Mary Touveste and the C.S.S. Virginia
In late 1861 the Confederacy began
converting the partially-burned hulk of the wooden steam frigate
Merrimac into an ironclad at the Gosport Navy Yard, near
Norfolk, Virginia. When news of this reached the Union Navy, it
caused considerable consternation. Although the Navy almost
immediately placed orders for the construction of ironclad vessels
of its own – including the famed U.S.S. Monitor – information on the Confederate
vessel was sparse. Sparse, that is, until February of 1862, shortly
before Virginia was ready for sea, when certain important documents reached the Department of the Navy, including copies of the ship’s plans.
The source of these documents was one Mary Touveste. A free black woman from Norfolk, Virginia, Touveste made her living as a hired servant. In the autumn of 1861 she secured a position as a main in the home of one of the engineers working on the new ship. The man kept important plans and documents at his home, and Touveste was able to examine these, even making copies of some. She proceeded in this fashion for several months. Then, in February of 1862, just a few weeks before the vessel was completed, she disappeared.
By secretive means Touveste made passed her information on to the Secretary of the Navy. Now most of the details of Touveste’s operation are extremely shady. Was she operating entirely on her own? If so, how had she managed to pass the information on? Perhaps through the informal network that until recently had been occupied mostly with helping slaves flee to freedom, the Underground Railroad, which had connections in surprisingly high places. Or perhaps she had been recruited by an agent of the Navy Department, and used a more formal espionage network. These are questions that can never be answered.
With her bold act of espionage, Mary Touveste disappears from the rolls of history. The fact of her single spy mission was virtually the only information available about her. But in doing it, she had performed an immense service to the nation, albeit leaving behind numerous questions.
Putting a Good Face on Things
According to a tale that may – or perhaps
may not – be apocryphal, some years ago a student at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Alabama, undertook a study of promotion procedures.
Based on the actual service files of real officers, the student created a set or bogus records, some of them “good” and some of them “bad.” To these, he attached pictures of real USAF officers, and ran them by a couple of mock promotion boards composed of officers who had experience in such matters. To insure the “objectivity” of the process, the student mixed and matched the records and pictures randomly. As a result, the promotion boards reviewed some good records with “ugly” faces, some bad records with “pretty” faces, some good records with “pretty” faces, and some bad records with “ugly” faces, in such a way that in one iteration of the promotion process a good record might be matched with an “ugly” face, and in another the same record might be matched with a “pretty” face.
Interestingly, according to the tale, howsoever the records and pictures were shuffled, or whether men or women were the ostensible subjects of the records and pictures, the promotion boards consistently promoted the “pretty” faces over the “ugly” ones, regardless of other considerations.
Supposedly the College suppressed the study.
Building Castles in the Sky
In 1197 Richard the Lionhearted decided to block a potential French invasion route into Normandy down the Seine by constructing an enormous castle which has come to be known as Chateau Gaillard. Since Richard was having a lot of trouble with his “dear cousin” Philip Augustus II of France, he decided that the castle had to be built in a hurry. Naturally, this upped the cost considerably.
|Cost to Construct Chateau Gaillard, 1197-1198|
|Cartage|| -|| £1,010|| £2,442|| £3,442|
|Stone|| £2,030|| 425|| 650|| 3,105|
|Timber|| 1,005|| 251|| 838|| 2,094|
|Masonry Supplies *|| 395|| -|| 1,002|| 1,397|
|Metalwork & Cordage|| 160 ||- || 113|| 273|
|Manpower**|| -|| -|| 10,892|| 10,892|
|Total||3,590 ||1,676||15,927 ||21,203 |
|Note: “Masonry Supplies” refers
to sand, mortar, and plaster. “Manpower” refers to construction workers, miners, porters, guards, and so forth, to the exclusion of personnel involved in the manufacture or transportation of supplies|
As can be seen, then as now, the principal expense in a construction project was manpower rather than materials.
Considering that Richard’s normal “annual income” was probably no more than £50,000-75,000, his enormous investment in Chateau Gaillard was not well repaid. Just as he could raise a great castle in quick time by ponying up lots of cash, so too could his enemies. Although virtually impregnable to a traditional siege, Chateau Gaillard could be blockaded and forced to surrender if someone could afford to pay enough troops long enough to starve the garrison.
In September, 1203, an army in the pay of King Philip Augustus II of France sat down outside Chateau Gaillard. They erected siege works, prevented the entry of supplies, and even stormed the outer walls. As a result, at the time of the final French assault on March 6, 1204, the combined effects of combat, hunger, and disease had reduced the defenders to no more than 140 able-bodied men.
Taking Chateau-Gaillard cost Philip Augustus a pretty penny, precisely how much no one knows, but it was probably as much as the place had cost Richard to build. Despite this tremendous outlay, it money well spent, for not only did the castle control traffic on the Seine, it also covered Rouen, the capital of Normandy, then in English hands. Three months after Chateau-Gaillard fell, Rouen was French again, and the rest of Normandy soon followed.