- Jul 23, 2017
- Southwest Missouri
The new vocation took the boy war correspondent, now in his twentieth year, to Cairo in the early weeks of 1862.
And quickly came his baptism of fire. Commodore Foote was preparing for his water attack on Fort Donelson in a bend of the Cumberland river. He was suffering from a rheumatic hand. McCullagh offered his services as "a volunteer private secretary, which were promptly accepted, and thus I obtained a berth on the flagship of the squadron,—the St. Louis."
I called at the Commodore's cabin late on the night of the 13th to ask if my services as an amanuensis were needed. 'No,' the Commodore said with much cheerfulness, 'Everything is ready now. Before I go to bed I will pray for victory, which I think we shall win, or for the next best thing to victory, which is grace to bear defeat.'
Everything was in readiness on the morning of February 14, and the Commodore signaled the ships to move in the order previously agreed upon, and to prepare for action. The St. Louis being the flagship led the procession. She carried the Commodore's pennant, and this, together with the fact that she was in front, of course made her the principal target for the batteries of the fort. I accompanied the Commodore to the pilot house where we both remained until the battle was over.
As we passed along the gun deck, the Commodore, pointing to one of the few among the crew who had seen sea service, said to me, "That old man was with me in the China Seas; he is a typical 'salt,' and is full of sailor superstitions. I know he don't like this thing of going into action on Friday." Sure enough: I saw the old man in the hospital that night, nursing a wounded leg, and he insisted it was all because it was Friday.
When we reached the pilot house the Commodore said it was one of his "sick headache days," and immediately threw himself on a cot, which filled one of the angles of the small apartment, directing me at the same time to stand at one of the little iron windows and report to him how we were progressing. I had a good field glass which I brought to a focus on the fort. Very soon there was a puff of white smoke from one of the batteries and I cried out, "Here she comes."
She did come, too, in the shape of a cannon ball which hissed and whizzed past us in an instant. The pilots began to swear as the first shot was swiftly followed by the second, the third and the fourth. Then there was a slight pause, as if for better aim, for with the renewal of firing the balls began to strike the ship and pound against the pilot house.
The pilots swore louder than ever. I thought a thousand ****s but uttered none. The Commodore raised himself from his cot in remonstrance.
"Tut, tut, tut, men, don't swear, it does no good," said he. Subsequently he rebuked us all for "ducking," in foolish efforts to get out of the way of approaching cannon balls.
"You can't escape by ducking; you are more apt to get hit while you are doing that," said he, adding that he had seen men cut in two in the China war by ducking, who would not have been hurt standing up.
He then asked me whether the firing from our ships was damaging the fort. I told him it was doing very well; that the men in the fort were hustling around pretty lively and that our shots were throwing up the mud around the fort in big lots; but I could not tell whether any of the Confederate guns had been dismounted. All this time the St. Louis had been moving toward the fort at full speed. "We are getting awfully close, Commodore; through this glass I can almost put my hand on the fellows at the guns in the fort." "That's right," said the Commodore in a voice without the slightest emotion.
"Put on a little more steam, Mr. Pilot, and get as close as you can."
As between the fort and the fleet it was now a mighty hot fight. Shots were striking the vessel and the pilot house at the rate of several a minute. When they struck us squarely on the armored bow, between the two great gun ports, the vessel reeled and trembled from stem to stern; it was like a man struck on the forehead with a heavy fist. From within the pilot house we could hear the great iron balls imbedding themselves in the armor with a thump and a thud, as though knocking for admission and determined soon to gain it. The Commodore, still lying on his cot, unable to see what was going on ahead, as the two little windows were occupied, one by the pilot and the other by myself, as the Commodore's lookout, kept asking for more steam, and was only half satisfied when told from below that the ship could not carry another pound of steam without danger of explosion. "Get right under the fort; that's the way to fight," said the Commodore, with his hand on his forehead, still nursing the headache, but now standing up instead of reclining on his cot as heretofore.
We were now within 200 yards of the fort and the air was full of the iron hail of all the guns on both sides. One could almost see the big projectiles as they crossed each other's path going in opposite directions. The men in the fort were being rapidly driven from their guns; but they had good refuge in bomb-proof embankments and they rallied easily and speedily. What had been long feared and expected came at last. A shell from the best and largest rifled gun in the fort—a gun that had been trained on our pilot house since the opening of the battle—struck our armor plating at right angles, and came crashing through the iron and oak as though a piece of pasteboard. It must have exploded either on coming through or immediately on entering the pilot house; at any rate we picked up a whole bushel of iron fragments from the floor of the pilot house that night. The pilot who was at the wheel at the time, a brave fellow named Reilly from Cincinnati, was struck on the thigh and bled to death in an hour. The Commodore was badly and painfully wounded on the leg, and went on crutches during the remainder of his life; three others were hurt in various ways. I was the only one of the six who entirely escaped. The steering wheel was battered into match timber and all the apparatus for controlling the vessel was utterly destroyed.
Everything was in chaos inside our shattered citadel, but the Commodore, sorely wounded though he was, had sufficient presence of mind to order the steam shut off, as the vessel was still moving toward the fort without pilot or rudder, and the fort was playing upon her with terrible effect. What saved us all from death or capture was the fact that we were fighting upstream, and when disabled we soon drifted out of range. The other vessels of the fleet were all badly damaged but none so badly as the St. Louis. The Commodore lost neither courage nor temper on account of his wound.
I summoned the surgeon to his aid but he would receive no assistance until the others had been served. We carried him down the ladder and along the gun deck to his cabin; but he was cool, watchful, courageous and observant, and did not retire until he knew that his injured vessel was safely moored to the shore beyond the reach of the Confederate guns.
"God's will be done; it is only a temporary setback," said he, as we laid him on his cabin lounge. And so ended the gunboat battle of Fort Donelson after an hour and a half of terrible cannonading, with a loss of 25 per cent of those engaged in it on the Union side. At the wardroom mess table on the St. Louis—of which I had been courteously made a guest—consisting of commissioned officers below the rank of captain, there were ten for breakfast on the morning of the 14th and only six for supper that night.
The fight received little attention at that time because it was overshadowed by General Grant's victory and Buckner's surrender two days later. And if I had a chance to choose for a future experience between two hours on the hottest battlefield of the war and ten minutes in that pilot house, I would pick the battlefield for comfort.
Missouri Historical Review Vol 25 Oct 1930 and this story was chock full of thread titles