Veterans of the Navy: A Decoration Day Discourse on the Deeds of Sailors

Rev. T. De Witt Talmage

The Marion Enterprise, Marion, NY, 29 May 1887

This Talmage sermon is also known as "Heroes of the Navy"

BROOKLYN, May 29 - As this is the time for the decoration of the graves of those who fell in the war, the naval posts invited the Rev. T. De Witt Talmage, D. D., to preach a sermon at the Brooklyn Tabernacle appropriate to the occasion, as often, in the annual commemoration, but little has been said of those who served in the Navy. An American flag adorned the pulpit and the congregation sang with great spirit:

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty.

Dr. Talmage's text was from James iii, 4: "Behold also the ships." He said:

If this exclamation was appropriate about 1860 years ago, when it was written concerning the crude fishing smacks that sailed Lake Galilee, how much more appropriate in an age which has launched from the dry-docks, for the purpose of peace, the Arizona of the Guion line, the City of Richmond of the Inman line, the Egypt of the National line, the Germanic of the White Star line, the Circassia of the Anchor line, the Etruria of the Cunard line, and the Great Eastern, with hull 680 feet long - not a failure, for it helped lay the Atlantic cable, and that was glory enough for one ship's existence - and in an age which for purposes of war has launched the screw sloops like the Idaho, the Shenandoah, the Ossipee, the Roanoke and the Dungerberg, and those which have already been buried in the deep like the Monitor, the Housatonic, the Weehawken and the Tecumseh, the tempest ever since sounding a volley over their watery sepulchers, and the scarred veterans-of-war shipping like the Constitution, or the Alliance or the Constellation, that have swung into the naval yards to spend their last days, their decks now all silent of the feet that trod them, their riffing all silent of the hands that clung to them, their portholes silent of the brazen throats that once thundered out of them. If in the first century, when war vessels were dependent on the oars that paddled at the side of them for propulsion, my text was suggestive, with how much more emphasis, and meaning, and overwhelming reminiscence we can cry out, as we see the Kearsarge lie across the bows of the Alabama and sink it, teaching foreign nations they had better keep their hands off our American fight, or as we see the ram Albermarle, of the Confederates, running out and down the coast, throwing everything into confusion as no other craft ever did, pursued by the Miami, the Ceres, the Southfield, the Sassacus, the Mattabesett, the Whitehead, the Commodore Hull, the Louisiana, the Minnesota and other armed vessels, all trying in vain to catch her until Captain Cushing, twenty-one years of age, and his men blew her up, himself and only one other escaping; and as I see the flagship Hartford and the Richmond, and the Monongahela, with other gunboats sweep past the batteries of Port Hudson, and the Mississippi flows forever free to all Northern and Southern craft, I cry out with a patriotic emotion that I cannot suppress, if I would, and would not if I could: "Behold also the ship!"

At the annual decoration of graves, North and South, among Federals and Confederates, full justice has been done to the memory of those who fought on land in our sad contest, but not enough has been said of those who on ship's deck dared and suffered all things. Lord God of the rivers and the seas, help me in this sermon! So ye admirals, commodores, commanders, captains, pilots, gunners, boatswains, sailmakers, surgeons, stokers, messmates and seaman of all names, to use your own parlance, we might as well get under way and stand out toward sea. Let all land-lubbers go ashore. Full speed now! Four bells!

Never since the sea fight of Lepanto, where 300 royal galleys manned by 50,000 warriors, at sunrise, September 6, 1571, met 250 royal galleys manned by 120,000 en, and in the four hours of battle 8,000 fell on one side and 25,000 on the other; yea, never since the day, when at Actium, thirty-one years before Christ, August, with 260 ships, scattered the 220 ships of Mark Antony and gained universal dominion as the prize; yea, since the day when at Salamis the 1,200 galleys of the Persians manned by 500,000 men, were crushed by Greeks with less than a third of that force; yea, never since the time of Noah, the first ship Captain, has the world seen such a miraculous creation as that of the American navy in 1861. There were about 200 available seamen in all the naval stations and receiving ships, and here and there an old vessel. Yet orders were given to blockade 3,500 miles of seacoast, greater than the whole coast of Europe, and, besides that, the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Mississippi and other great rivers, covering an extend of 2,000 more miles, were to be patrolled. No wonder the whole civilized world burst into a guffaw of laughter at the seeming impossibility. But the work was done almost immediately, done throughly, and with a speed and consummate skill that eclipsed all the history of naval architecture. What brilliant achievements are suggested by the mere mention of the names of the rear admirals. If all they did should be written, every one, I supposed that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. But those names have received the honors due. The most of them went to their graves under the cannonade of all the forts, navy yards and men of war, the flags of the shipping and capitals at half mast.

But I recite today the deeds of our naval heroes who have not yet received appropriate recognition. "Behold also the ships." As we will never know what your national prosperity is worth until we realize what it cost, I recall the un-recited fact that the men of the navy ran especial risks. The had not only the human weaponry to contend with, but the tides, the fog, the storm. Not like other ships could they run into a harbor at the approach of an equinox, or a cyclone, or a hurricane, because the harbors were hostile. A miscalculation of a tide might leave them on a bar, and a fog might overthrow all the plans of the wisest commodore and admiral, and accident might leave them, not on land ready for an ambulance, but at the bottom of the sea, as when the torpedo blew up the Tecumseh, in Mobile Bay, and nearly all on board perished. There were at the mercy of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which have no mercy. Such tempests as wrecked the Spanish Armada might any day swoop upon the squadron. No hiding behind earthworks. No digging in of cavalry spurs at the sound of retreat. Mightier than all the fortresses on all the coasts is the ocean when it bombards a flotilla. In the cemeteries for the Federal and Confederate dead are the bodies of most who fell on land. But where those are who went down in the war vessels will not be known until the sea gives up its dead The Jack tars knew that while loving arms might carry the men who fell on the land and bury them with solemn liturgy and the honors of war, for the bodies of those who dropped from the ratlines into the sea or went down with all on board under the stroke of a gunboat there remained the shark and the whale and the endless tossing of the sea which cannot rest. How will you find their graves for this national decoration? Nothing but the archangel's trumpet shall reach their lowly bed. A few of them have been gathered into naval cemeteries of the land, and you will garland the sod that covers the, but who will put flowers on the fallen crew of the exploded Westfield and Shawsheen and the sunken Southfield and the Winfield Scott? Bullets threating in front, bombs threating from above, torpedoes threating from beneath and the ocean, with its reputation of 6,000 years for shipwreck lying all around, am I not right in saying it requires a special courage for the navy? It looks picturesque and beautiful to see a war vessel going through the narrows, sailors in the new rig singing
A life on the ocean wave
A home on the rolling deep

the colors gracefully dipping to passing ships, the decks immaculately clean, and the guns at quarantine firing a parting salute. But the poetry is all gone out of that ship, as it comes out of that engagement, its decks red with human blood, wheel-house gone, the cabins a pile of shattered mirrors and destroyed furniture, steering-wheel broken, smokestack crushed, a 100-pound Whitworth rifle shot having left its mark from port to starboard, the shrouds rent away, ladders splintered and decks plowed up, and smoke-blackened and scalded corpses lying among those who are gasping their last gasp far away from home and kindred, whom they love as much as we love wife and parents and children. Not waiting until you are dead to put upon your graves a wreath of recognition, this hour we put on your living brow the garland of a nation's praise.

O, men of the Western Gulf squadron, of the Eastern Gulf squadron, of the South Atlantic squadron, of the North Atlantic squadron, of the Mississippi squadron, of the Pacific squadron, of the West India squadron, and of the Potomac flotilla, hear our thanks! Take the benediction of our churches. Accept the hospitalities of the nation. If we had our way we would get you not only a pension, but a home and a princely wardrobe, and an equipage and a banquet while you live, and after your departure a catafalque and a mausoleum of sculptured marble, with a model of the ship in which you won the day. It is considered a gallant thing when in a naval fight the flagship, with its blue ensign, goes ahead up a river, or into a bay, its admiral standing in the shrouds watching and giving orders. But I have to tell you, O veterans of the American Navy! If you are as loyal to Christ as you were to the Government, there is a flagship sailing ahead of you of which Christ is the Admiral, and He watches from the shrouds, and tLe heavens are the blue ensign, and He leads you toward the harbor, and the broadsides of earth and hell cannot damage you; and ye, whose garments were once red with your own blood, shall have a robe washed and made while in the blood of the Lamb. Then strike eight bells! High noon in heaven!

With such anticipation, O veterans of the American Navy ! I charge you bear under the aches and weaknesses that you still carry from the war times. You are not as sturdy as you would have been, but for that nervous strain, and for that terrific exposure. Let every ache and pain, instead of depressing, remind you of your fidelity. The sinking of the Weehawken, off Morris Island, December 6th, 1863, was a mystery. She was not under fire. The sea was not rough. But Admiral Dahlgren, from the deck of the flag-steamer Philadelphia, saw her gradually sinking, and finally she struck the ground, but the flag still floated above the wave, in the sight of the shipping. It was afterward found that she sank from weakness through injuries in previous service. Her plates had been knocked loose in previous times. So you have in nerve, and muscle, and bone, and dimmed eyesight, and difficult hearing, and shortness of breath, many intimations that you are gradually going down. It is the service of twenty-three years ago that is telling on you. Be of good cheer. We owe you just as much as though your lifeblood had gurgled through the scuppers of the ship in the Red River expedition, or as though you had gone down with the Melville, off Hatteras. Only keep your flag flying, as did the illustrious Weehawken.

Good cheer, my boys! The memory of man is poor, and all that talk about the country never forgetting those who fought for it is an untruth. It does forget. Witness how the veterans sometimes had to turn the hand-organs on the street to gel their families a living. Witness how ruthlessly some of them have been turned out of office that some bloat of a politician might take their place. Witness the fact that there is not a man or woman now under thirty years of age who has any full appreciation of the four years' martyrdom of 1861 to 1865, inclusive. But while men may forget, God never forgets. He remembers the swinging hammock. He remembers the forecastle. He remembers the frozen ropes of that January tempest. He remembers the amputation without sufficient ether. He remembers the horrors of that deafening night, when forts from both sides belched on you their fury, and the heavens glowed with the ascending and descending missiles of death, and your ship quaked under the recoil of the one-hundred-pounder, while all the gunners, according to command, stood on tiptoe, with month wide open lest the concussion should shatter hearing or brain. He remembers it all better than you remember it, and in some shape reward will be given. God is the best of all paymasters, and for those who do their whole duty to Him and the world the pension awarded is an everlasting heaven.

Sometimes, off the coast of England, the Royal Family have inspected the British Navy maneuvered before them for that purpose. In the Baltic Sea the Czar and Czarina have reviewed the Russian Navy. To bring before the American people the debt they owe to the Navy, I go out with you on the Atlantic Ocean, where there is plenty of room, and in imagination review the war-shipping of our three great conflicts — 1776, 1812, and 1865. Swing into line all ye frigates, ironclads, fire-rafts, gunboats, and men-of-war! There they come, all sail set, and all furnaces in full blast, sheaves of crystal tossing from their cutting prows. That is the Delaware, an old Revolutionary craft, commanded by Commodore Decatur. Yonder goes the Constitution, Commodore Hull commanding. There is the Chesapeake, commanded by Captain Lawrence, whose dying words were, "Don't give up the ship"; and the Niagara, of 1812, commanded by Commodore Perry, who wrote on the back of an old letter, resting on his navy cap: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Yonder is the flagship Wabash, Admiral Dupont commanding ; yonder, the flagship Minnesota, Admiral Goldsborough commanding; yonder, the flagship Philadelphia, Admiral Dahlgren commanding; yonder, the flagship San Jacinto, Admiral Bailey commanding; yonder, the flagship Black Hawk, Admiral Porter commanding; yonder, the flag-steamer Benton, Admiral Foots commanding; yonder, the flagship Hartford, David Glascoe Farragut commanding. And now all the squadrons of all departments, from smallest tugboat to mightiest man-of-war, are in procession, decks and rigging filled with the men who fought on the sea for the old flag ever since we were a nation. Grandest fleet tho world ever saw. Sail on before all ages! Ran up all the colors! Ring all the bells! Yes, open all the portholes! Unlimber the guns and load and fire one great "broadside that shall shake the continents in honor of pence and the eternity of the American Union! But I lift my hand, and the scene has vanished. Many of the ships have dropped under the crystal pavement of the deep, sea-monsters swimming in and out the forsaken cabins, and other old craft have swung into the navy yards, and many of the brave spirits who trod their decks are gone up to the Eternal Fortress, from whose casements and embrasures may we not hope they look down to - day with joy upon a nation in reunited brotherhood?

At this annual commemoration I bethink that most of you, who were in the naval service during our late war, are now in the afternoon or evening of life. With some of you it is two o'clock, three o'clock, four o'clock, six o'clock, and it will soon be sundown. If you were of age when the war broke out, you are now at least forty-eight. Many of you have passed into the sixties and the seventies; therefore it is appropriate that I hold up two great lights for your illumination — the example of Christian admirals consecrated to Christ and their country — Admiral Foote and Admiral Farragut. Had the Christian religion been a cowardly thing, they would have had nothing to do with it. In its faith they lived and died. In our Brooklyn Navy Yard Admiral Foote held prayer meetings and conducted a revival on the receiving-ship North Carolina, and on Sabbaths, far out at sea, followed the chaplain with religions exhortation. In early life, on board the sloop-of-war Natchez, impressed by the words of a Christian sailor, he gave his spare time for two weeks to the Bible, and, at the end of that, declared openly: "Henceforth, under all circumstances, I will act for God." His last words, while dying at the Astor House, New York, were: "I thank God for all His goodness to ma He has been very good to me." When he entered heaven, he did not have to run a blockade, for it was amid the cheers of a great welcome. The other Christian admiral will be honored until the day when the fires from above shall lick up the waters from beneath and there shall be no more sea.

"Oh while old ocean's breast
Bears a white sail,
And God's soft stars to rest
Guide through the gale—
Men will him ne'er forget,
Old heart of oak;
Farragut, Farragut,
Thunderbolt Stroke!"

According to his own statement, Farragut was very loose in his morals in early manhood, and practiced all kinds of sin. One day he was called into the cabin of his father, who was a shipmaster. His father said : "David, what are you going to be, anyhow?" He answered: "I am going to follow the sea." "Follow the sea!" said the father, "and be kicked about the world and die in a foreign hospital?" "No," said David, "I am going to command, like you." "No," said the father, "a boy of your habits will never command anything," and his father burst into tears and left the cabin. From that day David Farragut started on a new life. Captain Pennington, an honored elder of this church, was with him in most of his battles, and had his intimate friendship, and he confirms, what I had heard elsewhere, that Farragut was good and Christian. In every great crisis of life he asked and obtained the Divine direction. When in Mobile Bay the monitor Tecumseh sank from a torpedo, and the great war-ship Brooklyn, that was to lead the squadron, turned back, he said he was at a loss to know whether to advance or retreat, and he says: "I prayed, 'O God, who created man and gave him reason, direct me what to do. Shall I go on?' And a voice commanded me, 'Go on,'and I went on." Was there ever a more touching Christian letter than that which he wrote to his wife from his flagship Hartford?—" My dearest wife, I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, and I hope He is, and in Him I place my trust. If He thinks it is the proper place for me to die, I am ready to submit to His will in that as all other things. God bless and preserve you, my darling, and my dear boy, if anything should happen to me. May His blessings rest upon you, and your dear mother, and all your sisters and their children."

Cheerful to the end, he said, on board the Tallapoosa, in the last voyage he ever took, "It would be well if I died now in harness." The sublime Episcopal service for the dead was never more appropriately read than over his casket, and well did all the forts of New York Harbor thunder as his body was brought to our wharf, and well did the minute-guns sound, and the bells toll, as, in a procession having in its ranks the President of the United States and his Cabinet, and the mighty men of land and sea, the old admiral was carried amid hundreds of thousands of uncovered heads on Broadway, and laid on his pillow of dust in beautiful Woodlawn, September 30th, amid the pomp of our Autumnal forests.

Ye veterans who sailed and fought under him, take your admiral's God and Christ for your God and Christ. After a few more conflicts you, too, will rest for the few remaining fights with sin, and death, and hell, make ready. Strip your vessel for the fray; hang the sheet-chains over the side ; send down the topgallant-masts; barricade the wheel; rig in the flying jib-boom; steer straight for the shining shore, and hear the shout of the great Commander of earth and heaven, as He cries from the shrouds: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God."