“Tell Poor Mama”: Draft Riots & Texas Prisons– Letters From The Gulf Blockade

In 1895, thirty years after the end of the American Civil War, Ann Nugent went in search of a pension. The 75-year-old Irish emigrant had lost her son James to the conflict in 1864. A Second Class Boy aboard the USS Granite City, he had been just 16-years-old when he had joined up, and only a year older when he died in a Confederate prison. In 1895, members of New York’s Irish community provided the elderly woman with affidavits to support her claim, but even armed with these she had to hand over some of her most treasured possessions– her son’s letters from his final months. They were enclosed in an envelope for the Pension Bureau, marked “Sailors letters to his mother” and “Please Return.” As they became part of the case evidence upon their submission, they never were, and they remain today in Ann Nugent’s pension file at the National Archives. (1)

Inscription on package of letters in James Nugent pension file (NARA/Fold3)

Inscription on package of letters in James Nugent pension file (NARA/Fold3)

The Nugents had followed a well-worn Irish emigrant path, settling first near Montreal in Canada. Between their time in Ireland and Canada, Jame’s parents Thomas and Ann had eight children– Ann would live to see at least six pre-decease her. James came along around 1847 and spent his early years in Canada, where his father died c. 1857. As James took on added responsibilities he went into the printing business and ultimately settled in the United States. It is not clear if he first went alone to New York, or if all the family went together, but the 1860s saw the majority of the Nugents living there. On 6th June 1863, having lost his employment, James presented himself at the New York Naval Rendezvous, where the boy was described as 5 feet 2 inches tall with grey eyes, light hair and a light complexion. He was first placed on the receiving ship USS North Carolina, before heading for the Gulf and the former blockade-runner turned blockade-enforcer the USS Granite City. As part of that steamer’s crew he was involved in actions around Texas such as the Battle of Sabine Pass, where a small force of Irish Confederates famously turned back a much larger Union force. He would also participate in the capture of a number of Rebel vessels, before on 6th May 1864 the Granite City was captured during the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana, where James became a Prisoner of War. (2)

One of James’s earliest letters is also among the most interesting, as it demonstrates how the teenager was willing to exploit current events to explain his actions. Writing to his Uncle, James explained that he left Albany on account of losing his job, but his new workplace in New York was destroyed during the draft riots and he was left with little option but join the Navy or get “killed with the mob.” The only problem with this story is that James enlisted in the Union Navy on 6th June, fully a month before the riots broke out. James wrote this letter eight days after his vessel had been among those forced back at Sabine Pass, Texas, by Galwegian Dick Dowling and his men.

September 16th 1863

Dear Uncle I left Albany on account of getting discharged from the printing office, for when he heard that i was looking for work in the Statesman he told me he had another man in my place and then i come to New York and was working when the riot commenced and the printing office was broke inn at night, and i had no money and could not get home and i had to join the Navy or i would get killed with the mob if i had to staid any longer thare. I am now at Sabine Pass in Texas where we attacked a fort and were driven back with the loss of two gunboats and we expect to attack it again soon. dear Uncle i would have wrote long ago only we had to wait until the mail boat would come down to us.

Dear Uncle tell poor mama that if ever i get home again that i will not leave so quick as i did before no more at present.

I remain your affectionate nephew

James Nugent

direct your letters to the United States Steamer Granite City Western Gulf Squadron (3)

The Battle of Sabine Pass in which the USS Granite City participated (Contemporary Sketch)

The Battle of Sabine Pass in which the USS Granite City participated (Contemporary Sketch)

James wrote to his mother and brother the following January from off the coast of Texas, in a letter that indicates his thoughts were turning to home. It also demonstrates one of the major attractions in joining the Navy– the opportunity to collect substantial prize money based on the Confederate vessels the sailors captured.

…Dear Mother write soon and let me know how you are all getting along at home and let me know how Uncle Johney and Aunt Rose and ….tell Mary Ann and Jimmy not to get married until I come home…Dear Mother we have taken a prize wort[h] one hundred thousand dollars and my share will be about 500 dollars when it is confirmed.

Dear Brother

I would write oftener only it is by chance at last i got a Steamer going North. When you write again tell Frank not to forget to writ some until I see his writing and tell him when I am coming home I will bring him something good and tell him I was sorry for taking his cannon and powder flask from him. Bob we intend to be home in five or six months because our boilers is not any good

I remaine ever your

affectionate brother

James Nugent (4)

By the following April James was in New Orleans, and took the opportunity to write to his sister. In a sentiment prevalent among many letters from sailors on the blockade, James was clearly glad to be away from the monotony of being out at sea, albeit temporarily. The importance mementos held for servicemen and those at home alike is apparent here, as the family planned to send James photographs while he intendwd to send home a lock of his hair.

Dear Sister

I received your affectionate letter of the 23rd of March, I write you these few lines hoping to find you all in good health, as this leaves me in at present. Dear Sister you said that mama wrote a letter the same time as you but i did not receive either letter or paper…you said something about sending me some books. Dear Sister we have left the Red River and are stationed at New Orleans in the Mississippi River i would sooner stay here than be out at sea because we can get the mails sooner than laying on the Blockade. Dear Sister tell mama when she is getting the likenesses taken to get them taken without a frame and tell mama the next time i am getting my hair cut i will keep her a piece of my hair i will send it in the next letter. (5)

The following month James’s vessel was captured along with USS Wave when they were engaged by Confederate shore batteries at Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana. Under a flag of truce, the sailors were allowed to send letters home to their families to let them know their fate.

Sabine Pass May 64

…we had to surrender the ship or sink. Dear Mother i am a prisoner now but i feel just as safe here as i would on the ship we expect soon to be exchanged. Dear Mother you need not write any more letters to me until i am exchanged because they will not come here but i will write as often as i can…

No more at present

I Remaine your

effectionate son

J. Nugent (6)

Camp Groce, Texas, where James Nugent was kept as a POW (Waller County Historical Society)

Camp Groce, Texas, where James Nugent was kept as a POW (Waller County Historical Society)

James was among a large number of men of the Granite City who were sent to Camp Groce, Texas. Their sufferings were revealed the following year, when Jame’s shipmate Paymaster John Read returned home from captivity and described the conditions the sailors endured. The rage Read felt at the treatment he and his comrades endured in Texas is palpable in his compelling account, which is reproduced in full here:

Camp Groce, 60 miles Northwest of Houston, Texas, is an enclosure surrounded by a stockade, about 15 feet in height, on the top of which at intervals of fifty feet, are sentry-boxes for the guards, who are instructed to shoot any coming within 10 feet of the fence! Inside the pen were old barracks, not sufficient, however, for the accommodation of all the prisoners, and but a poor protection from the weather.

At this camp we remained through most of the summer, suffering terribly from the intense heat, the high stockade preventing all air from entering, while the wells having ‘caved in’ before our arrival, we were obliged to get water from a muddy creek outside the camp; and since, being provided with but few buckets, and but a few being allowed outside at a time, the demand being constant, this privilege was often denied us, as the officers said, it occasioned two guards, who accompanied us, ‘too much work.’ At early morn there would be a rush to get what water had oozed into the old wells through the night, and many sick men suffered for water to cool their parched lips. We afterwards dug anew the wells ourselves, the rebels telling us ‘if we wanted water we could repair the well.’

The camp was under the command of a Col. Gillespie formerly a clergyman at New Orleans, who, indeed, was a fiend incarnate. Every indignity and discomfort that a cowardly mind could devise was perpetrated upon the prisoners. He would not allow, for a long time, even the sickest to be carried to the hospital near by, giving as a reason for refusal on one occasion, when asked to have an officer very low with sickness removed from camp that he might have something better than a plank to lie upon, that he ‘feared he might run away.’ The camp becoming filthy the Union officers organized squads among the prisoners for cleaning the ground, but the authorities immediately endeavored to make the men mutiny, ordering them not to obey their own officers and inviting and allowing them to desert. Being enraged on one occasion at the escape of a few. Gillespie ordered that all the prisoners should be driven from their barracks and huts at night and herded in the open air.

This order was carried out, sick and well, officers and men, being forced into a small compass, not even allowed to go to the sinks, and the night being rainy and cold much new sickness was occasioned. Those who escaped, when recaptured, were punished; the officers being confined with ball and chains in jails and dungeons, and the men often ‘bucked,’ that is, their hands, when ironed, were forced over the knees, and a stick running under the knees kept the hands in position, and the man doubled up. A pack of hounds were kept near the camp, and the most active in their use was another minister (?) ‘Parson Scott,’ who was considered the best ‘nigger hunter’ in the country!

The camp, through the hot season, was in the most filthy condition in heavy rains and sinks often overflowing caused the most intolerable stench.

The condition of the prisoners at this time was terrible; the hot sun beating down upon men sick with fevers; the high stockade keeping all air from entering; little water, and that thick and muddy– often with an offensive odor; men wasted to the appearance of death itself, alive with vermin, with not clothes sufficient to cover them– here one with a jacket alone, there one with pants and no coats, others hugging a blanket around them to cover their nakedness, begging something to relieve the pains of sickness, from a rebel doctor, who was usually too intoxicated to stand alone! Their own solders filling the hospital, the sickest prisoners were finally removed to the attic of an old church. This room, packed closely with men low with diarrhoea and the most loathsome diseases, lying in their own filth, left for the most part to care for themselves, soon became a place of corruption. One poor fellow, while climbing to the attic by the only means, a rotten ladder, fell in his weakness, and was killed, having broken his neck.

Those dying in the hospital were robbed of clothes and valuables, and carried out, many at a time, in mule carts, and buried by the negroes. In September the prisoners were moved west of the Brazos River, to the low, muddy bottom of a creek. Here was no shelter, and the mortality was great. The cavalry guard encamping above the prisoners, we had to drink the water as it came from them to us. Often were to be seen horses and cattle bathing in the water, which, when it reached us, was slimy and offensive to the smell. Again, on the 1st of October, we were crowded into mule carts, for few could walk, and moved– several dying on the way– to Chapel Hill. This camp was also on low ground, swampy and unhealthy, and having been formerly used for camp meetings, there were many large sheds near by, ample for all; but no, their horses enjoyed the shelter, while prisoners were herded in so small a compass on the muddy ground that it was almost impossible to walk through the camp, so near together were the sick lying.

The suffering and mortality at this camp even surpassed the others. It may almost be said that the ground was covered with the sick and dying, and these, too, with no shelter– lying on the wet ground with chills and diseases of every description– exposed to the heavy rains and chilling ‘northers’– with little medicines and not clothing enough to cover them– several at this camp were chilled to death! The dead were buried like dogs! No endeavor was made to clean the camp, which soon became filthy in the extreme– alive with vermin of every description– the sick not able to walk to the sinks at a distance, and often not allowed to at night, on account of the contraction of the guard lines. The reminiscences of this place cannot be forgotten. The consumptive cough, the shrieks of the insane, the groans of the sick and dying– all exposed to the pitiless rain, or cold ‘norther’– many too weak to rise from the ground, to escape the flood, which at every storm poured down the hill side, while not a hundred yards off were sheds sufficient for twice our number. On One occasion a muster was ordered, and the guards being sent into the camp to make all “turn out,” were to be seen ‘pricking’ with their bayonets men as they lay sick, too weak to walk, and with oaths, ordering them to ‘fall into line.’

The last of October we were moved back to Camp Groce and the weather being rainy and the mud too deep for wagons, all were forced to march until the sick fell exhausted! On this march the wayside was lined with those unable to walk farther; at every few steps was to be seen some poor fellow sitting in the mud, shaking with chill, unable to proceed, with sunken cheeks and eyes, and looks of complete despondency and despair, while in contrast the cavalry guard with taunting jest and profane ribaldry were urging all to go on. The ration consisted of 1-2 pound of tough and tasteless beef, 1-2 oz. dirty sugar, 1-2 oz. coarse salt, 16 oz. corn-meal coarsely ground– pieces of husk being often found– food which aggravated diarrhoea and complaints with which all were afflicted; once in ten days bacon was issued, but always do rotten as to be useless. The practice of selling supplies to the prisoners, whenever discovered, was stopped by Gillespie. Very few cooking utensils being furnished, the prisoners were obliged to borrow, one mess from another, so that it was often far into the night before many were able to procure means for cooking any food.

Neglect and inattention characterized the rebel treatment of these Union prisoners. Subjected to indignities and insult– supplied with food and water which were poisonous in their effects– exposed to the inclemencies of a changing climate when all could have been sheltered– herded and crowded together merely to save the number of their guards– and camps allowed to remain in a filthy condition while efforts of the prisoners themselves to cleanse were thwarted. The greatest number confined at these camps was six hundred. Through September and October the prisoners died at the rate of six and seven per day. Of 111 of the Navy (the crews of the “Granite City” and “Wave”) but 32 returned. (7)

The members of the USS Granite City who died in captivity in Texas as reported in January 1865. James's name is among them

The members of the USS Granite City who died in captivity in Texas as reported in January 1865. James’s name is among them (Boston Evening Transcript)

The survivors of the Granite City were released on 19th December 1864. Apart from writing his compelling account of his experiences, John Read also carried with him a list of his comrades who had perished, which was published in the Northern newspapers. Among them was James Nugent, who had succumbed on 2nd November. Ann Nugent almost certainly had never heard from her son again after James’s correspondence informing her of his capture. In the years that followed, Ann cherished her young son’s letters. She did not seek a pension until the 1890s, at which point she had to hand over the communication in order to prove that James had financially assisted her. Ann’s pension was approved, and she collected it until her death on 21st October 1907. James’s letters are another interesting example of naval correspondence, and a further reminder that it was not just the Irish-born who were part of the Irish-American story during the Civil War. (8)

Inscription on package of letters in James NUgent file, asking they be returned (NARA/Fold3)

Inscription on package of letters in James NUgent file, asking they be returned (NARA/Fold3)

(1) Navy Widow’s Certificate; (2) Ibid., 1900 Census; (3) U.S. Naval Enlistment, Navy Widow’s Certificate; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Boston Evening Transcript 4th February 1865; (8) Blakeman 1912: 265, Boston Evening Transcript 24th January 1865, Navy Widow’s Certificate;

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

References & Further Reading

Navy Widow’s Certificate 10800 for Ann Nugent, Mother of James Nugent, USS Granite City.

United States Naval Enlistment Rendezvous.

1900 Federal Census, New York, Kings County, Brooklyn Ward 11, District 0161.

Blakeman, Noel A. (ed). 1912. Personal Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: Addresses Delivered Before the Commandery of the State of New York.

Boston Evening Transcript 24th January 1865.

Boston Evening Transcript 4th February 1865.

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Categories: Canada, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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8 Comments on ““Tell Poor Mama”: Draft Riots & Texas Prisons– Letters From The Gulf Blockade”

  1. John Murphy
    February 12, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    Sad sad story. Damian your work is appreciated very much.
    Your Carrigtwohill/Fota fellow Corkman.

  2. February 13, 2017 at 7:20 am #

    As well as being heartbreaking and at times very hard to read, this was so interesting. Thank you.

  3. February 13, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    Very sad story of needless death. I posted this over at Civil War Talk.

    • February 18, 2017 at 9:36 am #

      Thanks for doing that Pat I must have a look over there I haven’t had a chance in a while

  4. February 16, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    http://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com.au/2017/02/friday-fossicking-17th-february-2017.html

    Thank you, Chris

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