“Very disagreeable on board” – An unpleasant voyage down the Chesapeake Bay during the Civil War

“The trees are budding, some very nearly in full bloom, and the fields are green in every direction,” wrote Dr. Washington Nugent of the 96th Pennsylvania on April 16, 1862.

His regiment was preparing to embark steamships and head to war. Their ships were already loaded with supplies and the unit’s horses. “I scribble to say we embark tomorrow,” he wrote in the letter to his wife.

Alexandria Wharf1
The docks at Alexandria during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

The 96th Pennsylvania and the other 11 infantry regiments in General William B. Franklin’s division were to board vessels and steam down the Potomac River to Fortress Monroe, then sail into the York River. Operations by General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, to which Franklin’s division was attached, had besieged a Confederate garrison at the historic village of Yorktown.

The following day, April 17, the Pennsylvanians boarded three separate vessels: the John Brooks, the Spaulding, and the Daniel Webster. They set sail for Fortress Monroe the following day. Their departure set them on a course toward the front lines.

On board the Spaulding, the regiment’s headquarters staff enjoyed their berths. “Our vessel is a fine sea boat and the accommodations on board are much better than any other in the fleet,” Dr. Nugent wrote on April 24. “We yesterday made an excursion trip to Fortress Monroe and had a delightful time. The old Fort looks fine and there are a host of vessels ready at a moment’s notice to engage the Enemy.”

Fort Monroe Lighthouse
The lighthouse at Fortress Monroe. (Library of Congress)

Major M. Edgar Richards, the regiment’s adjutant, also enjoyed himself on board the Spaulding. “This steamer is an elegant, large boat,” he wrote in a letter to his sister on April 21. Richard’s detailed the fleet sailing down the Potomac that included not only the steamers carrying the troops, but the schooners trailing behind carrying the “ammunition, forage, provisions, cavalry and artillery horses.”

With the fleet docked just north of Fortress Monroe, Richards described the incredible sight at night: “It takes an immense fleet to carry our divisions, and at night when every vessel has its lantern lighted it looks as if there was a large city in the bay.”

Fort Monroe
Fortress Monroe in 1861-62. (Library of Congress)

While the vessels were near the fort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, they pulled alongside a strange looking vessel, which turned out to be the United States Navy’s newest invention – the USS Monitor. “We lay beside the Monitor. She may be very tremendous but does not look terrible,” noted Dr. Nugent of the ironclad vessel. Another man in the fleet described seeing the strange little vessel, ““the famous little ‘cheese-box on a raft,’ – smart enough to take the wind out of the rebel Merrimack.”

Officers on the deck of the USS Monitor. (Library of Congress)

The assistant surgeon let his men off the Spaulding on April 24 and they went ashore to bathe. In the meantime, the crew of the Spaulding cleaned the vessel. Even on the nicest vessel in the fleet, Dr. Nugent tired of life aboard the steamer. “One week we have been on board and I shall be very glad when we leave for I feel desperately tired of this swing motion.”

Docked across the bay were several other companies of the 96th Pennsylvania on board the John Brooks. They were having quite a different experience than their officers aboard the Spaulding.

Six companies of the 96th PA were traveling on the John Brooks along with the entirety of the 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry. The historian of that regiment remembered the voyage well:

There was, the reader can judge, not a great deal of spare room either on deck or below. The upper saloon was the quarters of the officers, who were about as snugly stowed as the men below…

The strictest discipline was observed in all parts of the ship. “Early to bed and early to rise” was observed to the letter…

The sail was delightful. Some of the men were admiring the beauties of the scene, some sleeping, others reading, others given to games of chance, while others were busily engaged in capturing those miserable little annoying “critters,” with which the soldiers was, and is acquainted; and with which the John Brooks was running over…

Day after day rolled by, and there we remained. What did government or McClellan propose to do with us, was very frequently asked.

Corporal Henry Keiser of Company G, 96th Pennsylvania wrote in his diary throughout the journey of the “disagreeable” conditions on board. “Our drinking water is very poor,” Keiser wrote on April 22. “It fairly stinks.”

The John Brooks at the Sixth Street Wharf in Washington, DC, ca. 1863. (Library of Congress)

Even with fresh supplies brought aboard from one of the neighboring supply steamers, conditions did not improve for the men of the 96th Pennsylvania and 5th Maine aboard the John Brooks. Keiser recorded the conditions on board:

Friday, April 25, 1862. Cold and rainy most of the time. Very disagreeable on board; it is so crowded. Heard that oysters can be had along shore, but we are tied to our boat.

Saturday, April 26, 1862. Still cloudy and disagreeable. Elias Stahl complained of being sick this afternoon. No wonder is we all took sick in this pig pen.

Sunday, April 27, 1862. Still rainy weather. Elias Stahl was taken to the hospital this morning. He has the measles very bad. Tenth day on board the John Brooks.

Monday, April 28, 1862. It seems as if there was no end to rain, as it is still cloudy and raining occasionally. Heard heavy cannonading in the direction of Yorktown.

By the beginning of May, the men of Franklin’s division were still on board their respective vessels, leading Corporal Keiser to lament: “Why must we be huddled up in this old boat? Sooner march and fight than be cooped up here.”

On May 3, Confederate forces at Yorktown evacuated to the west, leaving the colonial town open for Union forces. In a letter to his wife, Dr. Nugent described the scene as the 96th Pennsylvania offloaded just south of Yorktown that day.

I scribble you a few lines tonight before retiring after a very fatiguing days work. This morning the whole division commenced landing men, ammunition, wagons [sick], etc. etc., and so far as our brigade is concerned succeeded in all getting safely to shore.

We are now encamped in a delightful spot in sight of the vessels and our men are heartily glad to be on share once more. We sent the sick to the hospital at “Shipping Point” near here and our orders are now to be ready to march in the course of tomorrow to present our august persons before Yorktown.

However, they were soon ordered to re-embark after the news spread that the Confederates had evacuated Yorktown that very day. Back on board the Spaulding, Dr. Nugent wrote a letter to his wife while the vessel lay anchored just off Yorktown. “We lay anchored opposite the town about one hundred feet from the shore but do not know how long we shall be here or where we will be ordered to as orders follow orders in rapid succession,” he wrote. “The Enemy in their flight have left many of their guns – as in the fortification in front of the town we see many very heavy pieces.”

In the days that followed the fall of Yorktown, General William B. Franklin’s division were to be taken up river to the railroad terminus on the York River at West Point, Virginia. Here, on a plantation opposite West Point, the 96th Pennsylvania would receive their first taste of combat on May 7, 1862.

Over the course of several weeks, the 96th Pennsylvania were transported by water to the front lines from their winter encampment near Alexandria, Virginia. The hardships they faced on board vessels like the Spaulding and the John Brooks were nothing compared to the ravages of combat and disease they were to face during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and summer of 1862.

Further Reading: 

The Peninsula Campaign in 1862 heralded political and military turmoil and historian Stephen Sears thoroughly explores these issues in his book, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign.

In the coming months, we will be sharing occasional passages from the History of the 5th Regiment Maine Volunteers by Rev. George W. Bicknell. The 5th Maine spent most of the American Civil War in the same brigade as the 96th Pennsylvania.

Much of the research presented here comes from papers related to the 96th Pennsylvania in the holdings of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, PA.

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