When we last left war correspondent George Alfred Townsend, the youthful Delawarean had arrived in Washington, D.C., to recover from an illness contracted while attached to the Union army operating in Northern Virginia. “Gath,” as he later signed his writings, continued on to New York and received a new assignment from the World newspaper.
Young George rode by horseback to Baltimore and went on board the Adelaide down the Patapsco River past the shadows of Fort McHenry into the Chesapeake Bay. His destination was Fort Monroe, Va., at Old Point Comfort on the southern tip of the bay.
Gath observed the people on board with a keen reporter’s eye. Included were officers and soldiers, sutlers, traders, contractors, newsmen, civilians “anxious to witness a battle,” and females on mercy missions or traveling to their homes in Virginia cities and towns.
Negroes, he reported, occupied the lower decks, along with freight including “scores of box coffins for the removal of corpses from the field to the North.” An embalmer was on board, along with “his ghostly instruments.”
A woman informed Townsend that she was on her way to retrieve the body of her oldest son, who had died fighting for the Confederacy. She said her younger son died during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, while fighting for the Union.
This heartbroken mother wanted to bury her sons, one who wore gray and the other who wore blue, “in the same grave.” She explained, she “could never get them to agree politically” — a microcosm of the war at large.
Gath related in his memoirs, “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” that an officer and his pretty bride were aboard the Adelaide; he wearing “a handsome new uniform with prodigious shoulder-bars.” In the saloon, the newlyweds sang along with the piano player’s parody, “Then let the South fling aloft what it will. We are for the Union still!”
The next morning, George Alfred was up early, and observed the scene at Hampton Roads, where the flagship Minnesota was spotted on the horizon. Fort Monroe came into view “bristling with guns, and floating the Federal flag.”
The quaint-looking ironclad Monitor was close to the shore, where drums beat for the men in barracks to gather for muster. Gath marveled that a “Lincoln gun, a fearful piece of ordnance, rose like the Sphynx from the Fortress sands…”
Upon debarking, the passengers marched to Hygeia House, built 40 years earlier for personnel at Fort Monroe. An officer administered the oath of allegiance, and the more ardent patriots chose “to celebrate the occasion with three cheers.”
The South failed to occupy Old Point Comfort at the outset of the war of secession, allowing Union forces to establish a combined army and naval base there. Thus it became the launching point for Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in March 1862.
Neither Gath nor any of the other new arrivals could have foreseen that Confederate President Jefferson Davis, some three years hence, would occupy a casemate here as a prisoner awaiting trial for treason. This lent an alpha-and-omega air to Fort Monroe.
Reporter Townsend toured this rear-echelon supply base where quantities of “shell, ball, ordnance, camp equipage, and war munitions … piled around the fort….” He believed earlier military leaders, such as Napoleon, would have been amazed at “the gigantic preparations at command of the Federal Government.”
Freight continued to arrive in sloops and schooners from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Owners of businesses had wagons “that plied regularly between these stores and camps.”
The threat of war did not deter these “disciples of the dime and the dollar.” Gath described them as anxious to profit from the chaos created by the “pestilential camp and the reeking battle-field.”
After exploring this “weary place of resort … [where the] bar at the Hygeia House was beset with thirsty and idle people,” the game reporter would soon board a steamer making its way up the York River to White House Plantation that once belonged to George and Martha Washington and their descendants, including the family of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
To be continued…
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, at Card Smart in Milford and on Amazon.com. Contact him at email@example.com.