Savannah Confederate Private wounded at the First Battle of Manassas always recalled the kindness of the Warrenton women who nursed him back to health
While conducting a four-year quest to find out more about his “three-time great grandfather,” Civil War veteran Michael Philip Usina (1840-1903), Michael Usina Silva, of West Barnstable, Massachusetts, has made several trips south, including time spent in Warrenton.
Silva had learned that his family was originally from Minorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean. His ancestor came to the United States in 1769 as “guest workers” on Andrew Turnbull’s plantation in New Smyrna, Florida, where indigo was grown for export.
The Second Seminole War raged in Florida between 1835-1842. In 1838, Domingo Anthony Usina, father of Michael Philip Usina, was wounded in the back during the Battle of Dunlawton Plantation outside of Port Orange. He succumbed to his wounds three years later.
Michael Philip was born in 1839 in St. Augustine, and at age 17 relocated to Savannah, Georgia. After serving an apprenticeship as a sea pilot, Usina earned his certificate as a Branch Pilot, working in the sea lanes off Savannah.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Usina joined Oglethorpe Light Infantry, Co. B, 8th Georgia Regiment (“Bartow’s Brigade”) as a private. The unit was sent north and fought in the First Battle of Manassas, and on July 21, 1861, Pvt. Usina was wounded at the base of the Stone Bridge.
Mistaking their uniforms as Confederates, Usina was captured by Union Rhode Islanders. Other Confederates entered the fray, and drove off the Union captors. “That’s when a Black man on a horse transported Usina to the train at Manassas, which carried him and other wounded Confederates to Warrenton,” according to Silva.
Recovery and a new mission
An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch published April 27, 1924 entitled “Reminiscences of War of ’61 Furnish Thrills,” described what happened next.
“On July 21, 1861, the morning of the first battle at Manassas, 20 miles off, we were awakened by the boom of cannons and volleys of musketry,” according to Mrs. Norman Randolph, nee’ Janet Henderson Weaver (1848-1927) . At the time, she was living with her mother Janet Horner Weaver and younger sister in the Horner house on Winchester Street, now known as Carter Hall.
The news of the battle came to Warrenton only sporadically, told by people arriving on the trains from Manassas. Wounded Confederates began arriving by nightfall. “The intervening hours were spent in rolling bandages, scraping lint and stuffing pillows with feathers,” recalled Mrs. Randolph.”The courthouse, churches and our own homes were converted into hospitals.”
Mrs. Weaver met the train at the Warrenton depot and had wounded men brought to her home. “Among our guests were three men able to sit up, one of whom, Michael Usina of Savannah, was helped up the steps by two Black men.” Also brought to the Horner house were three wounded Confederate officers, one of whom died there the next day.
Mrs. Randolph recalls sitting by the beds of the wounded men with her sister, “…fanning away the flies, there being no screens at the time.”
Once they had recovered sufficiently, the surviving soldiers were sent home. After three months of recuperation, Usina returned to Savannah where, due to his experience as a pilot and familiarity with the southern coastline, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Confederate States Navy in January 1862.
“His coolness and daring eminently fitted him for the hazardous enterprise of Blockade running, the only effective means of communicating with other nations and the only means of procuring many of the necessities of life, medicines, and improved arms and other munitions of war,” according to Usina’s obituary published in early July 1903.
Promoted to captain, Usina served as the executive officer on five successive Confederate steamships before taking command of the CSS Mary Celeste in May, 1864, and made four successful runs from Bermuda to Wilmington, NC.
Capt. Usina was transferred to the CSS Atalant, a Confederate cruiser formerly called the CSS Tallahassee, and made an additional six runs from Bermuda to Wilmington. His next assignment was the CSS Armstrong, a brand-new steamer built for the Confederacy in Scotland. Usina made several trips to Halifax and Nassau, and four more runs between Nassau and Wilmington.
During his months at sea, Usina was accompanied by his dog, a terrier called “Tinker,” that had been given to him by a dying shipmate. “Tinker seemed to know when we were approaching the enemy and to be on alert,” Usina once recalled. “When under fire, he would follow me step-for-step.”
January 1865 found Usina in command of the CSS Virginia, which made one run from Bermuda to Wilmington.
“His next ship was the CSS Rattlesnake, in which he made his most daring retreat from the enemy,” according to his obituary. His skill in evading capture earned him the nickname “The Sea Fox.”
“Fort Fisher had fallen and the enemy was in complete possession of the Port of Wilmington. The blockading fleet saw the Rattlesnake making her way in from the open sea, and feeling sure of their prey, did not molest her. This conduct on the part of the enemy aroused the suspicions of Capt. Usina, and putting his helm hard up he turned about and put to sea with all speed, running the gauntlet of the fire of the blockaders and safely reaching Nassau.”
While attempting to enter Charleston harbor on a later voyage, the Rattlesnake suffered engine trouble, and the pilot on board ran the ship aground on Sullivan’s Island. Rather than let the Rattlesnake fall into enemy hands, it was burned.
In mid-February, Usina boarded another blockade runner, the CSS Hattie, and departed Charleston scarcely three days before the city fell to Union forces. The Hattie ran the blockade and reached Bermuda, where his wife Camilla Luciana Neligan Usina (1839-1912), whom he had married in Tallahassee in 1863, awaited him.
Now in command of the CSS Whisper, Usina was preparing for a blockade run from Bermuda up the James River to Richmond when he received news of Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Unable to continue the struggle, he sailed the Whisper to London via Halifax, before returning to Savannah to “…take up the threads of his old life, resuming his place with the pilots of the city,” according to his obituary.
As Mrs. Randolph noted in 1924, Usina’s Civil War connection to Warrenton remained important to him. “Michael Usina… never forgot my mother’s kind care and nursing, and many years after the war, when I attended a reunion of the veterans at Savannah, he gave an elegant luncheon to the survivors of the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, at which I was the honored guest.
“Naturally, the conversation turned on that unforgettable period, and our host paid a beautiful tribute to my mother and the two little girls – my sister and I.”
Capt. Usina died of illness on July 4, 1903 in New York City, and was buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Savannah. He was survived by his wife Camilla and five of their seven children.
This spring, Michael Usina Silva returned to Virginia, visiting the Visitors Center at the Manassas Battlefield and the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, where artifacts of Capt. Usina’s naval career donated by his family are exhibited.
Silva also stopped by the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton, and while in town, met with attorney Robert DeT. Lawrence IV, owner of Carter Hall. Information about Capt. Usina and the home where he recovered from his wounds was shared. The communication – and discovery – will continue.