I recall reading an anecdote (it was definitely in Civil War: a History by Shelby Foote, but I don't remember exactly which volume; I believe that it occurred during the Vicksburg campaign in the third volume, but I might be misremembering) about a Navy officer who had gotten his boat sunk as a result of an encounter with an underwater mine (then called a torpedo). He made it back safely to shore and, believing that he would likely be punished, nervously asked the commanding Admiral for an inquest. He responded something along the lines of "Nonsense! I don't punish people for getting their ship close to the enemy!" and gave him a new boat. However, I've unfortunately been unable to locate the quote. Can someone help me to identify the two officers involved in this exchange? (I would be interested in locating further biographical details of the officers in question as well, particularly the Admiral, but that's perhaps a different question).

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    Found some interesting stuff looking into this, but nothing that positively mentions or positively ID's this story. Turns out that Civil War "torpedoes" were effecitvely the same as mines, but some ships were built with torpedoes on the end of a long stick. If it was one of those, that would explain what getting torpedoed had to do with "getting close to the enemy"
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 1, 2023 at 20:50
  • Perhaps a mis-remembered 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead'? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Farragut)
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 1, 2023 at 21:30
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    This sounds like it may have been a paraphrase of Nelson's Trafalgar order - "...in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy." bl.uk/learning/timeline/item106127.html Feb 1, 2023 at 21:54
  • @JonCuster I'm pretty sure that it was a separate incident. Feb 1, 2023 at 22:07
  • Are you perhaps thinking of Nelson's general order to his Captains on the eve of Trafalgar: "Captains are to look to their particular Line as their rallying point. But, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy." Feb 2, 2023 at 1:51

1 Answer 1


Though I cannot find the quote as remembered by the OP, researching the conditions of the event leads me to believe this was in reference to the sinking of the USS Cairo by an electrically detonated 'torpedo' (see sketch below). Her captain, a Lt. Commander Selfridge, was on several vessels which were sunk in one way or another. After the Cairo was sunk his commander, Admiral Porter said (emphasis mine):

“My own opinion is that due caution was not observed.” The admiral, however, apparently impressed with Selfridge’s aggressiveness, later withdrew his criticism. “I can see in it nothing more than one of the accidents of war arising from a zealous disposition on the part of the commanding officer to perform his duty.”

Which seems to fit the meaning of the quote, if not the words. Selfridge was then placed in command of the USS Conestoga, matching the conditions of the OPs quote again. This would make the admiral in question David Dixon Porter.

You can follow up on Porter in his Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War.

The Civil War : a narrative. [Vol.] 3, Red River to Appomattox, by Shelby Foote can be borrowed at archive.org. I did not, however, find the quote within that text.

Another source, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion United States. Navy Department, contains the actual orders and communications concerning this incident. It contains an interesting sketch of what these 'torpedoes' (or infernal machine as mentioned in a couple of letters) actually looked like (from pg 549): enter image description here

These were definitely much more mine-like then the spar torpedoes mentioned in comments above.

The same book has the report Selfridge himself filed (pgs. 548-550), and the contrite attitude from the OPs quote seems to be apparent towards the end of his report (pg. 550):

Having accomplishd all that was in our power and destroyed what vestige of the unfortunate Cairo that remained above water it was with deep regret and melancholy that I felt obliged to return down the river I have nothing to add in justification of myself that does not appear in this report

Note that these are official reports and orders, so the conversational quote remembered by the OP would not occur in this books context.

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    I'm guessing that's it. I looked that incident over myself, but discarded it based on "the enemy" who sank her having been hiding the the bushes offshore, rather than what I'd consider close and purposely closed on. However, it was one of the few torpedo sinkings near Vicksburg (I found 2), and the related verbal exchange you found is quite similiar.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 2, 2023 at 19:44
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    I went through all three volumes of Foote, searching for relevant keywords from the quote, and came up empty.
    – justCal
    Feb 2, 2023 at 21:48
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    Ooof! That seems like enough effort. I retract the comment.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 2, 2023 at 22:39

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