Apr 16 2006

Part Ten – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

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continued from Part 9

The captains of those ships had enough to do with their sick for it was not easy to isolate the sick in a crowded vessel, and so it became necessary to hoist signal “Bury the dad” with my distinguishing pennant over it. That meant that I must take the corpse from the ship, place it in the trench, see that it was properly numbered (the name and number being recorded in the ship’s log book) and leave it for the negroes to cover: and as near as I can remember I buried about sixty in that way. Perhaps the fever was of a mild type: or it may be that the constant fumigation to which the ships were subjected had its influence. As that may be, by the end of August we were free of the disease, and not one of my crew had been infected with it. Having no surgeon to interfere I had taken my own precautions. First, and before a ship arrived, I went a short distance inland where I knew some negroes had a lime kiln and got a quantity of quicklime. With a portion I limed my little vessel throughout. The remainder I placed on Egmont Key in a convenient place near the shore, and covered it to prevent its becoming slaked, slaking a small portion which I put into a tierce and covered. Then when signal “Bury the Dead” was set, I picked a boat’s crew, all of whom used tobacco, went myself every time, and we all chewed and smoked industriously while we were in contact with the body. Then stripped, washed each other with lime water, immersed the clothes we had on in lime water, leaving them there some hours, rinsed ourselves in sea water, and then put on a clean shirt, which another boat had left at a convenient place a short distance away. The infected ships having freed themselves of the disease dispersed about the first of September, leaving about one hundred of their men buried in Egmont Key, the Hendrick Hudson resuming charge of the station, and I had ordered to proceed to Key West. But when Commander Gifford handed me my orders, he (our surgeon was present) asked me what precautions I had taken to avoid the fever. I explained. Then the surgeon asked why, and what my theory was. I told him that I had come to the conclusion that yellow fever germs were living organisms, in the nature of a fly, floating in the atmosphere, and in common with all animated nature were endowed with the instinct of self-preservation: that I felt sure that the instinct would induce them to avoid passing through a man’s mouth when he was both chewing and smoking tobacco: and that I knew quicklime would meconate a yellow germ. The surgeon said that as a precaution he didn’t think my method could be improved upon. At any rate none of us contracted the disease.

I had now served twenty-eight months continuously, and I applied for three months leave of absence, stating the fact of continuous service. The Admiral granted me six weeks’ heave, but did not permit me to go North in the transport Union. The blockade running steamer Mataguarda, captured by the Magnolia, had just been condemned as a lawful prize by the local court. The squadron was short of men, and the admiral would not permit a prize crew to be detailed to take the prize North, simply a prize master from the Magnolia. Then placed her in charge of officers who either had leave of absence or were ordered North (I was one), with a crew of enlisted men whose terms had expired. We reached Boston, safely anchoring at quarantine at dark. The next morning the health officer boarded us and made his inspection, such as it was, for we were a jolly lot, and had no intention of being quarantined if we could help it. So we entertained him generously from the contents of a brandy punch bowl, the water (heated) which went into its consumption being obtained from a cask of commissary whiskey. Charley Blackwell had somehow got possession of a blank permit which he had already pulled out, and when inspection was over the fellow signed it, Blackwell guiding his hand. Then we was quickly aided to his boat, and left the ship, sitting in the stern with his head resting on the seat, and his two oarsmen grinning. I happened to have charge of the deck at the time, had instructed the boatswain’s mate to heave the anchor at short peak, and when the bunt was just clear of the paddle wheel struck the bell for full speed, which the engineers, who had caught onto the trick quickly applied. In half an hour we were at anchor off of the Navy Yard, the ship turned over to prize master Porter (of the Magnolia) when the rest of us scattered. I reached home that same evening, taking your mother by surprise.

It was now the latter part of September, 1864. Ten days of my leave had already expired, allowing me not more than three weeks at home, for I must report at Key West within six weeks, or give reasonable excuse for not doing so, else there would be Hail Columbia as a consequence. I returned to Key West in the transport Union, getting there on time, and resumed command of my little vessel. During the winter I cruised at different times all the way from Punta Rossa to St. Marks, but most of the time between St. Marks and Cedar Keys. The Rebel conscription was being enforced, and throughout Taylor County the smoke from burning homesteads was going up in all directions. The plan of the conscript officer was to visit every home which contained a man, either father or son, fit for service. If the man was there they took him without ceremony and forced him into the ranks. If he was not at home they assumed that he had gone into hiding, simply burned the premises and left the family to shift for themselves. Then many of the poor, harmless things would seek the water front, get on the outlying keys, subsist as best they could, trusting to luck to get picked up by the cruising vessels, and conveyed to the army camps where there was good. We had orders to grant protection to all blacks claiming it, and to such of the whites as were willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. So we aided many white families in the course of the last year of the war. One day, off the Ocala River, I discovered a white flag on an outlying key, and sent Montague to ascertain what it meant. He found one middle-aged man with his wife and family of twelve girls, and other women and children to the number of forty-two, all half-starved, and begging to be taken to the nearest place where good could be had. While Montague was arranging to get them off to the vessel he heard shots on the mainland, and made out three men swimming towards the key with a pursuing party firing at them. Montague went to their assistance, driving off the pursuers with his longer range rifles. He got two. The other was hit and sank before he reached him. The two rescued men elected to stay on the key with a view to aiding their families as soon as the troops engaged in conscription had passed on. The party I took to Cedar Keys, and turned over to the army stationed at that place. It was the Johnson family of fourteen, whom I have already mentioned as all being dead with fever except the father and one daughter when I again visited Cedar Keys some time later. This was the largest party I ever aided at any one time, although I assisted several others. Commander Fleming of the Sagamore, stationed at Cedar Keys, scolded a good deal about my prowling up and down the coast relieving Rebels, said he didn’t believe our orders required me to do so, andthat they ought to be left to their fate: but I knew that orders permitted me to do so, and I also knew that they were in trouble because they resisted being forced to fight against us: and, anyway, I couldn’t see the poor creatures starve when I could help them: and, besides, every man whose home was in the South, and who took no active part in the rebellion, was entitled to sympathy and protection of the United States, and not to be banned as a Rebel. Their position was hard enough without that sort of treatment.

During the month of March (the latter part, I think it was) I had occasion to go to Punta Rossa: and when at the mouth of the bay, three miles below that point, which is at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, I met the steamer Honduras (our local transport) with the stars and stripes at the fore (signal that the General – Newton – was on board). Captain Harris had never been up the bay, and had no one on board who could pilot him. I had been to Punta Rossa, and also to Fort Myers – eight miles up the Caloosahatchee – several times: so told Captain Harris to follow me up to within a half miles of the point, and to drop his anchor when I hove too, which he did. Then I went alongside, and General Newton showed me an open letter from the Admiral, addressed to the several commanding officers of the fleet, stating that General Newton had planned an expedition having in view the capture of St Marks, and also for the relief of the Union prisoners camped at Thomasville, a few miles distant from St Marks: and directing such as could be spared from the several blockaded ports to render him all the aid in their power: and he (the Admiral) had detailed Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Charles H. Blackwell to accompany the expedition, consult with the commanding officers, and to issue orders in his name. As I was a cruiser no consultation was necessary in my case, and Blackwell immediately handed me an order making me – with my little command – a part of the expedition.

For the carrying out of his plan General Newton had the 9th U.S. Infantry (black troops) Lieutenant Col. Purcell commanding, camped at Punta Rossa, one company camping at Fort Myers: and at Fort Myers there were also a lot of refugees (crackers) enlisted under a Colonel Crane, who commanded by virtue if a commission issued by General Newton. These refugees would be left in the garrison at Fort Myers, and a platoon of the 9th at Punta Rossa: the remainder – about four hundred rifles and one field piece – would go with the general. In camp at Cedar Keys was the 3rd Regiment U.S. black infantry, with one field gun, about four hundred enlisted men, commanded by Colonel Tanshend, and also Major Weeks’ refugee regiment, not exceeding two hundred, the whole (excluding such gunboats as would join) of one thousand enlisted men.

We got the troops with their equipments on board the Honduras and the army transport Hussar, which had arrived later during the day. Then I was ordered to proceed with all possible speed to Cedar Keys to notify Colonel Tanshend to prepare his troops, the general waiting for the company at Fort Myers to reach him. I left Punta Rossa shortly before dark, and with a fresh fair wind reached Cedar Keys the following noon. There I found the Magnolia whose admiral had sent me to join the expedition. She could accommodate five hundred troops easily, and was of light drought, but long to get up the narrow channel to Depot Key, where the troops were camped. The next morning both the Honduras and the Hussar came, and the general ordered both to go up to Depot Key to give the men a chance to stretch their legs: and also the Magnolia to go up to take on board the 3rd Regiment. None of them had a pilot, and no officer would undertake the job, so it fell on me to do it. First I took the Honduras up, touched bottom once, but go to the wharf with little trouble: then the Magnolia, putting her to the wharf, or rather alongside the Honduras, safely: but I certainly did not have twenty feet to spare, swinging her round Grassy Key. Then the army pilot (a common sailor unused to command) had got the Hussar aground half way up: and it fell to me to get her afloat, and bring her up, which I did. Quite late in the evening the general sent his orderly to say he wished to see me: and when I called on him, he told me he had given orders for the troops to embark at daylight, and he wanted me to be on board to start the steamers as soon as they were on board. I called his attention to the fact that it would be half ebb at daylight, and that the steamers would be barely afloat, and that while the Hussar could go down at low water, both the others must wait until half flood. He said that would disarrange his plans, but if it was unavoidable of course he would have to wait for the tide, and so he countermanded his orders, and the troops did not embark until the middle of the next forenoon. Shortly before noon I started with the Magnolia, and by good fortune swung her round Grassy Key without touching bottom, crept down the channel with barely water enough to float her, and anchored her in the harbor at Sea Horse Key.

I had depended on the Honeysuckle (blockader) to furnish a boat to take me back for the Honduras: but the boat was a long time coming, and when it came it was a dingy thing with but two men in it. Consequently I did not get back until three o’clock: and it was then high tide. Then the general, who was on board the Hussar, and would not trust the army pilot, told me to take the Hussar down next, and then come for the Honduras. But Captain Harris got restless, and wouldn’t wait with a falling tide, and so started with the army pilot and got aground in the bend at Grassy Key, and when I boarded him he was swearing at the pilot for an incapable, and at himself for trusting him. Captain Ransom of the third regiment had already sent the pilot ashore, under arrest, and was made as Harris was at being left behind: for the General had already started for St Marks, taking the Magnolia with him, while Ransom was on board the Honduras with his quota of troops with no chance of getting away before the next afternoon. I got the Honduras afloat during the night, and got down to Sea Horse soon after twelve the next day. The Hussar took the Two Sisters in tow, and we started for St Marks, twenty hours after the General had gone.

We reached our destination at noon the next day in a fog, found the Magnolia, and three war ships, Moluska (Commander Gifford), Brittania and Spiren, and soon after the Hendrick Hudson arrived, anchored some four miles outside the bar: and also an armed schooner (I forget her name), Acting Master Hill commanding, on blockade nearer in, she being a sailing vessel Captain Hill did not care to risk an attack by boats in the narrow waters of Spanish Hole.

I reported to Captain Gifford, accounted for my absence from my cruising ground, found the General in consultation with him, and that they had arranged their plan of attack, which they gave to me in detail, and as a part of which directed me to take Major Weeks with his two hundred refugees on board, hunt up the blockaders (she was not in sight) select an officer and boat’s crew, and as soon as it was dark enough to send them round Light House Point, Major Weeks having orders to proceed up the trail to the relief of the blue jackets as soon as possible. And all this was done under cover of darkness. And then the General shook hands with me, and said “Captain, we have selected you as the man we believe most capable to carry out these instructions. Do it if possible, else our whole plan will be disarranged.” And I did it.

I found the blockader lying within a half mile of the bar: selected Acting Ensign Whitney (I knew him, and that he was to be depended upon) directed him to pick his ten men, all the largest of the schooner’s two boats could carry, and started him an hour before dark, cautioning him not to go beyond the bar until it was dark, then to creep round Light House Point, and up East River as quietly as possible, ambush his boat at some convenient place, march his men up, and them ambush them in such a situation as to command the bridge with his rifles, but not to show himself, or make the least noise unless it became necessary to open fire, and not to open fire because he saw men, but only in case an attempt was made to destroy the bridge. The bridge might not be guarded, but it was possible it might be, for Charley ---- that alert naval officer – was still in command at St Marks, and I had had a taste of his metal at Port Leon the previous summer: and I promised Whitney that with decent luck I would have the refugees up to the bridge by daylight, or very soon after to relieve him.

Then after it was fairly dark, I having the correct bearings of the bar, started to get the refugees ashore: got over the bar without accident, and going very slowly felt my way up the channel, hoping to reach the dilapidated wharf at the Light House. It was all feel: for between darkness and fog it was impossible to see. Finally I ran hard aground, fortunately on the shore side of the channel, pretty sure I was somewhere near the light house, but not knowing just where: and not knowing the condition of the shore, whether a swamp of firm ground. Then I sent my subordinate, Mr Buck (Montague had been promoted to Acting Master, and ordered elsewhere) with orders to land two men who would walk to test the condition of the ground, while he with the boat traced the shore, keeping in touch with them, and so find the light house: and also if the troops could reach it from that point. He returned in about an hour, and reported that we were a quarter of a mile below the light house, and that the ground was fit to march upon. I solved the problem of getting two hundred men ashore with one small boat, by running a line ashore, put one seaman in her, and hauling her to and fro by the line. But it took some time to do it, and it was four o’clock when it was accomplished. Then Major Weeks demurred at starting. He was afraid of getting his men stalled in the swamps. But I told him that he must go to the relief of Whitney: that I had been entrusted by General Newton with the carrying out of this part of his plan, considering myself in command: and that I would not take the risk of Whitney’s being overpowered, perhaps captured, and the bridge destroyed by waiting here until daylight: that I would go with him (I was not sure Whitney would take orders or even advice from an army officer, especially from a major commanding a lot of refugees, by virtue of a commission issued by a brigadier general, and not by the War Department) and that my boat would trace the shore, and so guide us over the ground my men had already walked over, and reported as safe. The Major demurred at the idea of my having authority over him after he was landed. However, he was a good fellow, not one to split hairs, so we started, reached the light house all right: and from there we had the old trail, much overgrown by long swale grass across the low ground between the light house and the woods: but still firm ground, with no danger of getting stalled. It was getting to be daylight before we reached the bridge: and when we were within about a thousand yards Whitney woke things up with his rifles. First a full volley, then dropping shots, that sent us to a double quick, the Major deploying his men as we advanced. I fired three shots from my revolver as a signal to Whitney to fall back, which he did. He explained that as soon as it was light four armed men had started to walk across the bridge in his direction. Evidently they knew nothing of his being there to receive them. Then he had opened fire, and drove them back: but that a number of shots had come from that side, at least thirty or forty in all. There must have been more than the four he had seen concealed in the scrub on that side. None of his men were hurt: and I directed him to fall back out of sight of the bridge, then circle round, recover his boat, and return to his ship. He had done his part of the work, and did it well, good fellow that he was. He begged to be allowed to remain and join in the fight, but I told him that the squadron was so short of men that one seaman was worth a dozen soldiers, and so he must keep his men out of it. So he went. I should have gone with him, but curiosity, I suppose it was, induced me to stay with the Major. I told him I had finished my part of the job, and did not claim any further authority over him. He laughed and said he supposed not. It was while talking to him that I came nearer to getting hit than at any other time during the war. We were in the road (the men were in the scrub on each side of it) he kept moving, when he said: “Chatfield, you keep moving or you’ll get shot, there are sharp-shooters among these fellows watching for officers, and if you stand still long enough one of them will get a bead on you, and you uniform makes a conspicuous mark,” and just then a bullet took the shoulder strap off one of my shoulders. It didn’t touch the skin, or even tear the coat, but it was quite near enough.

I really had no business there, but I did not think it prudent to attempt to walk two miles to the point alone. There might be some stray crackers along route, and I might be taken prisoner, or even killed by them, and that would have counted against me in the service. For having fulfilled my instructions, and having had an opportunity to return with Whitney, I was absent from my command without authority: and I had stretched my orders by going to the front to look after Whitney. So I stayed where I was, and in something over an hour Major ______ of the 3rd came with a body of his black followers, and after a few words with Major Weeks saying that he was not going to stay there and give the Rebs time to accumulate a force to oppose the crossing, rushed his black fellows across the bridge. The enemy concentrated their fire upon the column, disabled a few, then scattered through the scrub in retreat. I concluded it was safe for me to retreat to, so toddled back to the point alone. Then I learned that the fog having lifted soon after midnight (it didn’t lift in the harbor until daylight) the fleet had got underway, stood in, and at peep-o-day the Moluska, the only one that had a pilot, followed by the Magnolia and Hussar, had crossed the bar, reached and were anchored in Spanish Hole. The Honduras, Brittania and Spiren were all three aground some distance below: and that the General hearing the firing had hurried the Major, with as many as the boats could land in one trip, off to the assistance of Weeks.

I had been on my feet twenty hours: had eaten a few mouthfuls, as I could catch them: was wet, tired, and sleepy: but I reported to the General the conditions of the front, and received his thanks. Then he looked at me and said: “I guess you’re tired enough Captain, but I wish you’d take your vessel, go down to the Honduras, and get those horses and mules (some twenty odd) bring them up, and land them on the point so they can be fed, and be in condition to start in the morning.” I was tired: but I guess that was what I was there for: so I went, got the animals ashore before dark, and then too tired and sleepy to bother about supper (I had eaten dinner while they were taking in the horses) went to my berth and slept until morning.

In the morning the General started, getting away about eight o’clock. I shall not attempt to give a detailed account of the march, battle and retreat after being badly beaten. The General had intended to cross the St Marks River at Newport. Two miles above the town of St Marks there was a bridge, and also a deep water ford at that place. But Major Weeks’ refugees, who were scouting between the East River and the St Marks, reported the bridge burned: and as the ford was too deep for artillery, he was obliged to take a route four miles further up, where a narrow corduroy road, a quarter of a mile long, cross a big swamp, the source of the river. In front of the road, some thirty feet back, was a ridge of sandy hills, then or fifteen feet high, and covered with a thick growth of palmetto scrub. The road turned the ridge, passed between it and the swamp, entering the corduroy directly in front of it. Major Weeks with most of his men was left to guard the ford at Newport. Captain Strickland, with a smaller party of observation was sent to the head of the swamp four miles above. These precautions were taken to prevent a possible Rebel force getting in the rear without the general’s knowledge. There the troops camped for the night. Next morning they crossed the swamp by the corduroy eight hundred, all blacks, intending to turn by left flank, march the six miles to St Marks, take the four guns battery in the rear, and then make a dash for Thomasville, relieve the Union prisoners, and return by the way they came, or reembark at St Marks, if the war vessels succeeded in getting far enough up the river to protect them with their heavy guns. Instead of carrying out the plan they were attacked as soon as they were clear of the swamp by a Rebel force under General Samuel Miller, hidden in the woods between the swamp and the Fernandina and St Marks Railroad, which ran a short distance back, and parallel with the swamp. Evidently the Rebel force was nearly or quite equal with our own, for at the end of two hours’ fighting, while our fellows had captured one field piece, they had failed to clear the woods of the enemy, and they had been losing men fast. It was then that they heard car whistles in the rear of the enemy, and in a short time the Rebel fire increased to such an extent that General Newton knew they had received reinforcements, and that he must retreat at once, or lose the whole of his little army. He must have had his plan all arranged, for he immediately sent Colonel Tanshend with two companies, and the three field guns, with orders to mark both men and guns in the palmetto scrub on that sand ridge, shoot and kill if necessary: but at any cost prevent a stampede. Tanshend was quick. He certainly could not have got in position when his orderly reported him so ready, then the signal, and the rush en masse. The officers did not have to shoot. The negroes were by no means panic stricken. On the contrary they were halted and gotten into line without difficulty. The Confederate followed quickly, simply packed the corduroy and pressed forward like a flock of sheep. Then Tanshend when they were within fifty feet of the edge of the swamp, and one hundred from the muzzles of his guns, opened fire, grape shot, point blank, straight down the corduroy, while his two companies of infantry on his flanks, close to the guns, four deep, sent their rifle balls in the same direction. Tanshend fired three rounds, then ceased: and when the smoke lifted, not a single man was on his feet the full length of the corduroy. Probably a goodly number were not hit at all, but simply dropped with their stricken comrades unable to understand such a hailstorm of death-dealing lead. Then the word came to retreat, and the march back to the transports. Major Weeks joined the column, keeping the river, watching for a possible pursuit, but was not molested: only half a dozen horsemen showing themselves in the distance. Strickland never returned. He, with his small party, was captured by some irregulars at the head of the big swamp, and he was shot as a deserter as day or two after, the alternative to the execution being that he should join the Confederate Army, which he refused to do. He had never been with the Rebel colors, had escaped conscription, that was all: but they called it desertion and shot him. He was just a common cracker of the better sort, and refused to fight against the United States. A brave fellow. I knew him very well. Another phase of the “Hell of War.”

The troops camped that night above the East River, and the following day reached Lighthouse Point, the last getting in about noon. Then came the muster, and the ascertaining the losses with this result: two hundred and fifty blacks left on the battlefield: all either dead or mortally wounded: about fifty more or less badly wounded, not counting slight wounds which did not require surgical treatment: three hundred of the rank and file (nearly forty per cent of the number engaged). Stratton, Chief Aide, killed, shot through the spine. The Major of the 3rd regiment abdomen torn open by a piece of shell: Ransom, Captain, thigh shattered. Both died. Carpenter, Lieutenant of the 9th, leg disabled (knee, I think). One of his men helped him mount a mile, and he reached the Point. Another lieutenant of the 9th shot in the eye and a cheek bone shattered. Tanshend hit in the forearm, a slight wound: three other officers slightly hurt, but remained with their men: nine in all. The reembarkment was finished the next day. The wounded with their attendants, and the horses and mules, were put on board the Hussar, and she went direct to Key West: the 9th and the refugee regiment on board the Magnolia: the 3rd with the General, and what was left of his staff, on board the Honduras, who took my little craft in town, and with the Hendrick Hudson in company, went to Cedar Keys. There the Magnolia landed the refugee regiment, took on board a mass of flotsam in the shape of a lot of contrabands of all ages and sex, and went to Punta Rossa to land the 9th regiment (what was left of it). The Honduras landed the 3rd, then went to Key West. Rockwell resumed command of the Hendrick Hudson. The General and his one staff officer, Thompson, and the body of Stratton, went to Key West with Rockwell. The Magnolia had not sufficient coal to enable her to reach Key West. So I went to Tampa, took on ten tons, which I delivered to her at Punta Rossa. Then she went to Key West, and so ended what I believe was the last battle of the Civil War. Small, it is true, but a little distinct, complete in itself, and not auxiliary to some larger movement. For, as we soon found out, Lee had already surrendered to Grant, and Johnson surrendered either that day or a day or two after the fight.

As soon as General Newton had started, the three war vessels, Moluska, Brittania, and Spiren made their attempt to get up to the town of St Marks, with a view to render any assistance they could. They all go aground within a short quarter of a mile below the light house, and they never got any further. On the contrary, with considerable hard work (warping) they got back into Spanish Hole about the time the troops returned.

I think I will mention one man who was lost in that battle. He was a sergeant of the 9th regiment, of the color of an ordinary negro, with kinky hair, but with a Caucasian face, something over six feet in height, spare of flesh, rather inclined to slenderness. I think he must have had a slight strain of white blood in his veins. In language and deportment a gentleman, evidently well educated, with nothing servile about him, fit to command regiment. I had had him with his squad on board my little vessel for forty-eight hours, while getting troops up the Caloosahatchee to Fort Myers, some months before: and when we had reached the front, instead of hustling ashore as enlisted men invariably do, he stopped aft, lifted his cap, and thanked me for the courteous treatment he had received while on board. I noticed that when the white officers spoke of his loss it was not only with regret, but also in a tone in which men speak of equals. I have often wondered what his antecedents were.

Whenever I think of this utterly useless loss of life it is a source of satisfaction to me to remember that no helpless person suffered on account of the raid. The march and the battle were both on unoccupied ground. No homestead was burned, and no non-combatant injured in any way.

After delivering the coal to the Magnolia I went direct to Tampa to report to Commander De Haven (I forget what war vessel he commanded: but it was the same one that was sunk off Vineyard Haven some years ago in a collision with the schooner George Lowell) my reasons for being off my cruising ground without orders from him (the squadron had just been divided into two divisions, each being placed under the orders of a division commander De Haven commanded the division I was in). After receiving my report De Haven directed me to take two refugee women, with their children, and a dozen or more blacks of both sexes to Punta Rossa, and turn them over to the army for care and subsistence, which I did. On the way back I stopped at Charlotte Harbor. I don’t remember why, and while there the Admiral, with first captain Read Warden, who were on an inspection tour of the fleet, came into the harbor, and much to my surprise came on board the Two Sisters. Captain Warden told me the Admiral wished particularly to inspect my vessel: and inspect her he did, very thoroughly: and he pronounced her clean and in excellent condition. Well he might. The whole crew had worked steadily recently to get rid of the effects of that ten tons of coal. Then he wished to see the men put through their drill, both gun and small arms: then he complimented me on the excellent condition my command was in after the irregular work on which we had been recently employed, handed me an envelope which he directed me to take to Key West immediately, and deliver to Commander Robert Handy of the flag ship Dale, who was in charge of Headquarters during his (the admiral’s absence): and then he shook hands with me, and said: “I have named a board of officers who will examine you for promotion, and it comes in this way: General Newton mentioned you so favorably in his dispatches to the War Department that the Secretary of War sent an extract of the report to Secretary Welles of the Navy, and he has sent me orders to have you examined immediately.” It goes without saying that I was pleased, and equally so that I was surprised. I had not asked for promotion. Many did: and coming to me in that way I think fully justified my being so: and I had taken a general liking to General Jack, as we had come to call him, and was pleased to know that my service was appreciated by him.

The troops camped that night above the East River, and the following day reached Lighthouse Point, the last getting in about noon. Then came the muster, and the ascertaining the losses with this result: two hundred and fifty blacks left on the battlefield: all either dead or mortally wounded: about fifty more or less badly wounded, not counting slight wounds which did not require surgical treatment: three hundred of the rank and file (nearly forty per cent of the number engaged). Stratton, Chief Aide, killed, shot through the spine. The Major of the 3rd regiment abdomen torn open by a piece of shell: Ransom, Captain, thigh shattered. Both died. Carpenter, Lieutenant of the 9th, leg disabled (knee, I think). One of his men helped him mount a mile, and he reached the Point. Another lieutenant of the 9th shot in the eye and a cheek bone shattered. Tanshend hit in the forearm, a slight wound: three other officers slightly hurt, but remained with their men: nine in all. The reembarkment was finished the next day. The wounded with their attendants, and the horses and mules, were put on board the Hussar, and she went direct to Key West: the 9th and the refugee regiment on board the Magnolia: the 3rd with the General, and what was left of his staff, on board the Honduras, who took my little craft in town, and with the Hendrick Hudson in company, went to Cedar Keys. There the Magnolia landed the refugee regiment, took on board a mass of flotsam in the shape of a lot of contrabands of all ages and sex, and went to Punta Rossa to land the 9th regiment (what was left of it). The Honduras landed the 3rd, then went to Key West. Rockwell resumed command of the Hendrick Hudson. The General and his one staff officer, Thompson, and the body of Stratton, went to Key West with Rockwell. The Magnolia had not sufficient coal to enable her to reach Key West. So I went to Tampa, took on ten tons, which I delivered to her at Punta Rossa. Then she went to Key West, and so ended what I believe was the last battle of the Civil War. Small, it is true, but a little distinct, complete in itself, and not auxiliary to some larger movement. For, as we soon found out, Lee had already surrendered to Grant, and Johnson surrendered either that day or a day or two after the fight.

As soon as General Newton had started, the three war vessels, Moluska, Brittania, and Spiren made their attempt to get up to the town of St Marks, with a view to render any assistance they could. They all go aground within a short quarter of a mile below the light house, and they never got any further. On the contrary, with considerable hard work (warping) they got back into Spanish Hole about the time the troops returned.

I think I will mention one man who was lost in that battle. He was a sergeant of the 9th regiment, of the color of an ordinary negro, with kinky hair, but with a Caucasian face, something over six feet in height, spare of flesh, rather inclined to slenderness. I think he must have had a slight strain of white blood in his veins. In language and deportment a gentleman, evidently well educated, with nothing servile about him, fit to command regiment. I had had him with his squad on board my little vessel for forty-eight hours, while getting troops up the Caloosahatchee to Fort Myers, some months before: and when we had reached the front, instead of hustling ashore as enlisted men invariably do, he stopped aft, lifted his cap, and thanked me for the courteous treatment he had received while on board. I noticed that when the white officers spoke of his loss it was not only with regret, but also in a tone in which men speak of equals. I have often wondered what his antecedents were.

Whenever I think of this utterly useless loss of life it is a source of satisfaction to me to remember that no helpless person suffered on account of the raid. The march and the battle were both on unoccupied ground. No homestead was burned, and no non-combatant injured in any way.

After delivering the coal to the Magnolia I went direct to Tampa to report to Commander De Haven (I forget what war vessel he commanded: but it was the same one that was sunk off Vineyard Haven some years ago in a collision with the schooner George Lowell) my reasons for being off my cruising ground without orders from him (the squadron had just been divided into two divisions, each being placed under the orders of a division commander De Haven commanded the division I was in). After receiving my report De Haven directed me to take two refugee women, with their children, and a dozen or more blacks of both sexes to Punta Rossa, and turn them over to the army for care and subsistence, which I did. On the way back I stopped at Charlotte Harbor. I don’t remember why, and while there the Admiral, with first captain Read Warden, who were on an inspection tour of the fleet, came into the harbor, and much to my surprise came on board the Two Sisters. Captain Warden told me the Admiral wished particularly to inspect my vessel: and inspect her he did, very thoroughly: and he pronounced her clean and in excellent condition. Well he might. The whole crew had worked steadily recently to get rid of the effects of that ten tons of coal. Then he wished to see the men put through their drill, both gun and small arms: then he complimented me on the excellent condition my command was in after the irregular work on which we had been recently employed, handed me an envelope which he directed me to take to Key West immediately, and deliver to Commander Robert Handy of the flag ship Dale, who was in charge of Headquarters during his (the admiral’s absence): and then he shook hands with me, and said: “I have named a board of officers who will examine you for promotion, and it comes in this way: General Newton mentioned you so favorably in his dispatches to the War Department that the Secretary of War sent an extract of the report to Secretary Welles of the Navy, and he has sent me orders to have you examined immediately.” It goes without saying that I was pleased, and equally so that I was surprised. I had not asked for promotion. Many did: and coming to me in that way I think fully justified my being so: and I had taken a general liking to General Jack, as we had come to call him, and was pleased to know that my service was appreciated by him.

It may seem to you, my children, that I am giving undue prominence to my own part in this affair: but you must remember that I am writing my own personal history, and that my position was unique. I was in the prime of young manhood, recognized as a man experienced in seamanship, held a rank in the Navy which entitled me to be consulted as to the details of such measures as I was expected to execute, that I was still in active command of my own vessel, and at the same time a volunteer on the staff of General Newton. So the general never gave me positive orders, but simply indicated what he wished me to do: and then left me to work out the details according to my own judgment. In this I differed from Rockwell. He was regularly detailed by the Admiral, and was relieved of his command (the Hendrick Hudson) while serving on Newton’s staff.

I went immediately to Key West, delivered my dispatch to Commander Handy, and was directed by him to be on board the Honduras at two o’clock the same afternoon, where a board of officers would convene to examine me for promotion. I found Commander Cooper alone. I had a club room acquaintance with him, and he said: “The other members have not arrived, let’s light our pipes and have a smoke while we are waiting.” Then we chatted about how long I had been in the service, what ships I had served in: said he knew Crossman very well, and wished to know how long I had served him as Executive Office: whether I had commanded a division, the number and caliber of the guns, and the number of men necessary to man them. All this is a conversational way. Then Commander Handy and Harris came, and Cooper said: “I have been talking with Captain Chatfield (Captain by courtesy) and find him well up in gunnery.” Then Handy asked where I had been employed before entering the Navy: and when he found that I had commanded a ship in the Pacific Whale Fishery, and was a world cruiser, he said that I must be a better practical seaman than he was: for his seamanship was most theoretical: but he wished to know if I could find a ship’s position by lunar observation: and when I repeated the rules for taking the observations, and the working out of the result, he said he was satisfied as to my qualifications as a navigator, and turned me over to Harris. He said that we had served in the same squadron for the past three years, had known each other, and of each other’s doings during that time: and he was as sure I was as well qualified to examine him as he was to examine me. Then Handy (temporary chief of squadron) shook hands with me, congratulated me on passing such a successful examination, and directed me to take on such stores as I needed and return to my cruising ground. Successful examination! Dear Me! It was no more than a smoke talk.

Afterwards Commander Cooper asked me a few questions concerning international law and courtesy, among them this: “In case you were in a foreign port in company with a more powerful ship of some nation other than the one in whose harbor you were lying, and the commander of the that ship should ill treat you in any way, or show disrespect to the flag under which you sailed, who would you appear to for protection and redress?” I blundered, for I told him I should appeal to my own government: but he said, ultimately, of course: but you would be the guests of the nation having jurisdiction over the harbor in which you were lying.” Of course a port must see to it that its guests treat each other properly, and the appeal should first be to the port.: but I called his attention to the fact that the Frigate Essex was destroyed by the British Captain Hilyard while within the jurisdiction of Chile: and that the American privateer General Armstrong was also destroyed by a British war captain while lying under the guns of a battery at Fayal, within the jurisdiction of Portugal, and I never heard that England was called to account in either case. Cooper simply remarked that “both nations were weaklings compared to England.” He also asked what I knew concerning the treatment neutrals were entitled to receive on the high seas. I told him I knew better than to take two passengers out of a ship flying the British flag, as Captain Wilkes did in the Trent affair. He said Wilkes committed a grave error, and one which might have brought his country into serious difficulty. Then he laughed and said he didn’t care to ask any more questions.

Continued in part eleven ... 

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Part Ten – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield”

  1. [...] Capt. Tom cruises the gulf coast, buries the Union dead during the yellow fever epidemic in Tampa Bay (advancing a theory of germs), gets a leave and goes home to Cape Cod, returns, and pilots an invasion fleet making up for General Newton’s assault on St. Marks. [...]

  2. [...] I’ve transcribed the account of General Newton’s failed attack on St. Marks — the Battle of Natural Bridge. [...]

  3. [...] Getting close to the end. Less than twenty pages to go. [...]

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