ALLENTOWN, Pa. - There was not much in the way of entertainment in Allentown in the late 1870s. But young men of the town knew if they wanted to hear an interesting tale of the sea, they could always go down to the Lehigh Valley Railroad Depot in the evening and get a story out of night watchman, Ed Wilt.
Sometimes it would be a yarn of his whaling days, harrowing tales of voyages around the world worthy of Herman Melville. Wilt told them he had seen every country in the world except Greenland and Iceland.
Others were about his time in the Union Navy, where he played a significant role in the battle between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the Rebel raider Alabama off Cherbourg, France in June, 1864.
When Wilt, his body racked by tuberculosis, died in 1882 at the age of 45, his friends did not forgot him. In 1899, when Lehigh County finally got around to building a Civil War veterans memorial in Center Square in Allentown, they insisted that a sailor be included on it to honor his life and service to his country.
It is not known exactly how many Lehigh Valley men ended up in the Union Navy in the Civil War, but Wilt was surely among the few. And nothing in his family background would suggest it.
Born in Allentown on March 26, 1836, his father, Abraham, was a saddle maker. He also had a brother, Joseph. Of Wilt's mother, not even her name is known. Although most of his youth was spent in Allentown, for a number of years he lived in Easton.
Somewhere in his boyhood Wilt picked up a copy of "Jack Halyard: The Sailor Boy," a children's book about a young man who went to sea.
It was a widely popular little volume, and according to his obituary in the Allentown Democrat, it inspired in Wilt a desire to go to sea. When he reached 17 years old in 1853, Wilt decided to live his dream and left for the whaling hub of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Whale oil was a major fuel for lamps, and whale bones were used for women's corsets.
In New Bedford, Wilt was hired by a whaling ship captain. How quickly it took him to discover that his romanticized dreams of the sea were false is unknown. But one thing was clear to Wilt: his captain was a tyrant.
Whaling captains were seldom saints. But perhaps this one was too much like Melville's fanatical Ahab. He apparently quickly made it clear to Wilt as the fictional captain did, that there "is one God that is Lord over the earth and one captain that is lord over the Pequod," He also may have administered the lash a little too freely.
Whatever the cause, Wilt was of no mind to put up with the captain. He jumped ship as soon as he could. "When the ship reached New Zealand," his obituary later noted, "he took French leave, or in plain English, deserted."
Wilt had no trouble joining an outgoing whaler under the command of a less tyrannical captain. The voyage was to take Wilt around the world before returning him to New Bedford. Another whaling journey took him to Baja, California, where, much to his shock, he found the grave of a friend he had known in Easton, a friend who had died in the explosion of the steamer Independence in 1853.
For a few years Wilt lived ashore in California, perhaps trying his luck in the gold fields. But he returned to the sea and whaling until the year 1862 found him in the port city of Algeciras, Spain. Here he found the U.S S. Kearsarge and joined the Union Navy.
Wilt was already a skilled sailor, and, although it primarily moved by steam, the Kearsarge also depended on sails. He climbed from one rigging to another so nimbly that he was named "captain of the top," his primary task to keep the ships sails coordinated and operating in unison.
Wilt's post in combat was as second sponger on one of the Kearsarge's two Dahlgren guns. Named for their inventor, they fired an 11 inch long, 90 pound shot. Wilt's job as second sponger was to clean out the gun with a plunger between firings.
The highpoint of Wilt's naval career came on June 19, 1864. On getting word that the Rebel raider the CSS Alabama had docked in the French port of Cherbourg, the Kearsarge steamed there.
The Alabama had sought refuge in the neutral French port but was not getting the help it hoped for from the French government. Although it leaned toward the Confederate cause, France was technically neutral and did not want to cross the U.S. government.
The Alabama's commander, Raphael Semmes, was a seaman known for daring moves and he made one. Charging out of the harbor, he surprised the Kearsarge. But the Union ship quickly went after the Rebel and charged for her. Bursts of cannon fire from the Alabama were largely ineffectual. As they got closer the ships were chasing each other in circles. The Dahlgren guns did most of the damage to the Alabama.
There is some dispute about exactly when the Alabama had surrendered but no doubt about her fate as she sank stern first. Wilt's superiors included him by name and the rest of the gun crew in a dispatch to the Navy Department, "for their deliberation and coolness during the discharge of their respective duties."
Following the battle and with an $800 bounty from the Navy, Wilt decided he had enough of the sea and returned to Allentown. Here he met and married Mary Schlouch. They had one child, Henry, who died in infancy.
Wilt was already suffering from the early stages of TB but attempts to get disability money from the government proved futile. The person who promised to help Wilt do so vanished with most of his bounty money.
Today Ed Wilt rests next to his wife and son in a plot in Union West End Cemetery, far from the sea he knew so well.
Allentown, PA 18102