While the old folks at home in Dexter shoveled snow in winter 1862, the greatest problem facing Pvt. Eugene Kincaide Kingman of Co. H, 12th Maine Infantry, was deciding which skeeter to swat.
After arriving at Ship Island off the Mississippi coast on Feb. 12, the 12th Maine boys had camped near the island’s north shore, about a mile east of the wharf across which men and supplies poured in the run-up to the attack on New Orleans. Damaged by retreating Confederates, the island’s round, brick lighthouse stood a short distance from the regiment’s camp.
Kingman could not believe his good fortune in the War Department’s choice of winter quarters for the 12th Maine Infantry. The Gulf Coast weather was incredible; “I suppose that it is a good deal different as regards to weather here from Old Maine,” he wrote sister Sarah Adelaide (“Addie”) on Feb. 21.
“We have more of us straw hats [to wear] and a good many [men] go barefoot” on the warm sand, Kingman commented.
“Is that not different from home?” the young soldier teased 8-year-old Addie and her three sisters, Florence, Nancy, and Alice, whom Kingman referred to as “the rest of the girls.”
Besides expressing his desire for more mail and newspapers from home, Kingman mentioned an issue that Addie would not encounter until May in Dexter. “The mosquitoes and flies are buzzing round,” Kingman noticed, “and the frogs sing in the evening just as natural as a grown person.”
The frogs fed on the winged insects, which fed on the Union soldiers and their horses. Kingman and his comrades kept busy slapping the skeeters and flies, but if the trade off was going barefoot in late February, that was okay.
Hailing from land-locked Dexter, where the largest “ship” might be a sailboat running across Lake Wassookeag, Kingman particularly noticed the diverse ships anchoring off Ship Island.
Its occupation by Union forces had extended the Navy’s effective blockading reach farther west along the Golf Coast. With Confederate blockade runners playing dodge ball with Union warships, more ships appeared off Ship Island daily.
“There are several Gun Boats and men of war here and numerous prizes[,] for our fleet capture them very often,” Kingman had told his mother, Ruth, in a Feb. 13 letter. “Some of them are armed[,] but the majority are small craft.”
On Feb. 21, he told Addie that “this forenoon the New London[,] a boat which the rebels call ‘The Black Prince[,]’ brought in nine small schooners and other craft and business here is pretty lively.”
And the ships kept coming — and they brought more than snowbird soldiers. “One day last week a large ship[,] the Black Prince[,] arrived with about 125 horses on board and landed them here,” Kingman wrote his mother on March 2.
“They had to lay out in the harbor and hoist the horses overboard and let them swim ashore,” he noted. On March 1, “the Pensacola arrived with another large ship.”
Those two ships disgorged more Union soldiers, but none from Maine. “We have heard that the 13th Maine Regiment was coming here, and I hope it is so, for I understand that Mr. Haseltine and some others are in that Regt.,” wrote Kingman, referring to Maj. Francis S. Hesseltine, who along with Kingman’s father, Lebbeus, was a graduate of Waterville (Colby) College.
Sailing from Boston aboard the SS Mississippi on Feb. 20, the 13th Maine Infantry arrived at Ship Island on Saturday, March 8; the 14th Maine Infantry arrived aboard the SS North American the same day. The latest round of Maine snowbirds camped about halfway across the island.
Meanwhile, Kingman was sporting a glow not normally seen on Mainers until midsummer. “My health has been very good indeed since we came ashore here, and I am getting along first rate in most everything,” he assured Ruth on March 2.
“We are having some pretty hot weather here, and we are all tanned up as black as Indians,” he noted.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.