Thomas Oliver Selfridge, Jr. Was born February 6, 1836 in Charleston, Massachusetts.
His father was Rear Admiral Thomas Oliver Selfridge, Sr., who had became an officer in the United States Navy during the Mexican-American War.
Thomas Jr. grew up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and went on to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1854.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, as an officer in the United States Union Navy aboard the frigate USS Cumberland. After the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Thomas Selfridge and a group of men from the Cumberland were ordered to gather up what they could from the Norfolk Navy Yard and destroy what they could not salvage to prevent its use by the South.
Today, some historians believe that this included several crates of gold from the U.S. Customs House at Norfolk.
What is known for sure is that on April 20, 1861, the company of men Selfridge was with were ordered to destroy all 3,000 guns at the Navy Yard within just a few hours. This task became impossible, given that Selfridge was with only 100 sailors.
Selfridge and the sailors then escaped from the burning base aboard the beleaguered USS Cumberland, as she was towed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard by the steam sloop Pawnee, saving the warship for the Union Navy.
Once safely out of Norfolk, the Cumberland sailed back to Boston for repairs.
Selfridge then sailed back to Hampton Roads aboard the Cumberland and took up station as one of several ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Cumberland captured many small ships and participated in the expedition that captured the forts at Cape Hatteras.
Then on March 8, 1862, the Cumberland with Selfridge aboard, was rammed and sunk in an engagement with Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) at Newport News, Virginia in an engagement now known as the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Selfridge and the Cumberland went down fighting as they knocked out two of CSS Virginia’s guns, her ram, and inflicted internal damage.
The sinking of the Cumberland is considered a turning point in the history of world naval affairs as it showed the advantage of armored steam powered ships over sail powered wooden hulled ships.
Thomas Selfridge then went aboard the Union warship USS Monitor and participated the next day in another battle against Confederate warship CSS Virginia.
This time, the new Union ironclad USS Monitor prevented the CSS Virginia from wreaking further destruction on the remaining wooden Union ships by pounding the Virginia in a four hour, close range, battle.
Three hours into the slug fest, the Lieutenant Commander of the Monitor John L. Worden, received facial wounds when a Confederate shell from the Virginia exploded just outside Monitor’s pilot house, partially blinding Worden.
The Monitor withdrew from the battle and some records indicate Worden relinquished command to his first officer Samuel D. Greene, with Thomas Selfridge briefly assuming the duties of first officer on the Monitor. When the Monitor returned to the scene, the CSS Virginia had withdrawn as well.
The two warships had fought to a standoff that day, marking the first ever battle fought between two armored warships and another turning point in naval warfare.
The Union Navy then looked for a vessel to counter the threat to its wooden-hulled sloops with the construction of a small submersible ship.
Lt. Commander Thomas Selfridge, Jr. then was assigned to the novel submarine Alligator during her final stages of construction and testing at the Washington Navy Yard.
The Alligator was finally launched on May 1, 1862.
Then in August of 1862, the aggressive and promising young officer Selfridge was reassigned to the Mississippi Squadron, subsequently commanding the USS Cairo.
As the Cairo’s skipper, Selfridge was considered rash and ambitious, as well as a stern disciplinarian by his men.
On the cold morning of December 12, 1862, Selfridge led a small flotilla up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to destroy Confederate batteries and clear the channel of torpedoes (underwater mines) in preparation for an attack on Haines Bluff, Mississippi.
As the Cairo reached a point seven miles north of Vicksburg the flotilla came under fire and Selfridge ordered his guns to ready.
As the gunboat Cairo turned towards shore disaster struck.
The Cairo was rocked by two explosions in quick succession which tore gaping holes in the ship’s hull. She had been struck by a torpedo detonated by Confederate volunteers hidden behind the river bank.
Within twelve minutes the ironclad sank into six fathoms (36 feet) of water without any loss of life.
The Cairo became the first armored ship in history to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine or torpedo.
Selfridge was then assigned to the USS Conestoga. The Conestoga had originally been a civilian side-wheel towboat built in 1859. In June of 1861, the U.S. Army acquired her and converted the Conestoga to a 572 ton “timberclad” river gunboat for use by the Western Gunboat Flotilla with officers provided by the Navy.
In April and July of 1863, Selfridge commanded the Conestoga on expeditions to Palmyra, Tennessee, and up the Red River, Louisiana.
The following March, Conestoga went up Louisiana’s Black and Ouachita Rivers. Soon after, on March 8, 1864, USS Conestoga was sunk in an accidental collision when the Union steamboat USS General Price rammed Conestoga after confusion over whistle signals.
Selfridge then returned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron as Commander of the gunboat USS Huron.
Selfridge and the USS Huron turned their attention to Wilmington, North Carolina and its powerful defender, Fort Fisher.
On December 24-25, 1864, the Huron took part in a bombardment which was to cover the storming of Fort Fisher by Union Army troops. This first assault was aborted, but preparations were quickly made for a second joint operation in January of 1865.
Again, Huron provided a part in the devastating naval bombardment; and, with the help of a landing party of 2,000 sailors and marines, the Union Army assault forces captured Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865.
Then, during the final months of the American Civil War, Selfridge and the Huron took part in combined operations against the city itself, bombarding Forts Anderson, and St. Philip in February of 1865, leading to the capture of Wilmington.
Thomas Selfridge’s postwar service included command of Nipsic, Enterprise, and Omaha — the last two on the Asiatic Station — and duty as Commander in Chief of the European Squadron from 1895 to 1898.
His father had been forced to relinquish his command in February of 1862 due to old wounds, and served ashore until retiring in 1866.
Rear Admiral Selfridge, Jr. retired on February 6, 1898 and died on February 4, 1924.
Like his father, Selfridge became a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.
He was also became a Hereditary Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars.
The USS Selfridge (DD-357) was a Porter-class destroyer in the United States Navy. She is named for Rear Admiral Thomas O. Selfridge (1804–1902) and his son, Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. (1836–1924).
Selfridge was laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden in New Jersey on December 18, 1933, launched on April 18, 1936 and commissioned at Philadelphia on November 25, 1936.
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