Archival Research
Sergeant-Major C. H. Comly’s 11 October 1861 Letter to His Quaker Mother – “Run into a string of bad luck”

Sergeant-Major Charles Hammond Comly, of the 20th Indian Volunteer Regiment, had run into a string of bad luck over the year just prior to the opening of the Civil War.  His venture to open a mining implements business for the miners at Pike’s Peak had fallen flat and he returned to his Dayton, Ohio home with his tail between his legs.  It wouldn’t have been so bad except that his family kept a high profile in Dayton, and Charlie had been writing letters to the Dayton Journal as their Pike’s Peak correspondent since the time he left.  The Dayton Journal was the child of  his father Richard N. Comly and his uncle W. F. Comly.  It had started in 1840 as a vehicle for getting Whig Candidate William Henry Harrison elected to the Presidency.  His father had sold old his interest in the paper a year or two before the opening of the Civil War and moved the family to Richmond, Indiana.  Charles Comly’s mother was a Quaker, but her roots were among Indiana’s “Fighting Quakers.”  A Quaker Sergeant-Major fit in just fine with 20th Indiana’s Colonel William Lyons Brown’s values – aggressive, yet kind and shepherding toward the soldiers, ever aware of God watching and guiding their leadership as Field and Staff.

Below is a the letter Sergeant-Major Comly wrote home to his Quaker mother, informing her that the War was over for him right now.  He had been captured by Col. Ambrose R. Wright of the 3rd Georgia Regiment while freeing the Confederate invasion during the Chicamacomico Affair on Hatteras Island, October 4, 1861.

Plymouth, Marshall County Republican, Thursday, November 7, 1861, p. 1, c. 5


The following letter from Mr. Charles H. Comly, of Logansport, Sergeant Major of the 20th Indiana Regiment, will be read with interest:

Norfolk, Va., Oct. 11, 1861.

My Dear Mother – Doubtless thee will be much surprised (if thee has not already heard of my fate) to hear from me, dating at this point.  The fact of my being a prisoner of war will at once solve the query.  Why am I here?  I was taken prisoner on the 4th inst., on Chickimicomico Island.  The regiment retreated from its position (where my last letter was dated) towards Fort Hatteras.  I was in the rear some 6 or 8 miles having returned to camp to look after the sick, start the cooks in retreat, break up a lot of cartridges and destroy certain papers.  I volunteered to go back, and indeed wanted to.  I should have escaped, but had two sick men with me that I hated to leave and on the road I had a slight rush of blood to the head, laid down to sleep and overslept myself about half an hour.  When I awakened I started towards Fort Hatteras, but had not got more than half a mile on my way when I saw a party of men approaching me, who I presumed to be our own men, but they proved to be Georgians.  They called to me to surrender, but that I could not do without an effort to escape.  I had a musket on my shoulder which I discharged twice without any effect, but shooting the horse from under Col. Wright, when seeing I was surrounded and that I could not possibly escape, bitter as was the idea, I surrendered, as I would have been taken dead or wounded.

I am in excellent health and as good spirits as a prisoner can well have.  We are treated kindly and fare tolerably well, but for the present we are confined very closely.  I presume they will send us off from here before a great while, to some point where we will have more room for exercise.  My limits at present are a ten by twelve cell in the Norfolk jail.  By walking diagonally I can take five steps without turning.

I have no complaints to make – it is the fortune of war, and is not much worse than dame Fortune has been treating me for the past two years.  We were taking [sic] by Georgians, 32 of us, on the Island, and a few days before they captured the steamer Fanny and 41.  They brought all of us up from Roanoke Island together – a jolly crowd considering the circumstances.  The thirty-two I speak of above were taken one, two and three at a time.  This is my second day’s experience in jail life.  I have been fortunate enough to borrow a novel, and manage to while away the time right pleasantly.  Write to Cliff immediately, and to father, and let them know my whereabouts and condition.

If the Administration adheres to its present policy of ‘no exchange of prisoners,’ I presume I shall remain in the South until the war is ended – not a very pleasant future to look into, but my heart does not quail one particle.  I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have done all in my power for my God and my country, and submit to my fate with good spirit.

This letter, of course, will be read by the military authorities before it is sent, and then the first flag of truce that goes to Fortress Monroe will carry it there.  In writing to me thee must remember that all of thy letters will be read by other parties before I have the privilege of reading them.  Do not grieve nor despond of my fate.  If it were not for the mere idea of being a prisoner, I should enjoy myself almost as well as if I was perfectly free.  No more at present.  Much love to all.  This letter must answer for all my relatives.  Kiss Ellie for me.  Direct this letter to C. H. Comly, Serg’t Major, (prisoner of War) Norfolk, Va, via Fortress Monroe.

Thy affectionate son,


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