The newlyweds: August 13, 1862 The Fighting men

Last modified: Monday, October 06, 2014
Editor’s note: This excerpt is from “Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union,” published by Monitor Publishing Co. in 2012; reprinted here with permission.

The fates of the three men and their wives were joined in Keene, where the Sixth New Hampshire regiment was preparing for war on the Cheshire County Fairgrounds. Charles Scott, the major, had served as deputy sheriff in Peterborough, and his wife Sophia worked as a milliner. Captain Obed Dort, a druggist who also sold paint and wallpaper, lived in Keene with his wife Julia and their two young sons. He turned his store counter into a recruiting station where, in November 1861, 24-year-old John Cummings and the squad of 24 men he had recruited in Peterborough joined Dort’s company. Cummings was a bachelor — for the moment at least.

When the regiment gathered for Thanksgiving, someone noticed an apple pie with Cummings’s name cut into the crust. He was about to be mustered in as a first lieutenant, but the pie signified a more personal milestone. Its baker was Katie Scott, Cummings’s eighteen-year-old sweetheart and no relation to the Sixth’s major. When Katie Scott became Kate Cummings at Sixth’s camp a week later, dropping the “i” in her nickname, the wedding was the social event of the training camp. But the newlyweds had no chance to settle into marriage before the Sixth marched through a foot of snow to the railroad depot on Christmas morning.

In mid-July, after six months in North Carolina, the regiment joined the Ninth Corps at Newport News, Virginia. Scott, Dort, and Cummings had all been promoted by then — Scott to lieutenant colonel, Dort to major, and Cummings to captain. When a fever sent Scott to the hospital, Sophia Scott went to his side. His brother came with her, reporting on July 25 that Scott, while better, was “still sick and much exhausted in strength.” At about this time, Julia Dort and Kate Cummings decided to visit their husbands. Kate shared this news with John in a letter filled with tidbits from home about the dinner she’d just eaten, a new hotel going up, and a man dropping dead while mowing his hay. She worried the regiment might move before her arrival or, worse, be off fighting in Richmond. “I often think how many times I have said in your presence I wish I could know something in the future,” she wrote. He needn’t fret about her traveling because a male friend of the Dorts was coming along. Julia Dort was also bringing her six-year-old son Arthur, while four-year-old Frank stayed home with family. “It seems strange to think that I am to see you so soon, as I shall if I have good luck,” Kate Cummings wrote.

Major Dort went to meet the women and his son at the Baltimore depot, but while he was gone, the regiment was ordered away, just as Kate Cummings had feared. As her husband steamed up Chesapeake Bay, the ship carrying her passed him going the other way. This maddening coincidence overwhelmed him. “I never felt more in my life than I did then,” he wrote his sister. At his new post he rented a room at a farmhouse and wrote Kate to come to him. He asked his colonel if he could go to her, but it was fighting season and the prospect of orders to move was too great. “I am placed in perplexing circumstances,” Cummings wrote his sister. “I think sometimes I will go to her anyway but then I should have to give up my place in disgrace here, and possibly she may be able to get here quite well without me. . . . If Kate could have come one day sooner I could have brought her right along with me as well as not.”

Major Dort hurried off to rejoin the Sixth, leaving Lieutenant Colonel Scott to figure out what to do about the women stranded at Newport News. Scott asked for a vessel to transport the three women, little Arthur, and any able sick men. Kate Cummings heard the steamer arrive the night of August 11 and wrote her husband that she would soon be on her way. “I felt when I started from home something was to happen,” she wrote. Although things had gone badly so far, “I hope the future part of my journey is to be different. I can not go home without making one more effort to see you. I write this so if I never arrive at my destination, you may know I started.”

The ship that had come for them was the West Point, a 409-ton sidewheel steamer just two years old. Its captain was the veteran J. E. G. Doyle. Two hundred and fifty-eight convalescent soldiers, including many from the Sixth New Hampshire, boarded the ship, as did the three women and the boy. As the highest-ranking infantry officer, Scott took charge of the troops. The West Point took on seventeen more men at Fort Monroe before heading up the bay toward the Potomac and Aquia Creek, where the Union army controlled an important landing.

As the West Point churned along the river on August 13, all seemed well. The light of a high summer’s day still glowed on the river as dusk settled in. Passengers who were paying attention just after eight o’clock heard a steam-whistle blow just ahead followed by the West Point’s answering blast. A minute later, a loud crunch jolted the ship and sent passengers lurching across their quarters. Sergeant Curtis L. Parker of the Sixth bolted out of his cabin and saw water surging along the ship’s passageways. He heard a woman’s cry. He raced upstairs to Julia Dort’s cabin, helped dress Arthur, and led the two of them to the hurricane deck, the highest point on the steamer. It was natural to think this was the safest place to be. Already men fleeing the chaos below were filling it.

Captain Doyle knew the West Point was sinking. He had made a careless mistake, turning to port instead of starboard as another ship approached. His ship crushed the protective frame on the paddle wheel of the George Peabody, a nearly empty transport moving at high speed. The collision stove in the West Point’s bow, “taking away about ten feet, leaving us in a sinking condition,” Doyle told a reporter later that night. The Peabody floated away with a hole in its side above the water line, its engine and steering disabled and its captain helpless to answer the cries of the West Point’s passengers.

A flood of water

As water flooded the decks, Colonel Scott ran to Doyle to see what might be done to save them. Doyle offered no hope, telling Scott the ship might sink in ten minutes. Scott returned to the hurricane deck, joining the three women, the boy, Sergeant Parker, and James A. Newell, a Massachusetts doctor who had been working at the Newport News hospital. When Scott spotted a lifeboat floating away, he stripped, dived into the water, and tried in vain to retrieve it. As the hurricane deck flooded, the women clung to Newell as he held the boy aloft. Suddenly the deck collapsed, plunging those on it into the river. A frantic soldier pulled Parker under. The sergeant surfaced far from the ship and could no longer see the women or the boy. Nor could he find a scrap of the bow or hurricane deck to keep him afloat. As he swam away toward the Maryland shore, he realized he was too weak from illness to make it that far. When he turned back, the West Point had sunk in twenty-five feet of water. Only the smokestack and its iron connecting rods broke the surface. Hands and arms clung to the rods, and people thrashed about, struggling to stay afloat. Many slipped under. The exhausted Parker swam to the smokestack and wrapped his right hand around a rod. Colonel Scott held on nearby.

Passing ships stopped to rescue anyone they could. A soldier and a black servant woman had turned a pail upside down on the river, each holding one side to keep it from tipping and filling. Two Sixth privates from Haverhill, George Smith and Hiram Poole, had sat together on a wooden door. Parker held onto his connecting rod and bobbed in the river until a light cruiser came along and took him and others to the George Peabody, whose engine and steering mechanism had by then been repaired.

But the sinking of the West Point was a story of sorrow, not salvation. Seventy-six people drowned, including Sophia Scott, Julia and Arthur Dort, Kate Cummings, and eleven Sixth New Hampshire soldiers, inflicting grief all across the state. Civilians were used to long casualty lists; it was the drowning of the women and the boy that shook them. “While near relatives are almost crushed by the poignancy of their grief, all, alike, are mourners,” the Peterborough Transcript’s editor wrote. “There are no hearts that have not been touched to the quick by the news of this fatal disaster — there are not many eyes that have not moistened as the imagination has painted to them, over and over again, the group upon the hurricane deck of the sinking steamer in that dread moment, when despair was followed by heroic calmness and resignation.” Only God knew why such tragedies happened, the editor observed, struggling to reach a consoling note. “As those we mourn were good and brave and true, let us be made better, braver, truer.” The New Hampshire Sentinel in Keene, the Dorts’ hometown, put it this way: “The hardships and perils of the battle field are, it would seem, enough for the human heart to bear — but the sudden deprivation of wives and children, while on visits of love and mercy, touches the deepest foundation of sorrow.”

Bodies washed up on the Virginia shore. It was summer, and officials ordered them buried quickly. This caused further anguish for some survivors, including relatives of the women and the boy. A few days after the collision a boatman saw Sophia Scott’s body floating in the Potomac. He pulled it into his boat and rowed to the Virginia shore, where he gave the jewelry she had been wearing to the county sheriff. Colonel Scott was in Washington to testify in the West Point inquiry. When he learned his wife had been found, he wanted her body returned to Peterborough to lie beside their only two children, both daughters who had died before the war. He asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s permission to retrieve it, but Stanton refused him. Scott was determined. He found President Lincoln at the Soldiers’ Home, where he often stayed in a gray stone cottage to escape the heat of summer and the pressures of the White House. Scott’s request annoyed Lincoln. “Am I to have no rest?” he asked, telling Scott the decision was Stanton’s to make and the burden Scott’s to bear. The next morning the president reconsidered and personally helped Scott gain passage downriver.

On the morning of August 27, two weeks after the collision, Scott returned to the navy yard on the steam-tug Leslie with Sophia’s body. He had learned where thirty other drowning victims were buried, including the Dorts and Kate Cummings. Four days later, when a huge crowd turned out at Peterborough’s Unitarian Church for Sophia Scott’s funeral, Cummings’s father was absent. He had gone south to recover her body. Major Dort retrieved Julia and Arthur as well, and friends of Doctor Newell, who had helped the women in their final minutes, carried his body home to Massachusetts. The papers reported that a drowned woman had still clung to Newell’s body when it reached shore.

Of the three widowers, only John Cummings fought on with the Sixth New Hampshire. Dort resigned in September, citing the need to care for his son Frank and return to the business Julia Dort had run in his absence, and Scott took a disability discharge. After a brief leave Cummings returned to his regiment, which had just been mauled at the second Bull Run battle. “There is nothing left of them, hardly,” he wrote the Transcript. “Eighteen men killed, wounded and missing from my company.” To his mother he poured out his grief over the loss of his wife. “I cannot help but think I shall go to her soon,” he wrote. “If it should be so, do not think of it otherwise than as a relief and blessing to me.” A month after Kate’s death he led his company into Maryland, where the charge into heavy fire across a bridge at Antietam reminded him of his childhood musings. “Mother,” he wrote, “I used to read of Napoleon’s battles and think it would be glorious to have a chance to take part in a battle. I have had it.” His fatalism persisted. “If I should chance to be killed, or rather it should be my destiny to die here, do not feel bad about it, mother,” he wrote. “Remember there is pleasure in the tho’t of joining her, and that I died happy believing that we were again to meet. All the sorrow I feel at the thought of death is that there are those who will mourn for me, but we must go sometime and as we pass on one by one those who are left must weep by turn.”

Mike Pride of Concord is editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor, where he ran the newsroom for 30 years. He served on the Pulitzer Prize board for nine years.