When Johnny Came Marching Home Again24 August 2006
Source: Timothy Hunter Papers, East Carolina Manuscript Collection #748
Staff Person: Jean Hiebert
Timothy Hunter was a shipbuilder in Elizabeth City, North Carolina from 1835 until the advent of the Civil War. We are fortunate to have his personal papers which were donated to Joyner by his great-great-great granddaughter, Mrs. Joanne Foreman. The finding aid for his papers is at: Manuscript Collection 748.
Tucked deep into these papers is the pass that allowed a young soldier, C.B. Keeling, to travel home after the war ended. Hunter and Keeling knew each other because Keeling served several times as a seaman on the schooner San Juan that Hunter built in 1858. Hunter hired him as one of the six crew who routinely manned the schooner. The ship’s manifest from 1860 lists Keeling as a 22 year-old who stood 5’8″ tall and earned $16 a month. As was typical of the time, he had a second career as well. He was listed as a printer when he joined the Confederate army on May 4, 1861.
A little background . . .
By July of 1861, the Union had begun a blockade of southern ports. In many cases, blockade runners like the San Juan were the only ships small enough and fast enough to slip through the blockade. It was a dangerous business and even the fastest ships sometimes got caught. On September 28, 1861, the U.S.S. Susquehanna intercepted the San Juan on her way back from the West Indies where she had been loaded with sugar, salt, and gin. Both the cargo (worth $4000) and the ship (worth $4500) were seized by the Union navy, but it is unclear what punishment was dealt the crew.
Nearly five months later, Keeling turned up as a private in Company L of the 17th Regiment that was assembled on Roanoke Island. The strategy of the great Burnside Expedition was to overtake each island fort on the way to Richmond where Union forces would then have easy access to the railway linking Richmond with New Orleans. Brigadier-General D.H. Hill felt that this was such a crucial battle that the fall of Roanoke Island would be as “fully fatal as that of Manassas.” Ships were sunk in the inlet as impediments to the advance of the Union fleet. Regiments from North Carolina and Georgia manned the few cannon available on the island and the famous Mosquito fleet attempted to repel the Union advance. None of it worked and Roanoke Island fell on February 15, 1862. General Burnside took the whole encampment as prisoners.
Why the pass is important . . .
Keeling was exchanged in August 1862 and was present or accounted for until March of 1863 when the regiment was disbanded. He likely joined another unit and was recaptured. The date on the pass is April, 1865 — the fifth and final April of the war. The pass allowed Keeling to travel from Richmond to Norfolk. The Dismal Swamp Canal spanned the distance between Norfolk and Keeling’s home in Elizabeth City and would have been a familiar route to him. Before beginning the trip home, Keeling was required to sign an oath of parole that granted him permission to return to Pasquotank County. It was an agreement of honor that he would not participate in hostile acts against the United States until he was properly exchanged.
The creases still show on this small square of paper where it had been folded into quarters. I have held it in my hands many times in the hopes that somehow it could impart just a little more information on the man Timothy Hunter had been. It was a long time before I stopped to consider that the real story it tells is that of a man who was 27 years old when the war ended; a man who was most likely tired, hungry, dispirited, and afraid of how he was going to survive now that everything he knew had been changed forever. This simple square of paper was all the permission he had in the world to even try his luck at surviving. How many hands had held it? How many pairs of eyes had surveyed it with suspicion, then reluctant assent? How many times had Keeling folded it back up, returned it to his pocket, and let go of the breath he had held in fear?
I don’t know if Keeling ever went back to Elizabeth City or if he married and had a family. There is no further record of him in the Hunter papers. At the oddest times, he will enter my thoughts and I can’t help but wonder what ever became of him. In the few moments that I have held his pass, I’ve had an eerie sense that I was holding a man’s life in my hands.
I hope that it was finally a peaceful life.