Saturday, August 20, 2022

Cape Hatteras Under Union Control – A Soldier's Perspective September 1861

    How did the men-in-the-ranks view the victory of taking the Confederate forts protecting the Cape Hatteras inlet in August 1861?  Well, it was a much needed Union victory in the fall of 1861 after a summer of defeats as I shared in the previous blog post about the Hatteras Victory Patriotic Envelope, posted on April 20, 2022. But was it an effective strategy in blockading Southern commerce?  And what was it like for the Union soldiers to be there on duty after the battle garrisoning the captured forts?  The following unnamed soldier’s letter gives some interesting “little details” to help us better appreciate the “big picture” of the Union victory.  Hope you enjoy reading his letter printed in the Sunday Mercury Newspaper Sept.22, 1861 about what’s happening now that the Union controls Cape Hatteras:

Hawkins’ Ninth Regiment N.Y.S.V.
On Board Steam Transport S.R.Spaulding
Cape Hatteras, September 12, 1861
To the Editors of the Sunday Mercury:
I write to you, having an opportunity to send this by the transport which leaves for Fortress Monroe to-day.  We struck tents at Newport News, VA., at 4 o’clock PM, of the 10th inst., but did not get aboard of the steamer until 10PM, when we left under cover of night.  We arrived here yesterday, 12PM, after a pleasant voyage.  The steamer was somewhat crowded, and of course we hadn’t everything we wanted.  We slept on deck, down in the hold, and in fact in every place we could find.  We disembarked at 1 PM, Wednesday, and remained on shore until 6 PM, when we were ordered aboard again for the night.  The same inconvenience we had to experience again.  All the companies, with the exception of our own, are ashore.  We are detained aboard for something; I don’t know what.  To tell the truth, this is the most dreary place I have ever seen.  The soil is all sandy, like Coney Island exactly.  Our colonel [Rush Hawkins] is in possession of Fort Clark, which is at the upper end of the island.  Fort Hatteras, in possession of Col. [Max] Weber, is nearest the landing, and is, I think, the best fort.  I stood upon the ramparts yesterday, and viewed the country all around.  It is a very curious sight.  Shot and shell were strewed all around.  I have got plenty of shell and shot, and will endeavor to send you some.  Fort Hatteras is not a regularly-built fort, like any that are in the Harbor of New York; it is built of sand and sod, and has no barracks.
Our boys have all sorts of trophies taken here.  Some had watches, and others had knives and pistols; and when we arrived, we were received by some of our boys who were dressed up in all sorts of clothes, taken from the “seceshers” -- green, blue, gray, and every color imaginable.  It was rather an amusing sight, and one I won’t soon forget.  Yesterday we met two schooners (prizes) on their way to Philadelphia.  It appears they came in supposing it to be still in possession of the secessionists.  Lieut. Crosby met them, and they asked to be towed in by the Fanny, and the captain of the “secesher” said he was glad to get clear of the “d—d Yankee,” meaning the frigate Cumberland, who tried to deceive them by letting them run the blockade.  Lieut. Crosby afterward said he was a United States officer, and claimed him as his prisoner.  The captain then was so surprised that he went aboard and got drunk, and remained so all day.  The colonel had a beautiful stand of colors captured, and the hoisted them on the fort. We have captured five vessels since our boys have been here, and we expect a number to arrive from the West Indies daily.  The prizes we took yesterday had on board coffee and ammunition.
Our boys lived high at first.  They captured all their provisions.  The people, they say, come from miles around into camp, and sell articles, such as fish, etc.  They are all loyal.  To my utter surprise, we have not seen a contraband since we arrived.  There are none around.  All the people are white.  There is a small church a little way up the main land, where an old minister preaches, and who seems to be their leader.  He comes into camp under a flag of truce, and gets all the inhabitants to swear allegiance to the Union.  About five hundred have already done so.  They say there is no rebels nearer than sixty miles.  This I guess is so, because we have no picket-guard posted, only an interior guard.  We are on the Cape, and nothing can be seen to the North but a wide expanse of water; and it reminds me of the island that Robinson Crusoe lived on; at the back you can see a few houses.  Our men seem to have everything they want; figs are in abundance; a little back in the country, fishing is of the first class, but the water is awful.  We have no well save those that are dug in the sand, and the water is almost unfit to drink.  When a storm is brewing, they say, it carries everything before it, washing clear over the sand.  You may not hear from me for one or two weeks.  I understand we are to have communications with the fortress twice a week, and then of course I will write to you often. R.H.J.

Fort Hatteras under Union control
Picture from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War 1887 page 665

9th Infantry Regiment New York State Volunteers also knows as the Hawkins Zouaves or New York Zouaves. Organized mostly in New York city, mustered into U.S. Services May 4, 1861.  In June they were stationed at Newport News VA.  On August 28-29, 1861 three companies (C, G & H), serving under Major-Gen. Butler, helped in the attack on the confederate forts guarding the Hatteras Inlet.  The rest of the regiment was then sent down to help secure the forts taken, arriving Sept.10 through 12.

Little details make “the big event” more interesting
Reading this man’s letter describing various little things going on around him gives us more insight into the big picture event of the Cape Hatteras Assault.  You have to appreciate his sense of humor.  His humorous description of how the blockade runners were lured into thinking “they had made it safe” by flying of Confederate flag over the fort and the pretending to let them slip by the Union blockading vessels, only to be surprised – “you’re our prisoners”.  Might as well finish off the liquor, it’s just going to be confiscated anyway by these yanks.  And I am sure the coffee was much appreciated by the garrison.
The details about occupying the forts, the mix of good food options to supplement army rations and distasteful water, and the relationship with the people in the area all give more depth of appreciation of the big picture of this Union victory on the North Carolina shores.  I am glad the Sunday Mercury printed up letters like this one during the course of the war.  Its always interesting and enjoyable to get perspectives from the guys doing the work on the ground.

Children projects:
1) Explore why the Confederate blockade runners could be fooled.  (You will have to explain there was no such thing as radio signals or text messaging during the Civil War time period.)  Show how this was part of the early war Anaconda Plan proposed by Gen. Scott.
2) For background on the “contraband” comment, see my post on “Southern Contraband of War Fleeing North” (Sept. 8, 2018) for the origin of this term to describe people of color during the Civil War.
3) Perhaps explore how 'big politics' can differ from 'local politics'.  The state of North Carolina did secede from the Union. But here the local population seems to accept the Union forces.  Explore how secession was more complicated in North Carolina than other southern states.
4) This soldier talks about souvenirs of war that he and others were enjoying collecting.  Does your family have any souvenirs of maybe family history that you prize?  But then the next generations may not value what the previous ones did because the “memories” don’t get passed along.  Time moves on.  I bought a Civil War hat pin years ago that had been made out of an original Union coat button which some sweetheart had worn in honor of her man off to war.  My wife wore it in her hat at the reenactments we went to over the years.  So, it got a second life.  When Vicki died, I gave it to my daughter.  She will give it to my granddaughter who is named after her grandma with the story of the memories of grandma always wearing it in her hat.  But someday it will probably just be lost again.  Talk to your children about why they treasure some things, about family memoires of things you treasure.  It may keep family history alive for another generation.