Mercury, October 20, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Oct. 10, 1863
—The monotony of life was somewhat broken last Monday night, October 5th, by an insane attempt by the rebels to either capture or destroy the Ironsides. Their plans to destroy the vessel were to place torpedoes under her and blow her up. The attacking party came down out of the inner harbor about 9 o’clock, passed the two monitors lying between Gregg and Moultrie, hugging themselves in the belief that they were unseen.17 But the ever watchful tars were very well aware of all the rebel manoeuvres. They let them go ahead, as it was the intention of the navy to trap the bold rascals. After the rebels had made the distance opposite the Ironsides, by running close along the beach of Sullivan’s Island, they struck boldly, but cautiously, out for their prize. On they came, with muffled oars; but while they were approaching, the crew of the Ironsides were silently preparing to give their nocturnal (or infernal) visitors a warm reception. At length the rebel boats are within hailing distance — the marine on the bow of the Ironsides cries —”boat ahoy!” no response from the boats, but sudden and vigorous strokes with the oars, and shouts of, “pull hard! the Yankees are all turned in — we’ve got her sure — pull, pull, let’s get aboard before they awake.” A rocket from the Ironsides told the monitors to begin — out of their huge guns, they threw grape, cannister and shrapnel — the crew of the ‘old invincible’ mounted the railing and poured down a continual stream of minnie balls, which must have convinced the unlucky rebels that the Yankees were wide awake. Another nice little Yankee invention was used to advantage on this occasion; it is almost as nice as ‘Greek Fire’; it is a contrivance to squirt steam. One party of rebels who were to place the torpedoes under the vessel, got out of range and pulled round to that side of the ships not in action, and got so close as to warrant them in throwing their infernals into the water, when lo! the skin-peeling element was in their midst! It is needless to say that they dropped their infernal machines, and intentions too. They could not stand such a novel mode of warfare as that, so they pulled for the nearest land under the control of Beaury — Sullivan’s Island. I believe we did not take many prisoners, as the rebels decamped sooner than the officers supposed they would. We are waiting to hear another protest, or bull, by little “Peter,” against squirting steam.
While the navy was doing such active service, the land forces were all prepared and waiting for an invasion of the right little, tight little isle. There was no surety, but the rebels, by attracting all our attention to one point, would come like an avalanche on some other, as they agree that this island is their greatest loss. But they troubled us no more that night, nor will they be apt to for some time. The attempt of the rebels to get possession of or destroy the Ironsides is pretty conclusive evidence that they admire her qualities as a fighting ram, or have a wholesome dread of her capacity to prove their obstructions all bosh. We shall no doubt be posted on her abilities that way soon, as matters appear to be coming to a point. Couriers ride, as if for dear life, bearing ponderous and ominous looking envelopes; some look grave and reticent, others look cunning and knowing, like your London “cabby,” while a few look as though they appreciated their business, by attending to it without making believe they know what their errand is. Everybody has a fancy of his own as to what is to be done, when, and how. But I must confess that I’m a “know-nothing.” A very important and humane arrangement has been instituted in this department, which deserves mention. The brave soldier who is killed, or dies by some frightful wound or lingering disease, is to be decently buried. The regiment or company to which a deceased soldier belonged are not to assume the responsibility of burial without an order to that effect from the Provost Marshal’s office; each corpse is to be provided with a good substantial coffin, and if the deceased has no clean garments among his own effects (which must be proved), one is furnished, and a white board, with the name, rank, and age of the deceased neatly and legibly marked thereon. The relatives and friends of the deceased are to receive an official notice of the facts, detailing the manner of death, or sickness before death, and every item so far as known of the conduct of the deceased in the field. This is indeed an improvement on the old order of things.
The casualties have been large the past week, in comparison with what they have been in weeks previous; not less than 15 men killed since last Sabbath, and 21 seriously wounded. The rebels have been successful in spilling more loyal blood, but the day of retribution will surely come.
One of our hundred-pound batteries pretty effectually silenced the rebel work on the north end of James Island yesterday. I believe our battery has been ordered to keep open on them, while our men are at work on Gregg and Wagner. So long as our long guns pitch shell into the rebels, they have no chance of killing off the fatigue parties.
Posts Tagged OAF
Mercury, October 15, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Oct. 3, 1863
—All quiet here, so far as war news is concerned. We hear of nothing to cause any great excitement around us, for we are so familiar with “bombs bursting in air,” and shot whizzing through space, that it would be an item were it to cease. We have been pegging away at Sumter, a little every day during the week, more I presume to keep them from working than anything else. The rebels opened in a new place yesterday; the battery is a little to the right of Castle Pinckney, but from the looks of the place it must be a floating battery. I was up in Wagner at the time, and from the way the shot came they must have a very superior gun. The shot came unexpectedly, as the sentinels on the lookout were not dreaming of a shot from that direction, their attention being directed to James Island’s “barkers,” and Fort Moultrie, and Batteries Bee and Beauregard. Suddenly, there came a noise through the air, like an Erie lightning-express train, — then a terrible explosion, and the pieces of a Brook’s shell were falling pell mell into the interior of the fort. Luckily not a man was hurt, although they had no time to “kiver,” as the Second S. Carolina boys express it. After that, we kept a lookout for that chap, and the rest of the afternoon he kept one end of the fatigue pretty busy covering. It is almost incredible how we manage to do so much work under such a heavy and constant fire. Wagner and Gregg are ours, but it takes about as much courage to hold them as it did to take them; and then to work on them and completely change them is something more than digging on a canal or railroad. But it is just this trait of ‘keeping all you get’ in the Yankee character which will eventually beat the rebels. We believe in good sound doctrine — for war at any rate —”keep all and get more.”
The iron clads are flourishing. I believe they are being painted; though I hear they captured a blockade runner last night, or one of the rebel rams, which it is rumored was coming out to raise the blockade. I don’t know if this be true, as I have had no chance of learning anything definite. But I know there was a grand pow-wow on the water last night about 11 o’clock, as the big guns were bellowing at a great rate, the flag vessel was signalizing rapidly, and taken altogether, I guess there was something of the ram kind or neutral traders around.
The subscriptions and collections towards the monument to Col. Robert G. Shaw have reached the sum of $1472, and it is proposed that the 54th contribute $1000. But we think the place proposed for its erection inexpedient, however much in keeping with poetic fitness. It is seriously proposed to erect it at the foot of Wagner’s parapet, facing Fort Sumter. Now the manner and place where the hero fell will be known in history; a monument does not of necessity need to be placed where a hero fell; its place is some city or town, where people can see it. When we propose to erect a monument on some desolate island like this, it is simply creating a Mecca in the nineteenth century, where the race supposed to be benefited by the contest, which cost the hero his own; and even should they be subjugated, which is stronger than conquered, it would ill become us to flaunt our success by raising monuments to our fallen heroes on their soil. Massachusetts is big enough to furnish a spot sufficient to honor one of her own soldiers; and I doubt not she would be very proud to have within her lines a monument of every son who has fallen in this trying war. We are ready to put in our mite, but we would rather see it raised on old Massachusetts soil. The first to say a black was a man, let her have the first monument raised by black men’s money, upon her good old rocks.
Morris Island, S.C.,
Oct. 3, 1863.
Mr. Thomas Hamilton—Dear Friend:
It has been a long time since I wrote you in my old-fashioned way. I have not sent you a line since my advent as a soldier. I thank God that I am at last in a position to learn to be a soldier. I believe that since the chieftains of the slavery party have sought and obtained the arbitrament of the bullet in their question of control of power with the Freedom party, every man should become a soldier, ready to do and to die in defence of freedom. Every Christian and enlightened man desires to see great principles and measures triumph through peaceful means, where reason rules her just sway, and amenity, conciliation, and love, take the place of hatred, passion and revenge.
The present century has been immortalized with the grandest reforms. From the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 down to the freeing of the Danish colonies, peaceful reform seems to have marched steadily on. Science, art and invention, a noble sisterhood, sat in counsel and astonished the world with their achievements. The very elements seemed to pay homage to the genius and skill of man. No man dare say what human ingenuity may not accomplish. The enlightened statesmen have in America hoped to secure the annihilation of every wrong and injustice through the agency of that power which Talleyrand considered more irresistible than the proudest and most powerful potentate, namely “public opinion.” The slavery party is arraigned at the bar of “public opinion.” Its vile vision is tortured and haunted by the wild spirit of reform. This is a subtle spirit. The engines of warfare cannot impede its progress. It is deathless and omnipresent. It underlies all the pageantry and misery of this gigantic war, The slavery party aims to plunge the country into disorder and anarchy and to establish by force of arms their hell-born system. There is but one alternative left to the freedom party if it would avert terrorism, proscription, and humiliation: ‘Tis steel for steel; bullet for bullet; life for life; man for man; blood for blood.
These are some of the notions that led me to join the 54th Mass. Volunteer Infantry. And again I thought that the true interests of all classes of men in our country depended on the success of our party. That they were the true representatives of the newest and best form of government ever established for the government of mankind and are the highest, noblest, and most progressive type of civilization. I can not see on what ground any man can discourage enlistments. Some urge that the treatment of colored citizens is exceptionable— that the guarantees of freedom vouchsafed to us by the government are tardy and doubtful—that some of our representative men, those who are considered the exponents of the principles of the freedom party are as bitter in their assaults on our race and as prejudiced as those of the slavery party. This is true, but these questions are only incidental in their character and cannot effect the general and fundamental principles and theories of the party: It must be remembered that the other class have suffered a slavery of the mind, just as brutalizing, just as debasing as that physical or social thraldom our class are suffering. It is prejudice and a disregard of the inalienable rights of their fellow men. Their notions of justice are so blinded they can without the least remorse rob their fellow-men of every sacred right. These men are to be elevated and their mental or moral condition must be ameliorated, just the same as the condition of those of our class who are debased by slavery should be ameliorated. They deserve the same pity and commiseration that the poor black slave does and we should “pass their imperfection by just as willingly. Let us be 1 charitable and contend only for the principles of liberty, government and civilization.
The siege of Charleston drags its slow length. Morris Island can t never be retaken by the enemy. Fifty thousand men could be swept away in fifty minutes by our guns. Our fatigue parties are somewhat annoyed by the rebel shell, but our labor progresses. The casualties are very few, I had prepared for your satisfaction a complete list of them, but lost my notes. The health of our regiment is bad. We average one hundred and fifty sick per day, caused no doubt, by excessive fatigue duty.
You have also heard I suppose of this matter of pay, it has caused a great deal of trouble, and if it is not adjusted one of the best regiments that ever left the Massachusetts will become utterly demoralized. The tribulations of our regiment have been many since we arrived in this department. The first business we were called on to participate in was the burning of Darien, Ga. Our officers, Col. Shaw among the rest, disapproved of the wanton destruction of that town defenseless and unoccupied as it was by the enemy. The men of this regiment have a distaste for this sort of warfare—we want to enter the field honorably—to fight a legitimate warfare. After our return from this expedition, we were sent to St. Helena. While there a proposition was made to take our arms from us and give in their stead long pikes. Col. Shaw expressed his disapprobation of this scheme. Then there was an offer made to pay us ten dollars per month less three for clothing, in other words pay us seven dollars per month. The men were enlisted as a part of the Mass. State quota of troops and never dreamed that any other pay but that of other Massachusetts soldiers would be given them. We have been urged and urged again to accept seven dollars a month, all, sergeant-major down to the humblest private to get no more. There are respectable and well to do men in this regiment, who have accepted positions. It is insulting to them to offer them about half the pay of a poor white private.
To give you an idea of the feelings of some of the officers here with regard to us on this point, I will give you a short speech made Sept. 30th by Col. James Montgomery, 2d South Carolina Vols., of Kansas fame, and Commander of the Brigade to which we have been recently joined. Col. Montgomery was not in command of the brigade. He has been sick some time past. The paymaster was in Col. Littlefield’s tent. Some ten or twelve officers of our own and other regiments were present. The men had not accepted their pay and the well men were on fatigue duty, at Battery Shaw and Wagner. Col. M. had those who were left in camp drawn up in line and addressed them as follows:
“I want to speak to you. You want plain talk and I shall give it to you. I am your friend. I made the first anti-slavery speech ever made in Kansas. I was the first man that employed negroes in the United States service. I fought six years in Kansas for nothing and I do not come here for pay. I can make $5,000 a year. I get only $2,200 here. I sacrifice my ease and comfort (for I enjoy myself at home). I have fought United States soldiers. There is a General now in the Rebel service whom I fought, killed his horse from under him and took him prisoner when in the United States service. I would have been hung long ago if I had held still. Old Jimmy Buchanan offered a reward for my head. It was a very mean one to be sure, and I was very indignant. He offered only a yearling nigger worth about two hundred and fifty dollars. If he had offered a full-grown nigger I would not have cared so much. You ought to be glad to pay for the privilege to fight, instead of squabbling about money. A great many of you are fugitive slaves, and can by law be returned to your masters. The government by its act in setting you free has paid you a thousand dollars bounty. I know what the trouble is: the noisy Abolitionists have been telling you you are better than anybody else. They are your worst enemies. You have two classes of friends: those who tell you what you are and those who sees in the Ethiopian a symbol of injured innocence. I have seen a hundred regiments but I never saw one so fully equipped as this. Look at your tents and cooking stoves. You want to be placed on the same footing as white soldiers. You must show yourselves as good soldiers as the white. For all anybody knows you did very well here. You must show it by bravery in battle. I should be glad to make you as good soldiers as the white. You are a race of slaves. A few years ago your fathers worshipped snakes and crocodiles in Africa. Your features partake of a beastly character. Your religious exercises in this camp is a mixture of barbarism and Christianity. I am disgusted with the mean, low habits you have learned from the low whites. I hear them say to you, ‘bully boys, bully boys, don’t take this pay’ What do they mean by this? Do you mean to bully the government out of your money or that you are stubborn as bulls? You would rather go out here and dig in the trenches than stay here in camp and be paid off. Gov. Andrew advises you to take this money and Frederick Douglass also. I have a letter here from Fred. He has been on a tour to Washington and had an interview with Sec. Stanton on the subject of enlistments. He advised that all that was needed was to treat the negro as a man. There are two classes of colored men: the indolent and careless; the industrious and ambitious. He (Douglass) called on Senator Pomeroy, but did not call on Jim Lane. He perhaps had found Lane out. There are two Senators from Kansas. Pomeroy is a pretty fair sort of man, but Jim Lane is at present a noisy Abolitionist. Some time ago he wanted to buy some lands, utensils and niggers, but not having any money had to do without the niggers. He will buy and sell a nigger as quick as anybody else, but since the majority are in favor of liberty, he is very loud-mouthed. Fred Douglass is far above the mass of his race; but he is not equal to the great men of this country, such as Wendell Phillips, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sumner, and others. You can be improved by education. Irishmen come to this country and in a few years become the same as other white men. Education expands the brain and improves the features. Your features can be improved. Your beauty cannot recommend you. Your yellow faces are evidences of rascality. You should get rid of this bad blood. My advice to you is the lightest of you must marry the blackest woman. You owe your sutler nearly $2,000 and your refusing to take your pay show that you intend to cheat him out of his goods. You went to his agent after he had gone away, and because he would not trust you broke open his place and robbed him. The men that robbed him should be hung. He had no right to trust you and could be handled for it. It is mutiny to refuse to take your pay, and mutiny is punishable with death.”
The Colonel spoke nearly an hour and I cannot stoop to give all the bad epithets directed to our regiment. We had not the remotest idea that he entertained such a spirit of hatred for our regiment. Had he scarcely left the bench on which he stood while addressing the men, when Col. Littlefield who was in command of the Brigade at the time stood up and said: “Men, I cannot let this opportunity pass. The regiment has endeared itself to me. You have done your whole duty. You have written your names on the scroll of fame and any man who defames this regiment defames me. Such a man is my enemy and if I have any fighting to do I will defend you. I do not urge you to take this money, but I am willing to give you a pledge of my honor that you will get your full pay. I have made a promise of $1,ooo to Gen. Saxton for a monument to Col. Shaw, and I would have you take this money and make up this sum to commemorate the name of your noble leader.”
This instantly dispelled the bad effects of Col. Montgomery’s remarks. I am astonished that some insubordinate demonstration was not made, but Col. M. is our superior officer and our boys respect their superior officers. The speech of Col. M. has fixed the determination in the minds of the men to await calmly and patiently. If we thought that our enemies would make this course on our part a ground of assault against colored soldiers, I for one should go for taking $7 per month, nay $2 would be enough, but as the Colonel says, all the private soldiers here are vehement in urging us to refuse this paltry pay. They say if we take this money they will want to cut down their wages next. I have never yet heard a man say that we have failed to perform our duty. We have been complimented for our arduous labor in the trenches and whenever paraded have cleaner clothes, cleaner arms, better polished equipments than any other colored regiment on the Island. In truth there is no negro regiment compared to the 54th. In the last review the palm for martial bearing, accurate marching, and cleanliness is disputed with the 54th by the 100th New York Volunteers. The crime that has unfortunately incurred the displeasure of our General is that we do not sign the pay rolls, and the pay-master will not give us money unless we sign and thus give him receipt in full for pay up to the ist of August. The words of Col. Montgomery fell with crushing effect on the regiment. We did not enlist for money but we feel that the men who enlisted us and those who accepted our service never intended that we should be treated different from other Massachusetts men. If the government had been too poor to pay us we would have been willing to give our services for nothing. But the government seems fully able to pay her soldiers, for just on the threshold of this great war she increased their pay.
We are told that by law we are slaves and can be returned to our masters. This I deny. But a few years ago when the slavery party controlled affairs, fugitives were hunted like so much wild game all over the country, and it was quite a paying business. A few years ago the same party, so the speech shows, made him an outlaw and would have hung him. Their power is broken and we are now United States soldiers and he a responsible citizen and high official. It would be just as incorrect—just as cruel, to call him an outlaw amenable to the law, as to call us fugitive slaves returnable to our masters by law. In truth there are necessarily some few fugitives here, but is the 54th made up of fugitive slaves?15 No, there are hundreds that have been blessed with a New England education, and have learned their duty as freemen, and know their rights and dare stand up for them, and if they cannot get their rights they can have the manly satisfaction that they stood up for them. Col. Montgomery unfortunately has been accustomed to the negro as a slave or freedman. It startles and astonishes him to see him stand erect with intelligence beaming in his countenance. He perhaps never saw a negro approach a white man except with hat in hand and bowed head. He says further, that he wishes to make us as good soldiers as the white. How can this be done if every stimulant to heroic actions are denied? The only hope of the negro soldiers as his status now appears, is half pay and the name not the rank of sergeant. To urge us to be good soldiers without throwing around us the influences which alone make the soldier, without which the noblest races will become varlet, is grossly absurd. But there seems to be an intimation here that we are not as good soldiers as whites. Is there to be a new theory developed? Everybody, citizens, soldiers, and the rest of mankind say, “thus far the negro soldier has done his whole duty.” Does Col. M. deny this? Is his services in ratio of value as $7 is to $13. It is said that the Government supports the worn-out and non-combatant slaves, but I understand that all of these classes of slaves or freedmen are self-supporting—that the government is now realizing an income from the Southern plantations.16 And does the government not expend hundreds of thousands in subsistence to the families of rebels in arms?17 Should those rebels return to their allegiance and espouse the Union cause would Uncle Sam ask them to work and fight for $7 a month?
Then again “we should be glad to pay for the privilege to fight.” After we have endured a slavery of two hundred and fifty years we are to pay for the privilege to fight and die to enable the North to conquer the South—what an idea! to pay for the privilege to fight for that tardy and at best doubtful freedom vouchsafed to us by the government. For what are we to be grateful? Here the white man has grown rich on our unpaid labor—has sold our children—insulted our wives—shut us out from the light of education, and even kept the Bible from us, and the moment he becomes convinced that these deeds of his are producing the desired results to his country and people, he gets to work and attempts to restore some of those rights and to allow for some of those wrongs. I think it a question of repentance on his part instead of gratitude on ours. What do you think of him should he demand your services and life, for a restoration of your rights and a release from his persecutions? If we are taunted because the suicidal course of the government has been changed, in the name of God, men of the freedom party, go back to your old policy. Exclude every fugitive from the armies—invalidate the President’s Emancipation Proclamation, let your officers be slaves—spies and catchers for Southern rebels, for no negro who has two ideas, one to rub against another, is willing to rest under this new slavery his presumed friends are marking out for him, namely: to keep ever present to the memory that his are a race of slaves and have an eternal tribute to pay to their oppressors. I want to feel as if I had a right to liberty and life, and that if I enjoy it, do not wish it said, that I owe to this one or that one.
It cannot be gainsayed that there is a frightful amount of profanity said to have been learned from the “low whites.” Now these “low whites,” belong to that race which the Colonel presumes to be the superior race. In what constitutes its superiority if it has a deleterious influence on our actions and character? I think there can be found more instances of barbarism in the whites in this country than in the blacks. Look at the Lawrence massacre, the New York mobs, and the Port Hudson atrocities! The fair Southern belle adorns her person with trinkets made from the bones of slaughtered Yankees. Is this not a “polished barbarism?” But the argument of this speech is not logical. It assumes the inferiority of our race, and denies its inferiority by declaring that all that is bad in us has been obtained from the whites which I think very true.
Profanity is a low mean vice, but it is universal in the army. Men are drawn into it almost unconsciously. Those who have been restrained by the associations at home when they get in the army seem to obtain a sort of immoral license. They contract habits and manners there from which they would shrink at home. Our regiment has been peculiarly unfortunate in this manner of spiritual instruction and advice. There have been but a half a dozen lectures delivered to the regiment since it left Readville, 28th last May. But this moral and spiritual void has been filled somewhat by instructive religious tracts and papers contributed by Christian and noble hearted friends in the North— yet while we have so much to regret, there are abundant evidences of a religious revival in our regiment. Are our prayer-meetings a mixture of paganism or barbarism and Christianity? I have witnessed camp-meetings of white Methodists and have seen just as much vehemence and excitement as our meetings are characterized with. It is a characteristic of Methodism in these later days to be exuberant, vehement, and boisterous; and Methodism is almost universal with the American negroes. There are more Methodists, I think statistics say, than every other sect among them unitedly.
The sutler was robbed of his goods by some five or six men in the regiment. The regiment did not rob the sutler. It is utterly impossible to get together any nine hundred or thousand men without some of them being bad enough to do almost anything. All soldiers regard sutlers as regimental Shylocks who demand their money or their lives. They have to pay them fifty cents per pound for rascally butter and twenty-five cents per pound for the blackest kind of sugar; and for everything else they pay equally exorbitant rates. There are few soldiers who think it highly penal to get the best of the sutler. Now this stealing for which the regiment is accused was perpetrated by men whose names are known, and whom Col. Littlefield intends to make pay for the small amount taken. Nor can this be called stealing but a sort of bushwacking raid.
The circumstances are as follows; Mr. De Mortie told the men in the regiment some two or three weeks ago, before he left for his home, that if they would not take the money the paymaster offered them, he would trust them. He went home, and his partners or agents refused to trust the men. The soldiers of other regiments who had been paid off came and bought the sutler’s stock out, and he replenished and sold out again, and any one of the 54th could with difficulty get accommodated. This incensed the men and five or six of the most violent tore down his tent. The sutler ran to the Colonel and he reported the circumstance and instantly sent the men off and put a guard over his tent. It was more a riot and a little spitefulness than robbery. The Colonel (Littlefield) had the whole affair quelled in less time than has been occupied in writing this account of it. How unjust to cast odium on the regiment for this act of half a dozen men. Raiding on sutlers is a most common thing in every camp. I have been the witness of many such catastrophes. I don’t dispute that the sutler is a very nice man and as just as sutlers generally can be, but I do say this, if his treatment of the men had been more conciliatory this would not have happened. His agent seems to have forgotten that he is a sutler of the 54th and should be prepared to fully accommodate their wants, as well as to make his fortune. The sutler trusted the men to two dollar checks, and compelled them to take the entire two dollars worth or nothing. He had no checks of smaller denomination than two dollars thus taking away the chance to economize. Two dollars is enough to answer the wants of a soldier from one to two months. Are we to be denounced as thieves for this?
As to yellow faces I don’t indulge in any controversy about color. I think “’tis the mind that makes the man,” not the color of his skin or any peculiarity of his hair. All I wish to know is the man just, is he humane and generous—noble-spirited—if yes, he is a man, if no, he is a slave to passion and iniquity.
I must not forget to tell you that Gov. Andrew has presented us with a new flag (State flag). In the charge on Fort Wagner, the old flag was torn asunder. In his speech to our regiment, Gov. A. told us that the State flag had never fallen into the hands of the enemy and urged if we could not save the flag, save the shreds—if we could not save the shreds save the staff, and his appeal has been heeded to the letter. When on the parapet of Fort Wagner, Corporal Peal, Co. F, who has had the honor to bear the State colors, inadvertently let the flag lean over the crest of the work, a rebel seized it, then commenced a desperate struggle between the corporal and the rebel for its possession. Unfortunately the color parted from the staff and thus by accident the flag was lost. The corporal said, “Ah you dirty rascal you did not get the staff any way,” and he brought the staff away with the spear. This flag is a facsimile of the old one, and when Col. Littlefield unfurled it the boys gave it three rousing cheers.
Trusting that health and prosperity are with you, I remain truly yours,
G. E. Stephens.
Mercury, October 8, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Sept. 26, 1863
—Since my last epistle to the “elect in Bedford,” there has nothing very eventful transpired. How long we are doomed to this monotonous state of affairs, I can’t presume to say; the army has done about all in its power to do in this mode of attack on Charleston and are now putting the captured works in a state of defence. Whether it is the intention to inaugurate any further offensive operations from Gregg or Wagner seems to be uncertain. One thing has been clearly demonstrated in this campaign. It is almost useless to undertake to drive an enemy out of sand works at long range. We have tried it on the rebels, and they in turn have tried it on us, with about the same effect. Sand works will stand too, a close bombardment, unless you pitch shell right into them; so if the approaches to Charleston are to be taken before the city lies at our mercy, it will be necessary to bring the iron fleet to close quarters. If there is not enough of them, send for more; for the more vessels we have engaged, the worse for the rebels. The monitors and iron boats were expected to revolutionize naval warfare radically. We have boastingly intimated that the strongest fortified cities were no longer a bugbear and scare to our invulnerable fleets; but we have yet to hear of one stronghold on the sea, or gulf coasts at least, laid low by their prowess. I believe the iron fleet is all that is claimed for it. But we don’t expect the monitors to go up Charleston harbor of themselves. We want a Nelson or Perry, or some one like the Commodore who was determined to “go up to New Orleans, or sink every ship he had.” When we have some one of that stamp we may expect to see Charleston fall, or else by the long and tedious mode of mapping them out, by way of James or Sullivan’s Islands. The first cry was, Fort Sumter is in the way; — now, Fort Sumter is worse than useless, so far as being a defence to the city is concerned. But still the “Webb-feet” are holding on — to their anchors. Then it was, if Forts Wagner and Gregg are put out of the way, then what: why move the fleet up a little nearer and look on the wharves of Charleston, see the boats land and put off for Sullivan’s Island, within gun range of even the land batteries on our side, and the monitors lying right in the mouth of the harbor and letting the rebel boats run from one point to another, not three miles from them, without making an effort to cripple them. Of course they must wait for orders to fire, and if the “great ram” itself came down I suppose ‘twould be the same way.
Whether the government has sagely considered the quotation from Vattel, as interpreted by the Charleston Courier, remains to be seen. But I can’t help thinking, as a great many others think, that if the government exhibits so much needless humanity in deference to Mons. Vattel’s played out theories, compiled two centuries since, as to restrain Gen. Gillmore from laying the nest of treason in her unhallowed dust now that he has the opportunity, we deserve to be beaten.
Does any man suppose that if the rebels had batteries planted, for instance on Long Island, or any where near New York on the Jersey side, they would have any scruples about burning New York with Greek fire if it did not surrender? Suppose the New Yorkers should say, “By the law of nations and all the standard authorities in such matters, you cannot burn or shell our city until you have reduced and passed Fort Hamilton, the floating batteries, and every battery and gun outside the city limits for three miles.” I think the rebels would be pretty apt to say, we are after the city. We don’t want your forts and batteries if we can get your city without them, and if you burn the city yourselves, why the forts are then practically useless. The treasure they were built to protect will be gone, and the forts will have to succumb in a short time, for the city will be no more a base of supply to them. That is about the position Charleston is in now, and we must see to it that the traitors shall learn the cost of warring against their country. What if the London Times does work itself into a fume, and call on the “whole civilized world to witness the inhuman barbarity of the Americans.” Don’t America belong to us? or at least that part which causes England so much anxiety. We have never lashed a rebel to a gun and blown him to pieces, however richly some of them have deserved it; neither have we banished a great warrior and sovereign to an almost desolate island, and left him to die with scarcely a friend to close his eyes. We treated Vallandigham better, who should have been ducked and gagged.
The number of casualties have been very small the past week, when we consider the persistent fire from the rebels. Our men at work up at Gregg and Wagner are most frequently admonished to “cover” from Johnson, or “he low” from Moultrie. The shell and shot come screaming through the air, as though thirsting for a victim; nearing the work they explode, scattering the fragments around, and the pieces hum and buzz like a shoal of maddened wasps. It sounds very inspiriting, providing you are in a position of comparative safety. But I notice that some men won’t cover; the consequence is they soon have someone to do it for them.
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.
Mercury, September 21, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Sept. 9, 1863
—At last Wagner and Gregg have the old flag waving over them. Sumter is a mass of shapeless ruins; Gregg is occupied by our forces, a small detachment of men, to repair and hold it. The agreeable fact was doubted a long time this morning by those whose duties were otherwheres but the “front.” But by sunrise, all doubts were cleared by the evidence of prisoners and trophies. The attack was made about 2 1-2 o’clock this morning by Generals Terry and Stevenson, and in half an hour the welkin rang with the loud cheers of our victorious army. While one part of our force were taking possession of Wagner, another small detachment marched on battery Gregg; but the rebels, panic-stricken by flying fugitives from Wagner, commenced to follow. So by one well-directed blow, we have swept the rebels from their strongest positions for the defence of Charleston. This is emphatically a triumph of skill; repulsed twice with a great loss of life, the Commanding General has at last been successful in proving the oft boasted impregnability of the defences of Charleston to be all moonshine in the age of science and expedients. Gen. Gillmore can proudly say he has gained what the rebels most dreaded to lose, without the loss of hardly a life. To be sure life has been sacrificed in the preparations to accomplish the great end; for how could it be otherwise, when the work had to be done under a heavy fire, and a continuous rain of shell, grape, and canister. Indeed what seemed to be the preliminary of a grand coup de main, was in fact the work which scared the rebels out. The bombardment commenced at daylight, Sept. 5th, and was kept up without intermission till Sunday night at 11 1-2 o’clock by the land batteries, and Ironsides, and “cheese boxes.”12 No wonder Wagner fell! Such a continuous pour of shot and shell never struck one work so accurately and effectively as on Saturday and Sunday; our trenches then being so close to the parapet of Wagner that the recoil of pieces of shell from our own guns wounded our men, who were digging the “last parallel,” that our boys could have a covered way to enter Wagner. All hands are satisfied, one with the other, and all feel that they are well repaid for disappointments and toil, and that each and every man reflect[s] credit and glory on the old flag, which waves defiantly at the gates of rebeldom. I have not room to describe the infernal machines put in the way by the rebels to destroy our men; suffice it to say, these torpedoes have killed many of our men when struck by them with their spades. In the trenches they had another diabolical contrivance consisting of a hook, not unlike a “gaff” (used by whalemen in handling blubber), and a lance with a long shank, the point of the lance being about 9 inches from the hook. These are mounted on poles five or six feet long and were no doubt purposely made for spearing men when charging, and then pulling them in the fort with the hooks. I was in the work a short time today, but could not stay long enough to gain any correct idea of how it is arranged internally; the sand is piled up in huge heaps here and there, almost completely covering the entrance to the bomb-proofs. There is nothing evidently in its appearance now to give one a just appreciation of the engineering displayed in its construction. I have not been so far as Gregg or Sumter yet and if they smell as bad as Wagner, I don’t want to. The smell in Wagner is really sickening, dead men and mules are profuse, some exposed to the rays of sun, and others being half buried by earth thrown over them by our shot and shell during the bombardment. Forts Moultrie and Johnson are now vainly trying to make the “Yankee” leave Wagner, but the monitors bark at them every now and then, so they will soon be silent.
Killed Sept. 5th by our own guns — Charles Van Allen, of Lenox, Mass., and Aaron Spencer, of North Lee, Mass., both of Co. A, 54th Mass. regiment.
Morris Island, Sept. 5, 1863 [OAF]
—As there is nothing to record the past week, other than the (insignificant?) death of a dozen pickets, or as many more laborers in trenches, of course you must expect a dull letter. We had hoped the weather would continue cool, as it had been the last week, but the thermometer is now up to the old numbers, 112 to 98; but the nights are very chilly. We have been so unfortunate as to lose three men during the week, who were at work at the front, besides five severely wounded. One of the men killed, George King, last place of residence, Toledo, Ohio, was once a slave, belonging to Gen. [John Cabell] Breckinridge, rebel army, and his mother and one sister are yet slaves, now in Richmond, Va. The others killed were Alexander Vanderpoel, of Coxsackie, N.Y. and Geo. Hunter, of Cleveland, O.10 It is now an ordinary spectacle to see stretchers passing, with blood trickling through the canvass, with some poor fellow who was wounded on picket or assisting the engineers. That is the last we ever hear or know of it; they are borne to the grave, and all the news-devouring people think is, “Oh that’s nothing, why don’t they have a great big battle, so we shall have a respectable list of killed, mangled and missing?” But the relatives and friends of the patriot soldier who is killed or wounded by a chance fragment of a shell, or a sharpshooter’s deadly aim, are apt to feel as bad as though the victim died on the ramparts, waving a battle flag before an assaulting column. A man dies none the less gloriously, standing at his post on picket, or digging in the trench; his country needs him there, and he is as true a soldier as though he were in the thickest fray. We should like to know from the North how the siege is progressing; we are pretty close to the work, but we know nothing as regards the news. I saw one of our boys brushing his dress-coat very carefully the other day, and asked him what he was so particular for. He said he wanted to have his clothes look nice, because he “guessed we would soon march into Charleston!” Of course, I hope he will be gratified in his wish, and do not doubt him in the main, if he will ignore “soon.” It is pretty generally believed that Sumter is evacuated, for it does not seem possible for men to stay in it, in its present dilapidated condition. There appears to be no signs of work going on in the fort, neither has there been a gun fired these three weeks from her. But there are “other fish to fry” besides Sumter, and you may depend upon it that they will be done brown by the fire the Chef de Cuisine will put under them. Time works wonders, and time is needed to take Charleston.
Mercury, September 15, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 30, 1863
—The past week has developed nothing very stirring that I am aware of, though there may be a number of manufactured “tales” in the mail gleanings, or “the very latest by telegraph.” But for the information of those who feel anxious, I will merely state that Morris Island is bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, and a number of bogs and quagmires on another, and last, though not least, by numerous rebel guns on “tother side.” Of course the siege is progressing finely; how could it be otherwise? For don’t you all know that Charleston was to have fallen the next day surely, for the last month and more! (Vide New York Herald.) Query. What has become of the barque Growler, cleared from Boston with a cargo of “cooling material for Charleston Bar”? This hot weather makes us feel solicitous for her safety. We fear something awful has happened, such a sad casualty perhaps as the ice melting away — in tumblers sitting on high official tables.
Last Thursday night our pickets were successful in assaulting and carrying the rebel rifle pits, close under Wagner, say within 270 yards. Among the captured prisoners, amounting in all to 63, are 5 black men; two were fully armed and equipped, as REBEL SHARPSHOOTERS. They had the very best pattern of rifle, “neutral” make, and are represented by the “trash” as unerring shots. The other three were at work in the trenches. One of these sable rebels is represented to be a reb at heart; he is a large owner of chattels himself, and does not seem to exhibit any of that humble or cowering mien, to indicate that he thinks himself inferior to the “Great Jeff” himself. He holds himself aloof from the other “misguided brethren,” the same as my Lord of the olden time did from his vassals. There may be many more such men as that in the South; but the idea of Mr. Davis relying on his attached and docile SERVANTS to recuperate his wasted armies is all moonshine. In the first place HE knows better than to try any such experiment. The slaves would very likely be glad to get arms, but Mr. Davis probably is certain they would USE them on the “kind and indulgent upholders of the peculiar institution” instead of the “marauding Yankees.” And if he takes the chattels to fill the army, who is to raise the “wittles?” Patriotism and dreams of a Great Southern Empire may sustain the SPIRIT of treason, but the rebels are not Joves nor wizards; they must eat. But I hope Mr. Davis may so far forget himself as to call on every able negro in his so called Confederacy, for it is plain to be seen that they would only be ready to fall into Uncle Sam’s ranks at the first opportunity, with the advantage of coming to us armed and equipped, at the expense of the Confederacy, and —”Neutral Britain.”
Last Sunday we had a grand review of troops. The 54th was the only colored regiment in the column, sandwiched between the white troops. No one on the ground seemed to perceive any signs of danger arising from such close proximity. The regiment was highly complimented by the Commanding General on its cleanliness of dress, good conduct and proficiency in drill. So you see the 54th is bound to five down all prejudice against its color, by a determination to do well in any position it is put. If it is to wield the shovel and pick, do it faithfully; if it is to haul siege guns, or load and unload transports, our motto is, work faithfully and willingly. The regiment has been on guard and picket very little since coming here, as it gained a reputation of being a good working regiment; so we have been pretty well worked out for the last month, but the most of us are yet living.
J. H. G.
Mercury, September 7, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 23, 1863
—Supposing a detailed account of the operations now in progress in this quarter would prove interesting to your readers, I have taken the pains to jot them down as they occur, trusting to the leniency of the commanding officer to let the MSS. pass. On Monday morning, the 17th, the bombardment commenced. Such a roar of heavy cannon I greatly doubt has been heard since the art of war has been known; for the heaviest guns ever cast in the known world are now banging away at the doomed citadels of rebellion, Forts Wagner and Sumter. Shot after shot tears up the bricks and mortar of Sumter’s walls, but still her flag floats defiantly from the battlement. Battery Gregg, a little to the right of Sumter, has been silent the greater part of the day, as the rains of the Yankee Pandemonium are a little too hot for such small fry as herself. The clouds of sand which anon rise up around Fort Wagner give the surest indication that our gallant artillerists are unerring marksmen. To give you any information concerning the number, kind or position of guns would be violating a strict and necessary order; but suffice it to say that the work goes on in a manner assuring success. Slow, but sure, is the policy evidently pursued now, and it is fair to anticipate the fall of secession’s mother before the genial days of September are gone.
At evening, after the first day’s work, the firing ceased on the side of the rebels, and it being very dark and hazy, our side ceased also, with the exception of a shell now and then, probably to let the rebels know that folks were awake this side of Sumter. The next morning the ball reopened with renewed vigor and Sumter now began to show symptoms of rough usage. The mortar schooners keep up a slow shelling of Wagner,9 but from the look of things, the navy appear at present to hold faith in the poet’s line, “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” There was one casualty this day; one man of the 3d R.I. battery was almost instantly killed by a fragment of shell. On Wednesday the siege was progressing the same as the two days previous, with a steady diminution in the height and architectural beauty of the walls of Sumter and the regularity of the lines of Wagner’s parapet. Thursday morning; again the contending guns are belching forth their sheets of flame, reminding us that these are war times. The rebels are very active this morning, if judged by the number of shells they are throwing so promiscuously over the north end of the island; but these do not appear to scare Gen. Gillmore; he means to go ahead, and go he will. Friday may be considered about the same as the days preceding it, and we expect it will continue so for some time yet, though the rebels are evidently hard pushed, when judged by their slow fire from Wagner and Sumter, indicating scant resources in ammunition, at least, if not in provisions.
There was a very impressive cortege passed by our camp this morning, which is one of the inevitable concomitants of soldier life. There is a queer mixture of joy and sorrow in an army. Lieut. Holbrook, of the 3d R.I. battery, was followed to his last resting place by a detachment of his regiment, a large number of officers and a company of infantry, with two field pieces, escorted by the band of the 6th Conn, regiment. Lieut. Holbrook was a Massachusetts officer, and formerly was one of the 10th Mass. battery. He was struck by a piece of shell while training a gun, of which he was in charge. He lingered two days in the most intense agony. He was an officer beloved and respected both by his fellow officers and men, and his death is one more sacrifice, on the altar of freedom, of a brave and patriotic son of New England.
J. H. G.
Mercury, August 29, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 16, 1863
—As stringent orders have been recently issued relative to giving information in regard to military matters here, which is a very proper course and necessary, the amount of news is rather meagre, so I will violate no “General Orders” in expressing the general feeling of the regiment in respect to our late commander, Col. qualities, as a friend, commander and hero, and, I might add, without any extravagance, a martyr—for such he has proved himself to be. Who would dare ascribe a selfish motive to a man whose position in life bade fair to be a high one, without the prestige of military fame? He seemed to have taken the position more in the light of a reformer, or one to put in practice a system of order and discipline among a people sadly deficient in these respects, not in a military sense alone, because the seed of discipline sown among us as soldiers would ripen into fruit when the time arrived to become citizens. We, as a people, would know the value of obedience and the meaning of law and order; but I am off the point. When the raising of this regiment was first mooted I doubt if there could have been found a dozen men in the North, holding as high a position and with prospects of bettering themselves by another channel, as our respected Colonel, who would have accepted the unenviable position as commander of the first colored regiment organized in the North. There was then a great doubt among skeptical persons of our raising 500 men; and doubts, too, of colored men conforming to the restraint of camp life, and predictions that the men would run away in a week after being brought to camp; with these doubts and predictions before them, men were afraid to risk their reputations and name on what too many deemed a chimera; they did not care to stand a chance of being the laughing stock and butt of cynical persons. But Col. Shaw, from the beginning, never evinced any fear of what others thought or said. He believed the work would be done, and he put his hands, his head, and heart to the task, with what results you all know. It has been conceded by many that he carried through Boston one of the best drilled regiments ever raised by the State. The discipline of the regiment was perfect; not a slavish fear, but obedience enacted by the evidence of a superior and directing mind.
Col. Shaw was not what might be expected, familiar with his men; he was cold, distant, and even austere, to a casual observer. When in the line of duty, he differed totally from what many persons would suppose he would be, as commander of a negro regiment. If there was any abolition fanaticism in him, he had a mind well balanced, so that no man in the regiment would ever presume to take advantage of that feeling in their favor, to disobey, or use insolence; but had any man a wrong done him, in Colonel Shaw he always found an impartial judge, providing the complaint was presented through the proper channels. For he was very formal in all his proceedings, and would enforce obedience merely by his tones which were not harsh, but soft and firm. The last day with us, or I may say the ending of it, as we lay flat on the ground before the assault, his manner was more unbending than I had ever noticed before in the presence of his men; he sat on the ground, and was talking to the men very familiarly and kindly; he told them how the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work they were about to enter on; and said he, “Now boys I want you to be MEN!” He would walk along the entire line and speak words of cheer to his men. We could see that he was a man who had counted the cost of the undertaking before him, for his words were spoken so ominously, his lips were compressed, and now and then there was visible a slight twitching of the corners of his mouth, like one bent on accomplishing or dying. One poor fellow, struck no doubt by the Colonel’s determined bearing, exclaimed as he was passing him, “Colonel, I will stay by you till I die,” and he kept his word; he has never been seen since. For one so young, Col. Shaw showed a well-trained mind, and an ability of governing men not possessed by many older and more experienced men. In him, the regiment has lost one of its best and most devoted friends. Requiescat in pace.
J. H. G.
Mercury, August 21, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 9, 1863
—Since my last weekly melange, the situation remains about the same in this department. The 55th regiment, Col. N. P. Hallowell commanding, arrived here from Newbern last Monday, and on Tuesday the regiment was introduced to Messrs. Shovel and Spade, a firm largely interested in building rifle pits, breastworks and batteries. The men appear to be in splendid physical condition, and take the two regiments in the aggregrate, I think the 55th is superior in material to the 54th. But the hardships incident to a soldier’s life may equalize them in a month or two.
Last Wednesday night, as a party of men on a fatigue expedition were approaching Fort Johnson, a little too near, they narrowly escaped being captured. The party were in boats containing lumber, for the purpose of building a bridge across the creek which divides this island from James Island. The tide falling, near morning they were discovered by the rebel pickets, who commenced firing on them. Had not our own sharpshooters been near, the rebels would no doubt have captured some of our men; as it was, however, the fatigue party scrambled out of the boats, and made tracks through the mud and mire for camp. The rebels did succeed in capturing a captain and five men, but they escaped.
The sickly season has now about commenced; daily we hear the muffled drum, accompanied by the shrill, shrieking tones of the fife, which tells us that the “fell destroyer, Death,” is near. Three times yesterday the plaintive notes of Bonaparte crossing the Alps were played passing our camp, followed by some noble son of New England in each instance. Our own regiment, too, lost one yesterday. His name was John Pieere, of Philadelphia; his complaint was fever.3 About noon yesterday there was sudden cessation of firing; the cause of it was the rebels sent out a flag of truce, and after that some of the general officers rode to the front and met those bearing it. What the result was is not known; but there were many rumors afloat during the afternoon in regard to it; some even hinting that Fort Wagner’s defenders wished to sue for conditional terms; others to the effect that the “populace” of Charleston, not unlike their confreres in New York, were becoming clamorous for peace, threatening Jeff, Beauregard & Co. with violence if they persisted in holding on to Charleston, in view of the vast preparations the “Yankees” were making for their destruction; and that Beauregard came to make some treaty for the surrender of the city. But the news manufacturers didn’t hit the nail on the head, I guess, for by 6 o’clock they were blazing away at each other nicely, with every prospect of —”to be continued.”
Last Wednesday afternoon the companies were all formed in line in their respective streets, when Col. Littlefield addressed each company separately to this effect: “I have been requested by the paymaster to say that if the men are ready to receive TEN dollars per month as part pay, he will come over and pay the men off; you need not be afraid though that you won’t get your THIRTEEN dollars per month, for you surely will.” He then went on explaining how this little financial hitch was brought about, by telling us of some old record on file in relation to paying laborers or contrabands employed on public works, which the War Department had construed as applying to colored soldiers, urging us to take the TEN NOW and wait for some action of the Government for the other three. He then said, “all who wish to take the ten dollars per month, raise your right hand,” and I am glad to say not one man in the whole regiment lifted a hand. He then said, we might not receive any money till after the convening of Congress. We replied that we had been over five months waiting, and we would wait till the Government could frame some special law, for the payment of part of its troops. The 2d South Carolina regiment was paid the ten dollars per month; but we were enlisted under different circumstances. Too many of our comrades’ bones lie bleaching near the walls of Fort Wagner to subtract even one cent from our hard earned pay. If the nation can ill afford to pay us, we are men and will do our duty while we are here without a murmur, as we have done always, before and since that day we were offered to sell our manhood for ten dollars per month.
J. H. G.
P.S. — I have just learned on “undoubted authority” that the flag of truce was for the purpose of returning the letters, valuables and money found on our dead and wounded in the assault of the 18th July. This may seem wonderful, that the rebels should act so honorably, but it is a fact. May be they are putting in practice what Hon. A. H. Stephens undertook to negotiate, thinking we will be magnanimous when we enter Charleston.
J. H. G.