[SeMissourian.com] Fair ~ 88°F  
High: 97°F ~ Low: 76°F
Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

Then and Now

Friday, August 13, 2004

Drat those buttons! Full speed ahead!

Willynilly, a series of columns seems to be developing on, as we might say, "rediscovered treasures" in the Bushwhacker Museum.

Last year it was the so-called "surveyor's transit" that turned out to be a vernier compass made by the well-known St. Louis instrument maker Jacob Blattner, only the fifth such known to survive at all, and in far better condition than the other four.

This year (as chronicled in the Daily Mail's Bushwhacker Days special edition, June 16) brought a fresh look at the elaborate picture frame, acquired from the Wight family law office at the death of the late Amos Wight. The frame turned out to be a stunning example of "tramp art," of the particular type of such work known as "crown of thorns."

The third "rediscovery" actually was made several years ago, just as the old jail premises first began to be cleared of artifacts for use in the new museum.

Tucked away in a file drawer in the old jail office was a small cardboard box lined in the bottom with a canvaslike American flag, over which were sewn thirteen tarnished brass buttons, each embossed with an eagle gripping an anchor in its talons. Attached was an anonymous note stating that the buttons were from the uniform of Admiral James E. Jouett.

Not a clue was to be found pointing to the source of the buttons. Who gave them to the museum?

And what, if anything, linked Admiral Jouett to Vernon County?

Nothing in writing could be located, and this writer had no memory of the buttons' arrival.

It remained just a mildly interesting puzzle till Eldon Steward, an authority on Civil War matters, pointed out that these patinated, rather unimpressive brass buttons were indeed, judging by their design, authentic naval officers' buttons of Civil War vintage. So, while Jouett stayed in the Navy until 1890, the buttons were from his period of Civil War service.

The humble artifacts began to be taken more seriously, especially after it was learned that the then Lientenant-Commander Jouett was one of those to whom Admiral David Farragut spoke his famous words, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" A full biography of Jouett has yet to be turned up, but much has been learned. His father, Matthew Harris Jouett, earns an encyclopedia entry in his own right as a self-taught portrait and miniature painter who studied four months with the famed Gilbert Stuart, and painted at least 334 portraits, one of which was of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Born in Lexington, Ky., in 1826, young Jouett joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1841, and "served with distinction" in the 1846-48 Mexican War, during which the Navy's job largely lay in blockading the Mexican coast and ferrying the American army and its supplies. Jouett was promoted to "passed midshipman" in 1847, and made a lieutenant in 1855.

In November, 1861, early in the Civil War, Jouett led a detachment of U.S. Marines into the harbor of Galveston, Texas, and boarded and destroyed the Confederate warship Royal Yacht "after an obstinate encounter, during which he was twice severely wounded" In 1862 he was appointed lieutenant-commander, and ordered by Admiral Farragut to the steamer R R Cuyler, off Mobile. He was afterwards sent to command the Metacomet selected by Farragut to accompany the flagship Harfford through the Mobile Bay engagement, "the two vessels being lashed together according to his plan of the battle."
During the engagement the Metacomet cast off to chase Confederate gunboats, and crippled one of them, the Gaines, so that she ran ashore and was destroyed by her captain. Another, the Morgan had retreated, and in one hour's running fight up the bay a third, the Sehna was captured, Jouett "having attacked four times the number of his guns in this encounter."
In his official report Farragut wrote: "Lieutenant-Commander Jouett's conduct during the whole affair commands my warmest commendations." A board, composed of Admirals Farragut, Dupont, Goldsborough, Davis, and Porter, recommended that Jouett should "receive an advancement of thirty numbers for heroic conduct in battle."

Toward the war's end he was engaged with the Metacomet on blockade duty off the coast of Texas. For his services he was rewarded with command of the steamship Montgomery. He became a full commander in 1866, a captain in 1874, and a commodore in 1883.

In August, 1864, Admiral Farragut had the task of capturing Mobile, one of the last ports in Confederate hands. The harbor was protected by forts, and the waters made dangerous by the presence of so-called "torpedoes," actually mines. Reminded of this as the fleet entered the bay, Farragut turned to Jouett and Captain Percival Drayton.

"Damn the torpedoes!" he said. "Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" Legend revised the words, dropping the two officers' names.

Jouett afterwards commanded the North Atlantic Squadron. In 1885 he conducted an operation on the Isthmus of Panama for the protection of American interests during an insurrection, restoring order and receiving the thanks of the citizens, both native and foreign.

He was promoted rear admiral in 1886, retired in 1890, and died in 1902. In 1893, by a special act of Congress, he was granted full pay during his retirement "in appreciation of his great services to his country." Several naval vessels have since borne the name -- U.S.S Jouett

Having started with but a handful of humble, tarnished buttons, it adds up to quite a tale, however tantalizingly incomplete. How did an admiral's uniform buttons, dating from his days as a Civil War lieutenant-commander, wind up so far from the sea, in Vernon County, Mo., and in the Bushwhacker Museum, where, along with the admiral's picture, they now occupy an honored niche in the permanent Civil War exhibit? It can only be assumed that some relative of the admiral's came to live here at some time or other, and decided this was as good a place to leave his family souvenirs as any other.

If any reader has information, or cares to hazard a guess, we'd be glad to hear it.