Spring gales almost sank the 2nd Maine Cav

As a storm tosses a wrecked sailing ship ashore on Cape Hatteras, a soldier or sailor dashes into the surf to attach a rope to cargo and then haul it shore. Other cargo floats in the tide in this detailed sketch made during the Civil War by artist Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)

As a storm tosses a wrecked sailing ship ashore on Cape Hatteras, a soldier or sailor dashes into the surf to attach a rope to cargo and then haul it shore. Other cargo floats in the tide in this detailed sketch made during the Civil War by artist Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)

Two terrifying ocean storms almost turned a Confederate dream into reality in early spring 1864: wiping out some 300 Maine cavalrymen before they ever fired a shot.

In mid-March, troopers from three 2nd Maine Cavalry Regiment companies — A, B, and D — started loading their horses aboard two transports docked at Portland. Orders called for 150 men (all of Co. A and about half of Co. B) and 140 horses to sail on the 1,630-ton steamship Continental and for another 150 men (Co. D and the remainder of Co. B) and their horses to sail on the Frank Bolt, a large sailing ship.

Outbound for New Orleans, the Continental towed the Frank Bolt from Portland on Saturday, March 19. “Our passage of the harbor and during the second day was pleasant, and we anticipated having a pleasant voyage” that weekend, an unidentified sergeant wrote the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier from Hilton Head, S.C. on Saturday, March 26.

Clearing the treacherous Cape Cod sands, the ships pointed their bows south. Then during the morning of Monday, March 21, “a severe gale” caught the ships. The winds suddenly shifted “from NNW to ESE, which increased in violence during the day and which threatened every moment to drive the two vessels together, which would have been instant destruction to all on board,” according to the sergeant.

The storm intensified as the ships struggled off Cape Henry, Va.; the sergeant described the ships’ location as “lat[itude]. 36:50, lon.[gitude] 14:50” (likely a typesetter’s mistake, the latter figure was probably 74:50). Wind and waves repeatedly swept the Frank Bolt too near the Continental; finally “we set her (Bolt) loose for the safety of each,” he wrote. “It was the opinion of all the officers on board that had we held on to her an hour longer, both ships would have gone to the bottom.”

The Continental “was soon after brought to, and for eighteen hours we battered and struggled with the elements which appeared determined on our destruction.” High waves buffeted the ship; as the fledgling cavalrymen dodged flailing hooves and flashing teeth, horses screamed their fear below decks and struggled to stand. Tossed about in their stalls, 23 horses “were killed by being thrown down and trampled to death under each others feet,” the sergeant described the on-board horror.

Finally the gale subsided; “once more [we] bore way on our course,” he told Whig & Courier readers. As some troopers dragged the dead horses topside and heaved them overboard, other men cleaned up the below-deck effluvia.

The clouds parted to reveal a bright sun about 10 a.m.

Storm clouds loom ominously over Cape Hatteras as waves wash ashore near Cate Hatteras Lighthouse. During the Civil War, the cape's offshore sand bars claimed Confederate and Union ships alike. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Storm clouds loom ominously over Cape Hatteras as waves wash ashore near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. During the Civil War, the cape’s offshore sand bars claimed Confederate and Union ships alike. In late March 1864, a deadly ocean storm swept a ship carrying 150 men of the 2nd Maine Cavalry past Cape Hatteras. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Storm clouds loom ominously over Cape Hatteras as waves wash ashore near Cate Hatteras Lighthouse. During the Civil War, the cape’s offshore sand bars claimed Confederate and Union ships alike.

Storm clouds loom ominously over Cape Hatteras as waves wash ashore near Cate Hatteras Lighthouse. During the Civil War, the cape’s offshore sand bars claimed Confederate and Union ships alike.

Then at midnight, Thursday, “the heavens once more warned us that we had not yet escaped the storm king’s dreadful power,” the sergeant set the stage for the Continental’s second act.

“The storm burst upon us in all its fury — the wind [swinging] from the ENNE to the SW, with the rain descending in torrents,” he wrote. “We were then in lat. 32:30, lon. 80:30 steering for Key West, where it was the intention to coal up.”

The Continental’s crewmen performed prodigious feats that dark and storm-swept night; “our ship was again brought to, and thro’ the superhuman efforts of Captain George Sumner of our ship and the officers under him, assisted by Captain [J.F.) Twitchell of Company A, we were once more saved from watery graves,” the sergeant breathed a deep sigh of relief.

“It is with feelings of the deepest gratitude that each man on board expresses their sincere thanks to those brave men whose skill and courage alone saved the ship and ourselves from a fate which almost appeared inevitable,” he wrote.

Not mentioned was how Twitchell stayed with the frightened horses through the terrible storms. Maintaining his composure with the deck heaving beneath his feet and the pumps clanking incessantly not far away, the sleepless Twitchell worked alongside the troopers battling to save their mounts.

Peripatetic combat artist Alfred Waud sketched this sword-swinging Union corporal riding down an unhorsed Confederate trooper and shouting at him, "Surrender!" After surviving two terrifying ocean storms in early spring 1864, similar 2nd Maine Cavalry troopers arrived in the Deep South and went into action against Confederate forces in Alabama and Florida. (Library of Congress)

Peripatetic combat artist Alfred Waud sketched this sword-swinging Union corporal riding down an unhorsed Confederate trooper and shouting at him, “Surrender!” After surviving two terrifying ocean storms in early spring 1864, similar 2nd Maine Cavalry troopers arrived in the Deep South and went into action against Confederate forces in Alabama and Florida. (Library of Congress)

The second gale, which “subsided on Friday,” March 25, claimed another 28 horses; before the 2nd Maine Cavalry encountered its first Confederate, 36 percent of the horses on the Continental had died.

Checking the ship’s bunkers that Friday, Capt. Sumner realized that he had burned a lot of coal to fight the back-to-back storms. He “bore away for Hilton Head — it being the nearest port — to replenish our stock, and repair damages,” the sergeant wrote.

The Continental reached Port Royal, S.C. on Saturday.

Minus some horses, the Frank Bolt also survived the two storms. The 300-odd Maine troops soon arrived in the Deep South, where the 2nd Maine Cavalry would often fight (when horses were available) in terrain unsuitable for mounted operations.

But the worst Alabama or Florida swamp would never compare to the horror experienced off the East Coast in early spring 1864.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.