Loss of the West Point

Excerpt written by Captain Lyman Jackman and originally published in 1891, in History of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment in the war for the Union

Introduction by James Blake

The sad and tragic account of the sinking of the West Point as written in the regimental history of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment. The story of the West Point was described in detail to the Historian of the Sixth, Captain Lyman Jackman by Lieutenant-Colonel Scott who was able to secure his wife’s remains by appealing to President Lincoln, then in residence at the Soldiers’ Home in the house today known as President Lincoln’s Cottage.  –J. Blake

Loss of the West Point
When the Ninth Army Corps left Newport News to go to the help of the Army of Virginia, all its sick were sent to the hospitals. It was soon decided to send them by boat up the Potomac to Alexandria and Washington. So on the 13th of August, all the sick and convalescent, about two hundred and fifty, were put upon the steamer West Point. Some members of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment were of the number, among whom were Lieutenant-Colonel Scott and Sergeant C. L. Parker. The Wives of Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, Major O. G. Dort, and Captain John A Cummings, with the Major’s little son, four or five years old, were also of the party. Sergeant (afterwards Lieutenant) Parker gives the following account of the disaster which befell the West Point:

“We left Newport News on that beautiful morning of August 13, 1862, and had a fine passage down the bay past Fortress Monroe and up into the Potomac, and were all anticipating a safe and pleasant trip. Many of the sick had retired early, and nearly all were in their state-rooms, when, all of a sudden, about nine o’clock in the evening we were startled by a fearful crash and shock. The men rushed from their state-rooms, and all was confusion. We had collided with the steamer George Peabody, a larger boat than ours, which was coming down the river with scarcely any lading, having been up with troops and supplies. Our boat had struck her just in front of her wheel-house, damaging her wheel so that she could not move; she therefore floated helplessly down the river, with a large hole in her side, but above the water-line, thanks to the light lading.

The scene which followed cannot be described. We found that our boat was fast filling with water, as the bow had been split quite open by the force of the collision. We supposed at first that the West Point was not so badly damaged as the George Peabody; but is proved otherwise, and we expected the captain of our boat would run her ashore, which was about half a mile distant, or at least ground her as near the shore as possible. But our feelings can hardly be imagined when we saw the captain, pilot, and crew pulling from the steamer, safely seated in one of her two small boats, than two hundred! Had this happened a little later in the war, there would have been a dead captain and pilot in that boat before they had got far from the steamer.

As we were now left wholly to our fate, we got the ladies and children upon the upper deck, and then tried to lower the remaining boat, in which to put them; but in the haste and confusion the boat was lost, and escape seemed hopeless. Mrs. Dort, in great distress, had called me from the lower cabin to her berth, to help dress her little boy. I rendered the requested aid, and helped her and the child upon the hurricane deck. We were all the time floating down the river, and as the forward part of the boat was now under water, we all tried to get upon the hurricane deck. This broke down under such a weight, and nearly all were plunged into the water. Many floated off and sank; others secured broken boards and pieces of the wreck, and floated as long as they could hold on. Some, however, drifted ashore, or were picked up by passing boats. When the deck broke down, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott was separated from the ladies, but before morning he was taken from the wreck, having held to the iron rods connecting with the tops of the smoke-stack, which remained out of water after the boat, sank. A surgeon of a Michigan regiment and myself got the ladies to the highest point of the broken deck, which was fast sinking. I heard the surgeon tell the ladies he would do his best to save them, and I think he did, for as he was drowned and was found two days later far down the river with one of the ladies holding fast to him, it is evident that he kept his promise. While trying to reach a higher point and assist the ladies to it, I was seized by a drowning comrade, and went down into the deep water. When I got clear of him, I was at some distance from the boat and never saw the ladies or children again. I commenced swimming for the nearest shore, but as I was very weak from recent sickness, my strength soon failed, and I turned back in hopes of finding something to cling to, as the boat had made its last plunge and gone to the bottom. The water was full of struggling humanity, and such cries for help may I never hear again! Those who could not swim, or who did not get something on which to float, soon disappeared beneath the water.

When I came up to the wreck, I found a few clinging to the smoke-stack and connecting rods. Having succeeded in grasping one of the roads with one hand, I held on with the rest till late in the night, when a schooner came along and took us all off. We were afterwards transferred to the George Peabody. Some escaped by the simplest means. One soldier, and a colored woman belonging to the boat, was saved by a water-pail turned bottom up, which they held to between them, thus keeping their heads above water. George Smith and Hiram Pool, of the Sixth, escaped by clinging to a door.

Others found like desperate chances fortunate ones. One hundred and twenty were drowned, including all the ladies and the major’s little boy. And it is sad to be compelled to say that all this loss of life might have been saved, had the captain and pilot stayed b y the boat and run her ashore, as they had ample time to do before she went down on that calm, clear night. It was the opinion of the boys that the captain and pilot were full-fledged rebels and that they ran against the other boat on purpose, for it was a perfectly clear evening, and any one on deck could not have failed to see the other boat approaching, even if it had had no lights out; while the fact that they deserted at once the sinking boat not only proves criminal delinquency, but strongly tends to prove the basest disloyalty. A court of inquiry who held, but it was managed like most of such courts, and I am sorry to say that both the captain and pilot escaped punishment. Had Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, or somebody else, shot them on the instant they were seen deserting the disabled steamer, he would have served them right, and his country well.

A special thanks for Mr. Blake for sharing the official historical account of the steamboat accident that led to the meeting between Col. Scott and President Lincoln at the Soldiers’ Home.
Mr. Blake is the Chairman of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry reenactors.
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