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Land of Mist and Snow
By Debra Doyle
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Debra Doyle
All right reserved.
The narrative of Lieutenant John Nevis, USN.
In the late January of 1863 I was an idler, Assigned to the War Department office at 88 Whitehall Street in the city of New York after my ship, USS Tisdale, burned when the Rebels took Norfolk.
Time weighed heavily upon me. The war, which some had at first expected to be over in a matter of weeks--or a few months at most--would soon be entering its third year, and I could not fail to perceive that matters stood at a most perilous juncture. In the west, the free movement of our forces up and down the Mississippi still broke upon the rock that was Confederate-held Vicksburg; to the east and south, in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, Rebel commerce raiders and blockade runners ranged freely. Everywhere, my brother officers were gaining rank and experiencing sea-time, whether in gunboats on the inland waterways or in warships on the open seas, maintaining the blockade and chasing Confederate raiders.
Meanwhile, I sat filing papers in an obscure office. President Lincoln had freed all the slaves in Rebel territory. My daily hope was that some similar edict would arrive to free me from my own labors. From my window overlooking the harbor, I could watch the Navy's vessels come and go--a species of keen torture, since I feared that such a long period of shore duty would see my career stalled, if notderailed entirely, the ultimate goal of command at sea forever placed beyond my reach.
So it was that on the morning of January 31st a messenger found me laboring at my desk, checking one long bureaucratic list against another. He had an envelope from the Navy Department in his hand, with my name on the front. I fairly tore the envelope from his grasp and opened it.
What it contained was indeed the answer to my nightly prayer. I was detached immediately from my current assignment and ordered to travel by fastest available means to the Naval Arsenal at Watervliet. There I was to inspect and take possession of a dozen ten-inch Rodman guns, thence to accompany them to the place where USS Nicodemus might lie, in order to take my position as head of her gunnery department. Nicodemus was new construction; I would be a plank owner. I was further informed that Nicodemus was even then being fitted out in preparation for her sea trials.
The remainder of the morning I spent in checking out of my temporary billet, drawing my health and pay records, and turning over my responsibilities to a hapless civilian clerk.
I had been staying at a hotel under per diem. I lost no time in packing, and the afternoon saw me at the Hudson River Railroad station in my dress blue uniform, purchasing a ticket to Albany. It was long past dark by the time a hired carriage deposited me at the gates of the Arsenal.
A Marine guard directed me to the duty officer, who saw to my placement in the bachelor officers' quarters. There I said my prayers and went to sleep, wondering what kind of craft Nicodemus might be. I had not heard of her before, though in an eddying backwater such as my office at Whitehall Street that would not be a surprise. Still, a sloop of war mounting a broadside of six Rodmans and, I supposed, lesser pieces besides, would be sufficient. I was well satisfied with my prospects.
Morning found me in the Arsenal commander's office, presenting my compliments and my orders. The commander, a pleasant enough fellow named Winchell who had preceded me by two years at the Academy, greeted me and offered to accompany me himself on my inspection tour of the guns. I felt it was hardly my place to refuse, and I was just as glad to talk again with a sailor; my previous tour had placed me among civilians and invalided Army men, landsmen all.
As it turned out, he wanted to do more than talk of mutual acquaintances while showing off his command to an outsider. He wanted to pump me for information, information that I sadly lacked, and which baffled me as well.
"You see, Johnny," he said as we entered the sheds facing the Hudson where the guns stood, "they're cast to spec, though why the devil the specs were written that way eludes me."
The guns stood in a burnished rank, gleaming the yellow-gold of brass.
"Brass cannon," I said.
"Yes, brass, as ordered," Winchell said, and here he gestured to a petty officer standing by. "And virgin brass too; never before made into any other shape."
The petty officer strode over and presented his leader with a sheaf of paper, which he reviewed, then handed to me. It was the casting history of each of the Rodmans, from the first smelting of the copper and zinc to the present.
I checked over the cannon carefully. I was no stranger to ordnance; the lives of myself and my shipmates, not to mention the defeat of our enemies, were dependent on the flawless construction and operation of the cannon. I requested an inspection mirror and a light, and examined every inch of the barrels, inside and out. They did in fact appear to be without scratch, crack, or other imperfection.
I turned to Winchell at length. "You can be proud of your work, sir," I said.
"Do you wish to examine the ammunition as well?" he inquired.
"To the same specifications?" said I.
"The same, virgin brass."
"I can't believe it will be necessary to handle each ball," I said, which brought a smile to his lips. Winchell gave orders that the cannon were to be crated and loaded on a barge for transport. He then invited me to join him for a belated lunch. I accepted with pleasure.
Over cigars at the officers' club, I made bold to breach the question directly.
Excerpted from Land of Mist and Snow by Debra Doyle Copyright © 2006 by Debra Doyle. Excerpted by permission.
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