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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Tales from the North Carolina Record Books

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Project archivist Melissa Haley is processing the records of the U.S. Sanitary Commission's Department of North Carolina. Here she shares fleeting glimpses of wartime lives captured on the pages of supply inventories. Over to Melissa:

Even the seemingly driest of archival records can tell a story. Supply volumes of the United States Sanitary Commission’s Department of North Carolina are a case in point. At first glance, they are simply lists of relief items: how many quilts, lanterns, Boston crackers, bottles of sherry wine, quinine, bars of chocolate, cans of beef stock, dried apples, reading matter, pairs of socks, and handkerchiefs were distributed to area military hospitals, regiments, and naval ships to benefit soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. These items were collected at great effort by such USSC aid societies as the Woman's Central Association of Relief (WCAR) and the New England Women's Auxiliary Association (NEWAA). The Department of North Carolina, based in the federally occupied town of New Bern from 1862 to 1865, functioned primarily to distribute these much-needed supplies. New Berne, N.C., Digital ID 55029, New York Public LibraryNew Bern, NC in 1864

But look more closely at the entries, and you will find evidence of numerous small stories — stories that illustrate the day-to-day situation in eastern North Carolina under Union occupation.

Dr. J. W. Page [standing], Digital ID 1150274, New York Public LibraryDr. J.W. Page

Like many of the USSC’s operations near war zones, the department, headed by Dr. J.W. Page, ended up dealing with much more than simple supply distribution. For example, the battle of Plymouth, and the burning and evacuation of the town of Washington by Federal troops, created an influx of thousands of local refugees into New Bern in the spring of 1864. Supply record books show numerous instances of “special relief” provided for these refugees, who needed everything from food, to kitchenware, to bedding.   

Cookware issued to refugees includedspiders--cast iron pans with legsCookware issued to refugees included
spiders--cast iron pans with legs

Many of these refugees — most of them women and children — were related to members of the 1st and 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers, regiments that consisted partly of Confederate deserters. In February 1864, a number of these now-Union soldiers were captured by the Confederate army, and 22 were publicly hanged at Kinston. 

The Department of North Carolina assisted some of these widows as well, providing one Ann Hill, wife of executed soldier William J. Hill, and her three children with food, clothing, bedding, cutlery, and sewing supplies. The impact of the war on Southern children can be seen in a stark entry of August 15, 1864: “To Refugees 2 Sheets for 2 Dead childrens shrouds.” 

Additional special relief was provided by the Department of North Carolina to escaped prisoners-of-war, who began arriving regularly in New Bern from prisons in South Carolina and Georgia in 1864. Many had been kept at a number of Confederate prison camps, including the notorious Andersonville, and some escaped while en route from one to another. One page of a supply volume shows several Union soldiers who seem to have all escaped together, while being transferred to the prison at Salisbury, North Carolina. 

Another page of the same volume tells the story of Private Jonathan Graves, Company E, 112th Illinois Infantry, captured by Confederates near Knoxville in November 1863. According to the March 1865 entry, the soldier had been confined in seven different Southern prisons, including Andersonville, and escaped while en route to Salisbury. The USSC provided him with a blanket, socks, flannel drawers, a towel, slippers, and some soap. Most of these former POWs arrived in Union territory sick, dirty, and malnourished, with few possessions. Graves survived his ordeal, living until 1911.

Sometimes one finds a little mystery in the pages of record books. On October 10, 1864, the Department of North Carolina provided a blanket, a flannel shirt, and a pair of socks to a soldier listed as “Private Phoenix Phoolish, 25th Mass Vols.” Needless to say, there is no Phoenix Phoolish listed in the muster rolls of the 25th Massachusetts. Who he was, and why he needed such a pseudonym, will have to remain as inspiration for novelists. 

These tales, and many more, can be found in the supply volumes of the Department of North Carolina, as well as in other USSC departmental, branch, and office records when the Sanitary Commission collection reopens for research in 2013. Even the smallest entry can provide a window into a larger story, illuminating aspects of life during the Civil War.

Further research at NYPL:

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