The John E. Hart Letters, consisting of 1.5 linear inches of documents, span the period from 1861 to 1863. The letters focus on the time spent by Hart 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.
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.