- Year Published: 1892
- Language: English
- Country of Origin: United States of America
- Source: Holder, E. (1892) At the Dry Tortugas During the War San Francisco, California: Californian Illustrated Magazine
- Flesch–Kincaid Level: 9.0
- Word Count: 8,522
Holder, E. (1892). “At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Part 3”. At the Dry Tortugas During the War (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved June 17, 2019, from
Holder, Emily. "“At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Part 3”." At the Dry Tortugas During the War. Lit2Go Edition. 1892. Web. <>. June 17, 2019.
Emily Holder, "“At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Part 3”," At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Lit2Go Edition, (1892), accessed June 17, 2019,.
On January 1, 1861, a rumor came that Mordaci, the owner of the Isabel, had offered her to Carolina for a man-of-war, our mail contract going with her.
There was a cloud on the horizon that looked larger than a man’s hand, and it affected our spirits. People began to be suspicious of their neighbors. Those who claimed to be Northern sympathizers owned their Water was not a great consideration, with so large a garrison; and at this time the men were put on an allowance, it became so low. Fortunately we had the unusual occurrence of some hard rains and thunder-storms; and for a time the supply was sufficient.
All events were of consequence and even of importance to us, and without realizing that it helped to break the monotony of what would have been otherwise a very monotonous existence!
The building of the works had been suspended on the other Keys, as the feeling of security increased with our reinforcement of guns and troops.
We had a little excitement in the form of a suspicious-looking schooner that came in ostensibly in distress. Both topmasts were gone, and she was nearly out of provisions and water. Her captain said they ran the blockade; but they had secession passports, although they claimed to be fleeing from the rebels. Colonel Brooks ordered Captain Morton with four soldiers to go on board, after the captain had been put in confinement. They found two ladies and other passengers amounting to twenty people. Captain Morton said the ladies gave him their keys so pleasantly it made him quite ashamed of his duty. One trunk was very nicely packed with a hoop-skirt and a revolver in the bottom. They found the log-book notes very suspicious, besides their passports; but Colonel Brooks allowed them to go to Key West, sending a schooner after them to see if they went there or to Dixie again.
The command at that time consisted of one company of regulars under Captain Langdon, and four companies of volunteers,—Wilson’s zouaves. Some of the latter were without doubt very questionable characters; and, as the officers had been chosen from among themselves, the matter of discipline had been so far rather a surprise to us.
There had been an order issued at headquarters that any soldier found intoxicated would be tied up. There had been no trouble, as in such isolated places that could be more easily managed;; yet the fishermen sometimes brought whiskey and smuggled it ashore, selling it to the men. But a vessel came in with stores; and some whiskey was carried to the commissary for safe-keeping while the soldiers were unloading the cargo.
We were going out rowing about half-past seven, when we heard a gun fired by one of the sentinels. Some men were seen running away with whiskey, the result being that on our return an hour later, as we came through the sally-port, a man was being tied up. As the officers passed him he called, “Tie me tighter.”
We had been in our quarters but a few moments when there was a great uproar, a call for the guard, screaming, shouting and running from all parts of the fort toward the guardhouse.
Captain Morton, who had walked up to the quarters with us, hurried down, fearing there might be trouble with the engineers.
By the time we heard the call for Company M, the regulars; and the noise, which was still increasing, was most terrifying. We could hear the men loading their muskets, as they were in the casemates near the house, and saw them go down “double quick”. Then followed more derisive yells, and for a few seconds it was quiet. We in the quarters knew nothing of the cause of the disturbance, as no one had returned. They left us with orders to stay indoors; that there would probably be no trouble. The order we could obey; but the statement we felt, with pale faces I dare say, was to be proven.
My husband had left us at the wharf to visit his hospital outside. A detachment came “double quick” to the bastion at the other corner of the quarters, bringing out a field-piece, which in a few moments was put in a position to command the building occupied by the volunteers; and in a short time Captain Morton returned, telling us that the company in which the man belonged who was tied up rushed in and cut him down in defiance of the guard, then ran to their quarters for their guns, and were in open mutiny. But by that time Captain Langdon had his guard ready, and told them if they advanced he should give the order to fire. They hesitated, held a consultation among themselves, evidently realizing that the Fifth Artillery was not to be trifled with, and finally retired to their quarters, there calling out for all or any one to come in at their peril. After awhile some parleying was done; but they refused to come out and deliver up their guns, and were still abusive, calling upon any one who dared to come in, and they would fight him.
Colonel Brooks was a short man and rather slight, but not wanting in bravery. He handed his sword to an officer, and unarmed walked into the building,—full of infuriated half-drunken men,—an act requiring no small amount of courage; for I doubt if you find in any volunteer soldiers that instinctive fealty to the officer which seems to be natural to the regular troops. On the other hand these rough, reckless men had something in their natures that immediately responded to so bold an act. They cheered lustily for the “little Colonel”, and after a good deal of bluster and talk settled down and became quiet.
A picket was formed, and forty of Company M’s men put on guard; and toward the small hours people settled down for the night. I think if some of the ladies had told the truth the next morning, they would have admitted to having slept with one eye open. In the early morning the mutineers were brought up in squads by the guard and ordered to stack their guns in front of the commanding officer’s quarters. Then they were taken back to the guardhouse, where the guns were examined to see whose were loaded, and were restacked. The prisoners were then brought up again, six at a time, to take their guns. In that way they found out whose were loaded. Some of the guns had evidently had the charge hurriedly withdrawn; and some even tried to evade taking the ones that belonged to them.
Our windows were on the same floor; and we could see them through the blinds. There were two or three most desperate-looking fellows. They were placed in close confinement; and it proved such a salutary lesson to the others that we had no further trouble. But I often wondered how it would have resulted had there been no regular troops there; for the zouaves were men enlisted in New York City, some of the most undisciplined, dangerous characters, who under the influence of liquor would be desperate and uncontrollable. Some of the workmen were little better. Both together, had they combined forces, might have been dangerous.
The following Sunday at dress parade the prisoners were brought up by the guard, the companies forming about them while the adjutant read to them the army laws. Two of them bore such a defiant manner while the officer was reading, that it was with a feeling of satisfaction and security that we learned that they would be kept behind the bars during the remainder of their stay on the island.
The 2nd of March, 1862, brought many changes to the Dry Tortugas. A transport arrived with a new regiment-the Seventh New Hampshire-and with orders for the Wilson’s Zouaves to be transferred to Fort Pickens, up the Gulf and nearer the seat of actual hostilities. This change of command brought its excitement and the garrison was in confusion for several days.
There had never been more than five or six companies on the island at one time, and there were no accommodations for more, yet here came a full regiment of one thousand men and the question, “Where should they be quartered?” was a serious one. The parade was quickly converted into an impromptu camp-ground; tents were pitched, guns stacked, and, as if by magic, camp-fires appeared with men sitting around eating, their knapsacks serving as tables, or reading the letters they found awaiting them. All were evidently delighted to be on shore even though the island was not larger than one of their fields at home in New Hampshire.
The bastion was near our house, into which we had moved a short time previous, was turned into a temporary kitchen for one Company, and the call we heard daily, “Fall in Company I!” may recall to some the mystery and joke that for several days surrounded it.
As they marched up, ninety strong stalwart men, each with his shining tin cup and plate, suggestive of a New England kitchen, they still bore the air of the farm and their rugged hills, despite the gilt buttons and army blue, and we felt instinctively that we need have no further fear of mutiny and that the drilling they would undergo would make them, in a short time, a regiment the army would be proud of.
The scene in the moonlight, looking down from the ramparts upon their white tents among the mangrove trees, was charming, if one could forget that this same picture in another place must later mean a camp-ground with a battle field not far distant, blood, carnage, the whistling of cannon balls and the “zip” of the bullet, and broken hearts and homes.
The regiment came in two detachments, several days intervening. The last steamer ran aground on one of the islands, creating some little excitement in the garrison as the Union, a small steamer, “wrecked” and brought them in. Colonel Putnam of the New Hampshire Regiment was a descendant of the Putnam’s of Revoluntionary fame and looked well worthy the name-a remarkably handsome man of commanding appearance, idolized, as we found, by his officers and men.
Following their arrival came exciting news. A steamer arrived, bringing accounts of the fall of Nashville and the capture of ten thousand prisoners and the encounter of the Merrimac and Monitor, at which enthusiasm among the troops broke all bounds. Much to our regret, the next day, Dr. Hammond and Colonel Brooks took their departure. The companies of the latter’s regiment formed a double row for him to pass through, and as he went on board the steamer a salute was fired; then the troops marched up on to the ramparts and stood until the steamer passed the workmen, who were there also giving him three rousing cheers, while flags were waved. And so we lost our brave “little Colonel.”
We were not yet to settle down quietly. The next mail brought orders for Captain Morton to go to the front-a move which delighted him but which was a great blow to us. He was a very dear friend, and it was with sorrow we bade him good-bye, little dreaming that his career was so soon to be ended.
The temporary hospital tent for the regiment was not far from our house and as it overflowed, my husband offered them half of his engineer hospital outside the fort until they were settled in one of their own. Some of the men were ill on their arrival, having been taken when about half way out from New York.
One day as my husband passed through the ward containing the patients of the New Hampshire Regiment, he saw something that startled him, and calling the surgeon out he asked him what was the matter with his men. The latter replied that they had colds and some fever.
“but what is that eruption?”
“Nothing serious I think,” replied the surgeon.
An examination, however, resulted in its being pronounced smallpox.
Our fright for a while was, to say the least, rather in the nature of a panic. The new cases were sent to Bird Key and put in tents; but, fortunately, the disease was confined to the regiment, none of the other men taking it. There were only about forty cases in all and six or eight deaths.
To add to the unpleasantness at this time, we were again put upon a short allowance of water. It would have been a sorry report to send to Washington of fourteen hundred people on a short allowance of water, with smallpox in their midst, confined on that island and a few barren keys at the beginning of summer. Colonel Putnam sent to New York for water condensers, so that we could have the cistern water for cooking, and was making ready a schooner to send to Havana for water, as they were as badly off in Key Wet as we were, having only sufficient for twenty-four hours, with three thousand troops besides the citizens, and having already sent to Havana to buy water, when the heavens opened and our cisterns were filled.
When it rained we felt, as some one expressed it, as though we were above the strainer, so solid did it come down. The condensers when they arrived were put in use to fill the cisterns with fresh water in case of fire on the works. It was astonishing how much more water one required when on an allowance.
The steamer Nightingale, a gunboat, now came in, staying long enough to give us great pleasure in the society of Doctor R———-, who knew so many friends that we were soon on the footing of old acquaintances. I remember his bidding us good-bye, one Saturday evening as the steamer was going out to the buoy at night, to start early the next morning. But Sunday morning before we were down stairs we heard his voice calling to us that he had fifteen minutes to spare and he had rowed in to say good-bye again. In those times and with our peculiar environments, we formed strong attachments, especially if the people came from New England.
That week brought my sister after a long visit in Key West. It was like a bit of home to us and every addition to our circle of ladies, brought new life and pleasures to all. We had a variety of musical talent among the men. The regiment had a band, and there were some excellent performers on stringed instruments among the colored boys who were always ready for a serenade or to go on the water. Our little amusements were good for all. They prevented the officers from being as restless as they usually were when news of victories came and they felt that others were having all the glory while they were idling away their time in this out-of-the-way place.
News was always late and often fragmentary, leaving much that we could not fill in. We heard of the battle of Shiloh and the capture of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, and on the 6th of May report reached us of the capture of New Orleans on the 25th of the preceding month. The news came the evening that Mrs. A——- was giving a dancing party, and the exuberant spirits of the officers made the affair an unusually pleasant one.
A trip to Loggerhead Key was our longest outing, the farthest we could go and feel within our own domain. The Key which was three miles distant had a fine light-house upon it, and the keeper and his wife always gave us a welcome and possession of the house. The island was a mile long and a little more than a quarter of a mile wide, covered with prickly pear and mangrove bushes. It was a favorite haunt for the turtles in their laying season, and our most exciting expeditions were at those times, for the turtles chose moonlight nights. We took three boats, with music for dancing and supper, making a grand frolic of the occasion.
After supper, enjoyed in the lighthouse living-room, the ample kitchen was converted into a ball-room and dancing indulged in until it was nearly time for the turtles to come up when, taking our shawls and wraps, we started for the beach. Dividing up into parties of six we stationed ourselves like a picket along the shore, not daring to speak aloud, as the least disturbance would alarm the turtles and deter them from coming on shore.
The nights were superb and so warm and dry that one could sleep with impunity in the open air, if they chose, during the waiting; but the excitement of watching for a ripple, and the gentle splash of the turtle’s flippers as she cautiously came in, crawling up over the white sand, stopping occasionally as though listening for an enemy, kept us awake. If the turtle was not alarmed she went up above high-water mark, and with her flippers scooped out a large, round, hollow place, then depositing her eggs, sometimes from two to three hundred; but if she heard the slightest noise, if anyone was so unfortunate as to step on a twig that crackled, the huge creature would turn and make for the water at a marvellous rate of speed. Experience had taught us to be very wary, and if those to whom this sport was new forgot in their excitement that silence meant success they received a sharp nudge or a handkerchief suddenly placed over their mouth, with very good grace.
After the eggs were deposited and covered with sand the turtle would turn and leisurely crawl toward the water, leaving the sun and heat of the sand to act as incubators. Then came our grand sortie. Having signaled the party beyond us, we gradually and silently crept along, until the turtle was on her way to the water, when the gentlemen would make a dash, going between her and the water, to turn her course, if possible, seizing hold of the huge shell to turn it over.
But it was usually a hard struggle, as the sand that could be thrown with those awkward flippers was a means of defense that made holding on to the huge creature no trifling effort, for they sometimes weighed several hundred pounds and fought for their liberty with great violence. It would take the combined strength of several strong men to turn one and often after several attempts they failed; one’s valor cooled with eyes full of sand, and a blow from one of the flippers was not a gentle pat by any means.
When they succeeded in getting the creature on her side the ladies were allowed to take hold the shell as they dropped the animal over on her back so that they could say that they had helped to turn a turtle-a vain imagining, if the truth must be told. As soon as the turtle was on her back she was perfectly helpless, and we could go and leave her for another watch.
On one occasion my companions captured three, while the party on the other side of the island lost two, the big creatures taking them to the water’s edge, then breaking away. The captives were so large that the boys were obliged to make two trips the next day to bring them over to the fort, where they were placed in the moat until needed for the table.
After the “turning” we would complete our onslaught by robbing the nest. In dire distress we could make use of the eggs, but not otherwise.
I remember during my first experience in housekeeping on the island, when eggs by their scarcity were a very great luxury, one of the negroes came in one day and asked me if I would like some turtle eggs.
“Are they good to eat?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, Missis; we makes great count of ‘em at de mess hall, and dey makes firs’ rate puddin’. Aunt Eliza knows how to make it,” replied the boy.
“Well,” I said, “bring me some to-morrow and I will try them.”
The next morning he came up the walk with a bag looking like a bag of potatoes, slung over his shoulder, and seeing me in the hall, came in. With a lurch of his shoulders he swung the bag down on the floor with a thud, remarking as he did so: “Dere is yo’ turtle eggs, Missis.”
“What!” I exclaimed, “in that bag? They must be all broken!”
He laughed, saying, “Oh, no, I guess yo’ don’ know what kin’ er eggs them be. Yo’ kin fro ‘em ober de house an’ dey won’t break; dey’s tough like leather, yo’ must tear de skin fo’ it will break.”
And then he opened his bag in which was a pile of soft white eggs that would not require a Columbus to stand them upon end or side as they were perfectly round, with a little indentation as though they were not quite full, and, consequently, would remain in any position you placed them.
I told Henry to take them through to the kitchen to Aunt Eliza, who was delighted, for there was nearly half a bushel of them, and the colored people were very fond of them. She probably surmised that they would mostly fall to her, and I presume visions of hot supper for herself, Jack and their friends passed quickly through her mind.
My attempt at a pudding was amusing. I had to take the skin-one could hardly call it a shell-of the turtle egg and tear it apart. The contents looked not unlike the egg of a fowl, but the beating was literal and a great deal of it required before the tough matter was reduced to anything like a thin liquid. The milk and spice were then added, and it was baked as a properly prepared custard should be. We concluded, however, that we should give up desserts altogether if we were reduced to turtle eggs; so the people in the kitchen feasted for a week until the bag of eggs was exhausted.
The little turtles when first hatched were the prettiest creatures imaginable, so small they would hardly cover the palm of one’s hand, and no matter where they were put they would turn and make a straight line for the water.
On the 18th of May, 1862, Captain McFarland was placed in command of the engineer works at Key West and Tortugas that had been in charge of assistants after the departure of Captain Morton. He resided in Key West, making occasional visits to Fort Jefferson.
The men were drilled every day, both in the casemates and on parade, and those from New Hampshire hills were already becoming very soldierly-looking men.
On the 21st a steamer came in with recruits for Fort Pickens, bringing news of the evacuation of Norfolk and the sinking of the Merrimac. The Rhode Island, which was part of the time our supply ship, was always a welcome visitor, but her range was now from Galvaston to Key West and her calls became less frequent.
On the 14th of June, 1862, a tug came from Key West with an order for the troops to be ready to embark on the morning of the 17th for Hilton Head; it also brought news of the taking of Memphis.
Those three days were sad ones, for with them left Mrs. A—— and Mrs. Colonel L—— with whom we had enjoyed so much. On the morning of the 17th all the ladies were on the piazza at headquarters to see the regiment leave. The Colonel marched them around parade, and as they passed the quarters they saluted us, and then filed down through the sally-port to the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Company M of the regulars was firing a salute in the casemates, and altogether it was a sad and impressive sight. There were old men, gray and wrinkled, who looked too feeble to march even with only the weight of their knapsacks, while others were in the vigor of youth, eager for the field. The two departing ladies stood with us, sad-eyed and sad-hearted, for the regiment was going in to battle, and the enjoyment of the past few weeks made a very bright background to the uncertainty they saw looming up before them. Even the workmen had asked permission to suspend work, and had assembled on the ramparts above the sally-port, where they gave three cheers for Company M, followed by three for Colonel Putnam and Colonel Abbott. As we accompanied the ladies on board, regretfully saying good-bye, we realized something of the horrors of war which we had not before. We had become attached to the departing men; had watched them as they were transformed into noble-looking soldiers, and appreciated their strength and worth.
The night before they left we had a severe squall that tore the flag over the sally-port literally into shreds. Colonel Putnam, with a possible premonition of his fate, remarked to a lady on whom he was calling, that if he were at all superstitious he should consider it a bad omen. Key West was left almost as lonely as we were, for they took three regiments and three companies from there. Col. Tinelle, with the New York 90th, came in the place of the New Hampshire regiment. Six companies were left in Key West, the remaining four coming to us. It was some time before we became accustomed to the loss of our lady friends, with whom we had been so happy, getting all the pleasure we could out of our limited resources. For example, one day Mr. P——, the engineer, asked Mrs. A—— if she would take a ride. She replied: “Yes, but where is your carriage?”
“Be at the door and I will bring it around,” he answered. Soon after he appeared with a tip-cart and the finest mule the department owned. He had put in the cart a chair, over which he had thrown an army blanket. Spreading another over the bottom of the cart, and standing up as did the charioteers in olden times, he drove Mrs. A—— and Mrs. L—— across parade, picked up Mrs. R——, my sister and myself, and started on, to the amusement of every one. The mule had become enthused by the frolic, so that it needed nothing but guiding, and the velocity with which we were taken twice around the inside of the fort would have astonished Gilpin himself. Then we were landed at our door, where the dignified doctor, who loved fun as well as any one, could not resist pulling out the pin and dumping us into the sand, as the cart was unloaded of its bricks for the workmen, amid the shouts of those who had rushed out to see the novel sight of ladies riding in a tipcart.
We were all invited by Colonel Tinelle and the officers to dine with them on the 4th of July, and a very pleasant affair it proved. After dinner we adjourned to the piazza and heard the Colonel deliver a patriotic speech to the soldiers, who were drawn up in line before headquarters. Then we went home for an hour or so, returning for a hop, at which there were present twenty gentlemen and eight ladies. The latter were scattered about so as to look as numerous as possible, and as we had all put on evening dress, some one said they might be deluded into the belief that it was another party. At supper the Colonel called us to order as he wished to propose that if agreeable, we should celebrate the 4th of July every month.
The history of Colonel Tinelle, which he gave me some time after, was most interesting. He was an exiled Austrian veteran, taken prisoner before Charles Albert ascended the throne, and confined three years and six months, I think, under a death penalty. But when the King died, his son Charles Albert commuted the sentence to banishment with nine other prisoners. Colonel Tinelle came to America, his family preferring to remain in Austria, where they held a high position.
After some years, his sentence was revoked, but his wife advised him not to return, as his position would be unpleasant, and also declined following his fortunes in America, upon which the Colonel showed the communication to the Senate of New York, and was granted a divorce. Some time after, he married an American lady, and was sent as Consul to Oporto, where he resided for fourteen years, his wife dying there, and by a singular turn in the wheel of fortune, Charles Albert died there in his arms. He was in the war in Italy with Napoleon III, who was then a lieutenant. They were both together in New York, intimate friends, and corresponded until Napoleon became Emperor; but Colonel Tinelle could not forgive his renunciation of Republicanism. While in Italy, he met his eldest son, who, by the death of his grandfather, had inherited the fortune that should have been his. Later he was appointed Consul to Palermo, but our war came on, and he said it made his old sluggish blood tingle, and he gave the position up to some one who wanted to go abroad, and joined our army with his two sons. He was a kind-hearted gentleman of the old school, and the story of his life was as interesting as any historical novel.
Most of the drilling of the preliminary tactics was on the parade in front of our house, and it afforded us not a little entertainment and oftentimes amusement; we even became familiar with the faces of many of the men. One company of the New Hampshire regiment we privately dubbed the “Veterans.” One man was so intractable that he was taken out alone by a soldier for private coaching, and all the morning we could hear, “hep,” “hep,” which name we finally gave him.
One morning the Colonel was sitting on the piazza with us during this daily drill, and turning to my husband, he said: “I shall leave that man with you when we go away. It is no use; he must be a very old fellow.” He looked at that distance like an old man, well preserved, with black hair.
While my husband was in charge, during Dr. Hoffman’s visit to Key West, a forlorn looking old man came to him one day for something, and while he was talking, it gradually dawned upon us that it was “Hep,” in his natural colors. The idea that any amount of artificial make-up and dye could have deceived a recruiting officer into thinking he had even a claim to middle age was preposterous. The necessity of appearing young had fled with the departure of the regiment and the thought of that poor old man going through the torture of “hep,” “hep,” and “double quick,” morning after morning, was not so amusing as it had seemed at the time. He was evidently renewing his youth by being able to act himself; but in the cause of his country, I think the name of martyr would be all he could lay claim to. We gave him soups and good things daily from our own kitchen until my sister thought he might, if taken then, learn to “thrust,” “parry,” “leap to the rear,” drills we watched so often when the poor old man was trying so hard to be a soldier.
One day we were watching a company being drilled by a young second lieutenant, who had just joined the service. He marched them straight up to the house as though they were going to storm it. They reached the fence only four feet from the steps and there kept stepping, the young officer in torture, as he could not remember the command that would wheel them about, while we tried to look as though it was part of the discipline for them to stand knocking their toes against our paling. My husband wanted to help him out, but scarcely dared to whisper the order, and I think some discipline would have gone to the winds, and we, as well as the soldiers, would have laughed outright, had not a sergeant in a low tone whispered the order to the distracted lieutenant, who gave the right command. The extremely hot season warned us to be cautious on account of yellow fever, which was always lurking in Havana during the summer months, and was even now raging there. My husband enforced a strict quarantine, and our mail, which was brought via Havana by a small vessel, was deposited, sometimes on the end of a long pole, on Loggerhead Key, on which stood the lighthouse, previously mentioned, the schooner Tortugas going there for it. Upon her return the surgeon boarded her before she came to the wharf.
News from the North had been depressing for some time and the rumor that McClellan had been driven back from Richmond was discouraging to officers and men. To add to our trials sickness appeared among the soldiers and families.
The steamer Union came into port one day with papers up to the 23d of July, and was put in quarantine for ten days—a tantalizing proceeding. The papers spoke of Halleck in command but no mention of McClellan. We lost so much of the news that it took us a long time to fill up the gaps, and the officers became daily more impatient.
Soon after this a vessel came in with guns; another in distress, and one morning we saw on the horizon a steamer evidently in chase of another; but we could not make out which bore our colors, or whether it was a capture or an escape.
The yellow fever had broken out in Key West, and every precaution was taken to prevent its obtaining a foothold in our little garrison. Even our mail came wrapped in a cloth saturated with lime. An order now came for Dr. Hoffman to go to Key West to aid the sick, and by the next boat we heard that our friend, Captain McFarland was ill with the dreaded fever.
The yellow fever raged for two months in Key West; the entire city was a vast hospital, and there were two hundred deaths within four weeks from the dread disease. The one death at Tortugas, if it was genuine yellow fever, was a sporadic case, as there was no other until later in the season, and we refrained from giving it that name.
Many of our people now came down with a sort of intermittent or “breakbone” fever; rightly named, for my own sensations were that the bones were being crushed, and the pain was veritable agony. It went through the families and among the men and soldiers. The list of the well, my husband said, was easier given than those who were on the sick report. His duties were now extremely arduous. Besides being post surgeon he was health officer, and was rowed long distances in his six-oared barge under a torrid sun to visit every vessel that approached. All felt that their safety was in his hands and that his careful watch and strict enforcement of the quarantine would result in our exemption from the scourge. He was obeyed implicitly, and for a time we escaped the fever, but the “break-bone” singled us out one by one, and several times alarming symptoms of the dreaded yellow fever appeared. My husband was very ill, but he never gave up, and said, laughingly, “that he could not afford to be sick with so many in the hospitals.” The doctor who had been sent down from Key West to take Dr. Hoffman’s place was evidently too ill with consumption to ever do duty, so Colonel Tinelle sent for another surgeon from Hilton Head; but some time elapsed before one came, and if my husband had succumbed meanwhile I do not know what we should have done. The war news that reached us now was most depressing, and had its effect on both officers and men, especially as it might be weeks before we could learn the result: “Thirty thousand confederate troops within eight miles of Washington and within eight miles of Cincinnati.” This created intense excitement, and finally one day we had to acknowledge that the yellow fever had come; how we knew not; only the “break-bone” fever, seemingly its fist cousin, grew worse and worse, until finally it merged into genuine yellow fever. There were five deaths only, in these sad days that oppressed us like a nightmare; then, mercifully a norther came the spectre disappeared. We now had several showers, and gradually people began to pick up courage and take heart again.
During all this time we could not obtain a servant at any price. The only assistance we had was a boy from the hospital force, who came at odd hours to aid me. Our larder was again at low ebb, but in the midst of this a vessel came in bringing some Bermuda potatoes and onions at seven and a half dollars a barrel; and we feasted regardless of consequences and cost. We had not seen a fresh vegetable for so long we were famishing for them. Another vessel arrived with cattle, and we were allowed fresh beef twice a week and mutton semi-occasionally.
Most vessels passed us as well as Key West, by, faring the fever, and we longed for news and the sight of cheerful faces. The flag ship, in command of Captain Ralph Chandler, was the first ship to visit us, and with Captain Van Syce of the gunboat, Sunflower, brought a bit of life and sunshine that was really the beginning of brighter days.
Captain McFarland, who had recovered from the fever, was ordered to Hilton Head as soon as he was able to go, and Doctor Hoffman came down from Key West for a visit, bringing the chaplain, and we had the first service for many months. The mercury now went down to seventy-four degrees, falling thirteen degrees in a few hours, and the contrast was so great, we were shivering with closed doors, almost wishing for fires. It was a decided norther and purified the atmosphere, which had been damp, hot and muggy for so long that we felt as though the air was poisoned.
We invited Doctor Hoffman to stay with us, and he put his contraband—a six-foot black boy—in the kitchen, while my sister and I played hostesses for awhile, heartily enjoying the rest; for although the other ladies were in the same helpless state regarding servants as ourselves , the old adage of “misery likes company” did not make the condition of thing any easier to bear, and we were thoroughly tired out.
This boy Joe said he was the first slave who left Florida to join the Union. He had a good master, but he sent his slaves into the interior of the State when the war first broke out, and he, with another boy, ran away, taking a little rowboat with a sail, and started from St. Augustine to go to Key West, nearly six hundred miles. The first night out, a storm drove them on to the rocks, and all the provision they had for the remainder of the trip was what they picked out of the water and swam ashore with. Leaving it on the beach, they walked six miles, swimming two rivers, to get back to St. Augustine. They then took the only remaining boat and started again, picking up their provisions on the way.
They put out to sea, taking the north star as their guide, but were four days and nights without food. When they reached Key West, they were of course very weak, but Joe, as soon as he was strong enough, went to Hilton Head, where General Hunter made out his free papers. He then returned to St. Augustine and brought seven of his relatives to Key West, where he started them house-keeping, while Doctor Hoffman took him as a servant. We all thought Joe had earned his liberty and that he would take care of himself as a freeman.
The question of the freedom of the slaves was already beginning to show the strength of patriotism among the people who had been warm Unionists, and we could see the seeds of discord sprouting in the minds of all those who had bought slaves to work for Government as a source of income for their owners.
It is strange how many people carry their principles in their pocket-books. The preparatory proclamation of President Lincoln on the 22d of September, 1862, brought out all the sentiments of disloyalty which had been smothered until the alarm. It caused so much discussion that Colonel Tinelle issued an order that every one on the island except the soldiers should take the oath of allegiance. I wondered if it was taken by any one with a mental reservation, for had they not all taken it, they would have been sent away from the island.
The adjutant came around one morning for my sister and I to take the oath, which I fear was robbed of some of its solemnity by the fun-loving Doctor, who tried to invest it with as much mystery beforehand as though it were some secret society we were to join, forgetting that we had been present when the men on the Tortugas took the oath. We promised, however, with becoming dignity and heartfelt sincerity, to be loyal citizens.
The chaplain told us of some very sad scenes during the ravages of the yellow fever in Key West, which must have been terrible to witness. Four paymasters and five surgeons died on the naval vessels, and it was very fatal among the sailors; four and five days was the length generally of the course the fever ran.
The chaplain spoke of one young soldier boy he was very much interested in, not more than eighteen years old. They thought him better and he went in to see him just before dark, and said: “Well, Johnnie, what shall I send you nice for breakfast?” “I want to talk of something else first”, said the boy.
Then he told the chaplain that his father had been dead many years, but that he had the best mother in the world, and if he died he wanted the money between the beds sent to her with his clothes; and would the chaplain write her a letter? All of which he promised to do. Between six and seven the next morning the steward knocked at the chaplain’s door, saying he had a message from the boy. “What?” said the chaplain, “is he in a hurry for his breakfast?” “No,” replied, the steward, “he died last night, and made me promise that I would ask you to write to his mother.” The chaplain fulfilled all the boy’s wishes, receiving a grateful letter in reply from the heart-broken mother.
The mails during all that dreary summer were very irregular. Col. Tinelle received a letter from his wife, who was in New York, saying that for weeks, they heard nothing from him, the dreadful reports in the papers of the yellow fever, when one day her little girl came running up stairs bringing five letters of different dates; no one knew where they had been.
We all felt the need of something, and as there was so little within our reach, we lacked, perhaps, the energy to suggest a remedy. I had been so frequently ill during the past four months it was discouraging. But one afternoon the three other ladies of the garrison came in, and under the influence of a mutual inspiration we held a council of desertion and decided for a week to leave our cares, and everybody that belonged to us behind, to enjoy Thanksgiving all by ourselves. The very talking about it, inspired us with new life. When our plans were completed, we called in the three husbands and the conspiracy was laid before them.
Whether they really saw that it would be the best thing for us from a sanitary point of view, or that five ladies with their minds made up were rather a formidable party to combat, we never knew, but they so heartily entered into the spirit of the thing, doing everything to aid us, we gave them the benefit of feeling we needed and deserved an outing.
They promised to be responsible for the safety of the children, for two of the ladies would have small ones to be cared for.
Capt. Ellis, of the schooner Tortugas was informed that the ladies were to be in command of the vessel the next trip to Key West; and he was to obey their orders to go and return at their pleasure. He had only one request to make, and that was that no other passenger should be allowed to go on that trip of the boat; that we should have it all to ourselves which of course was granted. All the command saw us off, our husbands waving their handkerchiefs from the ramparts as long as we could see them, while the six children stood in a disconsolate row.
We had a delightful trip with a fair wind, leaving at five in the afternoon. That evening Capt. Ellis brought us a box saying he thought it belonged to us. It was directed “To the Merry Wives of Tortugas,” and upon opening it, was found to contain some delicacies from the sutler, packed by our husbands, fearing we might be sick—a thoughtfulness we appreciated as well as the joke. The following morning we saw the sun rise out of the Gulf, as we sailed into the harbor of Key West. There were five naval ships in the harbor. As we passed the U. S. sloop Huntsville, an officer lifted his cap, standing uncovered while we passed, which we thought a good precedent. On another we saw an officer, whose curiosity overpowered his gallantry, take a glass to see, we presumed, what kind of an expedition Fort Jefferson had fitted out. Some little bird, perhaps the one that notified the wreckers of vessels on the reef, had carried the news that the ladies from Tortugas were coming to spend Thanksgiving at the Russel House, for before “King” had our breakfast ready, Mr. Russel came down and escorted us up to the hotel.
Three married, and two young ladies created quite a sensation in the little town which had not yet rallied from the effects of its sorrowful summer, and perhaps needed an outside stimulant as well as its guests. We knew nearly every one in Key West and Mr. Russel must have felt that his hotel was the most popular place in it for the ensuing week. During our stay, we were taken driving by all who were fortunate enough to possess carriages, and invited to dinners, teas and lunches, where the Navy officers joined with those of the Army in every attention that would contribute to our pleasure.
Doctor Hoffman called the morning of our arrival to see if it were true that the Tortugas was deserted. Later he took us to the hospital garden where we sat under trees among the beautiful flowers, where we would have been content to remain all day. After dinner, there was a flag presentation by Captain Curtis, but visitors prevented our going to the grounds, and Colonel Morgan marched the troops down by the hotel, so that we could see them from the piazza. The officers at the barracks gave a Thanksgiving dinner for us, with the proverbial roast turkey and good things suggestive of the North, combined with all that a tropical country afforded. The menu was made with complimentary names given to the Army and Navy officers, and each lady had it as a souvenir stamped upon her handkerchief.
The officers of the 90th New York gave a ball for us, inviting the officers from the Huntsville and Magnolia, making a very gay affair.
Sunday we all went to church, expecting to return to Tortugas on Monday, but that night a steamer came in from New York, having on board Colonel Tinelle’s wife and two daughters and Miss Carrie P——, who had been north for two years in school.
The captain of the steamer, who was going to Tortugas, invited us to go with them, and to add to what we thought had already been a brilliant week, Mr. Russel and the English Consul gave a ball at the hotel, inviting all our friends and the passengers from the steamer who were Army people. They danced until eleven when we went on board, the band following us to the wharf playing, while we swung out into the stream, giving place to the Bio Bio, which had just arrived, having started twenty-four hours after Cahawba, having on board Doctor Hoffman’s wife.
We went into the wharf at Tortugas with flying colors, and the Colonel gave us a salute of seven guns. Our husbands boarded the steamer with the officer of the day, giving us a most joyous welcome. Colonel Tinelle came with them, not dreaming whom he was to meet, for his wife had not written him of her intended visit. I asked him if he did not think us successful at recruiting; absent only a week and bringing back four ladies from New York?
We returned to our quiet life, better in health and spirits, finding that our husbands had filled their position creditably during our absence, and satisfied that our trip was a wise measure and a grand success.