23 May 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: Sabotage at the Navy Yard

stevens tnIn the early days of the Civil War, the fear of sabotage and secessionist spies ran high at the Washington Navy Yard. After all, with even the commandant opting to throw in his lot with the South, it stood to reason that any number of others would stay and attempt to undermine the war effort as best they could.

Accusations of sabotage or spying often turned out to be incorrect, as in the case of Andrew Martin. In at least two cases, however, evidence leaked into the newspaper that seemed indicate more nefarious circumstances.

The first instance was mentioned in an article in the Daily National Republican of December 16, 1861. It referred to a man named Boswell, who had been “discovered filling shells with sand instead of the proper material.” Upon being detected, Boswell had fled to Secessia, where he apparently resumed practicing medicine, which he had earlier studied. He did not last long there: He was at Port Royal, South Carolina, that November when the Union Army attacked and captured it. While there were relatively few casualties, Boswell was one of them, according to a private in the New York 79th Regiment in a letter first published in the New York Commercial Advertiser and later republished in the Daily National Republican. The letter stated that when the 79th, under Isaac Stevens (pic) entered Port Royal’s hospital, “the first sight which greeted them … was this man seated at a table, with a splendid case of surgical instruments before him, his left arm resting naturally upon the table, and the position of his body indicating perfect ease, but upon a closer examination it was discovered that the entire upper portion of his head had been cut away, from the crown to the back of his neck, by a cannon ball.”

What is unclear if this was indeed the same person as the Navy Yard saboteur, or who this was at all. In fact, the only other time that Boswell seems to be mentioned is in a June 17, 1861 Daily National Republican article, in which a “Dr. Boswell” had gotten into a duel with a “thorough-going Union man,” which ended when Boswell’s seconds shot and killed his opponent.

The USS Pensacola off Alexandria in 1861 (LOC)

The USS Pensacola off Alexandria in 1861 (LOC)

Another case of apparent sabotage showed up in 1862, when the USS Pensacola was being repaired at the Navy Yard and it was “discovered that an essential pipe … [was] plugged so completely as to be useless,” according to the January 9, 1862, Washington Evening Star. The article went on to assume that this had been “done as long ago as last spring, when the navy yard was infest with disaffected employees.” Fortunately, there was a second pipe, thus the boiler had not exploded.

In short, it turned out that neither of these cases was particularly harmful. Whether there were more serious cases that were either never discovered, or were not mentioned in the newspapers remains unclear.

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