While still a youth, Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief born near the present site of Springfield, Ohio, sometime in or around 1768, won renown as a brave and skillful warrior. He devoted his life to opposing the advance of white settlers. Reasoning that land in North America, especially in the Ohio valley, belonged to all of the tribes in common, Tecumseh maintained that sales of territory by any single tribe to the United States were null and void. After the Federal Government refused to recognize this principle, Tecumseh attempted to organize a great Indian Confederacy to stem the white tide.
However, while he was in the South working to unite the tribes, Federal troops under Governor William Henry Harrison defeated and scattered Indian forces on 7 November 1811 in the battle of Tippecanoe. This defeat doomed the Indian Confederacy.
After Congress declared war on Great Britain the following year, Tecumseh accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the British army. He cooperated with British troops to win a number of victories in the Great Lakes region, including the capture of Detroit. However, Comdr. Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and prompted them to withdraw along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh and his braves covered the British retirement until American troops led by Harrison, now a major general, caught up with them at Moraviantown. Tecumseh was killed in the ensuing Battle of the Thames on 5 October 1813.
In June 1930, a bronze replica of the figurehead of ship-of-the-line Delaware was presented by the Class of 1891 to the United States Naval Academy. This bust, perhaps the most famous relic on the campus, has been widely identified as Tecumseh. However, when it adorned the American man-of-war, it commemorated not Tecumseh but Tamanend, the revered Delaware chief who welcomed William Penn to America when he arrived in Delaware country on October 2, 1682.
The first Tecumseh, an iron-hulled, single-turret monitor, was launched on 12 September 1863 at Jersey City, N.J., by Secor and Co., of New York City; and was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 19 April 1864, Comdr. Tunis A. M. Craven in command.
Although slated to strengthen Rear Admiral Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron for forthcoming operations against Confederate fortifications guarding Mobile Bay, Tecumseh was ordered to serve temporarily with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, then sorely taxed by General Grant's operations against Richmond-particularly by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's planned landing to establish a bridgehead across the James at Bermuda Hundred. Early in May, she was assigned to the James River Flotilla; and she ascended the river to guard Union shipping from Confederate naval forces below Richmond.
In order to prevent Confederate warships from coming down from the upper navigable reaches of the James, The Union Army and Navy cooperated to block the channel. Tecumseh participated in this effort from 15 to 18 June by sinking four hulks; stretching a heavy boom across the channel supporting a chain cable; extending a heavy boom across the flats; and sinking a schooner along the right hand bank of the river from which a short boom was extended to the flats.
Three days after the obstructions were completed, Tecumseh's commanding officer, Comdr. Craven, noticed that the enemy was building a line of breastworks at Hewlett's Farm. Tecumseh's gunners manned their Dahlgrens, and Craven ordered "commence fire." Five heavy shells landed amidst the enemy encampment and work gang. Craven reported, "I threw into it [the Confederate construction gang's vicinity] five 15-inch shells, two of which exploded in the right place, destroying a platform, throwing the plank and timbers in every direction." The Union shells stirred up a veritable hornet's nest. At 1130, the enemy unmasked a battery of four guns.
Tecumseh resumed fire, and Craven ordered Canonicus and Saugus to engage as well. The enemy guns replied; and, a half-hour later, Confederate ironclads near Dutch Gap commenced what Craven termed "a wild cross-fire." The enemy vessels, however, were concealed by a line of trees, and thus the Union guns could not reach them.
"Our fire was delivered slowly and with great precision," wrote Craven, "most of our shells exploding within the works of the enemy." Tecumseh ceased fire at 1330, as Craven gave his crew a half-hour to rest and eat dinner before delivering a slow and devastating fire from 1400 to 1600. During the engagement, the monitor fired 46 15-inch shells and was not struck by any return fire. She and her sister Union warships had turned back the Confederate threat to Grant's riverine supply line.
On 5 July, the monitor got underway in company with Augusta and Eutaw and resumed her voyage southward. Proceeding "with all practicable dispatch," Tecumseh soon arrived in Florida waters, en route to join Farragut's squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. Tecumseh lay at anchor at Pensacola on 3 August as a flurry of messages arrived from the Gulf Squadron: one from the Fleet Captain and the other from Farragut himself. Both dispatches evinced the Admiral's impatience to attack Mobile Bay. "When you do not take fortune at her offer," Farragut wrote, "you must take her as you find her." That evening, Union sailors worked under the guns of Fort Morgan and deactivated and sank Confederate moored mines, "torpedoes," in the main channel, preparatory to Farragut's forthcoming dash into the bay.
Tecumseh arrived off Mobile Bay on the evening of the 4th, thus enabling Farragut to move. Shortly after 0600 on the 5th, the 18-ship Union squadron crossed the bar at the flood tide and moved into the bay with Tecumseh leading the van of monitors, Manhattan, Winnebago, and Chickasaw. The ironclads passed between the fortified headlands, to starboard of the lighter-armored wooden steam frigates, in order to take the fire from the heavy guns at Fort Morgan.
Just after 0700, Tecumseh opened fire on the Confederate batteries and joined action in earnest. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Buchanan's Southern squadron centered around the heavy ironclad ram Tennessee sortied to meet the attackers. Tecumseh veered left to engage the Confederate ram. Suddenly, at 0740, a tremendous explosion shook Tecumseh to her keel as she made contact with a dreaded "torpedo."
She began to heel rapidly; and men scrambled to abandon ship. Comdr. Craven arrived at the foot of the ladder leading to the main deck simultaneously with the pilot, John Collins. Craven stepped back, saying "After you, pilot," thus permitting Collins to escape. His gallantry cost Craven his life, for the ship sank in a frightfully fast 25 seconds. The monitor carried him down with her as she capsized. As she rolled over and exposed her hull plates, two accurate shells from Fort Morgan added the coup de grace to the doomed ship. Besides their captain, 92 other members of Tecumseh's crew perished in the sinking "intrepid pioneers of the death-strewed path."