Three-day cruise turned into ‘Two Years Before the Mast’

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 10, 2013, at 2:44 p.m.

For Capt. Charles Mattocks of the 17th Maine Infantry, a three-day cruise from Boston to Virginia in September 1863 likely felt like “Two Years Before the Mast.”

After incurring heavy casualties in The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, the 17th Maine (and just about every Maine outfit fighting anywhere down South) needed able-bodied men. The dreaded draft had started yanking conscripts into the regimental ranks; a few hundred warm bodies had “joined” the 17th Maine by late summer, but someone had to go north to round ’em up and bring ’em south.

Drawing the assignment on Monday, July 27, while camped near Warrenton, Va., Mattocks could dare to believe “the idea that after so long a period in active service and with 350 miles of marching, we are once more to see the civilized world …”

Each regiment would send three officers and six enlisted men home to bring conscripts and assorted volunteers to Virginia to bolster battle- and disease-thinned ranks. Mattocks could not wait to depart the war zone; he was in no hurry to return.

When “we arrived safely in the good city of Portland” at noon Friday, July 31, the 17th Maine contingent reported to Maj. Russell Shepherd, who commanded Camp Abe Lincoln in Portland.

“We shall not have a great deal to do at present,” Mattocks concluded after touring the conscript clearing house guarded by “men of the old Regiments.”

As the draft dragged more unwilling men into uniform, some conscripts deserted before they ever saw a Confederate or fired a rifled musket. To reduce desertion opportunities, “the Conscript Camp is now on Mackies’ Island” (Mackworth Island) in Falmouth, Mattocks told his diary. Although “the steamer [to Portland] runs three trips a day,” the “conscripts will have hard work to escape,” he figured.

On Saturday, Aug. 22, he admitted that “I have not written in my Diary of late because there is nothing to write. Two days of duty and five [days] of loafing tell the story of a week with me.”

But Army business was picking up. One hundred conscripts departed to join the 19th Maine on Monday, Aug. 24. By Tuesday, Sept. 8, “the prospect now is that the 17th will get its 200 men soon as they are accumulating very rapidly,” Mattocks noted.

“They are a better lot than the average, being from the Eastern part of the State,” including many conscripts from Aroostook County, he observed.

Within 24 hours Mattocks, Capt. Joseph Perry, and 103 conscripts shipped for Long Island off Boston. Mattocks counted noses as his cargo went ashore at 4 a.m. Sept. 10; “we … got every man here — a thing which has not been done before,” he bragged to his diary.

Not that all conscripts came willingly. Accompanied “by a guard of six non-commissioned officers,” Mattocks brought along six “New York bounty-jumpers in irons — locked together in pairs.” Caught offering a guard $600 to let them escape in Portland, the New Yorkers “are sharkers … one man did get his hand out of the irons” and reached the steamer’s  deck “before he was discovered,” noted Mattocks, for whom “The Voyage of the Damned” had just begun.

Mattocks drilled his conscripts three hours a day on Long Island. Two more 17th Maine officers brought “90 more men” ashore on Saturday, Sept. 12; “they started with 92 and lost 2 on the way,” Mattocks told his diary.

On Sept. 16 he proudly reported that “we have got the conscripts well in hand now — have a guard-mounting — boots blacked — equipment ditto &c. (etc.) &c. & so on ad infinitum.” Six “non-comd (commissioned) officers from Mass. Regiments had joined the conscripts’ guards” — just in case.

Piling aboard the steamer Forest City, Mattocks and company departed Long Island at 5 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19. A “N.H. Detachment” bound for Virginia shipped with the Maine conscripts, who “are just beginning to be sea sick,” Mattocks wrote.

He quickly added a figurative “me, too.”

Trouble soon began.

The Forest City was only a short time outbound from Boston when Mattocks went below deck and discovered “a ring” of conscripts encircling “a couple of conscripts” attempting to pummel each other with their fists. “I slipped in and gave them both a good choking,” he confided to his diary the next day.

“A few minutes” later Joe Perry found two more conscripts fighting. “When “he ‘went in’ to separate them … about a half-a-dozen pitched on to him,” Mattocks described more below-deck mayhem.

The thugs had picked the wrong man. Perry, “with the assistance of a 1st Sergt., succeeded in quieting them by giving them a few clips [likely to the head] and drawing their revolvers. They got roughly handled by the ex-Policeman,” Mattocks mentioned Perry’s former civilian occupation.

Later that too-long-by-far Saturday, “a drunken scoundrel belonging to the N.H. Detachment … got a severe kick over the eye” after picking “a quarrel with a sentinel,” Mattocks reported. When he went below deck to investigate the incident, “one of the ‘roughs’ made a pass at me behind my back” while attempting to mug Mattocks, but the thug “was brought up very suddenly by one of my own men.”

A fed-up Joe Perry “was quite conspicuous in tying up the man, and consequently they threaten vengeance to him,” Mattocks reported.

As for the drunken conscript, he “was too free with his tongue,” so “I ordered him strung up in the rigging.” This involved dragging the conscript on deck, where the NCOs — combat veterans who tolerated no insubordination — gagged the malefactor with a bayonet, lashed him “in the rigging, tied by [his] hands and feet,” and left him there for two hours, Mattocks reported.

“Some of the N.H. roughs undertook to make a rush and cut him down,” but the battle-hardened guards lowered their loaded rifles tipped with 17-inch bayonets. “We were all ready to give them a warm reception,” Mattocks wrote, intimating that shooting a few malcontents would not bother him.

The Forest City cruised southward. Steaming “about 11 knots an hour” in a “quite rough” sea off Cape May, N.J., the Forest City expressed throughout her hull every wave encountered by late afternoon on Sunday. “Many of the men have been ‘throwing up Jonah’ today,” the seasick Mattocks noted.

After stopping at Fort Monroe, Va., at noon Monday, the Forest City then “steamed down [Hampton Roads] to Portsmouth, Va., and landed our New Hampshire Detachment — 200 men — the merest trash — hardly worthy to be called men,” he happily reported later that day. The steamer retraced its course to Fort Monroe before sailing after dark for the Potomac River and Alexandria, Va.

That night a boat hand “was caught selling liquor” to a conscript, “so this morning” the perp “was tied up in the rigging [and apparently gagged with a bayonet] … for about an hour,” Mattocks wrote on Tuesday.

“Whiskey has been sold for $5 & $7 a half-pint by these scamps,” he groused about the exorbitant prices charged privates who earned only $13 a month.

On this excellent Sept. 22 “we are sailing — or rather steaming along the old Potomac at a fine rate,” Mattocks wrote. Now shipshape, he looked forward to “the trip back” to Maine.

So the good ship Forest City arrived at Alexandria that evening, and Mattocks “turned over my men and got a receipt” for them. “[I] have not lost a man, but the officer to whom I delivered them had lost five already,” he growled on Wednesday.

About 16 hours ashore, and five Maine conscripts had already deserted the standards: Oh, well, such was the way of life when dealing with men who did not want to defend their country.

For the happy Charles Mattocks, his “Two Years Before the Mast” was over, and after sailing into Portland Harbor on Tuesday, Sept. 29, he could admit that “I am glad enough to get back.”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/10/news/three-day-cruise-turned-into-two-years-before-the-mast/ printed on October 31, 2014