard. As he did so, he heard an unnatural groan and then felt the boat suddenly free itself of the lateral strain as a large snap echoed over the screaming wind.
Suddenly, the Sumpter felt as though it had run aground. The boat temporarily lifted. Captain had never felt anything like that in his years at sea. He knew he was far enough from shore, but it felt like a leviathan from the deep had scraped the boat like a shark testing its next meal before wholly consuming it.
The first mate Smith, Winchester and Eakins looked at each other with grave concern. They wordlessly agreed that the Alligator had smashed into the hull of the Sumpter. The combination of a hole aft, and the sheared off galley pipe would spell instant death for all aboard.
Eakins was the first to react. He didn’t take time to secure himself to the ship as he half-skidded, half-crawled, back to the stern of the ship. The port line to the submarine had severed at the cleat. The submarine had only the starboard line tethering it to the Sumpter. It thrashed wildly, threatening to come alongside and dash a hole along the starboard side of the Sumpter.
Eakins gripped the rail and contemplated the alternatives. He could call all hands and try to retrieve the forty-seven foot long metal beast. This would require the submarine to be close enough that someone could “jump” to the Alligator with another tow line. Given the maelstrom, that scenario would spell instant death.
If they did nothing, both ships would be lost.
Eakins returned to speak with Winchester about the inevitable.
“She didn’t break free, but she is dancing out there, ain’t she?” asked Captain Winchester, never taking his eye off the space just beyond the bow of the ship.
“Port side hawser is gone,” Eakins reported.
“You got any ideas?” asked Winchester.
Smith remained in a silence born of fear and panic.
Eakins spoke, “I’ve got a thousand ideas, but they are all bad. There seems to be only one that solves our dilemma.”
The Sumpter was foundering and the sluggish response was now compounded by the independent lateral pull of tons of water and steel.
“I am sorry Captain Eakins, but she has got to go. If we are to live another day, we cannot do so with the Alligator on our tail.”
Eakins didn’t reply. He stepped to the rear of the pilot house, grabbed the axe which was secured to the wall with leather straps and headed out into the hell that raged around them.
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