Block Island’s veterans of the Civil War
This week in Block Island history is Memorial Day, originated soon after the Civil War to honor the dead of that four-year conflict, lasting from 1861 to 1865.
Sometime after the death of Block Island’s last Civil War soldier, in the 1920s, those islanders who gave the most for their country in that war were forgotten, as the several worldwide conflicts of the 20th Century took precedence.
But on July 4, 2010, a memorial plaque was dedicated in the Legion Park — next to the Island Cemetery — honoring all 31 Block Islanders who served in the Civil War.
One died in action, at the battle of Fredericksburg. Five died during the war from disease, caused by poor conditions in their army camps. A sixth soldier died on the island, just a week after returning from the war.
Many current islanders are descended from those island veterans who survived the war, more than a dozen current families exist solely due to the preservation in battle of the life of just one of those island soldiers.
The memorial bronze plaque at the Legion Park lists those 31 soldiers in three categories:
• 14 veterans buried at the Island Cemetery, with a map of the cemetery engraved on the plaque showing the location of their graves.
• 11 veterans buried on the mainland, where some migrated after the Civil War.
• Six soldiers who died while in service during the war and are buried in National Military cemeteries near their army encampments.
• Six Block Islanders who died in service during the war are buried near Washington, D.C.
— Challenging conditions —
The Block Islanders who went off to war in the 1860s fought a battle they never envisioned. They faced an enemy of incomprehensible subterfuge and ruthlessness — and it wasn’t the Confederate Army.
Right from the start, after being shipped south to defend Washington, D.C., the Union men were cared for poorly when it came to food, clothing and housing. They were forced to subsist on hardtack, salt pork and coffee, even when nearby warehouses held fresh fruit, milk and vegetables — all kept from the soldiers by bureaucracy and corruption.
The unsanitary conditions, often causing typhoid fever, are what killed 315,000 soldiers in the Civil War, significantly more deaths than the 215,00 men who died in combat. For instance, in the 12th R.I. Infantry, in which 22 Block Islanders volunteered to serve for nine months of service, 12 men were killed in action and 47 died of illness. Of those 22 Block Islanders, one died in action and five of illness.
Pvt. Sivilian Sprague — Sivilian (often misspelled Civilian by the military) is the only Block Island Civil War veteran who died in combat. His last ordeal came in Virginia at the battle of Fredericksburg, famous for the carnage caused by the bungling Union commanding officer, General Ambrose Burnside.
The 5’5” farmer, who enlisted at the age of 41, died on Dec. 13, 1862, the day of the failed charge against an impregnable Confederate hill — or, to be exact, the day of five fruitless Union charges on the same position. With Burnside holding the upper hand in men — 120,000 Northerners to 78,000 Southerners — President Abraham Lincoln remarked famously that Burnside’s debacle was the equivalent of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
In January 1863, the month after losing the battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside forced his men on a four-day walk in heavy rain, to simply have them turn around and retrace their steps, leaving to posterity the alliteratively disparaging term “the Mud March,” which brought about more sickness and death. Burnside went on to provide the United States with other ignominious moments in battle, as well as with the new word “sideburns,” which he himself allowed to grow to alarming proportions.
— The deadliest foe, disease —
Even untreated typhoid fever can be survived in 75 percent of all cases. But Daniel Conley, Samuel Babcock, David Mitchell, Jesse D. Mitchell, and Benjamin P. Smith were all to die from disease, in that order, within 2 1/2 months of each other — spanning the time from Christmas Day, December 25, 1862, to March 10, 1863. They never returned to Block Island. They are buried in Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore:
Daniel A. Conley, 5’7”, blue eyes, dark hair — With the rest of Co. D of the 12th RI Infantry he was mustered into service at Providence on October 13, 1861. Less than a month later, soon after his regiment arrived in the area around Washington, D.C., he contracted typhoid fever. Deteriorating from the wasting misery of the illness, perhaps he felt a bit of joy when Christmas Day came, and hope too — but that day he died, aged 32. He is buried at the Louden Park National Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Samuel Babcock, 5’7”, blue eyes, brown hair — He spent some of his childhood years living amongst the sand dunes of Sandy Point, where his father Simeon Babcock was keeper of the North Light. That building, deep in the dunes, no longer exists, replaced in 1867 by today’s lighthouse.
Samuel Babcock’s mother, Mary Ann, ran a small boarding house at Old Harbor that was later torn down to make way for the construction of the National Hotel, built on the same spot in 1888. Like Daniel A. Conley, Samuel Babcock was also 32 years old when he succumbed to typhoid fever, dying on Feb. 27, 1863, at the Regimental Hospital in Newport News, Virginia, two months after his Block Island friend died.
David Mitchell, 5’10”, light eyes, dark hair — Mitchell, age 29, was in the same hospital in Newport News with Samuel Babcock, and surely was saddened, and alarmed at Samuel’s death. The day after Samuel died, David Mitchell died, on Feb. 28, 1863. Letters and condolences would soon come flooding to his parents, John and Rhoda Mitchell, on Block Island.
Jessie D. Mitchell, 5’9”, blue eyes, dark hair — Perhaps within a week, by March 5, 1863, the tragic news of the deaths of Samuel Babcock and David Mitchell at Newport News had also reached Washington, D.C., where Jessie D. Mitchell lay sick in a military hospital. He had another Block Island friend, Benjamin P. Smith, ill with him at the same hospital. Jessie Mitchell was a fisherman, age 42. That day, March 5, he died, as his parents, Amos and Olive Mitchell, his wife Dorothy, and his children Seabury and Robert would soon learn.
Two decades later, in 1883, Jessie Mitchell’s son Robert built a house on Connecticut Ave. just before the Neptune Inn, owned in recent decades by the Queally family. Jessie Mitchell’s brother, also named Robert, lived in the house on Center Road now owned by Peter Greenman.
You can visit Jessie D. Mitchell’s grave in Washington, D.C., at the Soldiers Home National Cemetery — previously called the Military Asylum Cemetery — where a short marble government stone can be found with his name, initials, and site number 4948. As in other cemeteries around the country and the world, the American military gravestones in that field are similar in design to the many such marble markers at the Island Cemetery on Block Island.
Benjamin P. Smith, 5’6”, blue eyes, dark hair — Smith, at the same hospital as Jessie D. Mitchell, had five days to mourn him, then, on March 10, 1863, he too died of disease. His illness was not helped by a wound he had received in December at the battle of Fredericksburg, where three other Block Islanders were wounded and one killed.
Benjamin P. Smith was in his early 30s when he died, leaving on Block Island a wife, Mary E. Smith, and two sons. Mary E. Smith would spend the rest of her life unmarried dying in 1921, with many relatives through the seven decades after the Civil War staying with her at her home south of Dorry’s Cove Road.
Benjamin P. Smith’s brother, Joshua C. Smith (1825-1883) is the great-grandfather of today’s well-known Edie Blane. One of Benjamin P. Smith’s own great-grandsons was the late, also widely known, Stanley Smith — fisherman, town council member, and B.I. Power Company worker.
One outlived the war
The most outstanding record amongst the 24 Block Island veterans who lived past the ending of the Civil War was Jeremiah H. Tourjee.
Instead of the mere nine months service seen by those 22 Block Islanders who served in Company D, 12th R.I. Volunteer Infantry, Tourjee enlisted in Company H of the 2nd R.I. Volunteer Infantry in June 1861, two months after the war began, and served to the end, helping pursue General Robert E. Lee to his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.
Tourjee was at the major battles of Bull Run on July 21, 1861; at Fredericksburg in December 1862; Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863; and Gettysburg in July 1863 where he witnessed Pickett’s Charge. By December 1864, when Tourjee was camped at the great five-month siege of Petersburg, Virginia — after participating in 26 battles and being promoted from private to lieutenant — only 10 members of his original Company H were left, and four of those were wounded, in hospitals. Throughout this time, his promotions had been made “for gallantry and true soldierly bearing upon the field of action, and for true gentlemanly deportment in camp.”
Jeremiah H. Tourjee’s father was Ebenezer Tourjee, and his mother was Angeline Ball of Block Island. She was a sister of Nicholas Ball, the island’s most influential person of the late 1800s, and the owner of the mammoth Ocean View Hotel, which Nicholas built at Old Harbor in the 1870s and 80s. Jeremiah worked at the store owned by his first cousin, Cassius Clay Ball, a son of Nicholas — that building now houses Ernie’s Restaurant and Finn’s Seafood.
Jeremiah Tourjee was also first cousin to Noah D. Ball, who fought at Fredericksburg, contracted typhoid fever later, but managed to survive long enough to be discharged. Noah died a week-and-a-half later on Aug. 10, 1863, and thus was buried on Block Island (see accompanying poem from Noah Ball’s gravestone).
Jeremiah’s brother was Dr. Eben Tourjee, who founded the renowned, still-thriving, New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1897, Eben’s widow, Sarah L. Tourjee, built a house on High Street, at the sharp bend just north of today’s school. The residence became known as Tourjee Cottage, and there Jeremiah lived out his life with his wife, Estelle, an artist.
In the early 1900s, advertisements for Tourjee Cottage advised art lovers to come and purchase “beautiful marine views” — several Block Island homes are still graced by Estelle Tourjee’s watercolors of beach scenes, often made near Mohegan Bluffs. And Tourjee Cottage still exists — now operating as a weekly rental home, after having functioned for most of the 1980s and 90s as a bed-and-breakfast place for tourists, called The Islander.
When Jeremiah died on January 4, 1921, his funeral service was held at Tourjee Cottage — but his burial was on the mainland, with his father, and with his Block Island mother, in the Allenton Cemetery at North Kingstown. He was nearly the last Block Island Civil War veteran to die. That honor fell to John Thomas — who happened to live directly across High Street — who passed away six months later, on June 6, 1921, at the age of 88. And that John Thomas was the grandfather of the John Thomas that our generation knew, who died at the age of 87 on May 27, 1998 — ending the endearing anecdotes often told of Navy life in the Pacific during World War II — such as the time John arrived at Pearl Harbor one day, to discover four other Block Islanders happened to be there, too.
Earliest island Memorial Days
We can thank Nicholas Ball, Jeremiah Tourjee’s uncle and the owner of the largest hotel on Block Island, for keeping track of the island’s early war dead; and we can be grateful to Jeremiah for maintaining a handwritten list too, until after 1900, as his island comrades joined it, one by one.
Nicholas Ball was not a veteran, but he had lost his nephew Noah D. Ball in the Civil War and felt compelled to write in his journal the earliest facts we know of Memorial Day celebrations here. In late May of 1877, 1878 and 1879, Nicholas listed the veterans who had died during and after the Civil War — 10 up to that time by his count — and he described the island’s efforts to remember them.
On Monday, May 28, 1877, Ball wrote next to those 10 names: “Memorial Day—This day Decorated the graves of the Soldiers of the Rebellion.” A year later, on Thursday, May 30, 1878, Ball wrote the same, calling the occasion “Commemoration Day—Memorial Day.”
On May 30, 1879, however, Nicholas Ball revealed to a fuller extent what transpired, writing “This evening at 7:30 P.M. decorated the graves of the Soldiers of the Rebellion, whose names are as follows, by placing the American flag on their graves, or imaginary graves.” The word “imaginary,” I suppose, referred to the six graves of islanders buried near Washington, D.C. — the majority at that time of the 10 island veterans who had so far died.
Back in 1867, on April 12 — barely two years after the Civil War had ended — a veteran’s group called the Grand Army of the Republic was formed. The Grand Army became a grand success, having over 400,000 members in 1890. Jeremiah H. Tourjee — the veteran of five years of battle — became an avid supporter of the GAR and helped keep Memorial Day services alive on Block Island at the turn-of-the-century.
When the R.I. Society of the Sons of the American Revolution decided, for instance, in August 1895 to place a marker at the Island Cemetery on the grave of Enoch Steadman, it was Jeremiah H. Tourjee who handled the island’s affairs. Enoch Steadman, you see, served six years in the Revolutionary War and was a member of George Washington’s personal bodyguard.
Jeremiah Tourjee served posterity well again in 1908 when he left the last, and the most complete, written record of Memorial Day celebrations of a hundred years ago. The short speech he gave on that occasion is the only account of the Civil War that I know of by a Block Island resident. War should be remembered as being awful, but there’s pride in his words.
Tourjee spoke of the Sixth Army Corps of which he was a part. It was the largest of the several armies, both North and South, that all converged on Gettysburg from various distances for the three-day battle. The mass of humanity, wagons, and animals that was called the Sixth Corps marched 37 miles overnight and through the next morning, to arrive just before Pickett’s Charge on the last day. Blood flowed, in the costliest battle of the Civil War, with 51,000 men — one third of all those engaged — either killed, wounded, missing or captured.
Amongst the others in Jeremiah’s regiment — the 2nd R.I. Volunteer Infantry — was Elisha Hunt Rhodes from Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, who enlisted as a private at the age of 19, fought all five years of the war as Jeremiah Tourjee did, and rose to be the colonel in command of that regiment. Rhodes also kept a diary throughout the war. When PBS television produced the acclaimed Civil War series in the early 1990s, Rhodes’ eloquent, direct and heartfelt words were used by the director Ken Burns as a main thread of continuity. If you saw the series, you heard the words of the soldiers, and if you heard those words you were moved.
Jeremiah H. Tourjee, a survivor in a war of great attrition, won all personal battles he had with the Confederates and typhoid bacteria. When he chose, as an afterthought, to add at the end of his ink-penned 1908 speech, a line in pencil: “All for Old Glory — Red, White & Blue” he, like Lincoln 45 years earlier, knew whereof he spoke.
In August 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who won the war, came to the island for part of a day. He was greeted, of course, by Nicholas Ball who, whether or not he was holding an official town office, was the island’s de facto leader. Leaving the Old Harbor dock, Grant visited the Ocean View Hotel and took a carriage ride to the Southeast Lighthouse which had just been finished that year.
Perhaps Grant’s visit helped inspire Nicholas Ball to honor so diligently the island’s Civil War dead with flags each Memorial Day, as has been so equally, and fervently carried out in this century by members of the American Legion.
As the years roll by and some memories get left by the wayside, Merrill Slate and the men of his World War II generation, and more recently Dan Millea and the Vietnam War generation, have not overlooked the Civil War veterans’ graves on Block Island.