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Friday, April 29, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, A Rare Written Firsthand Report – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins
, Code 1100, Blog #9 (written April 28, 2011)

The spoken word is yet temporary but the written word lives on.  Newspaper accounts while bare on feelings give relevant facts and depending upon what soil they were published always seemed to carry certain political overtones.  Hand written letters on the other hand describe things seen by the author and most times give certain personal insights and feelings.  Surviving letters penned by the very person involved in an historical event are indeed rare.  I have in my personal collection what I consider a gem – a hand written letter by a solider that states …”at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard”.

Below is the complete transcription of my letter which was recently featured in the Virginian Pilot’s series, Voices of the Civil War on April 10, 2011.

[Page 1]
Fort Monroe, Virginia, April 28, 1861
  Dear Sir:

As some of our boys promised to write you, and none of them have yet fulfilled their pledges, I thought I would spend a few moments in doing so. We all of us have so many correspondents that our letters are necessarily short and hurried and if critically examined would show many imperfections.

A snippit of the H. W. Poole letter written on April 28, 1861
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The Spalding landed us (the 3rd Regt.) at this fort about 11 o'clock a.m. Saturday the 20th, the 4th Regt. having been here 5 or 6 hours before we arrived. Our passage Friday being pretty rough, most of the men were suffering from the effects of sea sickness, but at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard. The Commodore of the Pawnee (Paulding) wished to take the 4th Regiment aboard as they had been ashore the longest and had had three rations served to them since landing, but Col. Packard objected saying his men were too tired. Hearing this Col. Wardrop exclaimed, "My G_d, my men can go!" and in reply to Com. Paulding's enquiry as to how much time was needed for preparation, he replied, "fifteen minutes." The

[Page 2] result of our going you have doubtless seen in the papers long since. The Navy Yard was completely ruined, the ships and their houses completely destroyed, their magnificent dry dock, costing millions of dollars, blown up, and an immense quantity of guns, pistols, cutlasses, powder, shells, etc., put where it can never be of any use. It was a good streak of luck for Government, as it would have all been seized the very next day by the Succession Army, if we had not used it up so completely and the very guns we spiked and the ammunition we spoiled would have been directed against Fort Monroe. Our Regiment was favored by not being attacked, for so many of us were nearly dead from the fatigues from a sea voyage that we could have made little resistance, and huddled as we were, nearly 400 of us volunteers, we should have been decidedly worse than nothing, as we would have stood in the way of the Marines who manned the vessel.

The Rebels appear to be busy making preparations to attack us, but nearly everybody in the Fort doubts their making any demonstration. We have command of the river by having the Man-of-War Cumberland stationed here. She is one of the vessels we took up in Norfolk and towed down and has already proved very serviceable to us. Last Thursday she fired into a tug which was towing out toward Norfolk a schooner, and the

[Page 3] shot taking effect upon her wheelhouse she was brought to, and we made prizes of the tug and schooner both. On bringing the schooner to the wharf she was found to be commanded by a sailor who only a short time since deserted from the Cumberland, and it is said he was hung by the Marines. The craft was completely loaded with all the munitions of war including guns, gun carriages, ammunition, provisions, etc., and proved to be quite a prize – the little tug has been pressed into Uncle Sam's service, and very useful she proves.

This Fort answers very well the description given of it in the Boston Post about the time we sailed. It is a beautiful place and the transition from the barren and snow-clad hills of New England to the luxuriance of spring as seen here is well worth a trip to see. Our parade ground is covered with green grass and the trees which border the walks are just leafing out. There is a capital Brass Band in the Fort and they give us every morning some of the best music I ever heard. So beautiful is the scene, that we can hardly realize that it is possible that all this loveliness may soon be a barren waste. One cannot truly imagine the change which the horrors of an actual war may cause to pass over the face of everything here. I hope we may not witness the sight, but I do believe that if compelled to fight, the 3rd will

[Page 4] give a good account of herself. I suppose there is an intense feeling in the North. Our Company have not had many letters, so all the news we get is from Baltimore papers, but even those represent a decision of purpose on the part of the North, and North West to stand by our "Father Abraham." We expect soon to have northern papers regularly, and they will seem nearly as good as a letter. I long to see some of the Boston dailies.

You must excuse the style, etc., of this letter as I don't have time to be very particular and to have to write just as it comes into my head.  I would be pleased to hear from you, at any time, and trusting you will overlook all errors.

Very respectfully yours,
H. W. Poole

Cyrus Thompson, Esq.

Address: H. W. Poole
Care Capt. Harlen
Co. A 3rd Reg.
Fort Monroe,

Think about what we have just read, 150 years ago (April 28, 1861) this communication was born; ink upon paper. 

Events are still fresh in this young man’s mind less than a week after he participates in the 2nd burn, evacuation and destruction of the Gosport Shipyard on the night of April 20, 1861.  He further continues to tell of the Cumberland’s actions the very next week, events never recorded by the news of the day.  Woe to that deserter from the captured schooner off Fort Monroe after the Cumberland fired into it, “and it is said he was hung by the Marines”.

While this simple four page letter was addressed to inform just one person, Cyrus Thompson of Boston pertaining to what the Massachusetts volunteer, H. W. Poole had just witnessed so far away in Virginia now fast forward to today.  Realize that 150 years later with a just a few simple computer clicks this message can now be accessed around the world.

The written word is important because - “history matters”.

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