Read CHAPTER VI - We become coal heavers of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

The little strip of North American coast between Delaware Breakwater and Block Island is very interesting, and, in places, beautiful. The long beaches and bare sand dunes have a solemn beauty all their own.

Though the boys on the “Yankee” took in and appreciated the loveliness of this bit of coast, they were getting rather familiar with it and somewhat bored. They longed for “pastures new.”

Summer had almost begun, but still the fog and rain held sway. The ship crept through the night like a big gray ghost dark, swift, and, except in the densest fogs, silent. Pea-coats were an absolute necessity, and woolen gloves would have been a great comfort. All this in the blooming, beautiful month of May!

One bleak morning the starboard watch was on duty. We of the port watch had turned in at four (or, according to ship’s time, eight bells). We were glad to be between decks, and got under way for the land of Nod without delay. It seemed as if we had been asleep but a few minutes, when “Scully,” chief boatswain’s mate, came down the gun deck gangway, shouting loud enough to be heard a mile away: “All hands, up all hammocks;” then, as the disposition to get up was not very evident, “Show a leg there; ham and eggs for breakfast.” This last was a little pleasantry that never materialized into the much-coveted and long abstained from delicacy.

The hammocks were lashed up and stowed away in the “nettings,” as the lattice-like receptacles are called, leaving the deck clear for the work of the day.

Mess gear for the “watch below” had just been piped, and we were glad; even the thought of burnt oatmeal and coffee without milk was pleasant to us.

The ports were closed and the gun deck was dark and dismal. The fog oozed in through every crack and cranny, and all was very unpleasant.

Of a sudden there was a sharp reverberation that sounded so much like the report of a big gun that all hands jumped.

The course of the ship was changed, and the jingle bell sounded. The “Yankee” forged on at full speed in the direction from which the sound had come.

We all stood in expectant attitudes, listening for another report. We had about made up our minds that our ears had deceived us, when another explosion, louder and nearer than the first, reached us.

On we rushed toward what we knew not through a fog so thick that the water could be seen but dimly from the spar deck.

The suspense was hard to bear, and the desire to do something almost irresistible. The men unconsciously took their regular stations for action, the guns’ crews gathered round their guns, the powder divisions in the neighborhood of the ammunition hoists.

“I wish Potter was here,” said “Stump.” “I rather think he would be white around the gills. This sort of business would give him a bad case of ‘cold feet.’”

“Oh, he had ‘cold feet’ a few days after we left New York, and wrote to his friends to get his discharge,” said “Bill.” “Got it and quit two weeks after we left New York, the duffer,” added “Hay.”

The “Yankee” still steamed on into the bank of fog.

“Cupid,” the ship’s bugler, began to play the call for general quarters, but was stopped by a sharp command from the bridge.

What was it all about? Was it to be tragedy or farce?

Then Scully came down the starboard gangway, a broad smile on his ruddy face.

A clamoring group gathered round him instantly. “What is it?” “Is the ‘old man’ playing a joke on us?” “Do you suppose Cervera has got over to this side?” “Scully,” overwhelmed with questions, put up his hands protestingly.

“No, no; none of those things,” said he. “What do you suppose we have been doing for the last twenty minutes?”

We confessed we did not know.

“Chasing thunder claps nothing more nor less than thunder claps! And we’ll see nothing worse on this coast,” he added sententiously, as soon as he could get his breath.

The wind rose, and while it blew away the fog in part, it kicked up a nasty sea, in which the “Yankee” wallowed for hours, waiting for the fog to clear enough to make the channel and enter New York harbor. It seemed we had been heading for New York, and we did not know it. It was not the custom aboard that hooker to give the men any information.

When we learned for sure that we were bound for New York, our joy was beyond measure.

Shore leave was the chief topic of conversation. And every man not on duty went down into his black bag, fished out his clean blues, and set to work sewing on watch marks and cap ribbons. For Jack must be neat and clean when he goes ashore.

The mud-hook was dropped in the bay off Tompkinsville, Thursday, May 26th, seventeen days after we left the navy yard. It seemed seventeen months.

An “anchor watch” of sixteen men was set for the night, and most of us turned in early to enjoy the first good sleep for many weary days.

All hands were turned out at five o’clock. We woke to find a big coal barge on either side of the ship.

After breakfast the order “turn to” was given. “All hands coal ship, starboard watch on the starboard lighter, port watch on the port lighter.” From seven o’clock in the morning till twelve o’clock that night, the crew of the “Yankee” aforetime lawyers, physicians, literary men, brokers, merchants, students, and clerks men who had never done any harder work than play football, or row in a shell coaled ship without any rest, other than the three half hours at meal times. About the hardest, dirtiest work a man could do.

The navy style of coaling is different from that customary in the merchant service. In the latter, the dirty work is done in the quickest, easiest way possible. The ship is taken to a coal wharf and the coal is slid down in chutes, or barges are run alongside and great buckets, hoisted by steam, swing the black lumps into the hold or bunker.

The navy style, as practised on the “Yankee,” was quite different. The barges were brought alongside, the men divided into gangs some to go in the hold of the barge, some to go on the platforms, some to carry on the ship herself. The barge gang shovelled the coal into bushel baskets; these were carried to the men on the stages; and the latter passed them from one to the other, to the gun deck; finally, the gang on the vessel carried the baskets to the bunker holes, and dumped them. The ship was well provided with hoisting machines, but, for some reason, this help was not permitted us.

It was a long, inexpressibly dreary day’s work, and though undertaken cheerfully and with less complaining than would have been believed possible, the drudgery of it was a thing not easily forgotten. Before the day had ended, all hope of getting ashore was lost, for we were told that no liberty would be given.

The following day and half of our stay in New York harbor was spent in the same way shovelling, lifting, and carrying coal. The eyes of many of us were gladdened by the sight of friends and relatives, who were allowed aboard when mess gear was piped, and put off when “turn to” sounded. We were pleased to see our friends, but our friends, on the contrary, seemed shocked to see us. One dainty girl came aboard, and, as she came up the gangway, asked for a forecastle man. The word was passed for him. He had just finished his stint of coaling, and was as black as a negro. In his haste to see his sister, he neglected to clean up, and appeared before her in his coal heaver’s make-up.

“You, Will? I won’t believe it! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!” And for a second she covered her face with her hands. Then she picked out the cleanest spot on his grimy countenance and kissed him there, while we looked on in envy.

The “Yankee” at last receiving orders to sail for the front, left Tompkinsville May 29th. We passed out of the Narrows with a feeling of relief. The work we had just finished was the hardest we had ever experienced. It was particularly tantalizing because we were almost in sight of our homes, but could not visit them. A starving man suffers more from hunger if pleasant food is placed within sight, but beyond his reach.

However, we were to go to the front at last, and we rejoiced at the prospect of being really useful to our country.

The following day, Decoration Day, dawned pleasantly, both wind and weather being all that could be desired.

Directly after dinner we were sent to quarters for target practice. The target was dropped astern, and the ship steamed ahead to the required distance. Word was given to the marines manning the six-pounders to prove their skill.

The port forecastle six-pounder, using a shell containing cordite, a powerful English explosive, was in charge of a marine corporal named J.J. Murray, who acted as captain of the gun. After firing several rounds with marked success, Murray saw that the gun was loaded for another trial.

Standing at the breech, he steadied the gun with his left arm and shoulder, seized the pistol-grip, placed his finger on the trigger, and then slowly and carefully brought the target within the sighting line in readiness to fire.

The other members of the gun’s crew were at their proper stations. Numbers 2 and 3, respectively second captain and first loader and shellman, were directly behind the corporal. They saw him steady the piece again, take another careful aim, then noted that his finger gave a quick tug at the trigger.

The result was a dull click but no explosion.

The corporal stepped back from his place in vexation. He had succeeded in getting a fine “bead” just as the cartridge failed.

“Blast the English ammunition!” he exclaimed. “It’s no good.”

The other men at the gun nodded approval. Their experience bore out the corporal’s assertion. They also knew that the cordite cartridges were not adapted to American guns, and should not have been used. But they were marines and they were accustomed to obey orders without comment.

Captain Brownson had noticed the incident and he sent word to delay opening the breechblock until all danger of explosion had passed. After waiting some time, Corporal Murray proceeded to extract the shell. He took his place at the breech, while N unlocked the plug and swung it open.

“Now we’ll see what is the matter,” he began. “I guess it is another case of ”

He never finished the sentence. With a frightful roar the defective cartridge exploded, sending fragments of shell and parts of the breech-block into the corporal’s face and chest. He was hurled with terrific force to the deck, where he lay motionless, mortally wounded.

Numbers 2 and 3 of the unfortunate gun’s crew did not escape, the former being struck down with the hand lever, which penetrated his arm. The injured men received prompt attention from the surgeon and his assistants, but Corporal Murray was beyond mortal aid. He died ten minutes after the accident.

He was a good soldier, jolly and light-hearted, and a great favorite with the crew. The peculiar feeling of antagonism which is supposed to exist between the sailors and marines did not obtain in his case.

In the navy the hammock which serves the living as a bed by night is also their coffin and their shroud. It so served Corporal Murray.

Shortly after four bells (six o’clock) on the evening of the day on which the accident occurred, the boatswain’s mate sent the shrill piping of his whistle echoing through the ship, following it with the words, doleful and long drawn out:

“All hands shift-ft-ft into clean-n-n blue and stand by to bury the dead-d-d!”

When the crew assembled on the gun deck in obedience to the call, the sun was just disappearing beyond the edge of the distant horizon. Its last rays entered the open port, showing to us the dead man’s figure outlined under an American flag. The body had been placed upon a grating in front of an open port, and several men were stationed close by in readiness to launch it into the sea.

The ceaseless swaying of the ship in the trough of the sea, the engines having been stopped, set the lines of blue uniformed men swinging and nodding, and, as the surgeon, Dr. McGowan, read the Episcopal service, it seemed in the half light as if every man were keeping time with the cadence.

The words of the service, beautiful and impressive under such novel circumstances, echoed and whispered along the deck, and at the sentence, “We commit this body to the deep,” the grating was raised gently and, with a peculiar swish, the body, heavily weighted, slid down to the water’s edge and plunged sullenly into the sea. A moment more and the service was finished, the bugler sounding “pipe down.” A salute, three times repeated, was fired by sixteen men of the marine guard.

The voyage down the coast was utilized in making good men-o’-war’s men of the “Yankee’s” crew. Captain Brownson believes thoroughly in the efficacy of drill, and he lost no time in living up to his belief. When all the circumstances are taken into consideration, the task allotted to the captain of the “Yankee” by the fortunes of war, was both peculiar and difficult.

On his return from Europe, where he had been sent to select vessels for the improvised navy, he was ordered by the Navy Department at Washington to take command of the auxiliary cruiser “Yankee.” This meant that he was to assume charge of a ship hastily converted from an ordinary merchant steamer, and to fight the battles of his country with a crew composed of youths and men whose whole life and training had hitherto followed totally different lines.

It was a “licking of raw material into shape” with a vengeance.

When the “Chesapeake” sailed forth to fight her disastrous battle with the British ship “Shannon,” her crew was made up of men untrained in the art of war. The result was the most humiliating naval defeat in the history of the United States. The same fate threatened Captain Brownson. There was this difference in the cases, however. The “Chesapeake” had little time for drilling, while the “Yankee” was fully six weeks in commission before her first shot was fired in action. Every minute of those six weeks was utilized.

During the trip down the coast from New York general quarters were held each day, and target practice whenever the weather permitted. In addition to these drills the crew was exercised in man and arm boats, abandon ship, fire drill, infantry drill, and the many exercises provided by the naval regulations. Before the “Yankee” had been in the Gulf Stream two days, the various guns’ crews were almost letter-perfect at battery work. As it happened, the value of good drilling was soon to be demonstrated.

As we neared Cuba, the theatre of our hopes and expectations, we were scarcely able to control ourselves. The bare possibility of seeing real war within a few days made every man the victim of a consuming impatience. Rumors of every description were rife, and the many weird and impossible tales invented by the ship’s cook and the captain’s steward the men-o’-war oracles would have put even Baron Munchausen to the blush.

The Rumor Committee, otherwise known as the “Scuttle-butt Navigators,” to which every man on board was elected a life member the moment he promulgated a rumor, was soon actively engaged, and it was definitely settled that the “Yankee” was to become the flagship of the whole fleet, our captain made Lord High Admiral, and the whole Spanish nation swept off the face of the globe, in about thirteen and a half seconds by the chronometer.