Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Few Words from a USS Cumberland Marine, 1861

We are fortunate to have received a copy of the letter book and journal of Charles H. Bunker, a member of the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland's 53-man Marine Corps detachment from 1860-62. A native of Harlem, Bunker enlisted in the Marines as Cumberland prepared for a deployment to Mexico. Bunker's letter book is valuable not just because Civil War letters from enlisted sailors and Marines are rare, but also because Bunker recorded his experiences as a Marine in great detail. From Bunker's letters, we find that the Cumberland's company was quite active even if they were not in combat. Through the letters, we learn about...

War Messes With Your Dreams - April 3, 1861: "The 3rd [dream] was as we lay at Norfolk; I thought I was again in Harlem (after a long cruise) and I happened to go in one of Mrs Liscombs Brick houses on 3rd avenue where there was a young Widow. She proved to be an old schoolmate of mine, and as she made me an offer of marriage, I took up with it as she had a good set of furniture, etc. but I was once more interrupted by the word being passed for all hands to up anchor for the Navy Yard."

War Messes With Your Dreams, Part 2 - April 26, 1861: "I will mention one more dream as a specimen of many of the same sort. A few nights ago I thought the Ship was attacked by a large number of boats with about 50 men in each. I thought the Officer of the Deck gave the order to beat to General Quarters when I was interrupted in my dream by General Quarters in reality, a Steamer coming in with troops."

Creative Ways to Stay Awake on Watch - April 30, 1861: "At night we have General Quarters as soon as a Steamer or large vessel come in sight so we very seldom get more than 2 or 3 hours in our hammocks at one time, getting but little sleep we are in danger of falling asleep on Post. I have on several occasions been obliged to put a grain of tobacco in my eye to keep them open. If we were found asleep on post we would be Court Martial and severely punished."

Best Way to Drink From the Ship's Water Supply - May 6, 1861: "Today a tank of water was opened which we had taken on board at Vera Cruz but it was very bad [editor's note: about six months old and mixed with sea water], we have to drink or go without as we can not get more from the City. With us it is: Shut your eyes-Hold your nose, Open your mouth-And down it goes. But as it is the last tank it will soon be over."

An Unthreaded Needle is the Worst...Thing...Ever - May 8, 1861: "An article in the Providence Journal replies to the suggestion that work bags with pins, needles, thread, scissors and buttons will be useful; to the Soldiers and Sailors, says but thread the needles. Don’t send them to the poor boys unthreaded. There is not a man in the Ship who would not rather undertake to thrash a Secessionist than to thread a Needle. That’s so true."

Charles Heywood-Bunker's commanding officer
on Cumberland shown here as the Marine
Corps' first flag officer. 

Town of Hampton Pillaged...For Its Flowers - May 14, 1861: "Almost all the inhabitants of Hampton which joins the Fort have left for the interior of the State. Some of them have left gardens of the most beautiful flowers and a large variety of them. Every time a Boats Crew goes to the Store in the Fort they take large bunches of them of which the two Lady Passengers get a good share."

Career Path Regret - June 3, 1861: "I would rather be cook, as it pays better, all cooks, receiving $7.50 a month and excused from sentry duty, where a corporal gets but $2.00 more a month."

Stand Up Comedian/Tough Crowd - June 3, 1861 "One night the men would not let me go to sleep, even after 9 o’clock, until I gave them something original. I then asked why a young Lady deserted by her Lover was like a certain US weapon and as none could answer, I told them it was because she was a Cut Lass (Cutlass). The next morning they managed to raise a splendid Leather Medal with a rope yarn to put around my neck, strong enough if I was suspended to break my neck."

Pre 4th of July Fireworks - July 2, 1861 "9 PM a very bright comet was seen for several hours after." Editor's note: This was the "Great Comet of 1861" (since labeled C/1861 J1) that passed very close to Earth and had been witnessed by thousands of observers from Australia, Europe, and the United States.

A sketch of "The Great Comet of 1861" as drawn by European observers
on June 30, 1861. Bunker witnessed it on July 2. More information can be
found at
Accounts of Death Were Greatly Exaggerated - August 29, 1861 [Hatteras Expedition]: "If he does not turn up all right (as I hope he will) his shipmates will lose a good friend and comrade. A few days ago he was writing your address on an envelope but getting a blot on it he laid it one side. I picked it up to do some figuring upon thus I got the address as the ship is cruising around. I do not know when or where she will sail next, but it is supposed she will go to Fort Monroe again in a few days so my name is not necessary or to answer this. Hoping for the best. I remain his and your Friend until I write again if necessary. One of C.H. Bunker’s Shipmates."

A Previously Unknown Raid - October 3, 1861: "I am with 12 more of the guard volunteered to go on secret service, which we soon after found out was to destroy a rebel floating battery. We started when the moon went down, in three boats with their crews, but when we got to where the battery was, we found it had been removed... We heard the sergeant of their guard ask the sentry if he did not see that boat; they said yes, but I thought it was our sloop. At this we gave them the contents of our boat--howitzer and muskets, which made them leave their camp fire in a hurry."

No Sport Hunting While on Duty - November 6, 1861: "There is now large flocks of wild ducks here, which would afford fine sport for the sportsman, if it was not for this war. The soldiers are not allowed to shoot them yet for fear of accidents. "

He Tripped, Sir - January 3, 1862: "One of the sailors while ashore, had got whiskey enough to set his tongue a going and 'put him on his muscle'; the Captain ordered him to be gagged and put in double irons. He had also to be tied down to the deck; as he bruised the sergeant and myself with his irons, as we were putting them on, so a little court plaster is very useful 'now and then.'"

No comments: