Fire on the Waters : A Novel of the Civil War at Sea

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9780684871332: Fire on the Waters : A Novel of the Civil War at Sea
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With the outbreak of the Civil War, New Yorker Eli Eaker enlists in the Union Navy against his father's wishes and joins the crew of Captain Parker Bucyrus Trezevant, who is sailing south to help protect Fort Sumter.

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About the Author:

David Poyer's twenty previous novels, including Thunder on the Mountain, The Med, The Gulf, The Circle, The Passage, Tomahawk, and China Sea, have won him millions of readers around the world. His nautical fiction has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the United States Naval Academy, along with that of Conrad, Melville, and Wouk. He lives on Virginia's Eastern Shore with his wife and daughter, who sometimes sail with him researching his locales aboard his sloop, Frankly Scarlett.

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Chapter 1

The United States Steam Sloop Owanee · Introduced to Lieutenant Ker Claiborne · Within a Damaged Boiler · The Silver-Filmed Eye of Uncle Ahasuerus · Disagreement Relating to the Newly Elected President · Contents of a Carpetbag · Captain Trezevant Boards His Ship

The black ship's wedge of bow split hammered-iron river from a galvanized sky. Her topmasts tilted above a spiky undergrowth of spars and shears. Smoke streamed from her single funnel off over the gray-green flatness of the East River, merging at last with the sooty pall from the thousands of other ships and homes and factories of Manhattan.

As Elisha Eaker dropped his boots into trampled mud, the smells of horse dung and coal ashes bloomed in his nostrils. He paid the hack off with a red-dog note, then stood coughing, holding a handkerchief to his lips as its wheels ground away.

Was it wise, to venture this? Was it really a way out? Or was all pride and folly, the disordered imaginings of a feverish brain?

Eli was tall and young, with pale, smoothly shaven cheeks. A sword tilted awkwardly at his side. He'd put on the regulation full dress for the first time that morning. Epaulettes from Warnock and lace from Tiffany's; a cocked hat and silk stock and gold-striped pantaloons.

Marine sentries in pomponed shakos and white gloves snapped to present arms as he reached the gate. He expected them to ask for a password, given the unrest in the city and, indeed, throughout the Republic this apprehensive spring. But they neither questioned nor hindered him, and after a moment he walked on, into the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The sloop's masts loomed against the smoldering sky as he headed downhill past foundries and shops echoing with the clang of iron and the shouts of workmen. Her black sides towered from the murky bay. Even immobile, she looked somber and intimidating.

But did he belong here? Or was he only fooling himself?

He hesitated again, then pushed doubt away and marched up the gangway. His boot caught, and only the manrope saved him from flinging himself into the dark water that sloshed and bumped a frowsy lumber of dead rats and waterlogged dunnage. At the top he drew in a deep first breath of her, of the curious, deep, peculiar ship-redolence mingled and amalgamated of tar and brass polish, coal dust and slowly mortifying oak, of old food and the damp reek of packed-in men; and beneath it all the sweet, smoky cured-tobacco aroma of the hempen rigging that lifted above him like a frozen whirlwind up into the murky sky.

A stocky, bullet-headed petty officer aimed him a questioning scowl. Eli saluted him and said, -- Good day. My name is Elisha Eaker, and I am here to join your ship.


Lieutenant Ker Claiborne, U.S. Navy, first lieutenant and acting executive officer of U.S.S. Owanee, had slept for three hours out of the last forty-eight. Two days before, the yard commander had ordered her coaled and provisioned to sail at short order, and her just-dismissed crew remustered from the concert saloons, cider stubes, and panel houses of Five Points and the Bowery. Captain Trezevant had passed the command along with an ironic twist of the lips -- a sardonic humor Ker would have shared, if he had not been so disquieted of late.

He was in the teak-paneled wardroom, going over a bill of lading by the light of a gimbaled lamp, when one of the ship's boys, looking, as usual, as if he expected to be caned, rapped at the jamb.

-- What is it, Jerrett? Another of our lads back aboard drunk?

-- No sir. Gunner Babcock's compliments, and there's a gen'lman on the quarterdeck to see you.

A caulking hammer tapped somewhere. Ker dipped the pen; held the back of his wrist against his pointed beard, pondering; then etched a line in firm Spencerian. He glanced at the card the boy laid on his desk. -- Tell the gunner I will be up directly. Then carry this to Mr. Glass, if you please.

The boy vanished, and Claiborne rose, head brushing the varnished beams. He buttoned his coat and took his service cap off a peg. He studied a curved glass tube on the bulkhead. Then turned the lamp down, and went up the companionway.

The air on deck felt bracing after twenty-four months off West Africa. He'd contracted the fever of the country off the Guinea coast, and it came calling with chills and ague when he drove himself too hard. As he most likely was just now.

He touched his beard again, looking across the water not at the tropic continent but at his own country; but instead of comfort, memory and apprehension chilled his heart. When Owanee had deployed, two years before, the nation had been quiet. But since she'd returned, it seemed men had gone mad, lost their senses or been mastered by demons.

Like the Gadarene swine, he thought, we stampede blindly toward an infinite and fatal abyss.

Forward on the main deck, the gunners were scraping an amber paste of grease and varnish off the Dahlgren, flinging each bladeful into a tin bucket. A few yards aft, the boatswain was supervising a party swaying up the fore-topmast. At a pipe of his silver whistle the hoistlines tautened. The mast stood upright, then lifted its heel just clear of the deck, searching in the wind like an old man's uplifted and uncertain cane. Ker ran a critical eye over the rigging. He'd apprenticed to the art at Annapolis. The old school ship Preble had been just seaworthy enough to jog about the Chesapeake, but her sail plan and fitting out had been classic sailing Navy. Summer cruises to the Caribbean and Mediterranean on the Plymouth added experience of levanters and hurricanes, but it was off the coast of Africa that he'd become a master. Coal was scarce and dear, and Owanee had sailed through most of her service there.

A curious tableau awaited him on the quarterdeck. A fair-haired young fellow, not badly made, but whose pale face and slack posture gave the impression of a life spent at ease, stood beside the ship's gunner. He was in full dress, but wore no insignia of rank. Ker made him the abbreviated bow one gives a stranger of whose intention one is uncertain. -- Lieutenant Ker Claiborne, at your service.

-- My name is Elisha Eaker. Late of the firm of Eaker and Callo-well, of Manhattan.

-- Did you wish to see the purser, sir? If it is a matter of business.

Eaker hesitated, then drew a document from his sleeve.

Ker was pondering it when a hoarse snort bellowed from the smokestack. A black cloud shot up, then hovered between mainmast and mizzen like a cloud of summer midges. Greasy flakes fluttered down like black snow.

-- That turd Hubbard's doing, no doubt, and without the least concern for us topside, said the gunner angrily.

Eaker glanced around, at the morose-looking seamen, the rows of heavy guns that lined the waist. He flicked a flake of soot from his sleeve. -- Could we perhaps...?

And Ker said, -- Certainly, sir. If you'll accompany me below?


Eighty feet aft, a scraping clang sounded from within a well of darkness. A moment later a little man in grease-stained denims and a cap with a broken bill emerged headfirst from beneath an iron casting that extended from the shadowy bilges to thick glass skylights thirty feet up. Their pearly glow illuminated a firm chin, determined lips, and deep-set eyes that peered from a face so sooted he resembled a blackface minstrel.

Theodorus Hubbard, Owanee's engineer, wiped his hands on a twist of cotton and pitched it overhand into a bucket. He braced his diminutive frame against a massive door. It slowly gathered momentum, then slammed shut with an iron boom that traveled the length of the space, dying away along catwalks, pumps, copper-shining piping, gutta-percha hose, glass tube-gauges of foaming water the color of melted opals. He said in a Connecticut twang, -- Pappy, what I want to know is, how you let everything go to hell in just two weeks.

The burly man above him growled, -- Well, last I heard was they was going to jerk this heap o' junk out of her and install one of them new Isherwoods. Never thought to be takin' her back to sea.

-- Get them stokers on the rails. Watch the gauge when you cut in the crossover. Let's fire her up, see if she holds.

MacNail's shout echoed above the inhaling roar of fans and the slap of leather blower belts. Two huge men with Irish faces ran toward them, boots hammering the limber boards laid over bilges black with a slurry of coal dust, ash, and seawater. They seized fascines of kindling, heaved them into the furnace, and tossed bucketfuls of kerosene after. MacNail hastily seated twelve huge iron nuts on the man-cover from which Hubbard had emerged, then began torquing them down with a wrench as the stokers snatched shovels off iron clips and threw coal like men possessed, raising a fine choking dust of black anthracite.


Eli followed Claiborne down a shoulder-wide ladder into a low cabin that smelled of segar smoke, spar varnish, and the rotten-egg stench of sulphur fumigant. The lieutenant pointed to a chair. Eli aligned his cap on his knees and cleared his throat. -- Are you the master of this vessel?

-- The captain, you mean? No. I am the first lieutenant and executive officer. Just appointed as Captain Trezevant's second in command.

-- Might I see the captain?

-- He is not aboard at present. Nor would it be proper for me to intrude your presence upon him without ascertaining your business here, and that in considerable detail.

The lieutenant looked tired. Eli noticed he wore no sword, and began to doubt whether his own was not out of place. He nudged it around out of sight behind him as Claiborne said, -- Well, sir, let's have another look at those papers.

As he leafed through them, Eli found his glance arrested by two small gleaming eyes that stared back at him from a fiddle-boarded bookcase. In the dimness he gradually made out that they were set in a tiny wizened face. He stood to examine what he took for a stuffed curio, then put out a hand. And staggered back a moment later, gripping his finger and stifling a scream.

-- His name's Auguste, said Claiborne as the monkey hopped out, drawing a minuscule paw across its mouth and chattering angrily at the New Yorker. -- Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, to give him his complete honors. We took him and a few of his compatriots aboard at Porto Praya. As the days passed they gradually grew fewer, but we were hard put to tell where they'd gone. Finally we discovered this fellow here was pitching the smaller ones overboard at night to watch them swim.

The animal leapt to the floor and scrabbled up the companionway. Claiborne turned the documents over, scanning each with every appearance of interest. Finally he cleared his throat. -- I hope you will not take it amiss if I observe I have never heard of the New York Naval Militia.

-- Not at all. Eli wrenched his mind away from the ape, how disturbingly its shadowy leer had parodied a human smile. -- It's a volunteer body, recently organized among the better sort of the city. Those who wish to step forward, should the slavocratic conspiracy put our temper to the test.

-- Should the what?

-- The renegade Carolinians who feel disposed to insult our flag.

Claiborne said gravely, -- You must pardon me; I have been absent the country, and am unfamiliar with the political cant of the moment.

-- You must know that the Deep South states have rejected all compromise, and set up a rump legislature at Montgomery.

-- I read the journals, sir; and as far as I know, no offer of concession has been tendered them as yet. But let us lay that difficult topic aside. Your purpose in visiting Owanee?

Eli felt steadily less comfortable. The gravely courteous officer before him was plainly from south of the Mason-Dixon. The fellow's eyes, too, were unsettling, the same pale bleached blue as the noon sky in August. -- I'm here to help in any way you may find convenient. I won't require pay.

-- No pay, eh? It's true we're shorthanded just now. Claiborne examined the letters again. -- These reflect attendance at Harvard University. What degree did you take?

-- I was permitted to withdraw after two years, for reasons of health.

-- You appear robust enough to me.

Eli said carefully, -- Just now I feel well.

-- Do you have anything resembling experience at sea?

-- My family's been in shipping for three generations. I've also spent some considerable time aboard Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt's private yacht.

Claiborne's eyebrows rose. -- I see. Aboard his private yacht. You know Mr. Vanderbilt intimately, I take it?

-- Not intimately, but well enough to speak to.

The exec mused over this for a moment more, then reached for a bell. -- Ask the bo's'n to step in, he said to Jerrett's apprehensive countenance. -- Your qualifications would not go so far as a mate's ticket, would they, Mr. Eaker?

-- I'm afraid not. I'm willing to learn, though. And as I said, I will be happy to serve without emolument.

A tap at the doorjamb, and the exec motioned in a spare, spry old warrant with a furrowed brow, bright black eyes, and a preposterous forked gray-and-tobacco beard that hung below his waist. Claiborne introduced him as Josiah Girnsolver, Owanee's boatswain. He told Girnsolver their visitor had alluded to experience in yachts, and that his qualifications as a sailing officer were under discussion.

The old man turned his head slowly to the left, then to the right, as if easing a stiff neck. He pulled up a trowser-leg, revealing the top of a prickly-looking red wool sock. Then said in a Down East accent, scratching his ankle thoughtfully, -- Wal, let's say the cap'n tells ya to furl sails. What d'ya say to carry that out, now, sor?

Eli cleared his throat, calling on Mnemosyne to assist him. -- To furl sails. Well, first I should call away the men. Um, then, command them to go aloft.

-- "Aloft t'gallant and royal yardmen?" Girnsolver suggested.

-- Quite so. When they have gained the rigging, get the topmen aloft; then man my clew jiggers --

-- Buntlines and clew jiggers?

-- I was about to say, buntlines as well. When all men are in position, I tell them to furl away. Then when all is complete, to lay down from aloft, I suppose.

Claiborne prompted, -- And the downbooms?

-- I should tell them to lay in the downbooms.

They regarded him noncommittally. The warrant fingered his whistle, which hung from his neck on a lanyard of ornately embroidered marline. He said, -- Say ye're under way by the wind on a starboard tack, under all sail. What d'ya do if the wind hauls aft, as the officer of the deck?

Eli coughed into his fist, fighting both nervousness and the familiar rising tickle in his throat. -- Maintaining the same course? I should first ease off sheets. Get a pull of the braces. Man the halyards on deck, then haul taut and hoist away. And make sure, ah, make sure the boom, I forget the name of it, but make sure it's ready for coming back in.

Claiborne asked him, -- How many p...

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