Friday, January 22, 2016

Pests, disease, death in Deep South for 12th Connecticut private

12th Connecticut Private Howard Hale sent money home from New Orleans in this envelope 
discovered in the soldier's pension file in the National Archives in Washington.
Adapted from my latest book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers. E-mail me here for information on how to purchase an autographed copy.

During a research trip to the National Archives in Washington last year, I requested the pension file for Howard Hale, a 19-year-old private who served in the Deep South with the 12th Connecticut. After I signed out the set of documents, I quickly returned to my desk and eagerly opened the thick, brown folder. The story of the young soldier's life poured onto the research desk. The file included legal documents and an Adams Express Co. envelope that once contained $35 -- money meant for his father, David, back home in Connecticut. And, most importantly, there were letters Howard wrote during the war to his family in Collinsville, Conn., a manufacturing village along the Farmington River. Hale's father prized news from his son during the war, so the fact the precious letters somehow survived more than 150 years isn't surprising. Included among them was one from David Hale himself -- a letter that sadly proved prophetic.
Howard Hale's name appears on a plaque on a Civil War
 monument  in Collinsville, Conn., that honors area soldiers
 whose bodies are believed buried in unknown graves
in the South.  Close-up of plaque below. For more on my blog

 on the monument,  click here and here.

While camped near steamy New Orleans with his 12th Connecticut comrades, teenager Howard Hale delighted in writing long letters to his father, who lived 1,500 miles away in Collinsville and missed his oldest son desperately.

An engaging writer and highly literate, Howard wrote sarcastically about “our beloved [Pvt. Marcus] Edgerton,” the “man with one lung, who has done no duty since leaving Hartford” and was due to be discharged.  In another letter, he wrote how pleased he would be if older sister Anna could make a frame for his photograph out of the sea shells he picked out of the sand “one awful hot day” at Ship Island, the desolate barrier island off the coast of Mississippi where the 12th Connecticut was stationed in early spring of 1862.

Striking a serious tone, he also worried whether the army would “make something of me” during his three-year enlistment.  “I very often wonder what I was ever destined for,” the teenager wrote to his father, David, on August, 19, 1862, “and whether I am ever going to be good for anything or not. I get so overly discouraged a … great many times. You must write me a good cheering fatherly letter, and advise me in my troubles of mind, not of the body.”

And Howard Hale also wrote about pests.

For soldiers from Connecticut, the Deep South was a strange, and often exotic, place.  After operations in Mississippi along the Mississippi River, the 12th Connecticut on May 1, 1862, became the first Union regiment to occupy New Orleans, camping its first night in the city in Lafayette Square. The regiment was later based at Camp Parapet, a former Rebel fortification about 10 miles upriver from the city. Especially during the wretched summer months, insects and other pests made life more miserable there than the Rebels, who never counter-attacked the fort after the Yankees assumed command and expanded it.

Howard and his friend, John Phelps, a sergeant from Simsbury who liked to swear, built a bed a foot and a half high over which they spread mosquito netting. It allowed the soldiers, Hale wrote, to “safely bid defiance to the bloody-thirsty wretches, whom we can hear buzzing outside, as if in rage.”

Flies were “thick enough in all conscience,” the private noted, and red ants, as “thick as were some of Pharaoh’s pests,” would get into anything eatable -- even soap, which they would eat all the inside out into fine crumbs. “Then if you dare dispute ownership with them,” Hale wrote, “they invade your person and bite like the d-----d!” Lizards would often drop from trees onto soldiers, startling them before the little reptiles dropped to the ground. “Hadn’t I better try to bottle one up in spirit to take home?” the young soldier wondered. “I believe I could do it.” Camp Parapet even exhibited three alligators -- one that was “six or eight feet long.”

The conclusion of one of Howard Hale's Civil War letters to his father.
A bigger worry, of course, was disease. In June 1862, Hale’s friend Phelps ate “anything and everything” although he had a bad case of diarrhea, which along with malaria often crippled the regiment.   “He’ll have to reform his ways,” Hale wrote in a letter home about Phelps, “or he’ll take his ‘six feet by two’ in the ‘Louisiana Lowlands’.”  Joseph Toy, the 12th Connecticut’s captain, had been sick since the regiment’s stay on Ship Island, wracked with the fever. He later died and his body was shipped back home to Sims-bury strapped to a chair placed in a cask of liquor to preserve his remains. In mid-September 1862, Hale was given a “delicious does of castor oil” for his own bad case of diarrhea and later was prescribed quinine and even morphine, which he figured would make him sleepy.

In 1862, the 12th Connecticut bounced from bayous to sugar cane fields, destroying railroad bridges, hunting bushwhackers and destroying  Rebel camps. Writing that September that he was hopeful that he could be home at the expiration of his three-year enlistment in November 1864, Hale noted: “I won’t ‘crow before I am out of the woods,’ though.”  On October 27, 1862, the regiment saw its first fight, dislodging Rebels led by Gen. Dick Taylor, the son of former President Zachary Taylor, at Georgia Landing, near the La Fourche Bayou, about 60 miles upriver from New Orleans. In January 1863, the regiment helped destroy the Rebel gunboat “Cotton” on the Teche River.

On  Feb. 12, 1863, David Hale encouraged his son to preserve his 1862 diary and
  other keepsakes: "Soon you may be sick or killed."

(National Archives)
Worried about his son, David Hale urged him to preserve his 1862 diary -- “I should prize it highly,” he wrote on February 12, 1863 -- and all the letters he received from home. “You may sometime be called suddenly to move and lose or leave some of your things, which you would like to preserve,” Howard’s  fifty-one-year-old father noted. “If you and your comrades have things which you would like to send to your friends, I wish you would now or very soon  get together such things as you would like to send.

“… Talk the matter up now, do it at once,” David Hale emphasized. “Soon you may be sick or killed, and all will be lost. Act now.”

On April 9, 1863, a large force of Yankees that included the 12th Connecticut crossed Berwick Bay to attack the Rebels behind entrenchments at Centerville, in western Louisiana.  Four days later, the Federals led by Gen. Nathaniel Banks attempted to cut off  Taylor’s army near Brashear, Louisiana, at Fort Bisland, an unfinished, earthwork fortification with a ditch that “scarcely offered an obstacle to the advance of an army.” Sometime during the fighting, Howard Hale was shot in the abdomen. He died nearby two days later. His final resting place is unknown.


Howard Hale pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington
--Hale letters home, June 15, 1862, August 19, 1862, September 11, 1862.
--David Hale letter to Howard Hale, February 12, 1863.

New York Times, April 22, 1863.

The first page of Howard Hale's letter home from Camp Parapet, near New Orleans, 
on June 15, 1862. "I joyfully take the present time to write and let you know how I
 am progressing," he wrote.
(National Archives)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! Most people don't know about Adams Express. I have a wooden box with an Adams Express label that contains items sent from home. I use it when talking about Union soldiers during the war.