Sunday, 2 March 2014

Remembering Our Old Soldiers

Periodically I discover relatives who have largely been forgotten, often for no other reason than they died before they had a family of their own to remember them. One such relative is our 1st cousin, 4 times removed, Thomas Mellen of Edgartown, Massachusetts. While this is probably a story best told on Memorial Day, there is no good reason to hold it back. Here is his story.

Seaman Thomas Mellen

Thomas Mellen. son of James Mellen and Lucy Webber and grandson of Revolutionary soldier, Thomas Mellen, was born 03 Sep 1822 in Topsham, Orange, Vermont. As a child , he moved with his family to Martha’s Vineyard, where many of his family were engaged in the whaling industry.

Shortly after the War of the Rebellion was declared, Thomas enlisted in the Navy on May 20, 1861, at New Bedford, for 1 year, as a Seaman. His prior occupation is unknown, however his service was credited to Taunton, suggesting he may have left Martha’s Vineyard  prior to the war.

Thomas initially was assigned to the receiving ship USS Ohio and subsequently the USS Massachusetts, as a Seaman.

On May 24, 1861, the USS Massachusetts was commissioned as a Union vessel with Commander Melancton Smith III in command.The Massachusetts was assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron which, by war's end, patrolled the Confederate coastlines of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Initially, the primary focus of the Gulf Blockading Squadron was the Florida coastline.

On June 8, 1861, the Massachusetts arrived at Key West, Florida. On June 23, Confederate blockade schooners Trois Freres, Olive Branch, Fanny and the Basile were captured by the Massachusetts, off Pass L’Outre  in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thomas was assigned as master of one of the schooners to be sailed to Key West. These vessels were sent under charge of Lieutenant George L. Selden and Acting Master Sawyer, with prize crews numbering 25 men. Lieutenant Selden had orders to report to the senior officer present, and in the event of his being the senior officer, to Judge Marvin, U.S. district judge, to whom the papers of the captured vessels were addressed.

On July 1, 1861, the flotilla was becalmed about 10  miles south of the mouth of the Suwannee River, at the Seahorse reef, off Cedar Key. The locals sent word to Colonel M. Whit Smith, the leader of the local 4th Florida Infantry Regiment, who sailed into Cedar Key aboard the steamboat Madison with two companies of infantry.

What follows next is a matter of opinion. The Union records suggest the flotilla, becalmed and heavily outnumbered, did not put up a fight. The Confederate records speak of a heavy thunder squall and shots fired. In any event, by July 3rd the Union sailors had been captured and the Confederate flag had been restored to all four vessels.

On July 6, Seaman Mellen and the 19 other prisoners were relocated to the Tallahassee jail and sent next to Charleston, South Carolina.  By July 23rd, the prisoners, now “shackled together like convicts, two by two” arrived in Richmond Virginia where they were “Marched through the streets of that city in the drenching rain” to Ligon’s tobacco factory.(1) Ligon’s would be there home for the next seven months. Seaman Mellen is thought to have been part of a prisoner exchange in late February, 1862.  His service record lists him as being discharged 27 Feb 1862.

When liberated he was a mere skeleton, and so broken that he was never able to take care of himself again. Seaman Mellen remained a patient in the Sailor's Snug Harbor at Chelsea, Massachusetts until his death in 1866.

(1) Several articles suggest Thomas was held in the notorious Libby prison, however I have chosen to accept the details as reported in the Boston Globe on March 7, 1898 and the very comprehensive January 2014 edition of Beat to Quarters!, by Chuck Veit.

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