By Ron Field
Occasionally, Civil War imagery and postal history entwine to tell a story, almost as if they were meant to find one another. Case in point: This carte de visite of Cpl. Albert Austin of the 8th Connecticut Infantry, and a letter sheet with flag motif he found in an abandoned Confederate tent at New Bern, N.C. on March 14, 1862.
Austin, a 29-year-old spinner living in the mill town of Plainfield, Conn., mustered into the 8th as a corporal in Company F in September 1861. He and his comrades proceeded to Annapolis, Md., for basic training before they joined the Burnside Expedition to North Carolina in January 1862. The regiment served in Maj. Gen. John G. Parke’s 3rd Brigade. Held in reserve during the Battle of Roanoke Island in early February, the 8th and its brigade went into action at New Bern on March 14.
Here, Austin seized an amount of stationery found in an abandoned Confederate tent on the morning of the fight. The fact that this included a patriotic letter sheet with a First National flag and cannon printed on its letterhead, complete with appropriate verse, would have been hugely symbolic to Austin, and possibly likened in some way to the capture of an actual flag.
Austin chronicled his discovery on one of the sheets:
This to certifyThat this sheet of Confederate paper was found in a rebel tent with other quantities of it on the morning of the battle of Newbern, March 14th/62.
Albert AustinCorporal, Co. F, 8th Conn. Vols.
Austin presumably found the paper as the 8th advanced through the dense fog alongside the Neuse River towards New Bern, and likely after the capture of one of several batteries defending the approaches to the city, following which the rebels were described in New York’s Buffalo Commercial as having “fled in dismay, leaving everything behind them.” He probably carried it in his knapsack for the remainder of the Burnside Campaign or sent it home as a war trophy.
The letter sheet served as a souvenir of his baptism under fire and his early days in the struggle for the Union. It is fitting that the relic is reunited with his portrait.
The letter sheet also marks the beginning of a long military career. Promoted to sergeant before the year’s end, he suffered a wound in fighting at Waltham Junction, Va., on May 7, 1864. Six days later, he received his second lieutenant’s bars and joined Company B of the 11th Connecticut Infantry, where he served until the end of 1865. He joined the 14th U.S. Infantry as a second lieutenant in 1867, and advanced in rank to first lieutenant until his death from a fall while on active duty in 1886. Austin was about 52 years old. His remains are buried in the military cemetery at Fort Vancouver, Wash., where he was stationed.
Ron Field is a Senior Editor of MI.
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