Thursday, February 06, 2014

Slipped into oblivion: A Connecticut tragedy on the Potomac

A small drum is carved near the top of a memorial for Private George W. Carter
 in West Suffield (Conn.) Cemetery. Carter was a drummer in the 16th Connecticut.
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Nine days after John Wilkes Booth emptied a single-shot .44 caliber Derringer pistol into Abraham Lincoln’s brain, nearly 400 former Union prisoners of war crowded onto an old steamer moored in the Potomac River at Alexandria, Va. Bound that early Sunday evening for Norfolk, Va., the Massachusetts was "unfit to carry more than half the number she had on board," a soldier who made the ill-fated trip recalled years later. Onboard the ship were hard-bitten veterans from New York, Maine, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, all of whom had "seen the elephant" -- and much worse. Some of them, barely out of their teens, were survivors of the horrors of prison camps in South Carolina and Georgia, places where "damned Yankees" were truly damned. Although the Civil War was effectively over, Uncle Sam had deemed the services of these men necessary for another assignment in the South.

Later that clear, moonless night, the voyage down the Potomac turned deadly, but the tragedy received little notice in the press. The Federal government's frenzied search for Lincoln's killer was under way, pushing into the shadows of history the shocking event that occurred near the shores of Virginia and Maryland on the night of April 23 and early morning of April 24, 1865.

Coverage of the death of Lincoln assassin
John Wilkes Booth in the Hartford Courant
on April 28, 1865.
Eleven soldiers from the 16th Connecticut, perhaps the most unfortunate regiment in the Union army, were aboard the Massachusetts. All had recently returned from furloughs at home. Each of the men, none older than 27, had survived the bloodiest day in American history, Sept. 17, 1862, when the rookie regiment suffered 204 casualties at the Battle of Antietam. Whipped by A.P. Hill's veteran troops in farmer John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield, 43 Nutmeggers were killed in action and many skedaddled, two fleeing all the way to England. Nineteen months later, on April 20, 1864, the unlucky 11 and nearly their entire regiment were captured at Plymouth, N.C., and sent to Andersonville, the most notorious, and most deadly, POW camp of the Civil War. Nearly 13,000 Union soldiers, including 290 from Connecticut, perished at the squalid, 26-acre prison in southwestern Georgia.

One of the Connecticut soldiers aboard the steamship was a 24-year-old sergeant named Samuel Grosvenor, who along with his younger brother Joseph, a private, had joined the Union army in July 1862. The brothers were born in England, where their father supported his working-class family as a whitesmith and iron polisher in an iron works in Dudley, 130 miles northwest of London. The locals derisively called the area “Black Country,” a reference to its dingy industry of forges, mills and coal mines. In 1845, the Grosvenors sought a better life, emigrating to America and finally settling in Guilford, Conn., near Long Island Sound.  By April 1865, Samuel had already experienced more than his share of tragedy. At Antietam, he was wounded and Joseph was killed in Otto's cornfield. After Samuel was captured at Plymouth, he spent seven months in Andersonville, where he recorded a steady drumbeat of death in a brown, leather-covered pocket diary that he kept hidden from his captors. “Silas Matthews of Company K departed this life,” he wrote in an entry on Sept. 9, 1864, about a soldier from Bristol, Conn. “I really hope this is the last death I shall record in this place.”

Like Grosvenor, the other young Connecticut men aboard the Massachusetts had also faced tragedy, death and despair. Private George Champlin’s brother, Andrew, also a private in the 16th Connecticut, had died of disease in December 1862 after long march to Virginia after Antietam. Corporal William S. Loomis was so ill at one point during his imprisonment that he wasn't expected to survive. His life was saved when his cousin, John, a quartermaster sergeant in the 16th Connecticut, gave him his place in a line of prisoners to be paroled in Savannah, Ga., in December 1864.

By the time he had boarded a steamer for Annapolis after he was paroled by the Rebels, Sergeant William Nott’s weight had dropped to 85 pounds. When he enlisted in the Union army in the summer of 1862, William weighed 165 pounds. A son of a shoemaker, Nott came from a family that had a rich tradition of military service: William's father was a War of 1812 veteran, and his grandfather commanded the sloop Guilford during the Revolutionary War. George W. Carter, a private and a drummer in the regiment, frequently sent a portion of his soldier's pay to his widowed mother back in Connecticut. Before Antietam, the young soldier's tent mate recalled how he and George drew the ire of their captain when they "requisitioned" a chicken from a Maryland farmer. At Andersonville, where soldiers were reduced to subsisting on dogs and rats, that bird would have been considered a feast fit for several men.

Corporal George Hollands of the 101st Pennsylvania watched 
in horror as 20-year-old George Carter of the 16th Connecticut 
drowned in the Potomac River.
The whipping wind made the water choppy by the time Massachusetts had made her way past bluffs upon which Rebel gun emplacements once protected the Virginia side of the river. By late evening, the old steamer neared the wide mouth of the Potomac, where it emptied into the Chesapeake Bay, about 55 miles from Washington. If it weren't a moonless night, the men aboard may have spied Maryland's Blackstone Island in the distance. In May 1864, Rebels intended to destroy the lighthouse on the 40-acre island, fearing it would be used by the Yankees. The lighthouse keeper, however, begged a Confederate officer to save it, arguing that it was also his home and that his pregnant wife was near childbirth and wouldn't be able to survive if they must abandon it. The officer obliged, confiscating the oil in the lighthouse and destroying its lens and lantern instead.

Dozing below deck on the Massachusetts with his comrades, 24-year-old George Hollands recalled being suddenly awakened late that night by an “awful crash.” A newspaper account reported the time was 12:30 a.m. They were about a mile from Blackstone Island.

“We all sprang to our feet, pulled on our coats and ran up on deck to see what the trouble was,” the corporal in the 101st Pennsylvania recalled years after the war. (A farmer from Mansfield, Pa., Hollands was no stranger to danger. He was shot in the thigh at the Battle of Fair Oaks, near Richmond, in 1862 and survived three prison camps after he was captured at Plymouth in April 1864.)  

Shockingly, the 1,155-ton Massachusetts had knifed into the port side of the Black Diamond, damaging the boiler on the large propeller barge, slashing a hole down to the water line near the wheelhouse and stunning the 20 men aboard her. In the meantime, the Black Diamond had carried off a chunk of the bow of the Massachusetts, "making a hole large enough to take in five or six men abreast down to within a foot of the water's edge," Nott remembered. Neither vessel apparently saw the other before the accident. According to one account, the Black Diamond, which had no lights on, was acting as a picket boat, guarding a crossing on the Potomac should Booth and any of his co-conspirators choose to slip across. In the inky blackness, men began to panic aboard the Massachusetts. When the ship took on water and slipped deeper into the river, some grabbed planks or anything that floated and leaped into the Potomac. Others clambered aboard the crippled Black Diamond, which rapidly filled with water. The captain of Black Diamond, Nott recalled, attempted to swing his vessel around to the side of the Massachusetts, whose own captain frantically shouted for the men aboard her to move to the stern to keep the bow up.

“In the meantime we were shouting to the boat we had run into -- the Black Diamond -- to come to our assistance," Hollands recalled. "She circled around and came up alongside of us, and about 150 jumped from the Massachusetts to the deck of the Black Diamond. I was among the first to board her, and I ran immediately to the man at the wheel and asked him if the boat was all right. He said: ‘No; she is sinking.’ I then made up my mind that we had ‘jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ ”

Three days after seven Connectcut soldiers drowned 
in the   Potomac, the tragedy received scant coverage
 in the Hartford Courant.
In the massive confusion, Nott and his comrades thought the Black Diamond was a relief boat, but the more men who jumped aboard her the quicker the vessel sank. She went under in three minutes.

Figuring his best chance to survive was on the Black Diamond, Hollands climbed up her mast as the ship settled into the Potomac. It may have been a life-saving move. When it hit bottom, her deck was covered by about two feet of water. Hollands remained in the ship’s rigging, where he was joined by three or four members of the crew. The crippled but still seaworthy Massachusetts and two other boats that happened by picked up survivors, many of whom had spent hours in the water. Four soldiers from the 16th Connecticut -- Nott; Private Willard Sessions of Burlington; Corporal Henry B. Cook of Bristol and Private Claudius Margerum of Suffield -- were among those saved. Margerum, who was hospitalized nearly five months after suffering a head wound at Antietam, was in the Potomac for nearly three hours before he was rescued. More may have been saved, but when the Black Diamond slashed past the Massachusetts, she smashed one of the steamer's two lifeboats.

At least 50 men drowned. Four were Booth pursuers on the Black Diamond: Peter Carroll, Samuel N. Gosnell, George W. Huntington and Christopher Farley, all civilian members of the Quartermaster Corps. The Potomac also claimed seven soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, each a survivor of Antietam and Andersonville:

Samuel Grosvenor of Guilford.

William Loomis, 23, of Enfield.

Charles Robinson, 24, of East Windsor.

Edward Smith, 21, of Bristol.

Henry S. Loomis (no relation to William), 21, of Vernon.

George Champlin, 22, of Stafford.

And a 20-year-old musician from Suffield named George W. Carter.

After the collision, Carter leaped upon the Black Diamond, a 16th Connecticut comrade recalled. When she began to sink, Carter jumped back into the water, using a plank to float until about 2 a.m., when he could hang on no longer. In a vivid account, an anguished Hollands recalled what happened before the young soldier vanished into the Potomac:
Carter's body was not recovered after he drowned
 in the Potomac River on April 24, 1865. This 
cenotaph in West Suffield (Conn.) Cemetery
 honors the 20-year-old soldier.

"(Carter) grasped hold of the keel of the boat, or something else, and was hanging on for dear life and calling for help. One of the crew up in the rigging got hold of a rope and time and time again threw it to where the boy was, telling him to grab for it. The boy couldn't get hold of it. Every now and then a wave would wash over him and strangle him, and as he would emerge from it he would call for the rope. He finally became exhausted and cried out to us that he could hold out no longer. ... He said he was a drummer of Co. D, 16th Conn., and asked us to inform his mother that he was drowned. He bade us goodby, and as the next wave washed over him he loosened his hold and sank beneath the waves."

Even in Connecticut, the tragedy received scant attention in the press as the hunt for Booth continued. (On April 26, 1865, Booth was cornered on a Virginia farm and mortally wounded by a Union soldier.) Two days after accident, the Hartford Courant published a 185-word account in a Page 2 column of short stories that included news from Havana, Cuba. The names of the seven sons of the state who met their demise in the Potomac were not reported.

 16th Connecticut Private George N. Champlin's name appears on the side of his 
brother  Andrew's gravestone in Old Springs Cemetery in Stafford Springs, Conn. 

“We watched the New York papers a few days following the accident for an account of it, but I never saw any mention of it,” Hollands recalled in 1914. “In those days, however, the loss of a ship and a few men was not considered worth mentioning.”

A penny, Lincoln side up, atop Carter's memorial.
Sunk with its smokestack peering above the Potomac, the Black Diamond was considered too old and too damaged to recover. The Massachusetts, salvaged after the accident, was decommissioned in New York in September 1865. She was sold by the government in October 1867 and resumed commercial service early in 1868 under the name Crescent City. On Oct. 17, 1881, the steamer was involved in another tragedy. In dry dock at Pier 48 in the East River in New York, the Crescent City capsized, killing one of the ship’s employees. The unfortunate soul's body was never recovered. Eleven years later, the old Civil War vessel sailed for the final time.

In Connecticut, the young men who drowned in the Potomac 148 years ago are honored on memorials scattered throughout their home state. In West Suffield Cemetery, the words are barely legible on Carter’s weathered marker, his  last name misspelled "Carterr" on the reverse. A carving of a small drum, homage to his role in the 16th Connecticut, adorns the front of the monument. To honor Champlin, his name, regiment and the words "Drowned in the Potomac" are carved into the side of his brother Andrew's gravestone in a corner of Old Springs Cemetery in Stafford Springs. A brownstone memorial and a state-issued marker memorialize Loomis in Enfield Street Cemetery in Enfield. The names of Grosvenor, Robinson and Henry Loomis appear on war memorials in their hometowns. And under the barely legible words "Lost at Sea," Edward Smith's name is carved into the north face of a 25-foot memorial on a knoll in West Cemetery in Bristol.

Private Robinson’s body was recovered and buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Grave No. 8823. The bodies of the other six soldiers from Connecticut who drowned in the Potomac were never found.

The Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond about a mile
from Blackistone Island, now called St. Clements Island.

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


-- George W. Carter pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.
-- “Military and Biographical Data of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers,” George Q. Whitney Papers, RG 69:23, Boxes 7-8, Connecticut State Library.
-- Samuel E. Grosvenor diary, MS 81588, Connecticut Historical Society.
-- Hartford Courant, April 26, 1865.
-- Naval Historical Center.
-- New York Evening Express, Oct. 18, 1881.
-- The National Tribune, Jan. 29, 1914. May 14, 1914.
-- Relyea, William H, “The History of the 16th Connecticut Volunteers,” MS 72782, Connecticut Historical Society.
-- St. Clement's Island (Md.) Museum


  1. The grand-daughter, several times removed, of John Wilkes Booth lives in Barberton, OH.

    She is selling-off.a treasure trove of never-before-seen memorabilia from America's most important murder.
    The profits of which will be donated to assorted charities.

    This will be a private, on-line auction. Your credentials as a collector will be required.

  2. My 2nd great grandfather, Cunningham Johnston, a Pennsylvania private, was listed as "missing in action" as he was being transported back to his regiment on the Massachusetts. The account of his widow Elizabeth trying to secure a widow's pension from the US government for herself and four children is heartbreaking.

    1. Will: Do you have an image of Cunningham or any more info? I examined his pension record -- what a story. Best, John Banks

  3. Very interesting. I didn't know about this. I did read about the Sultana though.