The Civil War Letters of Captain James Fleming, Part 4: With Hawkins’ Zouaves at Roanoke

The fourth instalment of letters from James Fleming of Antrim (Find Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here) joins the 9th New York in North Carolina with the Burnside expedition of 1862. In the first letter, James provides a detailed description of his part in the Battle of Roanoke Island on 8th February that year. He also responds to his mother’s contention that the Rebels are ‘fighting for their homes.’ His second letter references the Battle of Camden (South Mills) and relates how James feels the war is ‘pretty near over.’ The final letter in this group is perhaps the most interesting. James supplies vivid descriptions of everything from the island’s biting insects to it’s snuff-spitting women. He also provides an intriguing passage referencing the exploits of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. James and Meagher came from different traditions in Ireland, but it is clear that James identified himself very closely with his ‘own countrymen.’ He also makes reference to the United Kingdom’s perceived closeness to the Confederacy in early 1862, and how they needed to be cautious, as the Irish in the Northern States still remembered the Famine: ‘I hope that England will not be so foolish as put her nose into the quarrel in the States at present as the Irish of America have not forgot how English law treated or what caused them to leave their native soil.’

The Charge of Hawkins' Zouaves at Roanoke Island (Harper's Weekly)

The Charge of Hawkins’ Zouaves at Roanoke Island (Harper’s Weekly)

Roanoak Island

Camp Reno 

March 30th 1862

My Dear Father & Mother

I received your welcome letter some time since which gave me great comfort to learn that you were all in perfect health as thank God this leaves me enjoying better health than is possible for a soldier to expect. I am stout healthy & strong as you must know that a soldiers life is less or more exposed to all matters.

Dr mother you wish to know how I live, well I believe I gave you at one time the list of my hours but I live well. I generally keep one servant a man which does my cooking cleaning up my quarters etc. I send my washing to the nearest washerwoman that I can find thats if there is any women around if not I make my servant act in that capacity which you see is a man of all work. My quarters consist of a wood shanty plenty of room for a table two bunks at the one end, one for the Captain and the other for my self also its well ventilated the only difficulty is when it rains it generally rains inside as well as outside but still I am comfortable. You say that I cannot complain. Dear mother you say that the Rebels are fighting for their homes such is not the case they are fighting to separate this great union which never can be done but I suppose before this reaches you you will have heard of what our army has done since last I wrote you. We have been victorious in a great many battles lately. I had my hand tied since last I wrote you. I suppose you may of heard of the gallant charge of Hawkins Zouaves and carrying a masked battery at the point of the Bayonet. I am proud to say I was one of the officers that cheered my men on. If some of my young friends could only see the ground that we had to charge over they would dread to try it without an enemy in their front. I was several times into the middle in water & mud but forward was the cry we carried the day, with only 11 men wounded & 2 officers slightly did not get a single man shot. This was the second day of the fight the 1st day was with the gun boats unto they had to retire for darkness.Only a short time before dark the signal was hoisted to land the troop which we done under the cover of 2 gun boats and darkness. About 2 o’clock in the morning we had about 11,000 men landed we had about 400 yds to walk through mud knee deep. We bivouaked in a large corn field so you can imagine what sort of a sight that number of men was sitting around their fires waiting with patience the coming of the day. The rain all night fell in torrents at daylight we heard firing in our ears. The report was that we were attacked every man grasped his piece determined to punish the rebels for that nights suffering, but it was a false alarm the order was then given to march upon the enemy which we did this was about 7 o’clock am.They had to march about 3 miles before we reached them and as our regiment was held as the reserve we did not get up until 11 o’clock when our side was suffering severely as they had been ordered to charge but refused doing so. As soon as our regiment got within sight of that Battery such another cheer you never heard the like of as their comes the Zouaves we were about 20 minutes under their fire when we received the order to charge and in 15 minutes our stars & stripes was floating over that rebel battery and the rebels flying in every direction. We then pursued taking over 3,500 prisoners and the next morning Roanoak Island was ours one of their strongholds. I received an extra Bar on my shoulder for that days work that was on the 8th of Feby and since that time we are stationed here its a very nice place a great improvement upon Hatteras. You can see how a soldier has to like something for 3 nights I had not off a stich of my clothes the first night I wrapped my blanket which I always carry around me and lay down but soon got rather wet to lay so I walked around the 3rd night was dry I lay this night upon a board one end which I warmed at the camp fire & stitched myself with my blanket around. I got a good sleep that night for 3 hours which satisfied me but I may say that during that time my clothes had not dry [Letter ends, incomplete] (1)

In The Long Roll, Charles Johnson recalled James Fleming in the charge upon the battery at Roanoake, providing an insight into the Irishman’s singularity of purpose during the fight. In the midst of the assault, the regiment’s Major fell into the battery’s defensive ditch and was unable to extricate himself. Johnson remembered that ‘as he [the Major] was floundering and spluttering this way, our Lieutenant Flemming, a six-footer, cleared the ditch with a bound, not hearing or heeding the Major, who frantically called on him to help him out. He afterward explained in my hearing, “Lord, Major, I would not have helped me own father up then.”‘ (2)

Roanoke Island Battleground (The Long Roll)

Roanoke Island Battleground (The Long Roll)

Camp Reno 

Roanoak Island


May 1st 1862

My Dear Father & Mother

I have just received yours of the 23rd March which gives me great pleasure to find you all well and thank God this leaves me at present enjoying good health. We are posted on this Island since the fight which you got the description of. I have been in another one rather warm work but come out victorious once more it was on Easter Saturday & Sunday we started on Friday night and marched about 35 miles meeting the enemy about 2 o’clock on Saturday giving them a good thrashing and returning Saturday night. The fight was severe and our march was long and very tiresome but such is war. On the 4th of this month I will be one year the time is slipping along and I trust to god that it will get along as well the 2nd year. I got promoted after the fight here. Dr mother you must not worry yourself so much concerning me as I am quite safe and I question very much whether our Regiment will ever be engaged in another fight as I think that the war is pretty near over as we have whipped the Rebels in every fight for so far unless Bull Run, and that was only a retreat. I am very glad to hear that my Brothers are doing so well and hope they will continue to do so give them my kind love when you see them. I am not sure whether it was to you or Harry that I wrote my last but I will write a long letter to Harry or Andy next week. Tell Alex that I do not get his papers I have not got a paper from him in some time. I am glad to hear that Agnes & he are doing so well also that Thos had settled, how is he getting along at Muckamore. You say Father & you have suffered from sickness this winter I have escaped winter for one year as I have not seen any scarce cold enough to wear an overcoat and at present quite warm we have a very long day and beautiful weather as this is the most pleasant part of the year and I hope to providence that you and Father has quite recovered again. I suppose that Sarah Jane is a fine girl by this time I send her a kiss–

Dear Mother I have not much more to say. I get letters regular from Mary Ann they are all well she stated in her last that Aunt Mattie & Thos were going home this summer and I wish them a safe passage. Give my love to all my old friends Mrs R & sister & mother also Mr W Rankin & sister and the rest of my acquaintances. Good bye for the present from your very affectionate son


The Charge of Hawkins' Zouaves at Camden (The Long Roll)

The Charge of Hawkins’ Zouaves at Camden (The Long Roll)

Roanoak Island

July 6th 1862

 My Dear Father & Mother

Once more I am enabled to embrace the opportunity of writing to you. I received yours of June 4th which gave me great pleasure to know that you are all enjoying that blessing good health as thank God this leaves me at present quite well in fact I never had better health in my life as a soldiers life agrees well with me. We are still in Garrison on Roanoak Island and has very good times not much duty to perform the only annoyance that we have is the muskatoes fleas & woodticks resembling something of a ship lice. We got them off the bushes when we go in the woods and they hang on you like a Bull dog they will continue biting to they get completely under the skin and then they die so you must cut them out if not removed before they get that length so that is the only thing that we have seen in the shape of an enemy in 3 months. So even that vermin like the Rebels I think the hand of providence is against for we have had 3 or 4 very cold days which have removed them from our paths. Colder than it has been for many years. So I sincerely hope by the time you receive this that the last blow will be struck and the Rebels swept out of the United States as we are whipping them some place every day their deserters and prisoners that we take may not to be released as they have neither provisions or clothing they are getting well disheartend. We are sending all of our force to Richmond as all the Regt in this Dept are under marching orders so Dear mother its most likely the next letter I will write you will be from the Rebel Capitol the stronghold of secession we have not got any positive orders but we expect them and suppose its there that we are going. I am proud to inform you that a Brigade of my own Countrymen have distinguished themselves bravely in the different battles they got highly complimented and the general was heard to say with a few more Brigades of such men the war would not last long as it was said by some jealous [?] American when our gallant 69th Irish Regt went out they were only fit to dig trenches but we have proved during the war who is the best defenders of our old flag the Stars & Stripes.There never were troops known to fight better than my own countrymen. I hope that England will not be so foolish as put her nose into the quarrel in the States at present as the Irish of America have not forgot how English law treated or what caused them to leave their native soil. Dear mother I might give you more news concerning my stay and acquaintances upon this Island but pen & ink could scarcely do them justice. I will give you the instance of their Customs the ladies and that is chewing snuff they carry a small brush about the length of your finger that they dip in the snuff and fill their gums full of snuff and then they leave the stick in their mouth with the one end sticking out and so their spit is something resembling what you will see an old tobacco chewer ejecting out of his mouth– and so a great many other customs equally obnoxious to an outside observer but when I pay you a visit I will make you all laugh concerning some of the Country inhabitants customs. Dr mother I am glad to learn from your last that my Brothers are doing so well but I always thought that Andy would be a saving old man I suppose that he would get married but afraid of the expense that the wife would cost. It gives me great pleasure to know that Harry is continuing so well as I hope that he will always be so give them my kind love when you see any of them. I have not write to any of them in some time but will do so soon. I am glad to hear that Thos & Nancy are getting along smoothly and I suppose that Alex & Agnes are doing their best to make a fortune before they die. I heard that she only allowed him to drink one glass of punch in the day, does she still keep him upon his allowance tell her that I said there would be more virtue in two before retiring for the night. I am glad that Sarah and her man is getting along so well as I hope that she may prosper give her my kind love tell her that I have the little piece of poetry that she gave me before I left. Does Malcolm or Mary Ann ever come down to see you or what family has she now. I suppose they are doing well and enjoying the good things of the earth. Now for my old Larne friends hoping that god in his goodness has showered down the good things of earth and his blessing upon them all and that they are happy give them my kind regards as if mentioned separately. I had a letter from Mary Ann a few days ago all enjoying good health also one from Thos Moffat they are all well. I am afraid that it would cost too much for them to go home I expected to have had the pleasure of seeing them before this time but was disappointed. Dr mother since I commenced to write I hear that we are not going to Richmond but merely out upon a recoignance through the country for one week or so if I don’t write again before I start I will as soon as I return. I must now finish did the little bush grow with my father that I sent him – & may god bless you & father the prayer of your son

James (1)

Bivouac of Burnside's Army, Roanoke Island (The Long Roll)

Bivouac of Burnside’s Army, Roanoke Island (The Long Roll)

(1) Louise Brown Transcription; (2) Johnson 1911: 100-1

*The next letters in the series will join James and his regiment in Virginia during the Autumn of 1862. Note that some punctuation has been added to the letters above for ease of reading. Sincere thanks are due to Louise Brown for sharing these letters of her ancestor, which she has also transcribed, with readers of Irish in the American Civil War.

*I am grateful to Michael Zatarga, a researcher of the 9th New York, for drawing my attention to Swedish-born Charles Johnson’s The Long Roll. The account makes frequent mention of Fleming, who Johnson was fond of.


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Categories: Antrim, Battle of Roanoke Island, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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6 Comments on “The Civil War Letters of Captain James Fleming, Part 4: With Hawkins’ Zouaves at Roanoke”

  1. June 1, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    I wonder how many Irish Unitarians there were.

    Also, I recall reading some materials from a Protestant in the Irish Brigade saying that there were many other Protestants in the Brigade. Any sense of the religious breakdown?

    • June 2, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

      Hi Pat,

      That is a good question, I do not thing the numbers were huge. In terms of the protestant element of the Irish Brigade, I have no figures but there were a number of them. I have been having quite a lot of discussions recently surrounding Irish 19th century identity, particularly with regards to ‘Ulster-Scots.’ It seems that the current differentiations we place on ethnicity within Ireland may not have been quite as pronounced in the 19th century. I have come across this a number of times with respect to ‘Ulster-Scots’ referencing themselves as ‘Irish’- the Fleming letter is important in this regard. It is certainly worthy of more study. I have recently written a paper for publication on Ulster people in the Civil War pension files where I highlight this as one of the potential benefits of detailed analysis of the pension files. An intriguing topic in anycase!

      Kind Regards,


      • June 5, 2015 at 12:58 am #

        Pat Cleburne’s friends in Arkansas referred to him as Irish and they said that when Irish workingmen were passing through he would go out of his way to meet them.

  2. John Murphy
    June 2, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    Always insightful to read these letters.
    Thank you.

  3. June 2, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    I’d be interested in connecting with any of James’ descendants. Our Fleming family’s genetic profiles shows an Ulster origin, but we’ve not located living cousins yet. We’d be interested in comparing DNA profiles with any of James’ male descendants or offering to cover part of the cost of testing. Contact me at

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