Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran’s Day Genealogy

Illustration published in Harper's Magazine shortly after the sinking.

As it is Veteran’s Day I have decided to dedicate this post to some genealogy work. While many men and women in my family have served in the armed forces over hundreds of years, there is one story that has come to the forefront this year (remember that book I discovered during a trip my wife and I took to Harrisburg over the summer) as one of heartbreak and sacrifice. This is the story of Jacob H. Wirth.
The book discovered in Harrisburg.
The original story that was handed down through the family was that Jacob H. Wirth was a licensed Baptist minister who died aboard the steamer USS Tecumseh when it was destroyed by a rebel torpedo in Mobile Bay, Alabama during the Civil War. This was according to records found in the minutes of The First Baptist Church of Manayunk dated 29 August 1865. While I don’t know about the minister part of the story, I have been able to find substantiation of his service and of his death.  

To give you a little background, here is the summary for the USS Tecumseh from the Naval History and Heritage Command website:

USS Tecumseh, an iron-hulled, single-turret monitor, was launched 12 September 1863, at Jersey City, New Jersey. Although slated to strengthen Rear Admiral David G. Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron for operations against Confederate fortifications guarding Mobile Bay, Tecumseh served temporarily with the James River service of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. To guard Union shipping against Confederate forces, the Union Army and Navy worked closely together by blocking the channel to prevent Confederate warships from coming down the upper navigable reaches of the James. Tecumseh was instrumental during these operations, sinking four hulks and a schooner. Although Tecumseh was involved in a number of notable operations along the James River, its most famous battle would be its last--the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Tecumseh arrived off Mobile Bay on the evening of 4 August 1864. Shortly after 6 a.m. on 5 August, the 18-ship Union squadron crossed the bar at flood tide and moved into the bay with Tecumseh leading the van of monitors, which included USS Manhattan, USS Winnebago, and USS Chickasaw. The ironclads passed between the fortified headlands to starboard of the lightly-protected wooden steam frigates, taking the brunt of Confederate Fort Morgan's heavy guns. Just after 7 a.m., Tecumseh opened fire on the fort's batteries. Meanwhile, Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan's squadron, centered around the heavy ironclad ram CSS Tennessee, sortied to meet the attackers. When Tecumseh veered left to engage the Confederate ram, the Union monitor hit an underwater mine or torpedo. After a tremendous explosion, Tecumseh heeled over and sank rapidly with its captain and 92 crewmen. As Tecumseh rolled over, two shells fired from nearby Fort Morgan struck the sinking monitor.

While the above gives an accurate description of the sinking, it doesn’t give the visceral feeling of the act and the reaction from those in the midst of the turmoil. For this we have to look at the accounts of the men who served on vessels alongside the Tecumseh such as Captain Alden, commander of the USS Brooklyn which was the closest ship to the Tecumseh as it was sunk. In his report, Captain Alden writes:

“…The starboard battery was opened on the fort [Morgan] as soon as the guns could be brought to bear. Our progress up the channel was slow, owing to our carrying, as directed, low steam, ad the very deliberate movements of our ironclads, which occupied the channel close ahead of us. When we had arrived abreast of the fort, by a rapid and timely fire of grape their several batteries were almost entirely silenced. At this juncture I observed the ill-fated Tecumseh, which was then about 300 yards ahead of us and on our starboard bow, careen violently over and sink almost instantaneously. Sunk by a torpedo! Assassination in its worst form! A glorious through terrible end for our noble friends, the intrepid pioneers of that death-strewed path! Immortal fame is theirs; peace to their names…”

Of all the accounts in the Naval records, that may be the most emotional. Other accounts are more along the lines of that Lieutenant-Commander Jouett who was in command of the USS Metacomet during the battle. In his report he stated the following:

“…At 6:50 the Tecumseh hoisted her colors and fired a gun. Fort Morgan replied. In a short time the action became general between the fort, ironclads, Brooklyn, Hartford, and Richmond. At this time the rebel fleet took their stations across the channel, delivering a raking fire upon our line. At 7:35, amidst the hottest of the fire, the Tecumseh was blown up. I immediately sent a boat to her assistance in charge of Acting Ensign H. C. Nields, who pulled to the spot where she sank and succeeded in saving 1 acting ensign, 8 men, and pilot…”

While a few men were saved, my three times great grandfather was not. Jacob H. Wirth was 28 and serving as a fireman when he went down with the USS Tecumseh and he is still interred in a Naval grave at the bottom of Mobile Bay. While plans have been made at various times in the 150 years since the sinking, nothing has come to fruition regarding efforts to raise the ship. At the time of his death, Jacob left behind a wife and three young daughters the youngest of which was only a year and a half old.

But that is not the end of this particular tragedy as, back home, his wife, Mary Ann Wirth (Eppright) was tending to her daughters who had contracted what is most likely smallpox (based on the east coast epidemics of 1860-61 and 1865-73). The day after Jacob was killed in action, his middle daughter Laura (born in 1861) succumbed to her illness and passed away on August 6, 1864. Three days later, on August 9th, his youngest daughter, Mary (born in 1863), also passed away.

While she was unaware of her husband’s fate at the time, Mary Ann Wirth lost her husband and two of her three children with in a matter of four days. The only surviving child was my great great grandmother, Adah Mary Wirth. This was a sorrow that Mary would have to carry for twenty years before her passing in 1885 at the age of 48.

It is on this day that we honor not just those who have survived but also those who have passed. So to all those who served this country in the armed forces I thank you for your service and sacrifice. To those who lost their lives defending this country, I thank you for giving the last full measure. To those at home who have endured separation and/or loss, I thank you for your strength. These are the men and women who serve as the foundation of our nation and they should be remembered this day and every day.