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    Fascinating letters from a Marine who served as a personal guard for Admiral John Dahlgren

    U.S. Marine Corporal Charles Leaman Archive, consisting of almost 100 letters to family members dated from December 9, 1862, through November 7, 1865 (three letters are dated 1869-1871). Corporal Leaman, a well-educated teenager with an eye for detail, served as one of Rear Admiral John Dahlgren's personal guards and orderlies. (Dahlgren was the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, a command which stretched from southern Florida to North Carolina). While serving Admiral Dahlgren onboard the squadron's flagship, Leaman had unusual access to information and experiences, including being with the admiral onboard the USS Harvest Moon when a Rebel torpedo struck it. Civil War letters written by Marines are rare, but a collection of letters from a Marine with this kind of access is particularly rare and important. The letters are wonderfully presented, chronologically arranged with transcriptions for each letter in four binders, each reading in guilt on the front, "The Civil War Collection of Corporal Charles Leaman United States Marine Corps." These letters are in very good condition.

    Charles Leaman hailed from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of sixteen (he forged his father's signature on the enlistment) at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. As a Marine, he was part of the unit used to retake Fort Sumter in the fall of 1863 at the Battle of Fort Sumter (September 8, 1863). After that battle, he was named Admiral Dahlgren's guard and orderly and assigned to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Spending much time with Admiral Dahlgren gave the young Marine special access to significant news, much of which Leaman includes in his letters. During his time with the admiral, Leaman aided Dahlgren as he tried to retrieve his son's body after he was killed during the Dahlgren Affair, an unsuccessful raid in 1864 which might have included the goal of assassinating President Jefferson Davis.

    Leaman writes the first letter of the archive from the Washington Navy Yard on December 9, 1862, giving his earliest impressions of Marine Corps life. In the second letter, dated December 22, 1862, he explains to his sister why he joined: "I did not rush into this thing as quick as you may think. . . . I had thought about enlisting in the U.S.M.C. ever since I saw the advertisement in the Ledger. And I had always had an idea of joining the army which I guess you all know." Months later on June 1, 1863, he gives details about a group of Confederate prisoners, one who had been wounded: "They were a very hard looking set both ragged and dirty and had hardly any shoes for they say they sold their own to get something to buy grub or they would of starved. . . . A sentry wounded one of them for getting out of the lines a little when he did not know it going for a bucket of water. He was shot through the jaw with buck shot taking away all the teeth and gum of the lower jaw. When he would go take a drink of water it would run out through the opening in his neck."

    On June 15, 1863, just days before Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Maryland-Pennsylvania border into the Keystone State, Leaman, a Pennsylvania native, noted that he was glad "old Penna is not going to be late in getting her forces to defend her borders this time, and although I do not think there is much danger of her being invaded." The Rebel invasion of Pennsylvania left Leaman and his family back home in Lancaster County, just fifty-five miles northeast, very nervous. The Battle of Gettysburg began sixteen days later. In his next letter, dated July 13, Leaman was joyful that his family "again felt yourselves secure from the Rebs." He continues, "Meade has routed Lee at Sharpsburg and that the latter is retreating to Williamsport which if it is true, leaves you doubly secure and all so Penna. and Maryland. . . . I think that the putting of Meade in Hooker's place was the best thing that ever happened to the Army of the Potomac."

    In the early fall of 1863, Leaman and other Marines were sent to Morris Island, South Carolina, to support Admiral Dahlgren's campaign to capture Charleston. In his letter dated September 10, 1863, Leaman writes from Morris Island, off the coast of South Carolina and near Charleston describing his participation in the failed attempt to retake Fort Sumter on September 8. "I received your letter yesterday just after returning from an expedition of sailors and Marines against Fort Sumter. . . . Some twenty of each company, making in all about a hundred were ordered to get ready with canteen, haversacks, and blanket. . . . We were then taken alongside of the flag ship where after it getting dark we were out on launches which were about thirty in number. And about twelve o'clock as near as I could judge we towed down as near to the fort as the steamer could go and there we were cut. . . . Just as we got our position the sentry fired after challenging us. . . . In a minute up went a rocket and in a minute up we heard the guns from Moultrie, Johnson and the batteries on Sullivan's Island. . . . I hear there are 140 or 150 of us killed, wounded and missing. . . . The trench which we were in and which would have had to have been gone over in a charge was about the depth of two men. Pointing upwards where you jump down in the trench is a row of pointed stakes, with any number of lances or boarding pikes covered over with sand. After getting over that you come on planks with iron spikes in them and they can flood it. . . . We stopped there about half an hour and were ordered back."

    The day after the battle, Leaman was assigned as a guard and orderly in Admiral Dahlgren's detail. As such, he was transferred to the flagship of the squadron. On September 17, 1863, from "Flag Ship, S. A. Blackg Sqdn," he recounts to his sister his first impressions of the admiral, which were mostly unfavorable. "I was ordered to pack up to go on board of a ship, which I son found to be the flag ship. . . . There was eight of us detailed here from the Battalion as orderlies for the Admiral. . . . He seems to be and of course is, in a great streach of mind, and I think if it continues long will be more than his body can stand, for he appears very weak and to see him walk you would think him a man of seventy or eighty, and he is very iratable from what I can learn he has everything ready to commence most any day."

    One of the goals of the squadron was to take Charleston (and Fort Sumter, in the Charleston Bay). Being on the squadron's flagship put Leaman at risk of harm. On October 7, 1863, from "Flsg Ship Phila" in the Charleston Harbor, the Marine describes the Rebel attempt to destroy the admiral's ship by ramming it with the bomb-laden CSS David. "The Rebels night before last made a desperate attempt to blow up the Ironsides, and actually did succeed so far as to explode one torpedo under here, but did not damage her in the least. . . . The torpedo contained sixty lbs. of powder and was carried in front of them and as they pushed it under it was maid to go off. . . . They did not get into place right under or it might have been a serious thing." A Confederate prisoner was "fetched on board here yesterday morning and was taken before the Admiral and came out as scared a man as you ever saw. The Admiral told him he was an assassin and that he should prepair to die, the he was going to hang him and ordered him in double irons. . . ." Meanwhile, Union artillery continued shelling Fort Sumter: "Gen. [Quincy Adams] Gilmore commenced last Munday . . . a pretty steady fire. The monitors going in a while every day and on Munday about four o'clock the Reb Ram came out a piece but a little monitor moveing up gave her a broad hit which she took and moved back. The fireing is principally at Sumter" (letter dated October 29, 1863). In his next epistle (November 3), Leaman notes that he has "a first rate view of Sumter from the upper deck of our vessel [the USS Philadelphia] with a spyglass, which presents a ragged appearance being combed all the way around, and some of the gaps appearing to extent halfway, and more down the side, which make it look like a forlorn hope for those inside."

    As a member of Dahlgren's guard, Leaman's letters became longer and more interesting. In his letter of December 6, 1863, the Marine describes the sinking of the ironclad Weehawken while anchored off Morris Island ("the heavy load of coal, and ammunition caused her to sink very rapidly. . . . The admiral seemed very much hurt, and I think he has reason to be, for he called her his best Monitor"). Confederate torpedoes were also a constant worry. On January 28, 1864, Leaman describes a Rebel "torpedo", and on February 22, he tells of a Union ironside that was nearly sunk by a torpedo.

    On March 2, 1864, Admiral Dahlgren's son, Ulric, was killed in Richmond during the Dahlgren Affair, a possible assassination attempt on Confederate President Jefferson Davis. One theory was that President Lincoln authorized this assassination attempt, which might have instigated the events that led up to his own assassination. Admiral Dahlgren learned on March 8 from President Lincoln of the death of his son. In a group of letters written in March and April, Leaman informs his family of the admiral's struggle to deal with his grief and to retrieve his son's body. "The Admiral has not left the ship or no one has been to see him since we arrived." Mr. Johnson, an ensign, "brings back word to the Admiral that there is only one man knows where his son is buried, and that they will fix him up and forward the body to Washington."

    In the next few weeks, Leaman sent several fascinating letters home. In one dated July 7, 1864, he recounts monitor and ironclad warfare ("The Monitors when engaged are a short distance above them, and are so close to the Rebs that they can see what damage the shells do with the naked eye. They can see the Rebels in their rifle pits thrown clean out of there, musket and all"). In another, he complains about the treatment of POWs at Andersonville Prison ("the manner that our prisoners are treated at Andersonville in Camp Sumter is scandalous and we may be thankfull that they are being removed from that slaughter pen" [September 19, 1864]). In yet another, he makes political comments ("we had rumors that Abe was elected, but I did not expect him to get such a splendid majority" [November 21, 1864]). In the final weeks of 1864, Leaman mentions General Sherman's March to the Sea very often, though he didn't always have accurate information about Sherman's plans or locations. On November 21, 1864, Leaman writes, "I see it reported that Sherman is marching on Savannah or Charleston. It was rumored here a few days ago that he was twenty five miles in the rear of the battery, but I have not yet heard any thing more of it since. . . . There is certainly no troops in Charleston to oppose him." In mid-December, Leaman and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron assisted Sherman upon his arrival at the Atlantic Ocean in Savannah: "The Admiral is more particularly called now to Savannah, and other points along the coast below this in order that nothing may be left undone to assist Sherman in his great movement" (December 15, 1864). On December 23, after Sherman had successfully arrived at Savannah, Lehman reports to his sister that he had "seen Sherman a few hundred yards off the other day. . . . He is a man, I judge, about 5 ft. 11 inches. Rather slim, but not poor." Leaman later had a chance to visit with some of the soldiers who marched through Georgia with Sherman. In a letter dated January 4, 1865, he records that "they speak with the greatest delight of the march they have had. They lived on the best of everything. . . . Each man had his darky to carry things for him." That evening, Leaman writes, he "had another good look at Sherman . . . he was on board to see the Admiral." On January 31, Leaman notes that "The Admiral seems to be doing all he can to be ready to cooperate with Sherman if the attack [on Charleston] is made." Twenty days later on February 19, Leaman admits that "Sherman's movements are certainly mysterious to us, as well as the enemy, and I am beginning to doubt in my own mind his serious intentions on Charleston." Sherman did not choose to go to Charleston, but the squadron did. There they witnessed the Confederate evacuation of the city, which expected Sherman to arrive: "There were quite a number of shabby looking people on the wharfe to greet us. . . . [Charleston] is a terribly shabby looking place and will require a considerable amount of Yankee ingenuity to repair the dameage done by fire and shell." On March 13, Leaman recounts his visit to Charleston after the evacuation ("there is nothing destroyed in town more to be regretted than the fine libraries").

    One of the most fascinating letters of this collection is Leaman's account to his sister on March 6, 1865, of the sinking of the USS Harvest Moon-Leaman and Admiral Dahlgren were onboard. The Harvest Moon was a steam-operated gunboat which hit a Confederate torpedo in Winyah Bay, South Carolina: "We struck on a torpedo and in four minutes (on who timed her says) we were on the bottom in fifteen or sixteen feet of water, the water being knee deep on the berth deck. The resting on the bottom was a lucky one for it saved us from the unpleasant and cold swim awaiting us. . . . One man was killed instantly by the explosion. He was the Ward Room steward (colored)."

    In his letters written shortly after Lee surrendered to Grant, Leaman mourns the assassination of President Lincoln ("We are just the mournful recipients of the horrible news: The President Assassinate," April 19, 1865) and recounts the capture of Jefferson Davis, who was disguised as a woman ("we had the news of the capture of the 'old woman'. . . . I would give considerable for his picture in his most suitable costume," May 23, 1865).

    This is a fascinating Marine archive of letters with significant content regarding the Civil War. Leaman records many more observations on diverse subjects, including news of a sailor who accidentally shot himself; picking up at sea suspicious Rebel "deserters"; the sinking of the ironclad monitor USS Patapsco ("The terribbillness of the catastrophy cannot be described and the feeling of the sufferors cannot be imagined" [January 24, 1864]); rumors of slave atrocities in South Carolina; the witness of gruesome injuries; and much more. After the war, Leaman graduated from seminary and moved with his family to China to serve as a missionary.


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    October, 2014
    8th-9th Wednesday-Thursday
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