Excerpts from and commentary on letters home to Joseph Alexander, of Harpswell, from his friends and cousins, Alfred and Matthew Dunning, of the Union Navy.
Angy Creek, April 7, 1865: “We are cruising up and down the Potomac River, looking out for smugglers and once in awhile we go ashore on a raid, there is no soldiers around here and so we have nothing to fear except a few geurillas and we keep a good lookout for them.” Matthew M. Dunning, seaman aboard the Union Navy patrol boat Resolute
Mobile Bay, November 1864: “Captain asked for eight volunteers this morning, not a single hand went up.” Alfred Dunning, seaman, Union Navy, aboard the ship Hartford at anchor in Mobile Bay, Alabama
The battle of Mobile Bay was an important turning point in the American Civil War. Commanded by David Farragut, the Union Navy prevailed in August of 1864. This victory was a major blow to the Confederacy and, together with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, so rallied Union forces as to assure the defeat of the Confederacy and assure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in November.
The letters from our Harpswell men indicate peacekeeping and mopping up after these major victories. The patrol boat Resolute is cruising the Potomac in defense of Washington, D.C., with Matthew Dunning aboard. After the war, Matthew would go on to establish a photography studio in Washington, D.C.
Aboard the flagship Hartford, our man Alfred is referring to a chilling incident which happened the previous day and which explains why “not a single hand went up.” David Farragut, in his famous quote, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” was referring to marine mines of the day, which were made of a wooden cask filled with explosives and held in position by a mooring block and chain so that the “torpedo” or mine was slightly submerged. The task to which the captain called for eight volunteers was to row the ship’s boat trailing a grappling iron with which to snag the anchor chain of a mine, then row it into shallow water so as to expose the mine, then detonate it with rifle fire from a safe distance. Alfred Dunning does not explain what went wrong, but on the previous day, the explosion of a “torpedo” or mine killed all eight men and destroyed one of the ship’s boats. No wonder, then, “not a single hand went up.”
Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, formally ending the war. The letter from Matthew Dunning, only two days previously, presaged the smuggling, raiding and warfare that continued for many months after the formal surrender and contributed to the dark side and failings of Reconstruction after the Civil War for years.
These selfless men from Harpswell and many thousands like them passed off their Civil War experiences in their letters home to friends and families as casual day-to-day work. Their efforts and brave commitment are the reason why our democracy has endured to this day!
Sam W. Alexander, of Harpswell Neck, is a former Harpswell selectman and Planning Board chair. He is a great-nephew of Joseph Alexander, who received the letters excerpted in this column.