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by Myron J. Smith, Jr.
Library Director and Professor of Library Science/History


The bell that periodically resides in the McCormick Hall bell tower began its sojourn in quite different circumstances. This article, part of a longer work on the bell by Tusculum Librarian Jack Smith, chronicles a fascinating history.

Anyone who has ever climbed the stairway to the third floor of McCormick Hall has, consciously or unconsciously, come in contact with the end of a rope swaying at the curve of the bannister between the first and second floors. Today, if one looks up the line of that rope, the cord will be seen to disappear into the ceiling of the third floor; if he or she pulls on the rope, a bell tolls.

Bells have been rung at Tusculum almost since the beginning of education here. Hand bells were employed for summons from the Doak House and at Tusculum Academy. When Old College, now the President Andrew Johnson Museum and Library, was completed in l841, a cast iron bell was hung in the ornamental cupola at the middle of the roof ridge and it could be heard from some distance. That iron bell was transferred to newly-finished McCormick Hall in 1887, where it would ring out for class changes, athletic victories, or special events for three more years before its replacement with a finer brass instrument. ...

The most important account of the McCormick bell was told from memory by Dr. Landon C. "Daddy" Haynes; here reprinted from the 1942 Tuscalana is his "The Story of the Bell":

After the Civil War, a Capt. Lytton, a retired sea captain from the East, became interested in the iron furnaces near Greeneville, and so made his home here in Tennessee. He noticed that there was no adequate way of calling workers to meals so he had a Philadelphia bell company make him a bell from the brass of one of the cannons from his old ship. Silver was added to give a finer tone. The furnaces were abandoned later, but the company was indebted to a local man,Tom Snapp, who accepted the bell as his payment. A few years later, Mr. Snapp sent his son and daughter to Tusculum. Upon visiting them, he heard the old cast iron bell then in use and decided his bell was far superior. He made the proper negotiation with the president [Dr. Jeremiah Moore--Smith] and the bell again changed hands as a payment of a debt, this time on the College account of the Snapps. So in 1890, Tusculum received the bell with a history, that has rung out to many College generations down through the years.

A view of the Niswonger Commons and the surrounding countryside from the McCormick Hall bell tower.

Armed with insight from the Haynes story and with assistance from our Maintenance Department staff, I determined to see the brass bell and thus, one beautiful July day, made my way up the dark, enclosed third floor stairway and on to the tiny McCormick Hall bell tower platform. The first thing I saw was a breathtakingly beautiful panorama of the campus to the west. When I looked back to the left, there was the bell in its waist-high cradle. Although the chime was tarnished, it was still possible to faintly see what had earlier been stamped on its side, clear for all to read "U.S.S. Wyalusing C.H.&W.M. Cramp Builders Phila. 1863." Having written a little naval history, I immediately knew that this was not a bell cast from an old cannon but, undoubtedly, one from a Civil War vessel. Back down the stairs I climbed and returning to the stacks of Tate Library, quickly learned that, in one spring month in 1864, our bell ship had fought the mighty Confederate ironclad Albemarle and five of her crewmen had, in a daring but unsuccessful raid, won Medals of Honor for trying to blow her up.

The most pressing need of the U.S. Navy upon the outbreak of the Civil War was for small, relatively-shallow draft gunboats which could not only help insure the blockade declared against the Confederacy, but actively work close inshore up and down rivers and support various Union Army amphibious operations. Here in Tennessee and on the rivers to our north and west, passenger steamers were purchased and converted to war purposes; likewise, civil vessels were acquired along the eastern seaboard. In both military theaters, however, it was necessary to build fighting craft.

Nowhere were the inland waterways so sinuous as in the Virginia/North Carolina area. Turning a large boat around in the rivers there was often hazardous, if not impossible, and yet this feat had to be accomplished in order for the US Navy to perform its mission. From this physical necessity was born a unique type of Yankee warship, the "double-ender" gunboat, which was equipped with a reversible engine and an enclosed rudder at both bow and stern that made it as simple to steer a course backward as straight ahead.

Conceived by USN Engineer in Chief Benjamin Isherwood and based on a type he had recommended the Russians build for use on the Amur River, ten distinct classes of "double-enders" were undertaken. Construction of the twenty-eight mostly wooden-hulled ships of the largest group, the Sassacus class (warships classes are named for the first vessel to be laid down), was started in the fall of 1862; all of these were named for rivers or communities bearing Indian names. ...

"Wyalusing" is an Indian word meaning "at the dwelling of the ancient warrior." In Colonial times, this was a Susquehanna River site, in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, of a Munsee and Iroquois settlement. Today, the town of just over 700 is located at the junctions of US 6 and state highway 706 some 50 miles northwest of Scranton. The contract to build the hull of the U.S. gunboat Wyalusing was awarded to the Cramp shipyard at Philadelphia, where the $157,000 craft was laid down on in the winter of 1862. The price included a specially-cast brass bell of approximately 400 pounds, which would signal time of day, changes of watch, orders below, etc.

When launched on May 12, 1863, the new ship was 205 feet long, with a beam (width) of 35 feet and a depth of 11 feet, 6 inches. Her sidewheel propulsion machinery was built under a subcontract to Pusey, Jones & Co. of Wilmington, Delaware; the suit consisted of two vertical, tubular boilers and one inclined, direct action steam engine with a cylinder dimension of 4 feet, 10 inches and a stroke of 8 feet, 9 inches. Due to a shortage of engines for the northern fleet, completion of our vessel would be delayed. When Lt. Cmdr. Walter W. Queen's 154-man gunboat was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on February 8, 1864, she weighed 974 tons, had a draft of 9 feet - and, because USN doctrine still required sails in case of necessity, was schooner-rigged with a suit of appropriate tarpaulin. ...

While the Wyalusing was under construction by Charles H. Cramp in the north, Gilbert Elliot of Elizabeth City, NC, was contracted by Richmond to build an armored ship, complete with an iron ram on its bow, to help the Confederacy regain the North Carolina sounds and hence repossession of control over eastern North Carolina. Work on the Southern ironclad, modeled, bow ram and all after the famous Merrimack/Virginia (which had battled the Union ship Monitor), began in January 1863 in a shipyard built in a cornfield up the Roanoke River at a place called Edwards Ferry where the water was too shallow to permit the approach of Yankee gunboats. First captain Cmdr. James W Cooke designed the octagonal casemate for the flat-hulled two-propeller steamer named Albemarle after the body of water into which the Roanoke empties.

Builder Elliott's Tar Heel defender, 158 feet long with a beam of 35 feet and a depth of 8 feet, 2 inches, was damaged during its July 1 launch and was towed to Halifax, N.C. for completion. Here she received her two boilers and two engines and her armament of just two 8-inch rifled cannon (one Brooke and one Whitworth) on pivot mountings. For over a year after the Edwards Ferry site was first cleared, Union officers aboard the watching gunboats of Adm. S. P. Lee's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron followed the Albemarle's march to completion and constantly appealed to Washington for an expedition to destroy what would ultimately prove to be one of the South's two or three most effective armorclads; they sought a similar solution for the problem of another armorclad, the Neuse, abuilding not-too-far away at Whitehall. The War Department's local commander, MG Benjamin Butler never could spare the troops; "I do not much believe in the ram, either in the Roanoake or the Neuse," he told Lee. ...

As was the case with the sudden appearances in 1862 of the Rebel rams Merrimack/Virginia and Arkansas, there was very little the Union Navy could do about the Albemarle. The shallow bars at the mouth of the Roanoke River prevented the introduction of Union monitors, although a somewhat panicked Asst. Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox did take the time on April 20 to wire Monitor inventor John Ericcson and ask if the Tecumseh might be towed down from the James River and gotten over the bars with the aid of a herd of camels (Fox quickly realized there was neither time or camels sufficient for the task). Adm. Lee now temporarily appointed the "spunky old gentleman" Capt. Melancton Smith, James River NABS division CO, to stop the Confederate ironclads. Smith, who had captained the U.S.S. Mississippi and Monongahela under Tennessee's own Adm. David Farragut at New Orleans and up the Mississippi toward Vicksburg in 1862-1863, had fought the ironclads Manassas and Arkansas in the west and could be expected, if anyone could, to know how to hold the Roanoke against these new iron threats.

Capt. Smith, like Farragut at New Orleans and Vicksburg . . . believed that if enough firepower could be concentrated against the hulls of the armorclads, their casemates could be cracked and the ships destroyed. ...

As attack options were considered, Smith's force was beefed up and he was sent three new units of the Sassacus class, the lead ship herself (outfitted with a three- ton ram affixed to her bow) plus the Mattabesset and the Wyalusing. The latter, most heavily-armed of the three, arrived off the mouth of the Roanoke River on April 29, the same day the Albemarle made a brief sortie and scared all of the light Yankee picket ships out of the river.

May 5 was the day anointed for an attempt by Cmdr. Cooke's ironclad to reach New Bern. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, accompanied by two troop-laden steamers, the 376 ton Albemarle steamed out of her haven. Warned that the Confederate ship was loose, Capt. Smith took his seven available ships on the attack in two columns, the "double-enders" led by his Mattabesset to take out the armorclad and the lighter Yankee ships to dispose of her consorts. The Wyalusing, Sassacus, Mattabesset, and the Whitehead opened on Cooke's ship simultaneously at 4:40 p.m. and as all four passed the Albemarle at 150 yards in line of battle, firing broadsides as they came to bear. ...

After some twenty minutes of inconclusive gun battle, an opening was presented about 5:05 p.m. and the Sassacus, pounding full ahead at ten knots speed, gallantly rammed the Southern ship, but with little effect. As the "double-ender's" engines continuing to shove the attacker into the stern of Cooke's ironclad, the two ships remained in a death lock for some five minutes, pouring cannon fire into each other at point-blank range. The Confederate vessel's casemate held, but the Yankee took a direct hit in her starboard boiler which killed several sailors and enveloped the ship in steam, forcing Cmdr. Francis Roe to back off. At about the same time, the Albemarle's colors were shot away by a shell from the Wyalusing and were not rehoisted during the action.

The Wyalusing, Mattabesset, and Whitehead, for fear of hurting their companion, had slowed or held back on their fire during the Sassacus contact, but now initiated a much-heavier gun action. They were joined in a what became a general melee by the smaller Yankee warships which had previously stood off. Smoke and noise covered the water as, for over two more hours, the gunboats hammered the Albemarle. About 6:45 p.m., Capt. Queen received an erroneous report from his executive officer Acting Master William R. Hathaway, stationed near the ship's bell, that the Wyalusing was sinking; the pumps were started and a signal to this effect made to the flagship before Queen discovered the mistake. With the confusion sorted out, Wyalusing and a smaller consort again bore down upon the Confederate; a southern sailor inside the Albemarle's casemate later reported "The Miami, attended by the Wyalusing, came up in line and opened on us with their entire armament and with the other boats doing all they could for thirty minutes, the shot striking our sides produced such a concussion nearly every man on board bled from the ears and nose."

The cannonade between the Union ships and the southern armorclad continued until 7:30 p.m. when it grew too dark to continue; at this point, the inconclusive fight was over and the contestants simply steered away from one another. The massed Union bombardment (the Wyalusing alone had fired 315 projectiles of all sizes) resulted in a reported 280 hits on the Albemarle (in fact, she was struck just 44 times) with but one Confederate sailor killed. Still, the cannonballs of the Wyalusing and her companions did damage the ironclad's steering and so perforated her smokestack that Cmdr. Cooke was forced to burn all manner of interior structures (including doors and cabin furniture) plus his lard, bacon, and butter supply just to keep steam pressure high enough to get the ship back to her Plymouth anchorage.

Capt. Smith's ships were all damaged by the Albemarle's gunners, with eight Federal sailors killed and twenty-one wounded. Remarkably, the southern ship had fired just twenty seven rounds. The Wyalusing was hit five times. . . . Despite [minor damage and the loss of one life] the Wyalusing and the other "double-enders" had gained a strategic victory and allowed overall control of the N.C. sounds to be maintained by the Union.

Like the German battleship Tirpitz in World War II, the Albemarle now became a "force in being," a threat by her mere existence to nautical activities, that had to be contained and, if possible, destroyed. ...

On the afternoon of May 25, five crewmen approached Cmdr. Queen and Capt. Smith with a plan to blow up the Albemarle. The scheme of Coxswain John W. Lloyd, Coal Heaver Charles Baldwin, and Firemen John Laverty, Benjamin Lloyd (John's brother), and Alexander Crawford, wrote Smith later, ". . . was entirely their own, except in some minor details." Having been part of yet another secret scout made two days earlier, the five, according to the ship's logbook, departed at 11:30 a.m. on May 26 "on an expedition to destroy the ram."

The five tars rowed up the Middle River with two 100-pound "torpedoes" in a nondescript skiff and, upon landing, transported the bombs by stretcher through the swamps to Roanoke River and on to a point opposite and a short ways above the Albemarle's lair. Coxswain Lloyd and Charles Baldwin then swam across (naked) with a tow line attached to the explosives which were then hauled over. Working quietly after dark, Lloyd and Baldwin joined the torpedoes together with a bridle and Baldwin guided them down toward the ironclad hoping to place the bridle across her bow, thus positioning an explosive on each side of the bow. The plan then called for him to swim clear and allow Alexander Crawford to detonate the ordnance electrically. Just a few yards short of the goal, the daring mission came apart. Baldwin fouled a schooner and gained the attention of and a hail from a Confederate sentry on the wharf. The five Union sailors were now forced to scatter.

Failing to answer the challenge, Baldwin became the target of two shots from the sentry followed by a hail of musketry. Coxswain Lloyd quickly cut the guideline, threw away the coil, and reswam the river to meet John Laverty, who was guarding the men's clothes and arms on the far shore. The two found Ben Lloyd and made it back to the Wyalusing on the morning of May 28 after suffering a rainy day and night hiding out in the swamp. Capt. Smith ordered the ships of his flotilla to undertake a search for Baldwin and Alexander and, on the morning of May 28, the two were rescued by the Commodore Hull and returned to their ship. ... Capt. Smith in his report of the mission not only commended the party for its "courage, zeal, and unwearied exertion," but recommended promotions and, for all five, Congressional Medals of Honor. Ultimately, each medal was presented. ...

A month after Gen. Lee's surrender, the Wyalusing departed the Albemarle Sound/Cape Hatteras areas, and arrived at the New York Navy Yard on May 21, 1865. She was placed out of commission there on June 10. The U.S. Navy began a rapid downsizing as the Civil War ended, selling off hundreds of vessels at auction for bargain prices. Disposal of the "double-enders" began in government auctions in 1866. One of the largest one day sales of naval vessels occurred in several east coast cities on October 15, 1867. At Philadelphia, to which she had been transferred, the Wyalusing was sold for $15,000. ...

The Wyalusing, schooner-rigged as she was, may have entered commercial service as a freighter or collier [after the war]. We do know that it was and remains common practice for important pieces of warships to be preserved and bells have always been among the most highly-prized display items rescued from the torch. The bell from the Wyalusing is, as far as is known, the largest remaining piece from a Sassacus-class "double-ender" in existence. ...

Following its positioning in the McCormick Hall bell tower in 1890, the Wyalusing bell was "liberated" on several occasions by groups of pranksters. A number of these enterprising and playful conspirators were bold enough to record their deeds on the graffiti-covered walls of the third floor stairway which leads to the bell platform. Each disappearance occasioned some concern, but each incident was "forgotten" when the bell returned. In 1979, the Civil War instrument was polished, formally rededicated by the Board of Trustees, and securely remounted. Every time it rings out, as "Daddy" Haynes put it, to many college generations down through the years, it is appropriate to recall the brave men who first served under its peal.

 

For information and images of the U.S.S. Wyalusing, please try this link:
http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-w/wylusng.htm

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| Updated 05/29/02