Monsell, Nathaniel

10th Connecticut Volunteers
Sergeant, Company H
Middle Island

Monsell, Nathaniel
Nathaniel Monsell, photo from Willard Monsell.

Nathaniel Monsell
10th Connecticut Volunteers, Company H
Middle Island

Nathaniel Monsell was born on November 27, 1839 in Middle Island. His parents, Nathaniel and Maria Monsell, had eleven children. Nathaniel became a sailor, and was on a whaling expedition to Greenland when the Civil War began. When he returned from the voyage, Nathaniel enlisted with the 10th Connecticut Volunteers. Captain Leggett mustered him in for three years on October 29, 1861, at Hartford. Monsell was twenty-two years old, stood five feet eight inches tall, had black hair and dark eyes when he enlisted.

Nathaniel's younger brother, Alexander, had enlisted earlier. He served with the 65th New York, but died from an illness in December of 1861.

Nathaniel left with the 10th regiment and went to Annapolis, Maryland. They were assigned to General Fosters brigade. The regiment remained in Annapolis for November and December, where the men worked on drill and discipline. In December, Monsell was assigned to work as a carpenter.

During January and February of 1862, Monsell was sent on detached duty to work on a steamer, the Pilot Boy. This steamer was used to transport troops for an attack on Roanoke Island on February 8.

Monsell rejoined the 10th in March when they were camped at New Bern, North Carolina, where they stayed until the end of the summer. Nathaniel, in a letter from New Bern dated July 7, 1862, expressed his longing for news from home:
When you get my ambrotype you can show it to Mrs. Hulse. I shall write to Jas Downs tomorrow. Give my respect to him. Tell him that I am doing well. Goodby write soon as you get this. Write about the folks in Middle Island.

A week later, on July 13, he told his family that the war was taking a toll on his health. "Tell father I am as poor as a shad. I only weigh 140 pounds. I weighed 184 when I was taken sick. But I am gaining slowly." This was common among soldiers, many of whom fell sick during the war.

In December of 1862, the 10th left for the Goldsboro expedition. General French and 7,000 Confederate forces occupied Kingston in North Carolina. The Confederates put a brigade in front of the Neuse River to defend the approach to the bridge spanning the river. On December 14, several Union regiments were sent in, but they failed to take the bridge. The 10th was then sent in and succeeded in pushing back the Confederates. Monsell described the battle that day in a letter to his sister on December 23:

I will now take my pen in hand and communicate to you the news of the day. It is about the hard battle of Dec. 14. Our intentions were to destroy the railroad between Goldsborough and Charleston which we done. But not without some hard fighting, and loss of life. We had a small skirmish, we killed 5 Rebs wounded 4 and took 7 prisoners. The next day when within 3 miles of Kingston we met them in force… We went in front and engaged their center. They was in the open field and we hid in a thick swamp. We came out with charge of the bayonet and drove them from their position… We had to lay down to load and raise up to fire. I fired 32 rounds taking good aim. There was 3 men killed within 4 feet of me, one of them fell on me when he was shot…I will not tell on the particulars of this for we had two more hard fights before we got to our journeys end. One at Whitehall the other at Thompson's bridge. We whipped them at both places with heavy loss… General Foster gave us a speech and said we be counted with the bravest of the brave here after. Charly Homan and Jessy Monsell was in one regiment that came from Suffolk. Charly was wounded. I have been to town and seen Charly. He is getting along well. He was hit with a musket ball on the left temple. He is in good spirits and will soon be on duty again. (Charly Homan of the 92nd N.Y. was later killed in battle and Jesse Munsell, also of the 92nd N.Y., died while in the service at Richmond.)

Battle at Kingston, December 14. Illustration from Harper's Weekly.

Nathaniel was spared in this battle. The regiment returned to New Bern, continuing with drills and other day-to-day tasks. They were moved to St. Helena Island, South Carolina, for February and March. Life on the island was a bit different, as Monsell wrote in a letter home:

I am happy to inform you that I am well and in good spirits considering circumstances. It is very unpleasant weather here now but rather warm for comfort…we had quite esciting time in camp today. One of the men saw an alligator and shot him. We had some fun with him. He was about 7ft in length… If you see Mary Eliza Davis ask her if she got a letter from me. And let me know what regt Albert is in… When you write tell me all about the young folks, who all the boys go with. How all the girls are getting along in these times. I have two more to write tonight so I will close by bidding you goodby.

Mail call was an important event for soldiers. They wanted desperately to hear news from home. Not receiving letters was a major disappointment, so Monsell, like others, wrote as often-and to as many people-as possible. He wrote to many people in the Middle Island-Yaphank area. It is interesting to note that his cousin, Mary Louie Booth, was among those with whom he exchanged letters. Theirs must have been a lively exchange: Booth was a noted abolitionist, and later became the editor of Harper's Bazaar when it was first published.

Monsell wrote home on March 26, 1863, "We have received marching orders and will leave here tonight or tomorrow morning… I expect the next time you hear from me I will tell you of some fighting." They did not, however, leave until April 9, 1863. The regiment left St. Helena Island for Edisto Inlet, South Carolina. Monsell was right about the fighting, though. They did battle with Confederate forces, and were able to secure Seabrook Island.

In July, the 10th was part of a force beginning the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. However, there were two forts, Wagner and Sumter, that had to be taken before Charleston could be taken. In preparation for an attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, the 10th helped transport troops to the island on July 18.

The 54th Massachusetts Colored troops began the first assault on the fort. Firing from the fort took a heavy toll on the Federals who attacked. The 54th suffered staggering losses, and was forced to withdraw. This attack was immortalized in the recent movie, Glory.

Monsell and his regiment were next in line for a frontal assault when the order was reversed. Union generals, seeing the carnage of earlier attacks, did not wish to add to those numbers. For the next fifty-eight days, the Union army and navy bombarded Fort Wagner. The men were kept quite busy throughout this time. Monsell had to steal a few moments to write home. He described the siege in a letter dated August 8, 1863, written from Morris Island:

I will now improve a few leisure moments as I am on guard today. It is the only chance we have to write letters. All the rest of the time we are either on picket or at work on the siege. We are getting in close quarters with them now. We can hear them talking from our outer works. We are building one battery within 200 yards of Fort Wagner and expect the next to be still closer. . They have got 8 batteries beside Fort Sumter that can shell us now. They throw the most over the outer works and short of the next. This morning while I was eating breakfast they fired a shell, it struck within 10 feet of me and bounced 3 rods and burst. It killed one man and wounded 5."

The siege ended September 7, 1863, when Confederate forces evacuated both Fort Wagner and Fort Sumter.

Swamp Angel used in the shelling of Fort Wagner. Gun burst on firing and was thrown onto the sandbags above.

After the forts surrendered, the 10th was moved to St. Augustine, Florida. By this time, almost 60% of their men were on the sick list. Men were needed to continue the fight. Monsell's enlistment was up on January 1, 1864. He decided to re-enlist, with the promise of a $300 bounty. He was also given a thirty-day furlough, so he returned home from February 13 to March 13, 1864.

Monsell returned in time to be transported with his regiment to Virginia. On May 7, the 10th drove the Confederates back from Port Walthall Junction, destroying the telegraph located there and ripping up railroad track. On May 16, they engaged the Confederates at the battle of Drewry's Bluff. They prevented the Confederates from advancing, allowing other Union troops to withdraw.

This was a very busy time for the men of the 10th regiment. In early June, they took part in repulsing an attack by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard. On June 15, they advanced and captured a Confederate artillery battery and thirty-two men.

Five days later, they took part in the capture of Deep Bottom, crossing the James River and taking the town. Deep Bottom was strategically located north of the James River and just nine miles from Richmond. It then served as a Union base of operation against Richmond until the end of the war. On August 10, 1864, the Confederates attacked and tried to take this key position. The attack was unsuccessful, and they were forced to withdraw with heavy losses. The Union forces prevailed, but they too suffered heavy losses. The operation at Deep Bottom resulted in seventy-three casualties for the 10th.

Monsell survived these attacks, but then left his regiment for no apparent reason. He was absent without leave during the months of September and October. He returned to his unit at the end of October. Despite his unauthorized absence, Monsell was promoted to Corporal on November 1, 1864. What remained of the 10th regiment was sent to New York City to preserve order during the presidential election of 1864. During November and December, the regiment was strengthened to 800 men.

On February 1, 1865, Monsell was promoted to Sergeant. He was given a thirty-day furlough starting February 6, 1865. He did not return and, once again, was declared absent without leave on March 16, 1865. After failing to return by June 1, 1865, he was dropped from the rolls as a deserter.

After the war, Monsell moved to Greenport, where he worked as a boat maker. He married Eliza Ann Tomlinson on June 24, 1866. They had five children. The youngest, Raymond, was born January 7, 1891.

Despite all of the letters Nathaniel wrote during the war, no reason was found to explain why he deserted. It is puzzling that he would serve faithfully for three years, re-enlist rather than go home, only to become a deserter a year later. The war ended less than thirty days after he was reported absent without leave. He could have returned to his regiment even after the war ended and faced, at worst, a fine and reduction in rank. On March 10, 1888, more than twenty years after the war ended, Nathaniel Monsell wrote to the War Department and applied to have the charge of "desertion" removed.

Nathaniel Monsell died of kidney disease on February 22, 1899, at the age of fifty-eight. His widow, Eliza, attempted to clear his name and file for a widow's pension. The government, however, denied her application. 

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