Civil War Frogman

By Dorothy Godfrey Wayman

New York Folklore Quarterly

Volume XVII, Number 1, Summer Issue, 1961

Copyright 1961 by New York Folklore Society.
Reprinted with permission of the Society for use only on this library's website.

ONE hundred years after my grandfather, Washington Hobbs Godfrey, began writing in pencil his diary, the small, thin, leather-bound pocketbooks1 came into my keeping. I had often heard him tell the story, but now, for the first time, I found proof that my grandfather had apparently been the first "frogman" in the United States armed services. Incongruously, he was enrolled as a private in Company D, Third New Hampshire Volunteers, which, brigaded with the Forty-eighth and One Hundredth New York regiments, were "island-hopping" off the South Carolina coast in 1862 and 1863.2

The diaries speak of the troubles which Northern men had because of the climate; mosquitoes that prevented sleep and spread yellow fever: dysentery, typhoid, and smallpox that thinned their ranks; and the one hundred degree temperature in the sun. Nevertheless, they perservered in the task assigned -- to take Fort Sumter at the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, which had been in Confederate hands since April, 1861.

Washington Godfrey was born on November 14, 1837, at Hampton. New Hampshire. He was the seventh generation to live on a farm cleared in 1638 by William Godfrey. His land was located between the Boston-to-Portsmouth highway east through meadows, wood lots, and salt marsh to the sand cove between Great Boar's Head and Little Boar's Head on the Atlantic Ocean. The head of the family in each succeeding generation had been a sea captain, and each had owned his own schooner. The wives had managed the farm while the husbands had fished on the Grand Banks or engaged in coastwide trade.

By the time he was ten, any Godfrey son worth his salt would be expert in handling a fourteen-foot dory and would be shipped as a "hand" on his father's schooner. Soon he would also have learned to handle, under sail or oars, a twenty-six foot wherry.

My grandfather did not, however, join the Navy. In October, 1860. he and others organized the Winnicunnet Guards and drilled in the village until Fort Sumter was fired on. The Guards voted unanimously to offer their services. Governor Goodwin accepted their offer. and they served at Portsmouth until August 23, 1861, when they were mustered into the Federal forces and subsequently embarked for Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Godfrey was a short (five feet, two inches), wiry fellow, who had a mop of black hair and bright black eves. His gift for endurance and leadership attracted his officers' attention.

November 27 [1862] Thanksgiving Day. Capt. Maxwell treats and I catches a greased pig. Had a pig roasted for dinner.

Godfrey's seamanship had already been recognized and he was officially designated as Coxswain of the General's gig, and referred to as Pilot.3 He trained and commanded a crew of six for the twenty-five foot whaleboat in which a mast could be stepped, or six oars pulled, for communications between the Army on the islands and the Navy fleet offshore. For sea-going duty, Godfrey was paid $6 a month, in addition to his $26 a month Army pay.

In the Spring of 1863, a new campaign was mounted against Charleston; and the Third New Hampshire, with other troops, was moved by sea from Hilton Head to Folly Island, at the entrance to Charleston harbor. New commanding officers took over: Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, USN. to the flagship Ironsides, and General Quincy Adams Gilmore, USA, to Tenth Army Corps on Folly Island.

Three islands mask the southeast approach to Charleston harbor. The largest and nearest to the mainland is James' Island. Seaward, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, are Folly Island and, with Lighthouse Inlet between, Morris Island. James and Morris were heavily fortified. At the northern tip of Morris Island stood the Confederate Fort Wagner, with an auxiliary battery on Cummings Point covering the main ship channel into the harbor and Fort Sumter. The noted British war correspondent, AVilliam Howard Russell, was at Charleston in April, 1861, to see "the Stars and Bars flying over Fort Sumter." He visited Morris Island, which he described as follows: ". . . an accumulation of sand covered with mounds of the same material on which there is a scanty Vegetation alternating with salt water marches, dust, heat and fine sand." 4

The United States Navy could not force the entrance to Charleston harbor until the Federal Army should first capture Fort Wagner. The Navy had already discovered Godfrey's abilities, citing him several times in Rear Admiral Samuel F. Dupont's reports:

Dec. 12, 1861. The Pilot, Mr. Godfrey, showed much skill although he had never before been in Vernon River.

Dec. 21, 1861. In all this work have derived much valuable information from G. H. Bradbury and Mr. Godfrey who acted as pilots, both of whom are worthy of your highest confidence.5

These comments indicate why Godfrey was designated for assignments described briefly in his diary. On July 4, 1863, the Third New Hampshire, with other regiments, embarked at St. Helena for Folly Island; but Godfrey and his gig's crew remained with General Gilmore and Admiral Dahlgren.

Tuesday, July 7. Started on our Expedition for Charleston this morning at 2 o'clock A. M. on [steamer] Mary Benton. Arrived at Head-quarters on Folly Island at 10 A. M. Find the forces making great preparations for a fight on Morris Island.

Wednesday, 8th. Lay in Folly Riker on the Mary Benton. Head quarters of General Gilmore and staff. Plenty of rowing to do day and night. Thursday, 9th. Getting lots of Boats ready for troops. Many Navy boats go with them. Went out on Stones Bar to lay with a signal light to pilot in Navy boats. Very rough.

Friday, 10th. Brig. Gen'l Strong's Brigade embarked in Boats with lots of Navy boats and their guns in sight this morning at sunrise, close to Morris Island. Fight carne 5 o'clock. Splendid artillery fight. 3d N.H. and 7th Conn. make a grand charge. Get possession Morris Light.

Wading ashore through marsh mud up to their armpits, the Third New Hampshire had joined in charging the batteries facing Folly Island, which were strung along the crest of sand dunes fifty feet high. The Confederates retreated to the northern end of Morris Island and took shelter in Fort Wagner.

Saturday 11th. Boat's crew have been going all day and night since leasing Folly. About played out. Charge on Fort Waggoner [sir] but got choked out with heavy loss. Third N.H. within range of Fort Sumpter [.sic]. Some of the Reg't. got killed by shells from Sumpter.

Sunday, 12th. Lay off Charleston Bar with Navy fleet. See great firing from ships into Fort W. Carried Gen'l Gilmore into Lighthouse Inlet first time.

The General had been with Admiral Dahigren directing the "beachhead" landing: it is easy to see that Godfrey and the gig's crew were "going day and night" carrying dispatches. Now the Navy designated Godfrey to pilot the General's shift to headquarters on Folly Island.

Monday, 13th. Went in with Steamer over Lighthouse Bar. Rebs shelling from Forts Sumpter and Waggoner.

Tuesday, 14th. Very buissy [sic] all day carrying dispatches and officers across from Folly to Morris all day. Have been going day and night for the past 10 days.

Wednesday, 15th. The 3d N.H. is called back from the front to get rest. The Boys about used up.

Thursday, 16th. Very buissy. Start off on a long route for Gen'l Gilmore in company with Maj. Smith. Go first to Pawnee Landing, from there to White House, James Island, in heavy showers.

Friday, 17th. Out all night. The crew rowed most of the night. Got lost. Came near being taken by Rebs. Returned to Lighthouse Inlet at 9 A.M. About used up.

Saturday, 18th. Out all night. Very buissy. The Navy and Land batteries opened up on Fort Waggoner at 12 m. Hearing History while I am writing. Our forces charge the Fort by dark.

Sunday, 19th. Our forces repulsed last night with heavy loss. Two steamers go to Hilton Head with wounded. I go out to the Flagship to get four Navy Doctors.

After the failure to carry the assault on the fort, there was comparative quiet for almost a week; but not for Godfrey, plying with dispatches from General Gilmore across Lighthouse Inlet to Morris or out to sea to the Ironsides.

Tuesday, 21st. Wind blowing So-west. Scud flying bad. The worst we have got into yet. No reversement in Front yet.

Little could Godfrey guess what General Gilmore was planning for him. Between Morris Island and fortified James Island ran a tidal channel called Vincent's Creek. The Federals still held their beachhead at the southern end of Morris, but General Gil-more feared that the Confederates might reinforce the fort from Charleston and thus flank his batteries. The General asked -- or ordered -- my grandfather to take his gig and crew up the Creek and throw booms across.

Saturday, 25th. Went up to the Front to put obstructions across the river but could not, for the enemy guard. Shall try again tonight. Several men killed by shells.

Sunday, 26th. Went up in Front last night and put timber across the riser outside our pickets and within gunshot of Forts Waggoner, Johnson and Sumpter. They fired about 30 shots at us. Very narrow escape. Went to Flagship today.

The diary does not elaborate, but I have heard from my grandfather some of the details. They had to work in the dark, under fire from the batteries in the forts and from Confederate sharp-shooters on both banks. They rowed, towing the hewn logs that were laden with chains to fasten them in place. They had to swim, or wade, with only heads above the water, fearful of water moccasin snakes, tormented by mosquitoes, groping along the logs to bolt them together. In the morning, scouts saw that the tide had broken the boom. So they spent the day getting more timber for a fresh attempt.

Monday, 27th. Wind blowing heavy all the time from the South-west. Sand flies and drifts around our tents.

Tuesday, 28th. Had orders to get some piles from Folly Island today. Have to go to the Front to work tonight.

Wednesday, 29th. Wind, wind, sand, sand. Have orders to go to the Front tonight.

Thursday, 30th. Had a bad job in die Creek last night under Fort Waggoner. Worked under fire of the Enemy's guns. Out to Flagship today.

Friday, 31st. Called out at 11 o'clock last night to work putting obstruction across the river, close under Fort Wagner's guard. Have to work on it nights. Bad place to work. Out to the Flagship today to carry mail for Headquarters. Go on board. We have seen some of the hardest times since I have been in the Army. Gen'l Gilmore seems to be the man for the place. Everything seems to be going on finely. Think we shall take Sumpter, if not Charleston, before long.

Coxswain Godfrey was too optimistic. It was true that when his booms were finally, after seven nights' work under fire, firmly in place, Forts Wagner and Sumter were evacuated by the Confederates; but Dahlgren decided against taking his fleet against Charleston's fortifications. Charleston did not surrender until February 18, 1865.

A map, entitled "Siege Operations on Morris Island-Charleston July 10-Sept. 6, 1863, by General Q. A. Gilmore, Commanding," shows two obstructions marked "Boom." about 400 yards from Fort Wagner in Vincent's Creek.6 That was my grandfather's task, as the first "frogman" of the United States Army. The Third New Hampshire continued to hold Morris and Folly Islands, but Godfrey was to pay a price for his exertions and seven nights' immersions. He contracted malaria and rheumatism.

Monday, Dec. 28th. Had a dispatch from Gen'l Gilmore to go to Col. Davis' quarters on Folly Island to get some things for him. Sent Dearborn as I had the Rheumatism so bad I could not ride a horse.

Thursday, Dec. 31st. They sent up for us to go down to be mustered. I could not walk so they sent an ambulance for me and brought me back. The Old Year goes out cold and windy.

Hospitalized, Godfrey rejoined his regiment -- on dry land -- in the Spring of 1864, but he never regained his health. He was honorably discharged in August, 1864, with a pension. Returning to civilian life, he suffering periodic attacks of malaria until his death in 1912. He never again took a longer trip at sea than the East Boston ferry and gave that up after an unlucky sneeze, as he stood by the rail, sent his false teeth to the bottom of Boston Harbor.

The Godfreys were a prolific clan, and when the West began to be opened up, they migrated far and wide. When I came to live in Olean, New York, I found a valley in the Allegheny foothills named "Godfrey's Hollow," but the farm was long deserted and I have found no one who knows which Godfrey once settled there before pushing on West.

1 Perpetual Diary. Six inches tall, three inches wide. New York: A. Liebemoth and Von Auw, 25 Beekman Street.

2 Eldredge, Daniel, The Third New Hampshire, 1861-1865. Boston: E. B. Stillings & Co., 1893.

3 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Vol. 12. "May 6, 1862. The Darlington, acting Master Godfrey, etc."

4 Russell, William Howard, My Diary North and South. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1954. pp. 60-6l.

5 Official Records, supra, p. 397; ibid, p. 422.

6 Eldredge, supra, opposite p. 320.