Monday, January 22, 2007

The 48th Pennsylvania Day-By-Day: Life at Hatteras: November 1861-March 1862: Part One

Union Soldiers Arrive at Hatteras Island, NC
{Library of Congress}

In mid-November, 1861, after spending the past several weeks at Fortress Monroe, the 48th Pennsylvania arrived on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, where they remained for the next four months. “Our first impressions of Hatteras were not favorable,” wrote regimental historian Joseph Gould. After marching through ankle-deep sand and wading several bodies of water, the regiment arrived at their quarters in either Fort Clarke or Fort Hatteras. “Here the regiment settled, literally away from the rest of the world; left exposed to all the ills incident to such an inhospitable coast. . .” remembered Oliver Bosbyshell of Company G.

Life at Hatteras would not be easy, as many of the soldiers realized the very first night on Hatteras while trying to settle into camp. Captain Bosbyshell told of his struggle to put up his tent:

“Generally it was not a difficult matter for a soldier to pitch a tent. It would not have been difficult at Hatteras if the wind could have been subdued. Wind! Speaking of wind, do you remember how the wind blew at Hatteras? What a dreadful draft it was! Hark! its snapping the tent-fly now. It is a mighty, rushing torrent of air, sweeping continuously in furious blasts, with irresistible force—keen, sharp, penetrating, unrelenting in its terrific power, unabating in its fury—driving the sand into mouth, nose, eyes, ears and hair. ‘Twas such a wind greeted the pitching of the tents around Fort Clarke. The more the boys tugged and pulled to keep the tents upright, the more the wind seemed to howl, ‘You can’t! you shan’t!’ then it would come along with such a whack that every muscle had to be strained to keep the tent in place. Under these circumstances the ordinary Yankee got his blood up, and wind or no wind the tents had to go up, and at last, at last, they were secured. . . .To the sound of the flip, flap, flopping of the tent-flies, and ever roaring of the breakers, forgetfulness crept over the camp as each tent lodger snoozed calmly as a summer morn, when flop-whizz the corner of the tent blew up!. . . . Oh! to have a tent prove false upon a lone, barren isle, and, in the midst of a terrific rain storm, be obliged to face a Hatteras wind, with scant protection against its fury, frantically holding fast to the frail canvas house, waiting for a lull in the blast (vain hope) to afford an opportunity to repeg, is so overpoweringly harrowing to the feelings, and so indescribably uncomfortable, that it is only those who actually experienced it who fully understand its supreme misery.”

The soldiers had to get used to much more than just the gusty, coastal wind. Curtis Pollock wrote that the sand on Hatteras was “much like snow at home and you sink quite as deep into either.” The water, too, wrote Pollock was “very bad, some of it so salty that you can hardly drink it.” Perhaps worst of all was that the mail was “very irregular, only coming when a boat happens to come down from Fortress Monroe.”

The 48th Pennsylvania was not alone on Hatteras Island; there were a number of other regiments stationed there as well, including the 9th New York (Hawkins’ Zoauves, whom Joe Gould described as “brave to a fault, and not easily disciplined), the 89th New York, and the 11th Connecticut to name a few. And, of course, there were the local inhabitants. “Hatteras Island was, and possibly still is, inhabited by a hardy, raw-boned, tough-looking people, with rough, weather-beaten countenances, and possessed of a good stock of native shrewdness,” recorded Bosbyshell. “The women,” continued the Pottsville native, “are pale, frail, attenuated creatures, who apparently never grow old. Tradition has it that they gradually shrink up, and at some remote period are blown away. . . .A peculiar characteristic of the ladies of Hatteras is the dreadful habit of snuff-dipping, to which they are all, married or single, addicted. There’s a grace about this habit that almost amounts to an art. The female islander smokes also, and spits just like a man.”

Bosbyshell also took the time to record his thoughts on the local houses: “Every house on the island seems to have been built after the same model, by the same builder, and many hundreds years ago. They are all old, nothing modern at all in their appearance, square in shape, one story high, with a porch sliced into one corner, without cellars; not a house on the island enjoys this luxury, they cannot dig them; there are no foundation walls, because there are no stones to make them.” A fine layer of white sand covered all the floors, wrote Bosbyshell, and there was no wallpaper in the homes. But, interestingly enough, every home it seemed had an old grandfather clock ticking in the corner.

The worst aspect of life on Hatteras, the soldiers agreed, was neither the wind, the water, nor the loneliness. It was, instead, General Thomas Williams, commander of the post. A West Point graduate and career army man, Williams was a rigid and strict disciplinarian, and was thoroughly hated at first by the men of the 48th. Joseph Gould wrote that Williams was there just to “make our lives miserable.” Corporal Pollock wrote that the tough old martinet was “not at all liked, he is very pompous and struts around as if he was a king.” After a particularly rough day of drilling in the sand, Pollock told his mother in a letter he believed “that if some of the men had got a chance they would have murdered him they were so mad at him.” Oliver Bosbyshell was making an understatement when he said Williams “had few friends those early days on Hatteras.”

General Thomas Williams
{Warner, Generals in Blue}

After some time passed, however, and the regiment experienced forced marches and the sheer horror and destruction of combat, the soldiers began viewing Williams in a different light. Joseph Gould wrote: “Later we thought better of him as we grew older, and as we learned that the extra drills and discipline he enforced upon us did us a great amount of good when we were called upon to assume the heavy work attending the life we had chosen. . .” And Bosbyshell recorded that despite the regiment’s initial reaction to Williams, “as the weeks went by each day developed the fact that beneath the rough exterior and austere demeanor, beat a heart of true devotion to the old flag, a heart overflowing with love and regard for his soldiers. His strict discipline made the regiment a body of well-trained soldiers. Revering the flag with the feeling akin to holy awe, he sought to inculcate the same reverential feeling in the men, and whenever the standard was brought out the ceremonies attending its reception were of the most dignified and lofty character.”

Williams was shot and killed instantly at the battle of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August 1862. “[M]any were the expressions of sorrow from the boys of the regiment when news came of his death,” wrote Joe Gould.

By mid-December wooden barracks had been built, and the soldiers were enjoying these new quarters. Slowly, the attitudes of the soldiers about Hatteras would change. . . .

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