Maine sailor lived the pirate’s life in Tidewater Virginia

The gunboat USS Mahaska lies off West Point, Virginia on November 1, 1862. Commander Foxhall Parker sent ashore the sailors and marines busily demolishing a substantial Confederate earthworks (foreground). Among the sailors swinging a pick ax is a Maine lad known only by his initials, M.S.Y. He recounted this adventure and others in a letter published in the Portland Daily Press. (Library of Congress)

Legalized pillaging was so profitable in Virginia’s Tidewater in late 1862 that a young Maine sailor had it all figured out: “Yo, ho! Yo, ho! A pirate’s life for me!”

Subscribers thumbing through the Portland Daily Press on Thursday, January 1, 1863 focused their attention on a page 2, column 2 header, “Letter from on board a U.S. Gunboat.” Detailing some great small-ship naval action taking place in the Tidewater, the letter was written by a “young man” identified only by his initials, “M.S.Y.” and the addendum that he lived “in a neighboring town.”

On Friday, December 5, 1862, he wrote a letter to his sister, and it “was handed us for publication,” according to the Portland Daily Press.

Under Comm. Foxhall A. Parker, the USS Mahaska had recently arrived at Yorktown and found “a secure and commanding anchorage in case of attack,” MSY noted. Launched at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery in December 1861, the 228-foot, 1,070-ton Mahaska cost $130,000, then a princely sum.

Commissioned in early May 1862, the ship was a Sebago-class “double ender” steam gunboat, equipped with two side wheels and two masts. The initial armament of the Mahaska included a 100-pound Parrott rifle, a 9-inch cannon, and four 24-pounder cannons.

The warship was named for an Iowa Indian chief named Mahaska.

Parker was a natural warrior, “so energetic and zealous that some of the crew think he is crazy,” MSY revealed. Wanting to take a crack at the Confederacy, Parker “organized the crews in the boats and commenced some of those expeditions which if they have not startled the world have scared some rebels.”

With its 10-foot draft, the Mahaska was ideally suited for probing around Virginia’s coastal waters. Formed where the Mattaponi (also spelled Mattapony) and Pamunkey rivers merged at West Point, the York River was “an excellent one for navigation,” sufficiently deep “to float the largest ships for over 35 miles from its mouth,” MSY noted. “Twenty miles further it is navigable for steamers and schooners of moderate size.”

After scouting upriver, Parker briefly returned his ship to Yorktown, then pointed her bow toward West Point on October 31, 1862. “We returned, determined to accomplish something if possible,” MSY explained.

That day the sailors raided Confederate earthworks built where Wormley’s Creek reached the York River. Sailors flattened part of the abandoned fortifications, and the Mahaska stood upriver early on November 1 and moored off West Point.

As the warship approached larger Confederate earthworks there, Comm. Parker watched a few Confederate cavalrymen ride away. “So with a couple of boats’ crews well armed with picks and spades, guarded by a few marines, we landed at West Point,” which “the rebels had fortified … with a small earthwork,” MSY wrote.

According to Parker, the earthworks were “well constructed and larger than I had supposed” and had “two bombproof magazines and eight embrasures for heavy guns.”

A Lt. Andrews, the acting signals officer aboard the Mahaska, accompanied the Navy and Marine Corps vandals ashore and busily sketched them “blowing up the old magazine” behind the small fort “and digging down some of the earthworks,” MSY indicated.

The published wood-cut depicts Navy tars tearing up the wooden ramparts and stacking the timbers on a smoky fire. Picks fly as the sailors tackle the ramparts, and two men (likely master’s mates) talk near the shore.

Somewhere amidst the sailors is MSY, who found evidence of the Confederate cavalry spotted riding away several hours earlier. “We … ascertained that a company of cavalry had been there,” MSY wrote, leaving his sister to imagine the hoof prints and horse poop scattered around the post.

The sailors had demolished about half the earthworks before Parker pulled his men back to their ship at 4 p.m.

A few days later, Parker procured two canal boats and sent them and sailors upriver “8 or 10 miles from Yorktown” to load wood from a recently discovered pile along the shore. The sailors got away with a boat-load or two of wood, but local Confederates torched the “200 to 300 cords” still ashore that evening.

Although the Navy dominated Virginia’s tidal waters, small boats funneled Confederate supplies across the York and its tributaries. Patrolling aggressively, Parker and his men captured “two or three boats loaded with calico, medicines, and other articles quite necessary to the rebels,” MSY informed his sister. “Hardly a day or night passes but some illegal offender is arrested, and his boat and cargo confiscated to our use.”

Captured ships and cargo were sold at auction; Parker and his men shared the resulting prize money, so the more Confederate boats that were nabbed, the better the payout for the Yankee sailors.

The gunboat USS Mahaska (left, foreground) stands by as Union infantrymen burn the Virginia Tidewater home of secessionist fire-breather Edmund Ruffin. Among the sailors assigned to the Mahaska was a Cumberland County youth known only by his initials, M.S.Y. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspapers)

In late 1862, the Mahaska and “our two consorts,” the May Queen and Gen. Putnam, landed “several companies of infantry” and some sailors, “about 300 men” in all, to raid “a small salt manufactory” on the East River, according to MSY. Salt was a scarce necessity in the South, and small salt-making facilities sprang up all along the southern coasts. Civilians living along the York River were paying $16 “in Confederate money, one half that [price] in silver” for a bushel of salt, MSY noted.

Torched by the Yankees, this particular “salt manufactory” could produce 10 bushels of salt per day. The blue-clad vandals destroyed “some thirty or more salt pens and kettles,” MSY said.

While this was happening, other “boats’ crews proceeded in different directions, and destroyed three schooners, and over twenty small boats peculiar to this vicinity, which were engaged in running the blockade,” he observed.

Several sailors encountered an escaped slave, who guided them to a cellar where Confederates had hidden “a barrel of whiskey and a boat load of salt,” MSY wrote. “They demolished the salt, and the whiskey demolished some of them.”

Sober companions carried or pushed the drunken sailors “back to the steamers,” MSY noted. One drunken sailor wandered off and fell “in company with two of our soldiers.” The trio got “lost on the road to Richmond,” and local Confederates captured them.

The river-borne raids continued even as winter settled over the Tidewater. Parker and his sailors conducted “several other expeditions” in the local waters. Although the Mahaska lay anchored off Yorktown on December 5, the war continued for the ship’s crew.

“Even as I write two schooners are coming down the river, a prize to our energetic officers and men,” MSY concluded his letter.

Sources: Portland Daily Press, January 1, 1863; Comm. Foxhall A. Parker, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 8, p. 179

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.