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April 2, 1865
SHE SEEMED TO float above the ghostly evening mist like a menacing beast rising from the primeval ooze. Her low silhouette stood black and ominous against the backdrop of the trees along the shoreline. Shadowy, phantom-like images of men moved across her decks under the eerie yellow glow of lanterns as moisture trickled down her gray, sloping sides and dripped into the sluggish current of the James River.
The Texas tugged at her dockside mooring line as impatiently as a hound about to be unleashed for the hunt. Thick iron shutters covered her gun-ports and the 6-inch armor on her casemate showed no markings. Only a white and red battle ensign atop the mast behind her smokestack, hanging limp in the damp atmosphere, signified her as a warship of the Confederate States Navy.
To landsmen she looked squat and ugly, but to sailors there was a character and grace about her that was unmistakable. She was tough, and she was deadly, the last of her peculiar design that set sail on a cruise to extinction after a brief but enduring burst of glory.
Commander Mason Tombs stood on the forward deck, pulled a blue bandana from a pocket, and dabbed at the dampness that seeped inside the collar of his uniform. The loading was going slow, too slow. The Texas would need every minute of available darkness for her escape to the open sea. He watched anxiously as his crew swore and strained while they manhandled wooden crates across a gangplank and down an open hatch on the deck. The crates seemed unusually heavy for containing the written records of the four-year-old government. They came from mule-drawn wagons deployed near the dock that were strongly guarded by the battle-weary survivors of a Georgia infantry company.
Tombs turned an uneasy eye toward Richmond, only 2 miles to the north. Grant had broken Lee's stubborn defense of Petersburg, and now the battered army of the South was retreating toward Appomattox and abandoning the Confederate capital to the advancing Union forces. The evacuation was underway and the city was filled with confusion as riots and pillaging swept the streets. Explosions shook the ground and flames burst into the night as warehouses and arsenals filled with supplies of war were put to the torch.
Tombs was ambitious and energetic, one of the finest naval officers in the Confederacy. He was a short, handsome-faced man with brown hair and eyebrows, a thick red beard, and a flinty look in his olive black eyes.
Commander of small gunboats at the battles of New Orleans and Memphis, gunnery officer on board the fighting ironclad Arkansas, and first officer of the infamous sea raider Florida, Tombs had proven a dangerous man for the Union cause. He had assumed command of the Texas only a week after she was completed at the Rocketts naval yard in Richmond, having demanded and supervised a number of modifications in preparation for an almost impossible voyage downriver past a thousand Union guns.
He turned his attention back to the cargo loading as the last wagon pulled away from the dock and disappeared into the night. He slipped his watch from a pocket, opened the lid, and held up the face toward a lantern that hung on a dock piling.
It read eight-twenty. Little more than eight hours left before daylight. Not enough time to run the last 20 miles of the gauntlet under the cloak of darkness.
An open carriage pulled by a team of dappled horses rolled up and stopped beside the dock. The driver sat stiffly without turning as the two passengers watched the final few crates being lowered through the hatch. The heavier man in civilian clothes slouched tiredly while the other, who was wearing an officer's naval uniform, spied Tombs and waved.
Tombs stepped across the plank onto the dock, approached the carriage, and saluted smartly. "An honor, Admiral, Mr. Secretary. I didn't think either of you would have time for a farewell."
Admiral Raphael Semmes, famed for his exploits as captain of the Confederate sea wolf, Alabama, and now commander of the James River squadron of ironclad gunboats, nodded and smiled through a heavily waxed moustache and a small goatee protruding beneath his lower lip. "A regiment of Yankees couldn't have kept me from seeing you off."
Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, stretched out a hand. "Too much is riding on you for us not to take the time to wish you luck."
"I've a stout ship and a brave crew," said Tombs with confidence. "We'll break through."
Semmes' smile faded and his eyes filled with foreboding. "If you find it impossible, you must burn and scuttle the ship in the deepest part of the river so that our archives can never be salvaged by the Union."
"The charges are in place and primed," Tombs assured Semmes. "The bottom hull will be blown away, dropping the weighted crates in the river mud while the ship continues a safe distance away under full steam before sinking."
Mallory nodded. "A sound plan."
The two men in the carriage exchanged strange knowing looks. An awkward moment passed. Then Semmes said, "I'm sorry to lay another burden on your shoulders at the last moment, but you will also be responsible for a passenger."
"Passenger?" Tombs repeated grimly. "No one who values his life I trust."
"He has no choice in the matter," Mallory muttered.
"Where is he?" Tombs demanded, gazing around the dock. "We're almost ready to cast off."
"He will arrive shortly," replied Semmes.
"May I ask who he is?"
"You will recognize him easily enough," said Mallory. "And pray the enemy also identifies him should you need to put him on display."
"I don't understand."
Mallory smiled for the first time. "You will, my boy, you will."
"A piece of information you may find useful," said Semmes, changing the subject. "My spies report that our former ironclad ram, the Atlanta, captured last year by Yankee monitors, has been pressed into service by the Union navy and is patrolling the river above Newport News."
Tombs brightened. "Yes, I see. Since the Texas has the same general shape and approximate dimensions she could be mistaken for the Atlanta in the dark."
Semmes nodded and handed him a folded flag. "The stars and stripes. You'll need it for the masquerade."
Tombs took the Union banner and held it under one arm. "I'll have it run up the mast shortly before we reach the Union artillery emplacements at Trent's Reach."
"Then good luck to you," said Semmes. "Sorry we can't stay to see you cast off, but the Secretary has a train to catch and I have to return to the fleet and oversee its destruction before the Yankees are upon us."
The Secretary of the Confederate navy shook Tombs' hand once more. "The blockade runner Fox is standing by off Bermuda to recoal your bunkers for the next leg of your voyage. Good fortune to you, Commander. The salvation of the Confederacy is in your hands."
Before Tombs could reply, Mallory ordered the carriage driver to move on. Tombs raised his hand in a final salute and stood there, his mind failing to comprehend the Secretary's farewell. Salvation of the Confederacy? The words made no sense. The war was lost. With Sherman moving north from the Carolinas and Grant surging south through Virginia like a tidal wave, Lee would be caught between the Union pincers and forced to surrender in a matter of days. Jefferson Davis would soon be broken from President of the Confederate States to a common fugitive.
And within a few short hours, the Texas had every expectation of being the last ship of the Confederate navy to die a watery death.
Where was the salvation should the Texas make good her escape? Tombs failed to fathom a vague answer. His orders were to transport the government's archives to a neutral port of his choosing and remain out of sight until contacted by courier. How could the successful smuggling of bureaucratic records possibly prevent the certain defeat of the South?
His thoughts were interrupted by his first officer, Lieutenant Ezra Craven.
"The loading is completed and the cargo stored, sir," announced Craven. "Shall I give the order to cast off?"
Tombs turned. "Not yet. We have to take on a passenger."
Craven, a big brusque Scotsman, spoke with a peculiar combination of brogue and southern drawl. "He'd better make it damned quick."
"Is Chief Engineer O'Hare ready to get underway?"
"His engines have a full head of steam."
"And the gun crews?"
"Manning their stations."
"We'll stay buttoned up until we meet the Federal fleet. We can't afford to lose a gun and crew from a lucky shot through a port beforehand."
"The men won't take kindly to turning the other cheek."
"Tell them they'll live longer "
Both men swung and stared toward the shore at the sound of approaching hooves. A few seconds later a Confederate officer rode out of the darkness and onto the dock.
"One of you Commander Tombs?" he asked in a tired voice.
"I'm Tombs," he said, stepping forward.
The rider swung down from his horse and saluted. He was covered with road dust and looked exhausted. "My compliments, sir. Captain Neville Brown, in charge of the escort for your prisoner."
"Prisoner," Tombs echoed. "I was told he was a passenger."
"Treat him as you will," Brown shrugged indifferently.
"Where is he?" Tombs asked for the second time that night.
"Immediately behind. I rode out in advance of my party to warn you not to be alarmed."
"Is the man daft?" muttered Craven. "Alarmed at what?"
His question was answered as a closed coach rumbled onto the dock surrounded by a detachment of riders dressed in the blue uniform of Union cavalry.
Tombs was on the verge of shouting for his crew to run out the guns and repel boarders when Captain Brown calmly reassured him. "Rest easy, Commander. They're good southern boys. Dressing up like Yankees was the only way we could pass safely through Union lines."
Two of the men dismounted and opened the door of the coach and helped the passenger through the door. A very tall, gaunt man with a familiar beard stepped tiredly to the wooden planking of the dock. He wore manacles that were attached by chains to his wrists and ankles. He studied the ironclad for a moment through solemn eyes, and then turned and nodded at Tombs and Craven.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he spoke in a voice pitched slightly high. "Am I to assume I'm to enjoy the hospitality of the Confederate navy?"
Tombs did not reply, he could not reply. He stood there rooted with Craven in blank disbelief, their expressions matched in total mystification.
"My God," Craven finally murmured. "If you're a fake, sir, you're a good one."
"No," the prisoner replied. "I assure you, I am the genuine article."
"How is this possible?" Tombs asked, completely unprepared.
Brown remounted his horse. "There's no time for an explanation, I have to lead my men across the river over the Richmond bridge before it is blown up. He's your responsibility now."
"What am I supposed to do with him?" Tombs demanded.
"Keep him confined on board your ship until you receive orders for his release. That's all I've been told to pass on."
"This is crazy."
"So is war, Commander," Brown said over his shoulder as he spurred his horse and rode off, followed by his small detachment disguised as Union cavalry.
There was no more time, no more interruptions to delay the Texas' voyage to hell. Tombs turned to Craven.
"Lieutenant, escort our passenger to my quarters and tell Chief Engineer O'Hare to send a mechanic to remove the manacles. I won't die as commander of a slave ship."
The bearded man smiled at Tombs. "Thank you, Commander. I'm grateful for your kindness."
"Do not thank me," said Tombs grimly. "By sun up we'll all be introducing ourselves to the devil."
Ever so gradually at first, then faster and faster, the Texas began to steam downriver, helped along by the 2-knot current. No wind stirred, and except for the throb of the engines, the river ran silent. In the pale light of a quarter moon, she slid across the black water like a wraith, more sensed than seen, almost an illusion.
She seemed to have no substance, no solidity. Only her movement gave her away, revealing a spectral outline gliding past a motionless shore. Designed specifically for one mission, one voyage, her builders had constructed a marvelous machine, the finest fighting machine the Confederates had put afloat during the four years of war.
She was a twin-screw, twin-engined vessel, 190 feet in length, 40 feet of beam, and drawing only 11 feet of water. The sloping 12-foot-high sides of her casemate were angled inward at 30 degrees and covered with 6 inches of iron plate backed by 12 inches of cotton compressed by 20 inches of oak and pine. Her armor continued under the waterline, forming a curled knuckle that extended out from the hull.
The Texas carried only four guns, but they had a vicious bite. Two 100-pound Blakely rifled guns were mounted fore and aft on pivots that allowed them to be fired in broadside while two 9-inch, 64-pounders covered the port and starboard.
Unlike other ironclads whose machinery had been stripped out of commercial steamers, her engines were big, powerful, and brand new. Her heavy boilers lay below the waterline, and the 9-foot screws could push her hull through calm water at 14 knots, the nautical equivalent of 16 mph tremendous speed unmatched by any armored ship in both navies.
Tombs was proud of his ship, yet saddened too, knowing that her life might well be short. But he was determined that the two of them would write a fitting epitaph to the closing glory of the Confederate states.
He climbed a ladder from the gun deck and entered the pilothouse, a small structure on the forward section of the casemate that was shaped like a pyramid with the top leveled off. He stared through the eye slits at the darkness and then nodded toward the strangely silent Chief Pilot, Leigh Hunt.
"We'll be under full steam the entire trip to the sea, Mr. Hunt. You'll have to bear a sharp eye to keep us from running aground."
Hunt, a James River pilot who knew every bend and shoal like the creases in his face, kept his eyes focused ahead and tipped his head upward. "What little light comes from the moon is enough for me to read the river."
"Yankee gunners will use it too."
"True, but our gray sides blend with the shadows along the bank. They won't pick us out easily."
"Let us hope so," Tombs sighed.
He climbed through a rear hatch and stood on the casemate roof as the Texas reached Drewry's Bluff and surged through the moored gunboats of Admiral Semmes' James River Fleet. The crews of her sister ironclads, Virginia II, Fredericksburg, and Richmond, sick at heart as they prepared to blow their ships into the air, suddenly broke into wild cheering as the Texas swept past. Black smoke spewed from her stack and obscured the stars. The Confederate battle flag stretched out taut in the breeze from the ship's forward thrust, presenting a stirring sight that would never be seen again.
Tombs doffed his hat and held it high. It was the final dream that would soon become a nightmare of bitterness and defeat. And yet, it was a grand moment to be savored. The Texas was on her way to becoming a legend.
And then, as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone around the river's bend, her wake the only sign of her passing.
Just above the Trent's Reach, where the Federal army had stretched an obstruction across the river and dug several artillery emplacements, Tombs ordered the United States colors raised on the mast.
Inside the casemate, the gun deck was cleared for action. Most of the men had stripped to the waist and stood at their guns with handkerchiefs tied around their foreheads. The officers had removed their coats and quietly strode the deck in their undershirts beneath suspenders. The ship's surgeon passed out tourniquets and instructed the men on how to apply them.
Fire buckets were spaced about the deck. Sand was spread to soak up blood. Pistols and cutlasses were issued to repel boarders, rifles loaded with bayonets fixed on their muzzles. The hatches to the magazine rooms below the gun deck were opened and the winches and pulleys readied to hoist the shot and powder.
Pushed by the current, the Texas was doing 16 knots when her bow crushed the floating spar of the obstruction. She surged through into clear water with hardly a scratch on the iron ram bolted to her bow.
An alert Union sentry spotted the Texas as she slipped out of the dark and fired off his musket.
"Cease fire, for God's sake cease fire!" Tombs shouted from the roof of the casemate.
"What ship are you?" a voice from shore came back.
"The Atlanta, you idiot. Can't you recognize your own ship?"
"When did you come upriver?"
"An hour ago. We're under orders to patrol to the obstruction and back to City Point."
The bluff worked. The Union sentries along the shore appeared satisfied. The Texas moved ahead without further incident. Tombs exhaled a deep breath of relief.
He'd fully expected a hail of shot to lash out against his ship. With that danger temporarily passed, his only fear now was that a suspicious enemy officer might telegraph a warning up and down the river.
Fifteen miles beyond the obstruction, Tombs' luck began to run out as a low, menacing mass loomed from the blackness ahead.
The Union dual-turreted monitor, Onondaga, 11 inches of armor on her turrets, 5½ inches on her hull, and mounting two powerful 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 150-pounder Parrott rifles, lay anchored near the western bank, her stern aimed downstream. She was taking on coal from a barge tied to her starboard side.
The Texas was almost on top of her when a midshipman standing on top of the forward turret spotted the Confederate ironclad and gave the alarm.
The crew paused from loading coal and peered at the ironclad that was hurtling out of the night. Commander John Austin of the Onondaga hesitated a few moments, doubtful whether a rebel ironclad could have come this far down the James River without being exposed. Those few moments cost him. By the time he shouted for his crew to cast loose their guns, the Texas was passing abeam, an easy stone's throw away.
"Heave to!" Austin cried, "or we'll fire and blow you out of the water!"
"We are the Atlanta!" Tombs yelled back, carrying out the charade to the bitter end.
Austin was not taken in, not even by the sudden sight of the Union ensign on the mast of the intruder. He gave the order to fire.
The forward turret came into action too late. The Texas had already swept past and out of its angle of fire. But the two 15-inch Dahlgrens inside the Onondaga's rear turret spat flame and smoke.
At point-blank range the Union gunners couldn't miss, and didn't. The shots struck the sides of the Texas like sledgehammer blows, smashing in the upper aft end of the casemate in an explosion of iron and wooden splinters that struck down seven men.
At almost the same time, Tombs shouted an order down the open roof hatch. The gun-port shutters dropped aside and the Texas poured her three guns broadside into the Onondaga's turret. One of the Blakely's 100-pounder shells crashed through an open port and exploded against a Dahlgren, causing a gush of smoke and flame and terrible carnage inside the turret. Nine men were killed and eleven badly wounded.
Before the guns from either vessel could be reloaded, the rebel ironclad had melted back into the night and safely steamed around the next bend in the river. The Onondaga's forward turret blindly fired a parting salutation, the shells whistling high and aft of the fleeing Texas.
Desperately, Commander Austin drove his crew to up anchor and swing around 180 degrees. It was a futile gesture. The monitor's top speed was barely above 7 knots. There was no hope of her chasing down and closing on the rebel craft.
Calmly, Tombs called to Lieutenant Craven. "Mr. Craven, we'll hide no more under an enemy flag. Please hoist the Confederate colors and close the gun-ports."
A young midshipman eagerly sprang to the mast and untied the halyards, pulling down the stars and stripes and sending up the diagonal stars and bars on a field of white and red.
Craven joined Tombs atop the casemate. "Now the word is out," he said, "it'll be no picnic between here and the sea. We can deal with army shore batteries. None of their field artillery is powerful enough to make more than a dent on our armor."
Tombs paused to stare apprehensively across the bow at the black river unwinding ahead. "The guns of the Federal fleet waiting for us at the mouth of the river are our greatest danger."
A barrage burst out from shore almost before he finished speaking.
"And so it begins," Craven waxed philosophically, as he hurriedly retreated to his station on the gun deck below. Tombs remained exposed behind the pilot-house to direct the movement of his ship against any Federal vessels blocking the river.
Shells from unseen batteries and musket fire from sharpshooters began to splatter the Texas like a hail storm. While his men cursed and chafed at the bit, Tombs kept the gun-ports closed. He saw no reason to endanger his crew and waste valuable powder and shot at an unseen enemy.
For two more hours the Texas endured the onslaught. Her engines ran smoothly and pushed her at speeds a knot or two faster than she had been designed. Wooden gunboats appeared, fired off their broadsides, and then attempted to take up the chase as the Texas ignored them like gnats and dashed past as if they were stopped in the water.
Suddenly the familiar outline of the Atlanta materialized, anchored broadside-on across the river. Her starboard guns poured forth as their lookouts recognized the unyielding rebel monster bearing down on them.
"She knew we was coming," Tombs muttered.
"Should I pass around her, Captain?" asked Chief Pilot Hunt, displaying a remarkable coolness at the helm.
"No, Mr. Hunt," answered Tombs. "Ram her slightly forward of her stern."
"Smash her to the side out of our way," Hunt replied in understanding. "Very well, sir."
Hunt gave the wheel a quarter turn and aimed the Texas' bow straight toward the stern of the Atlanta. Two bolts from the ex-Confederate's 8-inch guns drove into the rapidly approaching casemate, cracking the shield and pushing the wooden backing in almost a foot and wounding three men by the concussion and splinters.
The gap quickly closed and the Texas buried 10 feet of her heavy iron prow into the Atlanta's hull and then drove up and through her deck, snapping her stern anchor chain and thrusting her around in a 90-degree arc as well as forcing her deck under the river's surface. Water gushed into the Union ironclad's gun-ports and she quickly began to slip out of sight as the Texas literally rode over her.
The Atlanta's keel sank into the river mud and she rolled onto her side as the wildly churning screws of the Texas spun within inches of her upturned hull before thrashing into the clear. Most of the Atlanta's crew rushed from the gun-ports and hatches before she went under, but at least twenty men went down with her.
Tombs and his ship hurtled on in their desperate effort to reach freedom. The running battle continued as the Texas shrugged off the constant fire and the pursuing Union gunboats. Telegraph lines strung along the river by Federal forces hummed with news of the ironclad's approach as a mounting wave of chaos and desperation increased among army shore batteries and navy ships determined to intercept and sink her.
Shot and shell continuously plunged against the Texas' armor with thumps that made her shudder from bow to stern. A 100-pound bolt from a Dahlgren mounted high above an embankment at Fort Hudson bashed into the pilothouse, stunning Chief Pilot Hunt from the concussion and leaving him bloodied from fragments that flew through the viewing slits. He gamely stayed at the wheel, keeping the ship on a straight course in the middle of the channel.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, when the Texas thundered out of the James River past Newport News and into the wide estuary and deeper water of Hampton Roads, scene of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack three years before.
It seemed the entire Union fleet was lined up and waiting for them. All Tombs could see from his position above the casemate was a forest of masts and smokestacks. Heavily armed frigates and sloop-of-wars on the left, monitors and gunboats on the right. And beyond, the narrow channel between the massive firepower of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool that was blocked by the New Ironsides, a formidable vessel with an ironclad conventional hull mounting eighteen heavy guns.
At last Tombs ordered the ports opened and the guns run out. The Texas was finished making no show at resistance. Now the Federal navy would feel the full fury of her fangs. With a great cheer, the men of the Texas cast loose and trained their guns, primers in the vents, the locks thrown back, and the gun captains poised with the lanyards.
Craven calmly walked throughout the ship, smiling and joking with the men, offering words of encouragement and advice. Tombs came down and gave a brief speech, sharp with barbs at the enemy and optimistic about the thrashing that tried and true southern boys were about to dish out to cowardly Yankees. Then with his telescoping glass tucked under his arm, he returned to his post behind the pilothouse.
Union gunners had plenty of time to prepare. Code signals to fire when the Texas came in range were run up. To Tombs, as he stared through his glass, it seemed his enemies filled the entire horizon. There was a terrible quiet that hung over the water like a spell as the wolves waited for their quarry to sail into what looked to be an inescapable trap.
Rear Admiral David Porter, thickset and bearded, his flat seaman's cap set firm, stood on an arms chest where he could oversee the gun deck of his flagship, the wooden frigate Brooklyn, while studying the smoke from the approaching rebel ironclad in the early light of the coming dawn.
"Here she comes," said Captain James Alden, commander of Porter's flagship. "And she's coming like the devil straight for us."
"A gallant and noble vessel going to her grave," murmured Porter as the Texas filled the lens of his glass. "It's a sight we'll never see again."
"She's almost within range," announced Alden.
"No need to waste good shot, Mr. Alden. Instruct your gun crews to wait and make every shot count."
Aboard the Texas, Tombs instructed his Chief Pilot, who stood gamely at the helm ignoring the blood that dripped from his left temple. "Hunt, skin the line of wood frigates as close as you dare, so that the ironclads will hesitate to fire for fear of striking their own ships."
The first ship in the two lines was the Brooklyn. Tombs waited until he was within easy range before he gave the order to fire. The Texas' 100-pound Blakely in the bow opened the engagement as it threw a fused shell that screamed across the water and struck the Union warship, shattering the forward rail and bursting against a huge Parrott rifled gun, killing every man within a radius of 10 feet.
The single-turreted monitor Saugus opened up with her twin 15-inch Dahlgrens while the Texas was bearing down. Both solid shot struck short and skipped across the water like stones, sending aloft huge cascades of spray. Then the other monitors the Chickasaw, recently returned from Mobil Bay where she helped pound the mighty Confederate ironclad Tennessee into submission, the Manhattan, the Saugus, and the Nahant all swung their turrets, dropped their port shutters, and opened up with a tremendous wave of fire that found and battered the Texas' casemate. The rest of the fleet joined in and boiled the water around the speeding warship into a seething caldron.
Tombs shouted through the roof hatch to Craven. "We can't hurt the monitors! Answer their fire with the starboard broadside gun only. Rotate the bow and stern pivot guns to fire against the frigates!"
Craven carried out his commander's orders and within seconds the Texas replied, sending shells exploding through the oak hull of the Brooklyn. One shell burst in the engine room, killing eight men and wounding a dozen others. Another swept away a crew feverishly depressing the barrel of a 32-pounder smoothbore. And yet a third burst on the crowded deck, creating more blood and havoc.
Every gun of the Texas was busily engaged in destruction. The rebel gunners loaded and fired with deadly precision. They hardly had to waste precious seconds aiming. They couldn't miss. Yankee ships seemed to fill up all vision beyond the gun-ports.
The air of Hampton Roads was filled with the thunder of discharged round shot, exploding shells, conical solid bolts, grape and canister, and even musket balls potshotted by Federal marines perched aloft in the yards. Dense smoke quickly shrouded the Texas, making it difficult for the Union gunners to get a good sight. They fired at the muzzle flashes and heard the ring as their shot struck Confederate armor and ricocheted out of the smoke.
It struck Tombs that he had sailed into an erupting volcano.
The Texas had now passed the Brooklyn and gave it a parting shot from the stern pivot that passed so close to Admiral Porter that its air suction caused him to temporarily lose his breath. He was fighting mad at the rebel ironclad's ease of deflecting the broadside the Brooklyn threw at her.
"Signal the fleet to encircle and ram her!" he ordered Captain Alden.
Alden complied, but he knew it was a long shot. Every officer was stunned by the ironclad's incredible speed. "She's going awfully fast for one of our ships to hit her squarely," he said bleakly.
"I want that damned rebel sunk!" snarled Porter.
"If by a miracle she gets past us, she'll never escape the forts and the New Ironsides," Alden soothed his superior.
As if to punctuate his statement, the monitors opened up as the Texas passed free of the Brooklyn and broke into the open ahead of the next frigate in line, the Colorado.
The Texas was being swept by a screaming bedlam of death. The Union gunners were becoming more accurate. A pair of heavy solid shot struck just aft of the starboard gun with a tremendous blow. Smoke burst inside the casemate as 38 inches of iron, wood, and cotton were crushed 4 feet inward. Another shot pounded a massive crater below the smokestack, followed by a shell that struck in exactly the same place, breaching the already damaged armor and exploding inside the gun deck with terrible effect, killing six and wounding eleven men and setting the shredded cotton and shredded wood on fire.
"Hells bells!" Craven roared, finding himself standing alone amid a pile of bodies, his hair singed, clothes torn, and his left arm broken. "Grab that hose from the engine room and put out this damned fire."
Chief Engineer O'Hare stuck his head up through the engine room hatch. His face was black from coal dust and streaked with sweat. "How bad is it?" he asked in a surprisingly calm voice.
"You don't want to know," Craven yelled at him. "Just keep the engines turning."
"Not easy. My men are dropping from the heat. It's hotter than hell down here."
"Consider it good practice for when we all get there," Craven snapped back.
Then another great fist of a shell smacked the casemate with a huge, deafening explosion that shook the Texas to her keel. It was not one explosion but two, so simultaneous as to be indistinguishable. The forward port corner of the casemate was chopped open as if by a giant meat cleaver. Massive chunks of iron and wood were twisted and splintered in a blast that cut down the crew of the forward Blakely gun.
Another shell sheared its way through the armor and exploded in the ship's hospital, killing the surgeon and half the wounded waiting to be tended. The gun deck now looked like a slaughterhouse. The once immaculate deck was blackened from powder and crimson with blood.
The Texas was hurting. As she raced across the killing ground she was being pounded into scrap. Her boats had been carried away along with both masts and her smokestack riddled. The entire casemate, fore and aft, was a grotesque shamble of twisted and jagged iron. Three of her steam pipes had been cut through, and her speed had dropped by a third.
But she was far from disabled. The engines were still throbbing away and three guns yet hammered havoc among the Union fleet. Her next broadside whipped through the wooden sides of the old side-wheel steam frigate Powhatan and exploded one of her boilers, devastating the engine room and causing the greatest loss of life on any Union ship this day.
Tombs had also suffered grievous wounds. A piece of shrapnel had lodged in one thigh and a bullet had gouged a crease in his left shoulder. Still, he insanely crouched exposed behind the pilothouse, shouting directions to Chief Pilot Hunt. They were almost through the holocaust now.
He gazed ahead at the New Ironsides, lying across the channel, her formidable broadside loaded and trained on the rapidly approaching Texas. He studied the guns of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool, run out and sighted, and he knew with sinking heart that they could never make it through. The Texas could not take any more. Another punishing nightmare and his ship would be reduced to a helpless, stricken hulk unable to prevent its total destruction by the pursuing Yankee monitors.
And the crew, he thought, men no longer caring about living, men oblivious to everything but loading and firing their guns and keeping steam in the engines. The ones still living had gone beyond themselves, ignoring the dead and doing their duty.
All gunfire had ceased now, replaced by an eerie silence. Tombs trained his glass on the upperworks of the New Ironsides. He spotted what looked like her commander leaning over an armored railing, staring back through a glass at him.
It was then he noticed the fog bank rolling in from the sea through the mouth of Chesapeake Bay beyond the forts. If by some miracle they could reach and disappear into its gray cloak, they could lose Porter's wolf pack. Tombs also recalled Mallory's words about putting his passenger on display. He called through the open hatch.
"Mr. Craven, are you there?"
His first officer appeared below and stared up through the hatch, his face looking like some ghastly apparition covered with black powder, blood, and scorched flesh. "Here sir, and I damn well wish I wasn't."
"Bring our passenger from my stateroom up here on the casemate. And make up a white flag."
Craven nodded in understanding. "Aye sir."
The remaining broadside 64-pounder and forward Blakely went silent as the Union fleet fell behind and they could no longer train their sights on a good target.
Tombs was going to risk all on a desperate gamble, the final deal of the cards. He was dead on his feet and in pain from his injuries, but his black eyes burned as brightly as ever. He prayed to God the commanders of the Union forts had their glasses aimed on the Texas, as did the captain of the New Ironsides.
"Steer between the bow of the ironclad and Fort Wool," he instructed Hunt.
"As you wish, sir," Hunt acknowledged.
Tombs turned as the prisoner slowly climbed the ladder to the roof of the mangled casemate, followed by Craven who held a white tablecloth from the officers ward room on a broomstick.
The man seemed old beyond his years. His face was drawn and hollowed under a gaunt pallor. He was a man who was used up and exhausted by years of stress. His deep-sunken eyes reflected a compassionate concern as they surveyed the bloodied uniform of Tombs.
"You have been badly wounded, Commander. You should seek medical care below."
Tombs shook his head. "No time for that. Please move to the roof of the pilothouse and stand where you can be seen."
The prisoner nodded in understanding. "Yes, I see your plan."
Tombs shifted his gaze back to the ironclad and the forts as a brief spurt of flame, followed by a plume of black smoke and the scream of a projectile, burst from the ramparts of Fortress Monroe. A great spout of water rose and hung white and green for an instant before falling back.
Tombs rudely put his shoulder to the tall man and shoved him onto the top of the pilothouse. "Please hurry, we've come within their range." Then he snatched the white flag from Craven and waved it frantically with his good arm.
On board the New Ironsides, Captain Joshua Watkins stared steadily through his long glass. "They've broken out the white flag," he said in surprise.
His first officer, Commander John Crosby, nodded in agreement as he peered through a pair of brass binoculars. "Damned odd for them to surrender after the lashing they gave the fleet."
Suddenly, Watkins pulled the glass from his eye in growing disbelief, checked the lens for smudges, and not finding any, retrained it on the battle-scarred rebel ironclad. "But who on earth " The captain paused to refocus his glass. "Good God," he muttered in wonder. "Who do you make out atop their pilothouse?"
It took much to disturb Crosby's steel composure, but his face went totally blank. "It looks like..., but that's impossible."
The guns of Fort Wool opened up and water spouts gushed in a curtain around the Texas almost obliterating her from sight. Then she burst through the spray with magnificent perseverance and surged on.
Watkins gazed, fascinated, at the tall, lean man standing on the pilothouse. Then his gaze turned to numbed horror. "Lord, it is him!" He dropped his glass and swung to face Crosby. "Signal the forts to cease their fire. Hurry, man!"
The guns of Fortress Monroe followed those of Fort Wool, pouring their shot at the Texas. Most went high, but two exploded against the ironclad's smokestack, gouging huge holes in the circular walls. The army artillerymen desperately reloaded, each hoping their gun would deliver a knockout blow.
The Texas was only 200 yards away when the commanders of the forts acknowledged Watkins' signal and their guns went silent one by one. Watkins and Crosby ran to the bow of the New Ironsides just in time to get a distinct look at the two men in bloodied Confederate navy uniforms and the bearded man in rumpled civilian clothes who cast a steady gaze at them and then threw a tired and solemn salute.
They stood absolutely still, knowing in shocked certainty that the sight they were witnessing would be forever etched in their minds. And despite the storm of controversy that would later rage around them, they and the hundreds of other men on the ship and those lining the walls of the forts never wavered in their absolute belief of who they saw standing amid the shambles of the Confederate ironclad that morning.
Almost a thousand men watched in helpless awe as the Texas steamed past, smoke flowing from her silent gun-ports, her flapping flag shredded and torn and tied to a bent railing post. Not a sound or shot was heard as she entered the enclosing fog bank and was forever lost to view.
Copyright © 1992 by Clive Cussler