Mercury, October 1, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Sept 19, 1863
—”All quiet” in this department of the South is a very appropriate mode of expressing the operations the past week with us here. Although you may expect at no distant day to hear of stirring actions, that is, if signalizing, backing up and backing down mean anything. The monitors run up—fall in line — up goes a signal from the flag vessel — they break ranks, and, blow off steam out of gun range of old Moultrie. A comical chap in our company says, he guesses “they are having dress parade.” We expected to see the cheese boxes knock Sullivan’s Island batteries higher than a kite long ago, but we are agreeably left to keep expecting. But the land forces are busy preparing for something, but what it is to be I can’t venture to say for fear it may prove greatly the reverse. But if I were a rebel, and lived in Charleston, I should feel decidedly skittish to see the villainous Yankees planting those dangerous Parrot guns right in front of the city, and less than 4 miles off too. Mr. Beauregard is aware that those barbarous engines of war will carry a message a little over five miles. Hence his persistent efforts to shell us out of Wagner and Gregg. The mathematician of the regiment estimates that if the number of shells wasted by old Beaury costs three dollars in good money, it will only take three months and seven days to run out the last Confederate loan — each shell costing $15 in rebel scrip. I think Senator Toombs should point out the utter folly and extravagance of Beauregard’s course, as the Senator is deeply concerned about the Confederate finances.
Night and day the rebels are pouring shell around Wagner, Gregg, and on our camps on Black Island, or at the “Swamp Angel” but so far, they would have accomplished as much had they fired at the moon. Yesterday, they appeared to be unusually extravagant — from the north end of James Island all the way down to Seceshville, they kept their batteries open (numbering 12 guns), firing at — nobody knows; it is certain their shot came no where near Morris Island. It is said a magazine was blown up on James Island last Tuesday, but I cannot rely upon it; there certainly was a great smoke seen over there, but it might have been a fire in the woods. Of course, every rebel magazine blown up is considered a gain to the Union cause, in the same light of the “utter demoralization” of such and such a rebel army, or a “strong Union sentiment” existing in this or that section, and many persons are credulous enough to believe that all such natural combinations will end the war, instead of good hard fighting. The best mode of creating Union sentiments now, is by planting artillery near the thresholds of those who are without them, and if you get that close to them, you must fight hard to get there; that is, you will have to demoralize the army between you and the apocryphal Union section by giving them a good sound drubbing, or else capture and put them in the penitentiary. We had a heavy gale here, lasting all day Wednesday and Thursday; the rain came down as it only can in these latitudes, with a vengeance. The most of the shipping inside the bar had to be towed out, for fear some of them would be swept ashore. The beach was strewn with boats, broke loose from vessels in the offing, stumps of huge trees, timber and spars. I saw the floor ribs of a good-sized ship high and dry on the beach, drove up by the fury of the waves. She may be a relic of the stone blockade, as I saw a piece of a vessel’s knighthead marked “Corea,” and I believe there was a ship of that name in the stone fleet. The weather is quite cool here since the storm; it is very comfortable in the day time, but the nights make an overcoat indispensable. I believe the bark Growler, or Grumbler, has arrived at last. Misfortunes or blessings never come singly — now we have cold weather, we have ice water. But the soldiers thank the donors all the same, and bless the good people who thought of them weeks ago, when the days were long and sultry.
As I have taken too much of your space, I will end by giving the thanks of the 54th regiment to their friends in the Sperm City for the interest taken in our behalf. May they ever have plenty of “spondulicks” to relieve the boys in the field, if they can’t relieve us on picket.
Fort Wagner has fallen! The stronghold which bade defiance to every assault, and received for forty days the peltings of iron missiles vomited from the heaviest ordinance employed in modern warfare, has submitted to patient toil and labor with the spade. The enemy have admitted that Wagner was the key to Charleston, and our lights say that the reduction and occupancy of Sumter was an impossibility while it (Wagner) remained in possession of the enemy. These notices have been iterated and reiterated until the fall of Fort Wagner has become to be regarded by those far removed from the scenes of active operations as great an achievement as the capture of Fort Sumter, or the formidable Sullivan’s Island batteries. Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg, with some one hundred prisoners and a considerable amount of commissary stores, with seven or eight pieces of artillery, are our only trophies of victory.
For a week previous to the evacuation of Fort Wagner by the rebel forces, they had been removing their arms and ammunition, and when our forces took peaceable possession of it, the magazine was found to be empty, or nearly so. Their prisoners say no power on earth could keep us out of Fort Wagner or any other fort that could be approached by parallels. From the first landing of troops on Morris Island it has been regarded as lost. They admit that the city of Charleston can be destroyed by our combustible shells, and the rebel authorities seem to dare our commanding General to burn the city. For what are all those rebel batteries erected? To save the city of Charleston from destruction and to prevent its occupation by our forces. If we burn the city, half the necessity for rebel batteries has been taken away. And another thing: if Beauregard, or whoever else may have command, when he or they found that there was a fixed determination to bum it, if not surrendered, we would have [had) but very few of their insolent parleyings. I would spare the aged and infirm, the women and children, and give them ample time to go beyond the reach of danger, but the city I would burn to ashes. Not one stone of its buildings would I leave upon another for active rebels, armed and unarmed, I would dig graves beneath its smoldering ruins. It is not very likely that the rebels would occupy their works after the material interests of the city were destroyed. If the old nest which contains and has hatched out so many secession serpents was destroyed, the country would be spared many troubles, and a new order of beings not branded with treason or infatuated with slavery could find a home and habitation. The course would in the end be found to be one of the grandest steps toward restoring loyalty and peace, and remove the necessity of a standing army in South Carolina. For the sake of humanity, peace and victory give them "Greek fire," the torch and shell, not in anger or for revenge, but as a just, well merited punishment for treason, violation of the law, and other crimes.
From present appearances Charleston will not be burned, and the reduction of the other forts and batteries in Charleston harbor is as great a military problem as ever. There is a question between the relative activity of the land and naval forces now engaged in the sieges. The army claim to have achieved all the successes thus far, and that the navy have failed to fully co-operate with them. In the first place, with justice to the navy, it may be said to have been the right arm of the Federal service, and has been the safeguard of the army. The land forces have on many occasions owed their salvation to the naval. It seems to be unjust to deny the navy the high honors it deserves. What if victory has been achieved by the co-operation of the navy? One thing I think is demonstrated in the present siege: the superiority of the Ironsides over the Monitors for such operations. Rapidity of firing is just as essential as great weight of metal. Complete invulnerability cannot be attained. That is, an iron vessel could not be floated with a hull strong enough to resist steel-pointed shot of the weight modern improved guns can propel against it. Nothing but huge sandbanks can withstand these terrible missiles. During the siege of Fort Wagner, when the Ironsides would run up into the very jaws of their batteries on Sullivan's Island, right in the face of Wagner and Sumter, she invariably silenced them. One shell would not explode before another would take its place to fill the atmosphere with death. She did not give them breathing time. They could not take shelter from one shell and man and fire their guns before another could reach them, as they can easily do when engaged with the Monitors.
It is contraband to write of present operations, but I am privileged to have my say about the operations which led to the evacuation of Wagner and Gregg. We have lost as much of blood and suffered as much in toil as any other regiment in the Department in the performance of this task, and I presume that when the commanding General shall come to sum up his report of this affair, he will give us the credit we deserve. The truth cannot always be learned from newspaper correspondence, there is such wide scope for the ventilation of sentiments of prejudiced and irresponsible men. This may be "like pot calling kettle black," but I must say that after we have done as much as any other soldiers here, our flag should have been alongside the rest. Serrill's Engineers, who deserve the highest honor, planted their flag on the works, as did the 3d Rhode Island. If we had demanded to have our flag and urged its claims to a place there, as Col. Shaw would have done, it would have floated there. But not one suggested the propriety of it.
The main portion of our regiment was in line of battle, on the right of Montgomery's Brigade. Detachments from the 54th Massachusetts, ad South Carolina, 100th New York, 10th Connecticut and the Marine Corps intercepted three of the rebel barges which contained the last remains of Gregg's and Wagner's garrison, numbering about one hundred men. One of the rebel barges escaped. Some of the rebels in their fright and excitement jumped overboard. There were some drowned, but the greater number were rescued. There were some few men found scattered around the works who seemed to court capture. Our pickets were apprized by a rebel soldier of the evacuation of Wagner about midnight, but before he could make it known that he bore information for us some of the pickets shot him. The detachment which captured these retreating rebels was part of a programme of movements to take Wagner by assault. The part they had to play was to intercept re-enforcements during the assault, and it was not until we had marched them away down to the Beacon House that one of their principle men admitted that the works had been abandoned. They, to a man, deny havingbeen in the fort on the 18th; They, say they relieved the men who held the battery at that time. About a week ago they conversed freely with us negroes," and seemed to have vague notions of retaliation. They all said that they belonged to the Charleston Battalion—-were boatmen carrying provisions over to Curnmings's Point. There was an officer with them who said that he was only assistant surgeon, but his rank is higher and he does not belong to the medical corps. He cut a mighty sorry figure as he marched at the head of his comrades, and on each side of them the silent, moody negro guard.-Now and then the Sergeant would give out the stern command, "Close up!" and Mr. Reb did not have to be told a second time.
Quite a considerable number of colored refugees have come into our lines since the capture of the whole of Morris Island. Ten persons made their escape on last Friday night: four children, one women and five men. They came from the city and confirm the report of the destructiveness of shells charged with "Greek Fire." They say that the citizens are running off their slaves by the thousands. They towed their boats down the harbor in safety, and the mother says that just as they got opposite Sumter the little baby broke out in shrill screams and would not be comforted. They gave up all for lost, but the heroic mother instantly made a wad of a shawl and filled its little mouth, and when they landed on the beach and surrendered to our pickets, the poor little things were almost suffocated. She thinks "it better die den all be slave.";
I cannot resist the temptation to refer to the conduct of the colored soldiers digging in the approaches. Says Sergt. Barquet: "Men born and reared on Southern plantations who never saw a gun can now talk as glibly as you please of planes, augers, ranges and distances, and the entire military vocabulary is becoming familiar to them. I overheard the following conversation between two contraband soldiers: 'Sam, Cohorn mortar trow shell great range; to fetch him, reb wastes much powder.' 'Ah! Jirn, Cohorn mortar wuss den grape and schrapanel; grape shell come straight in trench—de odder bound to go ober.' " What a fund of information these men have gained, and what a grand school for the soldier is here opened to them! Eight hours out of thirty-six toiling and laboring in the face of death, shell from front and flank, Minnie bullets, grape and shrapnel plunging, whizzing and plowing up"the earth on all sides. Some one of the officers of the Engineer Corps has to superintend the work of the fatigue parties.
Barquet gives the following scrap which will show how reckless and profane a man can be under the intoxicating influence of rum, and, is, to say the least, an incident worth telling: The fifth and last parallethad been reached; the rebels seemed to be frenzied with alarm, and their sharpshooters and heavy guns kept up an incessant play on the fatigue parties. An Irish Lieutenant of Serrill's Engineer Corps had charge of the operations on that night. The perilous march had been made without any casualties. When our fatigue reached the point of operations, the following colloquy occurred between the Irish Lieutenant and the men who had the dangerous duty to perform:
"Who comes there?"
"54th fatigue party!"
"Arrah, there should be here at this late hour a brigade of fatigue men. Now listen. There was niver a man hurt wid me," the shot then nearly blinding the men with their fizzing, fuming glare. "I want two parties of sappers and miners of four men each. First party come forward!" The men came. "No. 1 you're a sapper. No. 2, you're a miner. No. 3, you're a sapper. No. 4, you're a miner. No. 1, you're kilt! No. 2, you take his place. No. 3, you're kilt. No. 4, you must take his place." No. 1'S and 3's feelings may be better imagined than described. As a sort of climax to this arrangement, the inebriated officer said, "All I ask is two gabions to a man, and by to-morrow morning we'll be in the gates of Fort Wagner and the jaws of death and hell."
The boys went to work with a will, and before daylight an indignant rebel in the riflepits, just behind our parallel, was forced to exclaim to our boys,. "You black Yankee sons of b—s intend to bury us in sand, don't you?" On this night poor young Vanderpool was killed, three of the 104th Pennsylvania volunteers, and several wounded.
The Rev. Samuel Harrison has been appointed Chaplain of our regiment. This is most fortunate. Our regiment has felt the need of a chaplain. We have had but four sermons preached to us since we left the camp Readville, Mass.—one by Rev. James Lynch at St. Helena, and one on St. Simon's by the Chaplain of the 2d South Carolina Volunteers, and two on Morris Island by an able and eloquent agent of the American Tract Society, now home in the North, and whose name I disremember. Prayer-meetings are regularly held in our camp and I think there are a few evidences of a revival. These meetings are very boisterous, and many who believe in deep, fervent, devotional worship cannot take as active a part in them as they would if there was less excitement and fewer of their unearthly yellings.
Gen. Gillmore has commenced granting furloughs. Today some ten or twelve of the 54th go North in the steamer that bears this letter. Your humble servant defers his visit North to a more convenient season. Sergt.-Major Douglass, Sergt. Barquet, and Sergt. Gray of New Bedford, are among this first installment of absentees.
I have just seen another Letter from Gov. Andrew, to the effect that there is no law which prevents our receiving full pay—that the Paymaster is not a competent judge in the matter, and that free colored men, citizens of Massachusetts, regularly enlisted as Massachusetts volunteers, cannot be less than citizen soldiers whom the Paymaster has no right to know but as soldiers, and advising us to take ten dollars a month under protest only. The law referring to persons of African descent employed in the army cannot refer to us. There is no proof that any of our fathers are Africans. If they adopt this rule there is no such thing as an American in the country, for all whites and blacks are not aborigines.