Modern Photography: No Monuments on the Ocean

our-favorite-modern-civil-war-photos

sea-sunset

(Public Domain Image)

There are no monuments on the ocean, no crossroads in the great waters, no places echoing in heart and mind—Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga. But our Civil War ancestors were out there too and some of them still are. Names that resonate are long-gone ships: Alabama, Kearsarge, Florida, Shenandoah. The mostly-unknown men who sailed them carried the conflict to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm with no-less conviction for their causes than land-bound compatriots. They struggled and fought and suffered, even when the enemy was more often Neptune’s wrath and Aeolus’s breath.

There were very few of them, comparatively speaking, but they had impact well beyond their numbers—inciting hardship, turmoil, and thoughts of war in other nations, almost wiping American commerce from the seas, exacerbating anti-war agitation in the North, strangling the South. Visiting their battlefields today, we would see the sea in an infinite kaleidoscope of Yankee blues melding into Confederate grays like mingling tides at the Muleshoe, punctuated by silent flames and blood reds of sunrise or sunset.

At the coordinates where the CSS Alabama met her fate under the guns of the USS Kearsarge, we might see the cliffs of Cherbourg lining the horizon. When Alabama surprised the USS Hatteras off the Texas coast, wrote Master’s Mate Fullham in his journal, “Twas a grand though fearful sight to see the guns belching forth, in the darkness of the night, sheets of living flame, the deadly missiles striking her side…her whole side lit up….”[1] Hatteras went down in under an hour. Storm tossed and bored blockaders in hundreds of vessels watched (if visibility was good) over three thousand miles of distant, undifferentiated sand dunes and swamps from Hatteras to Galveston, while infrequently bursting into frenetic action for a few shots at a speeding Rebel runner.

The CSS Shenandoah’s first victim, the bark Alina of Searsport, Maine, was a beautiful little thing, as neat as a pin. They removed officers and crew and bored holes below the water line. Yards were square and all sails set as she settled. The sea reached deck level and swept over the stern. She pitched heavily once more, reared up like a war horse, thrust her bowsprit to the heavens, and, accompanied by a crescendo of cracking and tearing rigging and sails, snapping lines, crashing masts, and tumbling and rumbling cargo, slipped straight out of sight, swallowed in an instant by the sea. An enormous jet of water erupted into the air followed for some time by loose gear—hatch covers, blocks, spars, and flotsam—bursting the surface to splash among a boiling mass of wreckage.

“It was a grand and peculiar sight,” wrote Lieutenant Chew. “I was saddened at the thought of being in duty bound to such work. I felt very sorry for them even after thinking of the hellish work of the Yankees at home, of the tears they have wrung from once happy, beaming eyes. No, none of us took pleasure in it. None but fiends could.” Lieutenant Whittle described it as grand and awful; she was like, “a man going down for the first time and struggling to prevent it.”[2]

ocean wave during storm

(Stockphoto)

Day after day in tropical Pacific waters, masthead lookouts on Shenandoah sighted neither land nor vessel as she crawled along over an infinite dark blue disk under a pale blue bowl occasionally blemished by cottony clouds. She could have been standing still with wind and water flowing by. On another occasion, wrote Captain James Waddell, “Squall after squall struck her, flash after flash surrounded her, and thunder rolled in her wake, while every timber retorted to the shakings of the heavens. It was a typhoon; the ocean was as white as the snowdrift.”[3]

Shenandoah surged through the water at a fearful rate as the sea—dark, gloomy and mournful—made an awful noise boiling up to the rail on either side, cresting over the bulwarks, flooding the deck in foaming, hissing fury. The hull creaked and groaned and complained in every part as she lunged headlong into the abyss, or was thrown high in air. “Ah! what a grand, what a sublime, what an awful scene!” noted Lieutenant Chew in his journal. “She seemed an insignificant toy in this wild strife of the elements.”[4]

sea-ice

(Public Domain Image)

And in the Bering Straits, barren, snow-capped Siberian capes still brood over watery graves of numerous Yankee whalers sunk by Shenandoah. Giant pillars of black smoke smudged crystal Arctic air. Towers of flame glowed through fog, illuminated midnight dusk, or flashed off expanses of ice. Explosions of gunpowder and other combustibles resembled distant artillery as liquid flame pursued inflammable substance down the sides to the water. It was six weeks after Appomattox. Concluded Captain Waddell: “I claim for her officers and men a triumph over their enemies and over every obstacle, and for myself I claim having done my duty.”[5] What more needs be said?

Terrestrial battlefields can be preserved and monuments erected, but they are never quite the same. After a career out there in the U.S. Navy, and then years reading the wonderful journals of those who went before and writing about their experiences, memories become all jumbled. I could in my mind be standing on the deck of the CSS Shenandoah then or the bridge of the USS Kitty Hawk a century plus later performing much the same tasks, seeing the same sea, constantly changing but changeless, yesterday, today, and forever. Impersonal waters make very personal connections among those who ride them. American sailors serve still on all those oceans, like their forbearers on both sides of the Civil War, out of sight but not out of mind.

[1] Chester G. Hearn, Gray Raiders of the Sea: How Eight Confederate Warships Destroyed the Union’s High Seas Commerce (Camden, ME: International Marine Publishing, 1992), 188.

[2] Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, A Confederate Biography, The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 33-34

[3] Ibid., 158.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Ibid., 208.

About Dwight Hughes

Dwight Hughes is a retired U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer and Vietnam Veteran. He speaks and writes on Civil War naval topics. CivilWarNavyHistory.com
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Memory, Monuments, Navies, Photography, Ties to the War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Modern Photography: No Monuments on the Ocean

  1. David Corbett says:

    A well-written article on a seldom covered subject !

  2. A thought-provoking post, Dwight. Nicely handled.

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