1861: Henry Winslow Fitch to Marshall Dexter Briggs

This letter was written by Henry Winslow Fitch (1833-1910), a native of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Henry was appointed 3d Asst. Engineer in 1859 and served in the Pacific Squadron aboard the Narragansett in 1859-1861. In 1861 he was promoted to 2d Asst. Engineer and reassigned to the gunboat Kennebec in the West Gulf Squadron. He was again promoted to 1st Asst. Engineer in 1863 and reassigned to the steam-sloop Oneida. In that same capacity he served subsequently on the steamer Hunchback, the steamer Frolic, and the Canandaigua. He was finally promoted to Chief Engineer in 1871. In 1875 he was the Inspector of Coal at Philadelphia and in 1877-78, he served at the Bureau of Steam Engineering.


Marshall Dexter Briggs

The USS Narragansett was a 2nd class screw sloop in the United States Navy during the American Civil War. Narragansett was built at the Boston Navy Yard, launched on 15 February 1859, and commissioned on 6 November 1859, Commander T. A. Hunt in command. The Narragansett operated along the East Coast into the spring of 1860. On 31 March of that year she departed Norfolk, Virginia, for the Pacific, arriving at Valparaíso, Chile, 4 August. Throughout the Civil War she cruised in the Pacific with the primary mission of protecting American mail steamers from Confederate raiders.

Henry was the son of Reuben Fitch (1805-1885) and Phebe Winslow (1807-1885). In 1850, the Fitch family was enumerated at Fairhaven, Bristol county, Massachusetts, where both Henry’s father and 17 year-old Henry were identified as mariners. In the letter, Henry refers to his younger brother, Reuben H. Fitch (b. 1837), who married Sarah E. Clatur (b. 1840) in October 1864. Henry married Emelie Angelique Campau (1851-1930) in June 1880.

The letter is not accompanied with an envelope to aid in the identification of the recipient who is only addressed as “Marshall” but it is clear that he was a shop machinist who manufactured steam engines. My hunch is that it was addressed to Marshall Dexter Briggs (1832-1874) of Fairhaven, Bristol county, Massachusetts. The letter contains a detailed description of the engineering shortcomings of the USS Narragansett noted by Fitch after the vessel’s two years at sea.


The vessel on the left is USS Seminole, a sister ship of USS Narragansett

U.S. Ship Narragansett
Acapulco [Mexico]
August 4th 1861

Dear Marshall:

I received your letter of May some six weeks since and I can say without flattery that it was one of the most interesting I have received since leaving home. People labor under a great mistake when they write long, tiresome articles on the country & politics &c. instead of personal or minor details about home that never find their way into the public prints and are therefore entirely unknown to one away from home, except through the medium of his private correspondence. I can take up scores of papers and get a better idea of affairs in public life that all the letters I ever received could give me. Some of my friends put themselves to the trouble of writing some tall leaders on the state of the Union for my especial edification, when I have papers that contain columns of the same matter, only one is in print while the other is in writing, with rather more interest from the fact that it is from home, or some friend, and has a trifle of personal and other minor matters mixed up with it.

I liked your letter very much for it gave me much information about my friends in B. and M[anchester] whom I had lost the clue in a great measure. My M[anchester] correspondents are very remiss in their obligations. I have written to seven or eight, and only one keeps up the communication. I suspect the report of the squadron being ordered home has been one cause of no docs from that quarter. We are not going home however, and if we get relieved when the cruise is ended, I shall be happy. There is a report that the three year cruises are to be established again, but I hope it is not correct for two years is long enough for one cruise — particularly in a gunboat of this species.


Junior Officers of USS Narragansett: Acting Boatswain John F. Sullivan (seated), Paymaster’s Clerk H. C. Jordan, Acting Gunner W. J. Dumont.

We had quite a move from Callao [Peru], here. It was a glorious loaf down there and I think the cream of this cruise. Everyone was tired of the town but almost everybody is willing to return again. Altogether we have passed nearly nine months of our cruise in that port, so you may judge that we are well known there, and know the place very minutely ourselves. The climate there is superior to any on this coast; no flies or mosquitoes; cool comfortable nights, and pleasant days; a good market, but some slight duty on board ship. Good times then, although not fully appreciated by us.

The run to Panama was not remarkable for anything of an exciting nature — a light breeze the whole distance, steaming all but one day. On our arrival at Panama, Capt. [Robert] Ritchie ordered us to take in coal and stores with the utmost dispatch ad proceed directly to this port to protect the mail steamers while coaling.

The new oath was administered to the ship’s company while in Panama and everyone came up to the mark, although it was cutting to some of the officers who had talked very arrogantly for some time previous, and would certainly resign if so and so was done, &c., but when the point came, they took the wisest course and concluded they could not do without Uncle Sam’s aid for some time to come, so they took the oath and have kept shady on secession ever since. 300,000 bayonets is a very stubborn fact to argue against, not to mention 300,000 more behind, with plenty of money, provisions, ammunition, a respectable navy and a good cause. The Southern officers in both the army and navy will have lost their prestige at the close of the war and many years will have elapsed before they can have that confidence and respect they have forfeited by their secession proclivities. So strong is the feeling against them, even now, a disposition is manifested by the loyal officers to drive out the few remaining true to the flag unless their patriotism is of the soundest stamp. There is some selfishness at the bottom of this feeling, certainly, but so many have proved false to their country that everyone is looked upon with distrust. Some officers even now profess no regard for the oath they have taken, in case their state secedes, but these men have got to dry up in short metre or be impeached. The day of forbearance and endurance is passed for the present, and prompt and decided action will take its place.

I am glad to see our government so active and well sustained in its measures. There is an unanimity of feeling among the northern states almost without precedent, and every Christian government has condemned the rebels without reservation. I rejoice to see the noble stand taken by my own state which has always been found foremost in the cause of liberty. The vermin, lice, scum &c., will teach the chivalry  some practical lessons before they return home again, and I hope the lessons will conclude in the spring 1862, so peace and harmony can reign quietly over the land once more.

We steamed steadily the whole distance from Panama through some of the hottest and moist weather I ever experienced. It would be hard to find a more disagreeable climate than that of Nicaragua. Hot as a baker’s oven; raining small lakes more than half of the time; not a breath of air to create a draught [draft], and cool us, and a cross cut, chop sea that would puzzle the old evil one to describe, which rolled and tumbled us about in a most reckless manner. We had orders from Capt. [Robert] Ritchie to go out and cruise a day, three times a month to look out for Jeff’s privateers, but the Lancaster came in a few days after we arrived, and the Flag revoked the order to our great satisfaction so we have as quiet a time as possible under the circumstances. The Cyane has been here for a number of months but she went up the coast a few days since. The Wyoming came in here also on her way up to California, which made quite a squadron here for a few days. We are alone now, however, [and] do just what we please without following anyone’s signals nor making any for others.

xgma5_005The place is a little one-horse power town — hot, sandy, and crooked as a ram’s horn. Dogs, hogs, fowls, and turkey buzzards abound in great numbers and render inestimable service to the street contractor in keeping the streets clean. The clerk of the weather also contributes in no small degree to the same object, as it rains nearly every day washing the streets completely clean. There is no fault to be found with the cleanliness of the town or people for they keep their houses and themselves scrupulously clean. The people are much darker than I expected, but they are superior in activity and intelligence to the Peruvians. The harbour [at Acapulco] is completely land locked and surrounded by high hills and mountains which prevent a free circulation of air. A small fort in a half ruined state commands the entrance and the town, serving as a shelter for a troop of lazy soldiers, and a prison for political prisoners. I recognized the Mexican costume as soon as I went ashore — the immense sombreros, loose straight pants, and straight jumper or jacket. The horses are well broke and are ornamented according to the taste and purse of the owner. The men are [paper torn at crease] in the saddle [paper torn at crease].

The only amusement is cock fighting which they attend more for gambling than for any fun connected with it. The cocks are fitted with steel gaffs which make quick work with them. Heavy stakes are laid by those who have the dinero. One thing about the gambling, there can be no cheating connected with it. One cock is as likely to be killed as another.

Provisions are high and not of the best quality. Living on this coast is expensive everywhere. The weather is very hot and enervating and takes the life right out of a man. I feel like an old rag after our brief stay even, but what I shall feel like after three months sojourn here, it is impossible to say. I hope to survive, however. A black species of mosquito makes the nights pass very agreeably with their pleasant songs.

We see the steamers three times a month from each way but that novelty is fast wearing off now. They stop only a few hours for coal and often come in during the night when we do not see them at all. The passengers are very patriotic and cheer the ships tremendously as they pass by. I expect we shall go up to San Francisco this fall to refit a little and see the country. It depends on the Flag Officer however.

The old mill does not work any better than before. We have hot bearings the same as on the trial trip but not without cause. All the ashes and dust of the fireroom blows on to the engines which would make any engine heat. The condenser does not work yet but there has been a small attachment applied recently which may remedy it. Without any question, I will say that the author of [ paper torn at crease] was the inventor of the device although it would hardly be termed an invention by a mechanic. I am surprised to see the apathy and indifference manifested by Naval Engineers in regard to little matters that might be easily remedied if they would only take a little extra trouble. If some of them knew more, it would be of great value to Uncle Sam in this department. I see they are taking in 1st and 2d Assistants in the service. I hope they will have good men although I do not relish the idea of filling up the ranks ahead of us.

Mars has been examined I see. He is an able man but utterly devoid of principle in his moral character. Our Chief [Engineer] together with Mr. Whipple has been ordered home to superintend the construction of the engines of the new gunboats and 2d Assistant Frich is in charge now. A new 3d came out to fill the vacancy. A 1st Assistant is expected from the Lancaster to take charge but it is doubtful if the Flag Officer sends one as the Captain is perfectly satisfied with his officers and desires no change.

I learn that you have got one of the new engines to build at your shop. For heaven’s sake, make it as simple as possible, and dispense with the labyrinth of rocker shafts, arms, links &c., which are a nuisance in my opinion, besides useless expense. Put the [   ] chest on the side of the cylinder and connect to the main link directly with the valve stem. The adjustable cut-off is a humbug, I think. Ours have broke down. The brass nut in the slides has so corroded the stem that it will not hold them. They make an infernal noise and are getting out of order all the time. I think a cut-off arranged the same way with fixed slides would be very efficient but a thread would be liable to corrosion and soon give way. Put in circulating brasses for the main journals. They are very well arranged. Have a good oil apparatus for the crank pins and one gallery well arranged so that everyone of the journals can be within reach. Make the pillow blocks firm and strong and have them well braced in the ship. Ours are not stiff enough. The Parry thrust works well; the universal coupling not so well. But I think it is owing to the other pillow blocks [abaft?] it. Have the [  ] valves somewhere within reach for humanity’s sake and have them as simple as possible. If you knew the trouble and annoyance we have had with ours, you would vote an extra thousand apiece all around. Curse them and sometimes include the man who put them there. Surface condensers are good things if they do not eat up the boilers. It is vastly different feeding salt water and blowing and feeding fresh and not blowing. Our tubes have not been examined so I do not know whether they are corroded, full of small holes or not. The boilers are in tolerable order. I have the charge of them now since the Chief has left.

I think a trunk engine is preferable to the form we have but I am open to conviction. What do you think? Don’t feed the boilers through the blow valves like the donkey arrangement we had at first. Put no iron bolts in composition piping. I don’t know whether our blower would have worked or not — it was never tried. Don’t use wire rope for hoisting smoke pipe; it is not worth a swear after a short time. use chain. And finally turn the piston rods round and straight. I remember the prophecy you made in regard to them. Do all the work faithfully and peace and prosperity shall follow you to the end of your days.

I wish you would write me some particulars of the mill you are building. and you will very much oblige. I received a letter from [my brother] Reuben a short time since dated February 24th, Fernando P.O. — all well [and] engines work finely, but the boilers are in a miserable condition. Coggin will have to dispense with some of his boyish whims before he succeeds as an officer on board of a man of war. I wish him success if he is determined to try but he will never have a better time than now. I would like to step in and spend a few days in Manchester, see all of my friends &c.  One year first before I shall get there. I don’t think Reuben keeps posted about Susan Clatur as I have heard nothing about it before. I guess it is all one side. I am truly glad to hear that Joe Sargent, Joe Stevens, Rob Mathies and yourself are doing well. I feel deeply attached to my old shopmates and have some of my warmest friendships ever formed in the shop. Give them all my best respects when you meet them Welch made his mark in the world and subsided. Peace to his manes. Perhaps he may come back a Brigadier General. What has become of the boarder at No go?

Give my best respects to my cousin Andrew if he is at work in E. B.  I send you enclosed an abstract log of the last 2 runs which I copied from the ship’s log. It is very near correct so far as I can judge. The horse power developed by the indicator is suspicious to say they least of it but I had no other data to work from. I do not think the indicators are in the best of order. It will be valuable to you for comparison with other docs of the same nature and give you some idea of the performances of our boat. The Lancaster has a defective shaft and has to limp along with only thirty turns. The Wyoming‘s engines begin to be troublesome and do not work so well as they pretend. The Saranac‘s run along like an old mill but the gallant thirds have got a fine job to seal the boilers which will take them two months or more so we do not have all the work to do in the squadron.

I think I will pipe down for this pop and if there are any convulsions or earthquakes before the steamer sails two days hence, I will make a note of it. Send me all the personal scandal crew-con and such in vogue — also mechanical, general, and scientific items of the day.

Direct to Panama as before. Ever your friend, — Henry W. Fitch

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