Late Winter through Early Spring 1862 (Florida): Serving as Soldiers and Surrogates for Family

Drummer Boy William Williamson, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company A, circa 1863 (public domain).

Arriving with March 1862’s winds of change in America were career advancements for members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who were settling into life as soldiers on garrison duty in America’s Deep South during the Civil War. Among those receiving word that their lives would be changing even while continuing to serve with their regiment at Fort Taylor, Camp Brannan and other duty stations in Key West, Florida were several members of Company A: Jacob Beck, who was promoted from the rank of corporal to quartermaster sergeant; drummer boy William Williamson, who took on additional duties with the regimental commissary; Private John J. Jones, who was ordered to report for daily duties at the fort’s hospital; and Private Peter Lewis, who was ordered by Colonel Tilghman H. Good to assist First Lieutenant Washington H. R. Hangen with his added duties as Adjutant General of the Union Army brigade to which the 47th Pennsylvania had been attached.

Meanwhile, G Company Sergeant Charles A. Hackman was advanced to the rank of first sergeant (sergeant-major) while the regiment continued to add to its rosters with the enrollment of several new members, including Charles Martin, an immigrant from Kent, England who became a private with Company B.

And Major William H. Gausler, the regiment’s third-in-command, also assumed a heavier burden, having been appointed as Provost Marshal of Key West—a position which required him to oversee the city’s police operations and judicial affairs—duties which he performed from an office located at Hick’s Wharf in Key West.

Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C, circa 1862 (public domain).

On Monday, March 10, the 97 members of F Company were marched from Camp Brannan to Fort Taylor, where they would live and work moving forward. The next day, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin of C Company penned a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to inform him that:

“Gen. Brannan has appointed me Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Department of Key West, giving me Supervision of all law proceedings on the island. I have Samuel Haupt for my clerk, and it keeps us both busy. I have a splendid office in the barracks – everything nice as can be. It beats the one at home all to pieces…. The weather continues very warm.”

In fairly short order, though, a new hindrance—the lack of safe drinking water—gave renewed strength to the regiment’s old adversary—disease. This happened because soldiers at the fort were frequently required to rely on rainwater captured by above-ground cisterns—an unworkable situation both in terms of water quantity and quality. In response, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan, the Union Army general in charge of all of the Key West-based regiments, ordered his subordinates to board schooners and sail for Havana, Cuba in mid-March in order to locate and purchase additional water supplies.

And, as if battling water shortages and disease were not enough, 47th Pennsylvanians were quickly learning that local flora and fauna would also prove to be a significant threat. According to H Company First Lieutenant William W. Geety, who penned a letter to his wife around this same time, the bite of just one six-inch-long centipede meant “certain death” for any Pennsylvanian not sharp-eyed enough to spot the insect and step away fast enough.

Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida, 1863 (courtesy of Robert Champlin, used with permission).

On Thursday, March 13, Regimental Chaplain William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock was in another contemplative mood, putting pen to paper to inform readers of Philadelphia’s The Press newspaper about what life was like as a Union soldier in America’s Deep South while also presenting his perspective on why the war was still being waged:

“In my former communication, I promised a more minute description of the beautiful island and city of Key West. I now do so; but cannot refrain, in the first place, from adverting to the glorious victories which have recently crowned our arms in the different divisions of the grand army of the Union. No wonder the whole country is wild with excitement and rejoicing. No wonder that cannons have been fired and bells tolled in every city, town, and hamlet, of the loyal States. For such successes and such victories as have recently crowned our flag with imperishable glory, are enough to thrill every fibre of the Republic and cause its great heart to beat with renewed life and activity. We have now passed the long line of checks and reverses and have made rapid advances on the broad, clear road that leads to complete and abiding triumph. Every true American breathes freer, walks firmer, and hopes brighter.

Whilst the year 1861 was one of trial, suffering, and discipline to the Government, it was to the rebel leaders, in a large measure, one of hope, of promise and success. But how different the opening of the year 1862! In the great cause of the Union, the bow of promise looms up on every side. There has been one continuous stream of success and victory.

To the rebel leaders all is discomfiture, disaster, and dismay. Every star of hope and promise has disappeared—defeat, ruin, and death, are closing around them on every side.

It is a marvelous [sic] fact in the history and warfare of the Anglo-Saxon race, that the side which suffers most grievously in the beginning is the side which triumphs most gloriously in the end. In not a single instance, during the last hundred years, has this rule varied. It was so in the ‘Old French War,’ when British arms sustained disaster after disaster, commencing with Braddock’s inglorious defeat, and running on through three campaigns, until the French had acquired possession of every foot of the disputed ground. But at Louisburg the tide turned, and Frontenac, and Ticonderoga, Niagara, and Quebec, soon drove the French from every standing place on the continent. A precisely similar experience attended the British operations in other quarters of the globe. Failure followed failure, but in due time gave place to a course of uninterrupted success by land and sea, such as has seldom fallen to the lot of any nation.

It was so in our Revolutionary war. The side beaten first was the side to win last. During the first twenty months of the war, up to the battle of Trenton, there was a continuous record of American discomfitures and retreats. In fact, there was little to lighten the dark page of that fierce struggle, until the battle of Saratoga and surrender of Burgoyne, the year afterward. Washington, and all the military chiefs of the Revolution, all through the first half of that military period, with all their lofty constancy, almost uniformly evince the painful consciousness of miscarriage and misfortune. The civilized world knows the grand success that at last crowned their efforts.

It was so in our last struggle with England. One of the first events of that war was the shameful surrender of Hull, at Detroit, by which the entire peninsula of Michigan passed into the hands of the enemy. He had been sent to invade and seize Upper Canada, but never was there a more ignominious failure. The first year’s land campaign, throughout, form the most discreditable chapter in our national annals. Yet the struggle, severe as it was, closed with the most memorable of all American victories at New Orleans, and has passed into history as a war completely successful for America.

However it be accounted for, the fact is undeniable, that, with the Anglo-Saxon family, opposite fates precide [sic] at the outset and upshot of their military undertakings; whilst success and victory invariably crown their close. The present wicked and lunatic rebellion is the last, but not the least illustration of this great fact. Much as I desire to elaborate this subject more fully, time and space both require me to leave it for the present, and give you as promised a brief description of

KEY WEST ISLAND AND CITY.

The island is six miles long and two miles broad, and nowhere more than twelve or fifteen feet above the sea level. It is of coral formation, and has a sandy, sterile soil, but in the few spots which are arable the vegetation is extremely rich. The greater part of it is covered with copsewood or low brushes. There are some vegetable gardens which produce through all the seasons, though less in winter than summer. The climate is well adapted for all kinds of tropical fruits. Cocoa nuts [sic], oranges, lemons, pomegranates, pine apples [sic], bananas, etc., are very abundant. There is an artificial salt pond on the island, 350 acres in extent. On the southwest point there is a lighthouse with a fixed light 70 feet above water.

Key West City, on the same island, is the capital of Monroe county, Florida, and the southernmost settlement belonging to the United States. It is situated in latitude 21 deg. 32 min. N., longitude 81 deg. 48 min. W., and has a population of about 3,000. It has a fine harbor, accessible through several channels by the largest vessels drawing twenty-four feet of water; being the key to the best entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, it is strongly fortified. The principal work of defence [sic] is Fort Taylor, built on an artificial island within the main entrance to the harbor. It is a first-class fort, intended to mount upwards of two hundred guns of the heaviest calibre, and is now in excellent state of defence [sic]. The barracks are large and commodious buildings, forming three sides of a quadrangle, the opening facing the sea. Near these barracks our regiment is now comfortably quartered, and the camp presents a most romantic and picturesque appearance.

The streets of the city are wide and clean; the houses are generally of white frame of the cottage style, are neat and mostly embosomed in shrubbery. The flowers and roses are seen blooming around almost every house during the whole year. There are Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic churches, a well arranged marine hospital 100 feet long by 45 feet wide, a customhouse, a court-house, and other public buildings. A large proportion of the population of Key West consists of natives or children of natives of the Bahama islands. These mostly sympathize with Secession, and had it not been for the prompt action of Captain, now Gen. Brannan, his handfull [sic] of men and the co operation [sic] of the loyal citizens, at the outbreak of the rebellion, the island and city with all the fortifications would have fallen into the hands of the rebels.

As a regiment, we have great reason to thank God for his watchful care over us, in sparing our lives. But with all, the unerring hand of death has not altogether left our ranks untouched. It is my painful duty to announce the death of three of our brethren-in-arms since we have pitched our tents in the sunny South.

Frederick Watt, Co. H, Captain Kacey’s, died in hospital February 13, of “brain fever,” contracted on board the Oriental. Aged 23 years. He enlisted in Perry county, Pennsylvania.

Andrew Bellisfield [sic], Co. A, Captain Graeffe’s, died in hospital of erysipelas. Aged 30 years. He was born, raised and enlisted In Northampton county, Pennsylvania.

Henry Beltz, Company B, Captain Rhoades [sic], died in hospital of typhoid fever. Aged 20 years. He was also a native of and enlisted in Northampton county, Pennsylvania.

Thus, three of our number have boon summoned from the field of strife and conflict, we trust, to the sweet fields and sunny banks of Canaan above.

They were buried with all the honors of war, and now sleep side by side, till the Resurrection morn. Although no kind father and mother, no affectionate sister and brother, were here to shed the tear of grief and sorrow over the graves of our departed brethren, yet there were few hearts in the ranks that were unmoved, and few cheeks that were dry, as we deposited their remains in the cold, silent earth.

Rest, soldiers, rest; your country comes,
With tender love and true,
Freely to deck your honored beds,
Her banner o’er its turf to spread,
And on your monuments to shed
Fond memory’s pearly dew.’

There are but few of our men now confined to the hospital, and these are doing very well.

Much yet remains to be said of our regiment, this post, etc., but as the mail will leave in a few moments by the Rhode Island, Captain Blanchard, I will close, promising to write again ere long.

‘In Peace or War, on land or sea,
Our flag, the aegis of the free,
Bright emblem of Columbia’s glory I
Shall tell to coming years the story,
How, stout of heart, and strong of hand,
The patriots of our native land
Bore it, the nation’s hope and life,
On tented field, ‘mid fearful strife,
Still on, till [sic] through the sulphurous [sic] cloud
It broke in triumph Treason’s shroud.'”

* Note: In point of fact, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers had come together on the afternoon of February 13, 1862 for what would be the regiment’s first funeral at Key West—that of Private Frederick Watt, a 19-year-old Perry County laborer who had fallen ill with measles while sailing aboard the S.S. Oriental and had been confined to the post hospital at Fort Taylor since disembarking. Following his interment with full military honors in grave number 27 of the post cemetery, hospital clerks muddied the documentation surrounding Watt’s passing, noting his cause of death as both brain fever and typhoid pneumonia. Watt’s body was later disinterred, in 1927, as part of a mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains from Fort Taylor to the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida, and was subsequently reburied at that national cemetery in section 18, grave number 92.

In contrast, Private Andrew Bellis (not “Bellisfield”), succumbed to complications from erysipelas, which developed after Bellis had been bitten by a scorpion. Laid to rest in grave number 26 of the post cemetery following funeral services officiated by A Company Captain Richard A. Graeffe, Private Bellis’s cause of death was confirmed by B Company Private Jacob Apple in a letter to his own (Apple’s) family. As happened with Private Watt, Private Bellis’s body was disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldier, and was subsequently reinterred in section 17, grave number 97 at the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery.

As with those privates who preceded him in death, Private Beltz was also laid to rest in the post cemetery. Initially interred there in grave number 181, his body was similarly disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains; tragically, though, his remains were among those of multiple members of the 47th Pennsylvania that were mishandled. Unable to be re-identified upon transfer to staff at the national cemetery, Private Beltz’s remains were carelessly consigned to one of 228 graves marked as “unknown”—the majority of which still have not been identified as the centenary of that grave relocation project approaches.

As for the Key West lighthouse mentioned by Rev. Rodrock in his letter, the structure had been forced to darken twice after its 1822 construction authorization by the U.S. Congress to protect ships navigating the dangerous Straits of Florida. Initially illuminated on December 17, 1825, it ceased operating in July 1836 when its tower was heavily damaged during the Second Seminole War. Repaired in 1846, it continued to operate until August 1861 when supporters of the Confederacy sabotaged it by removing the system’s reflector while also wrecking its central prism. Determined to fix the problem, Brigadier-General John M. Brannan sent a team of carpenters and guards to the lighthouse in April 1862, but the mission was aborted when technicians determined that the light could not be repaired with the limited tools they had available at that time. Out of service until it was repaired in 1866, the light finally began functioning again on April 15 of that year.

As illness continued to ravage the ranks of the 47th Pennsylvania throughout the late winter and early spring of 1862, Company A’s First Lieutenant James Meyers was subsequently hospitalized for two months while F Company’s Private John Weiss was ordered to convalesce in his quarters.

On Monday, March 17, Assistant Regimental Surgeon Jacob H. Scheetz was placed in command of the 47th Pennsylvania’s medical unit when the 47th’s Regimental Surgeon Elisha W. Baily was reassigned to detached duty. (Scheetz would continue to fulfill this role until September 1862 when he was placed in charge of the Union Army’s General Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where the 47th Pennsylvania was stationed.)

Two days later, Northampton County Journal readers learned from that day’s edition of their newspaper that fourteen men from their community would be returning home, including A Company Privates Christian Haldeman and George Muller, residents of Easton who had been respectively employed as a laborer and hostler, Stockertown blacksmith Enos Unangst, and Monroe County’s William Pucker—all of whom had been honorably discharged on surgeons certificates of disability. (Muller was released due to a foot injury.)

On Sunday, March 23, Captain Gobin informed family and friends back in Sunbury that:

“Two batteries of field Artillery have been landed on the Island, and we are drilling our Regiment to the use of them. The men have been supplied with new clothing, brass shoulder scales to protect them from cavalry, and everything betokens a readiness on our part to join in the grand encircling of the monster Rebellion. The trees are still being cut down, while artillery roads, thirty feet wide, are being run from one part of the island to another, at different points. Our men have been working hard, but we daily expect 500 contrabands from Port Royal, when we will have easy times.”

All the while, the regiment’s most fearsome foe continued its scything of the ranks as E Company Private Amandus Long and 29-year-old Second Lieutenant Henry H. Bush of F Company lost their respective battles with typhoid fever.

Beloved by his F Company subordinates, Lieutenant Bush “had just been presented a sword by his company a few days before,” according to Schmidt, “and left a widow and two little children behind.” In reporting the death of the Catasauqua millwright, editors of the New Era confirmed that Bush had initially been laid to rest at the post cemetery:

“It becomes our sad duty to record the death of Lt. H. H. Bush, of Company F, 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. He died of Typhoid Fever on the 31st of March and was buried with Masonic and Military Honors in the soldiers burying ground near the barracks.”

The most enlightening glimpse into the funerary rituals of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, however, was Company Order Number 23:

“The Major commanding has the painful duty to announce to this command the death after a short illness of 2nd Lt. H. H. Bush of Company F stationed at this post. By his death the service has lost a good officer and efficient soldier. His remains will be buried at 5 PM (April 1). One half of company accompanied by subaltern will form escort. The usual badge of mourning will be worn by the officers of Company F for one month.”

* Note: Initially interred in grave number 3 of the post cemetery, Private Amandus Long was one of the 47th Pennsylvanians whose bodies were disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains from Fort Taylor to the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida. Tragically, his body was also among those that were mishandled. Unable to be reidentified upon transfer to the national cemetery, his remains were also carelessly consigned to one of 228 graves marked as “unknown.”

Unlike the remains of Private Long, however, those of Second Lieutenant Henry H. Bush were disinterred and brought back to the Keystone State at the request of his surviving family. Lieutenant Bush was then finally laid to rest at Catasauqua’s Fairview Cemetery.

The deaths of Beltz, Bush, Long, and so many other young men sorely tested the notion of 19th century Pennsylvanians that terminally ill loved ones “should die amidst family assembled around the deathbed,” according to American Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president emeritus of Harvard University and the author of This Republic of Suffering. Tradition had long dictated that “family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul” because the “critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition.”

“Kin would use their observations of the deathbed to evaluate the family’s chances for a reunion in heaven. A life was a narrative that could only be incomplete without this final chapter, without the life-defining last words.

Last words had always held a place of prominence in the Ars Moriendi [‘Good Death’] tradition. By the eighteenth century, ‘dying declarations’ had assumed—and still retain—explicit secular importance: a special evidentiary status excepting them from legal rules excluding hearsay. Final words were regarded as possessing an especially high truth status, both because it was believed that a dying person could no longer have any early motivation to lie and because those about to meet their Maker would not wish to expire bearing false witness…. Not only were last words important because of their assumed honesty, they also imposed a meaning on the life narrative they would conclude. At the same time that they exemplified a life, moreover, they communicated invaluable lessons or insights to those gathered around the deathbed. This educational function provided a critical means through which the deceased could continue to exist in the lives of the survivors. The teachings that last words imparted served as a lingering exhortation and a persisting tie between the living and the dead.”

But when members of the 47th Pennsylvania died far from home—as they were now doing at Fort Taylor in Florida—this immediate and long-lasting form of comfort and counsel was out of reach of the loving embrace of a dying soldier’s family and friends. And that, according to Faust, was utterly shocking and “unbearable to many nineteenth-century Americans left at home while their sons, husbands, and brothers died with their last words unrecorded or even unheard.”

As the war would continue to rage, according to Faust, a dying soldier’s regimental comrades would often become surrogates for far-away family, as would regimental and hospital chaplains, physicians, and army nurses, “struggling even amidst the chaos of the war to make it possible for men—and their loved ones—to believe they had died well. Spiritual wounds demanded attention as powerfully as did those of the flesh.”

Sadly, these realizations was being driven home to the members of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry time and again as the dawn of a second year of civil war loomed in America.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Vol 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

2. Faust, Drew G. The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 3-38. Houston, Texas: Southern Historical Association (Rice University), 2001.

3. Florida’s Role in the Civil War: ‘Supplier of the Confederacy.” Tampa, Florida: Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida (College of Education), retrieved online January 15, 2020.

4. Gobin, John Peter Shindel. Personal Letters, 1861-1865. Northumberland, Pennsylvania: Personal Collection of John Deppen.

5. Johnson, Rossiter and John Howard Brown. The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Vol. 1, p. 419: Brannan, John Milton.” Boston, Massachusetts: The Biographical Society, 1904.

6. “Letter from Key West” (from “W. D. C. R., Chaplain, Forty-seventh Regiment, P. V.”; dated March 13, 1862). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Press, March 31, 1972 (front page).

7. Rodrock, William DeWitt Clinton and Julia (Weldy) Rodrock. Photographs, Correspondence, Sermons, etc., 1849-1900. St. Louis, Missouri: “William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock Collection” held by Robert Champlin.

8. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

9. Sharp, Rebecca. Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (video). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, June 3, 2015.

10. Staubach, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Miami During the Civil War: 1861-65,” in Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, LIII, 31-62. Miami: Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 1993.

11. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1861-1868.