A teenager runs off to sea in 1864 and discovers Union Navy life during the American Civil War.
By A.B. Feuer
Editor’s note: Noted military writer Bud Feuer especially enjoys discovering first-person accounts and diaries. He found the following in “a junk shop” written in pencil on brown wrapping paper. Knowing that Civil War naval diaries are rare, he bought and edited it, the memoirs of one Herbert Carlton. An Endnote follows the text.
In the spring of 1860, I, a lad of 15, moved with my parents from South Lancaster, Massachusetts to Brownville, New York, where my father had bought a cotton mill.
How well I remember that day in 1861, when news flashed across the country that Fort Sumter had been attacked. It was one of my duties, after doing the household chores and taking care of the horse, to run the mail and newspaper down to my father at the factory.
Father was talking to one of his overseers when I handed him the Utica Herald. After glancing at the front page, his face became set—lips drawn tight as he read. All at once, he stopped, grabbed the Herald in one hand, and doubling up the other, shouted as he struck the paper, “Damn them! The rebels have fired on Fort Sumter!”
I hurried home, and running most of the way, burst into the room where my mother and sisters were sitting and hollered, “Mother! There’s going to be a war and I’m going!” But my father said, “No” and I stayed at home.
In September 1862, I was sent to Clinton, Massachusetts to learn the machinist trade. Several times during the year I tried to convince my father to let me enlist, but he continually refused.
In the early spring of 1864, a former student at the machinist school returned from the front. He had been wounded and was put on recruiting duty. I attended one of the rally meetings where he spoke. I could stand it no longer—nobody volunteering. Sitting on the opposite side of the hall from me was a man who had been crippled in action. He suddenly jumped up shouting, “I can fill a place in the artillery—I still have another arm to lose!” I jumped up at the same time, and along with several others, came forward and put our names down.
However, I still needed my father’s permission. A prominent businessman who knew my parents wrote a letter to my father asking him to let me enlist. I also sent consent papers home for his signature. I soon received a letter back. Upon opening it, I found a sheet of foolscap paper with a large, heavy “NO” and his name—nothing more, and no papers.
I was mad, and on the back of his reply, I wrote in large letters, “Shall not ask you again. I’m going. Good-bye—Herb!”
It was my custom to spend part of each weekend with my grandparents in South Lancaster. However, this time instead of returning to Clinton, I walked to Boston by the old stage road. I stayed with a cousin for a day or two, then went down to the docks and aboard the receiving ship Ohio. I was accepted, sworn in, and given my Navy uniform—which took me three months to pay for. [On his enlistment papers, Herbert Carleton falsified his age as 21 years old.]
I was now a landsman in the U.S. Navy for one year. I quickly became accustomed to life aboard the Ohio—mostly instruction, drilling, and cleaning and polishing the ship.
Thinking that if I was to be a sailor then I must have a tattoo, I had a couple pricked into my right arm. I have never regretted having it done, but would advise against it.
About a week later, I was called on deck and was confronted by my father. Most of the boys would have been happy to see their parents, but I can truthfully say that I was not. I shook his hand and said, “If you’ve come to take me out of here you’ll have to keep me chained up or I’ll run away again!”
A lieutenant, passing by, overheard my statement and remarked, “If the young man feels that way, you had better let him go. He’ll soon get enough of it.” And that I did, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything.
The next ship about to go into commission, and needing a crew, was the Santiago de Cuba. My turn was due up for that vessel, but my father had me placed one ship back. I was assigned to the Circassian, a dispatch and supply vessel.
The Circassian was an iron hull screw steamer. She was formerly an English blockade runner that had been captured by the Somerset in May 1862. The Circassian was refitted and armed with four 9-inch Dahlgren guns, one 50-pound Parrott rifle on the forecastle and a 100-pound Parrott on the spar deck. She also had a field piece at the stern and three boat howitzers.
The Circassian had been running back and forth between Boston and the mouth of the Rio Grande River in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship would bring back men whose time was up and carry dispatches from the blockade fleet to the Navy Department.
The vessel had been in drydock at the Boston Navy Yard, but was now ready to sail. We were ordered to take our hammocks and bags and go aboard. When a sailor moves, he takes his bed as well as his clothes with him.
While we were pulling out of drydock, one of the rope cables fouled our propeller, and it took some time to get the ship clear. The old admiral [Rear Admiral S.H. Stringham] in command of the navy yard quickly showed up, and in no gentle terms ordered our captain to get to sea at once. The admiral wouldn’t take any excuses, and stayed there storming about until we were free and had started down the bay.
It was now dark and we still had no supper. The ship’s company—about 150 men and boys—was called on deck. The First Lieutenant (or First Luff as he was called) divided the crew into watches and gave us our shipboard duties. He called it the watch bill. I was number 50 in the first part of the starboard watch, first boarder and lookout on the foretop gallant yardarm.
The First Luff gave all the orders aboard ship. He received his instructions from the captain. But anyone not acquainted with the Navy would have thought that the First Lieutenant was in command of the vessel.
As soon as we stuck our nose outside Cape Cod, we ran smack into a storm. The wind was blowing hard with the waves running high. I can truthfully say, however, that I enjoyed the excitement and was not seasick at all. I stood on the deck in awe and wonderment—looking up at the top of the waves as we sank into the trough of the water, then peering down into the trough as we rode to the top of a wave. At times it seemed that a third of the ship was clear of the sea. I was not afraid. I enjoyed it—my first introduction to the ocean.
Sometime during the night (for I did not turn in but stayed on deck until morning) an officer came up to me and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” says I.
He said, “What!” and I answered as before. Then he gave me a little good advice about answering an officer: “Always say ‘Sir’ when addressing or answering an officer—and remember that the first duty of a sailor is to obey all orders, without questioning, and act at once.” It was a lesson that some sailors found hard to learn.
I was asked my rating and to which watch I belonged. I was then ordered to help out at the wheel. After I found out where the place was, and how to get there, I was put to work. There was already a quartermaster and two seamen at the wheel. However, it took a great deal of strength to hold the ship on course during the storm.
I had only been at the station for a few minutes, when all at once we heard a shout: “Hard starboard—over with your helm lively!” At the same instant there was a grating, rubbing and breaking noise. A schooner, coming up the coast, had struck us a glancing blow forward—carrying away her bowsprit and head-gear along with our anchor davit and some rigging. Roll call the next morning showed that we had lost a man. Whether he had jumped aboard the schooner, or was knocked into the ocean and lost, we were never able to find out.
Later in the morning, the officer whom I had met on deck asked me if I knew how to wash dishes. “Yes sir!” I answered. I was ordered to get water from the galley and clean the plates from the officers’ mess that had been stacked up from dinner and supper the day before. The steward did not show up before we sailed. I went right to work—just like at home—my mother taught me how to do it.
I also set the breakfast table for our 12 officers. If I had known anything about cooking, I would have spent the rest of my time in the Navy as a food taster.
The officer appointed me temporary steward and placed me in charge of a few other men. I guess I did too good a job—it didn’t last very long. I nearly ate them out of provisions and was sent back to my duties.
Every morning, the four to eight watch holystoned and washed down the deck. The holystone was a block of soft sandstone about two feet long and 18 inches wide, with a 10-foot line strapped to each end. After water and sand had been poured, four men on each line would drag the stone back and forth across the deck. There were also small holystones, called bibles or testaments, that were used to get into corners and other difficult places. The deck was then washed down and swabbed dry until it was as clean as anyone could wish. A lady visitor, in a long white dress, would be able to stroll about the ship without fear of getting her dress soiled.
Holystoning was not too bad when the weather was warm. We could take off our shoes and stockings and roll up our pants—but in cold weather, it was a different story.
After the deck had been cleaned to the satisfaction of the First Luff, the brass was polished and the rigging coiled down for running. Some of the designs worked out by the sailors were very clever indeed.
Meals aboard the Circassian were irregular. We ate three meals in nine hours one day and went the next 15 hours without.
There were at least two men from each watch detailed as lookouts—one at the foretop gallant (my station) and another at the bow. At times, a man was also assigned to the main top gallant yard and another on the deck astern.
An able seaman, an ordinary seaman and a landsman would be at the wheel in heavy weather. They were under the charge of the quartermaster on duty. The quartermaster got the course from the Officer of the Deck, and he in turn received his instructions from the sailing master.
The men on lookout and at the wheel were relieved every two hours—more often in cold weather. I have been on lookout during a winter storm when a half-hour was all a man could stand.
We drilled every forenoon with the big guns, and after dinner practiced with small arms. During gun drill, I was the train tackle man with the aft 9-inch Dahlgren gang. It was my job, after the firing recoil, to take in the slack of the train tackle and fasten it—so that when the ship rolled down again, the gun would not pitch forward and go crashing overboard through the side of the vessel. It was lively work—I’ll tell you!
During our trip south, we stopped at Hilton Head for medical supplies and then headed on to Key West where we anchored a short distance out from the dock. My boat assignment was the number three cutter and it was called away to take a few officers to the beach. Since they would be gone awhile, the coxswain received permission for the boat crew to go sightseeing ashore. Leaving one man to guard the cutter, we started up the road toward an old fort—passing slave pens along the way.
We soon came to a grove of orange trees. It was too tempting to resist. We immediately began helping ourselves. Suddenly we spotted the owner, his slave, and three large dogs heading in our direction. We raced for the beach but could not outrun the dogs. The coxswain shot the animals and we hurried back to the cutter. The officers were already waiting for us. The man from the orange grove also showed up and wanted payment for his dogs. The officers informed him that we did not have time to negotiate and ordered the coxswain to shove off. The Circassian sailed as soon as we were back on board, and we never heard anything more about the incident.
Our next stop was Pensacola where I had my first experience at coaling the ship. Two planks, about 18 inches wide, were placed side by side on a staging. We were busy all day pushing wheelbarrows of coal up the steep incline to the ship. When the tide came in, the vessel was high out of the water and it was quite a hill to climb.
When we had finished, the coaling crew was allowed to go swimming and wash off the black dust. Two of the men swam quite a way out. All of a sudden we heard loud splashing and shouting. The swimmers were kicking up the water and paddling for shore as fast as they could—a big shark right behind them. They reached the dock just in time.
We hoisted anchor and headed for New Orleans—up the southwest pass of the Mississippi. The river was a muddy yellow and had a dirty smell. All kinds of refuse was floating downstream. The tank that held our drinking water was low, and a few men were detailed to fill it from the river. It was not the kind of water I wanted to drink.
We steamed past the forts that Farragut had won, and docked at New Orleans. That night, while on anchor watch, I saw and heard a sight I shall never forget. There was no moon and the air was warm and still. I suddenly noticed a shadow coming downriver. At first I could not make out what it was. It appeared to be some sort of fog, but quickly turned out to be a cloud of mosquitoes.
Moments later, a large steamer came into view, and floating from the ship was the sweetest music I had ever heard. The Negro crew was singing. It was an unforgettable concert.
The following morning, we sailed back down the Mississippi and headed for Galveston and the Rio Grande.…
Upon reaching the Rio Grande, we picked up dispatches and delivered messages. Several passengers came aboard and we headed back to Boston.
I was at my lookout station, on the foretop gallant yard, as we steamed up the Carolina east coast. In the distance I noticed a small boat put off from shore as if to cross our course. After reporting the sighting, I was instructed to keep my eye on the craft. As we drew close, I saw that it was a dugout containing two men. As the boat came alongside, one person appeared to be an old trapper—tall and slim, wearing a coonskin cap and carrying a long rifle. The other man was an escaped prisoner.
We brought them aboard. I never found out their names or where they were from. The captain, thinking they might be spies, kept them under close guard.
We reached Boston on the morning of July 11, 1864 and were immediately met with orders to refit and chase after the Confederate privateer Florida. She had captured and burned ships off the Delaware capes the day before.
The entire crew of the Circassian was turned out. Everyone was put to work loading coal, water, provisions, and ammunition. A few of us took mess kettles and went down to the navy yard well to stock up on some good drinking water. Upon our return to the ship, one of the boatswain mates accused us of carrying something besides water. He grabbed one of the kettles and began drinking. One of the boys tilted up the bottom of the bucket and really quenched the boatswain’s thirst.
We worked through the night and about daylight were ready to get underway. A new captain [J. Blakeley Creighton] came aboard and we set sail in pursuit of the privateer.
The hunt for the Florida was exciting. We spent most of our time drilling and preparing to give the pirate ship a warm reception in case we happened to meet up with her. This, in spite of the fact that we only had a three-quarter-inch iron plate between us and the sea. One shot from the Florida, hitting the Circassian in the right place, would have sent us to Davey Jones’s locker. Although, we would have put up a good fight—I think.
Within a few days, steaming at top speed, we ran low on coal and headed back to the navy yard. We soon sighted a vessel pouring thick smoke from her stack. Since all blockade runners used English coal—which made a dense black smoke—we always kept a sharp lookout for such vessels.
After hailing the ship, and firing a shot across her bow, the third cutter was called away. The steamer continued to move slowly ahead. But after being told to lay to or a shot would find a lodging place in her hull, she stopped.
We pulled alongside the vessel and the Acting First Lieutenant climbed aboard. After a short inspection, he returned to the cutter and we headed back to the Circassian. The steamer continued on its way.
When we reached Boston on July 20, I saw the same ship which we had stopped riding at anchor. She had been captured by the Santiago de Cuba and taken to port as a prize—and a rich one she proved to be.
Our captain was visibly upset. He called for a boat and he and the Acting First Lieutenant went ashore. I don’t know what kind of a report they made to the admiral, but I never saw either one of them after that. [Acting Volunteer Lieutenant H. Churchill was placed in command of the Circassian.]
On our next trip south, we were ordered to Mobile Bay. On the night of August 4, 1864 I was in the cutter that took our captain to Admiral Farragut’s flagship—the Hartford. We were directed to lay back in the bay. Farragut had planned to attack Fort Morgan in the morning.
That night I was at my lookout station on the foretop gallant yard. During the latter part of the midwatch, the guns of the fleet bombarded the fort. It was an awesome sight, seeing the flash of the big guns—the streak of fire from the fuses as the shells curved on their flight—then the explosions as the projectiles found their mark. I stayed aloft until ordered down, but had a ringside seat at the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Later in the day we received dispatches and reports to deliver to New Orleans, and returned to Mobile with messages for Admiral Farragut from the Navy Department.
The Circassian then headed for Hampton Roads, Virginia—and an assignment that I shall always remember.
Our orders were to pick up Union prisoners of war that had been exchanged for Confederates. Most of our boys were invalids and I was on the detail to assist the soldiers up the gangplank. One of the men I aided must have been at least six feet tall. He told me that he weighed two hundred pounds when he enlisted and had never been sick a day in his life. But now he was nothing more than a bag of bones. I picked him up in my arms and carried him aboard like a child.
A boat flag had been laid over the break of the forecastle to dry. A couple of frail soldiers grabbed the flag and began fighting over it. The wet cloth ripped in half. Each man now had a piece. They kissed their scrap of flag—hugged it—cried over it—and sang The Star Spangled Banner. Then one of them shouted in a voice filled with emotion, “Thank God we are back under Old Glory!”
Everyone who witnessed the scene had tears in their eyes, and will never forget it. For through all they suffered, these men had remained true to their oath and flag. I cannot remember the name of the man I helped, but his face is still bright in my mind.
We delivered the released prisoners to the New York Navy Yard and returned to Boston where we picked up several Confederate naval officers who were to be exchanged. But what a difference in condition. These men were healthy and had been well fed.
On my last trip north, during the winter of 1864-65, the Circassian ran into a wild storm off Cape Hatteras. We were blown 50 miles off course and out to sea. There was no fire in the galley. We had nothing to eat but a little hardtack. On the third day the ship broke out of the storm. The captain ordered a barrel of salt pork hoisted on deck. Knocking a hole in the head of the barrel, he told everyone to help themselves—and you bet we did. I cut a slice of fat pork about a half-inch thick, put it between two hardtacks and went to work. I honestly believe that I have never tasted anything better. We were allowed all we wanted to eat—and it was good.
The next day, on the first part of the dogwatch, I was handed a bottle attached to a lanyard and told to make it fast to the foretop yardarm—letting it hang down a couple of feet. I had just lowered the bottle, and was about to make it fast, when I heard the report of a rifle and felt the rope snap. I watched the bottle fall, but before it hit the water, it was struck twice more. I glanced at the bridge and noticed the sailing master holding a rifle. He and the other officers were laughing. It seems that the sailing master was a crack shot and was practicing. I guess I was the only person on deck not laughing.
I believe it was about April 11, when we were hailed by the Santiago de Cuba and informed that the war was over. We cheered, danced, and sang—and for awhile acted like crazy men more than anything else.
We arrived at the Boston Navy Yard on the afternoon of April 12. I was ill and the doctor wanted to send me to the hospital. But I had a sailor’s horror of that place. I received my discharge and headed for my grandfather’s home.
I had some hard times and a lot of hard work, but I would not give up my experiences for anything. I am glad that I lived during these times—went into the service, and did my duty in defense of my country. This gave me the honor of belonging to the Grand Army of the Republic, and to meet with such men and to call them by the best of titles—comrades.
This is part of the history of my service in the Civil War, compiled from my notes by Charles Reed of Post 10—now dead. To be Lucy’s, if she wants, after I have been buried.
Endnote: After the war, Herbert Carlton became a successful businessman, and also a well-known Boston actor. He frequently took part in the popular postwar tributes staged to honor the Grand Army of the Republic. In his later years, Carleton dictated his story to a fellow member of G.A.R. Post Ten in Worcester, Massachusetts. He died in Chelsea, Mass., on March 12, 1923, aged 77.