Cape Cod is rarely invoked in the same breath as Antietam, Shiloh, or Gettysburg when the subject turns to the American Civil War. Yet the region quietly did its part when it came to quelling “the Rebellion”, as locals termed it. According to Civil War historian Stauffer Miller, roughly 1,000 Cape men enlisted in the army; several hundred more served in an extended, quasi-Navy to replace those who had suceded; and 205 Cape Codders died during the conflict. Congress–– recognizing that Cape Cod sea captiains and merchant mariners provided ready-made talent from decades of seafaring dominance––chartered their steamships for the war effort and appointed Cape Codders as acting naval officers.
Barnstable & the Civil War
With deep knowledge of southern ports, these seasoned sailors’ primary contribution would be unglamorous but critical: transporting men, medicines, and munitions to and from the battle lines. But there’s more to the story, as evidenced through the lives of the three Barnstable citizens whom we examine here; an expert sea captain, a witness to a critical wartime technological advance, and an infamous female saboteur.
Captain Rodney Baxter
Master Seaman – Hyannis
Rodney Baxter of Hyannis, at age 46, was among the first Cape Codders tapped when America’s Civil War hostilities first erupted. In 1861, he received a naval commission of Acting Master. Described in his 1888 obituary as “a generous, genial gentleman,” Baxter was reputed to be one of the age of sail’s most proficient deep-sea captains. Whether racing a food-laden schooner to Ireland during the great famine of the 1840s, or captaining clipper ships on far-off trade missions to Marseilles or Bombay, Baxter’s passages set record times. He also was celebrated as a “sailor-entertainer,” singing in the choir of the Hyannis Universalist Church, playing the violin, and spinning first-rate stories. While the war’s nautical demands were child’s play to him, these latter talents would prove invaluable morale boosters.
Baxter’s first Civil War assignment was joining the blockade on Galveston, Texas, where his ship saw brief action in an exchange with enemy batteries. After three months, though, he resigned his commission, complaining that the Navy had stationed him too far from his beloved Hyannis. More to his liking was a reassignment in 1862 to the steamer Mississippi, implementing a troop-buildup ordered by the War Department. On one of his signature speedy runs to battle hubs between Boston and Louisiana, Baxter was transporting 1,500 soldiers—including a Cape Cod company in Massachusetts’ Fifth Regiment—to Morehead City, North Carolina. When the closely packed troops and crew grew nervous and mutinous, he whipped out his fiddle and sang songs, soothing his charges and warding off homesickness. Such personal touches prompted 14 of his men to publicly pen Baxter’s praises:
“We, the undersigned, passengers on board the steamer under your command, on her last trip from New Orleans to New York, feel unwilling to part company without an expression of our high regard for you as a gentleman and our appreciation of your sailor qualities…The steamship Mississippi, in our imperfect judgment, is a model of strength, security and comfort. May we ask your acceptance of a silver speaking trumpet as a slight memorial of our regard?”
—1863 letter, The Barnstable Patriot
A decade later, when President Ulysses Grant visited Hyannis, it was a fellow Yankee, Rodney Baxter, who escorted him through town in a fine carriage with matched steeds. Baxter lived out his days in the octagonal house he had erected on South Street in Hyannis, a local curiosity to this day.