Welcome back to my ongoing “live-blog” of the other book I’m reading as part of my “Literary Summer,” that being the pulse pounding and sorta-true adventure/popular 1962 history book Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast by Edward Rowe Snow. As with my Winds of War series, the latest portion of which just went up a few days ago, I’m incorporating wine suggestions by Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog. These have been some of the most fun and successful articles I’ve done on my blog recently, and there’s still a lot more adventure and mystery ahead. Both adventure and mystery surround tonight’s wine suggestion (and the eventual wine selection), but we’ll get to that all in good time.
Chapter 8, which returns us to the Civil War era, is titled “A Mystery of the Mind.” Snow begins by giving us the short life story of one John Dorsey Ela, born in Boston in August 1849. Taught the art of sailing on the South Shore in his youth, John turned out to be rather large in stature. At the age of thirteen he was 5’10” and weighed 174 pounds. That’s mighty large for a 13-year-old. He became 13 in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, and if you’ve read any of these “he was mighty large for his age” stories you can guess what happens next: yes, John Dorsey Ela joined the Union Navy under a fake name.
It’s strange, and a little frustrating, that Snow wraps the story of Ela’s enlistment around a sizable digression involving the Confederate raider Florida, built in England to run the Union blockade, and the Union Navy’s attempts to catch her. The only thing this has to do with John Ela’s story is that Snow says Ela was following it in the papers and it got him angry enough at the Southerners to spark him to enlist. All right. He could have told us that in one sentence, but I guess Snow couldn’t resist the urge to give us a nautical adventure tale. It did confuse me, though, as I wondered if I was supposed to be paying attention to the story of the Florida or any of the other ship names Snow drops. It turns out not to be relevant. Ela enlists and in 1864 is stationed aboard the USS Louisiana. Oh, and they also make him a lieutenant.
The CSS Florida, later captured by the U.S. Navy and turned into a Union warship, ends up having absolutely nothing to do with this story but here’s a picture of it anyway.
Wait…a 15-year-old lieutenant? In the United States Navy? That seems a little hard to believe. Snow tells us this was “because of his nautical ability.” I’m sorry, Mr. Snow, I just don’t believe it. I don’t care if he’s Admiral Spruance channeling the ghost of John Paul Jones and can dismast a man o’ war by firing cannonballs out of his butt. I don’t see U.S. Navy sailors obeying or respecting the orders of an officer the age of an average ninth-grader. This is the first thing in Mysterious Tales that I think is just flat out false without even a shred of truth. But again, I digress, though I’ll return to this issue.
The real story of “A Mystery of the Mind” is this: on December 23, 1864, while aboard the Louisiana which is engaged at trying to destroy Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, “Lieutenant” Ela hits his head on a beam while trying to escape the ship, which has just been set as a fire ship to ram the fort. The explosion fails to go off and John Ela, dazed, is taken to a Navy hospital. The blow to his head has given him amnesia. According to Snow his brain has been totally erased and he must be taught to walk, eat and dress himself all over again. Naturally he has no idea who he is. Now mentally handicapped, he falls through the cracks of the veteran’s care system after the war ends and winds up wandering the streets of Boston. In 1895, thirty years after the war, he signs up for a job as a cook aboard a schooner called the Petrel, which is hauling contraband (Snow doesn’t identify what type) to Cuba across a blockade of Spanish gunboats.
This is a photo of the confirmed youngest lieutenant in the Navy during the Civil War, and it’s not John Ela. (It’s William B. Cushing, for the record).
While running the blockade, one of the Spanish ships starts shelling. An explosion tears loose an iron bar which conks John Ela on the head. Presto! Suddenly his memory returns–and exactly where he left off. In fact he thinks he’s back aboard the Louisiana in December 1864, about to set off the explosion that will destroy Fort Fisher. Somehow despite this confusion he takes control of the crippled Petrel, steering it between two Spanish gunboats, and saves the day. With the money he receives as a reward, he returns to Boston and looks up his mother. The two are happily reunited.
I’m sorry, as interesting and enjoyable as this little story is, I think it’s a complete fabrication. For one thing, amnesia doesn’t work this way. No one has ever lost their memory for 30 years and then picked up where they left off. For another, Ela getting lost for 30 years, especially with a surviving mother out there, is far-fetched. If he was taken off the Louisiana his crewmates would obviously know who he was, even if he didn’t, so why wouldn’t they just send him home? Wouldn’t his mother have thought to check with the Navy to see if her son made it off the ship alive? Nothing about this tale makes any sense. The fact that this chapter was padded heavily with extraneous details tells me that Snow’s original source was very thin, probably just a story he overheard somewhere.
But, I’m not going to let this silly chapter get between me and a good glass of wine! For this chapter, Michelle chose a Penfolds Koonunga Hill 2012 Shiraz Cabernet, a bold and adventurous Australian wine. However…I was not able to get one by the time I had to go to press. While I do believe my local wine shop (that got me the Michael David I enjoyed with the last Mysterious Tales chapter) has it, I was so busy this week I didn’t get a chance to go down there. So the wine I did pick up was a Goats Do Roam 2013 Vintage Blend. This wine is a cuveé, a mixture of Shiraz, Mourvedre, Grenache, Durif, Cinsaut and Carignan, and it’s made by Fairview Wines of South Africa. I chose it because it’s an obvious light-hearted dig at the venerated “Cotes du Rhone” style of French wine, and the idea of goats roaming around the landscape isn’t too far from the fanciful notion of John Ela spending 30 years roaming about wondering who he is.
This is not the best wine I’ve ever tasted, but it’s quaffable. It has kind of a smoky finish and it’s pretty bold, though not what you’d call a “fruit bomb.” I’m not nearly as good at discerning flavors as Michelle is, so all I’ll say it’s got some herbs, a bit of smoky wood and it’s not overpowering. I’m quite sure the Koonunga Hill is much better…and probably the next chapter of Mysterious Tales will be better than this one, so I’ll save it for that one!
Incidentally, while I was quaffing my glass of Goats Do Roam, I discovered that, officially speaking, the youngest lieutenant in the U.S. Civil War was one William Barker Cushing, who was commissioned at age 20. I could find no mention at all of a John Dorsey Ela.
There’s more to come from this book! Keep checking back, and thanks for sailing with me thus far!