Dexter soldier discovered a snowbird’s Gulf Coast paradise – Part I

Ship Island was a narrow, 5-to-6-mile-long island lying several miles off the Mississippi coast in the 1860s. Union troops occupied the island in late 1861, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler gathered an army there before sailing away to occupy New Orleans, captured by the United States Navy. This aerial view shows West Ship Island (foreground) and East Ship Island. (United States Government)

Ship Island was a narrow, 5-to-6-mile-long island lying several miles off the Mississippi coast in the 1860s. Union troops occupied the island in late 1861, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler gathered an army there before sailing away to occupy New Orleans, captured by the United States Navy. This aerial view shows West Ship Island (foreground) and East Ship Island. (United States Government)

Ship Island: The name’s not familiar like Long Island, Mount Desert Island, or Peaks Island. If you are a Civil War buff, perhaps you’ve heard of the place —

— or maybe you haven’t.

Pvt. Eugene Kincaide Kingman of Dexter certainly thought Ship Island was a great place to escape a cold Maine winter. He visited the sand spit off the coast of Mississippi after joining the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment, which mustered at Portland on Nov. 16, 1861 under the command of Col. George F. Shepley.

The son of Baptist minister Rev. Lebbeus and Ruth (Flye) Kingman, the 17-year-old Eugene lied about his age to join the 12th Maine. An uncle — his father’s brother, Luther — enlisted in the 18th Maine in late summer 1862; he was killed in action with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery (the 18th’s subsequent designation) on Nov. 18, 1864.

Ship Island popped into history because Union forces need a staging area prior to attacking New Orleans in April 1862. The War Department sent Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler — so plain featured a man that he could have inspired the title for the 1963 movie, “The Ugly American” — to command the ground forces.

When Florida militia occupied the Pensacola Navy Yard in January 1861, Union troops withdrew to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, across the entrance to Pensacola Bay. (Harper's Weekly)

When Florida militia occupied the Pensacola Navy Yard in January 1861, Union troops withdrew to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, across the entrance to Pensacola Bay. (Harper’s Weekly)

Cannons rise above the rampart of Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island in Florida. An intrepid Union officer kept this fort out of Confederate hands in January 1861. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Cannons rise above the rampart of Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island in Florida. An intrepid Union officer kept this fort out of Confederate hands in January 1861. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Its muzzle pointed toward the Gulf of Mexico, a cannon stands on the rampart of Fort Pickens. On the horizon lies Pensacola and the mainland of Florida. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Its muzzle pointed toward the Gulf of Mexico, a cannon stands on the rampart of Fort Pickens. On the horizon lie Pensacola and the mainland of Florida. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

The nearest American-held post was Fort Pickens at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island at the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Not secure against Confederate attack, Pickens lacked a good anchorage.

Butler decided that “an island of white sand … between 5 and 6 miles long, and … about ten miles distant from the Mississippi coast” was the next best place to assemble his army. Confederates had occupied Ship Island for a while, but the American flag waved once more above partially completed Fort Massachusetts by early 1862.

The 12th Maine Infantry arrived at Ship Island aboard the SS Constitution (not to be confused with the venerable warship) on Wednesday, Feb. 12. Eugene Kingman was still excited about the voyage from Boston; the Constitution had taken a sinking Navy gunboat under tow off Cape Hatteras after “we run into a schooner and tore away her mail sail,” he wrote Ruth on Feb. 13.

The Maine lads went ashore on Ship Island and “got our tents pitched and ready to commence operations in the way of drilling,” Kingman noted.

Perhaps an Army recruiter had waxed eloquent about the tourist attractions on Ship Island. Looking around for a bit, Kingman declared that “to tell the truth I am very agreeably disappointed in the place.

“There are a number of buildings here,” he observed. Some buildings had existed prior to the Union occupation; others had been built since. “There is a light house and on the upper end [of the island] a [pine] forest.”

Born in Saco in 1819, George Foster Shepley was practicing law in Portland when he accepted the colonelcy of the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. (Maine State Archives)

Born in Saco in 1819, George Foster Shepley was practicing law in Portland when he accepted the colonelcy of the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment. (Maine State Archives)

After settling down for their first night’s sleep, the 12th Maine lads met a local fauna. “The spiders a longe (sic) white kind would crawl up on the canvas and drop down on our heads doing no harm to us, however,” Kingman informed his mother.

Union troops had landed horses; he estimated their number at 300-400 and described the animals as “so lean that there bones stick out through the hide almost.” Except for the horses, spiders, and some birds, there were few other critters on Ship Island.

However, the weather would have appealed to 21st-century Maine snowbirds. Kingman quickly realized “it is real warm here and we go round in our shirt sleeves[,] some [men] barefoot and with straw hats on.

“A lot of the boys went in bathing this morning (Feb. 13) and said the water was quite warm,” he described weather conditions unimaginable to his parents stoking a wood stove back in Dexter.

After seeing more of Ship Island that morning, Kingman changed his mind about his new home. “I think I shall like [it] here first rate after we get settled in our camp[,] for the first impression is good,” he admitted to Ruth.

Sketching an open-jawed alligator “for Charley” (a brother), Kingman asked his mother “to write regularly at least once a week and direct your letters to Co. H, 12th Maine, Ship Island and they will come I am quite sure.

“I wish that you would send a paper occasionally a Harpers Weekly or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated and I will send the pay for them for we are pretty short on reading and pictures and you know how I love pictures,” he wrapped up his letter.

The 12th Maine would stay on Ship Island for a while — and would be joined by other Maine regiments.

Next week: His Gulf Coast surroundings surprised a young Dexter soldier – Part II

Source: “Tramping Out The Vintage 1861-1864, The Civil War Diaries and Letters of Eugene Kingman,” edited by Helene C. Phelan, Almond, New York, 1983

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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 jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.