My ECW colleague Dwight Hughes once said there are no memorials at sea to those Civil War sailors who died in combat. “There are no monuments on the ocean, no crossroads in the great waters, no places echoing in heart and mind,” he wrote.
Dwight’s comment came as part of a post that appeared as the ECW community was collaborating on a series about our favorite monuments (a series that would eventually morph into the backbone of our ECW Tenth Anniversary Series book Civil War Monuments and Memory). Dwight took a different tack with his piece, though. As a Navy man himself, he has spent considerable time studying the campaigns and actions of the Civil War navies. Many of those actions took place on the high seas, far from the eyes of anyone on land. Other actions, like the battle of Memphis on the Mississippi River, attracted throngs spectators, but those rivers have since changed course, moving, eroding away, or silting over the battlefields.
Dwight’s point: the stereotypical “watery grave” doesn’t typically come with a gravestone.
Dwight’s post was thoughtful and moving, and it has stayed with me ever since I first read it. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Dwight’s piece came to mind earlier this year when I visited Fort Morgan at the tip of Mobile Point at the eastern mouth of Mobile Bay.
The road to Fort Morgan stretches for some 22 miles, winding west out of Gulf Shores, Alabama, through rural country that, even in the winter, looked relaxing. Built on the location of an earlier fort, Fort Bowyer, Fort Morgan is a masonry coastal defense fort constructed as part of the “third system” in the wake of the War of 1812. It is the second-most-expensive such fort after Fort Monroe, consisting of some forty-six million cubic yards of bricks hand-made by enslaved workers.
In conjunction with Fort Gaines on the western mouth of the bay and a series of submerged mines—“torpedoes” in the parlance of the day—Fort Morgan controlled the entrance to Mobile Bay. This provided a safe haven to blockade runners based out of Mobile, which used the protection of the forts and torpedoes to bring much-needed supplies in and out of Mobile; from there, those supplies could be easily transported by railroad northward to the industrial area around Selma.
On August 5, 1864, Admiral David Farragut damned the torpedoes and ordered his flotilla of sixteen ships into Mobile Bay for the long-delayed attempt to cut off Mobile. While trying to navigate past those torpedoes, one of Farragut’s four ironclads, the USS Tecumseh, went down.
The Tecumseh had fired the first shot of the battle and then led Farragut’s column as it ran past Fort Morgan, sailing close to the shore to get in under the worst of the fort’s artillery fire. Morgan’s cannons could not depress their barrels enough to effectively fire down at the ships passing so close. But once the Tecumseh safely passed the fort, it swerved to the northeast, moving ahead and cutting across the path of the column—and right into the torpedo field that Federal captains had all been warned about and ordered to avoid.
The explosion happened around 7:40 a.m. The ship rolled starboard, and the weight of the ironclad quickly dragged it down. In less than a minute, the ship was under. Commander Tunis Craven, captaining the Tecumseh, went down with his ship along with 93 of his 114 men. (For a detailed account of the sinking, read here.)
Farragut, to his credit, did not let the sinking deter his attack. He pressed his column forward. “Damn the torpedoes,” he said in response to the Tecumseh’s sinking, “Full speed ahead!” (Or he said something like that; the fabled line is probably not an exact quote).
On my visit to Fort Morgan, I had the chance to stand on the west-facing parapets of the fort and look out across the mouth of the Mobile Bay. Channel markers showed the way for ship traffic gliding in and out of the bay. Scattered across the waterscape, a dozen massive oil platforms looked like robotic behemoths wading on stilts across the bay and just offshore, out in the Gulf of Mexico. Three miles distant, on the far side of the inlet, I could see Dauphin Island although not Fort Gaines itself.
Close to the shore where I stood, perhaps only seventy or eighty yards away, I noticed a single buoy, floating alone. Maintained by the U.S. Navy and under the protection of the Coast Guard, the buoy marks the spot where the Tecumseh went down.
I watched it for a long time, resisting the current as the tide flowed into the bay. Later, it would resist the current as the tide flowed out. In. Out. In. Out. Its sole task: to stay in place and mark the spot on a sea ever moving.
It struck me as a lonely vigil—not that a buoy could feel lonely or alone. But the sea has the power to do that. It reminds you how vast it is, and how small you are, and how far away you are from your loved ones and the comfort of home.
And here at this spot, at the end of 22 lonely miles of state highway 180, the land only makes the loneliness feel worse. It’s wind-swept and sandy. You have to want to be out here—and for many of the soldiers stationed here over the years, they didn’t want to be. And just as the tide moves, so too does the shore, millions of grains of sand at a time, tumbling, moving, swaying, washing, eroding. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth, moving with each wave, moving with the tides, moving over time. The buoy used to be farther offshore, but the shore itself has crept closer during the past 159 years. How can someone lost at sea ever get back to land when the land itself keeps moving?
That lonely offshore buoy serves as a kind of exception to Dwight’s rule. Something does mark the graves of those men lost at sea. But unless you know what that buoy is, you don’t know it’s a grave marker, a monument, a memorial. Thirty feet below, ninety-four men lay entombed in a capsized iron hulk.
In 1873, the Navy sold salvage rights to the site for $50. Outcry from the families of the dead sailors quickly prompted Congress to reverse the deal. After that, the site remained undisturbed for ninety years. In the mid-60s, the Smithsonian Institution re-discovered and explored the site, but a planned “raising of the Tecumseh” was scuttled over cost concerns. Several subsequent expeditions have studied the site further, but because it’s a war grave, much of the Tecumseh remains undisturbed.
I think of other famous wartime naval disasters and how they’re memorialized. First to mind is the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, which serves as its own memorial, reminding visitors of the terrible cost of that “Day of Infamy” in 1941. I think of the beautiful memorial to the USS Indianapolis along the canal walk in the ship’s namesake city. I think of the USS Monitor Center at the Mariner’s Museum in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which tells the story of the most famous ironclad of all. I think even of the recreated wreck of the Monitor in the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, educating people about the sinking of the ironclad off the coast of Hatteras and the marine sanctuary that now exists there.
These and others provide fitting remembrances to the thousands of U.S. sailors who have lost their lives at sea in service to their country. They keep alive stories of service and sacrifice, and they invite us to reflect—but they can do so because we have the ability to visit them and engage with them. We can access them. They are interpreted and maintained.
But in those moments I stood at the mouth of Mobile Bay off the shore of Fort Morgan, I heard that lone buoy speak volumes. It reminded me of all the stories lost at sea, untold, unremembered. There are no monuments on the ocean.