“The Terror of the Rebels Along the Coast”

dutch-promoOne evening in the spring of 1863, a detachment of Union sailors moved stealthily across the grounds of a South Carolina plantation. 35-strong and heavily armed, they were attracted to the estate by a report of rebel activity. Before long they surprised a picket of nine Confederate cavalry and captured them after a brief fight.

The bluejackets served on the Kingfisher, a sleek bark that operated in and about the Sea Islands below Charleston. Her commander, 42-year-old John Clark Dutch, enjoyed a sterling reputation in these parts — and this exploit added to his luster.

Read more about his life and times.

Dutch’s story appears in the December 2015 issue of the Civil War News.

Early Defender of His Homeland

montageLt. John Grimball was in the Civil War from the Star of the West incident in January 1861 through the surrender of the Shenandoah in November 1865. His story is featured in the current issue of Civil War News. An excerpt:

Later that year he reported for duty to the Shenandoah. Grimball and his shipmates hunted Yankee merchant ships on the high seas during a yearlong cruise. Their exploits inspired Southerners during the waning months of the Confederate nation and prompted Northerners to brand them pirates. The Shenandoah continued to operate for months after surrender of the gray armies and dissolution of the government. The crew had heard rumors of the downfall of the Confederacy but had no confirmation of it.

“We were now the only Confederate cruiser afloat, and as we continued our course around the world, passing from ocean to ocean, meeting in turn ships of various nationalities, I always felt that whenever our nationality was known to neutral ships the greetings we received rarely warmed up beyond that of a more or less interested curiosity, and while we had many friends ashore who were most lavish and generous in welcoming us to port, underlying it all there appeared to exist a wish of the authorities to have us ‘move on.’”

Read his full story.

Blasting Fort Wagner into Sand Heaps

kenyon-collageMy latest Faces of War column in the Civil War News profiles navy officer Albert J. Kenyon. An excerpt:

Hours before the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and other federal infantry assaulted Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863, the Union navy launched a furious bombardment. Six ironclads steamed to within 1,200 yards of the fort and unleashed hell on the garrison. Shell after shell belched from the fiery mouths of the big guns in the turrets of the metal monsters to soften the position, which was critical to the rebel defenses of Charleston.

Read on!

The Unpublished Diary of John Freeman Shorter, 55th Massachusetts Infantry

photo 1Today I will be visiting the offices of the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington to deliver the diary pictured here. It was kept by 2nd Lt. John Freeman Shorter in 1865—his last year with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the last of his life. Shorter, who is descended from Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, through her daughter (and Sally Hemings’s sister or half-sister) Betty Brown, died of disease a few weeks after he returned to his home and fiancé in Ohio.

I spent three months working on the diary, with the help of my wife Anne and several friends who were truly generous with their time: Julie Baker, Susan Sukys Evanko and Phyllis M. Sukys. The transcription would not have been completed without their efforts.

photo 2The diary was purchased by Tom Liljenquist earlier this year at a Civil War show. He and I will make the visit to the Museum to formally donate the precious volume today.

Shorter was in a South Carolina hospital recovering from a crippling foot wound he suffered at the Battle of Honey Hill, S.C., on November 30, 1864. His daily entries record visits by comrades, friends and dignitaries including Martin Robison Delany. Shorter describes his recovery, notes wounded and sick soldiers from Sherman’s army arriving at the hospital during the march through the Palmetto State, the surrender by Gen. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Each entry averages 30-35 words, and starts with a description of the weather before noting details of the day. Shorter does not share his feelings, and I can’t help but wonder if he intended someday to write a memoir of his wartime experience with this diary as a reference to remind him of day-to-day activities.

His last full entry was recorded on Friday, September 22, 1865. It is a typical entry, lacking punctuation and capital letters:

the morning clear and
pleasant quite a
number of the Officers
went to Boston on
business, nothing going
on on the Island
worthy speaking
is written a letter
to my Father
reported that the
paymaster is by
command Paying off the
Regiment in the
morning

This sketch of his life and service appears in the regimental history, Record of the service of the Fifty-fifth regiment of Massachusetts volunteer infantry:

RMC2006_0011John Freeman Shorter was born in Washington, D.C., in the year 1842. His father was for a long time messenger in the United-States Senate. At the time of his enlistment, Lieut. Shorter was working as a mechanic in Delaware, Ohio. With few early advantages, he had acquired by hard study a good English education. In the spring of 1863, hearing of the organization of the Massachusetts regiments, he left home, and joined the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, then recruiting at Readville. June 24, 1864, he was appointed First Sergeant of Company D. In this position, he proved himself to be an excellent Orderly. Quiet, reserved, modest, he yet held his company in the firmest control. With every soldierly quality, from scrupulous neatness to unflinching bravery, he well merited the reputation of the best non-commissioned officer in the regiment. As such, he was selected for the first promotion from the ranks, and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant by Gov. Andrew, March 24, 1864. The department commander (Brig. -Gen. John P. Hatch) refused him a discharge as Private and muster as Lieutenant, because ” men of African descent could not be commissioned in the United-States Volunteers ! ” While occupying the anomalous position of an officer commissioned and not yet mustered, he was wounded in the foot, at Honey Hill, S.C., Nov. 30, 1864. By this wound he was so severely crippled, that, when the Secretary of War finally decided to recognize colored line-officers, a special order was necessary to authorize his remuster. Notwithstanding this wound, he continued on duty with the regiment after returning from the hospital, and was finally mustered as Second Lieutenant, July 1, 1865. When the Fifty-fifth returned to Massachusetts, he accompanied them, and was discharged with his company, Aug. 29, 1865. He set out directly for Delaware, Ohio, where the young lady resided to whom he was engaged to be married. On the way, he was exposed to the contagion of the small-pox, which his constitution, weakened by wounds, could not resist ; and, soon after arriving at his destination, he died of varioloid.

The officers and men of the regiment will retain him in very pleasant and honorable remembrance. In person he was tall, of muscular build, with head carried a trifle forward, hair light, complexion almost white, and blue eyes, whose lively expression brightened a face otherwise somewhat grave. He was very reticent ; but his few words were crisp, earnest, and to the point. A thorough soldier and a thorough man, he earned and worthily filled the grade to which he was promoted, and amply justified the friendship of the officers of the regiment and the State authorities of Massachusetts, who had urged upon the United-States Government the justice and the policy of the final recognition of the rights of his race, implied in opening to them promotion from the ranks.

The Last Commander of the Monitor

South Carolina-born John Payne Bankhead (1821-1867) opted to remain loyal to the Union after the Civil War began. A career navy man, he served on several vessels early in the war—all of which were wood. He requested to be transferred to an ironclad, and in September 1862 took command of the “Monitor.” He had the distinction of being the senior officer in charge when the famed ship sunk off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on December 31, 1862. Bankhead survived the ordeal and returned to active command. He survived the war, but his health failed soon after. He died in 1867.

His image is new to my collection, and his story will appear in my forthcoming book about Civil War sailors.

This image is new to my collection, and is now available on PinterestTumblr, and Flickr:
The Last Commander of the Monitor

Latest “Faces of War” Column: “Something Got the Matter with My Head”

PinckneyMy latest Civil War News ”Faces of War” column is now available. Pvt. John Pinckney was born into bondage on a prosperous rice-growing plantation in coastal South Carolina, and left to join the 104th U.S. Colored Infantry. He enlisted on April 13, 1865—four days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and the day before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

An excerpt:

One friend recalled, “When he came home he came right to see me in Georgetown, where I was living, and he had on his soldier clothes,” and added, “After he came home he went by the name Pinckney all the time — that was his father’s name.”

Read the full story.

New on Disunion: The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground

William Harvey CarneyMy latest contribution to the New York Times series Disunion is the story of Sgt. William Harvey Carney of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry and how he came to say these immortal words at Fort Wagner.

An excerpt:

Carney climbed the rampart with the Stars and Stripes. “All around me were the dead and wounded, lying one upon top the other,” he observed, describing the scene. “It seemed a miracle that I should have been spared in that awful slaughter. When I recovered from my semi stupor, on account of the scenes of blood about me, I found myself standing on the top of the embankment, all alone. It were folly for me to try to advance, so I dropped on my knees among my dead comrades, and I laid as low and quiet as possible.”

Carney planted the bottom of the flagstaff into the ground as musket bullets and canister shots plowed into the earth near his feet and sprayed sand into the air. “I was almost blinded by the dirt flying around me and nearly distracted by the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying men about me. As soon as I could distinguish anything in the darkness, I could see dimly on one side a line of men mounting the ramparts and going down into the fort. I thought they must be our own men, but in the light of a cannon flash I saw they were the enemy.”

Read the rest of Sgt. Carney’s story.

Action at Bloody Bridge

My profile of James Harvey McKee of the 144th New York Infantry, which appears in the current print issue of the Civil War News, is now available online.

An excerpt: “The New Yorkers peered through the dim morning light obscured by heavy fog and gunsmoke and saw what appeared to be the forms of men ahead. Some believed that the shadowy figures were members of their own picket line and cried out to stop firing. They soon discovered their error. McKee and the rest of the 144th reacted with a volley, and fired off a couple more. This appeared to drive the gray troops away. The Confederates had not however withdrawn, but had moved around the unsupported left flank of the regiment and caught the New Yorkers off their guard.”

McKee from my Flickr Photostream:
James H. McKee