Crew of Tin-Clad U.S Ship Buried in Danville

During the War Between the States, no battles reached the town of Danville, Virginia.  There were hospitals for men from both sides where many men died.  Near the depot of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, there was a 30-building hospital for Confederate troops, but that is another story.

Up the present Lee Street, less than a mile from the Confederate hospitals, there were hospital buildings and tents for Union prisoners, who were confined in large old tobacco factories. There were six large prisons where United States men were held.  Number six was for U. S. Colored Troops. 

The soldiers and sailors were transferred here in Danville from overcrowded Richmond prisons.  Those who died were buried near the hospital. In 1866 the federal government reburied the remains and established a National Cemetery here.  A 1,590-foot stone wall surrounds the graves.  A marker on an upright cannon states that there are 1,171 known interments and 143 unknown.  Later veterans from other wars were added.  

 

The Danville, Virginia National Cemetery.  Note the old stepping stone block in front of right gate post which ladies used to step out of 19th century carriages.

History is fortunate that the Rev. George Washington Dame lived near by.  He ministered daily in the prisons and to those confined to the hospitals.  He also identified the graves of most of those who died with wooden crosses recording their name and military unit, if known.  The government used these crosses to erect white upright stones as permanent memorials to these men.  Rev. Dame came to Danville in 1840 and was President of the Danville Female Academy.  He was also the longtime Episcopal Rector.  In 1852, he built his house on three acres of land on Colquhoun Street, near the National Cemetery property.  Rev. Dame was born in New Hampshire.  During the War, one of the prisoners was his cousin from New England.  During the Federal occupation of Danville by the Sixth Corps, U.S. troops were assigned to guard his home.  In order to save his adopted hometown bank, Rev. Dame hid a metal box with two thousand dollars in gold in the ashes of his fireplace.  The gold was the capital of the Danville Bank. 

For each of the gravestones in the National Cemetery, there is an important life and interesting story.  Some will never be known.  I am researching as many as possible for recorded history.

At least three headstones are connected with what a Confederate termed ‘one of the nicest little episodes of the War.”  They were crew members under the “only U.S. Navy ship’s captain to be captured by Confederate States Army horse cavalry.”  This unlikely event happened at Rodney on the Mississippi River.  Three of the sailors lie buried here in Danville today. 

This episode began when Rev. Daniel S. Baker came onboard the Tin-clad gunboat “Rattler” and invited the Capt. to hear him speak on September 13, 1863.  Rev. Baker, a “Northern Sympathizer,” had recently resigned as Pastor of the Red Lick Presbyterian Church and was waiting a boat to travel north up the Mississippi River.  The Rev. Robert Price, of the Rodney Presbyterian Church, had offered to allow Rev. Baker to speak.  Capt. E. H. Fentress, of the Rattler, had standing orders not to venture ashore, but he saw no danger in attending the nearby church.  

 

The Rattler was a converted 165-ton stern-wheeler with two thicknesses of half inch iron plate armor.  It was considered a Tin-clad, “Bullet proof, but not cannon proof.”  There were six big guns: Two 30 PDR (14 KG) Muzzle-loading Parrott Rifles. Bore diameter 4.2 inch (107 mm) and Four 24 PDR (11 KG) Muzzle-loading Napoleon smooth bores. Diameter 5.82 inch (148 mm).  It was thought “By her mobility and protection” she was “Virtually invulnerable from attack by land” and “could fight every boat on the Mississippi, except the heaviest ironclads.”  All these expectations added to the embassment when the captain and many of the crew were taken by a troop of Confederate calvary. (drawing F. Muller c 1900)

Shortly after the church service began, in walked Lieutenant Allen of the Confederate States Calvary, backed up by a group of fifteen horsemen.  He apologized to Rev. Baker and demanded that the Union men surrender.  It seems that only Engineer Lt. A. M. Smith carried a weapon to the church.  Smith fired about four times and some Confederate shots when through the windows and into the ceiling, but no one was seriously hurt.  Of the twenty-three that attended, six slipped back to the ship and 17 were captured. 

When word of the capture reached the ship, shelling of the town commenced.  One cannon ball stuck in the front of the church.  The Confederates sent word and promised to hang all of the captives if the town received further damage and the shelling stopped.

The captain and sailors were eventually taken to Virginia.  Captain Fentress was taken to Libby Prison in Richmond.  His name appears on a playbill for a ”Libby Prison Minstrels” on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1863.  He is shown as “Scenic Artist.”  Seven of his men were brought to the prisons in Danville and are shown on hospital and National Cemetery records: 

      (1)   Arthur Rogerson entered the Danville Prison Hospital on December 11, 1863.  There is a notation “Gunners Mate-Gunboat Rattler.” He complained of “Dropsy.” He was returned to the prison quarters on December 29, 1863.  

(2)   Oloff Nelson (Quarter Gunner on the Rattler) was admitted to the Danville Hospital (no date) and died there on May 29, 1864 of smallpox.  He is buried in plot number D-475.  His headstone reads: “475 O. Nelson U.S. Navy.”

(3)   John A. Roycroft (Corporal of the Rattler – the ship policeman) entered the hospital on February 23, 1864 and was returned to prison quarters on April 10, 1864.  In July of 1870, John A. Roycroft married his wife Anne and they lived in Baltimore County, Maryland.  John is still listed as a mariner. In 1880, he has come ashore and is a policeman.  

(4)   Frederick Plump (Seaman on the Rattler) was admitted to the Danville Hospital on March 6, 1864.  He died there on March 23, 1864 of acute diarrhea.  He is buried in the National Cemetery in plot D-460.  His stone reads: “460 F. Plump U.S. Navy.”

(5)   Walter Keef (Seaman on the Rattler) entered the hospital on April 2, 1864 and was returned to prison quarters on April 11, 1864.  His record indicates that he was from the “Gunboat Rattler” and he was removed to Richmond.  He was probably taken back there for exchange. 

(6)   Thomas Brown entered the hospital on December 11, 1863 with dropsy and pneumonia.  Note: “Marine Gun Boat Rattin (sic). Effects Overcoat, shoes, cap.”  He died on January 25, 1864.  His National Cemetery marker reads: “45 T. Brown.” 

(7)   Maurice Ivory (shown as Cpl.) entered the hospital on December 15, 1863 and returned to prison quarters on January 26, 1864.  He was back in the hospital in April 1864 with rheumatism. 

(Text and photographs copyright 2009 Danny Ricketts)

Robert D. “Danny” Ricketts


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