Our latest Bluejackets Discoveries post comes courtesy of our Zooniverse community member @dona79. While working on transcribing details from a Muster Sheet of USS Arizona, @dona79 noted that four of the men had the following entry recorded beside them: “escaped from U.S. Gunboat Sachem and transferred to U.S.S. Portsmouth“. What was the story behind these men, who were they, and what had become of the Sachem and her crew? We decided to take a look at this discovery in a bit more detail, and see what we could find out about the escapees @dona79 identified. As well as learning more about the events surrounding the Sachem‘s demise, it also revealed the extraordinary wartime story of one of those escapees- and the trail of emotional turmoil he left in his wake.
Our story begins on 8th September 1863, when the USS Sachem and USS Arizona were among four U.S. vessels (the others being USS Clifton and USS Granite City) who steamed into the Sabine River in Texas. They were the vanguard of a large Federal force that lay just offshore, earmarked to begin the invasion of Confederate Texas. But before the operation proper could begin, these four gunboats were tasked with silencing the rebel Fort Griffin, which commanded the river. They carried with them a force of infantry (primarily aboard the Clifton), who were to land and capture the fortification. The engagement was a disaster. Accurate fire from the guns of the small Confederate garrison caused chaos among the U.S. vessels, and ultimately led to the surrender of both USS Sachem and USS Clifton. For the loss of none of their number, the Texas Confederates inflicted close to 400 casualties (killed, wounded, captured and missing) on the Union forces. (1) What was known as the Battle of Sabine Pass forced the U.S. to abandon its plans along the Sabine, and it became a celebrated Confederate victory. This was the historical backdrop to @dona79’s March 1864 muster from the Arizona, one of the two vessels to survive the disastrous engagement that had occurred just 6 months previously.
In highlighting the muster sheet discovery, @dona79 raised a number of questions about the event, wondering how many men from the Sachem escaped, how many made it to the Arizona, and what happened to those who surrendered. One of the tools we have to help us answer questions such as this are the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, a multi-volume series that contains many of the official reports and accounts created by the U.S. Navy during the conflict. Series 1, Volume 20 of that publication covers the actions of the U.S. West Gulf Blockading Squadron from March 15 to December 31, 1863, including the Battle of Sabine Pass. Among its pages is the list below, which captures much of the detail @dona79 asked about. We can see here that while some of the prisoners were exchanged, more died in Confederate captivity, principally at Confederate Camp Ford, Texas.
The list from the Official Records also includes the names of the men who reached the Arizona. @dona79’s sheet had four of them listed- Peter Benson, Peter Lee, George W. Meeker and John Roll(e)s. Interestingly, Rolles is not recorded as one of those who made it aboard the Arizona in the O.R. list, an indication that not all the information was to-hand when it was compiled. We can also see that there were others who had made it to the Arizona, such as George Horton, William Lowe and Samuel Smith, who are not recorded on @dona79’s sheet. William Glenn was another who made it as far as the Arizona, but no further- he died aboard.
What then of the Sachem survivors that @dona79 identified? We concentrated on one of them, George W. Meeker, who is also listed in the Official Records report. His story reveals the sometimes extraordinary degree of insight Naval records can reveal about the lives of ordinary sailors.
George Meeker was not a young man when he escaped the disaster at Sabine Pass, having been born in New Jersey on 7th September 1814. We know that after he was rescued by the Arizona he finished out his service and was ultimately discharged on 16th May 1864. Afterwards he returned to his home state, where he wed Ellen Bush. Ellen had first-hand experience of the trauma of war, being the widow of Private Aaron Bush of the 8th New Jersey Infantry, who had been killed at the 1862 Battle of Williamsburg. Ellen had children from her previous marriage, and she and George would go on to have two children of their own. As the decades passed, an ageing George would seek out a naval pension. Among the claims he made was that he had been injured at Sabine Pass, and he also stated he had been in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican-American War, aboard the USS Potomac. The picture he painted was one of sustained service to the United States. But it was only when George passed away, on 9th October 1892, that more complete details of his life and military service emerged. They rocked what his New Jersey family thought they knew about him to the core.
George’s death caused Ellen to apply for a naval widow’s pension. In 1893 she filled in some of what she knew concerning his early years. Ellen knew that in his youth George had been an apprentice hatter in New Jersey, but had run away to the southern states, and a life connected with the sea. “He was down south thirty five years, he told me that he went into the rebel navy at the beginning of the late war, and jumped over board and was picked up by the United States Steamer “Arizona” then he went in to the U.S. Navy.” Unsurprisingly, George’s time in the Confederate service was not something he had previously shared with the Federal pension authorities. But there more bombshells were to follow, particularly for Ellen.
Not long after George’s death it emerged that his first wife Sarah- someone George had informed Ellen had died before the war- was in fact alive and well. In the 1890s she was making her home in Bagdad, Santa Rosa County, Florida, together with the children she and George had together there in the 1840s and 1850s (following their 1845 marriage). The story Sarah told about how George ended up aboard the USS Sachem at Sabine Pass is a remarkable one. In 1858, presumably in search of maritime work, George had moved his first family from Florida to Galveston, Texas. When war came he had indeed joined the Confederacy, but not the navy- instead he had served for 6 months in Nichols’ Regiment of Texas Volunteer Infantry, enlisting on 3 October 1861 and being discharged 24 April 1862. The apparent circumstances in which he became a U.S. sailor are perhaps even more fascinating. As recounted by Sarah, this is how that supposedly unfolded:
George…left his home [in Galveston] on the morning of the thirty first of December 1862 and went aboard the Clifton and the ship put to sea to the west of the fleets lying off the bar for coal and did not return until after nite and lay off in the bay from the warf and none of the men came ashore next morning the first of January 1863 the fight commenced and one of the ships was sunk and the Clifton made her escape to sea and the said George W Meeker has not been seen nor heard from since…
The “fight” Sarah referred to was the 1st January 1863 Battle of Galveston, when Confederate forces recaptured the city from U.S. forces. Galveston would remain in Rebel hands until the end of the conflict. Having apparently gone aboard the U.S. vessels to offer his maritime expertise the previous night, George now had no way back. He elected to stay with the U.S. Navy, formally enlisting a few weeks later in New Orleans. Ultimately, he would seem to have taken the opportunity that the vagaries of war had presented him with to permanently abandon his life-and his family- in the south. Sarah added in her statement that she had later “heard” that at the later Battle of Sabine Pass, a fellow sailor had seen George “jump off of the Clifton [presumably an error, and actually the Sachem] … and…swim for the rest of the fleet.” Whether this extraordinary scene actually occurred is open to question, but given his prior Confederate service, it seems likely that George would have been eager not to be captured as part of the Sachem‘s U.S. crew.
Sarah’s testimony did much to collapse the picture that George had constructed during his testimony to Federal authorities in those years when he had been searching for a pension. She was also adamant that he had never, as he had once claimed, served in the Mexican-American War. Whatever the full truth of his wartime service, it seems George had taken the opportunity presented by the conflict to transform his life, abandoning his familial commitments to embark on a brand new postwar identity, with a new brand new family, back in New Jersey. In many respects, such activity aligns with the stereotypical “devil may care” attitude that was assigned by many in society to maritime men during this period. As @dona79 discovered, George had escaped Sabine Pass, but in the end his families could not escape the trail of emotional destruction he left behind in both the South and the North. This was perhaps best articulated by his second wife, Ellen, in the letter she composed upon finally learning of her husband’s bigamy:
The news you sent me was such a blow to me that it has taken me all this time to recover, I am too old now to investigate and I am too despondent to do anything.
I have to thank you for your patience and trouble that is all I can give you and I am very sorry. Please send me my marriage certificate and papers as there is no more use for them I would like very much to have them now.
Mrs Ellen Meeker, 48 Hillman St Newark N.J.
The remarkable insights we can gain into the lives of people like George, Ellen and Sarah Meeker as a result of the naval records highlight the potential of the Civil War Bluejackets Project, and where the hard work and dedication of Citizen Scientists like @dona79 can ultimately lead. Remember, if you would like to “climb aboard” and help us to uncover these stories, you can visit our Zooniverse Project Page here, and let your discoveries begin!
(1) Edward T. Cotham Jr. Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae, 159.
Confederate Compiled Military Service Records.