On 9 September 1861, five months after the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter, 23-year old Charles H. Morrison (Charley to his friends and family) signed enlistment papers in Philadelphia that committed him to service in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years. It is noteworthy that in promising to “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States,” Charley also certified that he would serve “them”—that is, the United States—honestly and faithfully, the plural pronoun suggesting that the nation was still not defining itself as a single entity. Not until 1884 would the oath be rewritten to the form used by soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines today.
At five-foot-five, with dark hair and eyes, Morrison was roughly the average age, size, and complexion of most of his fellow Marines—indeed, most Americans—in 1861. His role as a lowly private might have consigned him to historical anonymity but for two circumstances. The first was that he wrote regularly to his parents, who faithfully saved his letters.1 The second was that only a few months after enlistment he found himself occupying a ringside seat for one of the most consequential events of the Civil War: the Union Navy’s capture of New Orleans, the Confederacy’s largest city and its most important seaport.
After his enlistment in Philadelphia, Charley reported first to the Marine Barracks in Washington, where at the corner of 8th and I streets the young private received such training as was available in those hectic days, probably consisting of little more than parade formations and how to load and fire his musket. The national capital was crowded with new Army regiments going through many of the same drills under the watchful eye of their new commander, Major General George B. McClellan, but Charley and his fellow Marines stood apart from them in their distinctive uniforms, which included white buff leather crossbelts.
The Civil War–era Marine Corps was tiny. Just months earlier, Congress had increased its total authorized strength to 3,000, but not until 1864 did the Corps manage to reach even that modest threshold. Most eager young volunteers recognized (accurately) that the burgeoning war was likely to be fought and won on land; unwilling to miss out on the great adventure of their generation, they opted for service in the Army.
Then, too, there was the Marines’ requirement of a four-year enlistment, which no doubt deterred more than a few potential enlistees; most in 1861 believed the war could not last that long. Finally, the tasks traditionally assigned to the U.S. Marines in the mid-19th century were less than glamorous. Their primary function was to act as a kind of shipboard constabulary—guarding the captain and his officers from a possible mutiny, keeping the sailors at their posts during battle, and only occasionally forming the core of a landing party. The particular reasons that led Charley to choose the Marines are unrecorded.
In December he received orders to join the Brooklyn, a Hartford-class wooden-hull screw sloop with a battery of 22 IX-inch smoothbore Dahlgren guns, a 6-inch (80-pounder) Dahlgren pivot rifle on the foredeck, and a 30-pounder Parrott rifle at her stern. That same month, Captain Thomas T. Craven assumed command of the ship. The Brooklyn was relatively new, having been commissioned in 1859, but she had seen much service already in the young war. The previous April she had spearheaded a relief expedition to Fort Pickens off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, and for several months after that she had blockaded the mouth of the Mississippi River. In the fall, much in need of repair, she returned to Philadelphia, where she was quickly refitted and recommissioned. And it was there that Charley joined the ship’s company as one of 55 Marines under the command of Lieutenant James Forney.
Two days after Christmas in 1861, the Brooklyn dropped down the Delaware River and headed south. By the end of January she was at Ship Island off the Mississippi Gulf coast, and by February she was steaming back and forth off Pass à l’Outre, one of five navigable entrances into the Mississippi.
Charley had promised his parents he would write regularly, and he sent them letters that reported the weather (unseasonably warm), the prospects for an early end of the war (not good), and that asked for news about his brothers, sisters, and cousins back home. He had little war news to send until the end of February, when a Rebel blockade runner made a dash for the open sea, and the Brooklyn charged after her. Charley dutifully reported the chase to his parents.
Mouth of Mississippi, Feby 27/62
My dear Parents,
. . . On Wednesday morning February 19th a sail was seen from the Mast Head and directly after made out to be a Secession Vessel running the Blockade. It being only 5 bells morning watch (½ past 6 oclock) all hands were called and slipping the cable, made after her. She being under full head of steam and apparently fast sailor we did not gain any thing on her at commencement of the chase, but a stiff breeze springing up enabled us to crowd on the canvas and move along a little faster. At 10 oclock we were very near abreast of her sufficient so to try a shot across her bow from [our] Pivot gun, but distance being over two miles she paid no attention to it. Several chance shots were fired at her causing her to change course and run up “stars and stripes” but Captn [Craven] knowing this to be a ruse paid no attention to it but changed his course likewise. This widened distance between and giving the Rebel steamer more odds. At noon she was run so close, they commenced [throwing] their Deck Load of cotton overboard, many bales of which floated by.
She proved herself a fast boat giving us all we wanted to hold our own with steam and sail.
It beginning to get Foggy, fears were entertained that she might escape. We were now fast approaching Fort Morgan at the Mouth of Mobile Bay, and the Rebel seeing one of our Gun Boats on the Blockade at that place, thought it [good] policy to steer outward again, but that move was her last, for it enabled us to riddle her well with Starboard Battery and at 4 oclock she struck her colors, but not until Captain and crew had taken to small Boats and attempted to Fire the vessel. They were afterward picked up by the Gun Boat “South Carolina” and put in irons. The whole number of shots fired were 51, and most of them from Nine Inch Guns. . . . Steamers name [is] the “Magnolia” bound from New Orleans to Liverpool. Vessel and cargo valued at $200,000—so that our first prize is not so small.
We came back soon after putting a Prize Crew on board and are now at our old station mouth of the Mississippi. . . .
Bracing as this successful chase was, and satisfying as the prospect of prize money might be, even more exciting news arrived soon afterward. Because Charley had not yet had an opportunity to mail his letter, he added a postscript: A squadron of mortar schooners under the command of Commander David Dixon Porter had arrived. It was evident to everyone on board the Brooklyn that these strange craft, each armed with one giant 13-inch mortar amidships, were to act in concert with the blockading warships for an attempt on New Orleans itself.
To do that, the fleet would steam up the Mississippi to assail the two Rebel forts, Jackson and St. Philip, that guarded the southern approach to the city. The mortar schooners would lob their big shells onto the forts until they surrendered or were demolished, allowing oceangoing steam warships such as the Brooklyn to dash past them up to New Orleans.
It may have been the prospect of imminent action that contributed to a growing religiosity among the crew of the Brooklyn.
Monday Evening, March 3, 1863 [sic, actually 1862]
. . . Some of the Sailors have started a Prayer Meeting which is held in the “Cock Pit”on Thursday and Sunday evenings.2 Notwithstanding the[y] have met with all kinds of opposition from Several of the men (officers excepted) who cannot appreciate anything of the sort, their numbers has kept on steadily increasing.
Last night having occasion to go down I found about 40 persons present. The meeting was conducted in as orderly a manner as would have done credit to many which are held on shore. Their singing interested me very much, the style of Hymns being those adapted to Seafaring men in particular. . . .
In March, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut, who was Porter’s older foster brother, arrived in his flagship, the Hartford. Destined to become America’s first admiral, Farragut knew that to assail New Orleans, he must first get his big warships over the sandbars at the various mouths of the river. But with the onset of war, those bars were no longer being dredged and the river channels had silted up.
Mississippi River, March 29/62
My Dear Parents,
Hoping soon to have a chance of sending off a Letter, I thought I might as well write it a few days before so that if steamer should come in I would not be in the lurch. . . .
March 7 Flag ship “Hartford,” Commodore Farragut, and Steamboat “Pensacola” arrived bringing the gratifying news of the capture of Fort Donelson and other previous Union victories.3 I can assure you those little items threw the whole crew into joyous spirits. By the “Hartford” we also learned that the long looked for Expedition against New Orleans was about to assume a significant shape and that the “Brooklyn” was to take a very prominent part.
The next day March 8th we weighed anchor and started to enter Pass [à l’Outre], but owing to small depth of water on Bar [we] got aground where we remained until [the] 10th when backing off, came to South West Pass 35 miles distant, in company with “Hartford.” Found at S.W. Pass frigate Colorado, Sloop of War Vincennes, and a small Brig. The next day we came over the Bar and anchored in 4 Fathoms [a] short distance ahead of Light Houses. March 14th we came up the River as far as Pilot Town and found the “Stars and Stripes” floating which had been planted the day before by “Hartford.” Next day in company with Flag Ship made an advance of some 10 miles and anchored at the Head of the Passes, or where the river branches off, at which point we now remaining company with Hartford and five Gun Boats. . . .
Hardly a day has passed but Rebels have sent a steamer round the Point, which is only five miles off on a reconnaissance excursion. March 19 about 40 Mortar Boats arrived also 3 Gun Boats which proceeded to rendezvous at Pilot Town. I think the Expedition will number as high as 60 sail and no doubt large number of troops will go from Ship Island so as to cut off their escape by the Lakes. And with Commodore Porter’s Mortar expedition down the River, New Orleans will be attacked on the Front, Flank, and Rear. But you must bear in mind, before we reach that city we will have some pretty heavy work to do. All along River they have no doubt erected small Batteries and Two Forts of no small size, one known to be heavily armed. All these obstacles must first be overcome and when you consider the River is only about a mile in width, it is not to be accomplished without some loss of Life. . . .
The “Brooklyn” has been stripped of rigging and spars which were sent ashore at Pilot Town. What lower rigging is standing has been snaked so that in case it should be shot away it would not fall on deck. On both sides of the Ship between Fore and Mainmast heavy cables have been placed to protect Engines. That is they have been run up and down close together.4 To see the Ship today in her Fighting trim, and in Philada with everything up and [in] its place looks quite different.
Every one on board is anxious to see the move made, notwithstanding there is no possibility of all coming out safe. I may be among the number who may never return but I know that my Life is in the hands of the God of Battles and if it is his will that I shall not survive the Bombardment my friends will know that I fell in a righteous cause. However I look to the bright side, and hope to be able to give you a full account. . . .
I will close by sending kindest love to each and everyone. Good Bye,
The poignance of Charley’s closing salutation was probably not lost on his parents, and it was a month before they received another letter. While they waited, Porter’s mortar squadron moved upriver and on 18 April opened fire on the Confederate forts from long range. For five days, 13-inch shells rained down on Fort Jackson, which was the larger and closer of the two strongpoints. The results were disappointing. The shells wrecked the wooden structures inside the fort, but left the masonry walls intact. Meanwhile, Farragut sent small boats to cut the heavy boom the Confederates had erected across the river opposite Fort Jackson. By 23 April Farragut decided that the mortar schooners had been given a fair chance, and that it was time to take more direct action.
As Farragut prepared his squadron for an assault, it seemed to Marine Lieutenant Forney that his men were unlikely to have much occasion to employ their muskets, and he asked the Brooklyn’s executive officer, Lieutenant Reigart Lowry, if they could man two of the ship’s big guns. Lowry agreed, and as a result, Charley Morrison was assigned to one of the five-ton Dahlgren broadside smoothbores as first sponger, a key station on the gun. During the battle, it would be Charley’s responsibility to sponge out the gun’s 9-inch bore after each round was fired, to ensure that no embers remained, and to ram each powder charge and shell down the bore. It was from that vantage point that he witnessed the ensuing action, the results of which he reported to his parents.
New Orleans, April 29th 1862
My dear Parents,
“Victory” “Victory” “Victory” is about all I have time to say. Will write full account as soon as possible. Just this minute came from city of New Orleans where we raised two flags.
Had a desperate fight at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip besides several smaller Batteries, destroying 11 Rebel Gun Boats. Our loss on Brooklyn is 9 killed and 21 wounded besides the ship is badly cut up. We lost two Gun Boats sunk in engagement. Please excuse brevity as I have not one minute to spare. Good Bye.
“New Orleans is ours”
Two days later Charley wrote his family a detailed description of the fighting and capture of New Orleans.
Off New Orleans, May 1st 1862
My dear Parents,
Sallie’s very kind letter of March 7th came to hand today by arrival of Mail steamer. I can assure you its contents were eagerly perused and right glad was I to hear it left all well. I suppose you are as eagerly anxious to hear from me knowing by the letters written that we expected going into an engagement.
Since writing by the “Connecticut” which sailed April 10th I have passed through scenes which would make the stoutest heart quail.—
On Friday morning April 18th the Mortar Flotilla after going into position, under cover of a thick woods, commenced its operations by throwing shells at Fort Jackson which was distant 2½ miles. The noise made by this Bombardment was terrific. About 10 am the enemy commenced its fire but [their] shot invariably fell short. At 7 pm firing ceased. During the night a large Fire ship was sent down for purpose of destroying our Fleet but in this they were unsuccessful, the current carrying it swiftly by. The casualties on our side first day were reported 1 killed and 2 wounded.
The Bombardment was afterward renewed next morning, and continued with unabated vigor until April 23d when a consultation was held, and decided that to capture two Forts required something more than Mortars. The enemy had a chain across [the] River directly leading from Fort Jackson across to Fort St. Phillip, and this chain must be cut before our Fleet could pass.
At 2 a.m. March 24th all hands were called at a signal from Flag Officer, and large Vessels of squadron composed of “Hartford” “Brooklyn” Pensacola Mississippi “Richmond” “Oneida” “Iroquois” and four Gun Boats soon got underway. As quarters were soon beat it was known to everyone that fighting on a large scale was soon to commence.
At 3½ oclock we were fairly underway, when Mortar Boats commenced in good earnest keeping as many as 10 shells in the air at one time and being quite dark looked like so many shooting stars. At 3:45 fairly in sight of the enemy who had discovered our movement, all commenced throwing shot which whistled over our heads thick and fast. He could not get his guns to bear on us at so long a range and we steadily advanced. At 3:50 we had come on him near enough to open on his Masked Batteries this side of Fort Jackson, which was soon silenced.
At 4 a.m. the engagement was at its height. We were receiving the rapid fire from both Forts and nearing chain fast when a Fleet of Rebel Gun Boats was descried coming down. Our brave Captain never for a moment faltering, kept his ship steadily along, crushing through the chain and dashing into the very midst of Gun Boats. The shrieks of wounded and dying beggars description. As fast as they fell, [they] were carried below to “Cock Pit.” After giving Fort Jackson shower of grape Shot and Canister, [we] moved over to “St. Phillip” within 100 yards of its walls evading as much of its fire as possible.5 At this time we had sunk 11 of the enemies Gun Boats, when the famous Battering Ram [the Confederate ironclad ram Manassas] made its appearance directly ahead. It came down driving a hole into our Bow but above Water Line, and then moved around our Port Side, but luckily we had that secured by chains so it done no damage in that quarter. The “Mississippi” coming up soon turned its attention to the Ram and by boarding it soon ran it ashore.6
Being out of range of the Fort which we had passed [we] kept on our course up River until near Rebel encampment which we soon put to flight. Such a scampering you never saw. Directly in front of their encampment [we] came to anchorage and commenced summing up our losses at 5½ a.m. We lost one Gun Boat which was sunk by [the] “Ram” but all its crew [were] saved. Our loss on “Brooklyn” was 8 killed and 20 wounded being greater than on any other ship. I do not know how many lost in the whole Fleet.7 The Rebel loss cannot be ascertained but its known to be heavy. On one of their Boats which had 80 men only about ten were saved.
My position at No. 11 gun being first sponger, gave me a chance of looking around and I must confess I did not feel [in] any way contented. I cannot describe my feeling in this my first Battle, every moment expecting to be my last. At our own gun we had one killed and several wounded and one guns crew had nearly every man disabled. The ship is pretty badly cut up but bears it bravely. Our foretopsail Yard was cut in two supposed while we were under Fort St. Phillip.
At 9 a.m. the mournful word “All Hands Bury the Dead” was passed, and one after another of our brave men, but a few short hours before in the enjoyment of good health now cold in Death, were conveyed ashore to a neat little spot and decently interred the winds of the Mississippi wafting a solemn requiem. One poor Midshipman, the Captain’s Aid [Acting Midshipman John Anderson] was cut in two by a 68 pounder and fell overboard.
As Victory after Victory was announced by the Captain “Boys, you have silenced them!” such deafening cheers which followed made thrills of joy pass through me and I could not help the dropping a silent tear that God had preserved my Life to witness the laurels of the Stars and Stripes.
At 10 a.m. we were underway again and kept on until 9 p.m. when we anchored few miles below English Bend, where it was known they had other Batteries erected. This is the place where Jackson whipped the British in 1815, and is so situated that they can fire on you with seeming safely. At 6 a.m. next day up anchor, sanded down deck and made preparations for battle. Found they had evacuated English Bend but taken a position both sides of “Slaughter House Point” few miles below New Orleans. Coming on them at 11 a.m. soon silenced him, spiking his Gun the only loss being 5 men on one of our Gun Boats.
At 1 p.m. anchored abreast of the City of New of New Orleans amid the panic stricken wretches who had crowded on levee. The people soon set on fire several Vessels, cotton, wharves, so determined not to let the “Yankees” have anything, not knowing that we did not intend to touch a thing.
Our Commodore immediately went on shore and politely demanded the citys surrender.8 But the Mayor informed him it was under Martial Law and Genl [Mansfield] Lovell was in command. Gen Lovell was then given 48 hours to remove his troops which was done—and the City turned over to civil authorities so that [the] Mayor might act.
On the morning 26th by a General order from Flag Officer Farragut, all the Ships hoisted Church Pennant and Thanks were returned to Almighty God for bringing us through these desperate struggles with so little loss, and at the same time successful.
At 1½ a party of men came on [the] levee directly in front of us, waving a Secession Flag defiantly. Our sharp shooters fired a few shots killing one and wounded two when mob dispersed. 4 p.m. up anchor again for purpose of attacking another Battery 9 miles above City which we had learned was erected, but on nearing it found two instead of one both deserted. . . .
After the Brooklyn returned to New Orleans, the ship’s Marine contingent became part of the force assigned to take possession of the city. It was a post of honor to be sure, but also one of considerable danger, for the group had to march through the streets of a city undamaged by battle and crowds of civilians seething with resentment.
Tuesday April 29 detachments of Marines from [the] Squadron went on shore hoisted Stars and Stripes over Custom House and pulling down Secession Flag on City Hall. I was along and pretty glad was I when on ship board again. People blackguarding us every inch and much as “Foreign Legion” the Guard of the City could do to keep quiet and order. Yesterday the “Brooklyn” Guard were sent on shore to protect the Flag over Post Office and I was with them. Our crowd numbering only 20 men moved very cautiously up the street but being well armed remained all day with safety coming off at Sundown. Genl [Benjamin F.] Butler’s troops arrived today and landed this evening so that there is no more trouble. It is occupied by about 6000 of his Troops. They will soon put things to right when I expect our Squadron will move up the River to meet Foote, who was below Memphis at last account.9
I do not know whether we can go much farther on account of shallow water—one thing is certain we will soon have to go home on account of repairs leaking badly—27 shots in our hull. I expect this [victory] will cause great rejoicing in the North when the Capture of New Orleans is published and I should like to see the outburst. Tell Billie and Sam if they have not already left [to enlist] to hold on a while as things will be better soon. How are Mother Father Brothers and sisters health. Hope this may find you all safe and well. As it is getting hard onto 12 oclock I will soon turn in.
You must excuse the writing as its done in a hurry. I wrote about half dozen lines on Tuesday and sent it by Gun Boat which went home to report the good news. Did you receive it—My Kind Love to all. Kiss Lou[isa] for me and say if God spares my Life will soon be home I think—say 3 months time—good night.
Ever yours Affectionately,
But Charley would not be home in three months, and it would be a full three years before the bloodletting stopped. As for Charley, he served a full cruise in the Brooklyn, some of it on the Mississippi, some doing blockade duty off Galveston, Texas. He never had another night like the one on 24 April, however, and in August 1863, the Brooklyn headed north for another refit, this time in her namesake city.
Charley, now promoted to ordnance sergeant, enjoyed a tour of shore duty in Brooklyn where he superintended the Marine barracks there and guarded the prisoners sent to the barracks for court-martial. In time, however, he got orders to go back to sea on board the screw steamer South Carolina, part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
He was on board his new ship in Cockspur Roads, near Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River, when he died of consumption on 5 October 1864. In his last letter home, he ended, as usual, by writing that he hoped all were in good health, sending “regards to all inquiring friends, I will close with love to all. Good Bye.”
2. The cockpit was so named because it was the station of the ship’s coxswain. It was often used as a berthing space for midshipmen and as the surgery during battle.
3. The Union capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee was a major blow to the Confederacy. Having previously seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote assailed Fort Donelson in mid-February. Abandoned by his own commanding officer, Confederate Major General Simon B. Buckner surrendered the fort and its army of some 17,000 men to Grant on 16 February.
4. According to a midshipman on board the Brooklyn, lengths of “chain-cable” were suspended from iron rods “about eight feet above the water. . . . Each strand . . . was lapped over the next, the links fitting between each other so that it made an almost continuous coat of mail” (Commander John Russell Bartlett, USN, “The ‘Brooklyn’ at the Passage of the Forts,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 2 [New York: The Century Co., 1887], 58).
5. It may have seemed purposeful and according to plan to Charley, but Craven (“the brave Captain”) was managing multiple crises. In his subsequent battle report, Craven confessed to Farragut that “in consequence of the darkness of the night and the blinding smoke, I lost sight of your ship, and when following in the line of what I supposed to be your fire I suddenly found the Brooklyn running over one of the hulks and rafts which sustained the chain barricade of the river. For a few moments I was entangled and fell athwart the stream, our bow grazing the shore on the left bank of the river. Whilst in this situation I received a pretty severe fire form Fort St. Philip” (Craven to Farragut, 26 April 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, ser. 1, vol. 18, 182.)
6. The CSS Manassas was a single-gun ironclad warship originally constructed as a privateer but taken into Confederate naval service. Under the bold, if not reckless, command of Lieutenant Alexander F. Warley, she charged the entire fleet of Union warships, striking a glancing blow to the Mississippi before colliding with the Brooklyn. Having lost much of her momentum, she did relatively little damage, though the attack did stave in about five feet of the Brooklyn’s hull. The Manassas was not captured by the Mississippi, as Charley reports. Rather, crippled from her several collisions, she became unseaworthy, and Warley had to run her ashore before she sank. Afterward, men from the Mississippi boarded the abandoned vessel and burned her.
7. The total Union losses for the day were 37 killed and 149 wounded; Confederate casualties totaled 782.
8. Actually, Farragut sent Captain Theodorus Bailey and a party of sailors ashore to demand the surrender.
9. The rumors were untrue. The Union Mississippi Squadron did not capture Memphis until June. By then, Foote was no longer in command. Pleading ill health, he had turned the squadron over to Acting Flag Officer Charles Henry Davis in May.