Dirk Pitt 11 - Sahara
Dirk Pitt 11 - Sahara
Dirk Pitt 11 - Sahara
Dirk Pitt 11 - Sahara
April 2, 1865
??? She seemed to float above the ghostly evening mist like a menacing beast rising from theprimeval ooze. Her low silhouette stood black and ominous against the backdrop of the treesalong the shoreline. Shadowy, phantom-like images of men moved across her decks under the eerieyellow glow of lanterns as moisture trickled down her gray, sloping sides and dripped into thesluggish current of the James River.
??? The Texas tugged at her dockside mooring line as impatiently as a hound about to beunleashed for the hunt. Thick iron shutters covered her gun-ports and the 6-inch armor on hercasemate showed no markings. Only a white and red battle ensign atop the mast behind hersmokestack, hanging limp in the damp atmosphere, signified her as a warship of the Confederate
??? To landsmen she looked squat and ugly, but to sailors there was a character and grace abouther that was unmistakable. She was tough, and she was deadly, the last of her peculiar designthat set sail on a cruise to extinction after a brief but enduring burst of glory.
??? Commander Mason Tombs stood on the forward deck, pulled a blue bandana from a pocket, anddabbed at the dampness that seeped inside the collar of his uniform. The loading was goingslow, too slow. The Texas would need every minute of available darkness for her escape to theopen sea. He watched anxiously as his crew swore and strained while they manhandled woodencrates across a gangplank and down an open hatch on the deck. The crates seemed unusually heavyfor containing the written records of the four-year-old government. They came from mule drawnwagons deployed near the dock that were strongly guarded by the battle-weary survivors of aGeorgia infantry company.
??? Tombs turned an uneasy eye toward Richmond, only 2 miles to the north. Grant had brokenLee's stubborn defense of Petersburg, and now the battered army of the South was retreatingtoward Appomattox and abandoning the Confederate capital to the advancing Union forces. Theevacuation was underway and the city was filled with confusion as riots and pillaging swept thestreets. Explosions shook the ground and flames burst into the night as warehouses and arsenalsfilled with supplies of war were put to the torch.
??? Tombs was ambitious and energetic, one of the finest naval officers in the Confederacy. Hewas a short, handsome-faced man with brown hair and eyebrows; a thick red beard, and a flintylook in his olive black eyes.
??? Commander of small gunboats at the battles of New Orleans and Memphis, gunnery officer onboard the fighting ironclad Arkansas, and first officer of the infamous sea raider Florida,Tombs had proven a dangerous man for the Union cause. He had assumed command of the Texas onlya week after she was completed at the Rocketts naval yard in Richmond, having demanded andsupervised a number of modifications in preparation for an almost impossible voyage downriverpast a thousand Union guns.
??? He turned his attention back to the cargo loading as the last wagon pulled away from thedock and disappeared into the night. He slipped his watch from a pocket, opened the lid, andheld up the face toward a lantern that hung on a dock piling.
??? It read eight-twenty. Little more than eight hours left before daylight. Not enough time torun the last 20 miles of the gauntlet under the cloak of darkness.
??? An open carriage pulled by a team of dappled horses rolled up and stopped beside the dock.The driver sat stiffly without turning as the two passengers watched the final few crates beinglowered through the hatch. The heavier man in civilian clothes slouched tiredly while theother, who was wearing an officer's naval uniform, spied Tombs and waved.
??? Tombs stepped across the plank onto the dock, approached the carriage, and saluted smartly.“An honor, Admiral, Mr. Secretary. I didn't think either of you would have time for afarewell.”
??? Admiral Raphael Semmes, famed for his exploits as captain of the Confederate sea wolf,Alabama, and now commander of the James River squadron of ironclad gunboats, nodded and smiledthrough a heavily waxed moustache and a small goatee protruding beneath his lower lip. “Aregiment of Yankees couldn't have kept me from seeing you off.”
??? Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, stretched out a hand. “Too muchis riding on you for us not to take the time to wish you luck.”
??? “I've a stout ship and a brave crew,” said Tombs with confidence. “We'll breakthrough.”
??? Semmes' smile faded and his eyes filled with foreboding. “If you find it impossible, youmust burn and scuttle the ship in the deepest part of the river so that our archives can neverbe salvaged by the Union.”
??? “The charges are in place and primed,” Tombs assured Semmes. “The bottom hull will beblown away, dropping the weighted crates in the river mud while the ship continues a safedistance away under full steam before sinking.”
??? Mallory nodded. “A sound plan.”
??? The two men in the carriage exchanged strange knowing looks. An awkward moment passed. ThenSemmes said, “I'm sorry to lay another burden on your shoulders at the last moment, but youwill also be responsible for a passenger.”
??? “Passenger?” Tombs repeated grimly. “No one who values his life I trust.”
??? “He has no choice in the matter,” Mallory muttered.
??? “Where is he?” Tombs demanded, gazing around the dock. “We're almost ready to castoff.”
??? “He will arrive shortly,” replied Semmes.
??? “May I ask who he is?”
??? “You will recognize him easily enough,” said Mallory. “And pray the enemy alsoidentifies him should you need to put him on display.”
??? “I don't understand.”
??? Mallory smiled for the first time. “You will, my boy, you will.”
??? “A piece of information you may find useful,” said Semmes, changing the subject. “Myspies report that our former ironclad ram, the Atlanta, captured last year by `Yankee monitors,has been pressed into service by the Union navy and is patrolling the river above NewportNews.”
??? Tombs brightened. “Yes, I see. Since the Texas has the same general shape and approximatedimensions she could be mistaken for the Atlanta in the dark.”
??? Semmes nodded and handed him a folded flag. “The stars and stripes. You'll need it for themasquerade.”
??? Tombs took the Union banner and held it under one arm. “I'll have it run up the mastshortly before we reach the Union artillery emplacements at Trents Reach.”
??? “Then good luck to you,” said Semmes. “Sorry we can't stay to see you cast off, but theSecretary has a train to catch and I have to return to the fleet and oversee its destructionbefore the Yankees are upon us.”
??? The Secretary of the Confederate navy shook Tombs' hand once more. “The blockade runnerFox is standing by off Bermuda to recoal your bunkers for the next leg of your voyage. Goodfortune to you, Commander. The salvation of the Confederacy is in your hands.”
??? Before Tombs could reply, Mallory ordered the carriage driver to move on. Tombs raised hishand in a final salute and stood there, his mind failing to comprehend the Secretary'sfarewell. Salvation of the Confederacy? The words made no sense. The war was lost. With Shermanmoving north from the Carolinas and Grant surging south through Virginia like a tidal wave, Leewould be caught between the Union pincers and forced to surrender in a matter of days.Jefferson Davis would soon be broken from President of the Confederate States to a commonfugitive.
??? And within a few short hours, the Texas had every expectation of being the last ship of theConfederate navy to die a watery death.
??? Where was the salvation should the Texas make good her escape? Tombs failed to fathom avague answer. His orders were to transport the government's archives to a neutral port of hischoosing and remain out of sight until contacted by courier. How could the successful smugglingof bureaucratic records possibly prevent the certain defeat of the South?
??? His thoughts were interrupted by his first officer, Lieutenant Ezra Craven.
??? “The loading is completed and the cargo stored, sir,” announced Craven. “Shall I givethe order to cast off?”
??? Tombs turned. “Not yet. We have to take on a passenger.”
??? Craven, a big brusque Scotsman, spoke with a peculiar combination of brogue and southerndrawl. “He'd better make it damned quick.”
??? “Is Chief Engineer O'Hare ready to get underway?”
??? “His engines have a full head of steam.”
??? “And the gun crews?”
??? “Manning their stations.”
??? “We'll stay buttoned up until we meet the Federal fleet. We can't afford to lode a gun andcrew from a lucky shot through a port beforehand.”
??? “The men won't take kindly to turning the other cheek.”
??? “Tell them they'll live longer-”
??? Both men swung and stared toward the shore at the sound of approaching hooves. A fewseconds later a Confederate officer rode out of the darkness and onto the dock.
??? “One of you Commander Tombs?” he asked in a tired voice.
??? “I'm Tombs,” he said, stepping forward.
??? The rider swung down from his horse and saluted. He was covered with road dust and lookedexhausted. “My compliments, sir. Captain Neville Brown, in charge of the escort for yourprisoner.”
??? “Prisoner,” Tombs echoed. “I was told he was a passenger.”
??? “Treat him as you will,” Brown shrugged indifferently.
??? “Where is he?” Tombs asked for the second time that night.
??? “Immediately behind. I rode out in advance of my party to warn you not to be alarmed.”
??? “Is the man daft?” muttered Craven. “Alarmed at what?”
??? His question was answered as a closed coach rumbled onto the dock surrounded by adetachment of riders dressed in the blue uniform of Union cavalry.
??? Tombs was on the verge of shouting for his crew to run out the guns and repel boarders whenCaptain Brown calmly reassured him. “Rest easy, Commander. They're good southern boys.Dressing up like Yankees was the only way we could pass safely through Union lines.”
??? Two of the men dismounted and opened the door of the coach and helped the passenger throughthe door. A very tall, gaunt man with a familiar beard stepped tiredly to the wooden plankingof the dock. He wore manacles that were attached by chains to his wrists and ankles. He studiedthe ironclad for a moment through solemn eyes, and then turned and nodded at Tombs and Craven.
??? “Good evening, gentlemen,” he spoke in a voice pitched slightly high. “Am I to assumeI'm to enjoy the hospitality of the Confederate navy?”
??? Tombs did not reply, he could not reply. He stood there rooted with Craven in blankdisbelief, their expressions matched in total mystification.
??? “My God,” Craven finally murmured. “If you're a fake, sir, you're a good one.”
??? “No,” the prisoner replied. “I assure you, I am the genuine article.”
??? “How is this possible?” Tombs asked, completely unprepared.
??? Brown remounted his horse. “There's no time for an explanation. I have to lead my menacross the river over the Richmond Bridge before it is blown up. He's your responsibilitynow.”
??? “What am I supposed to do with him?” Tombs demanded.
??? “Keep him confined on board your ship until you receive orders for his release. That's allI've been told to pass on.”
??? “This is crazy.”
??? “So is war, Commander,” Brown said over his shoulder as he spurred his horse and rodeoff, followed by his small detachment disguised as Union cavalry.
??? There was no more time, no more interruptions to delay the Texas' voyage to hell. Tombsturned to Craven.
??? “Lieutenant, escort our passenger to my quarters and tell Chief Engineer O'Hare to send amechanic to remove the manacles. I won't die as commander of a slave ship.”
??? The bearded man smiled at Tombs. “Thank you, Commander. I'm grateful for your kindness.”
??? “Do not thank me,” said Tombs grimly. “By sun up we'll all be introducing ourselves tothe devil.”
?? ?Ever so gradually at first, then faster and faster, the Texas began to steamdownriver, helped along by the 2-knot current. No wind stirred, and except for the throb of theengines, the river ran silent. In the pale light of a quarter moon, she slid across the blackwater like a wraith, more sensed than seen, almost an illusion.
??? She seemed to have no substance, no solidity. Only her movement gave her away, revealing aspectral outline gliding past a motionless shore. Designed specifically for one mission, onevoyage, tier builders had constructed a marvelous machine, the finest fighting machine theConfederates had put afloat during the four years of war.
??? She was a twin-screw, twin-engined vessel, 190 feet in length, 40 feet of beam, and drawingonly 11 feet of water. The sloping 12-foot-high sides of her casemate were angled inward at 30degrees and covered with 6 inches of iron plate backed by 12 inches of cotton compressed by 20inches of oak and pine. Her armor continued under the waterline, forming a curled knuckle thatextended out from the hull.
??? The Texas carried only four guns, but they had a vicious bite. Two 100-pound Blakely rifledguns were mounted fore and aft on pivots that allowed them to be fired in broadside while two9-inch, 64-pounders covered the port and starboard.
??? Unlike other ironclads whose machinery had been stripped out of commercial steamers, herengines were big, powerful, and brand new. Her heavy boilers lay below the waterline, and the9-foot screws could push her hull through calm water at 14 knots, the nautical equivalent of 16mph-tremendous speed unmatched by any armored ship in both navies.
??? Tombs was proud of his ship, yet saddened too, knowing that her life might well be short.But he was determined that the two of them would write a fitting epitaph to the closing gloryof the Confederate states.
??? He climbed a ladder from the gun deck and entered the pilothouse, a small structure on theforward section of the casemate that was shaped like a pyramid with the top leveled off. Hestared through the eye slits at the darkness and then nodded toward the strangely silent ChiefPilot, Leigh Hunt.
??? “We'll be under full steam the entire trip to the sea, Mr. Hunt. You'll have to bear asharp eye to keep us from running aground.”
??? Hunt, a James River pilot who knew every bend and shoal like the creases in his face, kepthis eyes focused ahead and tipped his head upward. “What little light comes from the moon isenough for me to read the river.”
??? “Yankee gunners will use it too.”
??? “True, but our gray sides blend with the shadows along the bank. They won't pick us outeasily.”
??? “Let us hope so,” Tombs sighed.
??? He climbed through a rear hatch and stood on the casemate roof as the Texas reached DrewrysBluff and surged through the moored gunboats of Admiral Semmes' James River Fleet. The crews ofher sister ironclads, Virginia II, Fredericksburg, and Richmond, sick at heart as they prepared
to blow their ships into the air, suddenly broke into wild cheering as the Texas swept past.Black smoke spewed from her stack and obscured the stars. The Confederate battle flag stretchedout taut in the breeze from the ship's forward thrust, presenting a stirring sight that wouldnever be seen again.
??? Tombs doffed his hat and held it high. It was the final dream that would soon become anightmare of bitterness and defeat. And yet, it was a grand moment to be savored. The Texas wason her way to becoming a legend.
??? And then, as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone around the river's bend, her wake theonly sign of her passing.
??? Just above the Trents Reach, where the Federal army had stretched an obstruction, acrossthe river and dug several artillery emplacements, Tombs ordered the United States colors raisedon the mast.
??? Inside the casemate, the gun deck was cleared for action. Most of the men had stripped tothe waist and stood at their guns with handkerchiefs tied around their foreheads. The officershad removed their coats and quietly strode the deck in their undershirts beneath suspenders.The ship's surgeon passed out tourniquets and instructed the men on how to apply them.
??? Fire buckets were spaced about the deck. Sand was spread to soak up blood. Pistols andcutlasses were issued to repel boarders, rifles loaded with bayonets fixed on their muzzles.The hatches to the magazine rooms below the gun deck were opened and the winches and pulleysreadied to hoist the shot and powder.
??? Pushed by the current, the Texas was doing 16 knots when her bow crushed the floating sparof the obstruction. She surged through into clear water with hardly a scratch on the iron rambolted to her bow.
??? An alert Union sentry spotted the Texas as she slipped out of the dark and fired off hismusket.
??? “Cease fire, for God's sake cease fire!” Tombs shouted from the roof of the casemate.
??? “What ship are you?” a voice from shore came back.
??? “The Atlanta, you idiot. Can't you recognize your own ship?”
??? “When did you come upriver?”
??? “An hour ago. We're under orders to patrol to the obstruction and back to City Point.”*
*General Grant's Union army supply port on the James River.
??? The bluff worked. The Union sentries along the shore appeared satisfied. The Texas movedahead without further incident. Tombs exhaled a deep breath of relief.
??? He'd fully expected a hail of shot to lash out against his ship. With that dangertemporarily passed, his only fear now was that a suspicious enemy officer might telegraph awarning up and down the river.
??? Fifteen miles beyond the obstruction, Tombs' luck began to run out as a low, menacing massloomed from the blackness ahead.
??? The Union dual-turreted monitor, Onondaga, 11 inches of armor on her turrets, 51/2 incheson her hull, and mounting two powerful 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 150-pounder Parrottrifles, lay anchored near the western bank, her stern aimed downstream. She was taking on coalfrom a barge tied to her starboard side.**
**The original Monitor was only the first of her class. Almost sixty more were built of varieddesign as late as 1903.
??? The Texas was almost on top of her when a midshipman standing on top of the forward turretspotted the Confederate ironclad and gave the alarm.
??? The crew paused from loading coal and peered at the ironclad that was hurtling out of thenight. Commander John Austin of the Onondaga hesitated a few moments, doubtful whether a rebelironclad could have come this far down the James River without being exposed. Those few momentscost him. By the time he shouted for his crew to cast loose their guns, the Texas was passingabeam, an easy stone's throw away.
??? “Heave to!” Austin cried, “or we'll fire and blow you out of the water!”
??? “We are the Atlanta!” Tombs yelled back, carrying out the charade to the bitter end.
??? Austin was not taken in, not even by the sudden sight of the Union ensign on the mast ofthe intruder. He gave the order to fire.
??? The forward turret came into action too late. The Texas had already swept past and out ofits angle of fire. But the two 15-inch Dahlgrens inside the Onondaga's rear turret spat flameand smoke.
??? At point blank range the Union gunners couldn't miss, and didn't. The shots struck thesides of the Texas like sledgehammer blows, smashing in the upper aft end of the casemate in anexplosion of iron and wooden splinters that struck down seven men.
??? At almost the same time, Tombs shouted an order down the open roof hatch. The gun-portshutters dropped aside and the Texas poured her three guns broadside into the 0nondaga'sturret. One of the Blakely's 100-pounder shells crashed through an open port and explodedagainst a Dahlgren, causing a gush of smoke and flame and terrible carnage inside the turret.Nine men were killed and eleven badly wounded.
??? Before the guns from either vessel could be reloaded, the rebel ironclad had melted backinto the night and safely steamed around the next bend in the river. The Onondaga's forwardturret blindly fired a parting salutation, the shells whistling high and aft of the fleeingTexas.
??? Desperately, Commander Austin drove his crew to up anchor and swing around 180 degrees. Itwas a futile gesture. The monitor's top speed was barely above 7 knots. There was no hope ofher chasing down and closing on the rebel craft.
??? Calmly, Tombs called to Lieutenant Craven. “Mr. Craven, we'll hide no more under an enemyflag. Please hoist the Confederate colors and close the gun-ports.”
??? A young midshipman eagerly sprang to the mast and untied the halyards, pulling down thestars and stripes and sending up the diagonal stars and bars on a field of white and red.
??? Craven joined Tombs atop the casemate. “Now the word is out,” he said, “it'll be nopicnic between here and the sea. We can deal with army shore batteries. None of their fieldartillery is powerful enough to make more than a dent on our armor.”
??? Tombs paused to stare apprehensively across the bow at the black river unwinding ahead.“The guns of the Federal fleet waiting for us at the mouth of the river are our greatestdanger.”
??? A barrage burst out from shore almost before he finished speaking.
??? “And so it begins,” Craven waxed philosophically, as he hurriedly retreated to hisstation on the gun deck below. Tombs remained exposed behind the pilothouse to direct themovement of his ship against any Federal vessels blocking the river.
??? Shells from unseen batteries and musket fire from sharpshooters began to splatter the Texaslike a hailstorm. While his men cursed and chafed at the bit, Tombs kept the gun-ports closed.He saw no reason to endanger his crew and waste valuable powder and shot at an unseen enemy.
??? For two more hours the Texas endured the onslaught. Her engines ran smoothly and pushed herat speeds a knot or two faster than she had been designed. Wooden gunboats appeared, fired offtheir broadsides, and then attempted to take up the chase as the Texas ignored them like gnatsand dashed past as if they were stopped in the water.
??? Suddenly the familiar outline of the Atlanta materialized, anchored broadside-on across theriver. Her starboard guns poured forth as their lookouts recognized the unyielding rebel
monster bearing down on them.
??? “She knew we was coming,” Tombs muttered.
??? “Should I pass around her, Captain?” asked Chief Pilot Hunt, displaying a remarkablecoolness at the helm.
??? “No, Mr. Hunt,” answered Tombs. “Ram her slightly forward of her stern.”
??? “Smash her to the side out of our way,” Hunt replied in understanding. “Very well,sir.”
??? Hunt gave the wheel a quarter turn and aimed the Texas' bow straight toward the stern ofthe Atlanta. Two bolts from the ex-Confederate's 8-inch guns drove into the rapidly approachingcasemate, cracking the shield and pushing the wooden backing in almost a foot and woundingthree men by the concussion and splinters.
??? The gap quickly closed and the Texas buried 10 feet of her heavy iron prow into theAtlanta's hull and then drove up and through her deck, snapping her stern anchor chain andthrusting her around in a 90-degree arc as well as forcing her deck under the river's surface.Water gushed into the Union ironclad's gunports and she quickly began to slip out of sight asthe Texas literally rode over her.
??? The Atlanta's keel sank into the river mud and she rolled onto her side as the wildlychurning screws of the Texas spun within inches of her upturned hull before thrashing into theclear. Most of the Atlanta's crew rushed from the gun-ports and hatches before she went under,but at least twenty men went down with her.
??? Tombs and his ship hurtled on in their desperate effort to reach freedom. The runningbattle continued as the Texas shrugged off the constant fire and the pursuing Union gunboats.Telegraph lines strung along the river by Federal forces hummed with news of the ironclad'sapproach as a mounting wave of chaos and desperation increased among army shore batteries andnavy ships determined to intercept and sink her.
??? Shot and shell continuously plunged against the Texas' armor with thumps that made hershudder from bow to stern. A 100-pound bolt from a Dahlgren mounted high above an embankment atFort Hudson bashed into the pilothouse, stunning Chief Pilot Hunt from the concussion andleaving him bloodied from fragments that flew through the viewing slits. He gamely stayed atthe wheel, keeping the ship on a straight course in the middle of the channel.
??? The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, when the Texas thundered out of the JamesRiver past Newport News and into the wide estuary and deeper water of Hampton Roads; scene ofthe battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack three years before.
??? It seemed the entire Union fleet was lined up and waiting for them. All Tombs could seefrom his position above the casemate was a forest of masts and smokestacks. Heavily armedfrigates and sloop-of-wars on the left, monitors and gunboats on the right. And beyond, thenarrow channel between the massive firepower of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool that was blockedby the New lronsides, a formidable vessel with an ironclad conventional hull mounting eighteen,heavy guns.
??? At last Tombs ordered the ports opened and the guns run out. The Texas was finished makingno show at resistance. Now the Federal navy would feel the full fury of her fangs. With a greatcheer, the men of the Texas cast loose and, trained their guns, primers in the vents, the locksthrown back, and the gun captains poised with the lanyard.
??? Craven calmly walked throughout the ship, smiling and joking with the men, offering wordsof encouragement and advice. Tombs came down and gave a brief speech, sharp with barbs at theenemy and optimistic about the thrashing that tried and true southern boys were about to dishout to cowardly Yankees. Then with his telescoping glass tucked' under his arm, he returned tohis post behind the pilothouse.
??? Union gunners had plenty of time to prepare. Code signals to fire when the Texas came inrange were run up. To Tombs, as he stared through his glass, it seemed his enemies filled the
entire horizon. There was a terrible quiet that hung over the water like a spell as the wolveswaited for their quarry to sail into what looked to be an inescapable trap.
??? Rear Admiral David Porter, thickset and bearded, his flat seaman's cap set firm, stood onan arms chest where he could oversee the gun deck of his flagship, the wooden frigate Brooklyn,while studying the smoke from the approaching rebel ironclad in the early light of the comingdawn.
??? “Here she comes,” said Captain James Alden, commander of Porter's flagship. “And she'scoming like the devil straight for us.”
??? “A gallant and noble vessel going to her grave,” murmured Porter as the Texas filled thelens of his glass. “It's a sight we'll never see again.”
??? “She's almost within range,” announced Alden.
??? “No need to waste good shot, Mr. Alden. Instruct your gun crews to wait and make everyshot count.”
??? Aboard the Texas, Tombs instructed his Chief Pilot, who stood gamely at the helm ignoringthe blood that dripped from his left temple. “Hunt, skin the line of wood frigates as close asyou dare, so that the ironclads will hesitate to fire for fear of striking their own ships.”
??? The first ship in the two lines was the Brooklyn. Tombs waited until he was within easyrange before he gave the order to fire. The Texas' 100-pound Blakely in the bow opened theengagement as it threw a fused shell that screamed across the water and struck the Unionwarship, shattering the forward rail and bursting against a huge Parrott rifled gun, killingevery man within a radius of 10 feet.
??? The single-turreted monitor Saugus opened up with her twin 15-inch Dahlgrens while theTexas was bearing down. Both solid shot struck short and skipped across the water like stones,sending aloft huge cascades of spray. Then the other monitors, the Chickasaw, recently returnedfrom Mobil Bay where she helped pound the mighty Confederate ironclad Tennessee intosubmission, the Manhattan, the Saugus, and the Nahant all swung their turrets, dropped theirport shutters, and opened up with a tremendous wave of fire that found and battered the Texas'casemate. The rest of the fleet joined in and boiled the water around the speeding warship intoa seething caldron.
??? Tombs shouted through the roof hatch to Craven. “We can't hurt the monitors! Answer theirfire with the starboard broadside gun only. Rotate the bow and stern pivot guns to fire againstthe frigates!”
??? Craven carried out his commander's orders and within seconds the Texas replied, sendingshells exploding through the oak hull of the Brooklyn. One shell burst in the engine room,killing eight men and wounding a dozen others. Another swept away a crew feverishly depressingthe barrel of a 32-pounder smoothbore. And yet a third burst on the crowded deck, creating moreblood and havoc.
??? Every gun of the Texas was busily engaged in destruction. The rebel gunners loaded andfired with deadly precision. They hardly had to waste precious seconds aiming. They couldn'tmiss. Yankee ships seemed to fill up all vision beyond the gun-ports.
??? The air of Hampton Roads was filled with the thunder of discharged round shot, explodingshells, conical solid bolts, grape and canister, and even musket balls potshotted by Federalmarines perched aloft in the yards. Dense smoke quickly shrouded the Texas, making it difficultfor the Union gunners to get a good sight. They fired at the muzzle flashes and heard the ringas their shot struck Confederate armor and ricocheted out of the smoke.
??? It struck Tombs that he had sailed into an erupting volcano.
??? The Texas had now passed the Brooklyn and gave it a parting shot from the stern pivot thatpassed so close to Admiral Porter that its air suction caused him to temporarily lose hisbreath. He was fighting mad at the rebel ironclad's ease of deflecting the broadside theBrooklyn threw at her.
??? “Signal the fleet to encircle and ram her!” he ordered Captain Alden.
??? Alden complied, but he knew it was a long shot. Every officer was stunned by the ironclad'sincredible speed. “She's going awfully fast for one of our ships to hit her squarely,” hesaid bleakly.
??? “I want that damned rebel sunk!” snarled Porter.
??? “If by a miracle she gets past us, she'll never escape the forts and the New Ironsides, ”Alden soothed his superior.
??? As if to punctuate his statement, the monitors opened up as the Texas passed free of theBrooklyn and broke into the open ahead of the next frigate in line, the Colorado.
??? The Texas was being swept by a screaming bedlam of death. The Union gunners were becomingmore accurate. A pair of heavy solid shot struck just aft of the starboard gun with atremendous blow. Smoke burst inside the casemate as 38 inches of iron, wood, and cotton werecrushed 4 feet inward. Another shot pounded a massive crater below the smokestack, followed bya shell that struck in exactly the same place, breaching the already damaged armor andexploding inside the gun deck with terrible effect, killing six and wounding eleven men andsetting the shredded cotton and shredded wood on fire.
??? “Hells bells!” Craven roared, finding himself standing alone amid a pile of bodies, hishair singed, clothes torn, and his left arm broken. “Grab that hose from the engine room andput out this damned fire”
??? Chief Engineer O'Hare stuck his head up through the engine room hatch. His face was blackfrom coal dust and. streaked with sweat. “How bad is it?” he asked in a surprisingly calmvoice.
??? “You don't want to know,” Craven yelled at him. “Just keep the engines turning,”
??? “Not easy. My men are dropping from the heat. It's hotter than hell down here.”
??? “Consider it good practice for when we all get there,” Craven snapped back.
??? Then another great fist of a shell smacked the casemate with a huge, deafening explosionthat shook the Texas to her keel. It was not one explosion but two, so simultaneous as to beindistinguishable. The forward port corner of the casemate was chopped open as if by a giantmeat cleaver. Massive chunks of iron and wood were twisted and splintered in a blast that cutdown the crew of the forward Blakely gun.
??? Another shell sheared its way through the armor and exploded in the ship's hospital,killing the surgeon and half the wounded waiting to be tended. The gun deck now looked like aslaughterhouse. The once immaculate deck was blackened from powder and crimson with blood.
??? The Texas was hurting. As she raced across the killing ground she was being pounded intoscrap. Her boats had been carried away along with both masts and her smokestack riddled. The,entire casemate, fore and aft, was a grotesque shamble of twisted and jagged iron. Three of hersteam pipes had been cut through, and her speed had dropped by a third.
??? But she was far from disabled. The engines were still throbbing away and three guns yethammered havoc among the Union fleet. Her next broadside whipped through the wooden sides ofthe old side-wheel steam frigate Powhatan and exploded one of her boilers, devastating theengine room and causing the greatest loss of life on any Union ship this day. Tombs had alsosuffered grievous wounds. A piece of shrapnel had lodged in one thigh and a bullet had gouged acrease in his left shoulder. Still, he insanely crouched exposed behind the pilothouse,shouting directions to Chief Pilot Hunt. They were almost through the holocaust now.
??? He gazed ahead at the New Ironsides, lying across the channel, her formidable broadsideloaded and trained on the rapidly approaching Texas. He studied the guns of Fortress Monroe andFort Wool, run out and sighted, and he knew with sinking heart that they could never make itthrough. The Texas could not take any more. Another punishing nightmare and his ship would bereduced to a helpless, stricken hulk unable to prevent its total destruction by the pursuingYankee monitors.