I am delighted to be in a position to share another piece of innovative work undertaken by Brendan Hamilton, long-time contributor to the site. It serves as a preview of some of the intriguing original research he has been conducting into a heretofore overlooked topic: the enlistment of inmates from America’s juvenile justice system into the US and CS militaries during the American Civil War. Brendan is currently in the midst of a book-length study of this phenomenon, and having seen some of his findings, we are in for a treat when it is completed. He has kindly agreed to share a “taster” with readers here, in the form of a fascinating and remarkable story. While examining the records of the Massachusetts Reform School’s Nautical Branch, Brendan uncovered evidence for three New England juvenile delinquents who ended up serving aboard a Confederate commerce raider. Two of these boys were the children of Irish immigrants. Brendan delves into their tale below, along the way highlighting for us the immense potential of his sources, and of his pioneering study.
On a brisk morning in early March 1863, three boys stood on the deck of a sailing ship, gazing across Boston Harbor toward the open Atlantic beyond. They dreamed, perhaps, of the vast expanse of water they’d soon traverse and the strange exotic scenes they might behold along the way. Sailing on a merchant ship was hardly freedom; as they well understood, it meant the tiresome drudgery of nautical routines and the loneliness and isolation of life afloat, but it likely also held romantic visions of adventure they had only imagined up until this point, and the beginning of living their lives far from the grip of the American juvenile justice system.
James Cotter, William Hogan, and Daniel T. Young were inmates of the Massachusetts State Reform School’s Nautical Branch, a state-run institution that placed the “worst class” of juvenile delinquents aboard a school ship and educated them on the intricacies of seafaring labor, navigation, and even military drill utilizing the ship’s four cannon and arsenal of muskets and boarding pikes. Over the course of the past year, they had helped guide their school ship up and down the Massachusetts coast, stopping in various ports along the way. Life on the school ship was harsh, the work demanding, and the rules strictly enforced. Boys who stepped out of line could face painful, humiliating public flogging with a rattan cane or a rope yarn “cat,” or could find themselves hurled into solitary confinement in one of the small cells in the ship’s lower deck. (1)
The trustees of the Nautical Branch described their institution’s supposed allure to wayward youths in their 1860 Annual Report:
With tastes and fancies to which the idea of a sailor’s life would be naturally agreeable, [the boys] fell at once without sulking or opposition, into the work marked out for them. The labor, to which they were daily called, they evidently felt was not a temporary one, to which as a punishment they were subjected, nor a distasteful and irksome one, which they were to shirk if opportunity offered, but there was found to be in it an element of romance and novelty which fascinated them, and was the end sought by that very waywardness of character which sent them to the institution. They were at last where their restless dispositions would have placed them had they followed their own inclinations, except that, instead of running from home and throwing themselves into a sailor’s life, surrounded by temptations against which they had no protection, they were now indeed preparing to be seamen, but at the same time receiving that mental development and moral culture which would be the means of inspiring them with ambition and of furnishing them with the power of gratifying it. (2)
Cotter, Hogan, and Young had all been in the institution for over a year before they were specifically released to serve aboard the civilian barque Lapwing in March of 1863, shipping coal and other goods and materials to Batavia (present day Jakarta) in Indonesia. Their case histories provide some insight into their lives up to this point. Cotter was committed to the Nautical School by a court in Norfolk County, Massachusetts in January 1862 for “stubbornness.” He was, at the time of his medical inspection, fourteen years of age, 4’7″ tall, 85 lbs, brown haired and blue eyed, with a light, freckled complexion. His chest was marked with scars from a burn. Cotter was born in Dedham, MA to Irish immigrant parents, Patrick and Mary (nee Morrissey). Mary died six years prior, leaving James and his five siblings in the care of their father, who drank. James Cotter was Roman Catholic and did not attend mass, but he had been to Sunday school. He had previously worked in a stable, and admitted that he both drank and used tobacco. (3)
William Hogan, along with his older brother John, transferred to the Nautical Branch from the State Reform School in October 1861. They had both been sentenced for the crime of larceny. The sons of Irish immigrants, the Hogan brothers were born in Somerville, MA and had been made orphans following the death of their mother five years prior. At the time of William’s transfer, he was 14 years old, 4’11 1/2″ tall, 108 lbs, light haired and blue eyed, and, like James Cotter, had a light, freckled complexion. He bore a small scar on his right cheek. He had not been previously employed, nor did he drink or use tobacco. He and his brother were Roman Catholics who attended both mass and Sunday school. John Hogan was discharged from the Nautical School directly into the US Navy in Nov. 1862, when he was about 16, while William was kept there until the following March. (4)
Daniel T. Young was committed in January 1862 from Suffolk County, MA for “stubbornness.” He was then 13 years old, 4’11” tall, and 105 lbs, with light hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion, and he had a scar on his upper lip. Young was born in Dover, New Hampshire to NH native parents, was Protestant, and attended both church and Sunday school. His parents were temperate, and he likewise neither drank nor used tobacco. Daniel’s father had died four years prior and Daniel lived with his mother, stepfather, and three siblings in Melrose, MA. He worked in a brass foundry and had not attended school since around the time his father died. It is possible his father’s death had compelled him to leave school in order to help support his family. (5)
When they shipped on board the Lapwing on March 7, 1863, Cotter, Hogan, and Young were all 15 years old. They likely served as ship’s boys, tasked with some of the most menial labor the Lapwing and its officers and crew required. A mere three weeks into their voyage, on March 28, their ship was intercepted by the infamous CSS Florida, a Confederate sloop-of-war that had been lurking around the Atlantic and Caribbean, gobbling up merchant ships while eluding the grasp of the US Navy. After a three hour chase, the Florida caught up to the Lapwing and compelled her captain to allow her to be boarded. The nimble Rebel commerce raider, with her armament of two seven-inch and six six-inch guns, must have been an intimidating sight to Cotter, Hogan, Young, and their crewmates. The Florida’s captain, Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt, recorded in his diary that the Lapwing’s captain “was excited, not dreaming of a Confederate man-of-war in his locality.” The Confederate sloop was desperate for coal and supplies, and the Lapwing proved to be an excellent source of both. In addition to 260 tons of anthracite coal, the crew of the Florida seized “a fine assorted cargo of Yankee notions, canned meats, fruits, vegetables, etc.” “As she seemed to be a fine vessel,” and in order to hold on to her abundant coal supply, Maffitt decided to keep the Lapwing as a tender, and he placed a small crew and two howitzers aboard her, renaming her the Oreto. The Lapwing’s original officers and crew, meanwhile, were taken aboard the Florida as prisoners. (6)
The prisoners from the Lapwing were likely held on the Florida shackled in irons, as was the case with the crew of the bark Star of Peace, captured by the Florida on March 6. While the Florida’s surviving log abstract mentions recruiting two crew members from the Star of Peace, it makes no such reference to shipping any seamen from the Lapwing. Maffitt recorded that on April 1, he deposited the prisoners from all recently captured vessels aboard a passing Danish brig, the Christian, along with provisions to sustain them. Northern newspapers indicate the Christian then transported them to the island of St. Croix by April 12. They reported, however, that eight of the seamen were missing–five men from the Star of Peace had agreed to join the crew of the Florida, while “three boys were taken from the Lapwing.” (7)
Surviving returns from the Florida dated from January 1864 reveals the identity of these three boys–“Jas. Cotter,” “Wm. Hogan,” and “D.T. Young,” are all listed as 1st Class Boys in the crew, drawing new shirts and assorted mess gear. These are undoubtedly the same Cotter, Hogan, and Young who shipped on board the Lapwing from the Massachusetts Reform School’s Nautical Branch. It is unclear whether the boys were forced to serve aboard the Florida against their will, but it may well be that they were enticed by the promise of a life of adventurous, daring raids on the high seas, envisioning the romanticized pirate’s life of popular literature and lore. This would have seemed abundantly more exciting than continuing to work on merchant ships. Or they may simply have been tempted by the more tangible promise of enlistment bounties and a share in future prizes. Interestingly enough, James Cotter, who was the one only of the three boys to indicate an affinity for tobacco in his Nautical School case register, is shown in the Florida returns to have drawn both a plug of tobacco and “French Tobacco Paper” from the ship’s stores. While tobacco use was strictly prohibited in the Massachusetts Reform School and its Nautical Branch, the Confederate Navy had no such hang-ups. The boys’ new roles aboard the Florida were likely various, although much of it would have resembled the day-to-day toil they experienced aboard the Lapwing. Ships’ boys in the naval service could also be tasked with anything from acting as messengers and servants to the officers, to the taking on the dangerous role of “powder monkey,” which entailed carrying gunpowder from the ship’s scuttles to the gun crews during combat. (8)
After capturing the Lapwing, the Florida continued its spree of seizing merchant vessels, capturing the bark M.J. Colcord two days later, followed soon after by the Commonwealth, the Henrietta, and the Oneida over the course of the month of April. The Florida’s crew burned most of the ships they seized after taking aboard prisoners and anything of value from the cargo. According to Maffitt, the crew were at that time “living like lords on Yankee plunder.” Along with other Confederate commerce raiders operating in the area, they drew the ire of the Brazilian government for operating within Brazil’s territorial waters. Their concerns notwithstanding, Brazilian authorities allowed the Florida to stop in Pernambuco for repairs and refueling in May. Maffitt boasted in a letter to his children dated May 13, 1863:
I feel happy to tell you that the Florida has been doing a fierce business. Up to May 11 she has destroyed $9,500,000 of Yankee commerce, and eluded thirteen Federal men-of-war sent to destroy her and the Alabama. The Florida and Alabama destroyed ten of the enemy’s largest vessels April 22, within sixty miles of each other… (9)
Once back in sailing order, the Florida reembarked and continued capturing numerous merchant vessels during the summer of 1863 as they sailed up and down the Atlantic, getting as close as fifty to sixty miles from New York City. The prizes the Florida’s crew snatched up included hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of silver and gold bars. They evaded US Naval vessels all the while eluding ships that likely included former Nautical School classmates of the three boys among their crews. At one point, the Florida even fired a broadside at the USS Ericsson, dissuading the latter from further pursuit. (10)
By mid-August, Maffitt had taken the Florida east for Europe, seeking a harbor in which to make much-needed repairs to his ship’s engine and hull. He found an obliging port in Brest, France. The Florida lay there in French Naval dock from August 23, 1863, to February 12, 1864, undergoing repairs and discreetly taking in some fifty-seven new recruits from various “shipping agents” operating in England. It is plausible that the Florida’s three boys were not the only members of her crew who had never lived (or perhaps even set foot) in the American South. Illness took a toll on the ship’s crew members and officers, and by the time the Florida was ready to sail again, it was under a new commander, Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris, as both Maffitt and his immediate successor had been forced to relinquish their commands due to ill health. (11)
The Florida left Brest in February 1864 and headed across the Atlantic for the West Indies, then turned east to the Canary Islands, finally docking in Bahia, Brazil in October 1864 for repairs and coal. It was there she met her dramatic end as a Confederate commerce raider. The USS Wachusett, captained by Commander Napoleon Collins, had stealthily tracked her down and anchored at the entrance to the harbor in which she was docked. Knowing he would be violating international law by attacking the Florida in neutral waters, Collins instead sent a message to the Florida inviting her to fight it out in open waters. When his offer was refused, Collins decided to order a brazen night assault on the anchored Confederate vessel at 3:00 am on October 7. At this time, about half the Florida’s crew, four officers, and Lieutenant Morris were sleeping ashore. (12)
The attack began with a barrage from the Wachusett’s six-inch guns at a distance of 1km. After rough waters prevented the Wachusett from landing any of its shots, she ceased fire and closed in, creeping up to within musket range in the darkness. By the time the Florida’s crew saw her, it was too late to respond with artillery. Instead, the Rebel seamen fired a barrage of musket and pistol fire at the Wachusett, injuring three of her crew. The Union sailors returned fire with their own small arms while their ship moved into position for a full broadside. Once ready, the Wachusett unleashed another artillery barrage upon the Florida, raking her bulwarks and toppling her mizzenmast. The crew then ceased firing, and called out across the water for the crew of the Florida to surrender. The call went unanswered, so the Wachusett fired again, then dramatically rammed straight into the Confederate ship and dispatched a boarding party onto her deck. Nine Rebel sailors jumped overboard from the deck of the Florida in an attempt to escape, while the boarding party fired upon the fleeing men with their muskets. The remainder of the crew soon surrendered, and Collins ordered a tow cable affixed to the Florida to pull her out of the harbor. Just as the contest seemed decided, Brazilian troops in nearby Fort Barra opened fire on the Wachusett with their cannon. Collins rushed the Wachusett out of the harbor, streaming past several Brazilians ships that likewise opened fire, miraculously escaping unscathed. The Wachusett had suffered three men wounded in the assault, while the Florida lost five men killed, nine wounded, and twelve officers and fifty-eight crewmen captured. Among the captured were James Cotter and William Hogan. Daniel Young was most likely among the party that had been ashore, although it’s possible he was one of the Confederates who dove overboard as the Florida was boarded. (13)
Amazingly, Cotter and Hogan’s destination, along with many of their fellow captured crewmen, was Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. It seemed their adventure had come full circle, and ended, once more, in incarceration. They remained imprisoned at Fort Warren until February of 1865, at which point they took the oath of allegiance to the US, and were released on parole. It is unclear what became of Young in the immediate aftermath of the Bahia incident, but he appears to have returned to work as a civilian sailor in the years following the war. He died in Natick, MA in 1901. I am still researching the postwar fates of Cotter and Hogan. (14)
(1) Annual report of the trustees of the State Reform School, Investigation into the Management and Discipline of the State Reform School at Westborough; (2) Annual Report of the Trustees of the State Reform School; (3) Nautical School Case Histories; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt, The Eventful Cruise of the ‘Florida.’; (7) Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (Ser.1, V. 2), The life and services of John Newland Maffitt, “The Pirates at Work”; (8) Confederate Navy Subject File – Personnel; (9) The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt; (10) Ibid.; (11) The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt, Confederate Navy Subject File – Personnel, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (Ser.1, V. 2); (12) Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (Ser.1, V. 3); (13) Ibid.; (14) US Civil War Prisoner of War Records, Massachusetts, Boston, Crew Lists, 1811-1921, Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915;
Annual report of the trustees of the State Reform School, at Westborough, together with the annual reports of the officers of the institution. Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1852-1879.
Investigation into the Management and Discipline of the State Reform School at Westborough Before the Committee on Public Charitable Institutions. Boston: A.J. Wright, 1877.
Nautical School Case Histories, 1856-1870
Maffit, Emma Martin. The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt. New York: Neale Publishing, 1906.
Sinclair, G. Terry. “The Eventful Cruise of the ‘Florida.’” Confederate Commerce-destoyers. New York: Century Co., 1898.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Volume 2.
“The Pirates at Work.” Brooklyn Eagle, 24 Apr. 1863.
Confederate Navy Subject File – Personnel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Volume 3.
US Civil War Prisoner of War Records
Massachusetts, Boston, Crew Lists, 1811-1921
Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915