That Anvil of Our Souls A Novel of the Monitor and the Merrimack
By David Poyer
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2005 David Poyer
All right reserved. ISBN: 0684871351
A Residence on Fifth · Introduction to Personages of Importance · The Southern Bug-bear · Advice from Men of Wealth and Influence · At the Delamater Ironworks · 95 Franklin Street · Impromptu Examination in Gearing Design · Rejection of a Long-Cherished Scroll
Mr. Theodorus Hubbard. Responding to the invitation of Mr. Micah Eaker. Theo gave the butler his card, stripping off his dripping mackintosh, glancing resentfully around the interior of 372 Fifth Avenue, New York City, to which the note waiting at his hotel that afternoon had invited him.
Theo Hubbard was no larger than a boy. But he'd never let his size confine the scope of his dreams. At twenty-six he'd already earned the confidence of the engineer in chief of the Navy. At the moment he was in civilian clothes, a rumpled brown suit of only modest quality. His lips were firm, his blue eyes determined, his small chin smooth-shaven. For once his hands were free of coal dust and machine grease, though not, he suspected, for long considering what his orders laid out to accomplish over the next ninety days.
-- You are expected. If you will follow me, sir.
The room into which he was shown from the chill of an October afternoon had been decorated by someone of taste. Lavender moire draperies puddled to a figured carpet. Gold-on-cream wallpaper glowed beneath glass torchieres. A black leather settee stood between the front windows, and a huge fireplace mirror reflected prints of the Hudson Valley. A fire crackled on the grate, its reddish heart well nourished, he saw, by a good draft. By the finest Pennsylvania anthracite too, by the smell. Three men in black broadcloth stood around it, holding segars.
-- Mister Theodorus Hubbard, the butler announced. The paneled door closed softly.
-- Mister Hubbard. I am Micah Eaker. Thank you for responding to my note.
A rubicund old gentleman with white chin-tuft. His grip was dry, glance sharp. -- I had not expected so young a man.
-- The Navy considers me old enough for my responsibilities, sir.
-- I am sure you will prove up to the mark. My own boy is in the naval service too; in North Carolina, I believe. Though we do not correspond just now.
-- I have met an Eaker.
-- We must compare notes. But now let me introduce you to two very good friends of mine. Mister G. L. Barnes, in the employ of Mister Griswold, of Albany. And this is Mister Cornelius Bushnell. Gentlemen, may I present Theodorus Hubbard. Engineer Hubbard has been noticed in the papers both at Fort Sumter and at Gosport, and more recently in the battle at Hatteras.
Theo shook hands, his natural bumptiousness daunted. Barnes was unknown to him, but John A. Griswold was a major industrialist and very well connected politically -- specifically with the former governor of New York and current secretary of state, William Seward. And Cornelius Scranton Bushnell was probably the most influential man in Connecticut...grocery magnate, railroad tycoon, industrialist. They looked down at him as Eaker suggested he help himself to a segar, that whiskey was on the side table, that they all might be more comfortable seated.
-- Well, sir. It seems appropriate to congratulate you, Bushnell began. Tall and self-assured, with upper lip shaven and a dark beard brushing his stock. -- I am given to understand the chief engineer has put you in charge of our ironclad project. The counterbalance to that great Southern bug-bear, the Merrimack.
-- Thank you, sir, but it may prove no bug-bear. And I believe Captain Ericsson would claim the distinction of being in charge.
They chuckled. -- I'm sure he would, but as the Navy's representative you will be responsible for a good deal of the construction. As such, we thought our views might be helpful.
-- I should be very glad to hear them.
Old Eaker said, -- Before we begin, boys, you might like to know Hubbard here is from Gideon Welles's hometown.
-- From Hartford, eh? Do you know the secretary, Mr. Hubbard?
-- I have had the pleasure of corresponding with him.
Theo didn't add that it had been in the form of a letter to the then editor of the Hartford Times. From his first startle he was beginning to feel more comfortable. This was the sort of personal examination wealthy, powerful men liked to have with underlings. Which was fine with him.
One day he intended to be one of them.
Theodorus Coggswell Hubbard had been born on a farm in Weatogue. At twelve he'd walked to Hartford and signed on as a machinery oiler at the Hanbury cotton mill. Hard work, respectful address, and natural ability made him assistant foreman at fifteen, foreman at sixteen, and journeyman machinist and head of loom maintenance at seventeen. On his eighteenth birthday he applied to the best school he could afford, living on his savings as he completed his education.
When he graduated, the largest toolmaker in town hired him as a master machinist. When the company failed in '55, a notice in the Courant of a board to hire steam engineers in government service caught his eye.
He'd taken the next morning's train to Washington, changing at New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia, sitting up all night on a hard bench seat. The questions were practical ones, easily answered by anyone who'd run a stationary engine. He was assigned as third assistant engineer in the old paddle wheeler Susquehanna. He went from there to first assistant in Mississippi after her return from shelling the Chinese at Pei Ho, then to Owanee as first engineer. He'd been about to resign and seek a position in engine design when the war had come.
Clever men with vision, such as Drake and Morse and Rockefeller, were changing the face of the country. America would bring the world wheels of steel and wings of bronze, nerved by electricity and powered by steam. Men like Cyrus McCormick, Eli Whitney, and Joseph Henry were famous and rich. Theo Hubbard wanted these things with the desperation of a man born poor and nearing thirty.
He had one more reason for bidding farewell to the ocean waves. There were no applicants for the position at present, but he had no doubt of his eligibility for marriage should a suitable candidate appear.
Barnes said vigorously, -- A fine figure of a man, Welles. Sees to the heart of a matter.
When the others murmured agreement, Bushnell took up the thread. -- When I presented Captain Ericsson's proposal, he saw at once how revolutionary it was. My own plan looked unimaginative beside it. But we have ironmaking capacity for both and for many more.
-- Quite so, said Barnes. Then, to Theo, -- Now you, sir, are a protégé, one might say, of Mister Isherwood. Not so?
-- I work for the chief engineer.
-- Who has great confidence in you. You're a loyal employee.
-- My previous masters have thought so.
-- And your opinion of him?
Theo hesitated, searching the hard faces. Poker would be a child's game to these shrewd financiers, lobbyists, political fixers. -- We worked together, trying to save Merrimack in Norfolk. His "Experiments in Steam Engineering" is a masterpiece. I'm proud to follow where he leads.
-- Well said.
-- Quite so.
Eaker patted his shoulder. -- Well, sir, you leave no doubt where you stand. Let us inquire further. You have seen considerable service afloat. What is your opinion of Captain Ericsson's design? Not so much as to its buildability but as to its...seaworthiness?
They were all eyeing him now. Theo said, -- I've only seen sketches. There are many good points. But I cannot say I've fully matured my opinion.
-- Yes sir. I only arrived in the City today. I was preparing to report to Captain Ericsson this evening when your note arrived.
Barnes said, -- And so you shall; we shall not keep you. We wish you the best of luck in your new post, sir. And to assist you in your efforts...
The envelope was of heavy, calendared, expensive paper. Theo accepted it with raised eyebrows. -- What is this, sir?
Old Eaker murmured, -- A letter of credit, sir, on Eaker and Callowell -- my firm -- for the sum of two thousand dollars. The Union is in peril, sir. While young stalwarts like my son defend her with their lives, it is only meet we older patriots defend her with our purses. You may draw on it for any expenditure you think fit to advance the cause or make your own efforts easier.
Theo found himself stammering. -- I must say...as I think fit...You will require an accounting?
-- I do not think that will be necessary, Eaker said gravely.
-- Only a word of caution, Bushnell put in.
-- A caution, sir? Theo fingered the envelope, still in shock. Two thousand was what a first engineer drew a year.
-- Rather let us call it advice. Barnes glanced at the others. -- Well-meant counsel from those inclined to be your friends. That is, if you have any brief from the chief engineer or the chief constructor or any other quarter to frustrate Captain Ericsson's efforts in the country's defense, you may find your career prospects shortened. If, on the other hand, you lend him your full assistance, and he meets with the success we expect, you will find them much enhanced. Other opportunities will beckon after the insurrection is put down next summer. Aid him with your seagoing expertise. And let us know -- confidentially, of course -- if you should foresee any problems.
Theo stood with gloves in one hand, the envelope in the other. Should he tell them he didn't need threats or rewards to do his duty? Or simply bow and withdraw? One would give him a moment's satisfaction. The other, not only two thousand dollars to spend as he wished, but preferment in business when peace returned. These were powerful men. The sort he'd always planned to serve...and to become.
He said quietly, -- My orders are to assist Mister Ericsson in any way possible. Of course I will give him the benefit of my experience, such as it is.
And that must have struck just the right note, for all three nodded.
-- Quite so, quite so, old Eaker said. He raised his voice. -- Parkinson! Show our new friend to the door.
A locofoco flared in the dark, then was applied to a short pipe. Theo gazed up at the shadows of great brick chimneys, brewing with a woolen tangle of smoke and steam; serrated factory rooves; a great crane that flung its arms wide above the gray North River, an iron scarecrow loftier than the highest steeple in Hartford. The lamp at the gate lit a red pennant that flapped endlessly in the breeze.
The Cornelius H. Delamater Ironworks was the largest steam engine manufactory in the New World. It had provided the propeller and boilers for the first screw-propelled warship, Princeton, and dominated the growing market for screw-propelled merchant ships. They'd built Ericsson's radical caloric-propelled ship, driven not by steam but by heated air. It hadn't worked very well, but only a genius could conceive of replacing steam itself. Hubbard was standing on Thirteenth; the works spanned six hundred feet all the way to Fourteenth.
A steam whistle shrieked, and hundreds of men hurried toward him, grease-stained, exhausted-looking, thoughts intent no doubt on beef and potatoes and beer. Quitting time, and well after dark. Delamater must be laying on extra hours.
Inquiring where he might find John Ericsson, he was told the engineer wasn't there. He maintained an office at his home, 95 Franklin Street.
Twenty minutes later, after a brisk walk through gaslit downtown, Hubbard was shown into an upstairs room by a cowed-looking housekeeper. The inventor of the steam fire engine, the screw propeller, and the forced-draft blower sat in rolled-up shirtsleeves at an enormous drafting table. His balding head was bent under an intense light and considerable heat from large oil lamps with polished reflectors.
-- What the hell do you want?
The inventor barked the words without turning his head. His Swedish accent was overlaid with Scots. Stocky, with bearded cheeks but clean upper lip, his forehead was as broad and his expression as determined as any physiognomist could wish. The nib continued to scratch, noting calculations with incredible rapidity on a sheet of foolscap, then moving back to specify the length of a lever arm.
-- Sir, I am ordered to assist you in the construction of your steam battery.
-- And who the devil are you?
-- First Engineer Theodorus Hubbard, United States Navy. He extended his gloved hand, but the man waved it off impatiently.
-- I am no schoolmaster, sir. Why does the Navy insist on sending me dolts to instruct? I have no time. Good day.
-- I'm not here for instruction. Mister Isherwood feels I may be of service in lightening your load.
For the first time Ericsson looked at him, blinking reddened, pouchy eyes. He obviously hadn't slept for a long time. His shirt was ink-stained, his hands and fingers black. It looked as if he'd wiped his pen on his forehead. -- Isherwood, eh? You one of his minions?
-- I'm a naval engineer.
-- A machinery oiler, you mean. Ericsson nodded at the diagram. -- No doubt you can drive a steam engine once it is explained to you. But only those familiar with mathematics can understand my construction. If you don't know the calculus, you had better go back to your stoking.
Stung, Theo transferred his attention from the irascible tyrant to the diagram before him. And was struck speechless.
Pinned out under the artificial brilliance was a drawing of such elegance, purity of style, and, yes, beauty that for a moment his dazzled eye saw a work of art rather than an abstraction of machinery. He searched in vain for clutter or clumsiness, for the usual contrivances lesser designers employed to cram machinery within the confines of a hull. All was simplicity, efficiency, direct action. Most amazing, Ericsson had been sketching it freehand. No pencilled tracings lay about. He was drawing direct to manufacturing diagram, and doing his calculations as he drew. The brain before him was accomplishing the work of four men simultaneously.
The Swede was smiling contemptuously. Theo cleared his throat. -- It seems to be...the rotating gear for a gun cupola.
Ericsson hoisted heavy eyebrows. -- A naval officer in here yesterday identified it as the works of a coffee grinder. Anything strike you as interesting about it?
Theo gave it several seconds' more examination. The terrific weight of the iron cupola, or turret, had been dealt with in an unusual way. In other proposals, such as Coles's sketch in Blackwood's, the weight rested on the bottom edge, supported on balls or friction rollers. This drawing showed a ring but no bearings. Instead a central spindle supported the entire massive assembly, guns, men, and armor, transmitting the weight downward through an iron pedestal to the keel. He pointed this out, and the inventor nodded. -- The advantage?
-- Less friction. Thus, a smaller drive engine. Less mechanical advantage necessary in the cogwheel train. A greater speed of rotation?
-- What strikes you as the weak point of such a system?
This threw him for a moment; he was not used to hearing any mechanical contrivance described as a "system," a word usually reserved for philosophical reflections. He finally pointed to the gear train. -- I should say it lies in the possibility of a bending moment developing. Should the craft take a steep roll --
-- This wedge assembly raises or lowers the turret. In heavy seas it would be lowered, to rest on the bronze base ring.
-- I see that. But if, when jacked up on the spindle, it should be struck by a heavy shot, could it not jam? I should look into the centros and clearances on these cycloidal gears.
They discussed mating and generating surfaces, pitch angle and backlash. The arrangement seemed unimpeachable, and at last Theo said, -- It is brilliant in its conception and extremely interesting in its arrangements.
-- It merely derives from the circumstances.
-- How do you mean, sir, only derives? The whole concept of your craft seems to me quite novel and original.
Ericsson rubbed his eyes. The glare was making Theo's own water; he could not imagine how the man endured it. The inventor said through gritted teeth, -- Is this world composed only of imbeciles? The Merrimack has progressed so far, no structure of large dimensions can be completed in time to meet her. On the other hand, the heavy armor all observers report means only the largest guns will be of any use against her. The waters of the Southern rivers are shallow. They are also narrow, making it difficult to return fire from along the banks by maneuvering to present a broadside. We are thus driven to a small craft mounting heavy guns, of shallow draft, with a rotating turret. It is all so obvious I only had to explain it to the Navy board three times.
Theo did not like being called dolt and imbecile, but restrained his anger. The man was under terrific strain. -- As I understand it, you have only ninety days to produce this marvel, along with hull, driving machinery, internal arrangements. In a navy yard this would scarcely suffice to begin the planning. But you have promised the vessel in that time.
-- Good, you know of the time limitation in the contract. Are you aware we also had to post bond that it will be invulnerable to enemy shot? We will not be paid in full until it passes that test. If it does not, all monies advanced for construction must be refunded within thirty days.
Theo thought of the men he'd met at Eaker's. He wondered at their daring and envied their ability to wager such vast sums. Either they were selfless patriots, or immense profits were in the offing. -- That is a shameful reservation.
-- I should not have signed it had we not already ordered the materials. Well, my battery will do all they require. I personally feel it will render nugatory the present superiority of England and France over this country. But speed is of the essence. I am dividing the work among three leading establishments. The Novelty Ironworks, on the far side of Manhattan, is tooling up for the turret and associated machinery; they have the only steam-powered presses capable of forming heavy plate to a circular section. Rowland laid the hull-keel at Continental today. Unfortunately I had no time to attend. And Mister Delamater is building the engines, also of my design.
-- The chief engineer has high regard for all these companies, especially Novelty. He worked there early in his career.
-- Then he may not be as pedestrian as I have assumed.
-- Mister Isherwood is not a pedestrian man, sir. Though he is no universal genius like yourself.
He'd heard the old inventor was not insusceptible to flattery. He regarded it not as an emollient but as his due. But Ericsson still sounded suspicious. -- Yet he's trying to push the Bureau's design. So far my supporters have managed to hold out for the genuine article, the only truly invulnerable floating battery.
Theo remembered his meeting with some of those "supporters" at Eaker's. Somehow Ericsson had managed to engineer not only machines, but a political-industrial lobby of considerable influence. -- It is a most ingenious ship.
-- Not a "ship," sir. It is a fighting machine. Impregnable. Irresistible. Unsinkable. Ericsson spied the housekeeper lurking on the landing and shouted for coffee. -- So you're here to assist me. How?
-- In whatever capacity you wish. I have some ability in drafting.
-- Mister MacCord does the working drawings. He nodded behind him, and Theo, looking over what he saw now was another drafting board, realized an assistant had overheard the entire conversation.
-- Then if you wish me to hoof them back and forth, I will gladly do that. Whatever you like. I believe in your vision and will do all in my power to assist you in its realization. And the Navy is paying my salary. You need furnish nothing in that direction.
Ericsson cocked his head. -- Can you do without sleep?
-- That is one thing one learns in an engine room. I will sleep no more in the next ninety days than you.
The engineer looked skeptical. He said slowly, drawing a pen through a wiper: -- You might be young enough to train. If you are capable of checking a calculation for any errors fatigue may interpolate, I can put you to use. As well as in carrying instructions to the various contractors. Ensuring plans are being carried out to specifications.
-- It will be my honor to work under you, sir.
A frosty, remote grimace. -- Perhaps we shall give you a trial. Coffee, Hubble? I confess I need a cup.
-- Hubbard, sir. I would be honored to take one with you, Captain.
Ericsson included MacCord in the invitation; he and Theo exchanged cool bows. As they gulped the bitter brew, and Ericsson began explaining his time line for construction, Theo recalled his own scroll, reposing within his coat. He too thought the Navy hidebound, unwilling to step into the nineteenth century. Perhaps the great man's backers would be interested in another new machine of war. And thinking of them, he remembered their confidential charge, and cleared his throat.
-- I will be happy also to give you the benefit of my experience, sir.
Ericsson looked up sharply. -- What do you mean?
-- I have spent years at sea; have been through storms and so forth. I could look over the design from that aspect.
-- That will not be required. Matters of buoyancy and stress can be foreseen better from the viewpoint of the experienced engineer than from the untutored guesses of seamen.
-- Then let me ask your indulgence in one thing more, sir.
Feeling perhaps the moment was not right, yet unable to resist, Theo brought it out into the light. Conscious suddenly of the erasures and inkblots, false starts, conjectures unsupported by calculation, he unrolled it at waist level.
Ericsson scooted his stool back from it. -- This would be...?
-- It is a...submersible boat. Powered by a liquid fuel derived from petroleum oil.
This time Ericsson's smile was hawkish, contemptuous, his eyes sliding from the very sight of the document. -- I have no desire to be subjected to amateurish fantasies, sir. Nor with your pretense to knowledge of the mysterious ways of the sea. Let us deal with realities. We must build the machine by January 12. My machine. Just as I have drawn it. A race against time. If we lose, the Confederates will rule the waves. Is that quite clear?
-- Of course, sir. But I thought certain ideas --
Ericsson's attention was back in the board. Dipping his pen, he began etching in a watertight door. -- Let me make myself plain, Hobart. Or whatever your name is. Ideas are not required of you. You are here to help me save the Union. Shall we confine our relations to that, sir?
Meekly, Theo agreed.
Copyright © 2005 by David Poyer
Excerpted from That Anvil of Our Souls by David Poyer Copyright © 2005 by David Poyer. Excerpted by permission.
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