Saturday, April 25, 2020

'Peculiarly sad': Death in the Potomac of a 'patriotic man'

St. Clements Island, formerly known as Blackistone Island, near where Cunningham Johnston drowned
in the Potomac River when the Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond
 on the night of April 23, 1865. (PHOTO: David Broad)

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Private Cunningham Johnston survived physically unscathed in all the 118th Pennsylvania's major battles, at Shepherdstown and Fredericksburg in 1862 and Gettysburg and Chancellorsville in 1863. He endured Burnside's "Mud March" in January 1864 and, following his capture during the Overland Campaign, survived nine months in Andersonville and other Confederate prisons.

But in the waning days of the Civil War, when all the fighting was largely over, the Irish-born bricklayer from Philadelphia couldn't elude death.

 1906 illustration of St. John's College General Hospital during
 the Civil War.  Private Cunningham Johnston, a former POW,
 was a patient here in late 1864 and early 1865.
(St. John's College Digital Archives)
On April 23, 1865, Johnston and about 300 former POWs and hospital convalescents boarded the privately owned steamer Massachusetts, anchored in the Potomac River at Alexandria, Va. Recently released from St. John's College Hospital in Annapolis, Md., the 37-year-old was to re-join his regiment to complete his term of service. The war was effectively over, but the country's turmoil was not: In Maryland and Virginia, Federal authorities frantically hunted for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

At about midnight, the Massachusetts neared Maryland's Blackistone Island, roughly 55 miles southeast of Washington. Lurking dangerously nearby was the Black Diamond, an iron hull steam propeller canal boat with men aboard aiding in the search for Booth. On the clear, moonless night, the vessel apparently had only one light on. Stunningly, the much larger Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond, opening a yawning gap in the smaller ship's side. The vessel went under stern first in about three minutes. "Oh, the great dark hole in the water she made," recalled a soldier aboard the Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, panic ensued on the overcrowded Massachusetts, which, although still seaworthy, slipped lower into the water. In the inky blackness, frantic soldiers -- some of whom had been sleeping on deck -- leaped into the dark Potomac. In all, at least 50 men drowned; one report noted that nearly 90 perished. Among them was Cunningham Johnston, whose body, like many of those who died in this little-known accident, was never recovered.

“After all their suffering in the prisons pens, then to be drowned,” one of the survivors remembered. “It seemed bad.”

In a footnote in the 118th Pennsylvania regimental history, published decades after the war, Cunningham Johnston Jr. called his father's fate "peculiarly sad."

"He was a patriotic man," he wrote, "and patiently accepted the dangers and hardships of army life as a duty to his country."

          GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Site of orphans' home in Quakertown, Pa., where two 
                  Johnston family boys stayed after their father's death in April 1865.

19th-century view of Yellow Springs (later known as Chester Springs), an orphans' home in Chester, Pa.
Cunningham Johnston Jr. and his brother, Michael, were placed here by their mother after their
   father's death "for the purpose of their education." (Chester County Library collection)
Cunningham's death threw the Johnston family into turmoil. His wife, Elizabeth, placed  her eldest sons, Cunningham, then 12, and 10-year-old Michael in the Soldiers Orphans' Home in Quakertown, Pa., "for the purpose of their education." Later, the boys were sent to another orphans' home, Yellow Springs, in Chester, Pa.

"I have not abandoned the support of any of said children, nor permitted any of them to be adopted by any person or persons ..." Elizabeth stated in an affidavit for a widow's pension. The Johnstons' other children, 14-year-old Sallie, 5-year-old Elizabeth and 4-year-old James, remained at home with their mother.

A widow's pension file offers us a glimpse into the family's tragedy: In an affidavit, Elizabeth wrote, "I have never heard from [Cunningham] him since" the collision on the Potomac. In another, a former 118th Pennsylvania officer wrote he believed he heard of Johnston's death from an official source but wasn't sure. A document noted names and birthdates of the Johnstons' children; another, the date Cunningham and Elizabeth were married in 1847.

"I feel as well as I ever did," wrote Cunningham Johnston in a letter
to his wife on April 13, 1865. It may have been the final letter
of his life. ( via National Archives)
The most poignant words in the file are in Cunningham Johnston's own handwriting.

In a letter to Elizabeth from St. John's College Hospital on April 10, 1865, he wrote of his disappointment at not receiving any recent letters from home and of the "glorious news" of Robert E. Lee's surrender the day before. "I feel purfickly sure," he said, "that I have seen my last battle although I am in poor halth as I ever was."

"Tell Cunningham," he added, referencing his son, "to ask Mr. Boles if he thinks the ware will be over before linkin is out of the Chair."

In perhaps the final letter of his life, Cunningham rejoiced: "I have just finnished reading the most walcom letter I have ever received from you or anyone else letting me know that my Lizay was better and the rest of my family well."

He said he expected to go to Washington soon to get transportation to return to his regiment, which was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse. "... I feel as well as I ever did," he wrote.

And, Cunningham closed in the letter, "I ... am your loving husband to death."

POSTSCRIPT: Elizabeth Cunningham secured a widow's pension at the standard rate of $8 a month. Beginning in July 1866, her five children also received pensions, at $2 a month. 

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


-- Cunningham Johnston widow's pension file, via National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.
-- Smith, John L., History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, from their first engagement at Antietam to Appomattox, Philadelphia, Pa., J. L. Smith, 1888, Page 402.
-- 16th Connecticut veteran William Nott 1906 journal, copy in author's collection.


  1. Hi John,

    Four of the Quartermaster Corps personnel killed in the collision were subsequently buried in Alexandria National Cemetery (37 bodies were recovered from the 87 deaths). These individuals had volunteered to participate in the search for Booth.

    Lastly, according to what I have read, the ship involved was not the USS Massachusetts (1860) but instead was a privately owned steamer called the Massachusetts (also known as the JWD Pentz), which was contracted by the US Government and was making regular runs between Washington and City Point/Fort Monroe.

  2. Arrgh, thanks, Todd. I thought I had corrected that re: Massachusetts. thanks for reading...

  3. The Black Diamond suffered seven killed in the incident, including the four Quartermaster Corps personnel. The other fatalities came from the Massachusetts, mostly recently freed Union soldiers from Confederate prison camps. Most of the Union soldiers onboard were captured at Plymouth, NC in April 1864 (the entire garrison surrendered) and were held at Andersonville and Florence until released. The entire 16th Connecticut was captured at that battle and 13 men from that regiment were aboard the Massachusetts that night, trying to return to their regiment still in North Carolina. Seven were killed, including Company D's Drummer Boy George W. Carter, from Suffield, Connecticut.