Monday, January 7, 2008

Diary of Betty Herndon Maury - July 10, 1861

Wednesday July 10th [1861]

Papa came yesterday evening. His secret mission failed but I am so thankful that he had gotten back safe that I care very little about the failure. He went down to Sewell’s Point to blow up some of the ships that are at the mouth of the James river. Five noble vessels he says are there. he aimed for the two flag ships the Minnesota and the Roanoke – Commanders Stringham and Pendergrast. Friday night and Saturday night he sent an officer in a boat to reconnoiter but there was a little steamer plying round and round the vessels keeping watch. Sunday as he was spying them through a glass and noting their relative positions he saw the church flag up on two of them. It is a white flag with a cross on it. The stars and stripes are lowered a little and that put above it. When he thought that those men were worshiping God in sincerity and in truth, and no doubt think their cause as righteous as we feel ours to be, his heart softened towards them for he remembered how soon he would be the means of sending them to eternity. That night the party, consisting of five skiffs, set off about ten oclock. Papa was in the first boat with the Pilot and four oarsmen. Each of the other boats manned by an officer and four men, carried a magazine with thirty fathoms of rope attached to it..

The magazines were thick and casks filled with powder in each of which was a fuse. Two of their barrels, joined by the rope were stretched across the ebb tide and when directly ahead of the ship let go. The rope then catching across the cable the magazines would drift down under the ship. When the strain upon the rope would pull a trigger that would ignite the fuse.

Pa says “The night was still, clear, calm and lovely. Thatcher’s comet was flaming in the sky. We steered by it, pulling along in the plane of its splendid train. All the noise and turmoil of the enemy’s camp and fleet were hushed. They had no guard boats of any sort out and as with muffled oars we began to punt them, we heard ‘seven bells’ strike.” After putting the magazines under one ship the boats that carried them were ordered back, and Papa went with the other two to plant the magazines under the other vessel.

They then rowed to some distance and waited for the explosion, but it never came, thank God, for if it had Pa would have been hung long before now.

At the first explosion the calcium light at Fortress Monroe would have been lit and the little steamer – whose steam was up, they could hear her – would have caught them in a few minutes. It took them an hour to get back.

If Papa’s going again would ensure the destruction of every ship in the Yankee Navy I would not have him go. If he had been lost then it would have been an everlasting stain upon the Southern Government that they allowed so celebrated, valuable, and clever a man as my father to risk his life in such an expedition. Europe would cry shame upon them. Are not his brains worth more than two ships? He might have gone to the boats to see that all was right, but not in them to plant the magazines.

The Yankees would never have let him go. They appreciate his services better than that.

Pa thinks he can account for the failure and could rectify it very easily.

Says he was very much struck with the culpable negligence of the enemy. That he could have gone up and put his hand on those vessels with impunity.

In their state of intense excitement the silence and stillness was oppressive. Scarcely a word was spoken while they were out and only in the lowest whisper.

Cousin Jack Maury was one of the party and was the best man Pa had, the most reliable and the most unselfish.

There was a little mechanic who went down with them from Richmond with the express stipulation that he should not go in the boats with the expedition. But at the last he got so excited and interested that he begged and implored to be allowed to go.

It would have been a grand success if they could have blown up those vessels.

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