Object of the Month

Sarah Gooll Putnam Visits the Battle-scarred USS Kearsarge at the Charlestown Navy Yard

Sarah Gooll Putnam diary 7, pages 28-31 with entry for 19 November 1864 Manuscript

Sarah Gooll Putnam diary 7, pages 28-31 with entry for 19 November 1864


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    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    In this 19 November 1864 diary entry, Boston teenager Sarah Gooll Putnam describes a family outing to view the USS Kearsarge at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

    Inspecting "the ship that took the Alabama"

    On 8 November 1864, USS Kearsarge arrived at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston almost five months after its celebrated victory over the Confederate cruiser, CSS Alabama, off the coast of France on 19 June. Kearsarge was about to decommission and discharge its crew while it underwent extensive repairs, but before that happened, 13-year-old Sarah Gooll (“Sally”) Putnam and her family and friends made a visit to the ship.

    Sally Putnam’s illustrated journal entry has a light-hearted holiday flavor: a “jolly old tar” —perhaps only “old” in the eyes of a teenager and “jolly” because he was about to go ashore after long service afloat—gave the ladies and girls in the party “a jump” to get them on board and then led them on a tour of the ship’s machinery including its distilling apparatus that made salt water pure enough to drink. Their guide also showed the visitors where the “balls from the pirate Alabama had struck us.” Sally described and drew a detailed sketch of her close and somewhat alarming inspection of the damage caused by a large, unexploded shell that remained lodged in Kearsarge’s rudder post almost five months after the battle.

    The "Mortal Wound"

    Sally Putnam's illustration of the damage to the Kearsarge rudder post is a good example of how she used her illustrations to clarify what she described in her diary entries. During the battle with Alabama, Kearsarge had been struck on the stern by a large explosive shell that failed to explode and lodged in the rudder post. The Kearsarge sailors deactivated the shell by pouring vinegar on the fuse and then sailed thousands of miles with it embedded in the hull before they arrived in Boston Harbor and let Sally Putnam poke at it with a splinter. By then the shell hit had become, as Sally indicated, something of a Navy Yard attraction. During later repairs, a section of the damaged rudder post was cut out, and--still containing the unexploded shell--put on display at the Navy Memorial Museum in Washington, but Sally, without planning to do so, may have left us the most accurate contemporary depiction of the location and extent of the damage. After the Civil War, Raphael Semmes, the Confederate commander, claimed that had the shell exploded, it would have "mortally wounded" Kearsarge, and Alabama would have sailed on in triumph.

    Kearsarge was recommissioned on 1 April 1865 and sailed again for Europe where it spent the last months of the war in futile pursuit of the Confederate ram Stonewall, a contemporary drawing of which illustrates a diary kept by William B. Gould, a Black Civil War sailor.

    Sally Putnam

    Sarah Gooll Putnam (1851-1912) grew up to become a noted Boston portrait painter, and from the time she began keeping an illustrated diary on Thanksgiving Day in 1860, when she was "9 and 1/2" years old, she demonstrated her marked aptitude for art. She continued to make entries until the time of her death in 1912, filling 27 volumes. Putnam's diaries, illustrated with approximately 400 small watercolor paintings and hundreds more pen-and-ink drawings and caricatures, chronicle her development as an artist.

    An Exhibition at the MHS and Online

    During building closures caused by the Covid epidemic, the Massachusetts Historical Society mounted a virtual exhibition at the MHS website called Our Favorite Things that brought together 45 historical documents, artifacts, and works of art selected by members of the MHS staff. In December 2021, as the Society reopened to visitors, some of the actual items that made up our virtual exhibition, with brief extracts from the video interviews with staff members from the online exhibition, have been put on display.

    Often, more than one MHS staff member selected the same item as a "favorite thing," but Sally Putnam's illustrated childhood diaries were especially popular, chosen by three staff members. The passage from her diary showing her reaction to the shocking news of the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865 is part of the virtual exhibition Our Favorite Things and now is on display at the Historical Society. It differs from her more typical, often humorous, illustrations, such as the tour of Kearsarge, but is not the only time when war-related events intruded upon her comfortable, upper-class life in Boston.

    Further Reading

    Marvel, William. The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailors Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

    William Marvel gives not only a detailed account of the careers of Alabama and Kearsarge during their long voyages to the rendezvous off of Cherbourg, but the detailed records kept by and about the crews of each ship allows him to create a deep social history of ordinary sailors during the Civil War—the lives of the "jolly old tars" that Sally Putnam met during her tour.

    Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. 31 vols. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1894-1927.

    The official reports of the engagement between Kearsarge and Alabama are in Volume 3, p. 59-82, and p. 647-81. Available online from the HathiTrust.

    Pipkin, Erin. "'Striking in its Promise': The Artistic Career of Sarah Gooll Putnam." Massachusetts Historical Review. Vol. 3 (2001), p. 89-115.

    Putnam, Sarah Gooll. Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, 1860-1912.

    A guide to the collection with links to digitized portions of it is available at: Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, 1860-1912 .

    Semmes, Raphael. Memoirs of Service Afloat: During the War Between the States. Baltimore: Kelly, Piet & Co., 1869.

    Available online from Google Books. Raphael Semmes, who had written a popular account of his service in the US Navy during the Mexican War (he accompanied the Army's overland campaign against Mexico City) may have lost the engagement against Kearsarge, but he triumphed in his romantic account of the cruises of CSS Sumter and Alabama. Despite Sally Putnam's contemporary evidence about Semmes’s argument that, but for a defective shell fuse, his ship would have been the victor in the engagement with Kearsarge, naval historians still argue over his claim.