One hundred one letters, 1862-1865, of Dr. Samuel Gilbert Webber (b. 1838) document his service as a U.S. Naval surgeon aboard the USS Ohio (1862), the USS Rhode Island (1863), and the USS Nahant.
Of special interest are about sixty letters written while on the Passaic class monitor Nahant off Charleston Harbor from 27 June 1864 through early April 1865. Webber writes with clarity, intelligence, and wonderful detail about life on board an ironclad, tending sick sailors, and his thoughts on various events. Webber wrote his new wife, Nannie Sturtevant, almost daily, filling the many pages with expressions of his love for her and for God, dreams of the couple’s future together, and answers to her questions. He discussed what he was reading—medical books and journals, the Atlantic Monthly, McCauley’s essays, the Bible, the Parish Visitor, and novels in between.
The men on his ship were fairly healthy, but he treated those on other ships and saw typhoid, dysentery, pleurisy, diarrhea, and bronchitis. He also pulled teeth—his extraction made him weak in the knees—and vaccinated his crew against small pox because the disease was at Port Royal. When not doctoring, reading, or on picket duty, he wrote letters, often including in them sketches or quotations from sermons and poems.
Webber relates details of a prisoners-of-war exchange (4 August 1864) and tells how six hundred Confederate prisoners were to “be placed under fire on Morris island in retaliation for those the rebels have in Charleston. A large pen has been built to keep them together, the tops being pointed ” (3 September). Webber includes a sketch of the fence, but later admits that some of the prisoners had escaped the pen. After describing the Union Army’s proposal to blow up Ft. Sumter with torpedoes, Webber surmised that his idea of tunneling beneath the harbor to reach the fort would take just as long and cost as much as the military’s plan (10 September).
The Nahant went to Port Royal in mid-September for engine repairs. During that time Webber found himself engaged with boards of survey for a number of different ships. On 6 October he managed to visit the new Navy hospital on Saint Helena Island and made a drawing of its layout and ventilation system. A few weeks later he visited the Jenkins plantation, which, he learned, was owned by a former school mate (21 October).
As the end of the war neared, Webber related rumors about General Sherman’s whereabouts and strategy. His letter of 14-15 December includes rumors of the fall of Savannah and Ft. McAllister. On 23 December, he wrote—“Glorious news! Savannah is ours!...Charleston will undoubtedly come next.” It was not until 18 February 1865, however, that Webber could declare—“Glorious news! Moultrie & Sumpter are ours!...Soon the rebel flag came down [at Ft. Moultrie] & the stars & stripes went up. We gave three cheers. Turning our glasses to Sumpter we saw a small party on her walls waving the dear old flag of our country; & we gave three more cheers....No more picket duty! No more torpedo scares! No more work for ironclads at Charleston!” The following day the Nahant moved up the Stono River near Ft. Pringle.
Webber had few chances to go ashore. One such trip, on 17 December 1864, was to visit Ft. Wagner on Morris Island, and his letter of that date includes descriptions of forts Wagner, Gregg, and Chatfield and the Naval Battery, with a sketch of a gun placement in Ft. Gregg. After his ship moved up the Stono River, Webber went ashore, walked past forts Pringle and Pemberton and climbed a lookout station to view the area—Wapoo cut was just below them and opposite that was a “collection of houses, some quite large.” He and his companion wandered through the settlement, possibly Legareville, then came upon a large house with two wrecked pianos, floors littered with glass from mirrors, and furniture either broken or toppled over. Webber described the surrounding area and a battery, complete with a sketch, that was part of a “line of earth works extend[ing] across the island....Fort Pringle is at the end of the line on Stono River....On the opposite bank of the river is another fort, Fort Trenholm....” (26 Feb. 1865.) Letters of 1 and 3 March describe Charleston as rather seedy and shell-pocked.
After much personal debate and prayer, Webber submitted his resignation on 9 February 1865, supposing that there was “little hope of its being accepted for there is some scarcity of surgeons.” However, his resignation was accepted on 15 March and took effect on 10 April. His final letter from South Carolina was written at Port Royal on 6 April. Webber completed his medical studies in 1865 and became a leading physician specializing in neurology.