Friday, August 04, 2017

Civil War Vets Aboard the Cruiser Olympia ~ Seamen Purdy and McCue Re-fight their Ancient Battle

Seaman Gilbert Purdy (standing) spinning yarns in 1888 at the age of 60.
He would serve until 1900.
As the US Navy transformed in the 1890s from an obsolete coast-defense force to a modern, sea-going steel fleet, there remained aboard the ships a few ancient salts who had been in the service as far back as the Civil War. Aboard the protected cruiser Olympia in 1896 were two men who had fought on opposite sides: Seamen Purdy and McCue. Indeed, Purdy had been aboard the USS Kearsarge and McCue aboard CSS Alabama when the two fought their famous duel off Cherbourg in 1864.

Following is an excerpt from the book, Three Years Behind the Guns, a rollicking, page-turning memoir originally written in 1908 by John Tisdale, where we meet Purdy and McCue. Though both elders now serve together aboard the flagship Olympia, the old wounds of the ancient conflict still rankle and occasionally burst into flame again more than 30 years later.

But though both men still feel the call of duty to their very marrow, they also see the day coming when they will disembark for good. Thus their yarns often turn to more contemplative, spiritual concerns.
The Kearsarge and the Alabama
It was early Sunday morning
     in the year of sixty-four.
The Alabama she cruised out
     along the Frenchman’s shore.
Long time she cruised about,
     long time she held her sway,
But now beneath the Frenchman’s shore
     she lies in Cherbourg Bay.
Hoist up the flag, boys.
     Long may she wave!
God bless America,
     The home of the brave!
This is one of about forty verses of an historic ballad. Old Purdy hums them over as he attends to his light duties as captain of the hold, or occasionally by request, sings them out lustily at the dog-watch. When Seaman McCue chances to be in a spiritous turn of mind he joins in the chorus.

Purdy and McCue! Living relics of the greatest naval battle of our Civil War. It is thirty-three years since they fought, one on the Kearsarge, the other on the Alabama. They were young men then, each defending a principle.

McCue was of the number picked up out of the water by the English yacht, Deerhound, when the Alabama went down with her flag of truce. The destruction of his beloved ship left a wound on the heart of the seaman that never healed. The war ended. Returning to his native land, he found the Confederacy dead and buried while a vital longing for the sea was consuming him. Reasoning that, though wronged, he had always been an American, he enlisted in the United States navy, where he has remained in uninterrupted service ever since.

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Seaman McCue (as he insists upon being called) is a little man with bright blue eyes peeping like spring violets through snowdrifts, for his hair and beard have retained the abundance of youth, though silvered to whiteness by the spray of the fleeting years. How many they have numbered none dare to ask, as Seaman McCue’s distaste for age is made manifest whenever he speaks of his old shipmates now serving on the Independence. They are invariably referred to as “the Guardo Stiffs.” Poor old seaman! It will break his heart, but I sadly fear this will be his last cruise. He is efficient in his duty—sweeping the starboard side of the gun-deck, where his life is rendered as miserable as a pack of young sea devils can make it. As fast as he sweeps someone tears and scatters papers after him just to hear him swear, and yet when the day came that we noticed Mac totter on the boom, and he took to coming from the cutter by the gangway, it was whispered he would be exchanged to one of the ships going home—it was then his tormentors came to his rescue.

They begged the officer to excuse him from pulling an oar, as someone off duty would do it for him. The officer hesitated a moment, when Young, editor of the Bounding Billow, the ship’s paper, and one of the keenest thorns that had pricked him, jumped into the old man’s place, and, lifting his oar, said, “I will pull for Seaman McCue for one hundred years.”

Mac has never uttered one word of thanks. Indeed, he showed much the same disposition he did on the morning of Admiral McNair’s first inspection. Coming upon him in the ranks, the admiral said: “Well, Seaman McCue, I think it about time we old fellows should be excused from duty.” But I think the act of Young entered into his heart, for, although there was little perceptible change in his general bearing, I think he went oftener to church, and I am sure he responded more willingly to the boys entreaty for a sea yarn.

Of Purdy? He must have been a giant when he manned the guns of the Kearsarge, but today he is bent at the waist, and the surfs of time have whitened him even as they have his shipmate.

One’s first sight of Purdy is startling, for in the middle of a high forehead there gleams a bright blue star, visible and outward sign of the star gang.

After the victory over the Alabama, twenty of the Kearsarge crew in solemn covenant swore they would never desert the navy while Uncle Sam had a plank afloat, and to render the vow binding they each consented to be tattooed in a manner that would unfit them for any other station in life. Purdy is the only member of the gang I have seen. I understand there are five or six of them still on the sea.

Purdy and McCue fighting their
battle over again.
These men are not only living relics of a great battle; they are animated encyclopedia of the navy, looking with small favor on modern warfare, jumping at an opportunity to refer to the good old times when they had “iron men and wooden ships,” leaving the inference that we are wooden men on iron ships. These are two of our veterans quietly filling the niches that Time has carved for them; but it is only necessary for some jolly young tar to say: “Today is the nineteenth of June,” directly the dead embers of dissension kindle into a flame amidst whose crackling may be heard the hissing sound of “rebel,” “liar,” “white flag,” and “traitor,” intermingled with seamen’s curses—an unfailing prelude to a rough and-tumble, hand-to-hand fight that might continue to the bitter end were it not that the tormentors who start the fray always step in and separate them. The next day they are as good friends as ever.

It is entirely out of deference to these veterans that I have had the Kearsarge and the Alabama tattooed on my right arm. And it is these good ships that will bear me, when I am old, away from the humdrum of life’s cares back to the blue, blue ocean where I will set me down to rest upon the fluke of a kedge anchor and hearken again to the simple stories told in good faith by Neptune’s own sons. I will listen to Seaman McCue’s deep sea voice as he tells again that he goes to church, not because he believes the Lord is always there, but because He might drop in during divine service, and when the roll was called he would hate to salute and answer “Absent, sir.”

But his faith in the divine presence on the old frigate California is like adamant. Mac was on her for three years, and during that time neither tide nor current had the least influence upon her. Anchor where they might, contrary to all natural laws she always turned her stern to the stream. What caused it? Nothing but the presence on board of the Savior of Men, Who was so angry when the proud ship was ignominiously sold into civil service that He then and there forsook her, and from that hour she turned about and swung with the stream just like other ships. Should one manifest a doubt he will say, “I suppose you would dispute the coming of Paddy White’s ghost for his Christmas rum on the Independence, even if you saw him with your own eyes flying like a white crane out of the cemetery back of the old powder magazine.”

And when I have smiled again at these homely tales from the lips of McCue I will recall that it was Purdy who first opened my eyes to a full understanding of the distress of the Ancient Mariner.

It is his firm belief (and he is not alone in it) that in every bird of the sea there dwells the immortal soul of a sailor.

Whenever I see the old man silently watching the sea-fowls as they skim over the waters I know that he is communing with his old shipmates. These hallucinations are so perfectly harmless, so rapturously enchanting, that I gave rein to my own fancy, and in its flight I recognized in the black-ringed gull upon the foretruck the reincarnation of the bo’s’n of the Kearsarge, and in the whispering winds in the rigging heard him shout: “Cast loose and provide,” just as he piped on the morning of June 19, 1864. 
I was unable to track down any additional information about Seaman McCue, but stories about Purdy are plentiful. In fact, there’s a page devoted to him on the Spanish-American War Centennial website. More info about Seaman Purdy may be found at TogetherWeServed.

Both of these fellows deserve our remembrance and prayers.

Olympia at Hong Kong, April 1898, painted dark gray prior to sailing for
the Philippines less than a month later.

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