Grove Street, Peterborough, New Hampshire, circa 1865 - Robert N. Dennis Collection
by Kathy Warnes
Catherine Scott Cummings and her father, James Scott, never dreamed that President Abraham Lincoln would touch their lives and that they would be part of his legacy. Catharine Scott, the daughter of confirmed Yankees James and Sarah Scott of Peterborough, New Hampshire, was born on December 3, 1842. On December 1, 1861, she married Major John A. Cummings of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment and by August 1862, Confederate sympathizers had buried her on the Potomac shores of Maryland.
Three Wives Journey to Newport News
In July 1862, the Sixth New Hampshire proceeded with other troops to the Peninsula of Virginia and joined General George McClellan in his retreat from the Army of General Robert E. Lee. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott was not related to Catharine or her family, but he too, was an officer of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment, and he fell sick with a combination of measles, fever, and black dysentery at Newport News, Virginia.Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott’s wife, Catharine Scott Cummings, the wife of Major Cummings, and the wife of Major Dort, arrived safely at Newport News. His wife’s cheerful presence and careful nursing restored Lt. Colonel Scott to good enough health to be transferred to Washington.
The Scotts, the Cummings, the Dorts and their child, 254 soldiers, and four officers and crew embarked on the steamer West Point on Tuesday, August 11, 1862, to make the voyage down the Potomac from Hampton Roads to Washington, D.C. At Fortress Monroe, the West Point took on 17 men, making a total of about 280 people aboard.
About 8 o’clock on the night of Wednesday, August 13, 1862, the steamer Peabody collided with the West Point near Ragged Point on the Potomac River. Captain J.E.G. Doyle estimated that she would sink in less than ten minutes. The Peabody was partially disabled and could only help with the small boats. Altogether, about 73 people were killed and 203 people were rescued.
The West Point Sinks and the Wives Are Lost
During the confusion, Lt. Colonel Scott, Major Dort, and Major Cummings became separated from their wives. The steamer crew picked up Lt. Colonel Scott from the water and he launched a desperate effort to find his wife. Soon he knew that he had no hope of pulling her alive from the water. The West Point sank in four fathoms- about 24 feet of water – approximately one and one half miles from the Maryland shore. A few planks from her decks were all that floated on the surface of the Potomac.Although the people along the shore sympathized with the Confederacy, they helped Colonel Scott search for his wife’s body. The LaBelle Mirror. A small Wisconsin newspaper, later described the scene: "The grey, sullen river refused to give up its dead and the young officer, half frantic with grief, was compelled to go on to Washington."
Within a week, Lt. Colonel Scott received word from Hampton Roads that the body of his wife had been washed ashore and the Confederates who found her body had performed the necessary duties and buried her. Before he could leave to claim her body, the War Department issued orders prohibiting all communication with the Peninsula so that important Union military secrets would not be leaked to the Confederacy. Colonel Scott appealed to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for leave to return to Virginia to claim his wife’s body, and although Secretary Stanton sympathized with Lt. Colonel Scott’s situation, he refused permission.
Soldier Scott Goes Home and Civilian James Scott Goes to Washington
According to the New York Times version of the story, Lt. Colonel Scott returned home to Peterborough, New Hampshire, and James Scott, the father of Catharine Cummings, decided to travel to Washington and get the necessary permission to bring back the bodies of his daughter and Mrs. Charles Scott. He arrived in Washington and sought permission from Secretary of War Stanton to ride down the Potomac on a federal transport so he could search for the bodies.James Scott knew that President Lincoln was spending Sunday at Soldiers Rest, his retreat cottage a few miles outside of Washington D.C. Scott traveled there and approached the President. President Abraham Lincoln, weighted down with war worries, impatiently refused his request and told him to go to Secretary Stanton.
Dismayed and disheartened, James Scott returned to his hotel room and later a messenger knocked on the door and told him that the President of the United States was waiting below to see him. James Scott hurried downstairs and he and President Lincoln talked like fathers and husbands about their wives and children. President Lincoln undoubtedly talked about his won Eddie who died in 1850 and Willie, who had just died six months ago in February 1862. When the President got up to leave, he told James Scott to go to Secretary Stanton.
James Scott Brings His Daughter Home
James Scott went to Secretary Stanton again, and Stanton again refused, remarking that President Lincoln was always doing something to demoralize the service. Scott returned to the President and told him what his Secretary of War had said. "Demoralizing the service!" President Lincoln exclaimed."We will see about it."President Abraham Lincoln wrote a mandatory order to Secretary Stanton, requiring him to furnish a pass, transportation to the scene of the disaster and all necessary assistance to find the bodies. James Scott finally found himself aboard a federal ship cruising the Maryland shore in the vicinity of the wreck of the West Point. He questioned the citizens of the area about where the bodies were buried and finally he located the bodies and accompanied them back home to New Hampshire.
The La Belle Mirror concluded its story with a touch of Nineteenth Century sentimentality. "Away up in a New Hampshire church yard there is a certain grave carefully watched and tended by faithful love. But every April time the violets on that mound speak not alone of the womanly sweetness and devotion of her who sleeps below – they are tender and tearful with the memory of the murdered President – the year round."
Furgurson, Ernest, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War. Knopf: First Edition, 2004.Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865. Simon Publications, 2001.
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