I Held Lincoln: A Union Sailor's Journey Home

I Held Lincoln: A Union Sailor's Journey Home

by Richard E. Quest

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Overview

Lt. Benjamin Loring (1824–1902) lived the life of an everyman Civil War sailor. He commanded no armies and devised no grand strategies. Loring was a sailor who just wanted to return home, where the biggest story of his life awaited him.

Covering almost a year of Loring’s service, I Held Lincoln describes the lieutenant’s command of the gunboat USS Wave, the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, the surrender of his ship, and his capture by the Confederates. He was incarcerated in Camp Groce, a deadly Confederate prison where he endured horrific conditions and abuse. Loring attempted to escape, evading capture for ten days behind enemy lines, only to be recaptured just a few miles from freedom. After an arduous second escape, he finally reached the safety of Union lines and gained his freedom.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Loring attended Ford’s Theater and witnessed one of the single most tragic events in American history: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After the shot rang out, Loring climbed into the presidential box and assisted the dying president, helping to carry him across the street to the Peterson House. Using Loring’s recently discovered private journal, Richard E. Quest tells this astonishing story, giving insight into a little-known Confederate prison camp during the last days of the Civil War and providing much-deserved recognition to a man whose journey was nearly lost to American history.
 


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640124516
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 612,513
Product dimensions: 7.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Richard E. Quest is the national director of education with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Virginia. He is a member of the Loudoun County Civil War Round Table and is a guide at the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park in Virginia.

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CHAPTER 1

Getting in the Fight

The monitor USS Weehawken had run aground a mere twelve hundred yards from Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and was taking heavy fire from the Confederate batteries inside the fort. Union naval lieutenant Benjamin W. Loring yelled to his gun crew, "Fire!" The Weehawken's 15-inch Dahlgren gun belched and sent a 330-pound shell screaming toward Fort Moultrie. Loring's calm demeanor reassured his men. Only a few weeks earlier he had sighted and fired the first Union shell at Fort Sumter since it had been lost to the Confederates two years previously. It was deadly business, but he knew he had to be in the fight. "Reload!" As Loring's men worked to reload the massive gun his mind wandered back to more peaceful times for the briefest of moments.

On the side of a steep trail in the Sierra Nevadas of California Ben Loring knelt next to a small fire and warmed his hands. He reached for a steaming pot of coffee, filled a tin cup, and handed it to his younger brother, Bailey, before topping off his own. It was the middle of November 1861 and it was very cold. Loring unfolded the Monday, November 18, edition of the Sacramento Union and perused the columns. The first story that jumped out at him described another Union defeat at a place called Ball's Bluff in Virginia. Nearly one thousand soldiers had been killed or wounded during the battle. U.S. Senator Edward Baker, a colonel with the Federal forces at Ball's Bluff and a personal friend of President Lincoln, had been killed during the battle. Loring let that sink in for a moment and then slapped the paper against his thigh. Startled, Bailey jumped, spilling half his coffee. Glaring at his brother, he wondered what had gotten into him. No longer able to contain himself, Loring expressed his frustration through clenched teeth and tight lips. He explained to Bailey that he was sure the secessionists were going to tear the country apart. Loring had been agitated ever since the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Loring stood up, showed the newspaper to Bailey, and then read the story again himself. The words stared back at him in black and white. It was crystal clear: this was not just a disagreement that could be settled by disorganized troops brawling, as they had in the debacle at Bull Run. This was war. Loring looked his younger brother and business partner in the eye. In a low, calm, resolved voice he stated, "Bailey, I need to get in the fight. It is time. I must report, it is my duty." Loring wadded the paper up and threw it on the fire, muttering to himself, "Not on my watch." He was not going to allow these rebellious Southerners to tear his country apart even if it meant he had to lay down his life to prevent it.

Bailey turned away. He knew there was no point in arguing with his brother. He tightened the packs on the string of mules as Loring kicked snow on the fire, extinguishing it. The brothers made their way up the trail on their final trip together to deliver supplies to the gold miners in the mountains. After returning to Sacramento in the middle of January, Loring turned the entire business over to Bailey.

With only the clothes on his back, a few small personal items stuffed into a carpetbag, and a handful of gold coins tucked into his waist belt, Loring boarded a mail coach heading east. Riding on top of the mail bags, Loring bounced across the vast, wild continent for twelve days. Reaching Washington dc and the Navy Yard, he wasted no time and was mustered into service in the U.S. Navy on February 6, 1862. Commissioned an officer with the rank of acting master, he was ordered to report to Cmdr. A. Taylor in Mystic, Connecticut.

Just ninety days later, Loring found himself on the James River at Drewry's Bluff on board the uss Galena in command of a guns division as part of Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign. A year later, in June 1863, Loring and the crew of the uss Weehawken captured the Confederate ironclad ram Atlanta. Loring had the honor of commanding the Atlanta and guiding it into harbor. Just five months later he would do the same with the captured British schooner and blockade runner Alma, delivering the ship and its British captain, George Gordon, to naval authorities in Charleston harbor. Those were heady days. For his "gallant conduct in action" Loring was promoted to lieutenant on July 13, 1863. At the request of Capt. John Rodgers, he was transferred to and given command of the guns division and made the executive officer (second in command) on board the ironclad monitor uss Weehawken. The Weehawken was a formidable ship of the line. Crewed by seventy-five men, it was two hundred feet long with five inches of iron protecting its hull. Eleven inches of iron surrounded the turret, which accommodated imposing 15-inch and 11-inch Dahlgren guns.

Loring snapped back to attention as the turret pivoted about, bringing the bore of the 15-inch gun to point at its next target. He sighted down the barrel until Fort Moultrie was squarely in its sights, just across Charleston Harbor from Fort Sumter. Satisfied with the alignment, he again gave the order to fire. Flames burst from the maw of the big gun and the shell arced toward the fort. The huge Union shell found its mark. It hit an 8-inch Columbiad, splitting its barrel. Fragments of the shell and canon sheared off, throwing deadly shrapnel inside the fort. Metal chunks tore through nearby ammunition chests, igniting them. A horrific explosion erupted. Those men who were unlucky enough to be standing close by were ripped apart. Wood, stone, dirt, and pieces of men were flung one hundred feet into the air. Loring could see the explosion before the sound reached him and his men. He again gave the order "Reload!"

Loring put his hand in his pocket. He felt the ever-present penknife his sister Lillie had given him as a keepsake. He smiled to himself. He recalled making the trip by steamer around Cape Cod to Duxbury, Massachusetts, in February 1862 to visit his family while on leave from duty in Connecticut. He remembered Lillie's parting words as they said goodbye and she kissed him on the cheek. "I hope this will be of some use to you. Think of me as you use it." It had been a tender moment. It was all dangerous business now. Loring and his crew had caused many deaths, but he reminded himself that it was they, the rebels, who had started this conflagration.

The Confederate artillery was slow to recover from the hit on the Columbiad, but its reply soon quickened. Loring was knocked off his feet. The concussion was so loud he didn't actually hear it but instead felt it. It was as if the entire ship was going to cave in upon him. Quickly regaining his feet, he looked at his stunned men as they got back to work. He reassured the men, reminding them that the Confederate shells couldn't penetrate eleven inches of iron at this distance. With the gun reloaded, Loring sighted down the 13-foot barrel. Those Rebs knew there was hell to pay. "Fire!" Acrid smoke from thirty-five pounds of powder belching out of the muzzle filtered back into the turret, half blinding and choking the men. "Reload!"

Loring's mind again wandered. He recalled his days at sea as a young man, sailing around the world as a mere deckhand. He had been taught how to sail, tie the obligatory knots, and navigate by the stars by some of the saltiest sailors the sea had to offer. He recalled his youthful exuberance and eagerness to climb the ranks until he had finally been awarded a captaincy of his own. Yes, indeed, those were simpler days. But Loring was determined to do his duty to help put down this rebellion so he and the rest of the country could return to more peaceful times.

Loring again focused his attention. "Fire!" The 15-inch smoothbore again spoke with authority and sent another shell toward Fort Moultrie. Another incoming shell hit the Weehawken's turret. The concussion threw the men to the floor. Loring caught himself and again reassured his men. The men could feel the massive propeller straining to pull the ship off the bar. With a shudder the ship lurched forward and began to pull free. The 15-inch Dahlgren gun barked and sent a parting shot toward the pile of rubble that used to be Fort Moultrie as the Weehawken steamed back to port and safety. It would be up to the army now to send in troops to take the fort.

That evening Loring made his official report to Captain Rodgers. Rodgers, glad to have escaped the fray, commended Loring for his keen work with the Dahlgren guns and his calm demeanor under fire. In his official report of the event, Captain Rodgers recommended Loring for command of his own ship. This was brought to the attention of Rear Admiral Dahlgren himself and was acknowledged by the secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, on October 21, 1863. Not long afterward Loring was ordered to report to Washington.

Upon his arrival in Washington Loring met with the assistant secretary of the navy, Gustavus V. Fox. Fox explained to Loring that the recently promoted Commodore Rodgers had requested Loring to serve with him aboard the double-turreted monitor uss Dictator, currently under construction. Fox further explained that the ship would not be completed for some time and that he would either put Loring on waiting orders until it was finished or provide Loring with temporary duty; the decision was Loring's. Eager to fulfill his duty and stay in the fight, Loring accepted the temporary orders and was transferred to the Mississippi Squadron.

CHAPTER 2

The Wave

November 13, 1863, dawned brisk and breezy. Loring leaned into the wind as he walked the quarter mile from the spare room he was renting to the Navy Yards in Washington. As he entered the headquarters office a clerk handed him an envelope. His orders from Rear Adm. David Porter, commander of the Mississippi Squadron, had come through. Loring was detached from the uss Clara Dolsen and ordered to report to Acting Ensign C. W. Litherbury and to seek out Joseph Brown, a contractor in Cincinnati, Ohio, and take command of the newly retrofitted uss Carrabassett. Loring was to oversee the final details of the retrofitting, then take that ship downriver to Cairo, Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and finally report with the ship to New Orleans. Loring stopped at the paymaster's office, collected his $39.60 in mileage for the trip, and made overland arrangements to travel the 396 miles from Washington to Cincinnati. Five days later he reported to Fleet Capt. A. M. Pennock, commanding the naval station in Cairo, and took command of the Carrabasset. Once the retrofitting was completed he guided the ship down the Ohio to the Mississippi and to New Orleans. On March 22 Loring steamed into New Orleans aboard the Carrabasset, where he immediately received orders. He was detached from the Carrabasset and ordered to take command of the retrofitting of the uss Wave. Finally Loring was at the seat of war in the Mississippi Squadron. He was anxious to complete the work on the Wave and get in the fight.

The uss Wave was built on the Monongahela River just south of Pittsburgh and had been completed in 1863. Originally christened the Argosy II, it was renamed the uss Wave, as there was already a ship named Argosy and having two was not only confusing but considered unlucky. A stern-wheeled transport with a shallow draught, it was designed to haul cotton and cattle on the rivers, not fight a rebellion.

Loring had his work cut out for him. He needed to make sure that the ship was properly outfitted for combat, and he needed to recruit a crew. He had never shied away from a challenge, but this would prove to be one of the greatest he had ever faced. Loring had served on several ships, including the uss Galena, an ironclad ship of war, and the uss Weehawken, a single-turreted monitor with cutting-edge technology and weaponry. Now his first combat command would be that of a retrofitted barge formerly used for the transport of cotton.

Loring stood at the dock in New Orleans, his hands on his hips, and thought to himself that it was "a fearful fall! From ironclad to an aquatic tinclad wheelbarrow." Regardless, Loring was determined to do his duty and get into the fight. One of the shipwrights pointed at Loring as he stared at the ship. The other men stopped and turned around. It was clear that this man in the navy uniform was in command. Loring walked up the gangplank, and as he boarded the Wave he smiled. He could feel it, the ship belonged to him.

It was a tall ship, which was impressive, but a large amount of upper works would have a habit of catching the wind. It also had a shallow draught, only four and a half feet. This was ideally suited for the rivers, but in deep-blue waters in any kind of a crosswind this would potentially cause it to become unwieldy and difficult to handle. Loring walked about on the main deck admiring the ship. As he leaned over the port side he saw a dozen faces looking up at him. He had clearly interrupted the work crews. Loring commented to no one in particular that it looked like the ship "could run in a heavy dew." A few heads nodded. Loring's brow furrowed as he strode quickly back down the gangplank. There was still much work to do.

Loring needed a crew now that the work retrofitting the Wave was well under way. He located the recruiting office in New Orleans and began the task of recruiting men. The officers would be assigned, of course, but it was up to Loring to recruit sixteen seamen, for a total crew of twenty-five. After some discussion with naval authorities in New Orleans Loring was pleased to receive Ensign Franklin J. Latham as his executive officer, along with Ensigns Peter Howard and William Millen. Ensign Howard in particular had seen extensive action, and word had spread of his heroism as a boatswain's mate on the uss Mississippi. Loring had heard that Congress was going to recognize Howard with a newly created medal, given for extreme heroism, and he was glad to have such a leader onboard the Wave. Loring also sought out experienced men to run the mechanicals of the ship and was assigned John Thomson, Michael Rogers, and Michael Fitzpatrick as his engineers.

Loring and his officers quickly found that recruiting men with actual naval experience was nearly impossible. Most of the men and those few boys living in the area were river rats. What sailing experience they had was gained aboard small sailing ships and boats transporting livestock, cotton, and other goods up and down the rivers that spilled into the Gulf Coast. With some patriotic persuasion Loring cobbled together a crew of twenty-five to man the Wave. The crew consisted of "all shades of color from sooty-black to creamy-white, and all ages and conditions of men and boys." However, only a handful of the enlisted men had ever actually been to sea. On April 15 Loring and Ensign Latham strolled about the deck of the Wave, inspecting the 156-foot-long, 219-ton ship. Armed with four howitzers broadside, one smoothbore, and one converted rifle in the bow casement, it was ready for action.

Loring received his orders to head down the Gulf Coast to Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana. It was a journey that would force the converted freshwater man o' war to cross the Gulf of Mexico. He knew this would be a dangerous trip for a ship with such a shallow draught and keel. But he would follow orders to the best of his ability. Loring gave orders to cast off the bow and stern lines. With a full head of steam in the boilers, the great paddle wheel at the stern of the ship dug into the muddy waters of the Mississippi River. Loring nodded and the pilot pointed the bow of the Wave toward the briny blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

CHAPTER 3

A Seasick Wave

On April 17, 1864, the Wave reached the Gulf of Mexico along with its sister ship the uss Granite City. The gulf waters roiled. Rather than run the risk of capsizing on the ship's maiden voyage, Loring decided to wait until the seas settled. The following day the Wave's baptism was completed as it plunged into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico and sailed toward the Calcasieu River.

After they had sailed only a short distance a crescendo of retching and heaving emanated from below decks. Most of the crew were doubled over. Their faces were green and their guts in knots. The ship rocked side to side as it rose up on the swells and slammed back down. Sailors grabbed for buckets or raced to the side of the ship and spewed chunks of their morning's salt pork rations, chumming the sea. The crew's seasick initiation into the blue-water naval service was less than dignified.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "I Held Lincoln"
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Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: The Loring Project
Acknowledgments
Author’s Note
1. Getting in the Fight
2. The Wave
3. A Seasick Wave
4. No Coal
5. The Enemy Is Close By
6. A Precious Rose
7. Chicken Feed
8. Prison
9. Escape!
10. Through the Wall
11. On the Outside
12. Plantations
13. Dog Ranch
14. De Doe Is Dead?!
15. The Hunter
16. Interrogation
17. A Night Drive
18. A Confederate Bastille
19. Anderson Grimes County Jail
20. The Old Pen Again
21. Deadliest Killer
22. Making the Best of It
23. The Swamp
24. Tied Up
25. The Power of the Pen(cil) 
26. Navigating by the Wind
27. Parched Corn
28. Over the River and through the Woods
29. Bear Swamp
30. Confederate Potatoes
31. Goodbye, Texas
32. Home Guard and Yankee Prisoners
33. Old Friends?
34. Your Passes or Your Life!
35. Where Is My Penknife?
36. The Last Toenail
37. A Burned Bridge
38. Chimneys on the Horizon
39. Lincoln Coffee and a Civilized Bed
40. The Surprise
41. Washington Navy Yard
42. I Held Lincoln
Afterword
Notes
Bibliography

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