On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. The tale, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:
Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.
A party of four men, the newspaper added, had carried the soldier’s coffin “with averted faces to avoid the unwholesome odor which arose from the decomposed remains.”
[I]n due time the box arrived at Sixth street wharf in this city. But when the agents of Drs. Brown and Alexander stepped on board to seize the sacred deposit, lo! the cage was found empty—the bird had flown. Subsequent investigation led to the belief that one of Uncle Sam’s soldiers had run away from his regiment in a coffin!
Besides providing some of the setting for this Halloweenish mystery, the John Brooks would at other times during the Civil War carry unambiguously alive personnel from a number of Federal regiments and batteries–the First Maine Heavy Artillery, and the Second Rhode Island, Third Michigan, Ninth and 13th Massachsetts, and 21st New York Infantry among them–whose stories became closely intertwined with the campaigns around Fredericksburg.
After the war the Brooks operated as a packet steamer between Boston and Portland. She was eventually purchased by scrap dealers, who burned her in Boston in 1899 to more easily remove the iron.
Noel G. Harrison