The Civil War in AmericaThe Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1132, p. 200.
(From our Special Artist and Correspondent.)
On the evening of the day on which I dated my last letter from the Picket we arrived at Fortress Monroe, accompanied by most of the ships composing the Burnside expedition, only half a dozen or so being delayed by the fog. The latter joined the fleet on the following morning in Hampton Roads, with the exception of the John Trucks, which had got on shore in the Chesapeake, and had not been got off up to the time of our leaving; she had the Epeneuil Zouaves on board. There has been so much said of Fortress Monroe by others at various times during the present campaign, and especially by Mr. Russell, that there is little or nothing left for me to bore your readers with in reference to this famous American stronghold. Neither have I made you a sketch of the place, which is singularly inappropriate for illustration, being nothing more than an intrenched camp on a low spit of sand, but immensely strong for all that. Besides, we spent but little time there, and that was all confusion of preparation for departure for our unknown destination. The secret had been well kept. Not a soul, except the General-in-Chief and perhaps Commodore Gouldsborough, had an inkling of our feuille de route, though manifold were the conjectures of those with whom I was thrown in contact. I heard every place mentioned, from Galveston, in Texas, up to the York River and the Rappahannock, and some even supposed we were bound up the Potomac to clear out the Confederate batteries at Evansport and Shipping Point. But this state of uncertainty was not to last long, as the officer commanding the troops on each ship had sealed orders given him, which were to be opened after getting six miles to sea. Well, we arrived, as I have said, at the place of rendezvous off Fortress Monroe, on the evening of the 10th inst., and we weighed anchor on the following night at 11 p.m. My vessel was the Picket, a screw, the smallest in the fleet, on which General Burnside had established his head-quarters, much against the wish of every one, for, although she was perfectly new, her proportions were scarcely those of a ship fitted to cope with a heavy sea. Before leaving there were all kinds of discomfiting prognostications about the weather. Old pilots shook their heads end prophesied north-easters; anxious groups surrounded the barometer and reported it going down rapidly, while evil crokers foretold worse disasters than happened to Sherman's expedition on its way to Port Royal. But matters had been already delayed too long, and so it was anchor apeak and away despite ancient mariners and mercurial oracles. As I had been invited to accompany the General, and had accepted, of course we rowed in the same boat; where he went there should I go; but I must confess I should have preferred his choosing a large steamer instead of the mite of a cockleshell we were embarked in. Well, when we had got six miles down the roads towards Cape Henry, the General gave instructions to our Captain to shape his course for Hatteras, and then, for the first time, I became aware of our destination. We were to pass over the bulkhead of Pamlico Sound and attack the Confederate position at Roanoke Island; and, if successful in this, to advance on New Berne, and thus form a basis from which to make approaches towards the centre of North Carolina, occupying the different lines of rails, and cutting off the communications of the Secessionists on the Potomac with the Southern seaboard States. To do this we had a force of something like 16,000 men, and a fleet of a hundred transports and store-ships, including fourteen or fifteen small river steamers fitted as gun-boats to act in shallow water.
Woe is me! There was more in the prognostications of the old pilot and barometer than we were willing to admit, for on rounding Cape Henry we got into the trough of a real Atlantic sea, and found the breeze rapidly freshening into a gale. For a moment we all thought we were going to "turn turtle," and I, who had just laid down on a couch in the deck-cabin, was hurled against the door, which burst open with the concussion and shot me through it into the lee scuppers, where I rolled about in six or eight inches of the wholesome briny. At the present moment I am greatly confused as to the evolutions we performed in that one great lurch, followed, alas! by many after ones; but I cannot help thinking we stood on the funnel for at least five minutes. When at last I collected my battered remains together I found a party of anxious, lightly-clad, shivering individuals holding on to stanchions and ropes. However, the captain got her head to it and matters were somewhat improved, and the little Picket struggled forward very much after the fashion that some gentlemen do returning home late from a dinner party. I groped my way back to my couch over the ruins of the steward's crockery, and, by a judicious use of padding, succeeded in wedging myself in tight, and so slept soundly till morning.
Day dawned with a thick fog hod a heavy swell on. Now and then the misty veil would rise and give us occasional glimpses of the coast of North Carolina, arid, uninviting, end desolate in appearance: nothing more than a succession of hummocks of sand, jotted here and there with the skeleton timbers of many good ships cast away on the inhospitable shore. Towards evening the wind blew a perfect gale from S.S.W., making the eating of one's dinner exceedingly problematical. The only way of taking in supplies was to hold on by one hand and watch the opportunity of feeding with the other. Two of the party, after the first spoonful of soup, betrayed unmistakable signs of a loathing of food, causing "the steward to hasten with the necessary basin ;" but, with the characteristic obstinacy of people attacked with their complaint, they repudiated anything being the matter with them, and, by delaying their exit till the supreme moment, overreached themselves and those sitting beside them.
Oh dear! I wish there were no such things as naval expeditions for correspondents to go upon. Before I get through with this letter I shall have to relate experiences that will make your readers think I am romancing; and this suspicion will hardly repay me for the misery I have endured during the last fortnight. Not a day has passed that it has not blown a gale, diversified by an occasional hurricane and a wreck or two. But belay there! as we nautical men say, and let me spin my yam in a methodical manner. Well, as I was saying, towards evening it blew a gale of wind, and then we found out our mistake in going to sea in a little river steamer like the Picket. The only good that the gale did us was to blow away the fog-banks that ever and anon enveloped us in their damp and opaque folds, giving us a chance to judge our whereabouts. But, alas! it also brought us many ills. The "white horses" raced madly over the ever-increasing mounds of green water that piled themselves on our bows, a heaving barrier to our progress. Vainly the little vessel dipped and staggered forward; before she could rise to one sea another would strike her and send her reeling back, spars and hull trembling from each successive blow. We had barely sufficient power to keep her head to it, and, as all hands held on, there were many anxious glances at the coming wave, speeding along as though it would engulf us on its way. About midnight we saw the lights of a steamer half a mile distant on our port bow, and to attract the attention of those on board we fired a shotted gun astern of her, which had the effect of bringing her within speaking distance. She turned out to be the Eastern Queen, a large ship belonging to the expedition; and, as she rose and fell within crushing proximity, we hailed her Captain to lie by us till daylight. Not a soul on board closed their eyes in sleep during the long dark hours that waned not. Once I thought we were gone, for, while clutching the after-davits, I found myself buried in the sea up to my waist, the gunwales rolling completely under. In that one moment I recollected the most trivial occurrences of my earliest boyhood; thirty years of unimportant existence flashed through my mind. But this mental biography was brought to an abrupt termination by the return jerk of the vessel, which wrenched me from my hold and deposited me, with a bruised head, amongst a pile of ammunition-boxes. Day broke with a leaden sky, against which the angry, white-crested waves raced their mad career over the reefs of Cape Hatteras, that threw its headland oceanwards but eight miles distant. From our hurricane-deck fourteen steamers could be seen labouring to weather this storm-point. How should we fare with our small-powered engine and cockleshell boat? Bravely we breasted on, staggering beneath the giant blows of each successive sea, our decks swept fore and aft, and all on board reeling from side to side like drunken men. One figure stood immovable grasping by the bits, scanning the horizon for traces of ships as we rose on each glittering mass of foam. It was the square, manly form of General Burnside, whose anxiety for the fate of his army was intense, many of the vessels on which the troops were embarked being nothing more than huge top-hampered river steamers, with projecting guards that would smash up like cardboard if fairly struck by a sea. But, happily, as we and the day advanced, more wreathy lines of smoke indicated the approach of others of the fleet; and oh, good fortune! by 11 a.m. we had weathered the cape and were hove to off Hatteras Bar, waiting for the little black tug-boat that was steaming out to pilot us in. Without exaggeration, I may state the height of the breakers through which the narrow channel ran to have been nearly, if not quite, twenty feet, with a depth of thirteen feet in the deepest part. The Picket was the first to venture over, closely followed by the Peabody and Eastern City, and having on her starboard quarter the pilot-tug. So awful was the entourage of hissing breakers, and so certain our destruction should we yaw off but a point or two either way, that this was probably the most hazardous period of our tempestuous voyage. The Sketch I send (engraved on page 187) is faithful to the truth, and will better illustrate our position than anything I can express in writing. By midday we were over and at anchor in Pamlico Sound, under shelter of a spit of sand which up to the present constitutes the entire Federal department of North Carolina. On this land, partially submerged at high water, are built the forts captured by Commodore Stringham and General Butler last August or early in September, I forget which; but to my mind the greatest harm that could have been done the Confederates would have been to leave them quietly in possession of this God-forsaken spot. Please, as the showman says, to turn to the other Sketch (engraved on page 186), and judge for yourself if such a place is fit for habitation by aught save clams and muscles. But the occupation has been of great advantage to the Federal Government, as it has effectually placed a seal upon the outlets of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, shutting in the few vessels the Southerners have dans ces parages.
It was on the 18th inst. that we cast our anchor in the waters of Secessia, fourscore vessels drifting and crashing into each other in a harbour, if so it can be designated, scarcely large enough to float a dozen comfortably. At one moment the little Picket had three huge floating barracks blown on to her in a heap, making it extremely probable we should drag to sea together and go to pieces on the bar. Everybody on board worked with a will; axes and hand-spikes were in every hand, assisting to clear away the surrounding wreck; and your correspondent as he sprang for the chains of the Northerner, grasping a fender to ease off the shock as she closed in, missed his footing, and was only rescued from being flattened out like a pancake by the activity of some soldiers who dragged him up the side a second before the collision took place.
The great difficulty to be contended against in the harbour is the shallowness of the water, except in certain places, and in these the ships are wedged together, with scarcely room to swing, and with the rush of the tide out from the Sound, or in from the ocean, assisted by incessant gales of wind, there is hardly a minute of the day that some vessel does not come to grief. About a mile up is the bulkhead, formed by a ridge of sandbanks, over which the gunboats and transports of lighter draught have to pass before they can advance to the attack of Roanoke Island. I foresee even now, though many are over (all the gun-boats are) that there will be great difficulty about this, for the vessel on which I am writing is stuck hard and fast, and thumping and humping in a howling northeaster. In answer to our signals for assistance the Commodore, who has come down to take command of the naval portion of the expedition, replies that nothing at present can be done for us, as it is dangerous, and we must wait for the weather to moderate before any attempt can be made to relieve us. This is a very pleasant state of affairs, considering we have only four casks of water in the hold and no means of communicating with the store-ships. Fortunately we put our troops ashore to lighten us before attempting to cross, otherwise we should have been in a very bad condition indeed. I hope our timbers are sound and well riveted together, else I may expect to disappear through the floor beneath me, after the fashion of a pantomime trick, during one of the thumps. By-the-by, as I have digressed, I may as well mention here that General Burnside has changed his quarters from the Picket, and we are now on board a large steamer called the Guide. On the 14th, the day after our arrival, the City of New York struck on the bar, and in a short time became a total wreck (she is shown in the Illustration on page 186). Fortunately, the crew and those on board were saved in surf-boats, but three other poor fellows attempting to reach the harbour in a launch from a weather-bound vessel outside got capsized in the breakers, and sank before our eyes: the oarsmen, who, luckily, had on life-preservers, were picked up by a schooner. The three lost were the mate of the ship and the Colonel and Doctor of the New Jersey regiment. Among the disasters to be chronicled on this day is the sinking of the Zouave transport inside the inlet. She drifted on her anchor and stove in her bottom. Two or three tugs got round her and took off the men.
On the 15th we changed to the Guide, and had scarcely got on board when a barque came crashing into her stem on, driving her jibboom into our galley, and scattering the cooks and preparations for dinner. On the 16th the wind changed from a gale of wind from S.S.W. to a still harder blow from N.W., preventing us from making any progress with the lightening of the ships that were to cross the bulkhead. Measles were reported to have broken out on some of the transports, with a few cases of fever. At dark all hands were startled by the report of a heavy gun, and on reaching the hurricane-deck we saw a large brig drifting rapidly on to the bar. As it grew darker and her outline became less defined the excitement became intense. It was evident to all she was in a most critical position, and every moment might be her last. Slowly the black hull rose and fell, each time gliding nearer and nearer to the vortex of white breakers, which, once amongst, nothing we might attempt could save her. Suddenly a fringe of musketry fire surrounded her bulwarks, blue-lights were burnt in her tops, and imagination brought us through the howling blasts, the despairing shrieks of the terrified soldiers crowding her decks. Volley after volley succeeded each other in rapid succession, and yet apparently we could not help her; none dared face the tempest and, perhaps, share her doom. General Burnside boarded every steam-tug in the harbour; offered any reward, and also to go himself, but all held back. Were three hundred fellowmen to be launched into eternity, their death-cries in our ears, and yet no effort made to save them? Hurrah! one brave seaman volunteered to take his little steamer out, General Burnside jumped on board of her, but, at the earnest entreaties of his friends, he delegated the honour of the position to a member of his staff. Anxiously we watched her progress through the troubled waters, battling her way and wrestling with the waves as she advanced on her mission of mercy. Fortunately, she reached the bar before the brig had been thoroughly drawn into the breakers, and, getting a hawser to her, succeeded in rescuing her from her perilous position. When the steamer returned she had scarcely a vestige of bulwark or paddlebox left: all had been smashed and carried away by the force of the sea. In fact, each day has seen some narrow escape or bad disaster. There are at present four total wrecks and five or six vessels on shore, the last evil report being the loss of the Pocahontas, with ninety horses on board, twenty-five of which only were saved. The crew reached the shore by a warp.
With one exception, when it blew a topsail breeze, we have had a
continuous howl from all the points of the compass, making it next to
impossible to progress with the lightening of the vessels destined to
cross the bulkhead. Probably the greatest misfortune of all is the
non-arrival of six water-ships, on which we depended for supplies
after our ten days' rations had been consumed. The consequence is, the
entire fleet is on short allowance, with no immediate prospect of
relief, as in all probability the expected vessels have been lost
during the fearful hurricane that prevailed with unmitigated violence
for three days, and only ceased yesterday morning. During this time we
on board the Guide were thumping our bottom out on the bulkhead, and
have only just been got off, while at least a dozen other ships
displayed their colours, Union down. Most of these were suffering from
short allowance of everything, but no help could be given them till
the fury of the storm had abated. Our position was the most
problematical of all, as our safety simply depended on the strength of
the ship's timbers, and her power to endure the continuous straining
as she thumped from side to side in her bed of sand. This morning we have news of another wreck outside the spit. Numerous bodies have been washed on shore, but, as nothing remains of the vessel, we are ignorant whether
she belonged to the expedition or not. The probability is she is one of the missing water-schooners.
I have been here long enough to ascertain one fact, and that is, with a few exceptions, General Burnside is the only competent man in the expedition; and, from the personal respect and friendship I feel for him, I trust he is not going to be made the scapegoat of the apathy, supineness, and incompetency of others. The Commodore, whose duty it should have been to attend to everything connected with the sea transport of the troops, has shown himself but twice in the quarter-gallery of his ship, and each time with his hands thrust deeply into his pockets, gazing listlessly at ships running ashore or drifting into each other. General Burnside, on the contrary, has performed all the duties of a harbour-master, narrowly escaping being swamped on more than one occasion. Whenever a ship has been in distress the General has been the first man off to her assistance; and there is not a grade in his army that he has not filled during the last fortnight, so anxious is he for the wellbeing and comfort of his troops.
To-day is fine, and more steamers are working over the bulkhead; in all probability the first brigade, escorted by the gun-boats, will be on its way to Roanoke to-night. The General changes his quarters this afternoon to the Spalding, and I go with him. In a day or two, I presume, there will have been many heads broken; for, if we can believe the contrabands who make their way here hourly, preparations have been made to give us a warm reception. They tell us the Confederates have a dozen gun-boats and some powerful shore batteries mounted with l00-pounders. In our expedition there cannot be less than seventy or eighty guns afloat; and so I suppose when the entertainment commences there will be lots of noise made.
This letter leaves by a bearer of despatches, who has promised to mail it for me in Washington. My next will probably contain the account of a victory or a defeat, should nothing in the shape of shot or shell interfere with my pen or pencil.