A Rough Passage

Oliver composes his next letter to his sister Abbie on January 19, 1862, on the day after he arrives aboard the schooner Recruit in the Hatteras Inlet of North Carolina. His last letter announced the arrival of his ship at Fortress Monroe on January 13th and according to this letter, Recruit left Monroe on January 18th for the passage south. Most of the vessels in Burnside’s Expedition have arrived off the North Carolina coast by the time the Recruit reaches the inlet. The schooner is being used as a hospital ship and Oliver has spent the majority of the past three weeks on the hospital ship although he professes to be in good health after several bouts with fever.

The largest amphibious operation to this point in American military history has not gone well for General Burnside and his fleet of ships. Typical winter weather along the east coast amplified by a significant storm that hit just as the fleet left Fortress Monroe has caused considerable delays in the movement. The passengers and crew of the Recruit also experience these storms during their journey.

Oliver describes the wild scene on board the ship:

The waves ran pretty high through the day and increased to a gale at night. At 12 o’clock the waves swept over the deck and carried away the ship’s boats, the vessel rocking at the same time so violently as to rock some out of their berths and send all the wood and boxes tumbling over the deck. The wind broke loose gaff (a piece of round timber 8 inches through and sent it flying over the deck. The boilers (large heavy copper which are kept on the stove continually) of coffee were overturned and the boiling liquid sent streaming over the deck. The confusion was general, many falling out of their berths, others falling flat upon the floor. One boiler fell down the hatchway making causalities too numerous to mention.

For his part, Oliver finds a bit of humor in his personal experience with the rough passage:

I was fast asleep when I heard the racket and such laughing and enraging [?] I never heard before. One thing was falling here, another there – those that were in their berths rolling from one side to the other (that is those that were lucky enough to keep in) and those that were holding on to the sides. There was no danger, only a little rolling and a little fun.

Later in the letter, Oliver shows more of his indifference to the stormy conditions by writing that he “slept very soundly when in my berth while everyone else were rolling about the deck.”

Burnside’s Expedition does suffer some causalities and the lost of vessels. Although he is still on the ship, Oliver provides a fairly accurate description of the disposition of the fleet in his letter to Abbie. This includes the sinking of the gunboat Zouave and the drowning of Colonel Allen and Surgeon Wellen of the 9th New Jersey who died as a result of the swamping of their small boat as they returned to their ship from a shore reconnaissance.

A New York Times Special Correspondent gives a complete description of the journey.

Wreck of the Gunboat Zouave in Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, January 1862

Oliver goes on to express his concern about the fate of his regiment, the 8th Connecticut, from whom he has not heard. Also, he returns to the subject of the Zouave Drum Major we met in his letter of January 9th.

The Zouave drum major died night before last (sic?) and his body left at Annapolis. He was a commissioned officer and had no business to come with us on the hospital ship.  The band to which he belonged was dissolved 2 weeks before he started but he was getting $60.00 a month which was too good a berth [?] to give up without a struggle. He never was well enough to come aboard. He died of the rheumatic fever.

In my research, I have been unable to determine the identity of this drum major. I presume the “Zouaves” referred to in Oliver’s letters are the 9th New York Infantry.  However, I cannot locate a drum major reference other than Charles T. Smith who mustered in on May 4, 1861 and was discharged only three weeks later for incompetence.

Oliver closes his letter by asking about several of his friends from back home and passing along his regards to family members. He seems to be glad to stay and work on the ship serving the sick, “if it were not for that horrid sea sickness.”



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