Unfortunate Affair

Unfortunate Affair - Spectator - February 2003

Spectator — February 2003

By Tom Fexas

Unfortunate Affair
“I brought your ship back, Mr. Secretary, but we have to talk.”
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• Part 1: Unfortunate Affair
• Part 2: Unfortunate Affair
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Usually I work hard to maintain the high standard of (half) wit expected from "Spectator." This month, however, I get a free pass, as nothing I could write could be as funny as ship commander John Downes' report to Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Union Navy, in August 1864 during the Civil War. I am in debt to Capt. Bill Perryman, a long-time reader of this column who sent me Downes' report as quoted in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. The report starts:

Sir: I have the honor to inform the Department that I arrived at this anchorage at 6:35 p.m. yesterday, and I regret to say in a condition completely unfitting the vessel for service at present, in consequence of the sacrifices of her fittings and her equipment I found it necessary to make by using them as fuel to bring her to port, our coal giving out on the passage from Bermuda hither.

Quite a run-on sentence to break it to the Secretary gently. The story behind it begins on August 13 when Downes, commander of the U.S.S.R.R. Cuyler, was instructed to coal his vessel and proceed to Bermuda for intelligence-gathering. Back in Civil War days, most warships were built of wood, and although they carried full square rigs, they depended mainly on their steam engines for propulsion (as we shall see). Acting chief engineer Waite reported to the good commander that 130 tons of coal was in the bunker upon departure from Hampton Roads, Virginia. In a classic "cover your ass" statement, the commander writes:

I took occasion, however, to call acting chief engineer Waite up and caution him particularly to watch the expenditure of coal closely, and to see that no suddenly discovered deficiency occurred to bring us into difficulties.

On the morning of the 18th, the ship anchored outside of the harbor of Saint George, Bermuda. Yellow fever was raging on the island, so the commander got the ship underway at 12:15 the same day. Things started going downhill fast:

On the morning of the 19th the chief engineer's daily report gave us 69 tons 5 hundredweight 4 quarters of coal on hand. That evening at 8:00 p.m., he came to me and reported only 30 tons of coal in the bunkers, we being at the time 400 miles to the eastward of Cape Henry. Though considerably startled by such an unexpected deficiency, upon calculation I concluded I should have no difficulty in reaching Hampton Roads, if favored with good weather. Mr. Waite could give me no explanation of the extraordinary inaccuracy of his account.

Next page > Unfortunate Affair, Part 2 > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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