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 Army of the Potomac. The story, 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, 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 intertwined with those of the campaigns around Fredericksburg.
John Brooks operated as a packet steamer between Boston and Portland after the war. Around 1899, scrappers purchased and burned the vessel to remove its iron.
Noel G. Harrison
Museum of Fine Arts link for the Aquia drawing online is here; that for the John Brooks watercolor is here (although misspelled “Brooke” in the catalog). The Museum’s policy on fair-use is here. Both images appear at same magnification made available online, and in accordance with the Museum’s posted policy on fair-use of materials in educational, non-profit venues.