A Yankee's Journey
In 2016, I went to New Bern, NC in order to research my great-great-great-grandfather Charles H. Webber, who served as a drummer in the Civil War from 1861-1864. Native to Beverly, MA, Charles was mustered in at age sixteen to the Massachusetts 23rd infantry regiment. For a large part of that time, his troop was stationed in New Bern, NC, but he also saw several other battles, including Roanoke Island, Goldsboro, Kinston, Whitehall, Carolina City, and Fort Macon. I am grateful to my host, Richard Parsons, whose historical and cultural knowledge were instrumental to understanding the neighborhoods, battle sites, and the context of New Bern during its occupation by the U.S. army.
Clearly, Charles's perception of the South was colored by the war itself and by his Massachusetts upbringing. I kept in my mind the image of the drums as I imagined him playing for his fellow soldiers, serving his country and his flag as he believed in his heart that he was doing. (The photo on the right is from a museum in Boston, featuring Civil War drums like the one he would have played).
"In fact the South is a wild and uncultured piece of God's footstool and it is made up of uncivilized rebels who are equal to heathens, swamps, ditches, clay, woods, brick yards, aligators [sic], snakes of all kinds, lizards, wood ticks, scorpions, sheep, wild hogs, negroes, and all other such reptiles and quadripeds [sic]...The Lord deliver me from the Southern States."
-Charles Webber, in a letter to his parents, April 14, 1862
New Bern was a peaceful, agreeable town. I met pleasant folks who were always eager to meet a stranger. I took in New Bern's history and tried to imagine what it was like during the 1800's when Charles Webber lived. As I strolled a neighborhood, a father-daughter music duo serenaded passersby from their front porch.
Anyone who has visited the South will tell you that bit of sympathy for the old confederacy still exists, even in the 21st century. You can see it in the surviving symbology of “stars and bars” and “Bonnie Blue” flags; you can read it in street names and monuments to confederate generals and troops; and you can hear it in subtle comments and jokes alluding to, as Mr. Parsons put it, “the late unpleasantness” of the North’s occupation of Southern cities and towns.
Retracing Lost Steps
Tracing Charles Webber's footsteps was as exciting as it was informative. I was able to study my family's collection of more than 200 letters written by and to Charles during his years of service, as well as a sketchbook he kept using colored pencils. These letters and sketches gave details about what he did, where, and when. At the beginning of his service, his troop marched from Beverly all the way through Annapolis and into the South, camping out in tents. He writes of entering the Neuss River by boat on March 19th, 1862 at 3pm and anchored 9 miles from New Bern. There, Charles and the other drummers were put to work carrying guns ashore and wading through water up to their knees, also pulling wheeled cannons through the sand on the shore.
While occupying New Bern, Charles performed the reveille, or the daily beating of drums to wake the soldiers, as well as to begin other activities. In one of his earliest letters, he describes his daily routine:
“Our duty is as follows: Turn out at 1⁄4 of 6 in the morning and beat the reveille. 1⁄2 past 6 beat the surgeons call. At 7 the fatigue call. 1⁄2 past 7 breakfast call. We have to stand out on the parade ground from 1⁄4 of 6 until 1⁄2 past 7 in order to beat those calls. We then go into breakfast and turn out again at 8 o’clock and beat the first sergeants call at 1⁄2 past 8. Beat the assembly for guard mounting then form on a line with the guard and stand until they are mounted which is not through with until 1⁄2 past 9. We are then kept out until 12 o’clock either taking lessons on the drum or drilling on flanking and marching. At 1⁄2 past 12 we beat the dinner call and then go in and eat it with relish, that is if there is any relish to soup after having it every day in the week and Sundays besides. At 1⁄2 past 2 we beat the assembly for company, drill our battalion drill whichever it may be...At 4 o’clock we beat the assembly for dress parade and then take over position on the right of the regiment and stand there until the parade is over. We are then dismissed until 8 o’clock in the evening when we go out and beat the assembly for the company roll call, go in and at 1⁄2 past 9 we end the daily duties by beating the tattoo," (written to his parents, Dec. 28, 1861).
Once stationed at New Bern, the companies alternated in performing what was known as “picket duty.” Company G, in which Charles served as one of about 150 soldiers, took on picket duty several times throughout their occupation of New Bern, camping a few miles outside the city as the first line of defense against rebel intrusions. Fortunately for Charles, being a drummer, he never needed to fire a gun. While on guard duty, starting in May of 1862, Charles worked as the “company clerk,” keeping the company journal, filling out morning reports, keeping track of costs, and other clerical tasks. Throughout this time, Charles wrote home often, asking his family to send food items, money, white paper, sketchbooks, some woolen shirts, books to read, and photographs of his siblings.
The soldiers were bunked together in quarters that were not unreasonable; or, at least, Charles never complained about them. A greater concern of his was the food. Most days, they lived on small portions of salted pork, steamed rice, “hard tack,” “salt junk,” and “old hoss.” Occasionally, such as on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the regiment feasted. But also, there were the grueling realities of the duties of war. Before arriving at New Bern, the soldiers of the 23rd Massachusetts Regiment had braved the battle of Roanoke Island, one of the brigades led by General Burnside. This would have been Charles’s first experience with the bloodshed and uncertainty of brute war. In his letter dated March 19, 1862, he describes in detail the physical experiences of war, such as having to sleep outside in the grass during a night of pouring rain. Charles even adds that he saw General Burnside helping a sick man back to the nearest house.
Fort Macon and Bogue Banks
Tourists visit Fort Macon, near the Bogue Banks, and get a rifle demonstration. I was the only one from the west coast.
In November of 1862, a rumor came about that General Longsheet was on his way with an army of 30,000 confederate troops (which was surely an exaggeration) to recapture New Bern. Charles described his roommates getting up frequently in the middle of the night, anxious about this attack. But it never took place, for in the morning came a thick fog that made battle impossible. However, in February 1864, a surprise attack on New Bern did take place, in which an estimated 1500 “rebs” managed to get close to the town, but they did not manage to enter. Charles apparently had contact with some rebel prisoners taken from this attack, which he described as “meek as lambs while in our possession...but they alter their tune when they get among their folks,” (Feb. 9, 1864). The union soldiers easily defended their captured city without much fear. As an 18-year-old Charles wrote in closing one of his letters to his mother: “Do not be alarmed yet," (Feb. 2, 1864).
As a writer myself, some of the letters that intrigue me most are the ones in which Charles describes where he was and what he was doing while writing. For example, he wrote one of his letters below a dim lantern while leaning against a horse stall in the barn. Another letter he wrote to his father while “in a very squal-up position...on top of the water tank lying flat upon my stomach," (undated letter). And in another, perhaps my favorite one, he wrote, “I have taken off my shoes...my drum sitting in between my legs, with my paper and ink resting upon [them]...describing to you the position in which I now sit,” (May 20, 1863). This is the passage next to which he drew a sketch of himself “getting shells” from the beach near Fort Macon on Bogue Island. As I walked through those same sands thinking of my ancestor, I even picked up a few shells myself! (Probably not the same kind of shells...)
Healing the Wounds
During the Civil War, part of the union’s war strategy, as I learned, was to capture the South’s major ports and trade cities in order to “cut off supplies” to the interior, particularly to the confederate capital of Richmond. Perhaps it was a grave omission by the "Yankee" history books of my upbringing, but I had never fully understood the implications. For the townsfolk, it meant starvation, poverty, and sometimes death. It meant the deprivation of basic goods and comforts, and it meant the beginnings of a lasting trauma upon the collective consciousness of all those whose cities were infiltrated, whose houses were burned, and whose livelihood (in as much as it was dependent on the institution of slavery) was challenged to its very core. This experience was what Mr. Parsons had described as "the late unpleasantness" his own ancestors had experienced. But he helped me see it as an educational trip to lament and grieve for our ancestors who fought and suffered in past wars. Indeed, I felt that this trip was a healing experience for both of us. Mr. Parsons was delightful company and showed me his Confederate flag, while I entertained on his antique harpsichord.
In Charles Webber's words:
"God grant that...the north and south shall again be united and be as in former days the greatest and noblest republic upon record, that all rebellious feelings shall be wiped out, all prejudice be thrown aside, and the ties of harmonious friendship and brotherhood be bound so strongly..." (Dec. 12, 1863).
However, it would be 20 more years before Webber would return to the south during another, more mysterious chapter of his life...and four more years before I would travel to investigate it myself...