Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 23, 1861 (Thursday): Putting Out Fires

Chesapeake Female College Hampton (Virginia Historical Society)

                                                Report of Maj. J. B. Cary, Virginia Artillery

                                                                        Hampton, VA., May 23, 1861.
   SIR: I have the honor to inform you that quite a full regiment of the enemy, estimated, by count of companies, to contain eight hundred men, under command of Colonel Phelps, made a demonstration against this place this afternoon, between 4 and 5 o’clock, which seemed at first to wear a very ugly aspect, but which, happily, resulted in no damage, save the alarm of our women and children and the excitement of our citizens.
    I had nearly perfected my arrangements for the defense indicated in your instructions, by making preparations for the destruction of all the bridges leading across the main tributary of Back River as well as the Hampton Bridge.  Unfortunately, the absence during the day of the party chosen for the firing of the latter, and the consequent failure to have the combustibles on the spot, delayed operations so far that the enemy were in sight before the fire could be started, though it would have made sufficient progresss, I think, to have arrested their entrance into the town.  At this stage, meeting with Lieutenant Cutshaw, at his suggestion I sent him forward as my aid to demand of the colonel the intent of his approach with so large a body of men, and being assured that he came with no hostile purpose, but simply, as he said, by order of General Butler, to reconnoiter, and having received the subsequent assurance from him in person that he would make no attack upon our people nor injure their property in anyway unless he himself was molested, and coinciding in your view that defense at this point was useless and hopeless, I aided him in extinguishing the fire, and gave the assurance that he should not be fired upon by the volunteer force under my command (which, by the way, had by that time nearly retreated to the line of defense I intended to occupy and where I designed making my first resistence).  I also urged our citizens to abstain from any attack, which counsel, I am pleased to say, prevailed with them.  The entire body then marched into the town as far as the intersection of our main streets, halted for a short while, and then returned.
…..I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                                        J. B. CARY,
                                                Major Artillery, Virginia Volunteers.
Lieut. Col. Benj. S. Ewell,
     Active Virginia Volunteers, Williamsburg, Va.

The early days of war often exhibit a semi-comic aimlessness.  On May 23 Virginia voted to seceed from the Union.  Likely unaware of the fact, Union forces moved on Hampton without much reason, Major Cary's 130 man force moved to meet them with no real desire for a fight.  We are, at this point, only two months shy of Bull Run, and fast approaching a time when the idea of Union and rebel forces working together to put out a fire would seem unimaginable.  Cary was a native of Hampton and established a military institute in town.  In the photo above is the dome of the Chesapeake Female  College, from which the Confederates watched the Union advance and could observe activity at nearby Fort Monroe.

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