Monday, February 05, 2018

Meet 'The Patriot Printer Boy,' whose image turned up on eBay

12th Connecticut Private Howard Hale died in Louisiana in 1863. (Courtesy George Bittner)
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During a research trip to the National Archives in Washington in 2015,  I found in a pension file a terrific cache of letters written by Howard Hale, an 18-year-old private who served in the Deep South with the 12th Connecticut. Eloquent and lengthy, the letters were a joy to read. But there was a major gap in Howard's story: a photograph of him. No image of the teenager turned up at the Connecticut Historical Society, Connecticut State Library archives or any of the other usual places I look.

Then came an e-mail Monday morning. Ebay seller George Bittner told me he discovered a CDV of Hale, with distinctive bushy eyebrows, among others in an album he had purchased at an auction. On the back of the photograph, perhaps a copy of an earlier image of Howard, Hale is identified as "The Patriot Printer Boy." Looking the part of a freshly minted soldier, the eldest son of David B. Hale of Collinsville, Conn., wears a fresh kepi and a serious expression. (Perhaps the image will somehow make it back home to Collinsville.)

Not surprisingly, Hale's father worried about his son and prized news from him throughout his army journey.  The pension file also included a letter from David Hale himself -- a letter that sadly proved prophetic.

Adapted from my book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers. E-mail me here for information on how to purchase an autographed copy.

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

Back of CDV of Howard Hale,  killed in Louisiana in April 1863.
The image may be a copy of another photograph.
(Courtesy George Bittner)
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 edible -- 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.”

An envelope Howard Hale used to send money to his father in Collinsville, Conn.
Howard Hale's name appears on a monument in Collinsville, Conn., among the names 
of other soldiers from the area who died during the war.
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 Simsbury 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.

The conclusion of one of Howard Hale's Civil War letters to his father.
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.

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)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


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.


  1. Great story, well done John.

  2. Anonymous9:09 PM

    Thanks for the well written story.