letter from John Hart to Elliot Hart
First page of a letter from John Hart to his son Elliot.

Guide to the John E. Hart Letters, 1861-1863

MS 392

A collection in the
Special Collections & Archives Department,
Nimitz Library

Naval Academy Seal

United States Naval Academy
589 McNair Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5029

Prepared by: David D'Onofrio

August 2008

Descriptive Summary

The John E. Hart Letters were donated to the Special Collections and Archives Department by Professor William C. Davis of Virginia Tech. Accession No. 08-09.
1.5 linear inches.
Access to the John E. Hart Letters is unrestricted.
The John E. Hart Letters are the physical property of Nimitz Library. Copyright belongs to the authors or creators of the works, or their legal representatives. For further information, consult the Head, Special Collections & Archives.
It is the responsibility of the researcher to secure written permission to publish, reprint, or reproduce material from Special Collections & Archives. The researcher assumes responsibility for infringement of copyright or literary or publication rights. Please contact the Head, Special Collections & Archives for permission to publish and for further information
Preferred Citation:
John E. Hart Letters, MS 392
Special Collections & Archives Department
Nimitz Library
United States Naval Academy

Biographical Sketch

John E. Hart of Schenectady, New York, a career naval officer, first enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a midshipman on February 2, 1841. After serving in the Brazil Squadron aboard U.S.S. Marion and U.S.S. John Adams until 1843, and aboard U.S.S. Constitution for that vessel's circumnavigation of the globe in 1846, Hart gained admission to the U.S. Naval Academy late in 1846. Upon graduating from the Academy as a member of the class of 1847, Hart was promoted to the rank of Passed Midshipman and attached to the frigate U.S.S. St. Lawrence, on which he served until late 1850. After serving on the Great Lakes aboard U.S.S. Michigan from May 1853 until May 1854, he was attached to the U.S.S. Jamestown in the summer of 1855, which was then serving as the flagship of Commodore Crabbe of the African Squadron. It is during this service aboard the U.S.S. Jamestown that Hart was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on September 15, 1855. Following a leave of absence, Hart was attached to the U.S.S. Iroquois in 1859, which was stationed in the Mediterranean protecting U.S. interests in Italy during Garibaldi's campaign against the French.

Following the outbreak of the American Civil War, and a promotion to Lieutenant Commander on July 16, 1862, Hart was transferred to U.S.S. Vincennes, where he served as executive officer. Originally operating out of Boston, the U.S.S. Vincennes made an unsuccessful attempt to hunt down the Confederate privateer Jefferson Davis in July 1861, before transferring to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Hart served aboard U.S.S. Vincennes until August 1862, after which he was transferred to U.S.S. Albatross, where, presumably, he served as second in command. On October 29, 1862, Hart was given command of U.S.S. Albatross following the relief of Commander French, who was stripped of his command following the abandonment of his station at the mouth of the Rio Grande due to an outbreak of yellow fever. Hart distinguished himself as an able commander in May 1863 when, on a reconnaissance mission to Fort De Russy, U.S.S. Albatross engaged and disabled two steamers, C.S.S. Grand Duke and C.S.S. Mary T, which were attempting to evacuate artillery and supplies from Fort De Russy. During the engagement, U.S.S. Albatross took heavy damage, including the destruction of its wheel house and eleven shots through the hull.

A month later, U.S.S. Albatross was stationed above Port Hudson, Louisiana, when on June 11, 1863, Lieutenant Commander Hart was found dead in his stateroom. Varying reports attribute Hart's death to "dying in battle," yellow fever, and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. John Hart was afforded a Masonic funeral by a joint party of his own crew and Confederate soldiers, and buried in the cemetery at Grace Church in St. Francisville, Louisiana. John E. Hart was survived by his wife, Harriet "Hattie" Hart, and at least one child, son A. Elliot "Elly" Hart.

Scope and Content Note

The John E. Hart Letters, consisting of 1.5 linear inches of documents, span the period from 1861 to 1863. The letters focus on Hart's time aboard U.S.S. Vincennes and U.S.S. Albatross, both of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

The collection consists of ten handwritten letters, some incomplete, as well as several photocopies.

The letters are arranged chronologically in a single series with no subdivisions. The letters, written almost exclusively by John E. Hart, are primarily addressed to his wife, Harriet, in Schenectady, New York. The first five letters, all dating from 1861, hail from Hart's service as executive officer aboard U.S.S. Vincennes. The remaining five letters are the product of Hart's tenure as commanding officer aboard U.S.S. Albatross. The letters offer descriptions of daily routine and shipboard life, relationships between the officers and enlisted men, and details of specific engagements, such as the seizure of the British ship Empress and the attack on Indian Village, Louisiana. One letter, dated September 14, 1861, is addressed to Hart's son, A. Elliot "Elly" Hart. Also included in the collection is one letter received by John E. Hart, dated June 8, 1863, from New York merchant, philanthropist, and educator Robert C. Ogden.

Research interests served by the John E. Hart letters include the personal history of John E. Hart, the histories of U.S.S. Vincennes and U.S.S. Albatross, and the activities of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The collection also offers a glimpse into the relations between officers and enlisted men, public reception of Union sailors, and defensive armament techniques.

Arrangement Note

The Hart Lettershave been digitized in their entirety. In addition to following the links in the Container List below, the materials can be accessed through the Nimitz Library Digital Collections.

Related Collections

Several collections pertaining to Hart's naval service and subsequent death can be found at the National Archives, including the log of the U.S.S. Albatross (RG 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Entry 118, Logs of U.S. Navy Ships and Stations) and records relating to Hart's death certificate (RG 52, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Entry 31, Certificates of Death, Disability, Pension and Medical Survey).

Additional material pertaining to Hart's death and burial is housed within the records of Freemasons Feliciana Lodge No. 31 (Feliciana, LA), Mss. 4777, held by the department of Special Collections at Louisiana State University's Hill Memorial Library.

Additional first-hand accounts of service aboard U.S.S. Vincennes can be found in the Oliver Ambrose Batcheller Letters, MS 264. Other material pertaining to the Civil War service of U.S.S. Albatross is located within the pages of the Charles Ball Diaries, MS 147. Both collections are housed in the Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Container List

Box Folder  
1 1 To Mrs. John E. Hart, July 12, 1861

U.S.S. Vincennes. Discussions of party invitations and lamentations at not being commander of U.S.S. Vincennes.

2 To Mrs. John E. Hart, July 20 - [July 22], 1861

U.S.S. Vincennes, Boston, MA. Descriptions of reactions to search for the Confederate brig Jefferson Davis and traveling to Key West through a hurricane.

3 To Mrs. John E. Hart, August 11 - August 26, 1861

U.S.S. Vincennes, at sea. Discussions of the history of U.S.S. Vincennes, crew’s opinion of the ship, departure for Fort Pickens, and dining with crew members, including Oliver Ambrose Batcheller.

4 To A. Elliot Hart, September 14, 1861

U.S.S. Vincennes, Mississippi River. On Union letterhead, describing alligators on the river and Elliot’s life on the home front.

5 To Mrs. John E. Hart, November 26, 1861

U.S.S. Vincennes, off the Mississippi passes. Descriptions of the misery of blockade duty, the attempted seizure of the British ship Empress, Oliver Ambrose Batcheller’s potential as an officer, and references to Captain Handy as an imbecile.

6 To Mrs. John E. Hart, December 28, [1862]

U.S.S. Albatross, off Donaldsonville, LA. Descriptions of the daily routines onboard including the searching of all encountered vessels, invitations to dine on shore at plantations, and a detachment of men lent to the cavalry to attack rebel guerillas at Indian Village, Louisiana.

7 To Mrs. John E. Hart, April 15, 1863

U.S.S. Albatross, above Port Hudson, LA. Descriptions of use of cotton bales and logs as defenses against rams and artillery fire, and unsuccessful attacks by rebels on U.S. ships Albatross, Hartford, and Switzerland.

8 To Mrs. John E. Hart, April 16, 1863

U.S.S. Albatross, above Port Hudson, LA. Descriptions of the capture of a Confederate steamer, rescue of the U.S.S. Switzerland, a captured revolver sent as a trophy to son Elliot, and the stigma of defeat aboard the U.S.S. Vincennes.

9 To Mrs. John E. Hart, June 7, 1863

U.S.S. Albatross, above Port Hudson, LA. Descriptions of humorous taunting between Union post carriers and Confederate soldiers, confusion over lack of fire from Port Hudson, pets aboard ship, sending of a house servant to steal milk, and a discussion of a classmate (Marshall Smith) fighting for the Confederacy.

10 From Robert C. Ogden, June 8, 1863

Discussion of the need to put down the rebellion and the "disgraceful" actions of northern Copperheads.