Fate or Chance at Mobile Bay? 

A USS Tecumseh survivor’s eerie story.

Newspaper story about the USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay.

Above The dramatic illustration and retelling of the sinking of the USS Tecumseh from Utah’s Deseret Evening News from Saturday, August 20, 1910. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

On July 31, 1910, the New York Herald printed an unusual story about the Battle of Mobile Bay. Admiral Caspar Goodrich, the author, explained that he got it firsthand from Gardner Cottrell 42 years earlier at Gibraltar. They were both serving aboard the steamer USS Frolic, then on a Mediterranean cruise. Goodrich was a callow 21-year-old officer and Cottrell an experienced Civil War veteran, a “splendid, handsome officer, full of energy and animated by the loftiest ideas.” Cottrell died in 1874, but his “gallantry” and “patriotism” continued to inspire Goodrich, and the story stuck with him.   

The original telling occurred one calm, clear evening in 1868, as the Frolic’s officers enjoyed the sunset on the vessel’s hurricane deck. Their trim steamer’s masts and spars stood yet fully lit above them, the Rock of Gibraltar golden behind, the Moroccan Mountains purple before and the blue Mediterranean faded to port, while the grey Atlantic stretched to starboard. Lights began to twinkle on shore, a breeze stirred and then Cottrell broke the silence.   

“I wonder if any of you can forget his sensations on the eve of battle,” he asked rhetorically. “Today has been exactly like that preceding the Bay fight; something in the air has brought it all back to me. I have been living over again the experiences of that thrilling event.” But what preoccupied him was one episode, something “marvelous and inscrutable.” He professed to have never understood it, that it “borders on the miraculous.” He said he would relate it if they cared to listen. Of course, they did.   

Cottrell explained that he arrived off Mobile Bay on August 4, 1864, onboard the ironclad USS Tecumseh. He served as an acting master in the powder division, situated beneath the ship’s massive turret. Like most of his 119 shipmates, he believed in his vessel, and little wonder. Only recently commissioned, the mighty Tecumseh measured 223 feet long by 43 feet in the beam, displaced over 2,000 tons and boasted a pair of hulking 15-inch smoothbore dahlgren guns in her armored turret, each capable of hurling a 350-pound projectile over a mile. Farragut had no intention of launching his attack on Mobile Bay without the Tecumseh leading the way. 

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When word arrived that the fleet would go the following morning, Cottrell enthused, “our joy knew no bounds. We would rush past the forts and make short work of the confederate admiral Buchanan.” That evening, he and his mates sat around a table in the wardroom discussing the coming battle. Most were confident, some boastful, but at least two apprehensive. “It is not well for us,” said the executive officer, “to blind our eyes to the fact that our enemy is brave and determined and that he will not flinch or give up until forced to do so.” The ship’s surgeon agreed and worried about possible torpedoes (mines in modern parlance) in the channel. “We scoffed at him,” Cottrell declared. Thanks to their vessel’s heavy armor, the surgeon’s job “would be a sinecure, since no man would be so much as scratched.” Rehashing it there in Gibraltar Harbor four years later, Cottrell insisted that he felt absolutely no concern for their safety. “Anything happen to the Tecumseh? Nonsense!” 

Shortly after the Tecumseh wardroom discussion, the captain’s orderly announced that a storeship “to remain outside during the engagement would receive and care for any papers or valuables their owners desired to send to her for safe keeping.” Sipping his coffee, Cottrell considered it and decided to do so. Doubtless it was foolish, he thought, but “Why not?” His shipmates ribbed him mercilessly, “Well you are a fine gentleman to serve on the Tecumseh. Have you no pride in your ship? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Undeterred, motivated by he knew not what, Cottrell placed a few documents and trinkets in a tin box. Since he had room to spare, he asked if anyone else wanted to share the box. This provoked more jeering, but ultimately two other officers, Charles F. Langley and John P. Zettick accepted. Afterwards, the trio sealed the box, pasted their names on the lid and sent it over to the storeship. 

“You all know what happened,” Cottrell told his rapt listeners on board the frolic, “how we steamed bravely into the harbor.” The Tecumseh struck a torpedo and water poured through a gash in her hull. Cottrell was on station when the explosion happened. “I shouted to the few men near me to climb up through the turret, and joining them all of us rushed to keep ahead of the water.” He frantically clambered through a gunport, ran across the iron deck and leapt into Mobile Bay. Fearing the doomed ship’s suction, he swam as hard as he could, to no avail, “I soon felt myself pulled under the surface.” After a seeming “eternity” he popped back up, gasping for breath, and then a big wave “swamped me entirely.” Within minutes, though “it seemed a long while,” a boat from the USS Metacomet plucked him from the water. “Langley was on her, and later I heard that Zettick had been recovered elsewhere.” 

“Much of this you already know, but you do not know that of the Tecumseh’s 20 officers, the only ones who survived to tell the tale were those whose names were written on the lid of the document case.” Goodrich recalled that they greeted this revelation with “a long silence.” And then, he concluded, they “one by one … stole away to marvel in private over the inscrutable ways of providence, each asking himself this question to which no answer was ever received, ‘but was it after all a mere coincidence?’” mb

John S. Sledge’s “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf” with coauthor Alicia García Santana and photographers Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi will be published March 2024.

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