"North" by Joseph Fick

Chapter 27 Portland, Maine…1884 p321~332

There was some commotion on the street, Dunn drew
the curtain aside from the window and looked out. It was
nothing, just some young people getting an early start on
the holiday festivities. Dunn saw nothing wrong with
that. It was December 24 after all, it was his birthday.
He watched the small group from his room on the second
story of the boarding house that he was staying at. The
snow that fell on them that evening was wet and cold not
that it affected them, they were a happy bunch, singing
out of tune, the tone changing with their sway. Someone
from across the street yelled at them to shut up, dogs
could be heard barking, adding to the chaotic concert of
noise. The laughing, the singing and barking dogs made
his mind flash to an earlier time and place many were
proud to have been at and others regretted, wishing that
period in their life never happened at all. The time was
1862 and the place was called Vicksburg.
Like many young men eager to prove themselves in
times when their country needs them, Dunn volunteered
for service in the Federal Navy during “Mr. Lincoln’s
War” as it was sometimes called. Because of his prior
experience the navy accepted him as a Master’s Mate
and sent him to the staff of Major General Ulysses S.
Grant, United States Army, to participate in the
Vicksburg Campaign.
Martha still had an old tin type of a younger Isaac
Dunn in his Naval Uniform, looking serious and
determined, as if decisions that he made would change
the course of battles and that victory in the war
depended on he and only he alone. His skill on the
Mississippi River and handling of boats was sorely
needed and he proved his value indeed. He was wounded
four times carrying troops on and across the river,
mentioned in dispatches and promoted to Sailing Master,
Upon completion of the Vicksburg Campaign on July 4,
1863 and after a short period of leave, he reported to the
U.S.S. TECUMSEH, an iron hulled single turret monitor
being built in
Jersey City, New Jersey.
To say he was impressed with this marvel of
engineering would have been an understatement. 225
feet long, with a beam of 43 feet 8 inches, she displaced
2,100 tons and had a draft of 13 feet 6 inches. The
ironclad’s propulsion consisted of two Martin boilers and
one shaft Ericsson vibrating lever engine, 320 hp, with a
top speed of seven knots. The vessel’s armament
consisted of two 15 inch Dahlgren smooth bore guns, it
was all fine and dandy to pack a punch against the
adversaries of the Federal government, or so they
thought. The compliment consisted of 99 men under the
command of Commander Tunis Augustus MacDonough
Craven, U.S.N.
Launched on September 12, 1863 and after finishing
sea trials to the satisfaction of those responsible for such,
the U.S.S. TECUMSEH was commissioned into active
service April 19, 1864 with Isaac Dunn, Sailing Master,
U.S.N., standing proudly on her deck. That joy, like most
others in Dunn’s life was short lived however.
It was August 5, 1864, hot as hell as men and machines
took their places for the events that were to follow in
what would later be known as the Battle of Mobile Bay.
At 0630, Craven maneuvered the TECUMSEH into
position, the pilot house of the ironclad quiet except for
the orders given. Dunn scanned the river with a
practiced eye, looking for any dangers that might come
up on them. Around the ship, the men waited, for some
this was their first battle and they were filled with a
mixture of fright and excitement, for some of the old
timers the fear and excitement was also there, they just
hid it better. At 0700 gave the order to fire on the
Confederate batteries, the current of the Mississippi
making it difficult for them to hold their position, and
their shelling less accurate than Craven would have
liked, still, he didn’t think it was that bad. It wasn’t long
before opposing forces began to engage them. Admiral
Franklin Buchanan, C.S.N. had one thing on his mind as
he moved his command, the C.S.S. TENNESSEE toward
its objective, his crew at the ready, standing by the ship’s
7 inch Brooke rifles. Craven and Dunn saw the
immediate threat at the same time and it was not good.
“Captain!” shouted Dunn.
“I see it Mr. Dunn,” said Craven, his voice loud enough
to be heard over the noise of the surrounding fire, but
still calm. An ironclad ram with 6 inch iron plating
moved slowly, its steam engine pushing its 1,293 tons at
a slow and steady five knots toward the TECUMSEH.
“Helmsman, hard right rudder!” he commanded, causing
the Federal ironclad to veer left, somewhat sluggishly
Craven noted.
“She looks like the TENNESSEE, Captain,” said Dunn.
Craven nodded his head, “She’s loaded with Brooke
rifles if I remember correctly. Mr. Dunn, we’re going to
need more speed to maneuver in this current, go below
and tell the engineer I need more steam, I don’t care if he
starts burning tables and chairs, just give me more
“Aye, aye sir,” replied Dunn. He slid down the ladder,
amidships. He could see the Surgeon and his mates had
already prepared the crews mess to receive casualties, a
gruesome task to be sure, one Dunn did his best to
remove from his thoughts. He made his way a little
further aft of the battle dressing station and went
through an iron door into the hot dark confines of the
engine room. When his eyes adjusted to the iron
darkness in which he was enclosed, he could see
sweating men, stripped to the waist, their upper bodies
dirty with coal dust with equally dirty dark rags
wrapped around their heads to absorb the sweat that
their tired bodies exerted.
Dunn grabbed one of the nearest stokers, “Where is Mr.
Whittle?” he asked referring to the Chief Engineer. The
noise in the space was deafening. The sailor shook his
head, not understanding the question. Dunn spoke again
louder, enunciating each word, “WHERE IS MR.
The sailor jerked a thumb over his left shoulder,
indicating the general direction that the engineer might
be found. Dunn walked through the maze of hissing
pipes and clanking machinery under the dim lights of
kerosene lamps, wondering how men could work in such
an environment and if this man made hell was anything
like the legendary Hades that his father and brother
preached so vehemently about, well then, maybe Dunn
would have to start changing his ways, and this part of
the ship was a convincing argument of that there was no
doubt. It didn’t take long to find Whittle.
“Bob!” called Dunn in a loud voice to be heard over the
sounds generated in the space. The engineer with three
days beard growth and a long sleeved white shirt with
sleeves rolled up showing sweat, oil and coal stains,
turned to face Dunn, his face sagging and his eyes red
from lack of sleep.
“What the hell, you doing down here Isaac?” said
Whittle with a grin, “too much fresh air topside?”
Dunn shook his head, “Nothing like that Bob, a
Confederate ram is coming up on us, looks like the
“Confederate ram, huh?”
Dunn nodded, “Yeah, the Captain wants more steam.”
The engineer shook his head, “Hell, Isaac, right now
we’re having a bitch of a time just holding everything
together as it is.”
“Captain wants more steam, said he didn’t care if ya
had to start burning the furniture.”
“Isaac, it ain’t that fuckin’ easy. One boiler’s got clogged
tubes and I got seals givin’ way all over the place. I sure
as hell can’t bring us up to full steam, we’re barely
holding 40 psi right now and I don’t know how much
longer we can hold that.”
“Look Bob, I know you got your problems down here,
but the old man needs more speed and you know if he’s
asking for it, he needs it.”
Whittle nodded his head with some resignation,
wondering why he ever left the railroad. “All right Isaac,
I’ll see what I can do, I still have a trick or two I haven’t
tried yet.”
“Thanks Bob, I appreciate it, and I know the old man
does too.” With that he hurried out of the engine room
and back to the pilot house.
“Sir,” said Dunn, “Chief Engineer Whittle said he’d give
us what he could.”
Craven nodded his head, “Very well Mr. Dunn, thank
It was then that a loud explosion on the forward
larboard side sounded, raising the hull and separating
the hull plates forward allowing water to quickly rush in.
Dunn was thrown to the starboard side of the turret his
body collapsing down the side of a bulkhead, dazed he
tried to stand but couldn’t and then rolled to the larboard
side as the deck tilted, articles not secured falling about
Christ, thought Dunn, this ain’t good!
Craven grabbed the pilot John Collins and the injured
helmsman, Able Seaman Owens and pushed them
through the narrow opening in the turret tower. Gripping
onto the ladder he reached out. “Dunn! Dunn, get up and
take my hand!”
Dunn using all the strength he could muster pushed off
as hard as he could and reached for Craven’s hand, not
quite reaching it.
“Come on lad, there isn’t much time!” said Craven,
straining to hold onto the ladder. Dunn reached again,
their fingers touched and then grabbed. Craven pulled
the young sailing master up and pushed him through the
small hatch and out of the turret. Dunn rolled over the
hot iron deck and splashed into the cool muddy water of
the Mississippi River.
The water brought him to his senses and he started
swimming away from the healing TECUMSEH as fast as
he could, putting as much distance between himself and
the sinking ironclad, least he be sucked under. He saw
Collins and Owens and swam toward them, hearing a
rumbling sound, he turned to see the TECUMSEH
capsize and sink. The time from the explosion to the
sinking was 25 seconds.
Dunn looked about. The smell of sulfur and heavy
smoke surrounded him and stung his eyes, black from
stacks white from heavy guns. There was burning
wreckage and gunfire. Seeing the pilot and helmsman,
he began swimming towards them again. When he got
close enough, he hailed Collins, “Which way?”
The pilot shook his head, “Don’t rightly know, but until
we do find which way we best keep our heads down!”
“Amen to that,” said Dunn treading water near the
other two men. “How’s Owens?” asked Dunn, noticing the
unconscious sailor.
Collins shook his head, “I don’t know, he hit his head I
think he’s hurt pretty bad. Anybody else get off?”
Dunn shook his head. “I don’t know, it all happened
pretty fast. I don’t think so, I think we might be the only
ones that got off before she went down.”
With the fighting going on all around them, heading to
shore wasn’t the easiest thing to do, so with no particular
place to go during the battle, they found some grounded
wreckage and tied themselves to it so they wouldn’t be
swept away by the river and waited to see if they would
be picked up.
The longer they were in the water, the more tired the
men became, taking turns to keep the wounded
helmsman afloat. As time wore on Dunn didn’t care who
picked them up, as long as it got them out of the water,
though he hoped it would be the Union forces, as he had
no desire to spend the rest of the war as a Confederate
prisoner of war.
Around 3:00 pm, men from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd
Division, XIX Corps, under the command of Colonel
Joshua J. Guppey, picked them out of the water and
brought them ashore. There was a slight breeze which
caused Dunn to shiver, some kind soul threw an army
blanket over his shoulders and gave him a tin cup of
brandy. Collins was taken to the hospital tent and
Owens…he died in the water. Under fire, the soldiers
that rescued them saw little point in bringing his body
back and Dunn and Collins were in no position to argue.
He snapped back to the present, a lonely man, a drink
in his hand, alone in a room. Hell of a way to spend a
birthday, he thought and tried to think about possible
options to change his situation. He had some time, he
could travel to Orrington and maybe see Liza, if she still
lived there, but then he knew that was a mistake before
that thought was finished. At one time they had
considered a life together a future of happiness but that
was a long time ago. When she broke off their
engagement all those years ago, she didn’t want
anything to do with him then and he knew she wouldn’t
want anything to do with him now, and he couldn’t blame
her. It was just the nature of things. No, Liza was best
He breathed a heavy sigh and turned his attention to
the lists of equipment he had brought with him
containing what he had bought and what was being
made and matched them to the receipts he had
accumulated over the last five days.
Wolfskin Parkas 30 Completed
Reindeer Sleeping Bags 20 Completed
Snow Shoes 20 pairs Completed
Wolfskin Trousers 20 pairs Completed
Beaver Mittens 20 pairs Completed
Rabbit Mittens 20 pairs Completed
Mukluks 30 pairs Completed
Canvas Tent Shelters 10 Incomplete
Sledges 8 Incomplete
Dog Harness’ 90 sets Incomplete
Dog Booties 1440 Incomplete
Leather Dog Quirts 20 Completed
Alcohol Cooking Stoves 10 Completed
Dunn shook his head. There wasn’t much time left. He
wasn’t worried so much about the sledges and tents he
knew they would be finished within the week he’d paid
extra to insure it was so. All items marked “Complete”
would be transported to New Bedford within ten days
time. He was worried about the dog harnesses and
booties though. Without the harness’ they couldn’t attach
the dogs to the sleds and Mason made it quite clear that
he had no intention of pulling the sledges with manpower.
The booties were important for the health of the dogs. If
the paws of the dogs weren’t hardened to the snow and
ice, they might injure themselves. The booties would
offer some protection. Dunn planned for four changes, for
four feet for 90 dogs, total 1440 booties. He knew some of
the dogs wouldn’t need them but, he felt better having
them. As it was, 800 booties had been completed and only
50 harness sets. He yawned and stretched, it was late
and worrying about it that evening wouldn’t help
matters none. He’d check everything again tomorrow.
Dunn stood up and placed the papers he was looking at
on the night stand and the glass he was drinking from on
top of them. He was turning down his bed when he heard
a knock at the door. 11:00 pm, who could it be at this
hour? Thought Dunn as he walked over and opened the
door. In the hallway stood the landlady of the rooming
house in her house coat that concealed very little, her
meaning was obvious. Mrs. Eden or the Widow Eden as
she liked to remind her only boarder at the moment was
a mature woman and though the years were beginning to
show, the widow could still arch a man’s brow when she
did her shopping. The widow leaned against the door
jamb her eyes were a bit glassy and there was a slight
slur to her voice, “Good evening Mr. Dunn, I hope I’m not
disturbing you.”
Dunn smiled, “Not at all Mrs. Eden, I was just getting
ready for bed.”
The landlady stepped into the room and closed the door.
“I just wanted to make sure everything was alright…to
make sure you didn’t need anything before I…went to
Dunn nodded, “You know, it’s funny but I have this cric
in my neck that just won’t go away.”
The landlady gave him a sad pout, “Oh and Christmas
Eve! Maybe I can help you. You poor thing!”
Dunn grinned and took her hand. “If you would be so
kind, Mrs. Eden…”
The woman smiled and allowed him to guide her to his
bed. “Please, call me Dora.
“Can I offer you a drink Dora?”
“You are a gentleman Mr. Dunn.”
“Please, call me Isaac,” he said leading her to the bed.
After all, he thought, the Lord giveth…