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Personal Experience of a Union Veteran

By Levi Lindley Hawes
About 12 o'clock one August night in 1862, as I sat in my tent at Fort Jackson, La., making out a Post Return—or perhaps writing to ‘the girl I left behind me’—I was interrupted by the quiet entrance of the commandant. ‘Ye gods! what do I see?’ I exclaimed, as the lieutenant-colonel stood before me in full evening (or night) dress. ‘I thought you were asleep hours ago.’ ‘I have been asleep,’ he replied, ‘but when I awoke and saw a light in your tent, I said to myself, this “witching hour of night” is a proper time for me to ask Levi what prompted or induced him to enter the service. You, an only son, left a delightful, happy home,—I simply left the state of Maine. Why did you enlist in the military service?’ After an hour's friendly chat, I think the colonel retired in the firm conviction that I had a valid reason for connecting myself as sergeant in company I, Thirteenth Maine Regiment Infantry. With varied phraseology this pertinent question has been fired at me scores of times. In this connection permit me to read extracts from two letters written in September, 1861.


Bangor, Me., September 7, 1861.
My dear Levi: You seem to think it is your duty to go into the army, and by what you write I judge that you have decided to go. Well, go, if you think you can endure the exposure and hardships of camp life; and may God bless you in all your endeavors to serve our country, and give you health, strength, and ability equal to your calling. If you do enter your country's service, attach yourself to a cavalry squadron, by all means. I [26] send you a paper to call your attention to the notice of a company which is to be recruited in Maine; and you will see that it is more advantageous to enlist here than in Massachusetts. If you wish to obtain a situation in this company, you had better apply at once. Let the store go.

Please write very soon, if you do not come home, for I shall feel anxious to hear how you succeed in enlisting.



Boston, September 10, 1861.
My dear Mother: Your letter of the 7th inst. received this noon has filled my heart with joy. A thousand thanks for such words as these—words both of consent and blessing. I surely have no desire to bathe my hands in my brother's blood, but when he madly threatens to destroy, not only me, but also the entire family—having used every other means to dissuade him from his cruel purpose in vain—shall I fail or refuse to bring forward the last and most potent argument—the sword—in self—defence? God forbid. If I perish, let it be said that I died in the faithful discharge of my duty. Duty is my war-cry; but having unsheathed my sword, I shall throw away the scabbard; and when my duty is completely done, I will bury the sword. It does seem to me that it is my duty to offer my services to my country; and, God helping me, I will never disgrace my more than Spartan mother. My whole soul cries ‘go.’ You say ‘go.’ And does not the providence of God indicate that it is my duty to rally for the strife?

Oh, the terrible, the thrice terrible necessity! But it must be met.

Yours affectionately,


But there is a long gap between this period and the beginning of my history. In 1833 two notable events occurred. First, the Anti-Slavery Society was born. Then, according to the record—which I have been assured is absolutely correct—a boy was born in the town of Union, Me., Lincoln county (now Knox), adjoining [27] Hope, adjoining Liberty, and in process of time this boy necessarily became, in the main, a hopeful union, Lincoln, liberty-loving, American citizen.

On that April day, when a gun-carriage went rumbling past my store, corner Beacon and Tremont streets, bearing the bodies of Ladd and Whitney, killed in Baltimore, I recorded a vow. As soon thereafter as possible, I turned the key on my mercantile business, and on the twenty-first day of October, 1861, my name was writ large on the enlistment roll; and from that date my time and means were devoted to the business of inducing men to enlist in the Thirteenth Maine Regiment, which was to be attached to General Butler's division for special service,—until the regiment was mustered into the United States service at the arsenal in Augusta,—December 31, 1861. Here we lived in tents half buried in snow, often drilling in snow knee deep, with the mercury at or below zero, till February 18, 1862, at which date we dug ourselves out of several feet of snow and ice and took train for Boston. About midnight we found ourselves in the ‘Cradle of Liberty,’ where, it was supposed, we were to be rocked to sleep, but I don't remember to have seen a single sleeping soldier that night. On the twentieth a battalion of the regiment (four companies) (Colonel Dow and Major Hesseltine) was marched to Long wharf and down between decks of the good steamship Mississippi, in which for many days and nights we were literally rocked to sleep. (The six companies of the regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Rust commanding, sailed from New York.) The next day our voyage began, and before it ended the boys experienced all the charms of ‘life on the ocean wave, and a home on the rolling deep.’ As we rolled and pitched on the passage to Fort Monroe, many a luckless soldier went skating down the icy deck till the lee bulwarks ordered a peremptory halt. The order to halt was not always obeyed with such alacrity. At Fort Monroe we received General Butler and staff. We had previously discovered that the Thirty-first Massachusetts Regiment was stowed somewhere down forward.

At 10 o'clock p. m. on the twenty-fifth, the engines began to throb, and shortly the capes were left astern. Our final (?) [28] departure was taken, and Ship Island was announced as our destination.

About 7 o'clock p. m. on the twenty-sixth I was standing in the lee of the pilot house, greatly interested in the tumbling of a ragged sea. Suddenly, through the gloom, I thought I saw ‘white water’ on our starboard bow, and I said to the sergeant who stood near me, ‘We are in the midst of breakers,’ and putting my hands to my mouth, sailor fashion, I shouted, ‘Breakers!’ Looking through the pilot house window, I saw the quartermaster throwing his wheel to starboard. Had he not started his wheel when he did, these lines would not have been written; for it was a moment later that the captain from the fore rigging bawled first, ‘Hard a-port,’ then, ‘Hard astar-board.’ As the ship came about she fell into the trough of the sea, and for a short time, which seemed an age, she was practically on her beam ends. The sergeant vanished as if by magic. ‘Man overboard’ trembled on my lips, but I checked myself, realizing the futility of raising an alarm at that juncture. Wiping the brine from my eyes with my sleeve, I discovered something in the lee scuppers. Edging down carefully I seized it; whereupon a voice called out as well as it could through a Lit of the Atlantic Ocean that had taken refuge in his mouth, ‘That's my hair.’ ‘God bless you, sergeant,’ I said, ‘are you hurt?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I am nearly drowned.’ ‘Well, now go below,’ I said, ‘and be a good boy.’ He went. An hour later we had a full grown gale bellowing after us, and I remained on deck to watch the splendid behavior of the ship and to listen to the full chorus which seemed to be performing for my special benefit. A gale at sea always sends me to the key of G. Finally, chilled to the marrow, I had to yield to the blast and go below. As I stepped down between decks, behold a whole menagerie in full voice. Every conceivable sound proceeded from hundreds of sick and scared soldiers. Hanging my dripping clothes where I hoped they would dry over night, I flung myself into the bunk already occupied by four somewhat demoralized sergeants, thus adding one more specimen to the ‘floating show.’ The motion of the ship soon lulled me into a sixteen-knot sleep, from which [29] I was aroused by a motion not of the ship, and a hoarse whisper in my ear: ‘Turn out, you are wanted in the cabin. The skylight is stove in and the cabin is flooded, and the water is up nearly to the grating in the boiler room. It is four o'clock, and the devil to pay generally.’

The occasion didn't seem to demand an elaborate toilet, so in the pitchy night I quickly groped my way to the cabin, and as I stepped from the companion-way into the swirling suds that swished half way up the bulkhead, the scene struck me as indescribably funny.

Officers sat about the table looking as though they had lost their best friend. Saluting, I said (unwisely, no doubt), ‘Gentlemen, this looks very much like a fashionable watering-place.’ Whereupon one with somewhat of cant in his tone said, ‘This is no time for frivolity or jesting.’

Looking at the chevron on my sleeve, I made no audible reply, but to the bucket bearers I said, sotto voce, ‘They are in for how long?’ ‘Well, we will bail them out, anyway,’ at which a broad smile broke out and went echoing down the cabin; and then we all ‘turned to,’ each one steering his own bucket. An hour or so later I saw my frivolous friend making for the stairs. ‘After you, sir,’ rose to my lips, and halted there, while I preceded him up the winding stairs, letting my bucket, as the ship rolled, steer itself. As I reached the deck the orderly looked in my bucket and asked, ‘Where is your water?’ ‘In the chaplain's starboard boot—will explain later,’ I replied.

At sea, accidents sometimes occur in pairs or in sets. When I returned to the cabin I found a dapper little lieutenant issuing orders—forgetting that he was not commander-in-chief of the army and navy. I stood at attention, and was about to quote a passage from an ancient volume, for I knew something was going to happen. Just then a sea struck the ship under the counter, lifted her endwise, and dropped her so suddenly that the would-be commander sat down, in his best clothes, in the not over-clean water. I turned my head to wipe away tears—or was it the dirty water he had splashed in my face?—and then sympathetically remarked, ‘You have dropped something, sir.’ He [30] disappeared so quickly that I failed to get more than a mental photograph of the young son of Mars, and the water closed over a stern reality.

At eight o'clock, after four hours bailing, we were relieved and treated to a breakfast fit for the gods. As I presented my tin cup and plate to the black knight at the galley, he poured half a pint of coffee into my cup and deposited one boiled potato in the centre of my ten-inch plate—sans salt, sans pepper, sans everything. I declare, on the honor of a soldier, that I never before saw a boiled potato look so, utterly lonesome. I think that I made a remark to that effect at the time, for the darkey seemed amused, and when I told him to keep his black hand out of my new tin plate he opened his mouth to such an extent that his ears were in eclipse.

My breakfast disposed of, I went on deck and deposited myself in a huge coil of six-inch hawser on the after part of the quarter-deck, where for hours—and alone—I watched the mighty combers which, as yet, had not tumbled aboard to any great damage. Suddenly the door of the after house flew open, and out shot my captain. Righting himself, he said, ‘Sergeant, you must not sit there, it is dangerous. The field gun lashed to the rail near where you are sitting was washed overboard last night.’ I thanked him for his kind warning, adding that I was not a loaded field piece, and I didn't purpose to go off after that fashion. Meanwhile, I was watching a tremendous comber making toward the starboard quarter. Pointing in that direction, I said, ‘Captain, that fellow means mischief, and you had better seek shelter.’ He took the hint. As the lawless comber with a thundering roar broke over the deck, I instinctively seized the topmost flakes of the coil with both hands. After the tons of the North Atlantic had left the deck and gone back to its own, I found myself jammed into that coil doubled up like a jack-knife with feet and hands sticking through different parts of the mass of nearly wrecked cordage. I knew something had happened, but which was Hawes and which was hawser I was too badly twisted and tangled to determine. ‘What would my mother think of me now?’ I soliloquized. By dint of vigorous kicking, [31] wriggling, clawing, and sundry other manoeuvres I shuffled that hempen coil, and finding that I was not Hawes de combat, nor my zeal dampened (but with some loss of dignity as a soldier), I went in search of less tight-fitting and clinging garments. Of the 1,500 soldiers aboard, not a soul of them knew anything of the circus I had had.

The next morning came in with a cloudless sky, the ship on an even keel, on a glassy sea. As I went forward I looked over the rail and noticed that the water had a peculiar color. To Sergeant Simmons, who was to be my guest at the galley, I said: ‘We are in shoal water,’ and looking ahead, added, ‘and we are shoaling fast. We shall be aground in less than five minutes. However, let us make sure of our potatoes.’ As we went below I heard the gong sound in the engine room, and at that instant the ship came to a full stop, but without a perceptible jar, on Frying-Pan Shoals—and within the five minutes specified. Adequately to describe our experience during the eleven hours we were stranded on the worst coast of the United States would take more time than this occasion affords or your patience would allow. I have been on the rocks off an inhospitable coast of South America, and on a lee shore elsewhere, but perhaps this was the most trying situation of all, because in this case infinitely more was involved. Although the situation seemed desperate I never lost courage for a moment. From my diary I have written out somewhat in detail an account of our experience on Frying-Pan Shoals; but to-night I can give you only a glimpse of what stared us in the face on that twenty-eighth day of February, 1862.

Of course I had but a superficial knowledge of our surroundings, but the school had been opened and I was in the mood to put myself in training. To my amazement I found that the port anchor had been let go, notwithstanding the fact that that end of the ship was already stuck fast in the mud. As General Butler came on deck he asked the captain, ‘What's that?’ pointing to the flag, Union down, in the port fore rigging. ‘Flag of distress,’ said the skipper. ‘Can you display it nowhere else?’ asked the general. ‘Yes, at the mizzen peak,’ replied [32] the skipper. ‘Half-mast it at the mizzen peak, Union up, forever!’ roared the general. Then a signal gun was fired, but this was immediately muzzled, for Fort Macon and horsemen were in plain sight from our deck. All the troops were immediately ordered to go below. I recognized the wisdom of the order, but I concluded that it didn't include me. So I ranged alongside the ship's quartermaster, who at once adopted me as his assistant; and it proved to be the longest watch on deck that I ever experienced,—from 8 o'clock A. M., till about 8 o'clock P. M.

It was soon discovered that the good ship had resented the indignity of dropping the anchor under her forefoot by rolling over onto it and forcing a fluke through her iron bow. At this hour we had only fourteen feet of water forward, while the ship drew about eighteen feet, and the tide was falling. But as the water fell outside it continued to rise in the forward compartment, till the Thirty-first Massachusetts boys had the choice of being drowned in an iron kettle or vacating their quarters. No deaths by drowning were reported.

Doubtless General Butler comprehended the gravity of the situation, but he was outwardly cool and collected during the entire day, and actively in command.

To arouse the ship from her siesta various expedients were resorted to. Orders were issued to jettison some of the heavier cargo. Among the first things I noticed going overboard were mosquito netting and camp and garrison equipage. In this connection the acting quartermaster of the expedition cut a sorry figure. Seated on the ‘booby hatch,’ with his mouth full of oaths, flourishing a revolver and threatening to shoot, this officer was supposed to be executing orders. While I had no connection with his squad I was a witness of what was being done on that part of the ship. Finally a barrel got jammed in the hatch. The air was blue with oaths, and I noticed some of the men edging away from the flourishing pistol. I could stand the pressure no longer. Seizing a capstan bar I stepped to the hatch and said, ‘Lower a bit,’ then, canting the barrel, said, ‘Hoist,’ and the situation was relieved. To the disgust of the [33] officer some one cried, ‘Bully for the sergeant.’ Spluttering oaths the officer turned on me, and, pointing his pistol threateningly, demanded if I belonged to that squad. I looked him square in the face for a moment, and then said, perhaps with more emphasis than my rank would fairly warrant, ‘No, sir,’ then pointing to his pistol, added, ‘but that is no good.’ To his credit be it said the pistol-bearer quieted down, and the pistol was not in evidence during the rest of the day. As I turned away my colonel laid his hand on my shoulder, saying, ‘Sergeant, I'm glad to see you here. That's a miserable fellow.’ I know I was terribly angry at the wretch; but the kind words of my colonel relieved the tension.

After some hours a steamer was made out coming up the coast. Her progress was closely watched. The stars and stripes floated from her peak, but she might be a rebel gun-boat for all that. As she rounded to at a distance and headed for us a boat was called away with an officer in charge to ascertain the nationality of the ship. She proved to be the United States gunboat Mount Vernon, on blockade duty off Cape Fear river. She had fortunately seen the flash of our gun, but was too far off to hear the report, and immediately started to investigate. Imagination alone can picture forth our feelings of relief at having a United States gun-boat between us and the rebel fort at the mouth of Cape Fear river—not to mention the rising wind and muttering sea, which would soon reduce the good ship Mississippi to a scrap heap unless relieved at flood tide. Captain Glisson of the Mt. Vernon shook his head as hawser after hawser parted in his efforts to pull us off. ‘You have, perhaps, one chance in a million,’ said the captain, ‘to float your ship.’ To save his own ship he was obliged to haul off to deeper water, for he had touched bottom several times. Meanwhile our engine was working full steam ahead. The quartermaster and I were forward charged with heaving the lead. As a precaution troops were being transferred to the Mt. Vernon, for there was slight expectation of saving our ship. Just here the quartermaster said, ‘Sergeant, I've got to go aft; look out for falling spars as the ship rolls.’ When he returned, he said the Maine troops [34] were being sent to the gun-boat, but he had obtained my colonel's consent, and would I remain and take the one chance,— ‘We need you—for, if we don't get off this tide, good-by Mississippi.’ I simply said ‘I'll stick.’ A little later he said, ‘I wish you would take the lead again, you have a more sensitive touch.’ My heart gave a big thump as I felt the lead trail aft just a bit. As with tense nerves I watched the lead-line, the General, apparently thinking I had fallen asleep, or was idling, yelled, ‘Keep that lead a-going.’ Turning to the quartermaster, I said, with as steady voice as I could command, ‘She forges ahead, sir.’ ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘Sure,’ I replied. Then he repeated my report to the quarter-deck, which report brought cheers from every mouth and tears from many eyes. The boats were recalled, and, on account of the heavy sea, were with great difficulty hoisted aboard.

A few hours later, piloted by the Mt. Vernon, we let go our anchor near the mouth of the Cape Fear river.

The next morning we took a sailing-master from the Mt. Vernon and laid our course for Port Royal (Hilton Head), where we arrived March 2 with our forward compartment full of water. and the ship badly ‘by the head.’ The next day we hauled around to Seabrook Landing, about eight miles from Hilton Head, and disembarked. The first night we were quartered in a cotton shed, pole floor, and it is my belief that we suffered more from cold than we ever did in Augusta, and the poles were the knottiest and crokedest that ever grew upright. Our flesh was torn as well as our clothes. A wag had ‘For rent’ pinned to the tail of his coat. I didn't need a placard, but rather needle and thread and court-plaster.

Our battalion was moved out about half a mile from the landing on the road to Hilton Head, to serve as picket guard. We pitched our tents in a cotton field; and here I had my first experience as a Southern field-hand, from which duty I was detailed to serve as sergeant of the guard. Soon the rumor spread through the camp that the rebels were in force between our position and the Savannah river, and I detected a nervousness on the part of some of the guard. Early in the afternoon the officer [35] of the day said he was sick, and, as all the other officers were on duty at the landing, he would turn over the command of the guard to me. (A year later he acknowledged that he was scared, not sick.)

As the officer of the day disappeared a staff officer dashed into our camp and inquired for Sergeant Hawes. Presenting myself, the officer said, ‘The general's compliments, and he orders that you report forthwith at headquarters as a witness before a court of inquiry.’ It would seem that my first sighting the breakers before spoken of, and also my observing and remarking on the shoaling of the water on Frying-Pan Shoals, had been reported to the general. Hence my summons. There was no cross-examination in my case; and when the president said, ‘Thank you, sergeant, that's all,’ I felt relieved; for I could never tell a story twice alike. As I left the court I met the ship's quartermaster, who asked me, ‘How near to the breakers were we on the night of the gale? I have just testified that we were within one ship's length.’ ‘In my judgment,’ I said, ‘we were within two ship's length, and I so stated to the court.’

Soon after returning to my post I saw the head of a column of troops debouching from the woods about a mile to the front of our position. I had not been notified of any contemplated movement of troops, but I soon satisfied myself that in the ‘go-as-you-please’ gait of the advancing troops there was union of action. The guard took arms. As the head of the column approached the sentinel challenged. Strange to say the challenge was ignored by the colonel. Whereupon I immediately threw my guard across his front and every musket was brought to a ready. By this time the colonel apparently had a suspicion that I knew my duty, if for the moment he had forgotten his, for he halted his regiment, and then advanced and gave the countersign, apologized for his seeming discourtesy, and asked me to pass his stragglers, who would come later. Suffice it to say, that when this episode was reported at headquarters the sergeant did not receive a reprimand for any dereliction of duty.

Our picket line extended into a dense oak wood, and as I made the ‘rounds’ at night I frequently heard the sharp click of [36] the musket as it was brought to a full cock, the sentinel being too scared to challenge, and I was obliged to announce my approach to the challenge of the click.

One of the scared sentinels said afterwards that he guessed I was the only one that night in danger of being shot.

On the ninth of March (a notable day in my calendar) we struck tents and embarked on the steamship Matanzas, the general deeming it wise to transfer the Thirty-first regiment to our quarters on the Mississippi lest the hastily patched bow should break adrift and endanger the lives of those in the forward compartment. Our seven days run ashore was a blessing somewhat disguised.

The next morning we hauled around to Hilton Head and anchored to await the Mississippi, which had experienced additional trouble. At high noon on the thirteenth both ships beat to quarters, and we resumed our voyage.

On the seventh day from Hilton Head, after suffering the tortures of the damned from both hunger and thirst (from the details of which, good Lord deliver us), a gun-boat hove to across our bow, and ascertaining that ours was a troop ship bound for Ship Island, informed us that we were within five hours sail of our long-sought — for port.

Every soldier gave voice to his feelings, and then ‘piped down’ to pack knapsacks. We forgot that our throats were parched and that our stomachs were in a collapsed condition. (Blessing on the man who invented forgetfulness.)

Four hundred pairs of eyes were shortly on the lookout for Ship Island. By and by masts appeared, and then the hulls came into view, but not the slightest indication of land. Vessels only —apparently in mid-ocean. To see vessels rising apparently out of the water was a novel sight to some of the boys. But when they discovered the low-lying island almost under our jib-boom their astonishment was complete. At 3 o'clock P. M. March 20), we dropped anchor within a cable's length of the Mississippi, which had arrived a day or two in advance of us. Our comrades who had sailed from New York had arrived while we were stranded at Hilton Head, and as we came to anchor gave us [37] hearty cheers from the shore, and we returned the greeting with interest, but we had no further communication with them for three days. We had another practical illustration of the fact that doubtful things are very uncertain. A northerly gale kicked up such an ugly surf that we couldn't land till late in the afternoon of the twenty-second, when we literally staggered ashore. An officer of a Maine battery captured me and took me to his quarters and gave me a square meal and a good bed, and for twelve solid hours I forgot that I was a soldier. After an 8 o'clock substantial breakfast I reported for duty with my company; and on the whole I was glad that I was alive.

Before I left the ship the captain said to, me that he never before saw so fine a body of men. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘they have a right to mutiny. I would consider it a religious duty to lead a mutiny on far less provocation than they have. They have been in a starving condition for days, and yet not one breach of discipline has come to my knowledge.’

Ship Island—chiefly barren sand—is about six miles long, and perhaps half a mile wide at its widest part, and rises only a few feet above the sea. The troops were encamped at the western end of the island. The extreme eastern end is somewhat more elevated, and at the time of our arrival a growth of pines served for both fuel and timber. During heavy gales the larger part of the island was actually under water. On this nearly submerged sand bank the Thirteenth Maine drew for consolation for more than three months. But there was no lack of employment. To our military duties was added excessive fatigue duty day and night, for all transports discharged their cargo at this rendezvous.

(To be continued.)

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