Cape Cod Life / June 2012 / Art & Entertainment, History, People & Businesses
Writer: Diane Speare Triant / Photographer:
Barnstable & the Civil War
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.
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.
Lt. Augustus Davis Ayling
Eyewitness to the Monitor versus Merrimack battle – Centerville
Augustus Ayling was not yet a Cape Codder when, at age 20, he answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. But the colorful diary the well-educated Lowellite kept during his Civil War service with Massachusetts’ 29th Infantry rests in Centerville’s Historical Museum. This pleasing Cape town was home to Elizabeth Cornish—the sea captain’s daughter whom Ayling married—as well as his own residence during his retirement years.
In the 1990s, Centerville author Dr. Charles Herberger—aware that Ayling’s wife was an ancestor of his own wife—came across the diary gathering dust on a museum shelf. He decided to edit and publish it. “I realized its special significance to Civil War history,” says Herberger, now 92. “It is perhaps unique in that it records personal impressions from all the major theatres of battle with a vivid verisimilitude that brings the scenes of war—both in its routine and its excitement of conflict—to life.”
One of Ayling’s compelling entries is his description of the iconic naval encounter between the uss Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 8, 1862. Looking like giant tin cans afloat, these were the first ironclad vessels to do battle, and the struggle initiated modern naval warfare. On the previous day, the Merrimack—a scuttled frigate revitalized with iron armor—had sunk two Federal warships and was keen on destroying others to break the Union’s blockade. But she hadn’t counted on the arrival of the gunboat Monitor, fresh from New York with its own iron fittings. Ayling, stationed at nearby Fort Monroe, offers a firsthand account of the battle:
Although the engagement ended in a stalemate, Yankee shipping interests were preserved. Ayling, who is buried in Centerville, was the father of Charles Ayling, founder of both the Cape Cod Hospital and airport. Charles Ayling was an important civic leader whose resourcefulness and generosity shaped the lives of Cape Codders for generations to come.
Anna Elinor Jones
Accused Rebel Spy – Barnstable
Barnstable boasts another colorful connection to the war in the person of Anna Jones, an orphan from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a convicted Rebel spy. Today, we would probably recognize multiple clinical issues in this seductive teenager, as she methodically attached herself to various Yankee regiments—and their officers—in the guise of seeking nursing work. A benign “daughter of the regiment” she was not, confessing in an 1863 signed statement (which she later recanted): “I have spent 2½ years in the Union army, and during that time have been the guest of different officers, they furnishing me with horses, escorts, and sentinels at my tent. I have invariably received passes to go when and where I pleased … and sometimes occupied quarters with the officers.”
The mercurial Jones, variously known as Annie, Emma, or Major (due to her fondness for wearing major’s stripes), was arrested several times for attempting to cross Confederate pickets. But what catapulted her to notoriety was her time in the camp of a flamboyant young Brigadier General: George Armstrong Custer.
Custer was serving in Virginia, under the command of General Judson Kilpatrick. The two Yankees were often at odds, and Jones played on the rivalry.
“General Kilpatrick became very jealous of Gen. Custer’s attentions to me,” she wrote, “and went to General Meade’s headquarters and charged me with being a Rebel spy.”
Although Custer denied consorting with Jones, and Jones denied passing secrets, the War Department took a dim view of her admission of “repeatedly passing… into Rebel lines.”
She was arrested and sent home for incarceration, where she once again beguiled male officials. When Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, in May 1864, consigned Jones to the Barnstable County Jail, the New York Evening Post reported it as sentencing her “to stop during the summer” in Barnstable.
Further, Barnstable jail-keeper Albert Easterbrooks allowed Jones to stay in a nearby rooming house, declaring the prison’s facilities inadequate for women.
According to the website CapeCodConfidential.com, Jones “had the run of the village, and was frequently seen shopping and sampling the local eateries.” Within several months, a New York congressman had mysteriously won her release. As he personally whisked the femme fatale off-Cape, yet another admirer—a Barnstable Patriot reporter—effused, “The pretty rebel spy, an intelligent young lady of only 20 years, left the village for Boston last Wednesday…We congratulate Miss Jones on regaining her liberty after a long and weary persecution…We should think Presdent Lincoln and [War] Secretary Stanton would feel ashamed!”
Diane Speare Triant is a summer resident of West Hyannisport. For further reading, she recommends Cape Cod and the Civil War: The Raised Right Arm, by Stauffer Miller, and A Yankee at Arms: The Diary of Lieutenant Augustus D. Ayling, edited by Charles F. Herberger.
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