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General Wistar: The Battle of Fort Nonsense, Part II

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 at 10:06 am

His early life was filled with adventure. At age 22 he left his native Philadelphia for the California gold mines. He worked there as a miner, a teamster, and a farmer; he suffered from cholera, dysentery, and a severe arrow wound. Seeking a quieter life, he studied law and passed the California bar. Two years later he headed for the Colorado gold fields but never arrived, having been laid low by malaria. After a brief stint in the Chicago cattle trade, he was practicing law in Philadelphia when the Civil War broke out. He was a lieutenant colonel at Balls Bluff, where he was wounded three times. A jaw wound matted his beard with blood. A thigh wound filled his boot with blood. A third ball badly shattered his right elbow. Weeks of infection and a maggot invasion delayed his recovery. In the end, his elbow was fixed in a permanently bent position, with his fingers also rigid.
After a partial recovery, he fought at Antietam, where his other arm was wounded, leaving it painful and useless. After another partial recovery, he was assigned to General George Getty’s division at Suffolk, to command the reserve brigade. All summer and fall of 1863, he had “every variety of fever and diarrhea.” Thus, the invasion of Mathews County was planned and commanded by a man with partial use of only one arm, in chronic pain, with severe diarrhea and fever. (Mentally, he always remained quite functional–after the war, he was a major figure in the famed Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology at Philadelphia.)

The Union Land Forces

Colonel Samuel Spear commanded the 450 men of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, a unit which was organized in Philadelphia in September 1861. Not all the regiment followed Spear. A portion remained back at Yorktown. The 1st New York Mounted Rifles (7th New York Cavalry) sent a detachment of fifty men under Captain Walter Poor. He was later commissioned lieutenant colonel in the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers, an African American Regiment.
The 4th United States Colored Infantry sent 744 men, under the command of Colonel Samuel Duncan, who was brevetted major general in 1865, for gallant and meritorious service. The 4th USCT was a very new regiment, having finished organizing only weeks earlier. They had arrived at Yorktown just two days before marching under General Wistar. The expedition to Mathews County was their first taste of military action.
Two light artillery units accompanied the expedition: one section of Battery E, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, with twenty-seven men, and one section of the 8th New York Battery, with twenty-four men, under a “Captain Orwig.” (I cannot locate him in my reference works.)
The Mathews peninsula is only four miles wide at its neck, a spot between the North and Piankatank Rivers. Wistar’s plan was to block this narrow neck with his infantry and artillery, while sending out the cavalry to destroy ships, boats, storage facilities and anything else useful to the Confederates. Since the major enemy was adept with watercraft, Wistar had brought floating forces, both Union Navy and ships of the army’s navy.

The Union Navy

Four Navy gunboats took up position around Mathews County. The Commodore Jones was a 542-ton side wheel steamer, with a crew of 88 men. She mounted 11 guns: four smooth bore nine-inch cannons; one 50-pounder Hotchkiss rifled cannon; two 30-pounder rifled cannons; and four 24-pounder cannons. She had been on active service less than eight months. The Jones drew twelve feet; she would not be able to ascend the shallower rivers.
The General William P. Putnam was a 149-ton screw steamer that drew only seven feet. She would be more able to penetrate the shallow recesses of Mobjack Bay. This 104-foot long wooden vessel had been built as a tug in 1857. The Navy bought her and installed one 32-pounder cannon and two 24-pounder smooth bore howitzers. The crew was familiar with the dangers of confronting blockade runners. Seven weeks earlier, the Putnam’s commanding officer, Acting Master Hotchkiss had been killed in a skirmish on the Piankatank River.
The third Navy gunboat was the Stepping Stones, a 226-ton side wheel steamer. She began life in 1861 as a wooden ferry boat in New York, purchased almost immediately by the Navy.
The Ceres was a 150-ton, 108-foot-long side wheel merchant steamer, built in 1856 and bought by the Navy in 1861. She drew a little over six feet and could make nine knots. The Navy armed her with one 30-pounder rifle and one 32-pounder. She spent the entire war along the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina; her frequent engagements killed several of her crew.
The officers of every Navy ship were (and are) required to keep a “deck log,” which records important events around the clock, every day of the year. The quality of these log entries in 1863 was, unfortunately, variable.

The Army’s Ships

During the Civil War, the U. S. Army operated hundreds of ships, almost all on the rivers and narrow coastal waters. They did not sail out upon the deep blue water oceans; that was always the Navy’s job. Nine army ships operated with Wistar’s expedition, sharing with the Navy the goal of destroying the Confederate blockade runners.
The Young Rover was a 370-ton steam bark, armed with one 12-pounder rifle and four 32-pounder cannons. She was described by Lt. Cmdr. J. H. Gillis as “almost worthless for this duty, as, with a good breeze, she can not make over four or five knots … owing to her bottom being so foul; and her boiler is so far gone that her steam power is not sufficient to be of any use.” The Smith Briggs displaced 288 tons; we have no other information on her.
The Samuel Rotan was an 110-foot wooden center-board schooner, purchased by the Navy in 1861 and fitted with two 32-pounders. (A reference work, The Army’s Navy, lists a Sam Ruatan, a 43-ton screw tug. The reports of Wistar’s raid seem to confuse the two.)
The Maple Leaf, three months earlier, had had an unusual event. She had been carrying 97 captured Confederate officers. They took over the ship and sailed themselves to freedom, leaving behind the 600-ton Maple Leaf.
The General Jesup was officered and manned by the 99th New York Infantry, which was organized in 1861 as a “Naval Brigade.” Jesup was a 150-ton side wheel steamer. The Flora Temple was an 85-ton gunboat, and the C. P. Smith was a 104-ton tug, converted to a gunboat.
Unlike the Navy ships, the army ships did not keep deck logs, at least none ever arrived at the National Archives. Thus, we can trace the army’s ships only as mentioned in Navy records or in the reports of the land forces. Above, I have established the Union “Order of Battle.” Now we will attempt to recreate a chronology of Wistar’s raid.

October 5, 1863

General Wistar, with his infantry, cavalry, and artillery, left Yorktown at five in the morning. The cavalry went directly forward to Gloucester Court House and seized all the roads leading into the Mathews peninsula, detaining all persons on those roads. By nightfall, the infantry and artillery had arrived at the North River-Piankatank River narrows of the peninsula, and set up roadblocks.
At 930 that same morning, the Commodore Jones, Lt. Cmdr. Gillis commanding), the Stepping Stones (Campbell [rank unknown] commanding), and the Army gunboat General Jessup got under way, after picking up two white men and two contrabands, which had deserted from the rebels. At 12:30 p.m., the Commodore Jones stopped in Mobjack Bay to communicate with the steamers Young Rover and General Putnam. At 7 p.m. the Commodore Jones came to off the East River, spoke to the steamer Ceres and went up river, anchoring in five fathoms of water. At 8:45 p.m. Commodore Jones sent a cutter with sixteen armed men up the East River on a reconnaissance.
The Stepping Stones entered Mobjack Bay at 9 a.m. and that evening went two miles up the East River and “grounded.” There she “took on an Army signal officer.” This would have been Signal Corps Lt. Sylvester B. Patridge. He began the war as a sergeant in the 92nd New York, and ended the war brevetted captain, for “gallant and meritorious service.”

October 6, 1863

At daylight, Colonel Spear’s cavalry broke into detachments. “During the 6th, 7th, and 8th instant, every work, corner, creek, and landing place was visited … the country is full of forage, plenty of corn and fodder, and some oats. Sheep, poultry and poor cattle abound.”
Very early in the morning, the Commodore Jones heard “rapid firing down stream,” and got under way. At the mouth of the river, she fired one shell from the 50- pounder Hotchkiss gun. She then sent a cutter out twice during the morning and at noon. Lookouts spotted a large body of cavalry. That day, the Commodore Jones captured three horses, three pigs, and one prisoner. The Stepping Stones received five prisoners, three of rebel cavalry and two from the rebel naval service. All of the Union forces communicated by means of flag signals.

October 7, 1863

The cavalry continued their searches, while the infantry and artillery continued to control the narrows. The Commodore Jones was still in the East River, where her cutter returned with ten guerrillas, captured by the cavalry. At 4 p.m., she departed the East River and by 6 p.m. was anchored in the North River, near the Stepping Stones. Her sadly inadequate deck log merely notes, “received two citizens.”

October 8, 1863

In the morning, all ships were ordered to return to Yorktown and had done so by late afternoon. The land forces also began their return to Yorktown.

After Action Reports

Five men filed reports. Maj. Gen. John G. Foster wrote to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, giving a summary of the Union forces involved and stating, “The Navy gun boats Commodore Jones, Putnam, and Stepping Stones, and four army gunboats, under command of Major Stevenson, held the avenues of escape afforded by the numerous rivers which intersect this country. The infantry and artillery, under General Wistar, were disposed so as to hold the neck of the county, and the cavalry, under Colonel Spear, were sent to make a thorough examination of the country, which was thoroughly and well done. About 150 boats and schooners were destroyed, 80 head of beef cattle en route to Richmond were captured, and some four persons were taken. The “coast guard” had, however, gone to the Eastern Shore, in their boats, and I have sent two Army gunboats and a detachment of troops to endeavor to catch them there. Our casualties consist of only one man killed, who was murdered by a bushwhacker named Smith. This man Smith, being caught in the act, was tried by drumhead court-martial and immediately hanged. General Wistar speaks in high terms of praise of the marching, discipline, cheerfulness, and obedience of the Fourth Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops.”
On October 9, Wistar wrote to Col. Southard Hoffman. Foster’s Assistant Adjutant General about the results of the raid. “About 150 boats and sloops were destroyed, some 80 head of beef cattle, out of a drove of 150 belonging to the Confederate Government and en route for Richmond, were captured and brought in, and are now being issued in rations by the post commissary. A few horses and arms were taken, and about 100 prisoners more or less connected with illicit trade were arrested, but I deemed it best to discharge all except those whom I forward today with descriptive rolls. Sixteen of my men were brought back sick in the gun boats. One man was murdered by a bushwhacker named Smith, who was promptly hung, being taken in the act.
“No other loss of men or property was suffered by us … I am sure our visit has produced the best effect on the population. No more robbing or pilfering what ever was allowed, and no house inclosure was entered except by officers or non-commissioned officers. To this I regret to say there was, however, an exception on the part of the navy gunboats, whose crews were in some cases landed without authority from me, and acted shamefully and disgracefully. In at least one instance an officer was present consenting.
“I cannot too highly commend Colonel Spear’s cavalry, and the services of that active and judicious officer were invaluable. Major Stevenson, commanding army gunboats, carried out his orders promptly and judiciously in all respects. The Negro infantry marched better than any old troops I ever saw. On two days they marched thirty miles a day without a straggler or a complaint, and were ready for picket, patrol, or detachment duty at night. Not a fence rail was burned or a chicken stolen by them. They seem to be well controlled and their discipline, obedience, and cheerfulness, for new troops, is surprising, and has dispelled many of my prejudices.”
Maj. John S. Stevenson, 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery, filed a very brief report. This’ is the entire text: “Succeeded in capturing 4 rebel naval officers, some of the crew, some 75 head of cattle. Destroyed a large number of boats of all descriptions, but did not find the boats on wheels.”
Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, published long after the war, had this to say about the participation of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “The regiment went on an expedition by water to Mathews County, Virginia, for the purpose of suppressing contraband trade and returned [to Camp Getty, three miles from Portsmouth] at the end of eight days.”
Lt. Partridge, noted earlier, filed a most informative report, illuminating the communications necessary in combined operations. “On the 4th instant, I received orders from General Wistar to report for duty to Lieutenant Commander Gillis, also to order Lieutenant Tuckerman to report to Colonel Spear … and to place a sergeant on board the army tug Smith Briggs, commanded by Major Stevenson of the Third Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. On the following morning, I went with one man on board Captain Gillis’s boat (the Jones), and we steamed down, with the fleet of gun boats and army tugs, to Mobjack Bay, where I was transferred to the gunboat Stepping Stones, Captain Campbell, as that was the lightest draught boat, and would proceed farthest inland on the small rivers. We proceeded about 7 miles up the North River and anchored.
“On the sixth instant, we communicated by flag signals, through Lieutenant Tuckerman, with General Wistar, who was about 3 miles distant, with the land force of artillery and infantry. We received orders to proceed no further up the river, but to remain at anchor until further orders. During the day we received on board five prisoners, three from the cavalry and two from the navy of the rebel service Whenever General Wistar wished to convey orders to the gunboat, it was done by means of flag signals. Gun boats or army tugs were sent up all the principal rivers to protect the land force, and to intercept all of the enemy who might be cut off and attempt to escape. During the forenoon of the 8th instant, we received orders from General Wistar to call in the other boats and proceed immediately to Yorktown. After going down the river a few miles we saw the Smith Briggs, to which I communicated the orders by flag signals, and the fleet return to Yorktown in the afternoon. The cavalry proceeded to several miles into the interior, but I have not learned the result of their expedition.” [The preceding is all from the Official Reports, Series I, Volume 29, “Reports,” pages 205-208.]
The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 7, 1863 [Executive Documents, House of Representatives, volume 4, “Navy,” Government Printing Office, 1864, call number 1183] contains the orders setting in motion the Navy’s part of Wistar’s raid and the after action report of Lt. Cmdr. James H. Gillis, commanding the Commodore Jones. Like earlier documents, these are presented verbatim, in the belief that the men who were there can speak better than any present-day summarizer.
On October 3, 1863, 10:30 p.m., Acting Rear Admiral, S. P. Lee wrote to Lt. Cmdr. Gillis, “I send the Stepping Stones and Ceres to assist you. General Foster was on board today, and he informed me that the troops would leave Yorktown Sunday morning, and that the gunboats should leave there Monday morning to cooperate with them. A dispatch received from him at 10 o’clock tonight informs me that the troops and gunboats have gone. But for this change of plans, I should have had the Alert, now on picket duty, ready to join you. The general thinks the main point for the gun boats is up the North River, where there should be two navy and two army gun boats to cooperate with the troops. He thinks, if his troops are prepared, that the portion sent toward East River may embark in that river, and that there should be one Navy and one Army gunboat there, where, I understand, he would have some transports. The gun boats should go up this river as high as practicable, having due regard for the width of the stream and the exposure to sharp shooters and musketry. To prevent the escape of the rebels by water, the western bay shore and Piankatank should be guarded by gun boats. I will send the Ceres to Mobjack bay in the morning if a pilot can be obtained for her in that time.”
Lt. Cmdr. Gillis addressed the following report to Admiral Lee. “Off Yorktown, Virginia, October 8, 1863. Having made every arrangement with Brigadier General I. J. Wistar to cooperate with him in the movement against the enemy in Mathews County, having for its object the breaking up of an organization denominated the Marine Coast Guard, I started on the morning of the fifth instant for Mobjack Bay, accompanied by the naval gun boats Stepping Stones and Ceres, and the army gun boats General Jesup, Smith Briggs, C. P. Smith, Flora Temple, and West End. I had previously directed the General Putnam to meet me in Mobjack bay on that day.
“I directed Acting Lt. W. W. Kennison, in the Samuel Rotan, to cruise off the mouth of Horn harbor and Acting Master J. B. Studley, with the Young Rover, to cruise off the mouth of Milford Haven, both vessels to send out boats at night, and to use every effort and all vigilance to prevent the enemy making their escape by water, on the east side, while the Ceres, Acting Master Foster, cruised between New Point Comfort and the mouth of East river.
“I sent the Stepping Stones, Acting Master Campbell, up North River, and the General Putnam up East River to Williams’ wharf. Having made these dispositions of the naval vessels, I went up as far as the Piankatank with this vessel, and returned the same evening and went up East River, where I remained until the evening of the 7th instant, when the cavalry having all started on its return, I went around into North river and communicated with the Stepping Stones; and learning that no information had been received from General Wistar, that the expedition had started back, returned this morning to East River, where I could hear nothing more in regard to the movements of the troops. I remained there until 10 o’clock, when I became satisfied that there was no further need of my remaining in that place. I returned to Mobjack bay, found that the Smith Briggs and General Jesup had come around from the Piankatank and were on their way back to Yorktown. I ordered the Stepping Stones and Ceres to report at Yorktown, and returned with this vessel.
“While up East river there was sent on board this vessel twelve prisoners captured by the cavalry; they are now on board, but will be turned over to Brigadier General Wistar in the morning. There are also seven on board the Stepping Stones; they also will be turned over to General Wistar in the morning. There are four commissioned officers amongst the prisoners, besides several members of the Marine Coast Guard. A list of prisoners accompanies this. It has been found to be a very difficult matter to break up the organization, for the reason that as soon as our cavalry is seen approaching they (the rebels) take to the woods, and knowing every path find no difficulty in eluding pursuit in almost every instance.
“Two brothers by the name of Smith were caught, and one of them having fired upon and killed one of our cavalry, was summarily dealt with, having been hung by the order of General Wistar; the other was found at 12 o’clock at night, with a pair of pistols in his pockets, riding along the road, and upon being interrogated as to his business, said that he was out shooting crows; but his answer not being satisfactory, he was brought in, and his fate will probably be the same as that of his brothers; his house has been a regular rendezvous for the Coast Guard, and he has been extensively engaged in the blockade running business. In the house of a Mr. Tabb three compasses were found, probably belonging to the vessels recently captured in Wachapreague inlet. I have them on board. The leader of the band of pirates, a man by the name of Bell, had his headquarters at the house of Tabb; and I have no doubt but what I shall yet be able to capture him if he remains at that place.
“One large boat, pulling 12 oars, was captured; but in towing her, the stem [bow] was pulled out and she sank. Quite a number of canoes were destroyed, and I think that the expedition will have a good effect, as the impression has been left that it is the intention to send frequent expeditions down into that section.
“I learned on the morning I started that torpedoes had been planted in York River, opposite to Rowan’s Point, about 16 miles from this place, and also that they had been placed all along the York and Pamunkey rivers, at intervals between that place and the “White House,” and that all boats have been stopped from going up or down, until after the gun boats had gone up. A man by the name of Anderson, who lives on the York River, was heard to say that “the Yankee gun boats would not hereafter be able to go up and down the river as they have been in the habit of doing.” I shall try and take up the torpedoes.
“I have retained the Stepping Stones and Ceres until further orders from you. They would be very useful here indeed, the former vessel especially, as she is in every respect peculiarly fitted for the duty that would be required of her here, being of light draught, and consuming but a very small quantity of coal daily. Please inform me what disposition I shall make of the compasses.”
General Wistar died in 1905. His autobiography was published in a confidential printing in 1892, and in two later editions in 1914 and 1937. In the preface to this book, Wistar warned the reader that, “These notes have been written almost entirely from recollection as other occupations permitted and the memory of events long forgotten or confused could be recalled and arranged. Many circumstances not now recalled with sufficient clearness have been omitted, but those related are true, though no doubt inaccuracies respecting names, dates, and the sequence of small events, may in some cases have imposed themselves as the recollections of occurrences many of which are now so remote.” With this quite reasonable caveat lector in mind, let us look at page 424 and see what the old general recalled.
“The district of country under my command having been set in order and being well administered by active young subalterns detailed for the purpose, our troops were soon in position to beat up the enemy on his own ground, and some or all available troops were kept engaged in this work by expeditions of all arms, some of small consequence, and others taxing all resources at my disposal. In October (1863) such an expedition was made in force, for the purpose of breaking up a body known as the Confederate Coast Guard, to destroy the illicit trade and blockade running of some of the maritime counties, and generally to annoy the enemy, and draw away detachments from his main armies.
“With these objects, a force of infantry and artillery was marched from Gloucester northward, to and across the Piankatank near its head, advancing its patrols to the Rappahannock. At the same time two regiments of cavalry, under Colonel Spear, raked the Mathews County peninsula in its rear, while three gunboats assigned to me by Admiral Lee prevented escape by water. Pretty much the whole of the Coast Guard besides a small regiment of cavalry and other prisoners were captured, many small vessels brought off or destroyed, and a considerable number of arms, cattle and horses taken and brought in. The success was so complete that it received honorable mention in the Annual Report of the General in Chief of the army, and was transmitted to Congress by the Secretary of War. (Message of the President of the United States, to the two Houses of Congress at the commencement of the first session of the 38th Congress. Pages 22-23.)”

The Role of Fort Nonsense

Not one of the Union reports mentions the fort. Wistar and history seem to have passed it by. But all is not lost, because history is never complete.
Future expansion of our knowledge about Fort Nonsense and its role in history may come from some of the following sources:

• Archaeological studies.
• Local diaries and letters.
• The stories of Messrs. Tabb and Bell need investigation.
• Confederate records unknown to the author.
• Additional discoveries in the National Archives.
• Material in the Museum of the Confederacy.
• Documents of the Revolutionary War

Although the soil of Fort Nonsense was not soaked in blood, as was the case with so many other wartime forts, its relationship with the brave and resourceful Southern sympathizers of Mathews County will retain its significance for generations to come.

Some Notes on Discipline in the Union Navy

Most men in the Union Navy were there to dodge the draft, or from economic desperation, or from being signed up drunk in a saloon. Few were patriots. This unpleasant story is fully documented in Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War, in a 2004 book by Michael J. Bennett. It certainly relates to Wistar’s note that the only Union misbehavior was by the Navy crews.
This author and his wife Beverly have read the 1,440 court-martials held in the Union Navy, 1861-1865. We will relate here the trials generated aboard the vessels named in Wistar’s raid. Not all of these trials occurred in early October 1863.
Commodore Jones. Landsman John McCormick deserted and tried to join the Rebels. He received ten years in prison. Seaman Thomas Williams also attempted to join the Rebels and also got ten years in prison. Both men said they had just gone off to have a drunk. Landsman John Hale deserted at Norfolk and got ten years in prison. The Yorktown Cavalier reported on October 12, 1863, “On Friday evening last, three sailors, belonging to the gunboat Commodore Jones, visited the contraband [freed slaves] camp, outside the fort, and one of them entered a home in which there was a female, who seems to have been the principal object of attraction, his companions remaining at the door. A party of Negroes soon collected, some of them bearing arms, and attacked the sailors.
The two who remained outside the building made a precipitate retreat and escaped uninjured, but the other, in passing out the door, was shot in the side, causing almost immediate death. We are unable to learn his name.
The sailors were intoxicated. The Negro who fired the fatal shot is unknown to the authorities and is still at large.” The contraband camp was usually known as Slabtown. The ship’s log gave this description: “Theodore Johnson, Landsman, shot by Negroes at Greeleytown on the night of the 9th October 1863.”
General Putnam. 2nd class fireman John Dolan was found in an oyster saloon, convicted of attempted desertion, and given six months in prison.
“Have mercy on me. I have been in double irons for seven months in a place too small to lie down, awaiting trial.” Seaman Charles Heery deserted at Norfolk and was sent to two years in prison. “I just went ashore to have a spree.”
Ordinary Seaman John Brusher was violently drunk and struck an officer with a pestle. Brusher got fifteen years in prison. Landsman Thomas Kearney, a veteran of two prior years in the army, deserted at Norfolk and got two years in prison.
“I went to Baltimore to see my mother.” Acting Master H. H. Savage was accused of sodomizing a teenage messenger, James Johnson. “He used me like a woman … five or six times.” Testimony described Johnson as “perfectly useless” and “malicious.” Savage was acquitted.
Stepping Stones. Acting Master’s Mate Joseph Reid was tried for striking Negro contraband, James Kenny, with his fist. Kenny testified against Reid, who was acquitted.
Ceres. Seaman William Sullivan stabbed his friend, Daniel Hughes, in the ribs and in the groin. Sullivan was sentenced to two years in prison, but the trial board suggested clemency, because it was “just an ordinary Fourth of July brawl.”


The author wishes to thank DeAnne Blanton, Carlton P. Brooks III, Diane K. Depew, Rebecca Livingston, Beverly A. Lowry, Michael P. Musick, Jack D. Welsh and Vonnie Zullo for valuable assistance.