Behind Enemy LinesOn November 13, 2019 by Elyse
No matter how Andrew Valentine Farley and his three companions maneuver their boat, they’re fighting the tide, and the Confederates are gaining on them.
When they initially spotted the other boat on their way back to the U.S.S. Ottawa, they assumed it was a fellow Union boat coming from Jacksonville, just north on the St. Johns River. But as it edges its way towards them, gray uniforms come into view. Andrew starts to sweat—for once, it has nothing to do with Florida’s punishing humidity.
Before long, the boat catches them, and Andrew finds himself staring down five revolvers. As if that isn’t bad enough, he counts another 10 armed men on the shore—Andrew and his shipmates have only one pistol between them. When the gray-clad men of the Second Florida Cavalry order them to surrender, there’s no question of putting up a fight.
As he raises his hands in the air, Andrew’s stomach sinks. At the tender age of 18, he’s now a Confederate captive. If the rumors of starvation and rampant disease in prisoner-of-war camps are true, his life might be over before it truly begins.
This was surely not the fate Andrew imagined when he volunteered for service nearly three years earlier.
Born in County Cavan, Ireland, he was barely a teenager when he immigrated to the United States around 1860 and moved to Lowell, Massachusetts to live with an older sister.
Andrew didn’t stay very long. On June 14, 1862, while the Civil War was raging, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy—a bold move for someone who had likely been on a ship only once, to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Another bold move? Claiming his birthdate was June 1, 1843. While 19th-century record keeping leaves something to be desired, most documents show Andrew wasn’t born until 1847 or thereabouts and was likely only 15 or 16 when he enlisted. He was in good company; as many as 20 percent of Civil War soldiers were under 18.
Either he looked older than he was or the recruiter turned a blind eye, because he was promptly dispatched to serve as a nurse on the U.S.S. Ottawa. As part of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the Ottawa was charged with enforcing a blockade of the Confederate states’ ports. Although the ship was involved in several attacks in South Carolina and Florida while Andrew was onboard, all of that must have paled in comparison to the barrel of a gun in his face.
It was supposed to be a routine house call. On the morning of April 6, 1865, Andrew and two other men—Second Assistant Engineer George White and Lewis Smith, a coal heaver—accompanied Acting Assistant Surgeon Lewis Willard from the Ottawa to the home of Mr. Reed in Mandarin, Florida, on the St. Johns River. Their patient was Mrs. Douglass, the mother of a friend of a Union brigadier general. Once in a while, it’s helpful and healthful to have friends in high places.
However, Andrew is quickly learning that no good deed goes unpunished. That afternoon, their boat strays too close to the west bank of the river, where they encounter the Second Florida Cavalry. Now, with their hands in the air and guns to their backs, Andrew and the others are marched to the Confederate camp in Baldwin, more than 20 swampy miles away. The mosquitoes swarming around his head are the least of his concerns.
Meanwhile, back on the Ottawa, Union officers have noticed four empty beds and are scrambling to plot a course of action. If this were a movie, that plan would no doubt involve a dashing daredevil willing to risk their life for the cause, a risky rescue and an epic musical score composed by John Williams.
In reality, the best they can come up with is a letter from Mr. Reed, testifying to the humanitarian motive of the sailors’ visit. Like a hall pass presented to a middle school principal, they hope Major-General Samuel Jones, the commanding Confederate officer in Florida, will agree it’s all been a hilarious misunderstanding and send the men back no worse for the wear.
While those efforts are in progress, someone has to break the bad news to the big boss, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, commander of the Union’s entire South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:
It is with deep regret I am obliged to make the above report, still I must do it, and place myself on your clemency. It has been the habit of all commanding officers to have communication with Mr. Reed’s family since we have occupied this river, but at the same time I feel as if I had made a mistake in allowing the party to leave so unguarded.– Report of Lieutenant-Commander James Stillwell to Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren, Commanding South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, April 7, 1865
I feel almost as bad for James as I do for Andrew.
The next morning, Andrew and company arrive at the Confederate camp in Baldwin. Instead of a hearty breakfast and the nap they all sorely need, they are immediately taken to Colonel C. Smith, the camp’s commanding officer.
Dr. Willard recites their tale of woe and makes an impassioned plea for their release. However, the colonel can’t sneeze without permission and defers the matter to Major-General Jones, who’s expected that afternoon. The record is silent on how Andrew and his companions entertained themselves in the interim. I can only hope the magazine selection was decent in the equivalent of the Confederate camp’s waiting room.
Hours later, Major-General Jones agrees they can go free—with a catch. Dr. Willard may leave immediately, but Andrew and the others will remain until the Union releases two Confederate scouts captured two months ago. Talk about a quid pro quo.
That evening, the Union holds up its end of the bargain and frees the Confederate scouts under a white flag of truce. But by that time, Major-General Jones has left the building, er, Baldwin, and naturally, Colonel Smith refuses to move a muscle without him. Andrew will remain a prisoner of both the Confederates and his fears for at least another night.
None of this “all for one, and one for all” business for Dr. Willard. He hightails it back to the Ottawa, although, in his defense, not before receiving permission to send supplies to keep the sailors comfortable.
Once Dr. Willard is safely back on the ship, he writes his own account of the ordeal. His relief is palpable, even at a distance of more than 150 years:
I am happy to assure you that while in the enemy’s hands we received the kindest attention.– Acting Assistant Surgeon Lewis H. Willard, to Lieut. Commander Jas. Stillwell, April 10, 1865
Tantalizingly, the record ends there. I can only assume Andrew and his companions made it back to safety, either under a flag of truce or when Major-General Jones formally surrendered to the Union a month later on May 10.
Andrew Farley’s brief stint as a prisoner of war is not the most riveting of tales. It ends with a whimper, not a bang, and it won’t be coming to a theater near you anytime soon.
However, what makes his story so special to me is that if things had gone differently—if any of those Confederate soldiers had been a little trigger happy, if a disease-carrying mosquito had bitten Andrew on his march to Baldwin, if the men hadn’t been treated with “the kindest of attention”—I wouldn’t be here to write his story.
You see, dear reader, Andrew Valentine Farley was my great-great grandfather. Despite the what ifs, he survived the Civil War and grew up to became a mail carrier, marry and fortunately for me, have eight children.
Incredibly, his time in captivity didn’t make it into our family lore. I grew up hearing about my brave great-great grandfather who lied about his age to fight for the Union, but it was only through a lucky Google search that I discovered an account of his capture. Perhaps his wartime memories were too painful to discuss, or perhaps no one ever asked. Either way, I’m grateful to be able to rewrite his story into my family tree.
This Thanksgiving, rather than discussing the weather or the dry turkey (is that just my family?), I hope you’ll sit down with your relatives—veterans and civilians alike—and record their stories. Trust me, your great-great grandchildren will thank you for saving them hours of sifting through irrelevant Google search results!
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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