Friday, November 11, 2016

Damn the Torpedoes!

Deck officers on the USS Susquehanna, 1864. Source: Civil War Talk web site
When I was teaching, as an end-of-semester "fun" writing assignment, I'd have my students collect a story and retell it in their own words. By far the greatest number turned out to be family immigration stories--stories passed down from several generations as well as stories fresh in the memories of those who experienced it. Just about every single one, even if badly told, was fascinating. For example: the Swedish immigrant who walked from Willmar to Minneapolis (95 miles) carrying two heavy sacks of flour to sell because he couldn't afford to pay for transportation. Or the Vietnamese man who was on a boat that was sunk as they were fleeing the country, drowning half of the people on board.

But today, Veteran's Day, I'd like to tell one of my own family immigration stories, the tale of how Johann Paulus Pösch, citizen of Bavaria, became John Paul Busch, citizen of the U.S.A.
The old portrait of John Paul that used to hang in my grandfather's house, surrounded by Busch family photos (left) and beer steins from his native Weißenstadt (below).

The year was 1863, and the U.S. was embroiled in the some of the darkest days of the Civil War. In Europe, Prussian Chancellor Bismarck was in a territorial dispute with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, accompanied by sabre-rattling. Twenty-three-year-old Johann Paulus Pösch of Weißenstadt, near the border with Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), trained as a tanner, decided to pack up and emigrate to the United States. When he arrived in the port of Philadelphia, immigration officials asked him if he'd like to become a U.S. citizen on the spot. His answer, of course, was "Ja."

The kicker was that he then had to serve in the U.S. military. As John Paul Busch he joined a U.S.Army division consisting of German immigrants like himself, where officers asked him about skills that might be applied to his service. Apparently there was zero need for tanners in the Army, but when he told them that he had learned how to fire boilers making beer in the civic brewery back in Weißenstadt, he got their attention. He was whisked off straightaway to become a member of the U.S.Navy.

John Paul served as a fireman--a skilled job involving firing the boiler of the engine driving the ship--on two gunboats. The gunboats were part of the blockade of Confederate ports, trying to choke off supplies and trade from Europe. In the summer of 1864 the second of these, the USS E.G. Hale, was assigned to serve under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut in the Gulf coast off Mobile, Alabana. At that time Mobile was the Confederacy's last large port open on the Gulf, and to protect it, they had placed hundreds of tethered naval mines (then called "torpedoes") in the bay.
USS Water Witch, a gunboat that served with the USS Hale
Source:  US Navy Historical and Heritage Command 
 Farragut aimed to shut down the port of Mobile. In coordination with the Army, he assembled a force of 5,500 men on 12 wooden ships, four ironclad monitors, and two gunboats (one of them the Hale), and on August 5, 1864, Farragut ordered his fleet to charge the bay. But when the monitor USS Tecumseh struck a mine and sank, the others began to withdraw.

Suffering from an attack of vertigo during the assault, Farragut was lashed to the rigging of his flagship the USS Hartford. Seeing the ships of his fleet hesitating, Farragut shouted through a trumpet to a neighboring vessel, "What's the trouble?" "Torpedoes," its captain yelled back. "Damn the torpedoes!" shouted Farragut, "Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed."

"The Battle of Mobile Bay" by Louis Prang (1884) Library of Congress Archives At lower left the two US gunboats are shown doing battle with the Confederate ironclad.

In this daring assault, the bulk of the U.S. fleet succeeded in passing through the mine field, thus avoiding the guns of the three forts guarding Mobile Bay. The last remaining Confederate ironclad vessel, the CSS Tennessee, fought valiantly, but was eventually reduced to a motionless hulk, and the crew surrendered. With no Navy to support them, the three Confederate forts also surrendered within days. Complete control of lower Mobile Bay thus passed to the Union forces, and the blockade of the Confederacy was complete.

Busy firing the gunboat's boiler, John Paul probably saw nothing of the battle itself.  But I'm sure he must have heard the explosions and chaos going on around the Hale in Mobile Bay. At the end of the war, the Navy presented John Paul with a Bible for his service. My dad's sister Irene, knowing how much I am into family history, gave this Bible--or rather, what's left of it--to me.

The back pages of the now-tattered King James Bible presented to John Paul by the US Navy

Every Veteran's Day I think of Great-Grandfather John Paul Busch, who became an instant citizen and instant service member back in the terrible days of the Civil War. John Paul, I salute you and all the other veterans who have served to keep our country united, strong, and safe.

Veterans, here's to you.

The crew of the gunboat USS Hunchback that served on the James River in Virginia, 1864-1865. Note that about a fifth of the crew is African-American. Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command