The very sinkable Thomas Oliver Selfridge
There stands in U.S. Naval History an officer who drew the black bean not once, or twice, but well…let us just get into it.
Born 6 February 1836 in old Charlestown, Massachusetts just a generation past the War of 1812, T.O. Selfridge, Jr. came from a naval family. His father, Thomas Oliver Selfridge, Sr. had been in the Navy since 1818 and at the time of his son and namesake’s birth was a Lieutenant in the Pacific Squadron.
The younger Selfridge soon enrolled at the United States Naval Academy as an Acting midshipman on 3 October 1851, then graduated at age 18 (they minted them young back then) on 10 June 1854 in the Academy’s first class. There were six members, of which Selfridge was curiously the only one whose first name did not start with a “J.”
-John Sanford Barnes
-Joseph N Miller
-Thomas Oliver Selfridge
-John M Stribling
-James Madison Todd
By then his father was a full captain at the Boston Navy Yard and Selfridge the Younger shipped out on the aging 54-gun frigate USS Independence, then in the Pacific Squadron, for two years. Then came service on the 76-foot coastal survey schooner USS Nautilus before heading to the African Squadron for two years as a master on the 18-gun Boston-class sloop-of-war USS Vincennes, fresh off her famous circumnavigation of the globe.
When Vincennes was laid up in 1860, the young Selfridge was assigned to the “razeed” frigate USS Cumberland who had started life as a 50-gun frigate but was given a major overhaul that stripped her top gun deck away and gave her two dozen 9 and 10-inch Dahlgrens. As flagship of the Home Squadron, Mr. Selfridge was probably looking forward to some easy stateside service out of Hampton Roads after spending almost six solid years at sea and abroad.
Then came secession and Civil War.
A gunnery officer on Cumberland, he was part of the men who went ashore in an effort to burn the naval stores and spike 3,000 or so cannon that were scattered about the huge Navy base at Norfolk after Virginia left the Union. Leaving the port just ahead of state militia, Cumberland was soon in action with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron exchanging pot shots with Confederate positions on the Virginia coast, watching for blockade-runners, and the like.
Cumberland had the misfortune to run into a converted screw frigate scuttled in the retreat from Norfolk– USS Merrimack, turned into ironclad ram CSS Virginia, on the morning of 8 March 1862. The ironclad crippled Cumberland during a furious cannon exchange, and then rammed in her forward starboard bow, sending her to the bottom. While Virginia took a good licking from Cumberland‘s big Dahlgrens, at the end of the day, the ironclad was still afloat and Cumberland was not.
The survivors of Cumberland, Selfridge included (he was able to slip out of a water filled gun port) soon were dispersed in other assignments throughout the Navy. He briefly commanded USS Monitor, after Lieutenant John L. Worden was wounded, and was soon sent off to another experimental vessel.
Selfridge was sent to the oar-powered submersible (not making this up) Alligator in August where he was the first U.S. Navy officer to command a submarine, though this endeavor tanked miserably. The tests of the green-hulled boat proved unsatisfactory, with the waterlogged ship left adrift as they helplessly floated down the river until rescued, leading Selfridge to pronounce “the enterprise… a failure.”
Finding other work for our young mariner, the Navy put Selfridge in his second command, that of the City-class ironclad river gunboat USS Cairo.
The ships, called “Pook’s Turtles” after their designer, were the United States’ first ironclad warship, pre-dating the USS Monitor by several months. Each cost $191,000 (about $5-million in today’s figures) which was a bargain.
The 175-foot long boat could float in just 6 feet of muddy water and motor upstream at over 8-knots, powered by her 2 horizontal steam engines and five oblong coal-fired boilers pushing a 22-foot wide paddle-wheel at her stern.
However, Selfridge would have his command but a few months as Cairo was sunk by a Confederate remote detonated naval mine in the Yazoo River on 12 December 1862. Though she suffered no casualties, it was the second ship Selfridge had blown out from under him in the same year and he expected to be thrown out of the Navy for it.
Though no lives were lost, the sinking of the Cairo earned Selfridge considerable criticism. Admiral Porter accused him of disobeying orders adding, “My own opinion is that due caution was not observed.” The admiral, apparently impressed with Selfridge’s aggressiveness, however, later withdrew his censure: “I can see in it nothing more than one of the accidents of war arising from a zealous disposition on the part of the commanding officer to perform his duty.”
With Naval officers short, he was kept in the trade however and given command two subsequent gunboats of the Mississippi Squadron, the sidewheeler tinclad USS Manitou (20 May 1863-12 July 1863) then the larger the timberclad sidewheeler USS Conestoga from 13 July forward.
Conestoga served on the Black, Tensas, and Ouachita Rivers in the Western Department until she was sunk by collision, 8 March 1864, with USS General Price off Bondurant Point while on her way to join the expedition up the Red River.
Doh! Three ships in three years.
Nonetheless, now-Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. immediately took command of the brand new Neosho-class monitor USS Osage and arguably put her to good use, helping capture Fort DeRussy and then Alexandria, Louisiana, the latter by herself without firing a shot.
He later used Osage to great effect at Blair’s Landing where bombardment from the monitor killed Confederate Brig. Gen Thomas Green, the swashbuckling Texas cavalry commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, and most of his staff. It was either that or lose his ship to horse mounted troopers, which would have likely been a bit of a sting to the pride of the Navy.
General Green asked the 36th Texas Cavalry to mount and then asked who would follow him to the river. The river was at its lowest level in 10 years and with Texas war whoops and Rebel yells, General Green and these brave men rode right into the Red River, right into the mouths of the Yankee guns. They attacked the Osage and got to within 20 feet of it before being pushed back. Suddenly 6 more Yankee gunboats came around the bend in the river and joined in the fight.
General Green decided to make one more charge on the Osage and he ordered his men to fire directly into the portholes of the vessel in an attempt to capture it. General Green was everywhere encouraging his men and cheering them forward like a true leader does in battle. As he led the Texans to within 40 feet of the Osage, we have all heard that one lucky shot can save or win a battle, which is what happened. Suddenly the Osage fired its guns directly into the charging Texans.
The grape shot scatted like giant buckshot and one ball hit General Green above his right eye, decapitating him on the spot. The Texas cavalrymen saw what had happened and brought the General and his wounded horse from the river. Their beloved general was dead. Slowly, after an hour or so, the firing began to subside and eventually the Confederates pulled back from the river.
However, in May, with Selfridge aboard going on three months, Osage grounded on a sandbar near Helena, Arkansas and could not be refloated due to the rapidly falling water level even when some of her armor was removed. As the water receded, the heavy gunboat began to hog at the ends because the sand just supported her middle. This caused her longitudinal bulkheads to split and broke many rivets in her hull and on her deck.
Osage was repaired in place before being refloated at the end of November– but by then Selfridge had been reassigned to the USS Vindicator from where he commanded the gunboats of the then-quiet Fifth District near Waterport, Louisiana/Natchez, Mississippi.
It was in his district and during his time in that saddle that one of his small boats USS Rattler, the infamous little gunboat, shelled a church in Rodney, Mississippi after they lost a number of their crew during a Confederate cavalry raid at said church.
There is this dispatch he fired off to Adm. Porter.
After this, Selfridge found himself reassigned out of the rivers to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, where he took command of the Unadilla-class gunboat USS Huron and was given command of a naval landing party in the disastrous attack on Fort Fisher in early 1865.
Sent ashore to command the fourth battalion of Navy’s 1,600-sailor brigade in what was to be an “easy” attack on Fisher’s Northeast Bastion, the force was greeted instead by murderous fire from entrenched and protected elevated positions, in short, walking right into tactical disadvantage of the kind shown in the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan— only Selfridge had bluejackets and not Rangers, and no bangalores. A small force of Marines were attached to the brigade, but were in the rear to provide covering fire– because all the bluejackets had were handguns and boarding weapons!
From the Army’s Center for Military History’s take on the Navy Brigade’s attack at Fisher, part of the overall Wilmington Campaign
Already under sporadic cannon and rifle fire, the naval brigade charged in an elongated mass of shouting sailors and marines, with the officers quickly losing control. When the naval bombardment shifted to the sea face to prevent firing into their own troops, the unsupported sailors advanced down the open beach into a deadly hail of rifle fire and canister from Confederates on the fort’s parapets. The sailors and marines moved in bounds, fewer getting up to go forward each time. Confusion reigned as officers fell and order disintegrated. With no covering naval gunfire to suppress them, Confederate defenders stood in the open and fired into the mass below. It became a slaughter. A few sailors reached the foot of the Northeast Bastion, only to be cut down from above. Under withering fire and without direction, the sailors and marines broke, degenerating into a disorganized mob and fleeing back up the beach
Of the action, Selfridge said, “expecting a body of sailors, collected hastily from different ships, unknown to each other, armed with swords and pistols, to stand against veteran soldiers armed with rifle and bayonets” amounted to a tragic and “fatal” mistake.
Indeed, his force lost nearly a quarter of the men who hit the beaches that day as casualties within minutes and accomplished little.
Post war shuffles
When peace broke out in April, Selfridge was soon moved to a desk job at the Naval Academy and married Ellen F. Shepley.
The officer was 29 years of age and had 11 years of sea service under his belt including seeing more elephants than an African game warden, leaving hulls scattered around Southern coastlines and river beds and cannonballs in the occasional church.
It was while at the Academy that Selfridge’s father, the Commodore Selfridge, retired from the Navy after 48 years on 24 April 1866, having spent the Civil War in command of Mare Island Naval Yard. He was later elevated to the rank of Rear Admiral on the retired list.
In 1867, Selfridge the Younger was made commander of the Academy’s training ship, the old sail frigate USS Macedonian, took mids out on cruises from Newport and Annapolis, and then in 1869 was tapped to become something of an explorer.
He led the two year long Selfridge Expedition to the Isthmus of Darien (Panama), dropped off by USS Nipsic. The purpose of the expedition was to determine a canal route and a collection of photographs taken by Timothy O’Sullivan is in the Library of Congress.
Upon returning from Panama, Selfridge was given his father’s old position as commander of the Boston Naval Yard, led a surveying expedition of the Amazon River, was sent to France on a diplomatic mission, and commanded the Torpedo Station at Newport (after all, he had been sunk by a naval mine once before, so he was an expert.)
He made full commander 31 December 1869 and captain 24 February 1881.
Then came his final sea command of an individual vessel, that of the Algoma-class screw sloop USS Omaha in the Asiatic Squadron, which he assumed in 1885. It was on Omaha that he decided to give her 9 and 11-inch guns some trigger time within 3-miles of the Japanese coast using the Japanese island of Ikeshima as a backstop on 4 March 1887 and surrounded by fishing smacks before scouting the impact zone ahead of time or notifying the locals.
This peculiar peacetime shore bombardment resulted in the deaths of four Japanese and the wounding of seven others.
Selfridge was relieved by Omaha‘s Executive officer who took him to Yokohama where a Court of Inquiry kept him in suspense for five months. Publicly humiliated, he was sent before an official court at the Washington Naval Yard the next year and acquitted.
Selfridge was sent back to the Boston Navy Yard, was promoted to commodore 11 April 1894 and placed as the President of the Board of Inspection, commanded the European Squadron the next year and was made a rear admiral 28 February 1896– making the first father and son to be admirals on the Naval List– then represented the U.S. at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
He retired from the Navy 6 February 1898, just days before the Maine blew up in Havana. Settling in Massachusetts, his father, the senior Rear Admiral Selfridge died in Waverly, Massachusetts in 1902 at the age of 98 and the Clemson-class destroyer USS Selfridge (DD-320) was named for him in 1919.
Selfridge the Younger joined his father in the Neptune’s wardroom in 1924 at the age of 87 and he had a destroyer of his own, the Porter-class USS Selfridge (DD-357), named in his honor in 1936. She earned four battle stars during World War II.
The junior RADM Selfridge has gotten a bad wrap from the history books.
Notably, Selfridge was not just a bad omen for ships he remained on, but those he departed as well.
While Osage was eventually put back into service after being pulled off her sandbar, she was sunk at Mobile Bay in 1865 and both the USS Monitor and submarine Alligator, which Selfridge commanded back-to-back then left for other postings, were later lost at sea. USS Nipsic, the Panama expedition ship, was almost destroyed in a hurricane in Apia Harbor, Samoa in 1889. The school ship he commanded after the Civil War, USS Macedonian, was later converted into a private hotel in New York and burned to the keel while employed as such in 1922. Even the church shelling gunboat Rattler, who he only commanded by proxy, was run aground and lost.
After all, he was in the first Naval Academy class, served his country for a hair under 47 years, and accomplished a number of notable deeds during the Civil War– though he did have three ships blown out from under him, left a fourth broken on a sandbar, and had his naval landing party mauled for no good result. Yes, he was court marshaled, but he beat the wrap, and in the end the Navy kept him around for another decade after, even promoting him to admiral– something that was exceedingly rare in the fleet of the 1890s.
While the destroyer named after him was scrapped, there are some relics of Selfridge that escaped time. His papers, some 1,900 documents, are preserved in 8 boxes at the Library of Congress, donated by the Naval Historical
Foundation in 1949.
Moreover, Cairo was raised from her muddy grave in the 1960s and has been preserved at the Vicksburg Military Park. When they penetrated the captain’s cabin, they found a number of Selfridge’s belongings preserved by the freshwater mud for 104 years. Several of them are on display at the park including his misspelled stamp and a Colt 1849 revolver.
Oh yeah, and they did wind up building that canal as well.