Crossing the Bar, 29 January 1862

 

By the final week of January 1862, Ambrose Burnside’s grand expedition to launch an invasion of the North Carolina coast seemed to be in real danger of failure. As the flotilla arrived off Hatteras Inlet during the second week of January, they were greeted not by Confederates but with the furious seas of the mid-Atlantic in winter. For soldiers in cramped quarters aboard the ships, the sight of these raging waters fell somewhere between awe-inspiring and dread. One Massachusetts soldier described it for his diary:

This is indeed the wildest, grandest scene I ever beheld. As far as the eye can see, the water is rolling, foaming and dashing over the shoals, throwing its white spray far into the air, as though the sea and sky meet. This is no time for man to war against man. The forces of Heaven are loose and in all their fury, the wind howls, the sea rages, the eternal is here in all his majesty.[1]

Since the arrival of the fleet in mid-January, General Burnside, the Navy commanders and the civilian captains of the contracted vessels hauling troops and supplies had struggled to “cross the bar.” This term described the effort to move the ships into the relative calm of the Pamlico Sound by crossing a narrow and shallow opening in the barrier islands protecting the sound known as Hatteras Inlet. This was a difficult task in fair weather conditions but the winter storms made it doubly challenging to complete. Several ships such as the 600-ton steamer City of New York had determined captains who refused to wait for the storm to pass and began making runs at crossing the shoals. However, repeated groundings pounded the underbelly of the City of New York caused it to take on water and after permanently grounding on its last run, the leaks became serious in the midst of the storm. It appeared all the crew and passengers would be swept away until nearby ships sent their lifeboats and rescued them.

Oliver Case and his fellow soldiers from companies A, D, F and I of the 8th Connecticut were riding out the storms aboard the Army gunboat Chasseur when he penned a letter to his sister Abbie on January 26, 1862. Oliver’s home on the rough seas, the Chasseur, was a 330-ton steam propeller gunboat armed with two 12-pound rifled cannons. Not only had Oliver rode out the storm of 12-15 January 1862 described above, another winter storm had swept down the coast since that time again delaying Burnside’s efforts to move the ships to the safety of the sound. Oliver, the prolific writer, had been stymied in his efforts during the storms, but today the weather allowed him to return to his task.

We still remain in the Inlet as when I last wrote you but are expecting to go over the inside bar and land somewhere in “Dixie.” Today is the first fair day since our arrival and for the last week we have had a terrible storm at time endangering many of the fleet by causing the vessels to drag anchor and to smash into each other. For the last three or four days there has hardly been a time but what there were two or three signals of distress to be seen flying but of course no relief could be given them until after the abatement of the storm. I think that there has been no accident to any person happened and none very disastrous to the shipping.[2]

As the ships fought to move into the sound and safety, many of the soldiers in the fleet faced shortages of fresh water and food because the storms prohibited resupply missions. Oliver and the other Connecticut soldiers aboard the Chasseur were fortunate to receive a visit from the sutler’s ship during one of the rare fair weather periods:

Eatables are brought from the Sutlers boat but are held at rather high prices; apples $.05 to 10 cents each, figs .02 to .05 each, raisins $.20 per pint, [?], Oysters, Turkey Peaches, tomatoes etc. in quart cans from $1.50 to $2.00, Current, Plum, Rasberry, Grape, Pear and Strawberry jellies $1.50 to $2.00, sweet crackers $.15 per dozen and everything else in the same proportion.[3]

chassuer

Oliver Case’s home upon the seas, the Army gunboat Chasseur[4]

Although Oliver and his buddies were enjoying “ourselves quite well on ship board,” he continued to recover his strength from a bout of fever only a few weeks prior and seemed done with life on the high seas being “now finally very anxious to again place my feet on ‘terra firma’” of the North Carolina coast.[5] Oliver would have wait for several more weeks to fulfill his wish for dry land. The next best thing, a calmer sea, was in his immediate future as the ships of the fleet continued to take advantage of better weather during the final week of January. Finally, at 9:15 AM on the 29th of January 1862, the Chasseur safely “crossed the bar” of Hatteras Inlet arriving in the calm of Pamlico Sound. Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut would soon gain their first taste of combat against the Confederates in North Carolina.

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Day, David L., My Diary of Rambles with the 25th Mass. Volunteer Infantry with Burnside’s Coast Division, 18th Army Corps and Army of the James, Milford: King and Billings, 1884.

[2] The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, CT, 1861-1862.

[3] IBID.

[4] Shadek, Joseph E., Sketchbook: Company A, 8th Connecticut Volunteers 1861-1862 (unpublished), Bridgeport History Center, accessed from http://bportlibrary.org/hc/

[5] Case letters, 1861-1862.

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