[Various locations, including Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama, and New York. May 1861 to March 1888]. Twenty-one autograph letters, signed, and manuscript documents, totaling approximately fifty-one pages. Old folds, many with slight tears and slight separations along folds and at cross folds. Overall, in good plus condition. Item #WRCAM56211
An interesting collection of manuscript material providing a view of the Civil War from the vantage point of Union Navy sailor, John Burke. About half of the material in this collection consists of letters written by Burke (who sometimes refers to himself as "James") during the war, though some are from the period after. The archive consists of twenty-one letters and manuscript documents, including eleven from Burke (seven written to his wife Mary Burke), and ten letters or documents written to Burke from Mary, his brother Joseph, and others, or written about Burke, including later manuscripts relating to Burke's claim for an invalid pension from the U.S. Navy. Burke's wartime correspondence covers his activities aboard various steamers, where he reports on his movements around the Gulf Coast, encounters with the Confederates and brief reports of battle action, and, most importantly, about capturing numerous valuable naval prizes from the enemy.
John Burke was born in Dover, New Hampshire on Christmas Day in 1834. He was a shoemaker hailing from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who served in the United States Navy during the Civil War on the following ships: the U.S.S. Mississippi, the U.S.S. R.R. Cuyler, U.S.S. Massachusetts, and the U.S.S. North Carolina. He enlisted May 9, 1861 at the Charlestown Navy Yard and served largely in the Gulf Coast region during the war. He was discharged from the Navy in April, 1862 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Thereafter, he worked as a merchant seaman aboard numerous steamships.
Burke's letters are full of details on his movements, actions, requests for items from home, and more (original spelling will be retained in any excerpts that follow). In one of his earliest letters, from the U.S.S. Ohio, Burke asks his wife for several items, including his favorite shirt, a brush, ink, paper, and silk. He also writes about the seemingly haphazard way he ended up in the Navy: "How I come hear I got drunk and a man took me to Boston Shipped me. The first knew about it I was on bord the Ship. But we must make the best of it until my time is out....Tell the boys I am agoing to get Jef Davis's head." He signs this letter, as he does in a few other cases, "John Burke alias James Burke" (the reasoning for which is unclear). In another letter from around this time, Burke writes to his brother at Elkridge Landing, Maryland about fishing, coming home to see Mary after he gets paid, and about how he and his fellow soldiers [the Sixth or Eighth Massachusetts Regiment, or Cook's Boston Artillery Battery] are on a hill overlooking the relay house at Elkridge Landing.
The next letter is from August, 1861, when Burke writes to his wife from the U.S.S. R.R. Cuyler, a steamer outfitted by the U.S. Navy as a gunboat assigned to the Union blockade of the Confederate States. He joined the crew of the ship after his previous ship, the cutter John Appleton, was damaged and lost. Burke writes that "we are not at Tampa Bay now we are going to Apalachacola to be stationed their we have taken 6 Prizes. We lost the John Appleton that I was in and we burned the hull to the waters edge so the Rebels could not get her off." Here, he further relates that his captain "told us all that served 6 months in this war wold get 320 acres of land worth one dollar an acre. That would be $320 Dollars besides our wages. That will not be bad." He also hears that "they are having some hard Battles in Virginnia."
Burke again writes from Florida after arriving in Apalachicola. He relates to Mary about recent action: "We have had Some fighting...we board a ship and took her as a Prise. We had to go in seven Boats for she laid under the land so our ship could not get in to her. We killed 7 of her men and took the rest Prisinors. We lost two men. Escaped without injury the Bullets was flying all around me. We was well armed Cutlass Pistol and muskets. We boarded her in the hight of the morning." At Ship Island in Mobile Bay in early December, Burke again regales his wife with news of success: "We are discharging several Rebel prizes that we have taking their cargoes is valuable ones. They consist of sugar, Molasses, spirits of Turpentine rosin and large Beams for the construction of forts. The prizes we have taken this week is valued at 150,000 dollars. We have got a large number of prisoners."
Burke writes two letters from Pensacola on Christmas Day, 1861. The first is a letter home focused almost solely on discussing his wife and children, and how much he misses "clams and vinegar and Sweet Cake." Toward the end of this letter, Burke does mention that he has been drinking a fair amount of rum, though he hopes "another glass will never enter my lips as long as I live for I have seen the evil of it." The other Christmas Day letter is addressed to "Friend Layward." In this letter, Burke discusses the recent prizes won at Ship Island, the 150 men onboard his ship, the false promise of increased wages, and how he doesn't want a friend from home to "enlist in the volunteers for they say that everybody is going to war."
The next letter is dated February 23, 1862, again written from Burke to his wife. Here, Burke provides details of a recent captured prize: "She was loaded with coffee...and other articles. We had a hard time in taking her. We had four men Shot and one I expect will die. It was a valuable prise worth fifty thousand or more." He then tells Mary that he along with another sailor were shipped to New York on the U.S.S. Massachusetts "as witness for the Government but I expect to be sent back in the next Steamer to the Cuyler."
Burke's last letter as a member of the Union Navy is dated March 13, 1862 from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He asks Mary if she has received his half pay, and mentions his upcoming discharge in May.
The last two letters from Burke find him aboard a cargo steamer in Singapore, and at home (in which he mainly discusses finances). The final document bearing Burke's signature is an 1883 three-page manuscript from Massachusetts in which Burke applies for an invalid pension; the document includes an affidavit by William K. Niles in support of Burke's claim.
The remaining letters and manuscript documents include a September, 1861 letter to Burke from Mary with much news of home and how she regards shoemaking as "very dull work;" two 1864 letters from Burke's brother, Joseph, who writes home about regimental activities while serving the Union cause with the 59th Massachusetts Volunteers; a May 2, 1965 letter from G.W. Garland in Pensacola who responds to a previous letter from Burke asking about his brother; a two-page manuscript document detailing John Burke's service in the Navy that may have been prepared by Burke or someone on his behalf concerning his efforts to gain an invalid pension from the U.S. Navy; and a handful of additional documents in support of Burke's pension claim. The latter includes a "General Affidavit" by John J. Kelly, resident of New York, who was a shipmate of Burke's on the U.S.S. R.R. Cuyler. The affidavit was given in support of Burke's claim for a pension from the Navy for contacting debilitating rheumatism because of his duties aboard the ship in 1861. Burke "helped to fill Casks of water at the Light house and Rolled them to the Beach and had to lash them in the water and take them on board the Schooner and then to the R.R. Cuyler. This was in July and August 1861 and to the Best of my opinion I think he Contracted the Rheumatism at that time."
A rare look at the life in the Union Navy early in the Civil War, through the eyes of a young man from Massachusetts.