William Augustus Parvin arrives in Little Washington on New Year’s Day, 1861, just 21 years old. By birth, he is a Pennsylvanian, 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 docked at the Light Street wharf in Baltimore when news of South Carolina’s secession breaks.
The Pocomoke immediately sets sail 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. The Greys, 49 men and four officers under the command of Capt. Thomas Sparrow, 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.
Capture at Fort Hatteras – 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. The bombarding fleet consisted of: Flagship Minnesota; 74 guns; Susquehanna; 74 guns; Cumberland; 74 guns; Wabash; 74 guns; Harriet Lane; 7 guns.”
The Greys endure the bombardment for 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.”
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. 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 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. Soon they are transferred to a larger steamer, the Minnesota, for the voyage to Governor’s Island, New York.
“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.”
He and the Grays 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.
On October 5, new prisoners arrive: men of the Virginia Black Horse Cavalry. Parvin trades for clothing — a blue (instead of gray) flannel shirt, trousers, and cap — that will allow him to blend in better outside the prison.
Escape – Later in October, the steamer State of Maine arrives to transport the prisoners to Fort Warren in Boston.
Parvin, not willing to give up, finds a trapdoor under the ship’s mess that leads to a coal bunker down in the hold. When the ship docks, all the prisoners disembark, except for Parvin.
Parvin recounts, “But when they lined up our company to go ashore, I went to my hiding place and stayed there till the ship got back to New York.”
Parvin remains hidden as the ship docks at Governor’s Island, then the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At last off Jersey City, the ship strikes a schooner. Parvin assumes she has nudged the wharf and breaks cover. He’s caught on deck, but since he is wearing blue, he is mistaken for a crewman from the schooner. At dockside, Parvin catches a ferry back to New York.
The Return home – At New York, he takes 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. The next day, a steamer carries Parvin through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to Baltimore. Parvin arrives on November 4.
Parvin buys a small fishing boat. He plans to take it down to Virginia, to the Confederate lines. Rounding Fort McHenry in the boat, Parvin is spotted. Guards in a patrol boat stop him, demand his papers, and ask for proof that he has taken the oath of allegiance to the Union. Caught without such proof, he is forced to return to shore.
Parvin ships aboard a hay schooner bound for the Potomac River. The schooner runs aground in the Choptank River, above the Potomac. While the schooner is aground, Parvin is ordered ashore to cut wood.
While on shore, he fashions spars for a small boat. Back on board, he cuts a sail from the schooner’s flying jib. He stocks a supply of fresh water, “hard bread,” and boiled ham. At midnight on the second night, he steals away downriver and holes-up in a swamp at daylight. The next day, he reaches the Potomac, crosses it, and lands on an island in the Cone River. He walks straight into a company of Virginia militia.
Now he is provided with fast transport, his journey takes on a triumphant turn: to Fredericksburg, Petersburg, New Bern, and at last, home to Little Washington, North Carolina.