Review of The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, by David Smithweck

1 Feb

The sinking of the USS Tecumseh just off of Fort Morgan as it steamed into Mobile Bay on the morning of August 5, 1864 remains one of the most dramatic and somber moments in all of American naval history. Crippled by a floating mine which blew a hole in its hull as it led the fleet into the bay, the boat sank beneath the choppy waters, its destruction causing a logjam among Admiral David Farragut’s fleet which threatened to bring a swift and ignominious end to months of carefully laid plans for closing one of the last blockade-running ports supplying the Confederacy. Of course Farragut, defiantly pressing on with orders to “damn the torpedoes” (or something similar) ran into the bay despite the disaster, ultimately winning the largest naval battle of the Civil War in the process. But the image of the forlorn Tecumseh, dipping bow-first into the depths as its still-turning propeller became briefly visible to awestruck Yankee sailors and Rebel artillerists, forever casts a pall on the memory of that critical Union victory. The boat lies where it sunk yet today, its location marked by a buoy just offshore of Mobile Point. It is a permanent reminder of sacrifice and loss in naval conflict, for within its wreckage lie entombed the remains of some 93 sailors who went down with the vessel.  

In The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, Mobile historian and author David Smithweck seeks to provide a comprehensive study of this ill-fated vessel. Including information on its construction, crew, service, and final moments, the book also includes much information on the attempts to raise the ship and the numerous dives on the wreck site which have never before been published. Smithweck is a veteran of numerous naval salvage and exploration efforts in the Mobile Bay area over the course of some fifty years of research into area history, and is author of several brief books on regional historical topics.   

Smithweck’s book can best be understood as a reference source on its subject. It is not a traditional narrative history, mixing as it does bits of traditional history with the reproduced text of numerous original documents ranging from the ship’s period of operations to the attempts to raise the vessel in the twentieth century so that it might be exhibited in a museum. It is worth noting that the subtitle of the book might as well have made reference to those salvage efforts and what we learned about the Tecumseh from them, for nearly half of the book is devoted to telling that story. This point understood, The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay is a book that anyone interested in Civil War naval history or the history of the Mobile Bay region will want to know about.


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