|By Eric C. Rodenberg
MIDDLETOWN, Va. — This, the year of the 150-year sesquicentennial observation of the Civil War, makes “picking” in the historic Shenandoah Valley a highly competitive game.
If there is a focal point for collectors, historians and “just plain Civil War buffs” it has to be within this battle-ridden valley about an hour west of the nation’s capital.
But, anything can happen at an auction.
A few months ago in this “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” three maritime steam pressure gauges, attached to a large wooden plaque, came up for sale at a “mixed estate auction.” The auction drew somewhere between 100 and 150 bidders, most of them “crazy about Civil War stuff.”
But, the gauges garnered interest from only two bidders. The brass gauges, selling as a lot, brought a nominal price.
Perhaps, no one noticed the neatly typed letter, enclosed in an envelope, tucked behind one of the gauges. Perhaps, Civil War collectors were looking towards the land, not the sea.
When antiques collector-dealer Mark Brown was off-loading his truck in the garage late after the auction, the white envelope caught his eye. It was the first time he noticed the letter.
The letter was from the former owner. In part it read … “the one with no glass lens is by far the most historically significant. It comes from the engine room of the USS Kearsarge, the steam sloop of war belonging to our Civil War Navy, which contested the Confederate raider of similar rig in an epic battle in Cherbourg Harbor, France, and defeated the opponent … the CSS Alabama.”
Only one other Union Civil War ship is more famous than the Kearsarge, that being the USS Monitor which is presently undergoing preservation and study in Norfolk.
The Kearsarge was a 1,500 ton Mohican class steam sloop of war, built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine, commissioned and immediately deployed to European waters in 1862 to eliminate Confederate raider ships.
In mid-1864, hearing word that the Alabama – a Confederate commerce raider ship that had successfully captured and plundered dozens of northern merchant and naval ships – was pulling into Cherbourg Harbor, France for a necessary refit.
Ironclad and reinforced with chain armor on its prow and other vulnerable portions of the steam-powered sloop, the USS Kearsarge simply waited off-shore of the English Channel and “waited out” the Alabama.
Bottled up in the harbor, the Confederate ship had little choice but to raise the Stars and Bars and meet the Kearsarge head on.
For nearly an hour, the Kearsarge and Alabama made seven spiraling circles around each others’ ship, moving southwest out of French territory. Both Union Capt. John Winslow and Rebel Capt. Raphael Semmes attempted to cross each other’s bow, hoping to inflict heavy raking fire.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Cherbourg residents watched as the battle, after an hour, began to tilt to a Union victory. The Alabama appeared out-gunned; and taking shots from beneath the water line, began to take on water.
Sinking to the bottom of the sea, the Alabama took 40 lives with her. An additional 70 Confederate sailors became prisoners. The Union Navy lost one sailor with two wounded. Seventeen sailors aboard the Kearsarge received the Medal of Honor for valor during the battle.
The Kearsarge spent the remainder of her commission protecting American maritime interests throughout the world until, in 1894, when she ran hard aground on a reef off Roncador Cay in the Caribbean, east of Nicaragua.
A Navy court martial hearing determined the mishap was caused by the ship’s navigator.
Congress subsequently appropriated $45,000 to raise Kearsarge and tow her home, but a salvage team from The Orion, manned by crew from the Boston Towboat Co., determined the vessel was pretty much destroyed.
“When we reached the reef, all that was left of the Kearsarge was about 25 feet of the stern, her boilers and the engine,” reported Assistant Engineer S.S. Robinson at the time. “About 130 feet away were portions of the burned hull.”
A few artifacts were saved from the ship, including the ship’s Bible. These salvaged items, along with a damaged section of the stern post with an embedded, unexploded Alabama shell, are currently stored or displayed at the Washington Navy Yard.
But, the steam gauge – how did it get to a 2013 Shenandoah Valley auction?
It appears that The Orion’s Capt. William M. Smith sold a number of those artifacts to Bannerman’s, New York’s late – but formidable – salvage yard and first “Army-Navy surplus store.”
A listing for the item appeared in Bannerman’s 1925 catalog as “Steam Gauge, from wreck of U.S. Warship Kearsarge, serviceable order, $18.00.”
In 1949, a young college student found that Bannerman’s was still listing the steam gauge in its 1947 catalog, with the publication claiming that Capt. Smith sold them the gauge. Enamored by the history – and the brassy shine of the object – the young student purchased the piece.
Sixty-four years later, the no-longer young college student sat down at his manual typewriter and thoughtfully detailed the history of the forgotten Civil War relic. Antiques collector and dealer Brown was the first person to see – and appreciate – the letter.
“It’s such an obscure piece of history; and to think that it was almost lost,” Brown said. “That this man took the time to sit down and write about the piece is amazing, in itself. We came that close to losing a piece of our history. To have survived the wreck and the “pirate” salvage operations, not to mention two World War scrap metal drives, is nearly incomprehensible.”
Brown doesn’t know how much the gauge is worth. “It could be hundreds. It could be thousands. It could be hundreds of thousands. I don’t know anyone who has an idea – there’s nothing to compare.”
Mounted on the board with the gauges, is another Civil War-era brass gauge made by the same company, stamped with a serial number which is four numbers earlier than the number on the Kearsarge gauge.
“Would you believe that,” Brown said. “I wonder what Civil War-era ship it come from and, if it could, speak, what stories it would tell.”
Brown has consigned the gauges with Boston Harbor Antiques from Boston, one of the premiere maritime auction houses on the East Coast. It is expected to go to auction in September.
Contact: (540) 868-1141