Shaffer: Civil War cat bewitches gunboat in Kinston

January 27, 2013 

— In the waning months of the Civil War, a young gunner from Virginia floated outside Kinston aboard the CSS Neuse, lamenting the cold, mourning the rebel cause and writing love-struck tributes to a giant cat.

Unlike his shipmates, Charles Porter didn’t fancy gawking at the young ladies of Kinston. Not once he found out they were snuff-dippers and pipe-smokers. You get the feeling from his letters that he took some teasing over his prudishness, even though he had a gal waiting for him back in Virginia.

So Porter found his own Kinston valentine: an outsized feline he named Miss Cathy Couber Grubble. As the war sputtered out, she assumed the role of unofficial mascot and whiskered wartime love.

“I have become engaged to a little Tar Heel girl,” Porter wrote in 1864, “She is about 3 foot, 8 inches high, with beautiful red hair and the most magnificent eyes you ever saw. They are fine gray eyes, about such eyes as Fannie’s cat has got.

“You know how I admire cats above all others. Well, this is my Tar Heel sweetheart. Now don’t say that I don’t have a sweetheart, too.”

The story of Miss Cathy, her improbable size and her bewitching power over Confederate sailors brings new life to the hapless CSS Neuse, sunk by her own crew in 1865 as the Union army approached.

The ironclad ship sat at the bottom of her murky namesake for a century. But now that she’s set to star in a new Civil War museum, which opens in Kinston this spring, glimpses of life aboard her decks are trickling in. Notably the appearance of Miss Cathy.

“Don’t you think it’s a handsome name?” Porter wrote. “And she is as handsome as her name is.”

Strange enough that a Civil War gunner wrote doting prose to an on-board cat, which apparently stood as tall as a 5-year-old human.

Stranger still that he wrote them to his girlfriend, Virgilia “Gillie” Boatwright, teasing her about the rivalry. Porter wrote his human paramour more than two dozen letters, which only surfaced in Kinston last year after an ancestor had them published.

Some excerpts from the front lines:

“Oh, if only we had our noble Stonewall Jackson ... it would be here different.”

“Have you learned to weave yet?”

“I declare, Gillie, if I ever thought you would learn to dip snuff or smoke a pipe, I really don’t know what I should do.”

But in three of those letters, he taunted her with Miss Cathy. Maybe this was a private joke between the two of them. Maybe human-feline relationships were rich ground for 1860s humor. Certainly, many ships have had cat mascots, including Unsinkable Sam, who survived the sinking of three vessels in World War II – both British and German.

Still, these lines strike me as evidence the young Navy gunner might be cracking under the pressures of war.

“I am not married to that old Tar Heel yet,” Porter wrote Gillie in late 1864. “When I am, I will send you an invitation. As flour is scarce here, we are going to have our wedding cake made of corn meal. If you cannot come to see us married, I will send a piece to dream on.”

The appearance of these letters solved a puzzle for the Neuse site’s modern caretakers. They had long possessed a drawing of the gunboat, sketched by Lt. Richard Bacot, but they couldn’t identify the curly-tailed beast portrayed on board.

“We kept going back and forth,” said Morris Bass, operations manager. “Cat or rat? Cat or rat?”

The letters cinched Miss Cathy’s species, but presented a new problem; 3-foot-8?

“She’s probably standing on her hind legs,” said Holly Brown, historical interpreter.

“As big as it is,” said Jennifer Wisener, who works at the site part-time, “it could be a Maine Coon.”

The story ends well, and mysteriously.

With the war finished, Porter married his human sweetheart and worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. “Darling Gillie” died in 1899; Porter nine years later. You can visit his grave in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, which also holds the remains of generals George Pickett and J.E.B. Stuart.

No one knows what became of Miss Cathy.

Perhaps her spirit wandered north to the doomed capital of the Confederacy, where she walks among the marble slabs over Confederate dead, rubbing her back against her old sweetheart’s stone.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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