07-27-1865: Navy Paymaster William Keeler’s Letter from the U.S.S. Florida.
Source: Keeler, William Frederick, Aboard the U.S.S. Florida: 1863-65.
Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, Michael O’Laughlin, and Samuel Arnold were taken to Fort Jefferson aboard the U.S.S. Florida. William Keeler, the Navy Paymaster aboard the Florida, described the Florida’s trip in the following letter to his wife Anna.
U.S. Steamer Florida
Key West, Florida
July 27th, 1865
We left New York, as I have previously informed you in a brief note, on Sunday 16th. We had been ordered to be ready for Sea a number of days previously & had been given to understand that we were going to go to Port Royal to tow one of the monitors to Philadelphia.
When the final sailing orders came we were taking on naval stores for Port Royal & carpenters and painters were at work repairing damages caused by the falling of a large derrick across us & which came very near sending us to the bottom. Mechanics were hurried ashore leaving their work half done, the remainder of the stores were soon on board & we were off.
It seems however that the orders for Port Royal &c were only for a blind & to conceal the real purpose in sending us off. Just as we were leaving the dock a telegram from Washington was received ordering us to call at Hampton Roads.
We reached there the next day about noon & dropped an anchor opposite Fortress Monroe, the familiar scenery on all sides reminding me of the eventful occurrences at the outbreak of the war. Of course we were all ignorant of the cause of our being sent there & many speculation were ventured as to the why and wherefore. We had not long to wait however for a steamer which we saw coming down the bay as we came into the harbor, came up and anchored near us.
Brig. Gen [Levi Axtell] Dodd with a portion of his staff came on board in a small boat and were soon followed by Dr. [Samuel A.] Mudd, [Samuel] Arnold, McLaughlan [Michael O’Laughlin] & [Edward] Spangler, the unhung ones of the president’s assassins & a guard of 30 of the veteran reserves in charge.
The mystery was now solved and our real destination was found to be the Dry Tortugas. The prisoners were brought on board in irons and closely guarded, nothing about them to attract particular attention though their crime had given them a notoriety which made them objects of curiosity to all on board. They had been gazed at I suppose till they ceased to regard it as anything strange & seated themselves quite composedly in some chairs which had been placed for them on the quarter deck.
None of us were allowed any communication with the shore. We were under way again before sundown & were probably many miles at sea before the curious public knew but what the murderers were safely housed as four weeks past in the old capital prison. They were taken from Washington in the middle of the night, none but the president & his Cabinet being aware of the transaction except the guard who accompanied them. The prisoners had seen in the papers that they were to be sent to the Albany penitentiary & supposed they were put on board of us for the purpose of being conveyed to New York. It was not till they had been on board for fourty-eight hours that they began to mistrust their real destination. They appeared a good deal dejected when they learned that truth.
The Dr. wanted to know “how long a person would probably live at the Tortugas.” Like most criminals they all claimed that they had been found guilty upon false evidence. Dr. Mudd had a good deal to say about the trial, pointing out the evidence where it clashed as he thought, giving the character of various witnesses, calling attention to points which he thought had been overlooked or had not received sufficient attention from the court. He had had that evidence in his case, pro & con, published in book form and produced a copy of which he commended to our careful perusal.
He is about 30 years of age though he looks much older, he leaves a wife & four children. He is said to be a sharp shrewd man but I saw nothing about him to indicate it - he has a sort of cunning, foxy, look as if possessed of plenty of low cunning & a desire for concealment.
The officers in charge of them & who have had a good opportunity of knowing say that “Mrs. Surratt & him furnished the brains for the party” - & they think that he should have accompanied her to the gallows, that her fate was just & merited they have no doubt & that she had any claims, as a woman, on executive clemency, they deny.
Spangler is a course, rough, uneducated, unprincipled man. His bull neck, bullet head & brutish features mark a villain, but without sufficient nerve & steadiness to carry out the villainy his heart would prompt. He appears to take his punishment (six years) quite stoically & appears at times quite light hearted. He protests with any amount of profanity his entire innocence of the charge but he admits that he has committed crime enough of other kinds to merit the punishment so that his sentence is not undeserved.
The other two are young men, quiet & still, saying but little except when spoken to - men of no more than ordinary information and intelligence. With the exception of Dr. Mudd who may have the ability to plan I cannot conceive how the execution of plans of such vast consequences to the rebels could have been entrusted to such kind of persons.
With Gen. Dodd was Capt. [George W.] Dutton, Dr. [John H.] Porter & thirty privates. The Assistant Judge Advocate General (Col. [Levi C.] Turner) also went down with us with instructions to look into the status of all the political prisoners at Tortugas & other places south & with power to liberate such as in his judgment he might deem advisable. We had a very pleasant company, the Gen. & Col. going into the cabin to mess & the Dr. & Capt. coming into the Ward Room.
The hand irons were taken off the prisoners after they came on board but the leg irons were kept on for the first two or three days, after that they were removed during the day but put on at night. The first two nights they were kept on the orlop deck below the Ward Room, but they complained so much of the heat & closeness they were allowed to spread their mattresses on the quarter deck but were closely guarded. They were fed the same as the sailors - the regular ration. I was in hopes they would send us Jeff Davis from Fortress Monroe, it needed him to make the assortment of scoundrels complete. They appeared much more contented & resigned than I should suppose persons leaving behind them everything that could make life desirable, to be shut out from the world the remainder of their lives, could be - that they realized their condition was shewn by a remark of the Dr.’s one day - that “if it were not for his dread of an hereafter he should jump overboard.”
We arrived at Port Royal on Wednesday the 19th & left for the Dry Tortugas on the 21st. During our stay there [Port Royal] we lay at the docks of the naval station across the harbour from Hilton Head. General Dodd had a tug placed at his disposal during his stay & made a trip up to Beaufort, about 16 miles. Capt. Dutton and Dr. Porter accompanied him & I made one of the party by his invitation.
I could imagine the feelings of our prisoners as we approached Fort Jefferson, on the Dry Tortugas, on the morning of the 24th where they were to spend the remainder of their lives. The particular island is a small, low patch of white sand on the coral reef of about thirteen acres, seven of which are enclosed within the brick walls of the fort, a good portion of the remainder being covered with sheds, shops, stables &c pertaining to the fort & its occupants giving it, at a short distance, the appearance of a small village.
Not a particle of vegetation is visible on the island outside the fort. The only green thing in sight was a few scrubby oak bushes on another small patch of sand a half mile or so distant. Inside the fort, vegetation adapted to the dry, sandy, hot soil was nursed with the great deal of care, most of it transplanted from Key West, a tamarina, a few oaks, some banannas, mangroves, a number of varieties of the cactus (one of them producing the flower from which the night blooming cereus is extracted) were pointed out to me growing around the officers quarters.
A false impression seems to be entertained of this place at the north - that it is dreary & desolate in its appearance you can infer from what I have already said - nothing but the “wide blue sea” can be seen from it except of few small patches of low, barren, white sand scattered at irregular intervals along the coral reefs. The sea breeze continually blowing makes it cool & comfortable & the health must be good as a visit with the Surgeon to the hospital of the garrison of a full regiment (the 110th N.Y.) shewed but five patients & that of the 550 prisoners contained but 4. The Dr. told me that in his six years residence there he had had but six cases of yellow fever. His wife had just left for the north after a stay of three years.
The prisoners are kept employed when there is work to do, but, now there is nothing for them to do & they roam about the fort & beach at will, fishing, bathing, gathering corals, shells, mosses &c which they sell to those visiting the place or send abroad for sale, many of them realizing quite a handsome sum from the proceeds of these curiosities. They are kindly treated & seen to enjoy almost unrestricted liberty. Notwithstanding the sentence of “hard labor with ball and chain” with which many of them are sent there such punishment is not carried out & is only resorted to as a penalty for misbehavior after their arrival on the island
Dr. Mudd is to be sent into the hospital as an assistant to the Surgeon, Arnold is to be employed as a clerk & Spangler will be kept to work in his trade. I have no doubt but what they are glad by this time that they were not sent to the penitentiary as was at first intended.
I got some beautiful corals which I will send home the first opportunity - hope I will be able to bring them myself.
The Capt. & some of our officers had another drunkenness spree here in which they were ably assisted by some of the officers from the fort. Such things are degrading to the officers and disgraceful to the Service & could it be shewn to the Department and it’s true light would undoubtedly subject the offenders to dismissal, for drunkenness is strictly forbidden. There is but little use however in bringing such complaint against a commanding officer by an inferior, as it has been tried a number of times & by some species of legerdemain has resulted in the acquittal of the offender and the dismissal of the complaint, so that all we can do is to look quietly on & inwardly condemn them.
We left the next morning for Key West, about sixty-five miles, & arrived here [Key West] about noon & are now just passing out the harbor after a stay of two days.
We find Col. Turner a very pleasant companion. He has resided at Washington during the war in charge of the political prisoners, or rather superintending all proceedings in relation to them. He was well acquainted with Mr. Lincoln & is full of anecdotes of him as well as of other public characters in Washington. In a two or three hours’ conversation with him last night he gave me an account of the secret history of the rebellion, how mails & letters were opened, detectives employed, & other secret measures taken to detect and ferret out the traitors in our midst. Many he says who are now esteemed loyal would tremble if they knew the record against them at Washington.
Capt. Dutton is from Boston. I cannot find that he is related to your family. He is full of fun & makes a good deal of sport for us in the Ward Room.
The Gen. is a quiet, modest, retiring man with a broad, good humored face ever ready to light up with a smile. All on board like him. He was promoted for gallantry at Petersburg. This is his first trip to sea & of course everything is new - the source of an endless variety of questions which are always asked with a good humored smile.
Monday evening, July 31st
“Home again!” I wish it were so. We have just taken on board a Sandy Hook pilot, which seems a step in that direction. Early tomorrow morning we shall be passing up the Narrows - the most delightful ride in the world. I wish you were on board to enjoy it with me. By eight o’clock we shall be at anchor off the Battery, there we will all be longing to know what the future has in store for us - whether the Florida goes out of commission & we go home or are to be sent off again - quien sabe?
Good night, with love & kisses to yourself and our little ones, if they can be still called such - nearly three years (long ones) since I have seen one of them - I suppose he can scarcely be called small now - how much I want to see him.