Moonlight, Magnolias, and Fleas- A Hoosier in Florida, 1864

The following letter, originally published in the July 13, 1864 edition of the Ohio Repository from Canton, was written by First Lieutenant Henry Welker (also spelled Wilker) Zentz of Co. I of the 86th U.S. Colored Troops while he was stationed at Fort Barrancas, Florida. The native Ohioan had moved to Indiana before the war and served two years in Co. E of the 47th Indiana Infantry mainly as a company clerk before he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the U.S. C.T. on December 5, 1863. When notified that he had been commissioned, Zentz replied to Major G. Norman Lieber that he was "cheerfully accepting" his commission and set out to Pensacola to join the regiment.

The 86th U.S.C.T. was originally known as the 14th Regiment Corps d’Afrique Infantry, and had been raised in Louisiana in August-September 1863; many of its enlisted men being former slaves. The regiment, once organized , served for several months in the New Orleans defenses before being sent to Fort Barrancas near Pensacola, Florida. The regiment, whose designation was changed to the 86th U.S.C.T. in April 1864, served largely on guard duty until the spring of 1865 when it took part in the campaign against Mobile. By that time, however, Lt. Zentz had been given a medical discharge. His experience in Florida was devoid of battlefield heroics, but rather he worked in the service of humanity by being the primary instructor in the regiment. Zentz did not perform the usual duties of a first lieutenant in a company- his job was to educate the enlisted men how to read and write, which he did with some success as is told in the letter below.

First Lieutenant Henry Welker Zentz,
Co. I, 86th U.S. Colored Troops
In December 1864, Zentz tendered his resignation, citing his lengthy service and deteriorating health. “Having become broken in health, I consider it my duty to give place to one fully able to perform the duties of the position,” he wrote. Zentz also stated that his duties in the army had largely been that of a company clerk and instructor, and as such, “my military training was almost entirely neglected and consequently I am now unable to perform satisfactorily the duties of a company officer in the drill and handling of a company.” He also cited a pressing need to attend to his domestic affairs. A week later, after his resignation went up the chain of command to district headquarters, Zentz was sent to the regimental surgeon to examine his physical condition and verify his claim of disability. Assistant Surgeon W.R. Griswold examined Zentz and concluded that he was suffering from piles caused by chronic diarrhea and considered him “unfit for service.” (Basically, piles is chronic bleeding from the rectum when you have a bowel movement- an awful thing to suffer from in the field.) Again the resignation went up the chain of command and was finally approved on December 27, 1864 in Special Orders No. 225 issued on behalf of Major General E.R.S. Canby of the Military Division of West Mississippi. Two weeks later, the War Department approved his resignation.

Following his medical discharge which was given on January 8, 1865, Zentz returned home to Indiana and eventually moved to Greensburg, Kiowa Co., Kansas where he died on November 13, 1911, 4 days shy of his 75th birthday. He is buried at Fairview Cemetery and a government stone noting his service in the 86th U.S.C.T. marks the grave.

In the letter below, Zentz describes life in Florida as a mix of the picturesque and aggravating- the beautiful white sand beaches, the scent of the magnolia trees, captivating moonlit nights while watching the beacon on the nearby Pensacola Light, and the pleasant breezes of the Gulf of Mexico combined with the boredom of garrison duty in a shadeless fort under the stifling heat and humidity of a Florida summer, punctuated by the ongoing battle with the sand fleas...welcome to Florida, circa 1864.

Fort Barrancas, Florida
Barrancas, Florida
June 1864

Fort Pickens, site of Slemmer's triumph
Seated under my arbor which I was forced to erect to render human nature endurable in this latitude by reason of the superior strength of Sol's rays, I look away toward the Gulf and Fort Barrancas frowns before me with her grim war hounds pointing their noses in every direction; on the right is Fort Dedoubt with equally savage demonstrations; while Fort Pickens across the bayou on the left looms up in the distance with her 250 cannon, the last and best of the number and the only stronghold that held out true to the stars and stripes when the traitors seized our forts and arsenals. Pickens, with her brave commander Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, held out true to the old flag and afterwards repelled Braxton Bragg with his 15,000 traitors.

 Behind me is the green pine forest while the ground, which is but snow white sand, reflects the dazzling sun’s rays with a glare which is painful to the eyes. Yet the health inspiring breeze from off the Gulf compensates for the otherwise excessive heat and when night approaches, the soft breeze lulls the dull roar of the tide, the song of mocking bird, and the bugle from the surrounding camps with chants, fiddles, banjo, and juba patting of the intelligent contrabands form a medley of sounds that induce sleep, after the heat of the day has brought on a lassitude that welcomes it. I lazily swing in my hammock and watch the beacon light of the light house until I drop off in dreams, then home, the days of my youth and things long passed figure like the characters in a pantomime in my imagination, and I live over again my former life but I wander.

The Pensacola Lightouse in the 1800s. "I lazily swing in my hammock and watch the beacon light of the lighthouse until I drop off in dreams," Zentz wrote. "The days of my youth and things long passed figure like characters in a pantomime."
There are other points I must notice: the moonlit nights, although the subject is old. The lovesick swain, and in short everybody has praised the moon, sung to the moon, mourned to the moon, and some have even worshipped the moon and indeed if I did not believe in the Bible, I would worship the moon as she smiles o’er us here in Florida. I cannot invoke to my aid words to do justice to the moonlight in this climate and so I’ll drop the moon subject. The magnolia tree with its milk white flowers scenting the air everywhere is another point that needs to be witnessed to be appreciated. The boat rides on the bay and bayou I have witnessed others enjoying but have as yet had but little pleasure in that respect myself, excepting twice going over to Fort Pickens on business.

Pensacola Navy Yard in 1860 showing For Pickens on Santa Rosa Island- Zentz wrote his letter from Fort Barrancas on the north side of the inlet near the town of Warrington, Florida. Union forces never left Fort Pickens and after the spring of 1862, occupied all of the defenses around the old navy yard with minimal Confederate interference.
But along with all the pleasures, beauties, peculiarity of the scenery romantic and otherwise which make this place famous, we have one thorn in the flesh, one drawback or whatever you please to term it, and that is fleas. Fleas by day and fleas by night, fleas rising, sitting, or lying down; fleas asleep or awake; fleas in the tent or in the house; fleas large and fleas small; fleas old and young; fleas married and very large families; fleas here, there, and everywhere. They are sure to know where you are and claim to be intimate acquaintances. The sand is full of them; take up a peck measure full of sand today, put it in a cool place tonight and tomorrow morning you would have four quarts of sand, four quarts of fleas having hopped out during the night. Fleas are our misery here and they serve to keep us humble, to keep us in remembrance of our humanity, and they give us plenty of exercise too, catching them, driving then, and a never ending never ceasing scratching which serves to keep us employed continually.

The bane of Zentz's existence:
the Sand Flea
In a military point of view we are all sound on the goose here. We have a very good commander at this post: General Alexander S. Asboth who formerly served on General Fremont’s staff. He is a Hungarian compatriot of Kossuth, a devoted lover of freedom and the union and the country of his adoption. There is a rumor that we will occupy Pensacola again in a few days but I cannot vouch for the truth of the report. Also another rumor is that we will attack Mobile from this point, it being 40 miles and a good road from here to there.
General Alexander S. Asboth

In regards to the Negroes. We have three regiments here, the 25th, 82nd, and 86th U.S.C.T. and they are as good soldiers as ever shouldered a gun. They are good in every point that is wanted for a soldier. They learn the drill very readily and as regards English education, I give my own experience as proof. I established a school in the regiment on the 4th of February. During the first month we had nothing but two dozen spelling books. I stopped school, went to New Orleans, and procured $350 worth of books. I returned and commenced school about the 1st of April, teaching two lessons per day, two hours each and five days per week. The fatigue and guard duty only permitted the same man to attend on average once every other day. Well the result is that when I commenced there were six who could read and write. Now there are 150 reading, 50 writing, and nearly all can do well in concerting geography, mental arithmetic, etc. One peculiarity is that everything that I can put to tune they learn almost immediately. Also songs, glees, etc. It is diverting to hear 200 of the former slaves of traitors in the evening after I close the regular lessons to finish up with Columbia, The Red, White, and Blue, Battle Hymn of Liberty, Kingdom’s Comin’, etc. The point is settled- the Negro is human and will learn. As the fleas have gotten the upper hand, I have to lay over until my next letter.

Proud soldiers of the Corps d'Afrique, later reorganized as U.S. Colored Troops. Zentz spent his year in Florida giving men like these soldiers a basic education.


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