The Cruise of the St. Louis; Sickness and Suffering, A Cry from the Deep.

New York Times, 3 September 1861

Friday, July 12, 1861.

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

In your issue of June 28 I have just read a long letter, over the signature of "Robin," dated from Fort Pickens, and I desire to make a few remarks on that letter, and to correct a few errors in it. The writer is evidently a soldier, or at least he doubtless wears the uniform of one, and he complains loudly of the blockading fleet at that place leaving its immediate vicinity at every alarm. He says: "Not feeling inclined to risk a collision, our men-of-war moved and are continually moving." Well, of course we are, else what are we here for? To lay idly at our anchors, and permit vessels to come and go ad libitum? And, with regard to "not feeling inclined for a collision," I am confident that, when called upon, the men-of-war will, show themselves as much inclined for the fray as their brethren on shore, and expect to give as good an account of themselves. What does "Robin" fear? Does he suppose that Fort Pickens and its inmates alone require the protection of the fleet? Does he suppose that we are sent here solely for his protection? Warrington is not the only place on the coast that requires our presence; and how are we, with the small force we have, to watch all the harbors, &c., along the coast, unless we do keep moving? He then goes on to tell you that he has "what is here considered singular news to tell you." It is indeed very singular, and more than that, it is not true! He says "the Sabine and St. Louis have both received orders to proceed North!". The former vessel, it is true, sailed about the middle of last month for the North, but I am sorry to say that the St. Louis is still a part of the blockading fleet, no order to proceed North having yet reached us; but, I suppose, impressed with the idea that Fort Pickens is the only place requiring our presence, he comes to the conclusion that, because we are not there, we must have gone North.

It appears to me that "Robin" has got somewhat out of his depth in touching upon naval matters. He is not content with finding fault with Gen. Scott and the Secretary of War, but he aims some heavy blows at the Navy. Not being accustomed, however, to naval warfare, his shot all fall wide of the mark. Again, he says: "these vessels have been in commission two years, but the report of a survey!! on them, states them to be in excellent condition." Here he tells only a part of the truth: the Sabine, when she left Warrington, had been thirty-five months in commission, and the term of enlistment of nearly all, if not quite all, of her men, had long since expired. The St. Louis is now thirty-one months in commission, and has been the whole of that time on this miserable, sickly, life-destroying station, while the Sabine spent nearly seven months of the early part of her cruise in South America before coming here.

But it is not alone because our term of enlistment has expired that we require to be sent home, but because we have already sent home more than one-half of our original crew sick, besides having had four or five deaths on board the ship, and the remainder of us from exposure, hard work, and the infamously bad food and dirty half-salt water we have been compelled to eat and drink, have become so completely broken down and worn out, that it would be only a matter of policy, without regard to humanity, to send us home and have our places supplied by a fresh crew.

But with regard to a survey being held on this ship: that, too, is another piece of very singular news, and like the former -- untrue! there has been no survey held on this ship, unless, indeed, the official visit of Commodore Prendergast some months ago may be called a survey; when, having the day previous, received notice of the intended visit, we were, of course, prepared for it, and because we were pronounced to be the cleanest ship in the squadron, and perhaps, too, the smartest, we were consequently, I suppose, declared to be in "excellent condition." But I perfectly agree with "Robin;" we certainly ought to go to New-York, Boston or Philadelphia, as he says, for we need it fully as much as did Lieut. Stemmer and his handful of brave, but worn-out men, whose places he supplied; for I see nothing ridiculous in the Government fulfilling their part of the contract, now that we have completed ours. But when "Robin" exclaims: "Must a law made for foreign stations, be enforced to embarrass our own coast?" -- let me respectfully ask that gentleman if he ever heard the proverb, "Ne sutor ultra crepidam?" He is evidently out of his latitude when he touches on Naval affairs, his ignorance of which betrays him. The law relating to the length of a ship's cruise applies equally to the home and to foreign stations -- nay, if I mistake not, had special reference to this station, as well it might, for, during the fifteen years I have been in the Navy, I have had the misfortune to make two cruises here before this, and each time we returned home with yellow fever, scurvy and dysentery on board. But apart from that, the duration of the cruise has nothing whatever to do with the present case. Government ought to fulfill its contract with us. We have completed the term of our engagement, and how can they expect us to keep faith with them if they are faithless to us? But when "Robin" speaks of "newspaper remonstrances," "grumbling," and "the characteristic whims of a few old salts," he is very unjust, unless, indeed, he classes fever, dysentery and liver complaint under the head of whims, for all these are now in our midst, and have been for the last twelve months. We have at this moment four men confined to cots on the close, over-heated, unhealthy berth-deck, two of whom will never more arise from them alive. Besides that, we are sixteen or seventeen men short of our complement. As for "newspaper remonstrances," it is entirely owing to such gross, willful misrepresentations as that which appears over the signature of "Robin" that we are still detained here, for, I am sure, could the Government only get a true statement of the sanitary condition of the crew of this ship, we should be ordered home forthwith. I cannot believe that the Secretary of the Navy would be so unwise, so impolitic, I will not say inhuman, as to detain us here, inefficient and worn out as we are, the result of disease, exposure and bad food, did he but know our true condition.

But "Robin" says, and this time truly, that "steamers are his only reliance here." I am of the same opinion, and I heartily wish that the Navy Department would think the same; in fact, I believe they would, if they knew how utterly useless and inefficient this ship is. For example, here we have been nearly seven days going a distance of seventy-five miles, for the purpose of getting in a fresh supply of water, and as it was not undertaken until it was dangerous to delay it any longer, we ran the risk of perishing for want of that useful article which, filthy and bad as it generally is, is very acceptable in such weather as this, with the thermometer above 90° whereas, had this ship been a steamer, we could have accomplished our errand and returned to our station on the blockade in less than half the time it has taken us to make this passage.

But after all his fault-finding with the sailors, "Robin" concludes with saying, that as artillerists, "they are worth their weight in gold." I am sure we feel very proud of the compliment. But he need not fear that if we are sent home, our place will be supplied by green hands "who do not know a handspike from a sponge;" for there are hundreds of well-drilled sailors left at home yet; they all know how to handle their guns, they are all "inclined to risk a collision," and I expect they all know how to put a fuze into a shell; as long as they are left then, "Robin" need not grumble about not being protected, for a crew of healthy men fresh from the North will certainly be better able to afford him protection than the broken-down, unhealthy crew now on board the St. Louis.


P.S. -- While I have been engaged in writing the above, we have witnessed a melancholy verification of my words. On the evening of the 15th, one of our sick men breathed his last, -- his death was caused by congestion of the liver and lungs, the result of exposure to the heavy rains and dews of this tropical clime, -- thus adding another name to the list of the victims of an absurd and cruel policy. V. DE P.