Life at Camp Shaw.

From: Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1882 Boston


  THE Edisto expedition cost me the health and strength of several years. I could say, long after, in the words of one of the men, “I’se been a sickly person, eber since de expeditious.” Justice to a strong constitution and good habits compels me, however, to say that, up to the time of my injury, I was almost the only officer in the regiment who had not once been off duty from illness. But at last I had to yield, and went North for a month.

  We heard much said, during the war, of wounded officers who stayed unreasonably long at home. I think there were more instances of those who went back too soon. Such at least was my case. On returning to the regiment I found a great accumulation of unfinished business; every member of the field and staff was prostrated by illness or absent on detailed service; two companies had been sent to Hilton Head on fatigue duty, and kept there unexpectedly long; and there was a visible demoralization among the rest, especially from the fact that their pay had just been cut down, in violation of the express pledges of the government. A few weeks of steady sway made all right again; and during those weeks I felt a perfect exhilaration of health, followed by a month or two of complete prostration, when the work was done. This passing, I returned to duty, buoyed up by the fallacious hope that the winter months would set me right again.

  We had a new camp on Port Royal Island, very pleasantly situated, just out of Beaufort. It stretched nearly to the edge of a shelving bluff, fringed with pines and overlooking the river; below the bluff was a hard, narrow beach, where one might gallop a mile and bathe at the farther end. We could look up and down the curving stream, and watch the few vessels that came and went. Our first encampment had been lower down that same river, and we felt at home.

  The new camp was named Camp Shaw, in honor of the noble young officer who had lately fallen at Fort Wagner, under circumstances which had endeared him to all the men. As it happened, they had never seen him, nor was my regiment ever placed within immediate reach of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. This I always regretted, feeling very desirous to compare the military qualities of the Northern and Southern blacks. As it was, the Southern regiments with which the Massachusetts troops were brigaded were hardly a fair specimen of their kind, having been raised chiefly by drafting, and, for this and other causes, being afflicted with perpetual discontent and desertion.

  We had, of course, looked forward with great interest to the arrival of these new colored regiments, and I had ridden in from the picket-station to see the Fifty-Fourth. Apart from the peculiarity of its material, it was fresh from my own State, and I had relatives and acquaintances among its officers. Governor Andrew, who had formed it, was an old friend, and had begged me, on departure from Massachusetts, to keep him informed as to our experiment I had good reason to believe that my reports had helped to prepare the way for this new battalion, and I had sent him, at his request, some hints as to its formation.1

  In the streets of Beaufort I had met Colonel Shaw, riding with his lieutenant-colonel and successor, Edward Hallowell, and had gone back with them to share their first meal in camp. I should have known Shaw anywhere by his resemblance to his kindred, nor did it take long to perceive that he shared their habitual truthfulness and courage. Moreover, he and Hallowell had already got beyond the commonplaces of inexperience, in regard to colored troops, and, for a wonder, asked only sensible questions. For instance, he admitted the mere matter of courage to be settled, as regarded the colored troops, and his whole solicitude bore on this point, Would they do as well in line-of-battle as they had already done in more irregular service, and on picket and guard-duty? Of this I had, of course, no doubt, nor, I think, had he; though I remember his saying something about the possibility of putting them between two fires in case of need, and so cutting off their retreat. I should never have thought of such a project, but I could not have expected bun to trust them as I did, until he had been actually under fire with them. That, doubtless, removed all his anxieties, if he really had any.

  This interview had occurred on the 4th of June. Shaw and his regiment had very soon been ordered to Georgia, then to Morris Island; Fort Wagner had been assaulted, and he had been killed. Most of the men knew about the circumstances of his death, and many of them had subscribed towards a monument for him,—a project which originated with General Saxton, and which was finally embodied in the “Shaw Schoolhouse” at Charleston. So it gave us all pleasure to name this camp for him, as its predecessor had been named for General Saxton.

  The new camp was soon brought into good order. The men had great ingenuity in building screens and shelters of light poles, filled in with the gray moss from the live-oaks. The officers had vestibules built in this way, before all their tents; the cooking-places were walled round in the same fashion; and some of the wide company streets had sheltered sidewalks down the whole line of tents. The sergeant on duty at the entrance of the camp had a similar bower, and the architecture culminated in a “Praise-House” for school and prayer-meetings, some thirty feet in diameter. As for chimneys and flooring, they were provided with that magic and invisible facility which marks the second year of a regiment’s life.

  That officer is happy who, besides a constitutional love of adventure, has also a love for the details of camp life, and likes to bring them to perfection. Nothing but a hen with her chickens about her can symbolize the content I felt on getting my scattered companies together, after some temporary separation on picket or fatigue duty. Then we went to work upon the nest. The only way to keep a camp in order is to set about everything as if you expected to stay there forever; if you stay, you get the comfort of it; if ordered away in twenty-four hours, you forget all wasted labor in the excitement of departure. Thus viewed, a camp is a sort of model farm or bit of landscape gardening; there is always some small improvement to be made, a trench, a well, more shade against the sun, an increased vigilance in sweeping. Then it is pleasant to take care of the men, to see them happy, to hear their chuckles of content.

  Then the duties of inspection and drill, suspended during active service, resume their importance with a month or two of quiet. It really costs unceasing labor to keep a regiment in perfect condition and ready for service. The work is made up of minute and endless details, like a bird’s pruning her feathers or a cat’s licking her kittens into their proper toilet. Here are eight hundred men, every one of whom, every Sunday morning at farthest, must be perfectly soigné in all personal proprieties; he must exhibit himself provided with every article of clothing, buttons, shoe-strings, hooks and eyes, company letter, regimental number, rifle, bayonet, bayonet-scabbard, cap-pouch, cartridge-box, cartridge-box belt, cartridge-box belt-plate, gun-sling, canteen, haversack, knapsack, packed according to rule, forty cartridges, forty percussion-caps; and every one of these articles polished to the highest brightness or blackness as the case may be, and moreover hung or slung or tied or carried in precisely the correct manner.

  What a vast and formidable housekeeping is here, my patriotic sisters! Consider, too, that every corner of the camp is to be kept absolutely clean and ready for exhibition at the shortest notice; hospital, stables, guard-house, cook-houses, company tents, must all be brought to perfection, and every square inch of this “farm of four acres” must look as smooth as an English lawn, twice a day. All this, beside the discipline and the drill and the regimental and company books, which must keep rigid account of all these details; consider all this, and then wonder no more that officers and men rejoice in being ordered on active service, where a few strokes of the pen will dispose of all this multiplicity of trappings as “expended in action” or “lost in service.”

  For one, the longer I remained in service, the better I appreciated the good sense of most of the regular army niceties. True, these things must all vanish when the time of action comes, but it is these things that have prepared you for action. Of course, if you dwell on them only, military life becomes millinery life alone. Kinglake says that the Russian Grand Duke Constantine, contemplating his beautiful toy-regiments, said that he dreaded war, for he knew that it would spoil the troops. The simple fact is, that a soldier is like the weapon he carries: service implies soiling, but you must have it clean in advance, that when soiled it may be of some use.

  The men had that year a Christmas present which they enjoyed to the utmost,—that of furnishing the detail, every other day, for provost-guard duty in Beaufort. It was the only military service which they had ever shared within the town, and it moreover gave a sense of self-respect to be keeping the peace of their own streets. I enjoyed seeing them put on duty those mornings; there was such a twinkle of delight in their eyes, though their features were immovable. As the “reliefs” went round, posting the guard, under charge of a corporal, one could watch the black sentinels successively dropped and the whites picked up,—gradually changing the complexion, like Lord Somebody’s black stockings which became white stockings,—till at last there was only a squad of white soldiers obeying the “Support Arms! Forward, March!” of a black corporal.

  Then, when once posted, they glorified their office, you may be sure. Discipline had grown rather free-and-easy in the town about that time, and it is said that the guard-house never was so full within human memory as after their first tour of duty. I remember hearing that one young reprobate, son of a leading Northern philanthropist in those parts, was much aggrieved at being taken to the lock-up merely because he was found drunk in the streets. “Why,” said he, “the white corporals always showed me the way home.” And I can testify that, after an evening party, some weeks later, I heard with pleasure the officers asking eagerly for the countersign. “Who has the countersign?” said they. “The darkeys are on guard to-night, and we must look out for our lives.” Even after a Christmas party at General Saxton’s, the guard at the door very properly refused to let the ambulance be brought round from the stable for the ladies because the driver had not the countersign.

  One of the sergeants of the guard, on one of these occasions, made to one who questioned his authority an answer that could hardly have been improved. The questioner had just been arrested for some offence.

  “Know what dat mean?” said the indignant sergeant, pointing to the chevrons on his own sleeve. “Dat mean Guv’ment.” Volumes could not have said more, and the victim collapsed. The thing soon settled itself, and nobody remembered to notice whether the face beside the musket of a sentinel were white or black. It meant Government, all the same.

  The men were also indulged with several raids on the main-land, under the direction of Captain J. E. Bryant, of the Eighth Maine, the most experienced scout in that region, who was endeavoring to raise by enlistment a regiment of colored troops. On one occasion Captains Whitney and Heasley, with their companies, penetrated nearly to Pocataligo, capturing some pickets and bringing away all the slaves of a plantation,—the latter operation being entirely under the charge of Sergeant Harry Williams (Co. K), without the presence of any white man. The whole command was attacked on the return by a rebel force, which turned out to be what was called in those regions a “dog-company,” consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds. The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one. I had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not originally intended as “dogs of war,” but simply to detect fugitive slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.

  Captain Bryant, during his scouting adventures, had learned to outwit these bloodhounds, and used his skill in eluding escape, during another expedition of the same kind. He was sent with Captain Metcalf’s company far up the Combahee River to cut the telegraphic wires and intercept dispatches. Our adventurous chaplain and a telegraphic operator went with the party. They ascended the river, cut the wires, and read the dispatches for an hour or two. Unfortunately, the attached wire was too conspicuously hung, and was seen by a passenger on the railway train in passing. The train was stopped and a swift stampede followed; a squad of cavalry was sent in pursuit, and our chaplain, with Lieutenant Osborn, of Bryant’s projected regiment, were captured; also one private,—the first of our men who had ever been taken prisoners. In spite of an agreement at Washington to the contrary, our chaplain was held as prisoner of war, the only spiritual adviser in uniform, so far as I know, who had that honor. I do not know but his reverence would have agreed with Scott’s pirate-lieutenant, that it was better to live as plain Jack Bunce than die as Frederick Altamont; but I am very sure that he would rather have been kept prisoner to the close of the war, as a combatant, than have been released on parole as a non-resistant.

  After his return, I remember, he gave the most animated accounts of the whole adventure, of which he had enjoyed every instant, from the first entrance on the enemy’s soil to the final capture. I suppose we should all like to tap the telegraphic wires anywhere and read our neighbor’s messages, if we could only throw round this process the dignity of a Sacred Cause. This was what our good chaplain had done, with the same conscientious zest with which he had conducted his Sunday foraging in Florida. But he told me that nothing so impressed him on the whole trip as the sudden transformation in the black soldier who was taken prisoner with him. The chaplain at once adopted the policy, natural to him, of talking boldly and even defiantly to his captors, and commanding instead of beseeching. He pursued the same policy always and gained by it, he thought. But the negro adopted the diametrically opposite policy, also congenial to his crushed race,—all the force seemed to go out of him, and he surrendered himself like a tortoise to be kicked and trodden upon at their will. This manly, well-trained soldier at once became a slave again, asked no questions, and, if any were asked, made meek and conciliatory answers. He did not know, nor did any of us know, whether he would be treated as a prisoner of war, or shot, or sent to a rice-plantation. He simply acted according to the traditions of his race, as did the chaplain on his side. In the end the soldier’s cunning was vindicated by the result; he escaped, and rejoined us in six months, while the chaplain was imprisoned for a year.

  The men came back very much exhausted from this expedition, and those who were in the chaplain’s squad narrowly escaped with their lives. One brave fellow had actually not a morsel to eat for four days, and then could keep nothing on his stomach for two days more, so that his life was despaired of; and yet he brought all his equipments safe into camp. Some of these men had led such wandering lives, in woods and swamps, that to hunt them was like hunting an otter; shyness and concealment had grown to be their second nature.

  After these little episodes, came two months of peace. We were clean, comfortable, quiet, and consequently discontented. It was therefore with eagerness that we listened to a rumor of a new Florida expedition, in which we might possibly take a hand.

Executive Department,

Boston, February 5, 1863.

To COL. T. W. HIGGINSON, Commanding 1st Regt. S. C. Vols., Port Royal Id., S. C.
  COLONEL,—I am under obligations to you for your very interesting letter of January 19th, which I considered to be too important in its testimony to the efficiency of colored troops to be allowed to remain hidden on my files. I therefore placed some portions of it in the hands of Hon. Stephen M. Weld, of Jamaica Plain, for publication, and you will find enclosed the newspaper slip from the Journal of February 3d, in which it appeared. During a recent visit at Washington I have obtained permission from the Department of War to enlist colored troops as part of the Massachusetts quota, and I am about to begin to organize a colored infantry regiment, to be numbered the “54th Massachusetts Volunteers.”
  I shall be greatly obliged by any suggestions which your experience may afford concerning it, and I am determined that it shall serve as a model, in the high character of its officers and the thorough discipline of its men, for all subsequent corps of the like material.
  Please present to General Saxton the assurances of my respectful regard.
  I have the honor to be, respectfully and obediently yours,

Governor of Massachusetts.

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