Tuesday, August 04, 2015

16th Connecticut soldier William Nott survived Antietam, Andersonville and a little-known accident on Potomac

A post-war image of 16th Connecticut soldier William Nott. (Connecticut State Library)
On Nov. 23, 1908, 64-year-old William Nott started writing his remembrances of his remarkable service in the Union army.  A soldier in the 16th Connecticut, the son of a shoemaker survived the bloodiest day of the war, nearly eight months as a POW and a little-known accident on the Potomac River in which seven other soldiers in his regiment drowned.

Nott's family had deep roots the United States, so it was no surprise he took up arms in defense of the Union. His great-grandfather emigrated from England in 1636, settling in Wethersfield, Conn. His grandfather, William, captained the sloop Guilford during the Revolutionary War, and his father, John, served as a private in the American army during the War of 1812.

A copy of William Nott's post-war journal. (Blogger's collection)
"I have never regretted the step I then took in defense of my country and the Old Flag," Nott wrote in his 104-page journal regarding his enlistment in the Union army in Bristol on July 22, 1862. "... I would have willingly given my life for it."

He very nearly did.

In its first battle of the Civil War, at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the 16th Connecticut was routed in a hilly, 40-acre cornfield of a farmer named John Ottosuffering 75 killed or mortally wounded.

"We had never aught to have been put in [the battle]," wrote Nott, who was a private in Company K at Antietam, "but they needed us. Co. B was deployed as skirmishers right in front of us and between the Rebels, which was a great mistake because they knew nothing about a skirmishers duty, never being drilled on it. Consequences was ... when the Rebs came over the stone wall [the skirmishers] fell right back in front of us so that we could not fire on the Rebs without firing into our own men."

On the extreme left of the Union army that Wednesday afternoon, the lines of the 2nd Rhode Island and 16th Connecticut soon collapsed, and many in Nott's regiment scurried for cover. "Some of the boys got frightened and crawled down under the rocks and behind trees to protect themself, [sic]" he wrote. Others simply ran for their lives.

"We could not do our duty as soldiers that day in that cornfield, as we certainly would have done it if we had been properly drilled before putting us into that battle," Nott wrote in his journal.

                   The 16th Connecticut was routed in the 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.

Eighteen months later, on April 20, 1864, Nott and his comrades faced more hardship when they were captured nearly en masse at a Union garrison at Plymouth, N.C. Most of the 16th Connecticut was sent to Andersonville, a POW camp so terrible that Nott recalled seeing fellow prisoners lying in the open without protection from the elements, covered with maggots.  “The food they got,” he recalled of the sickly soldiers, “just past [sic] through them and lay right beside them. Ah, it was horrible.”  

Nott witnessed the worst humanity had to offer at Andersonville. The commander of the camp, Henry Wirz, blamed by many Yankees for their poor treatment there, was a "good representative of his Satanic majesty," Nott wrote. If a soldier crossed the camp boundary line, he risked getting a bullet through his head from one of the Rebel guards. "Men that were once strong and healthy," Nott noted about his fellow prisoners, "[were] reduced to walking skeletons and almost naked and smoked and sunburnt."

Nott and three of his 16th Connecticut comrades made a tent out of an army blanket for protection from the scorching sun and frequent downpours. Other POWs weren't as fortunate. Some slept in the mud, "just looking up to the skies and breathing the rains," recalled Nott, who spent nearly five months in Andersonville. After a rainstorm, maggots would crawl over prisoners' feet, nose and ears. "The swamp near where they slept was just one rolling, tumbling mass of maggots and filth," he remembered.

After he was paroled on Dec. 10, 1864,  Nott claimed he weighed 85 pounds, down from 165 pounds when he enlisted. He also had suffered in Rebel prisons in Charleston and Florence, S.C., following his departure from Andersonville.

Some prisoners at Andersonville, William Nott wrote in his journal, had no protection from
 the elements. (Library of Congress photo)

Even after the war officially ended, Nott couldn't escape tragedy. On April 23, 1865, Nott and 12 16th Connecticut soldiers boarded the USS Massachusetts with more than 300 other Union soldiers at Alexandria, Va. The army had ordered the soldiers to re-join their regiments to complete their terms of service. Nott and his comrades had just returned from 30-day furloughs.

Dozing aboard the Massachusetts with his comrades, Nott recalled being suddenly awakened around midnight by a crash as the steamer sailed down the Potomac.  The Massachusetts was about a mile from Maryland's Blackistone Island, near the mouth of the river. Shockingly, the 1,155-ton  vessel had knifed into the port side of the side-wheel steamer Black Diamond, damaging its boiler, slashing a hole down to the water line near the wheelhouse and stunning the 20 or so men aboard her. Meanwhile, 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 saw the other before the accident.

Days after the Potomac River tragedy, it received little
coverage in the Hartford Daily Courant.
The Black Diamond went under stern first in about three minutes, and the Massachusetts was crippled. “Water struck the fires under the boilers when she sank,” Nott wrote of the Black Diamond, “and filled the smoke stack full. Oh, the great dark hole in the water she made. I said this beats all I have ever seen, but I was saved once more and I thanked God.”

In all, at least 50 men drowned; one report noted that nearly 90 perished. Among the dead were seven soldiers in the 16th Connecticut, each a survivor of Antietam and Andersonville. “After all their suffering in the prisons pens, then to be drowned,” Nott wrote.“It seemed bad.”

After he finally returned home for good, Nott visited his family, including his cousin Charlie, who gave him a job painting his house -- the veteran's first job since his nearly three-year stint in the army. "We were citizens once more," he wrote in his journal, "and all was peace [and] our country was saved, and the Old Flag was again to float all over our beloved country and no traitor dare attempt to haul it down."

In 1869, Nott married a woman named Mary, with whom he fathered two children. A staunch Republican and a member of several veterans' organizations, he was one of  Bristol's more respected citizens. After he died in 1924, Nott was buried in  the town's West Cemetery among many of his former 16th Connecticut comrades.

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