1st Mississippi Marine Brigade (U.S.) soldier shares his disdain for Copperheads and slavery

Important Civil War Archive of the Mississippi Marine Brigade

Important Civil War Archive of the Mississippi Marine Brigade

I have seen come very nice places along the different rivers,” he wrote, “but wherever I have been I could notice the effects of that abominable curse slavery. The best of the slave states cannot compare with the poorest of the Free states. I have found that the poorer classes of people are generally a poor, ignorant, degraded and so as politics is concerned, a deluded people, while the rich are aristocratic, selfish and irreligious… If slavery is such a blessing as the Copperheads of the North and the Secessionists of the south say it is… what other cause for this difference than slavery? You will fine that it is only the lowest and most degraded and ignorant class of the North who favor Jeff Davis and band of traitors… since Old Abe has made the start, let slavery and the Rebellion die together and the Copperheads too for all I care, and that as soon as possible…

– William O. Albright, 1st Mississippi Marine Brigade, excerpted from Important Civil War Archive of the Mississippi Marine Brigade, Cowan’s Auction.

Full item description:

William O. Albright, 1st Mississippi Marine Brigade and Jacob Albright, 12th Michigan Infantry, ca 100 items total, including 18 soldiers` letters from William and 10 from his brother Jacob, and 12 from other soldiers.

Few outfits during the Civil War were more unusual or more controversial than the Mississippi Marine Brigade, a small outfit based on riverboats in the Mississippi Valley. The origins of the Marine Brigade can be traced to the quixotic Charles Ellet, whose fixation upon naval vessels is a story unto itself. Prior to the war, having apparently imbibed a significant quantity of ancient Roman wine, Ellet developed a novel theory for how to defend American waters. Too unconventional for improvements in cannons or sailors, Ellet reasoned that the best defense would be a fleet of stoutly constructed, heavily fortified vessels that would point in the right direction and, steaming full speed ahead, ram into their adversaries, shattering the wooden hulls. For several years, Ellet’s rams found few fans among the naval brass, but when the potential of ironclads was revealed by the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, Ellet was given his chance. The small fleet of nine rams that Ellet assembled proved their worth by sinking four Confederate ships in a single engagement near Memphis. After Ellet’s death in action in 1862, his brother Andrew took command and proved no less innovative. Andrew Ellet’s biggest contribution was the Marine Brigade.

Conceived of as a rapid reaction force that would patrol the western waterways and respond to threats to Union lines posed by Confederate guerrillas and regulars, the Marine Brigade was essentially an army unit (including infantry, cavalry, and artillery) borne on ships. Organized in St. Louis in February and March 1863, the regiment attracted volunteers by promising lighter duty than the regular Infantry or Cavalry, and in fact, Ellet attracted convalescent soldiers otherwise unable to serve in active field service. Based on five unarmed transports, the Marine Brigade worked in concert with the ram fleet, but it quickly earned as much of a reputation for pillaging and lax discipline as for martial prowess, and conflict between Ellet and David Porter did little to improve the situation. By the late summer 1864, with the center of conflict shifting eastward and the continued ill discipline and poor reputation of the outfit, the Marine Brigade was disbanded.

A member of the band of the 74th Indiana Infantry, William O. Albright appears to have been more than an ordinarily avid soldier, but he seems never to have had the greatest regard for military procedure. In September 1862, Albright wrote from Kentucky that although he would still play with the band, he would trade in his drum and play only fife from then on. “Ive got em by the wool,” he wrote. “I am kind of a priveleged character, they cant make me do anything but play the fife., neither cook, chop wood, carry water stand guard, drill, or anything else, and now I intend to stick to me fife as long as I am in the army, for they have got my dutch up, and as it happens I read the army regulations once.

But however strong-minded he might be, Albright was held back more by ill health than ill discipline. Throughout the fall, he was sidelined with one illness after another, periodically unfit for duty. Between bouts, he could still manage to pugnacity in a letter home, writing in November 1862 “I would like to have the war close, but I want to see the rebels whipped out first. as far as the land itself is concerned, I would say let em rip…. General Mclellen is about gone up, good. I hope Old Abe will soon see that he can’t whip the south with rebel officers in his command…” Like many Indiana soldiers placing their lives on the line, he could muster more than a little bile for the Copperheads at home. But by late winter, it appeared that any whipping that would take place, might do so without the participation of Albright the infirm.

Enter the Marine Brigade, stage right. In January 1863, Albright subjected himself to the rather lax physical examination, and was pronounced fit for duty for the Marine Brigade. He informed his family “if there is any place in the army that I can stand on account of my health, it is in the place I am in now, and if I keep my health, the next 3 years will see me in the army if the War should last that long… I am naturally more of Water than a Land Shark, so you see I am in my natural element.” Although the Brigade’s ships were still under construction, Albright was optimistic that he would soon see active service, and he yearned to see Vicksburg itself. Once again, he gravitated to the band: “in a Band that can play after the Regt is all together and formed. There will be 23 Musicians, 1 Bass Drummer, Fife Major, Drum Major, 10 Fifers, 10 Drummers. I like the Officers better than in the old Regt…

In February, Albright reported that the pace of preparations for the Brigade was picking up. “All the Convalescents that can are pitching right in,” he wrote, “especially those that have been on long marches. there are some in this Co that have been in the old service from 6 to 20 months, and would now rather risk their lives for 3 years longer in the Boat than serve the balance of their time on land.” The Secretary of War, he was told, had issued an order limiting service in the Marine Brigade to convalescents, and from what Albright heard, “the Rebels swear vengeance on this Brigade, they hate us more than any other Regt. out, for they know very well that we are determined to keep the Mississippi River open.” His pride did not allow him to leave it at that. “I should not wonder,” he added, “if we will be somewhat of a stumbling block to them, and I would not be surprised if we would stumble onto them at Vicksburg before long…

Posted aboard the Steamer Diana, luxurious accommodations he thought, Albright soon found himself before the Rebel stronghold at Vicksburg: “Well, I begin to realize now that I am soldier, before this I seen nothing, done nothing, and came very near spiling just for the want of something to do. Now then, I am just where I want to be, right in plain sight of Vicksburg, although between 4 & 5 miles distant from it, but with a spy glass we can see all the Rebs are doing… we could see the Rebs just swarming on top of some large building in the City, Courthouse I expect it is, and by all appearances of things we are not very welcome here, for last night they tried to shell us a little, but I guess they found their guns were a little too short at one end, and not quite long enough at the other…

The first skirmish described by Albright came while the fleet was anchored off Mound City, Tenn., on May 7, 1863: “We went up the River as far as to Eastport all right, scouted along up the River a little, burned some Distilleries, Mills, &c. and raised Ned a little… Coming back a few mile below the mouth of Duck River between four and five hundred rebs, poor ignorant scoundrels, mistook our fleet for transport boats loaded with cattle fired into us with three pieces of artillery and their muskets. Musket balls no damage except one shot and killed a sergeant on the Adams. Cannon balls which happened to be shells instead of solid shot made the splinters fly some. Seven or eight struck the Autocrat, five or six the Diana. One of shells passed through the center of smokestacks just above the lower part of the hurricane deck. Exploded in the first smokestack… only a few solid shot thrown. One killed a man on the Autocrat… tore the left side of his breast and his left arm off. Rebs skedaddled after we open fire on them. I guess they found they had stirred up a hornets nest….

Because of the Brigade’s high mobility, Albright probably had the opportunity to see more of the theatre of war more quickly than other infantrymen, and whether or not this was the reason, he was clearly affected by what he saw. “I have seen come very nice places along the different rivers,” he wrote, “but wherever I have been I could notice the effects of that abominable curse slavery. The best of the slave states cannot compare with the poorest of the Free states. I have found that the poorer classes of people are generally a poor, ignorant, degraded and so as politics is concerned, a deluded people, while the rich are aristocratic, selfish and irreligious… If slavery is such a blessing as the Copperheads of the North and the Secessionists of the south say it is… what other cause for this difference than slavery? You will fine that it is only the lowest and most degraded and ignorant class of the North who favor Jeff Davis and band of traitors… since Old Abe has made the start, let slavery and the Rebellion die together and the Copperheads too for all I care, and that as soon as possible…

On June 3, the Diana was back before Vicksburg, witnessing the final month of Grant’s famous siege. “We could hear the cannons roar,” he wrote, “we could see them flash and the shells a whizzing through the air. It was nice to stand of[f] and look at, but I guess the Rebs did not think it quite so nice. We had a little muss with about 1,000 of the Rebs on our way down the Miss, our Commissary Boat was fired into by two six pounders, we ran back and gave chase, our Cavalry overtook them about 8 miles from the River. They came very near being more than enough for our Cavalry, but several Companies of the Inft. coming up with the Cav. turned the tide in our favor, and the Rebs skedaddled again…” Shortly thereafter, however, Albright was hospitalized for illness, perhaps malaria, and he was permanently discharged in August.

With such tight bonds in the Marine Brigade, however, discharge did not mean divorce. After his departure from the service, Albright’s comrades in the Brigade wrote him at least five letters filling him in on their exploits. In April 1864, H. Horn described the Brigade’s role in ferrying troops on the Red River expedition and the capture of Fort de Russy, “with a loss of 5 men killed, 30 wounded, the loss of the enemy was about the same. There were 300 prisoners and a large amount of ammunition, 7 siege guns, and 4 field pieces. A few days after this we went to Alexandria, there 400 more prisoners were taken, but without the loss of a man. There our boats were released from the expedition…

On June 20, 1864, Horn wrote again (on fine printed letterhead from the 1st Inf. Regt. of the Marine Brigade) from Vicksburg: “We have seen some of the smoke of the Rebs guns and have heard some of their shot rattle around us. Since I last wrote add two of our members are numbered with the slain… Another of Co. H has had his arm shot off…This took place at the town of Columbia, Ark., above Greenville, Miss. Our boat in company with Diana, Baltic, had been fighting old Gen. Marmaduke who was said to have 5000 men. He planted his cannon at Colubai and there across the bend where we burned that house the first time we came down the river…. When we cam into range they lit into us with 4 guns. We were then going up. No one was hurt. The boat was struck 8 times. As soon as we were out of range we met another transport coming down. We let the one go that we had and lashed to the other leaving her on the opposite side of the batteries to shield her from the balls. As soon as we came into range she lit into us with 10 pieces some of them 20 pounds… Their fire was all directed at the Adams. They aimed to shoot through us to hit the transport… Joseph Fields was shot through the bowels he was on the starboard side and was firing his gun when killed…” In a third letter, Horn reported further fighting with Marmaduke near Port Gibson.

William received letters from several other soldiers, too. The otherwise unidentified John wrote from Little Rock in May 27, 1864, describing the whipping his regiment gave to the Rebels on the Saline River (Red River Campaign): “A detachment of cavalry was sent out from here to see about our wounded & to bury the dead. They returned one day last week, I believe, saying our wounded had been taken to Princeton & those but slightly wounded to Camden; but the dead were left on the field (after being stripped, according to rebel custom) unburied. Rebel prisoners since taken say they burried 2100 of their own dead on the field. They said the story among them was that we threw our dead into the river, to prevent them from seeing them….

Albright received ten letters from his brother Jacob, 12th Michigan Infantry (Veteran), including one describing the scene on the battlefield near Devall`s Bluff, Ark., on the day after a fight: “there was a good many rebel graves on the field that I saw, and the trees wheare all peeked up; and it looked as if somebody had been pulling the bark from the trees…” Three other letters came from George Riegle (unknown regiment) and two from Harlen Bowen, of the 10th Wisconsin. John Porter’s letter of March 1864 describes the early maneuvers of the Atlanta Campaign before Porter breaks out: “Liberty Oh! Sweet liberty if ever I forget thee let me right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth for this our fathers died and for this their sons are willing to do the same…

Among the best letters in the collection are a number that deal with the home front and politics, rather than military affairs. Ten letters from a fired up German friend of Albright’s, Charles Kretschmar, provide vivid descriptions of wartime Lancaster, Pa., including a political rally with floats featuring a representation of a Copperhead with a human head bearing the inscription, as Kretschmar wrote, “‘The Chicago Platform’ and near its mouth, you could read the words ‘In November I shall bite no more!’ Another transparent had the inscription: ‘Little Mack must clear the track.’” After Lincoln’s assassination, Albright sent Kretschmar a likeness of the dead president, “that noble patriot and immortal martyr of liberty, more particularly so, now that he is dead, and I hope that in process of time, it may become a tie that will unite out hearts stronger and more fervently in the bonds of mutual friendship and union. But what do you say in regard to that horrid transaction in the city of Washington, that horrible tragedy — the assassination of the President of the United States?!? ‘Oh horrible! Oh horrible!! Most horrible!!!’ ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ says our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Abolitionist and Emancipator of mankind (for I glory in the name, to be called an abolitionist, and I deem it not to be a shame, (as the slave-drivers and copperheads do), but rather the highest honor for a man, to be an abolitionist.) Now, you see, that is the infernal, diabolical work of the infernal slave-drivers and the still more infernal copperheads!

Added to the collection are seven items related to the organizational fathers of the Marine Brigade and ram fleet, Charles and Alfred Ellet. The two ALsS from Charles to Commodore C.H. Davis are exceptional and important pieces, including direct and substantive discussions of his ram fleet. Ellet’s early death in June 1862 make any letters of his, much less those with significant content regarding the rams, of considerable scarcity. From near Fort Pillow, May 28, 1862, Ellet writes: “The enclosed communication [not present], which U had written this morning, and was about the send to you when I received your note, will explain the current of my own thoughts on the same subject — my view being, as you will perceive, to act as soon as possible, on the offensive…. I concur in your opinion of the needless exposure of the rams to the enemy’s guns to which you allude, and had myself gone our to forbid it… Allow me to add, Commodore, that almost the only efficient service these rams can render, is that for which they were specially built — viz. to ram into the enemy, with good speed, and head in, and smite him. With that view my instructions which I have given, have been to wait while we remained here, until the enemy advances so far above the Point that he cannot refuse the collision and retreat — and then go in, each boat for itself, and strike wherever the blow can be delivered to the best advantage…

In the second letter, written on the same day, Ellet proposes running his rams below Fort Pillow to make a bold strike at the Rebel fleet. “The importance of this movement is, I think, likely to be very great in view of the battle which is no daily expected at Corinth. If that battle results in our favor, by occupying the river below, and by destroying the rebel fleet, we willed deprive the defeated army of its means of crossing the Mississippi and renewing the contest on the other side…

These remarkable letters are accompanied by an original copy of the pamphlet, Coast and Harbour Defences, of the Substitution of Steam Battering Rams for Ships of War (Philadelphia, 1855), in which Charles Ellet first lays out his ram powered strategy. A fine copy in attractive custom-made box; some chipping to printed wraps.

Accompanying these items are a pair of invoices for ordnance stores issued to Charles Ellet, a mounted albumen portrait of Alfred in uniform (seated, in profile), and a letter from Alfred to Commodore Davis, June 25, 1862, relaying a note from David Farragut that support from Davis’ ironclads in an attack on Vicksburg would be beneficial. More unusual is a commendation for the crew of the Monarch, one of Ellet’s ships: “It is reported to the Col. Commanding by Liet Col. Ellet that not a man on board the Monarch from Captain Dryden down, flinched from his duties when called on last evening to aid in the attempt to sink the rebel gunboat lying under the batteries of Fort Pillow. The officers and crew of the Monarch, to a man, all volunteered for the Service, and stood to their posts as brave men ought to do. The Colonel commanding the fleet reposes perfect confidence in the discipline and gallantry of all the officers and men now on board that boat.

The collection further includes three photographs, all presumably of Albright: a carte de visite of a man wearing a fur cap, and bearing a 5¢ Confederate Jeff Davis stamp on the front; a tintype in paper matte of a man seated, reading, and an albumen print of an older Albright laid onto a page removed from a veterans’ publication, with Albright’s service added in manuscript.

Finally, there are a few miscellaneous items, most notably a printed order for transport issued to Albright as he was being discharged in August 1863, fixed with a five cent Confederate Jeff Davis stamp.

A fine and important collection for one of the oddest episodes in the history of the American “Brown Water Navy.” Even single letters for the Mississippi Marine Brigade are scarce, but correspondences of good content covering an entire enlistment are almost vanishing so, and the materials relating to the Ellets themselves rounds out a remarkable collection. 

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