December 1861: "… only waiting to sink the Stone fleet and to finish up the business of Fort Pulaski…"

By Liz Francis, Intern

Letter from John Call Dalton, Jr., to Charles Henry Dalton, 19 December 1861

Letter from John Call Dalton, Jr., to Charles Henry Dalton, 19 December 1861

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    In this six-page letter dated 19 December 1861, John Call Dalton, Jr. (1825-1889), an army surgeon, writes to his brother Charles Henry Dalton (1826-1908), assistant quartermaster-general of the Massachusetts militia, from his position at Hilton Head, South Carolina. In the letter Dalton describes collecting souvenirs inside the recently captured Fort Walker, references the beginning of the siege of Fort Pulaski in Georgia, and makes observations about the local slaves interacting with the Union army.

    John Call Dalton, Jr. was born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts in 1825 and lived in Massachusetts until 1851, when he moved out of state to take a position teaching physiology in Buffalo, New York. Having graduated from Harvard in 1844 and completed his medical training at the Massachusetts Medical College in 1847, Dalton was touted as the first professional physiologist. He made many important contributions to that field, including introducing live demonstrations on anesthetized animals to American physiology students and authoring A Treatise on Human Physiology (Blanchard and Ives, 1859) which would become the standard text in that field, before volunteering his medical expertise to the service of the Union army in the Civil War.

    Dalton first joined the Seventh Regiment New York State Militia, receiving a commission as assistant surgeon on 18 April 1861. In August of that year he was commissioned brigade surgeon with the United States Volunteers and was serving under Brigadier General Egbert L. Viele in South Carolina when he wrote this letter in December 1861.

    On page four Dalton writes of being eager to “finish up the business of Fort Pulaski.” The fort, a massive five-sided structure on Cockspur Island at the head of the Savannah River, was integral to the Confederate defense of Savannah. After the Union victories at Port Royal and Beaufort, South Carolina in November 1861, Confederate forces abandoned many of the smaller forts on neighboring islands in order to strengthen the defense of Fort Pulaski. The Union army capitalized on this, occupying, among others, an abandoned fort on nearby Tybee Island. The siege of Fort Pulaski began in December when Union troops started constructing batteries on the shores of Tybee and other neighboring islands, effectively cutting Pulaski off from Savannah. Finally, on 10 April 1862 the Union forces unleashed a 30 hour bombardment from rifled cannon on the fort. Fort Pulaski was surrendered on 11 April, effectively closing the port of Savannah for the duration of the war and extending the Union blockade.

    Dalton also expresses frustration about waiting for the sinking of the stone fleet, meaning he was awaiting the arrival of twenty-five vessels -- twenty-four of which were aged whaling ships from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York -- to assist in blockading Charleston and Savannah harbors. The approaching vessels earned the name stone fleet because the old wooden ships, loaded with stones, were to be sunk when they reached their destinations.

    The popularity of kerosene and the increased danger of going to sea during the war rendered whaling expeditions too risky to be profitable. As a result whale ship owners, including a number of owners from New Bedford, Massachusetts, were willing to sell their vessels to the Navy. Likewise, New Bedford farmers disassembled stone walls and tore cobblestones from the streets to amass the 7,500 tons of rock needed to fill the ships’ hulls. Part of the fleet launched from New Bedford on 20 November, with many of the ships commanded by whaling captains. The first ships were sunk near Tybee Island on 5 December. A larger number of ships were sunk in Charleston Harbor on 20 December. Once underwater, the wreckage broke up quickly, rendering the stone fleet a failure. Author and Massachusetts resident Herman Melville mourned the loss of the whalers in his poem “The Stone Fleet, An Old Sailor’s Lament,” written in December 1861.

    Also on page four, Dalton states that one of his brigade’s “greatest amusements” is interacting with the local slaves, whom he refers to as contrabands, arriving at the camp. The term “contraband” was a designation given to slaves, belonging to disloyal southerners, who came under the jurisdiction of the Union forces. In the brief anecdote shared by Dalton it is unclear whether the young black men engaged in conversation with the Dalton’s general were truly contrabands, who would remain under the protection of the Union army, or simply two of the many thousands of slaves that had been abandoned by plantation owners who fled Port Royal and the neighboring islands as the Union forces approached.

    Suffering malaria, Dalton returned to New York in October 1862, where he held various appointments before resigning his commission on 5 March 1864. Although his health never fully recovered, he resumed his work as Professor of Physiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York.  He was elected president of the College in 1884, a position he held until his death five years later at the age of sixty-four.

    Further Reading

    The Charles Henry Dalton Correspondence is composed primarily of Civil War era correspondence between Charles Henry Dalton and his brothers Edward Barry, Henry Rogers, and John Call Dalton Jr. In addition to the many letters from John Call Dalton while stationed at Hilton Head the collection contains letters with observations about numerous other military campaigns, including General Benjamin Butler’s difficult passage through Maryland in April 1861, and the administration of medicine in the Union army. 

    Dalton, John Call. John Call Dalton: M.D., U.S.V. Cambridge, Mass.: H.O. Houghton and Company, 1892.

    Dolin, Eric Jay. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.

    Melville, Herman. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866.

    Merriman, Roger Bigelow. Memoir of Charles Henry Dalton. Cambridge, Mass: John Wilson and Son, 1909.

    Tomblin, Barbara. Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 2009.