William Augustus Parvin arrives in Little Washington on New Year’s Day, 1861, just 21 years old, handsome, with a lean face, a ready smile, and sharp, alert eyes. He wears his dark hair stylishly long, his mustache and beard carefully trimmed into a rakish Van Dyke. By birth, he is a Pennsylvanian, a Yankee, but he chooses to settle in a state that is bound for secession in a few months. In March he ships out on the schooner Pocomoke, and the vessel is safely docked at the Light Street wharf in Baltimore when news of South Carolina’s secession breaks over the town in a confusion of mobs, rallies, and riots. U.S. troops are attacked in the streets.
The Pocomoke immediately sets sail, carrying 200 kegs of embargoed powder bound for New Bern, and by April 27th, Parvin arrives back in Little Washington. He persuades nine of his shipmates to enlist with him in the Washington Greys, a heavy-artillery company. After a couple of idle weeks quartered in a boardinghouse, the Greys, 49 men and four officers under the command of Capt. Thomas Sparrow, all bearing Springfield rifles, sail for Portsmouth.
The date is May 20, 1861 — the hour of North Carolina’s secession.
Parvin writes in his wartime memoir, “I shall never forget that day as all the people in Washington turned out dressed in their best. Flags were flying, drums beating, and fifes blowing. Miss Clara Hoyt in a beautiful speech presented the company with a lovely flag.”
The flag bears three broad stripes — red, white, and red — and in the blue canton, 10 stars of the Confederacy encircle a larger lone star representing North Carolina.
Although Parvin records his wartime exploits in thorough detail — in 40 pages of careful, upright, loopy cursive — he offers no clue as to why he feels such fighting allegiance to a state he has adopted for less than five months. Why he doesn’t join up with a Pennsylvania volunteer regiment in the U.S. Army, or why he didn’t simply stay in Baltimore, is a mystery.
By August, Parvin is part of a small force defending Fort Hatteras, the most far-flung of the Outer Banks. The war immediately engulfs the post.
Captain Sparrow records the attack on Fort Hatteras in his diary: “At early dawn their heavy outlines could be decried off the bar to seaward, in all their formidable array. As the morning wore away about 7 o’clock, a signal was fired from the flagship Minnesota, and soon the fleet were in motion for the shore. They moved in, took their positions with apparent deliberation and came to anchor. The bombarding fleet consisted of the following vessels: Flagship Minnesota; 74 guns; Susquehanna; 74 guns Cumberland; 74 guns; Wabash; 74 guns; Harriet Lane; 7 guns.”
The Greys endure the bombardment for almost three and a half hours.
Sparrow writes, “Such a bombardment is not recorded in the annals of war. Not less than three thousand shells were fired by the enemy during the three hours. As many as twenty-eight in one minute were known to fall within and about the fort. It was like a hailstorm, and how so many escaped is known only to Providence, who sheltered and preserved us.”
Two miles up the beach, a force of 300 U.S. Army troops has already captured Fort Clark.
Only three of Fort Hatteras’s seven guns can be brought to bear on the enemy, with little effect, and when a shell ignites the fort’s powder magazine, the battle is over. With no ammunition for their few guns, the men are defenseless. Gen. Benjamin Butler demands and gets the unconditional surrender of the fort. The 700 defenders are rounded up for shipment north to prison camps.
Parvin and the rest of the Greys are ferried out to the side-wheeler Adelaide, which in peacetime plied the route between Baltimore and Norfolk. At once, Parvin and his friend William B. Willis decide to steal a small boat that is being trailed astern. But a squall comes up, turning the sea to a frothing maelstrom, and they abandon the plan.
Soon they are transferred to a larger steamer, the Minnesota, for the voyage to Governor’s Island, New York. Parvin gets along well with his captors.
“We were treated well on shipboard,” he writes, “being given the same fare as was given their own men — even to a ration of rum.”
Again he and his pal Willis hatch a plan to jump ship at night off Hell’s Gate, the narrow entry into New York harbor, and then swim ashore buoyed by four empty, corked canteens apiece. To their surprise the ship makes a fast passage and arrives at Hell’s Gate in daylight. The stern is crowded with sightseeing guards.
Parvin is wry in venting his disappointment: “I never saw so many people at one time in my life as I did that afternoon and have never seen it equalled since.”
He and Willis are put ashore on Governor’s Island, where they spend two months confined to Castle Williams with the other enlisted prisoners. Conditions are good: plentiful food, mattresses, and blankets. But Parvin still plans to escape. He hoards his bankroll, which amounts to just $1.25.
On October 5, new prisoners arrive: men of the Virginia Black Horse Cavalry. Parvin and Willis trade for clothing — blue (instead of gray) flannel shirts, trousers, and caps — that will allow them to blend in better outside their prison. At any given moment, thousands of deserters, spies, and escapees are threading their way through cities; passing offshore in ships; riding the railroads and stagecoaches; riding horses; or tramping along country lanes, identities concealed by disguises and luck. Parvin and Willis plan to join these secret sojourners.
Later in October, the steamer State of Maine arrives to transport all of the prisoners to Fort Warren in Boston and return with 300 sailors bound for Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s expedition against Roanoke Island.
Parvin, not willing to give up, finds a trapdoor under the ship’s mess that leads to a coal bunker down in the hold. He and Willis explore the dark hole and concoct yet a third plan of escape. They build a hideout by mounding coal around a hollow space. They stockpile sugar, soda crackers, matches, and candles.
When the ship docks, all the prisoners disembark by company, except for Parvin and Willis.
Parvin recounts, “But when they lined up our company to go ashore, we sliped of and whent to our hideing place and staid there to the ship got back to New York.”
They remain hidden as the ship docks at Governor’s Island, then the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At last off Jersey City, the ship strikes a schooner loaded with coal. Parvin and Willis assume she has nudged the wharf and break cover. They’re caught on deck, but since they are wearing blue, they are mistaken for crewmen from the schooner.
Parvin writes, “A man came running to me and said did it hurt your vessel much and I knew at once what had happened so I aswerd him Yes I says you have sunk her or She wil be sunk in five minutes I says let me have a small boat to take the captain off he said you can get a boat as soon as we land.”
At dockside, Parvin and Willis amble ashore and catch a ferry back to New York. Parvin gives 65 cents to Willis, in case the two get separated, then spends two precious cents for a newspaper, eager to know if word of their escape has gotten out. So far, they are not missed.
“But in the shipping news I saw where the Schooner Eagle had cleared from New Haven for Baltimore,” Parvin writes, “and that gave me a good opportunity to account for Willis and myself.”
They seek out a sailors’ boardinghouse and explain that they got drunk, missed the Eagle’s sailing, and have been stranded ashore without their belongings. They say they will travel overland and catch up with the vessel in Baltimore. The shipping news lends credence to their story, and they stay the night.
The next morning Parvin and Willis tuck into a beefsteak breakfast for 25 cents. Afterward, they seek out Thomas DeMille, a merchant whose son still lives in Little Washington. Willis knows him from back home.
They tell DeMille their story and ask for his help. He opens his safe and hands them each $10.
A long way home
Now they’re on their way: a steamer down the East River to South Amboy, New Jersey; the cars to Camden, New Jersey; and then a ferry across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, where they rest at another sailors’ boardinghouse. As strangers without any baggage, they attract a nosy police officer. But their story — stranded sailors trying to catch up to their ship — holds. The newspaper proves its value.
The next day, a steamer carries Parvin and Willis through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to Baltimore, a city seething with secessionists and occupied by U.S. troops. Detectives rove the streets rounding up suspicious characters, spies, and deserters. Parvin and Willis arrive on November 4, Election Day, and lie low as their bankroll dwindles.
Again they seek out likely compatriots among an office of harbor merchants. This time, however, they meet with haughty dismissal. “It’s a good story, yet it sounds like a fairy tale,” says one, who refuses to be branded a traitor by supporting escaping Confederates.
Parvin returns to the harbor merchants the following day and takes one aside. Parvin reminds this man that he once helped smuggle his contraband gunpowder out of Baltimore.
In exchange for that favor, Parvin proposes to borrow $25 and use it to buy a small fishing boat. He plans to take it down to Virginia, to the Confederate lines. The merchant obliges.
Rounding Fort McHenry in their newly acquired boat, Parvin and Willis are spotted. Guards in a patrol boat stop them, demand their papers, and ask for proof that they have taken the oath of allegiance to the Union. Caught without such proof, they are forced to return to shore.
But the pair has come too far to turn back now.
Parvin and Willis ship aboard a hay schooner bound for the Potomac River. They intend to take over the ship and sail it over to the Confederates. But the captain, a hard drinker, runs his schooner aground on an oyster reef in the Choptank River, above the Potomac. While he remains aboard getting drunk for two days, Parvin and Willis are ordered ashore to cut wood.
Ever the rebels they fashion spars for a small boat instead and cut a sail from the schooner’s flying jib. They stock a supply of fresh water, “hard bread,” and boiled ham. At midnight on the second night, they steal away downriver and hole up in a swamp at daylight. The next day, they reach the Potomac, cross it, and land on an island in the Cone River.
Fortuitously, they walk straight into a company of Virginia militia.
Now as they are escorted and provided with fast transport, their journey takes on a triumphant turn: to Fredericksburg, Petersburg, New Bern, and at last, home to Little Washington.
“So that winds up our trip that we started from Boston to Washington” Parvin writes with matter-of-fact pride, “1000 miles with the small sum of one dollar and a quarter.”
The Richmond Daily Dispatch publishes a breathless account of their escape, exulting, “Is not this a strange and romantic tale, reader? But it is nevertheless true, and puts fiction to the blush.”
Parvin does not rejoin the army. After a single battle and an incredible feat of traveling, he has had his adventure. For him, it seems, the war is not about the fight, but the journey home.
After the war “Captain Bill” returns to a life on the water, piloting steamboats. The Raleigh News and Observer celebrates his adventures in a 1924 article: “It is said that he could without mishap, pilot his craft up and down the snakelike Tar River the darkest of nights without chart or compass.”
To the last William Augustus Parvin steers by the compass in his heart, pointing — always true — to the South.
Special thanks to Lela Parvin Currier for providing a copy of Captain William Augustus Parvin’s photo and memoir, “The only Story that ever has been wrote of the Escape of W B Willis and W A Parvin Privates company K 10 Regt N C State Troops Major Thomas Sparrow Nov 1861 Escape From Fort Warren Boston Harbor to Washington N C, Wrote By W A Parvin.” Other sources include: The Richmond Post Dispatch, Nov. 30, 1861; “From Yankee Prison To Confederate Lines: Story Of Captain Bill Parvin’s Adventure” in The Raleigh News and Observer, Aug. 23, 1925; “Capture of Hatteras” in the Hillsborough Recorder, Sept. 11, 1861; The archives of the North South Skirmish Association (N-SSA); The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett (UNC Press, 1963).