Description

    U.S. Naval Officer Henry W. Washburn Archive of Civil War Letters and Documents, Including Letters from Two Texas POW Camps. Nearly thirty letters and documents, all dated between 1862 and 1873, relating to the Civil War and post-Civil War activities of U.S. Naval Master and Executive Officer Henry Washburn of Connecticut. Included in this archive are letters written by Washburn as he patrolled the Texas coast; reports of his capture; and letters from the two years he spent in two Texas POW camps. Also included are letters written after the war regarding Washburn's attempt (and later his wife's attempt) to secure a pension from the U.S. government. (All letters and documents referenced below are included in this archive. The quotations from those letters are reproduced as written.)

    When the Civil War began, Henry Washburn was a young married man with a wife and four children living in New London, Connecticut. He volunteered for the U.S. Navy and in February 1862, was appointed acting master and executive officer of the USS Morning Light, an eight-gun sailing vessel used by the U.S. Navy to blockade the Texas coastline and prevent Confederate merchant vessels from trading cotton with other nations. Two of the letters that Washburn wrote his wife from aboard the Morning Light as it patrolled the Texas coastline are included in this archive. Both letters are written to his wife Harriet and contain information about the navy's work along the coast of Texas. In the first letter, dated November 2, 1862, Washburn wrote that the ship had "been cruising off the coast of Texas for the past 4 or 5 weeks or ever since the fight at Galveston [the First Battle of Galveston, October 1862]." In that same letter, he told of forays under his command into the Texas countryside to destroy Confederate salt works near Cedar Lake. In one raid, the sailor wrote that when he and his men landed on the coast, they were confronted with Texans who "were on the lookout for us." A fight ensued in which one of Washburn's men was taken prisoner and "one man was killed and three wounded. I killed one of the Rebels and think wounded a few of the others. I got shot in my left elbow not to hurt, but just a good miss. It scorched the skin a little making two holes in my coast sleeves."

    In January, Acting Master John Dillingham, commander of the Morning Light, was ordered to blockade the Sabine Pass. While there, Washburn wrote Harriet on January 10, 1863, lambasting the government's management of the war and the profiteering that was occurring at the expense of the soldiers and sailors: "You ask when will this horrid War end. I know as little about it as you do. from the manner it is conducted by the Government at Washington or the Officers in charge I suppose it looks as if it would end in about 5 years in the South gaining the day. Our people do not seem to be in earnest in anything except getting large contracts to make money out of the Government. . . . The North has all the advantages and the troops can fight as well as the South if the Politicians would let the army alone. . . . Still everything must be done according to the ideas of a few who are trying to feather their nest by getting office or a good fat contract say for shoes for the sailors. I bought 3 pairs neither of them lasted 3 weeks paid $1.77 a pair the soldiers shoes are as bad or worse."

    On January 21, 1863, two Confederate steamers, the Uncle Ben and the Bell, approached the Morning Light and the USS Velocity at the Sabine Pass. The steamers, padded with bales of cotton, attacked the two Union vessels. The Confederates easily won the battle and took captive the crews of the two Union ships, including Washburn. Shortly thereafter, Dillingham and Washburn filed a report totaling six pages with details of the battle and surrender. Dillingham's report (two and one-half pages), reads in part, "Being at anchor off Sabine Pass in company with prize Schnr 'Velocity' on the blockade my attention was called about 4 PM to two Confederate steamers. . . . The Steamers approached us rapidly & commenced firing. . . . I felt obliged to make an unconditional surrender. . . . The ship was taken in tow by the J. H. Bell. . . . The Velocity being boarded & overpowered surrendered at the same time of the Morning Light fortunately without casualties. We were all taken prisoners on board the J. H. Bell & landed at Sabine about 5 PM. We had one man killed, one fatally wounded & nine seriously wounded with splinters & spent balls. The ship was severly cut up both by cannonading from the steamers & musketry. . . . The two steamers were manned by about 400 men, while we had but 110."

    Washburn writes in his account (three and one-half pages) that while Captain Dillingham was in the process of surrendering the ship, Washburn attempted to repel the Confederates who were positioning themselves to board the Morning Light, but "no attention was paid to my wish to Repel Boarders." In the meantime, "Capt. D[illingham] called out several times I surrender taking off his Cap and waving it." The Confederates burned the Morning Light two days later.

    Washburn informed his wife of his capture on January 23, "My Dear Wife . . . We are all here [Sabine Pass] as prisoners awaiting the orders of Genl. [John B.] Magruder. Are very kindly treated and our personal property respected. I am pleased to think I have fell into the hands of as fine a set of gentleman as those I have seen so far."

    For the next two years and two months, the sailor was confined in two separate Texas POW camps, Camp Groce and Camp Ford. Camp Groce, the first permanent Confederate POW camp in Texas, was just outside Hempstead, Texas. From there on October 7, 1863, the prisoner informed his wife that new POWs had arrived, making their number near 400. He also complained that they still had not been exchanged: "If the Department is dissatisfied with my conduct on the 21st of January '63 they should get me where they can investigate my conduct and actions. I was not aware the ship was to be surrendered until after the colors were down some time. I felt then and do feel now as base as any one can and would like to be where I could justify myself the government is loosing my services all the while I am here and it is unjust to keep us here so long if it can be avoided." Two newspaper clippings offer hints that Washburn and the other Morning Light POWs weren't released because Dillingham had violated his parole. One clipping reads, "Master Dillingham in offering his services to command a vessel at Mobile was in violation of his parole, and will lead to the retention of the paroles for the remainder of the officers confined in Texas."

    Within the next few months, Washburn was moved 184 miles northeast to Camp Ford, near Tyler, Texas. Named in honor of Texan John S. "Rip" Ford, the prison camp opened in 1863 and soon became the largest Confederate prison camp west of the Mississippi River. From there, Washburn wrote his wife on April 4, 1864, "I am still a 'Prisoner of War' in Texas with a very slight prospect of being exchanged. . . . . We console one another by saying we hope our Government will remember that there is such a place as Texas." In the mean time, one hundred residents of New London signed an undated letter to Naval Secretary Gideon Welles requesting that he secure the release of Washburn.

    Finally, in a letter dated March 2, 1865, Admiral H. K. Thatcher informed Washburn, "As you have been for sometime a prisoner in Texas you have permission to go North by the first public conveyance . . . considering yourself a paroled prisoner." Other letters notifying Washburn that he was free are also included in this archive, such as one signed by Fleet Captain S. R. Franklin, and another signed by Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles on March 23, 1865: "From the enclosed General Order No. 40, issued by the War Department on the 20th inst. you will perceive that you are exchanged. Keep the Department advised of any change in your residence & on the condition of your health." Included with Welles' letter are General Orders, No. 40, March 20, 1865, ordering that all POWS "not heretofore declared exchanged . . . will be ordered to their respective commands."

    After his release, Washburn received orders to report to two other ships, but he had contracted a disease in the prison camps and was too sick to report. (Those Navy Department orders are included in this collection, including a Gideon Welles letter signed, dated April 24, 1865, ordering Washburn to "proceed to Philadelphia . . . and report to Commodore J. B. Hull for duty on board the U.S.S. 'Sabine.'" [A true copy of this letter, secretarially-signed, is also included.])

    Washburn was honorably discharged in April 1866. Ill and disabled, he spent much of the next four years trying to secure a pension from the U.S. government. (This archive includes several letters from the Treasury Department and the Interior Department updating Washburn on his pending "Invalid Pension".) He died on October 11, 1870, from the disease he had contracted in Texas. Harriet filed claims for a widow's pension (several letters from various government departments concerning her claim are included). In September 1873, she received a certificate from the Pension Bureau, dated September 1873, notifying her that she "has been allowed at $20. Per month . . . payable at the Pension Agency in Hartford, Conn." According to the certificate, she would also receive an additional $2 per month for each of her four children.

    Other letters are also included, such as a Gideon Welles letter signed July 28, 1866, notifying Washburn, "In reply to your letter of the 22nd inst. you are informed that the Department has no authority to compensate you for personal effects taken from you by the rebel." Many of the letters in this collection have transmittal envelopes. All included material has been well-cared-for and certainly merits further research.


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