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   Chapter 3 No.3

Tom Strong, Lincoln's Scout By Alfred Bishop Mason Characters: 29345

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Charles Francis Adams-Mr. Strong Goes to Russia-Tom Goes to Live in the White House-Bull Run-"Stonewall" Jackson-Geo. B. McClellan-Tom Strong, Second Lieutenant, U. S. A.-The Battle of the "Merrimac" and the "Monitor."

A few days passed before the President had time to see Mr. Strong and Tom. When they were finally ushered into his working-room, they found there, already interviewing Lincoln, the hawk-nosed and hawk-eyed Secretary of State, William H. Seward of New York, scholar, statesman, and gentleman, and a short, grizzled man, the worthy inheritor of a great tradition. He was Charles Francis Adams of Boston, son and grandson of two Presidents of the United States. He had been appointed Minister to England, just then the most important foreign appointment in the world. What England was to do or not do might spell victory or defeat for the Union. Mr. Adams had come to receive his final instructions for his all-important work. And this is what happened.

Shabby and uncouth, Lincoln faced his two well-dressed visitors, nodding casually to the two New Yorkers as they entered at what should have been a great moment.

"I came to thank you for my appointment," said Adams, "and to ask you--"

"Oh, that's all right," replied Lincoln, "thank Seward. He's the man that put you in." He stretched out his legs and arms, and sighed a deep sigh of relief. "By the way, Governor," he added, turning to Seward, "I've this morning decided that Chicago post-office appointment. Well, good-by."

And that was all the instruction the Minister to Great Britain had from the President of the United States. Even in those supreme days, the rush of office-seekers, the struggle for the spoils, the mad looting of the public offices for partisan purposes, was monopolizing the time and absorbing the mind of our greatest President. There is a story that one man who asked him to appoint him Minister to England, after taking an hour of his time, ended the interview by asking him for a pair of old boots. Civil Service Reform has since gone far to stop this scandal and sin, but much of it still remains. Today you can fight for the best interests of our beloved country by fighting the spoils system in city, state, and nation.

Adams, amazed, followed Secretary Seward out of the little room. Then Lincoln turned to the father and son.

Tom had more time to look at him now. He saw a tall man with a thin, muscular, big nose, with heavy eyebrows above deep-set eyes and below a square, bulging forehead, and with a mass of black hair. The face was dark and sallow. The firm lips relaxed as he looked down upon the boy. A beautiful smile overflowed them. A beautiful friendliness shone from the deep-set eyes.

"So this is another Tom Strong," he said. "Howdy, Tommy?"

The boy smiled back, for the welcoming smile was irresistible. He put his little hand into Lincoln's great paw, hardened and roughened by a youth of strenuous toil. The President squeezed his hand. Tom was happy.

"You're to go to Russia, Strong," Mr. Lincoln said to the father. "England and France threaten to combine against us. You must get Russia to hold them back. We'll have a regular Minister there, but I'm going to depend upon you. See Governor Seward. He'll tell you all about it. Will you take Mrs. Strong with you?"

"Most certainly."

"Well, I s'posed you would. And how about Tom here?"

Tom's heart beat quick. What was coming now?

"Mrs. Strong must decide that. I suppose he had better keep on with his school in New York."

"Why not let him come to school in Washington?" asked Lincoln. "In the school of the world? You see," he added, while that irresistible smile again softened the firm outlines of his big man's mouth, "you see I've taken a sort of fancy to your boy Tom. S'pose you give him to me while you're away. There are things he can do for his country."

It was perhaps only a whim, but the whims of a President count. A month later, Mr. and Mrs. Strong started for St. Petersburg and Tom reported at the White House. He was welcomed by John Hay, a delightful young man of twenty-three, one of the President's two private secretaries. The welcome lacked warmth.

"You're to sleep in a room in the attic," said Hay, "and I believe you're to eat with Mr. Nicolay and me. I haven't an idea what you're to do and between you and me and the bedpost I don't believe the Ancient has an idea either. Perhaps there won't be anything. Wait a while and see."

The Ancient-this was a nickname his secretaries had given him-had a very distinct idea, which he had not seen fit to tell his zealous young secretary. Tom found the waiting not unpleasant. He had a good many unimportant things to do. "Tad" Lincoln, though younger, was a good playmate. The White House staff was kind to him. Even Hay found it difficult not to like him. Then there was the sensation of being at the center of things, big things. He saw men whose names were household words. Half a dozen times he lunched with the President's family, a plain meal with plain folks. Even the dinners at the White House, except the state dinners, were frugal and plain. Lincoln drank little or no wine. He never used tobacco. This was something of a miracle in the case of a man from the West, for in those days, particularly in the unconventional West, practically every man both smoked and chewed tobacco. The filthy spittoon was everywhere conspicuous. We fiercely resented the tales told our English cousins, first by Mrs. Trollope and then by Charles Dickens, about our tobacco-chewing, but the resentment was so fierce because the tales were so true. Those were dirty days. In 1860 there were few bathrooms except in our largest cities. Those that existed were mostly new. In 1789, when the present Government of the United States came into being, in New York City, there was not one bathroom in the whole town.

At these family luncheons, Tom was apt to become conscious that Lincoln's eyes were bent beneath their shaggy eyebrows full upon him. There was nothing unkind in the glance, but the boy felt it go straight through him. He wondered what it all meant. Why was he not given more work to do? Had he been weighed and found wanting? He waited in suspense a good many months.

The early months of waiting were not merry months. In July, 1861, the first battle of Bull Run had been fought and had been lost. Our troops ran nearly thirty miles. Telegram after telegram brought news of disgrace and defeat to the White House. In the afternoon Lincoln went to see Gen. Winfield S. Scott, then commander-in-chief of our armies. The fat old general was taking his afternoon nap. Awakened with difficulty, he gurgled that everything would come out well. Then he fell asleep again. Before six o'clock it was known that everything had turned out most badly. Washington itself was threatened by the Confederate pursuit. Lincoln had no sleep that night. The gray dawn found him at his desk, still receiving dispatches, still giving orders. When he left the desk, Washington was safe.

It was at the beginning of the battle of Bull Run, when the Confederates came near running away but did not do so because the Union troops ran first, that "Stonewall" Jackson got his famous nickname. The brigade of another Southern soldier, Gen. Bernard Bee, was wavering and falling back. Its commander, trying to hearten his men, called out to them: "Look! there's Jackson standing like a stone wall!" The men looked, rallied, and went on fighting. It may have been that one thing of Jackson's example that turned the tide at Bull Run, gave the battle to the South, and prolonged the war by at least two years. Stonewall Jackson's soldiers were called foot-cavalry, because under his inspiring leadership they made marches which would have been a credit to mounted men. It was his specialty to be where it was impossible for him to be, by all the ordinary rules of war. He was a thunderbolt in attack, a stone wall in defense.

* * *

In November of that sad year of 1861, the President made another noteworthy call upon the then commander-in-chief, Gen. George B. McClellan. President and Secretary of State, escorted by young Hay and younger Tom, called upon the General at the latter's house, in the evening. They were told he was out, but would return soon, so they waited. McClellan did return and was told of his patient visitors. He walked by the open door of the room where they were seated and went upstairs. Half an hour later Lincoln sent a servant to tell him again that they were there. Word came back that General McClellan had gone to bed. John Hay's diary justly speaks of "this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes." As the three men and the boy walked back to the White House, Hay said:

"It was an insolent rebuff. Something should be done about it."

Lincoln's almost godlike patience, however, had not been worn out.

"It is better," the great man answered, "at this time not to be making a point of etiquette and personal dignity."

The President, however, stopped calling upon the pompous General. After that experience, he always sent word to McClellan to call upon him.

* * *

One day, at the close of a family luncheon, the President said to Tom: "Come upstairs with me."

In the little private office, Lincoln took off his coat and waistcoat with a sigh of relief and lounged into his chair. He bade Tom take a chair nearby. Then he looked at the boy for a moment, while his wonderful smile overflowed his strong lips.

"I've been studying you a bit, Tom. I think you'll do. Now I'll tell you what I want you to do."

The smile died quite away.

"Are you sure you can keep still when you ought to keep still? Balaam's ass isn't the only ass that ever talked. Most asses talk-and always at the wrong time."

"The last thing Father told me," Tom answered, "was never to say anything to anybody 'less I was sure you'd want me to say it."

"Your father is a wise man, my boy. Pray God he does what I hope he will in Russia."

The serious face grew still more serious. The long figure slouching in the chair straightened and stiffened. The sloping shoulders seemed to broaden, as if to bear steadfastly a weight that would have crushed most men. The dark eyes gleamed with a solemn hope. Tom longed to ask what his father was to try to do, but he was not silly enough to put his thought into words. Another good-by counsel his father had given him was never to ask the President a question, unless he had to do so. There was silence for a moment. Then Lincoln spoke again:

"You're to carry dispatches for me, Tom. This may take you into the enemy's country sometimes. If you were captured and were a civilian, it might go hard with you. So I've had you commissioned as a second lieutenant. If you should slip into a fight occasionally I wouldn't blame you much. Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War, kicked about it. He said he didn't believe in giving commissions to babies. I told him you could almost speak plain and could go 'round without a nurse. Finally he gave in. I haven't much influence with this Administration"-here Tom looked puzzled until the President smiled over his own jest-"but I did get you the commission. Here it is."

He laid the precious parchment on the desk, put on his spectacles, took up his quill pen, and wrote at the foot of it

The boy's heart thrilled and throbbed. He had never dreamed of such an opportunity and such an honor. He was an officer of the Union. He was to carry dispatches for the President of the United States. His hand shook a little as he took the commission, reverently.

"You've been detailed for special service, Tom. Stanton wanted to know whether your special service was to be to play with my boy, Tad. Stanton was pretty mad; that's a fact. Well, well, you must do your work so well that he'll get over the blow. You would have thought I was asking him for a brigadier's commission for a girl. Well, well. Being a war messenger is only one of your duties, son. You're to be my scout. Keep your ears and eyes both open, Tom, and your mouth shut. Ever hear the story of what Jonah said to the whale when he got out of him? The whale said to Jonah: 'You've given me a terrible stomach-ache.' And Jonah said: 'That's what you got because you didn't have sense enough to keep your mouth shut.' But remember, Tom, to go scouting in the right way. What I want is the truth. It's a hard thing for a President to get. I don't want tittle-tattle, evil gossip, idle talk. When I was in Congress, there was a fine old fellow in the House from Florida. I remember he said once that the Florida wolf was 'a mean critter that'd go snoopin' 'round twenty miles a night ruther than not do a mischief.' Don't be a wolf, Tom,-but don't be a lamb either, with the wool pulled over your eyes and ears. Here's your first job. This envelope"-Lincoln took from the desk a sealed envelope, not addressed, and handed it to the boy-"this envelope is for the commander of the 'Cumberland,' in Hampton Roads. This War Department pass will carry you anywhere. When Stanton signed it, he asked me whether he was to spend a whole day signing things for you to play with. Mrs. Lincoln has had a uniform made for you, on the sly. I rather think you'll find it in your room, Tom. You'd better start tomorrow."

"Mayn't I start this afternoon, Mr. President?"

"Good for you. Of course you may. I'll say good-by to the folks for you. God bless you, son."

Lincoln waved a kindly farewell as Tom, with drumbeats in his young heart, gave a fair imitation of an officer's salute-and strode out of the room with what he meant to be a manly step. Once outside, the step changed to a run. He flew along the halls and up the stairs to the attic. He burst into his room. On his narrow bed lay his new uniform. Mrs. Lincoln, kindly housewife that she was, had done her part in the little conspiracy for the benefit of the boy who was Tad Lincoln's beloved playmate. She had herself smuggled an old suit of Tom's to a tailor, who had made from its measure the resplendent new blue uniform that now greeted Tom's enraptured eyes.

That afternoon, Lieutenant Tom Strong left the White House for Hampton Roads. A swift dispatch boat carried him there. He reached the flagship on a lovely, peaceful, spring day, and delivered his dispatches. The boat that had taken him there was to take him back the next morning. He was glad to have a night on a warship. It was a new experience. And his father had told him that experience was the best teacher in the world. The beautiful lines of the frigate were a joy to see. Her

spick and span cleanliness, the trim and trig sailors and marines, the rows of polished cannon that thrust their grim mouths out of the portholes, these things delighted him. He was standing on the quarter-deck with Lieutenant Morris, almost wishing he could exchange his brand-new lieutenancy in the army for one in the navy, when from the Norfolk navy yard a rocket flared up into the air.

"What is that, sir?" asked Tom. "Is it a signal to you?"

"I fancy it is," Morris answered, "but it isn't meant to be. That's a rebel rocket. You know we lost the navy-yard early in the war and we haven't got it back-yet. That rocket went up from there. The Secesh are up to some deviltry. They've been signaling a good bit of late. I wish they'd come out and give us a chance at them. Hampton Roads is dull as ditchwater, with not a thing happening."

The gallant lieutenant yawned prodigiously. He little knew what terrible things were to happen on the morrow. That rocket meant that the rebel ram, the "Merrimac," the first iron-clad vessel that ever went into action, was to sail down Hampton Roads, where nothing ever happened, the next morning and was to make many things happen. The Confederates had converted the old Union frigate, the "Merrimac," into a new, strange, and monstrous thing. They had placed a battery of cannon of a size never before mounted on shipboard upon her deck, close to the water-line; they had built over the battery a framework of stout timbers, covered with armor rolled from rails, and they had put a cast-iron bow upon this marine marvel. A wooden ship was a mere toy to her.

The next morning came-it was March 8, 1862-and the "Merrimac" came. As she emerged from distance and mist, our scout-boats came racing to the "Cumberland" with news of the danger that was fast nearing her. The news was a tonic to officers and to men. Here at last was something to fight. Here at last was something to do. They were all weary of having the flagship lie, week after week,

"As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean."

The men sprang to quarters with a joyful cheer. The officers were at their posts. The gun-crews waited impatiently for the order to fire. And Tom, again upon the quarter-deck, thrilled with the thrill of all about him, was glad to know that the dispatch boat would not sail until that afternoon and that he could see the fight. Everyone around him was sure of victory. The foe was soon to be sunk. The Stars-and-Bars, now flying so impudently at her stern, was to be hung up as a trophy in the ward-room of the "Cumberland." It never was.

The ram steered straight for the flagship. She did not fire a shot, though the flagship's cannon roared. A tongue of fire blazed from every porthole of the starboard side, towards which she came, silently and swiftly. Behind every tongue of fire there rushed a cannon-ball. Many a ball hit the "Merrimac." A wooden ship would have been blown to bits by the concentrated fury of the cannonade. Alas! the cannon-balls glanced from her armored sides "like peas from a pop-gun." They rattled like hail upon her and did her no more hurt than hail-stones would have done. She came on like an irresistible Fate. There had been shouts of savage joy below decks when the first order to fire had echoed through them. A burst of wild cheering from the gun-crews had almost drowned the first thunder of the guns. There were no shouts or cheers now. Sharp orders pierced the clangor of artillery.

"Stand by to board!"

The marines formed quickly at the starboard bow of the "Cumberland." Then at last the guns of the "Merrimac" spoke. She was close upon her prey now. The sound of her first volley was the voice of doom. Her great cannon sent masses of iron through and through the pitiful wooden walls that had dared to stand up against walls of iron. The shrieks of wounded men, of men screaming their mangled lives away, rolled up to the quarter-deck. A messenger dashed up there.

"Half the gun-crew officers are dead. Send us others!"

"Go below," said Lieutenant Morris, turning to two young midshipmen who stood near Tom, "keep the guns manned."

The two middies bounded below and Tom bounded down with them. There was no hope of victory now, but the fight must be fought to a finish. If the cannon could still be served, a lucky shot might strike the foe in a vital part, might disable her engines, might carry away her steering-gear, might-there was a long chapter of possible accidents to the "Merrimac" that might still save the "Cumberland" from what seemed to be her sure destruction. As the three boys raced down to the gun-deck, they saw a fearful scene. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere. The sawdust that in those days used to be strewn about, before entering action, in order to soak up the blood of the men who fell and keep the decks from growing slippery with it, had soaked up all it could, but there were thin red trickles flowing along the deck. Two or three of the cannon had been dismounted. Crushed masses that had been human flesh lay beneath them. A dying officer half raised himself to give one last command and fell back dead before he could speak. The men were standing to their task as American sailors are wont to do, but like all men they needed leaders. Three leaders came. The two middies and Tom took command of these officerless cannon. The other two boys knew their work and did it. Tom knew that it was his business to keep his cannon at work and he did it. He repeated, mechanically:

"Load! Fire! Load! Fire!"

His men responded to the command. The cannon roared once, twice. Then there came a sickening shock. The rebel ram drove its iron prow home through the side of the "Cumberland." The good ship reeled far over under the deadly blow, righted herself, but began to sink. Her race was run. The black bulk of the "Merrimac" was just opposite the porthole of the gun Tom was handling. There was a last order. With the lips of their muzzles wet with the engulfing sea, the cannon of the "Cumberland" roared their last defiance of death. Down went the ship. The sea about her was black with wreckage and with struggling men. Boats from other ships and from the shore darted among them, picking them up. The dispatch boat that had brought Tom down was busy with that good work. The "Merrimac" could have sunk her without effort, but of course the Confederates never dreamed of making the effort. Americans do not fire at drowning men. When Tom jumped into the water, as the ship sank beneath him, he swam to a shattered spar and clutched it. But other men who could not swim clutched at it too. It threatened to sink with their added weight and carry them down with it. So the boy, thoroughly at home in the water, let go, turned upon his back, floated with his nose just above the surface, and waited for the help that was at hand. A boat-hook caught his trousers at the waist-band. He was pulled up to the deck of the dispatch boat. It was not quite the way in which he had expected to board her. From her bridge, with the deck below him crowded with the rescued sailors of the "Cumberland," he saw the second sad act of that day's tragedy.

The "Merrimac" had backed away, after that terrible thrust of her iron ram, until she was free from the ship she had destroyed. Then she laid her course for the "Congress," invincible yesterday, today helplessly weak in the face of this new terror of the seas. The "Congress" fought to the last gasp, but that last gasp came all too soon. Raked fore and aft by her adversary's guns, unable to fire a single effective shot in reply, she ran upon a shoal while trying to escape from being rammed and lay there, no longer a fighting machine, but a mere target for her foe. Her captain could not hope to save his ship. The only thing he could do was to save the lives of such of his crew as were still alive. And there was but one way to do that. The "Congress" surrendered. The Stars-and-Stripes fluttered down from her masthead. In place of the flag of the free, the Stars-and-Bars, symbol of slavery, flew above the surrendered ship. The "Cumberland," going down with her flag, had had the better fate of the two.

The "Merrimac," justly satisfied with her day's work and with the toll she had taken of the Union squadron, steamed proudly back to Norfolk, to repair the slight damages she had suffered and to make ready to complete her conquest on the morrow. Three Union ships still lay in Hampton Roads, great frigates, the finest of their kind then afloat, perfectly appointed, fully manned,-and as useless as though they had been the toy-boats of a child. The "Minnesota," now the flagship, signaled Captain Lawrence's stirring slogan: "Don't give up the ship!" It might have been called a bit of useless bravery, but no bravery is useless. At least the officers and men of the three doomed ships would fight for the flag until they died. It was just possible that one of the three might so maneuver that she would strike the foe amidships and sink with her to a glorious death.

That night the wild anxiety at Hampton Roads was more than echoed at New York and Washington. The wires had told the terrible tale of the "Merrimac." It was thought she could go straight to New York, sink all the shipping there, command the city and levy tribute upon it. Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles of Connecticut, wrote in his diary that night: "The most frightened man on that gloomy day was the Secretary of War. He was at times almost frantic.... He ran from room to room, sat down and jumped up after writing a few words, swung his arms, and scolded and raved." Hay records that "Stanton was fearfully stampeded. He said they would capture our fleet, take Fort Monroe, be in Washington before night."

Without consulting the Secretary of the Navy, Stanton had some fifty canal-boats loaded with stone and sent them to be sunk on Kettle Bottom Shoals, in the Potomac, to keep the "Merrimac" from reaching Washington. The canal-boats reached the Shoals, but the order to sink them was countermanded by cooler heads. They were left in a long row, tied up to the river bank.

* * *

The three doomed ships at Hampton Roads soon knew that at nine o'clock of that fateful night there had steamed in from the ocean a Union iron-clad. Her coming, however, brought scant comfort.

"What is she like?" asked the first captain to hear the news.

"Like? She's like a cheese-box on a raft."


It was not a bad description. She was the "Monitor," an unknown boat of an unknown type that day, and on the morrow the most famous fighting craft that ever sailed the seas. She was born of the brain of a Swedish-American, Capt. John Ericsson, whose statue stands in Battery Park, the southern tip of the metropolis, looking down to the ocean he saved for freedom's cause.

Lieut. A. L. Worden, commanding the "Monitor," was soon in consultation with the other commanders. They scarcely tried to disguise their belief that he had merely brought another predestined victim. His ship was tiny, compared with the "Merrimac." She was not built to ram, as was her terrible antagonist. Her guns were of a greater caliber, to be sure, than any wooden ship mounted, but there were but two of them and they could be brought to bear only by revolving the "Monitor's" turret,-a newfangled device in everyday use now, but then unknown and consequently despised. Men either fear or despise the unknown. They are usually wrong in doing either. The council of captains agreed upon a plan for the next day's fight. The plan was based upon the theory that the "Monitor" would be speedily sunk. Nevertheless, she was to face the foe first of all.

Again the next morning came and again there came the rebel ram. Decked out in flags as if for a festival, proudly certain of victory, the "Merrimac" steamed down Hampton Roads. The cheese-box on a raft steamed out to meet her. It was David confronting Goliath. Goliath had fourteen guns and David had two. The iron-clads came nearer and the most famous sea-duel ever fought began. Tom saw it all from the bridge of the "Minnesota." Both vessels fired and fired again, without result. Their armor defied even the big guns they carried. Then the "Merrimac" tried to bring her deadly ram into play. The "Monitor" dodged into shoal water, hoping her foe would follow her and run aground. The "Merrimac" did not fall into the trap. On the contrary, she left her adversary and made a headlong course for the helpless "Minnesota." On board the latter, drums beat to quarters, shrill whistles gave orders, and the great ship moved forward to what seemed certain destruction. But the "Monitor" slipped away from the shoals and made after the "Merrimac," firing her guns as rapidly as her creaking turret could turn. The "Merrimac" faced about, bound this time to make short work of this wretched little gnat that was seeking to sting her. This time the two came to close grips. Each tried to ram the other down. Each struck the other, but struck a glancing blow. They lay almost alongside and pounded each other with their giant guns. A missile from the "Monitor" came through a porthole of the "Merrimac," breaking a cannon and dealing death and destruction within her iron sides. She turned and ran for safety to the shelter of the Confederate batteries at Norfolk. The "Monitor" lay almost unharmed upon the gentle waves of Hampton Roads, the ungainly master of the seas. The "Merrimac" never dared again to try conclusions with her stout little rival. She stayed at her moorings until she was blown up there just before the Union forces captured Norfolk. The Union blockade was never broken. The "Monitor" survived the fight only to founder later in "the graveyard of ships," off Cape Hatteras.

The wires had told the story of the famous fight before Tom reached Washington, but he was the first eye-witness of it to reach there and he had to tell the tale many and many a time. His first auditors were Lincoln and Secretary Welles. The dispatch boat that carried him back put him on board the President's boat, south of Kettle Bottom Shoals, on the Potomac, in obedience to orders signaled to it. When he had finished his story, there was silence for a moment. The boy saw Lincoln's lips move, perhaps in prayer, perhaps in thanksgiving. Then the grave face relaxed and the pathetic eyes twinkled with humor. The President laid his hand upon the Secretary's arm and pointed to a long line of stone-laden canal-boats that bordered the bank.

"There's Stanton's navy," said Lincoln.

* * *

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