Florida Again?

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


  LET me revert once more to my diary, for a specimen of the sharp changes and sudden disappointments that may come to troops in service. But for a case or two of varioloid in the regiment, we should have taken part in the battle of Olustee, and should have had (as was reported) the right of the line. At any rate we should have shared the hard knocks and the glory, which were distributed pretty freely to the colored troops then and there. The diary will give, better than can any continuous narrative, our ups and down of expectation in those days:—

“February 7, 1864.

  “Great are the uncertainties of military orders! Since our recall from Jacksonville we have had no such surprises as came to us on Wednesday night. It was our third day of a new tour of duty at the picket station. We had just got nicely settled,—men well tented, with good floors, and in high spirits; officers at out-stations all happy, Mrs. —— coming to stay with her husband, we at headquarters just in order, house cleaned, moss-garlands up, camellias and jessamines in the tin wash-basins, baby in bliss;—our usual run of visitors had just set in, two Beaufort captains and a surgeon had just risen from a late dinner after a flag of truce; General Saxton and his wife had driven away but an hour or two before, we were all sitting about busy, with a great fire blazing, Mrs. D. had just remarked triumphantly, ‘Last time I had but a mouthful here, and now I shall be here three weeks’—when—

  “In dropped, like a bombshell, a dispatch announcing that we were to be relieved by the Eighth Maine, the next morning, as General Gillmore had sent an order that we should be ready for departure from Beaufort at any moment.

  “Conjectures, orders, packing, sending couriers to out-stations, were the employments of the evening; the men received the news with cheers, and we all came in next morning.”

“February 11, 1864.

  “For three days we have watched the river, and every little steamboat that comes up for coal brings out spy-glasses and conjectures, and ‘Dar’s de Fourf New Hampshire,’—for when that comes, it is said, we go. Meanwhile we hear stirring news from Florida, and the men are very impatient to be off. It is remarkable how much more thoroughly they look at things as soldiers than last year, and how much less as home-bound men,—the South Carolinians, I mean, for of course the Floridians would naturally wish to go to Florida.

  “But in every way I see the gradual change in them, sometimes with a sigh, as parents watch their children growing up and miss the droll speeches and the confiding ignorance of childhood. Sometimes it comes over me with a pang that they are growing more like white men,—less naïve and less grotesque. Still, I think there is enough of it to last, and that their joyous buoyancy, at least, will hold out while life does.

  “As for our destination, our greatest fear is of finding ourselves posted at Hilton Head and going no farther. As a dashing Irish officer remarked the other day, ‘If we are ordered away anywhere, I hope it will be either to go to Florida or else stay here!’”

“February 18, 1864.

  “Sublime uncertainties again!

  “After being ordered in from picket, under marching orders; after the subsequent ten days of uncertainty; after watching every steamboat that came up the river, to see if the Fourth New Hampshire was on board,—at last the regiment came.

  “Then followed another break; there was no transportation to take us. At last a boat was notified.

  “Then General Saxton, as anxious to keep us as was the regiment to go, played his last card in smallpox, telegraphing to department headquarters that we had it dangerously in the regiment. (N. B. All varioloid, light at that, and besides, we always have it.)

  “Then the order came to leave behind the sick and those who had been peculiarly exposed, and embark the rest next day.

  “Great was the jubilee! The men were up, I verily believe, by three in the morning, and by eight the whole camp was demolished or put in wagons, and we were on our way. The soldiers of the Fourth New Hampshire swarmed in; every board was swept away by them; there had been a time when colored boards (if I may delicately so express myself) were repudiated by white soldiers, but that epoch had long since passed. I gave my new tent-frame, even the latch, to Colonel Bell; ditto Lieutenant-Colonel to Lieutenant-Colonel.

  “Down we marched, the men singing ‘John Brown’ and ‘Marching Along’ and ‘Gwine in de Wilderness’; women in tears and smiles lined the way. We halted opposite the dear general’s; we cheered, he speeched, I speeched, we all embraced symbolically, and cheered some more. Then we went to work at the wharf; vast wagon-loads of tents, rations, ordnance, and whatnot disappeared in the capacious maw of the Delaware. In the midst of it all came riding down General Saxton with a dispatch from Hilton Head:—

  “‘If you think the amount of smallpox in the First South Carolina Volunteers sufficient, the order will be countermanded.’

  “‘What shall I say?’ quoth the guilty general, perceiving how preposterously too late the negotiation was reopened.

  “‘Say, sir?’ quoth I. ‘Say that we are on board already and the smallpox left behind. Say we had only thirteen cases, chiefly varioloid, and ten almost well.’

  “Our blood was up with a tremendous morning’s work done, and, rather than turn back, we felt ready to hold down Major-General Gillmore, commanding department, and all his staff upon the wharf, and vaccinate them by main force.

  “So General Saxton rode away, and we worked away. Just as the last wagon-load but one was being transferred to the omnivorous depths of the Delaware,—which I should think would have been filled ten times over with what we had put into it,—down rode the general with a fiendish joy in his bright eyes and held out a paper,—one of the familiar rescripts from headquarters.

  “‘The marching orders of the First South Carolina Volunteers are hereby countermanded.’

  “‘Major Trowbridge,’ said I, ‘will you give my compliments to Lieutenant Hooper, somewhere in the hold of that steamer, and direct him to set his men at work to bring out every individual article which they have carried in?’ And I sat down on a pile of boards.

  “‘You will return to your old camping-ground, colonel,’ said the General, placidly. ‘Now,’ he added with serene satisfaction, ‘we will have some brigade drills!’

  “Brigade drills! Since Mr. Pickwick, with his heartless tomato-sauce and warming-pans, there had been nothing so aggravating as to try to solace us, who were as good as on board ship and under way,—nay, in imagination as far up the St. John’s as Palatka at least,—with brigade drills! It was very kind and flattering in him to wish to keep us. But unhappily we had made up our minds to go.

  “Never did officer ride at the head of a battalion of more wobegone, spiritless wretches than I led back from Beaufort that day. ‘When I march down to de landin’,’ said one of the men afterwards, ‘my knapsack full of feathers. Comin’ back, he lead!’ And the lead, instead of the feathers, rested on the heart of every one.

  “As if the disappointment itself were not sufficient, we had to return to our pretty camp, accustomed to its drawing-room order, and find it a desert. Every board gone from the floors, the screens torn down from the poles, all the little conveniences scattered, and, to crown all, a cold breeze such as we had not known since New Year’s Day blowing across the camp and flooding everything with dust. I sincerely hope the regiment would never behave after a defeat as they behaved then. Every man seemed crushed, officers and soldiers alike; when they broke ranks, they went and lay down like sheep where their tents used to be, or wandered disconsolately about, looking for their stray belongings. The scene was so infinitely dolorous that it gradually put me in the highest spirits; the ludicrousness of the whole affair was so complete, there was nothing to do but laugh. The horrible dust blew till every officer had some black spot on his nose which paralyzed pathos. Of course the only way was to set them all at work as soon as possible; and work them we did,—I at the camp and the major at the wharf,—loading and unloading wagons and just reversing all which the morning had done.

  “The New Hampshire men were very considerate, and gave back most of what they had taken, though many of our men were really too delicate or proud to ask or even take what they had once given to soldiers or to the colored people. I had no such delicacy about my tent-frame, and by night things had resumed something of their old aspect, and cheerfulness was in part restored. Yet long after this I found one first sergeant absolutely in tears,—a Florida man, most of whose kindred were up the St. John’s. It was very natural that the men from that region should feel thus bitterly; but it shows how much of the habit of soldiers they have all acquired, that the South Carolina men, who were leaving the neighborhood of their families for an indefinite time, were just as eager to go, and not one deserted, though they knew it for a week beforehand. No doubt my precarious health makes it now easier for me personally to remain here—easier on reflection at least—than for the others. At the same time Florida is fascinating, and offers not only adventure, but the command of a brigade. Certainly at the last moment there was not a sacrifice I would not have made rather than wrench myself and others away from the expedition. We are, of course, thrown back into the old uncertainty, and if the smallpox subsides (and it is really diminishing decidedly) we may yet come in at the wrong end of the Florida affair.”

“February 19.

  “Not a bit of it! This morning the General has ridden up radiant, has seen General Gillmore, who has decided not to order us to Florida at all, nor withdraw any of this garrison. Moreover, he says that all which is intended in Florida is done,—that there will be no advance to Tallahassee, and General Seymour will establish a camp of instruction in Jacksonville. Well, if that is all, it is a lucky escape.”

  We little dreamed that on that very day the march toward Olustee was beginning. The battle took place next day, and I add one more extract to show how the news reached Beaufort:—

“February 23, 1864.

  “There was the sound of revelry by night at a ball in Beaufort last night, in a new large building beautifully decorated. All the collected flags of the garrison hung round and over us, as if the stars and stripes were devised for an ornament alone. The array of uniforms was such that a civilian became a distinguished object, much more a lady. All would have gone according to the proverbial marriage-bell, I suppose, had there not been a slight palpable shadow over all of us from hearing vague stories of a lost battle in Florida, and from the thought that perhaps the very ambulances in which we rode to the ball were ours only until the wounded or the dead might tenant them.

  “General Gillmore only came, I supposed, to put a good face upon the matter. He went away soon, and General Saxton went; then came a rumor that the Cosmopolitan had actually arrived with wounded, but still the dance went on. There was nothing unfeeling about it,—one gets used to things,—when suddenly, in the midst of the ‘Lancers,’ there came a perfect hush; the music ceasing, a few surgeons went hastily to and fro, as if conscience-stricken (I should think they might have been), then there ‘waved a mighty shadow in,’ as in Uhland’s ‘Black Knight,’ and as we all stood wondering we were ‘ware of General Saxton, who strode hastily down the hall, his pale face very resolute, and looking almost sick with anxiety. He had just been on board the steamer; there were two hundred and fifty wounded men just arrived, and the ball must end. Not that there was anything for us to do; but the revel was mistimed, and must be ended; it was wicked to be dancing, with such a scene of suffering near by.

  “Of course the ball was instantly broken up, though with some murmurings and some longings of appetite, on the part of some, toward the wasted supper.

  “Later, I went on board the boat. Among the long lines of wounded, black and white intermingled, there was the wonderful quiet which usually prevails on such occasions. Not a sob nor a groan, except from those undergoing removal. It is not self-control, but chiefly the shock to the system produced by severe wounds, especially gunshot wounds, and which usually keeps the patient stiller at first than any later time.

  “A company from my regiment waited on the wharf, in their accustomed dusky silence, and I longed to ask them what they thought of our Florida disappointment now? In view of what they saw, did they still wish we had been there? I confess that in presence of all that human suffering, I could not wish it. But I would not have suggested any such thought to them.

  “I found our kind-hearted ladies, Mrs. Chamberlin and Mrs. Dewhurst, on board the steamer, but there was nothing for them to do, and we walked back to camp in the radiant moonlight; Mrs. Chamberlin more than ever strengthened in her blushing woman’s philosophy, ‘I don’t care who wins the laurels, provided we don’t!’“

“February 29.

  “But for a few trivial cases of varioloid, we should certainly have been in that disastrous fight. We were confidently expected for several days at Jacksonville, and the commanding general told Colonel Hallowell that we, being the oldest colored regiment, would have the right of the line. This was certainly to miss danger and glory very closely.”

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