This letter was written by a senior officer aboard the Monitor Montauk who signed his name “A. H. Johnson.” Unfortunately I have not yet been able to identify him.
The letter was addressed to Colonel Edwin Metcalf (1823-1894), a Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhode Island state legislator, who resigned his seat to enlist in the army on August 27, 1861. He was commissioned as major of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, and immediately made a name for himself and his regiment when he led the first battalion in the battle of Secessionville. He was promoted to Colonel and transferred to command the new 11th Rhode Island Infantry with the Army of the Potomac in September 1862. Less than two months later, he was transferred back to the 3rd Rhode Island to help revitalize the regiment after yellow fever had ravaged the ranks. He commanded the regiment and served as Chief of Artillery until January 1864, when he returned to Providence on medical leave. He resigned due to illness on February 5, 1864.
[Note: The header image is of the crew of the Monitor Lehigh which was a sister ship of the Monitor Montauk.]
Stono Inlet, South Carolina
August 26th 1864
Accept my most sincere thanks, dear Colonel, for your kind and very interesting favor of the 3rd instant—lately received. I trust you will frequently “Core” me in this way, for it recalls old and pleasant associations when Fort “Pulaski” had its welcome, its attractions of intelligent society and discipline, and where a rough Salt such as I could linger in admiration of the movements in dress parade of these fine fellows of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery under your command; and pray tell me, what has become of that graceful Adjutant Gorton who went home and got married on a leave of absence! He was truly for Union—Land and Heart, one and inseparable, now and forever.”
Bailey, I hear, is still at the Fort with the same staff which gave executive ability to the command. Of Walker—our friend—I know nothing. Where is he, Colonel, for I entertain towards him the sentiments of esteem and friendship!
The other day I met the Chaplain of the 3rd Rhode Island [Frederic Denison]—the Cockspur Poet, and in our conversation had he not been a divine, I verily believe he would have damned Seymour about that private journal business. I would have damned him had he been a messenger from the clouds, as false to all scared instincts in the inspection of such a volume. By the way, I was on board the Flagship, a witness of the recent exchange of prisoners before Charleston, of which this same Seymour was one of them. Friend, in the excitement and rejoicing of the moment, pressed me to an introduction; but if you know the proud feelings of my nature, Colonel, you need not ask my reply.
Well, here I am, Senior Officer in Stono Inlet—only for repairs to my iron castle, but yet not free from the responsibilities of official age versus rank, for I have just been arranging with Colonel commanding A[lfred] S[teadman] Hartwell of the 55th Massachusetts—a good fellow—an important expedition for this morning in which if he can spare me two hundred men, I shall be successful in the execution of my plans under cover of one of the gunboats. If he does not give me the assistance I require as a land force, I shall push Jack Tar in the field, and singular coincidence—that brave and noble fellow Chaplain of the “Dai-Ching” is associated with me again.
Strictly entre-nous [between ourselves], Colonel, until you hear it from some other reliable source. In the recent [5 July 1864] attack up this river, we might have taken and held possession of Charleston but after the Monitors—two ¹ of which I had the honor to command in that fight—had reduced Ft. Pringle, the main dependence of the Rebels, to a single effective gun, which would soon have shared a similar fate with their fellows, the retreat was sounded and the land forces with drawn. It was an unpardonable failure to add lustre to our arms, and, I wish I had you by my side at this moment to demonstrate it on the chart near me. Ft. Pemberton was deserted. Fort Johnson was, at one time, in our possession, but abandoned because not relieved by reinforcements when expected; and to the astonishment of the Rebs, the really victorious Feds withdrew, “Pringle” captured and Secessionville, with all the zig zag and parallel defense of the enemy would have been at the mercy of an enfilading fire from the Monitors. But, through the representations of an escaped prisoner—a poor volunteer not supposed, you know, to be at all skilled in military science, and only a Colonel, an exposé may soon be made not very palatable to the gustatory nerves of higher officials. I for one am not only willing but anxious again to try this approach to Charleston for I believe it to be good tactics to enter a well-fortified place in the rear, if it be possible.
Today a telegraphic spark from Morris Island informed us that “Mobile is ours,” and up went all the bunting we had to our flagpoles, and with this success, you may next expect to hear of a similar move at Charleston. We are now putting the Ironclads in the highest state of efficiency for that purpose.
Let the government send Farragut at once to Wilmington and the game of blockade running on the southern coast closed, and all foreign supplies will be cut off from the minor inlets through the vigilance of the outside fleet. They cannot much longer endure this protracted drain upon a Nation’s life and maintain a healthy pulse. The results of the present administrative policy of the government will bring us to ruin. The loss of public virtue, and the infliction upon us, as a people, evils which a generation, with all its best efforts may not control. But enough of these reflections. They are not in my sphere of duty, and I am no politician [illegible]. Our people little know, however—at least so far as the Navy is concerned—how limited are the resources. The personnel we now obtain through the draft are neither soldiers or sailors, but apologies for men. We have lots of tailors, cobblers, and tinkers, but few of those rough, noble fellows of the sea who rode the decks of our wooden bulwarks in the trials of the Revolution and the anxieties of 1812. And the officers are pretty much the same. There are few representatives of the body of men whose highest ambition was to command with dignity, to prepare themselves by obedience for higher positions in the country’s service, and who felt their professional acquirements were of a character to meet all emergencies with that punctuality, pride, and devotion which made their commissions all in all to them. Honor was the great and brightly polished lever which moved to action our old-time heroes, nit the inducement of dollars and cents, and preferment by political favor.
Many men, Colonel, who now hold offices of trust and responsibility in the service of the country, as guardians of its [illegible] could not have been the mere standard never of its flag in days gone by. But enough of this. They are sorrowful acknowledgments to a patriot heart. I am tired of such a life. I wanted for a while one of. the recently established “Practice” Ships for the education of our youth as seamen, and felt fully equal to the task of raising the standard of Naval excellence from a small—first beginning—which might compare well with the Naval efficiency and discipline of the past, but this was not my lot. The officers and crews we send abroad should be picked men, in every respect qualified to sustain our former prestige and reputation as a maritime power, in the eyes of other nations of the earth.
Thank you kindly, Colonel, for your good opinion of my merits. Once on a time I did make bold to express my modest sentiments in the columns of a public journal, blushing with “ifs” and “buts” and all sorts of qualifications, and even lately I have scribbled for the “Army and Navy Journal,” but the times have so changed, and our people are so [illegible] nations’s affairs that I have concluded my pen could be more profitably employed in signing requisitions, reports, returns, &c. &c. Then “peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety” shall be again established among us, then will the spirit of communion with the outer world be revived and I become a contributor to a newspaper which with its kaleidoscope changes will invite a steady patronage.
I won’t say one word about Monitors and Monitor life in this letter, Colonel. Lt. Commander Simpson in a recent article which you may have noticed in the Army and Navy Journal expresses my opinion to the very letter, touching their value and qualities. They are hard things to live in, I assure you, and gladly would I hail a transfer to a wooden vessel, but I patiently await the issue of the confinement on my health, which is only kept up by the natural energy of the mind.
Hilton Head, for the present at least, is a place of geographical remembrance to me, Colonel, but should I ever get so far South again, you may depend upon it that the son of Colonel [paper torn] forgotten me. And may the blessings of Heaven be yours and his, always, is the earnest wish of your much attached friend, — A. H. Johnson
¹ The two monitors were Lehigh and Montauk. The engaged Battery Pringle from the Stono River in July 1864.