Up the St. John’s.

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


  THERE was not much stirring in the Department of the South early in 1863, and the St. Mary’s expedition had afforded a new sensation. Of course the few officers of colored troops, and a larger number who wished to become such, were urgent for further experiments in the same line; and the Florida tax-commissioners were urgent likewise. I well remember the morning when, after some preliminary correspondence, I steamed down from Beaufort, S. C., to Hilton Head, with General Saxton, Judge S., and one or two others, to have an interview on the matter with Major-General Hunter, then commanding the Department.

  Hilton Head, in those days, seemed always like some foreign military station in the tropics. The long, low, white buildings, with piazzas and verandas on the waterside; the general impression of heat and lassitude, existence appearing to pulsate only with the sea breeze; the sandy, almost impassable streets; and the firm, level beach, on which everybody walked who could get there,—all these suggested Jamaica or the East Indies. Then the headquarters at the end of the beach, the Zouave sentinels, the successive anterooms, the lounging aids, the good-natured and easy General,—easy by habit and energetic by impulse,—all had a certain air of Southern languor, rather picturesque, but perhaps not altogether bracing. General Hunter received us, that day, with his usual kindliness; there was a good deal of pleasant chat; Miles O’Reilly was called in to read his latest verses; and then we came to the matter in hand.

  Jacksonville, on the St. John’s River, in Florida, had been already twice taken and twice evacuated; having been occupied by Brigadier-General Wright, in March, 1862, and by Brigadier-General Brannan, in October of the same year. The second evacuation was by Major-General Hunter’s own order, on the avowed ground that a garrison of five thousand was needed to hold the place, and that this force could not be spared. The present proposition was to take and hold it with a brigade of less than a thousand men, carrying, however, arms and uniforms for twice that number, and a month’s rations. The claim was, that there were fewer Rebel troops in the Department than formerly, and that the St. Mary’s expedition had shown the advantage possessed by colored troops, in local knowledge, and in the confidence of the loyal blacks. It was also urged, that it was worth while to risk something, in the effort to hold Florida, and perhaps bring it back into the Union.

  My chief aim in the negotiation was to get the men into action, and that of the Florida Commissioners to get them into Florida. Thus far coinciding, we could heartily coöperate; and though General Hunter made some reasonable objections, they were yielded more readily than I had feared; and finally, before half our logical ammunition was exhausted, the desired permission was given, and the thing might be considered as done.

  We were now to leave, as we supposed forever, the camp which had thus far been our home. Our vast amount of surplus baggage made a heavy job in the loading, inasmuch as we had no wharf, and everything had to be put on board by means of flatboats. It was completed by twenty-four hours of steady work; and after some of the usual uncomfortable delays which wait on military expeditions, we were at last afloat.

  I had tried to keep the plan as secret as possible, and had requested to have no definite orders, until we should be on board ship. But this larger expedition was less within my own hands than was the St. Mary’s affair, and the great reliance for concealment was on certain counter reports, ingeniously set afloat by some of the Florida men. These reports rapidly swelled into the most enormous tales, and by the time they reached the New York newspapers, the expedition was “a great volcano about bursting, whose lava will burn, flow, and destroy,” “the sudden appearance in arms of no less than five thousand negroes,”—“a liberating host,”—“not the phantom, but the reality, of servile insurrection.” What the undertaking actually was may be best seen in the instructions which guided it.1

  In due time, after touching at Fernandina, we reached the difficult bar of the St. John’s, and were piloted safely over. Admiral Dupont had furnished a courteous letter of introduction2 and we were cordially received by Commander Duncan of the Norwich, and Lieutenant Watson, commanding the Uncas. Like all officers on blockade duty, they were impatient of their enforced inaction, and gladly seized the opportunity for a different service. It was some time since they had ascended as high as Jacksonville, for their orders were strict, one vessel’s coal was low, the other was in infirm condition, and there were rumors of cotton-clads and torpedoes. But they gladly agreed to escort us up the river, so soon as our own armed gunboat, the John Adams, should arrive, she being unaccountably delayed.

  We waited twenty-four hours for her, at the sultry mouth of that glassy river, watching the great pelicans which floated lazily on its tide, or sometimes shooting one, to admire the great pouch, into which one of the soldiers could insert his foot, as into a boot. “He hold one quart,” said the admiring experimentalist. “Hi! boy,” retorted another quickly, “neber you bring dat quart measure in my peck o’ corn.” The protest came very promptly, and was certainly fair; for the strange receptacle would have held nearly a gallon.

  We went on shore, too, and were shown a rather pathetic little garden, which the naval officers had laid out, indulging a dream of vegetables. They lingered over the little microscopic sprouts, pointing them out tenderly, as if they were cradled babies. I have often noticed this touching weakness, in gentlemen of that profession, on lonely stations.

  We wandered among the bluffs, too, in the little deserted hamlet called “Pilot Town.” The ever-shifting sand had in some cases almost buried the small houses, and had swept around others a circular drift, at a few yards’ distance, overtopping then: eaves, and leaving each the untouched citadel of this natural redoubt. There was also a dismantled lighthouse, an object which always seems the most dreary symbol of the barbarism of war, when one considers the national beneficence which reared and kindled it. Despite the service rendered by this once brilliant light, there were many wrecks which had been strown upon the beach, victims of the most formidable of the Southern river-bars. As I stood with my foot on the half-buried ribs of one of these vessels,—so distinctly traced that one might almost fancy them human,—the old pilot, my companion, told me the story of the wreck. The vessel had formerly been in the Cuba trade; and her owner, an American merchant residing in Havana, had christened her for his young daughter. I asked the name, and was startled to recognize that of a favorite young cousin of mine, besides the bones of whose representative I was thus strangely standing, upon this lonely shore.

  It was well to have something to relieve the anxiety naturally felt at the delay of the John Adams,—anxiety both for her safety and for the success of our enterprise, The Rebels had repeatedly threatened to burn the whole of Jacksonville, in case of another attack, as they had previously burned its mills and its great hotel. It seemed as if the news of our arrival must surely have travelled thirty miles by this time. All day we watched every smoke that rose among the wooded hills, and consulted the compass and the map, to see if that sign announced the doom of our expected home. At the very last moment of the tide, just in time to cross the bar that day, the missing vessel arrived; all anxieties vanished; I transferred my quarters on board, and at two the next morning we steamed up the river.

  Again there was the dreamy delight of ascending an unknown stream, beneath a sinking moon, into a region where peril made fascination. Since the time of the first explorers, I suppose that those Southern waters have known no sensations so dreamy and so bewitching as those which this war has brought forth. I recall, in this case, the faintest sensations of our voyage, as Ponce de Leon may have recalled those of his wandering search, in the same soft zone, for the secret of the mystic fountain. I remember how, during that night, I looked for the first time through a powerful night-glass. It had always seemed a thing wholly inconceivable, that a mere lens could change darkness into light; and as I turned the instrument on the preceding gunboat, and actually discerned the man at the wheel and the others standing about him,—all relapsing into vague gloom again at the withdrawal of the glass,—it gave a feeling of childish delight. Yet it seemed only in keeping with the whole enchantment of the scene; and had I been some Aladdin, convoyed by genii or giants, I could hardly have felt more wholly a denizen of some world of romance.

  But the river was of difficult navigation; and we began to feel sometimes, beneath the keel, that ominous, sliding, grating, treacherous arrest of motion which makes the heart shudder, as the vessel does. There was some solicitude about torpedoes, also,—a peril which became a formidable thing, one year later, in the very channel where we found none. Soon one of our consorts grounded, then another, every vessel taking its turn, I believe, and then in turn getting off, until the Norwich lay hopelessly stranded, for that tide at least, a few miles below Jacksonville, and out of sight of the city, so that she could not even add to our dignity by her visible presence from afar.

  This was rather a serious matter, as the Norwich was our main naval reliance, the Uncas being a small steamer of less than two hundred tons, and in such poor condition that Commander Duncan, on finding himself aground, at first quite declined to trust his consort any farther alone. But, having got thus far, it was plainly my duty to risk the remainder with or without naval assistance; and this being so, the courageous officer did not long object, but allowed his dashing subordinate to steam up with us to the city. This left us one naval and one army gunboat; and, fortunately, the Burn-side, being a black propeller, always passed for an armed vessel among the Rebels, and we rather encouraged that pleasing illusion.3

  We had aimed to reach Jacksonville at daybreak; but these mishaps delayed us, and we had several hours of fresh, early sunshine, lighting up the green shores of that lovely river, wooded to the water’s edge, with sometimes an emerald meadow, opening a vista to some picturesque house,—all utterly unlike anything we had yet seen in the South, and suggesting rather the Penobscot or Kennebec. Here and there we glided by the ruins of some saw-mill burned by the Rebels on General Wright’s approach; but nothing else spoke of war, except, perhaps, the silence. It was a delicious day, and a scene of fascination. Our Florida men were wild with delight; and when we rounded the point below the city, and saw from afar its long streets, its brick warehouses, its white cottages, and its overshadowing trees,—all peaceful and undisturbed by flames,—it seemed, in the men’s favorite phrase, “too much good,” and all discipline was merged, for the moment, in a buzz of ecstasy.

  The city was still there for us, at any rate; though none knew what perils might be concealed behind those quiet buildings. Yet there were children playing on the wharves; careless men, here and there, lounged down to look at us, hands in pockets; a few women came to their doors, and gazed listlessly upon us, shading their eyes with their hands. We drew momently nearer, in silence and with breathless attention. The gunners were at their posts, and the men in line. It was eight o’clock. We were now directly opposite the town: yet no sign of danger was seen; not a rifle-shot was heard; not a shell rose hissing in the air. The Uncas rounded to, and dropped anchor in the stream; by previous agreement, I steamed to an upper pier of the town, Colonel Montgomery to a lower one; the little boat-howitzers were run out upon the wharves, and presently to the angles of the chief streets; and the pretty town was our own without a shot. In spite of our detention, the surprise had been complete, and not a soul in Jacksonville had dreamed of our coming.

  The day passed quickly, in eager preparations for defence; the people could or would give us no definite information about the enemy’s camp, which was, however, known to be near, and our force did not permit our going out to surprise it. The night following was the most anxious I ever spent. We were all tired out; the companies were under arms, in various parts of the town, to be ready for an attack at any moment. My temporary quarters were beneath the loveliest grove of linden-trees, and as I reclined, half-dozing, the mocking-birds sang all night like nightingales,—their notes seeming to trickle down through the sweet air from amid the blossoming boughs. Day brought relief and the sense of due possession, and we could see what we had won.

  Jacksonville was now a United States post again,—the only post on the main-land in the Department of the South. Before the war it had three or four thousand inhabitants, and a rapidly growing lumber trade, for which abundant facilities were evidently provided. The wharves were capacious, and the blocks of brick warehouses along the lower street were utterly unlike anything we had yet seen in that region, as were the neatness and thrift everywhere visible. It had been built up by Northern enterprise, and much of the property was owned by loyal men. It had been a great resort for invalids, though the Rebels had burned the large hotel which once accommodated them. Mills had also been burned; but the dwelling-houses were almost all in good condition. The quarters for the men were admirable; and I took official possession of the handsome brick house of Colonel Sunderland, the established headquarters through every occupation, whose accommodating flagstaff had literally and repeatedly changed its colors. The seceded Colonel, reputed author of the state ordinance of secession, was a New Yorker by birth, and we found his law card, issued when in practice in Easton, Washington County, New York. He certainly had good taste in planning the inside of a house, though time had impaired its condition. There was a neat office with ample bookcases and no books, a billiard-table with no balls, gas-fixtures without gas, and a bathing-room without water. There was a separate building for servants’ quarters, and a kitchen with every convenience, even to a few jars of lingering pickles. On the whole, there was an air of substance and comfort about the town, quite alien from the picturesque decadence of Beaufort.

  The town rose gradually from the river, and was bounded on the rear by a long, sluggish creek, beyond which lay a stretch of woods, affording an excellent covert for the enemy, but without great facilities for attack, as there were but two or three fords and bridges. This brook could easily be held against a small force, but could at any time and at almost any point be readily crossed by a large one. North of the town the land rose a little, between the river and the sources of the brook, and then sank to a plain, which had been partially cleared by a previous garrison. For so small a force as ours, however, this clearing must be extended nearer to the town; otherwise our lines would be too long for our numbers.

  This deficiency in numbers at once became a source of serious anxiety. While planning the expedition, it had seemed so important to get the men a foothold in Florida that I was willing to risk everything for it. But, this important post once in our possession, it began to show some analogies to the proverbial elephant in the lottery. To hold it permanently with nine hundred men was not, perhaps, impossible, with the aid of a gunboat—I had left many of my own regiment sick and on duty in Beaufort, and Colonel Montgomery had as yet less than one hundred and fifty);—but to hold it, and also to make forays up the river, certainly required a larger number. We came in part to recruit, but had found scarcely an able-bodied negro in the city; all had been removed farther up, and we must certainly contrive to follow them. I was very unwilling to have, as yet, any white troops under my command, with the blacks. Finally, however, being informed by Judge S. of a conversation with Colonel Hawley, commanding at Fernandina, in which the latter had offered to send four companies and a light battery to swell our force,—in view of the aid given to his position by this more advanced post, I decided to authorize the energetic judge to go back to Fernandina and renew the negotiation, as the John Adams must go thither at any rate for coal.

  Meanwhile all definite display of our force was avoided; dress-parades were omitted; the companies were so distributed as to tell for the utmost; and judicious use was made, here and there, of empty tents. The gunboats and transports moved impressively up and down the river, from time to time. The disposition of pickets was varied each night to perplex the enemy, and some advantage taken of his distrust, which might be assumed as equaling our own. The citizens were duly impressed by our supply of ammunition, which was really enormous, and all these things soon took effect. A loyal woman, who came into town, said that the Rebel scouts, stopping at her house, reported that there were “sixteen hundred negroes all over the woods, and the town full of them besides.” “It was of no use to go in. General Finnegan had driven them into a bad place once, and should not do it again.” “They had lost their captain and their best surgeon in the first skirmish, and if the Savannah people wanted the negroes driven away, they might come and do it themselves.” Unfortunately, we knew that they could easily come from Savannah at any time, as there was railroad communication nearly all the way; and every time we heard the steam-whistle, the men were convinced of their arrival. Thus we never could approach to any certainty as to their numbers, while they could observe, from the bluffs, every steamboat that ascended the river.

  To render our weak force still more available, we barricaded the approaches to the chief streets by constructing barriers or felling trees. It went to my heart to sacrifice, for this purpose, several of my beautiful lindens; but it was no time for æsthetics. As the giants lay on the ground, still scenting the air with their abundant bloom, I used to rein up my horse and watch the children playing hide-and-seek amongst their branches, or some quiet cow grazing at the foliage. Nothing impresses the mind in war like some occasional object or association that belongs apparently to peace alone.

  Among all these solicitudes, it was a great thing that one particular anxiety vanished in a day. On the former expedition the men were upon trial as to their courage; now they were to endure another test, as to their demeanor as victors. Here were five hundred citizens, nearly all white, at the mercy of their former slaves. To some of these whites it was the last crowning humiliation, and they were, or professed to be, in perpetual fear. On the other hand, the most intelligent and lady-like woman I saw, the wife of a Rebel captain, rather surprised me by saying that it seemed pleasanter to have these men stationed there, whom they had known all their lives, and who had generally borne a good character, than to be in the power of entire strangers. Certainly the men deserved the confidence, for there was scarcely an exception to their good behavior. I think they thoroughly felt that their honor and dignity were concerned in the matter, and took too much pride in their character as soldiers,—to say nothing of higher motives,—to tarnish it by any misdeeds. They watched their officers vigilantly and even suspiciously, to detect any disposition towards compromise; and so long as we pursued a just course it was evident that they could be relied on. Yet the spot was pointed out to me where two of our leading men had seen their brothers hanged by lynch law; many of them had private wrongs to avenge; and they all had utter disbelief in all pretended loyalty, especially on the part of the women.

  One citizen alone was brought to me in a sort of escort of honor by Corporal Prince Lambkin,—one of the color-guard, and one of our ablest men,—the same who had once made a speech in camp, reminding his hearers that they had lived under the American flag for eighteen hundred and sixty-two years, and ought to live and die under it. Corporal Lambkin now introduced his man, a German, with the highest compliment in his power, “He hab true colored-man heart.” Surrounded by mean, cajoling, insinuating white men and women who were all that and worse, I was quite ready to appreciate the quality he thus proclaimed. A colored-man heart, in the Rebel States, is a fair synonym for a loyal heart, and it is about the only such synonym. In this case, I found afterwards that the man in question, a small grocer, had been an object of suspicion to the whites from his readiness to lend money to the negroes, or sell to them on credit; in which, perhaps, there may have been some mixture of self-interest with benevolence.

  I resort to a note-book of that period, well thumbed and pocket-worn, which sometimes received a fragment of the day’s experience:—

March 16, 1863.

  Of course, droll things are constantly occurring. Every white man, woman, and child is flattering, seductive, and professes Union sentiment; every black ditto believes that every white ditto is a scoundrel, and ought to be shot, but for good order and military discipline. The provost marshal and I steer between them as blandly as we can. Such scenes as succeed each other! Rush of indignant Africans. A white man, in woman’s clothes, has been seen to enter a certain house,—undoubtedly a spy. Further evidence discloses the Roman Catholic priest, a peaceful little Frenchman, in his professional apparel.—Anxious female enters. Some sentinel has shot her cow by mistake for a Rebel. The United States cannot think of paying the desired thirty dollars. Let her go to the post quartermaster and select a cow from his herd. If there is none to suit her (and, indeed, not one of them gave a drop of milk,—neither did hers), let her wait till the next lot comes in,—that is all.—Yesterday’s operations gave the following total yield: Thirty “contrabands,” eighteen horses, eleven cattle, ten saddles and bridles, and one new army wagon. At this rate we shall soon be self-supporting cavalry.

  Where complaints are made of the soldiers, it almost always turns out that the women have insulted them most grossly, swearing at them, and the like. One unpleasant old Dutch woman came in, bursting with wrath, and told the whole narrative of her blameless life, diversified with sobs:—

  “Last January I ran off two of my black people from St. Mary’s to Fernandina,” (sob,)—“then I moved down there myself, and at Lake City I lost six women and a boy,” (sob,)—“then I stopped at Baldwin for one of the wenches to be confined,” (sob,)—“then I brought them all here to live in a Christian country” (sob, sob). “Then the blockheads” [blockades, that is, gunboats] “came, and they all ran off with the blockheads,” (sob, sob, sob,) “and left me, an old lady of forty-six, obliged to work for a living.” (Chaos of sobs, without cessation.)

  But when I found what the old sinner had said to the soldiers I rather wondered at their self-control in not throttling her.

  Meanwhile skirmishing went on daily in the outskirts of the town. There was a fight on the very first day, when our men killed, as before hinted, a Rebel surgeon, which was oddly metamorphosed in the Southern newspapers into their killing one of ours, which certainly never happened. Every day, after this, they appeared in small mounted squads in the neighborhood, and exchanged shots with our pickets, to which the gunboats would contribute their louder share, their aim being rather embarrassed by the woods and hills. We made reconnoissances, too, to learn the country in different directions, and were apt to be fired upon during these. Along the farther side of what we called the “Debatable Land” there was a line of cottages, hardly superior to negro huts, and almost all empty, where the Rebel pickets resorted, and from whose windows they fired. By degrees all these nests were broken up and destroyed, though it cost some trouble to do it, and the hottest skirmishing usually took place around them.

  Among these little affairs was one which we called “Company K’s Skirmish,” because it brought out the fact that this company, which was composed entirely of South Carolina men, and had never shone in drill or discipline, stood near the head of the regiment for coolness and courage,—the defect of discipline showing itself only in their extreme unwillingness to halt when once let loose. It was at this time that the small comedy of the Goose occurred,—an anecdote which Wendell Phillips has since made his own.

  One of the advancing line of skirmishers, usually an active fellow enough, was observed to move clumsily and irregularly. It soon appeared that he had encountered a fine specimen of the domestic goose, which had surrendered at discretion. Not wishing to lose it, he could yet find no way to hold it but between his legs; and so he went on, loading, firing, advancing, halting, always with the goose writhing and struggling and hissing in this natural pair of stocks. Both happily came off unwounded, and retired in good order at the signal, or some time after it; but I have hardly a cooler thing to put on record.

  Meanwhile, another fellow left the field less exultingly; for, after a thoroughly courageous share in the skirmish, he came blubbering to his captain, and said,—”Cappen, make Cæsar gib me my cane.” It seemed that, during some interval of the fighting, he had helped himself to an armful of Rebel sugar-cane, such as they all delighted in chewing. The Roman hero, during another pause, had confiscated the treasure; whence these tears of the returning warrior. I never could accustom myself to these extraordinary interminglings of manly and childish attributes.

  Our most untiring scout during this period was the chaplain of my regiment,—the most restless and daring spirit we had, and now exulting in full liberty of action. He it was who was daily permitted to stray singly where no other officer would have been allowed to go, so irresistible was his appeal, “You know I am only a chaplain.” Methinks I see our regimental saint, with pistols in belt and a Ballard rifle slung on shoulder, putting spurs to his steed, and cantering away down some questionable wood-path, or returning with some tale of Rebel haunt discovered, or store of foraging. He would track an enemy like an Indian, or exhort him, when apprehended, like an early Christian. Some of our devout soldiers shook their heads sometimes over the chaplain’s little eccentricities.

  “Woffor Mr. Chapman made a preacher for?” said one of them, as usual transforming his title into a patronymic. “He’s de fightingest more Yankee I eber see in all my days.”

  And the criticism was very natural, though they could not deny that, when the hour for Sunday service came, Mr. F. commanded the respect and attention of all. That hour never came, however, on our first Sunday in Jacksonville; we were too busy and the men too scattered; so the chaplain made his accustomed foray beyond the lines instead.

  “Is it not Sunday?” slyly asked an unregenerate lieutenant.

  “Nay,” quoth his Reverence, waxing fervid; “it is the Day of Judgment”

  This reminds me of a raid up the river, conducted by one of our senior captains, an enthusiast whose gray beard and prophetic manner always took me back to the Fifth-Monarchy men. He was most successful that day, bringing back horses, cattle, provisions, and prisoners; and one of the latter complained bitterly to me of being held, stating that Captain R. had promised him speedy liberty. But that doughty official spurned the imputation of such weak blandishments, in this day of triumphant retribution.

  “Promise him!” said he, “I promised him nothing but the Day of Judgment and Periods of Damnation!”

  Often since have I rolled beneath my tongue this savory and solemn sentence, and I do not believe that since the days of the Long Parliament there has been a more resounding anathema.

  In Colonel Montgomery’s hands these up-river raids reached the dignity of a fine art. His conceptions of foraging were rather more Western and liberal than mine, and on these excursions he fully indemnified himself for any undue abstinence demanded of him when in camp. I remember being on the wharf, with some naval officers, when he came down from his first trip. The steamer seemed an animated hencoop. Live poultry hung from the foremast shrouds, dead ones from the mainmast, geese hissed from the binnacle, a pig paced the quarter-deck, and a duck’s wings were seen fluttering from a line which was wont to sustain duck trousers. The naval heroes, mindful of their own short rations, and taking high views of one’s duties in a conquered country, looked at me reproachfully, as who should say, “Shall these things be?” In a moment or two the returning foragers had landed.

  “Captain ——,” said Montgomery, courteously, “would you allow me to send a remarkably fine turkey for your use on board ship?”

  “Lieutenant ——,” said Major Corwin, “may I ask your acceptance of a pair of ducks for your mess?”

  Never did I behold more cordial relations between army and navy than sprang into existence at those sentences. So true it is, as Charles Lamb says, that a single present of game may diffuse kindly sentiments through a whole community.

  These little trips were called “rest”; there was no other rest during those ten days. An immense amount of picket and fatigue duty had to be done. Two redoubts were to be built to command the northern valley; all the intervening grove, which now afforded lurking ground for a daring enemy, must be cleared away; and a few houses must be reluctantly razed for the same purpose. The fort on the left was named Fort Higginson, and that built by my own regiment, in return, Fort Montgomery. The former was necessarily a hasty work, and is now, I believe, in ruins; the latter was far more elaborately constructed, on lines well traced by the Fourth New Hampshire during the previous occupation. It did great credit to Captain Trowbridge, of my regiment (formerly of the New York Volunteer Engineers), who had charge of its construction.

  How like a dream seems now that period of daily skirmishes and nightly watchfulness! The fatigue was so constant that the days hurried by. I felt the need of some occasional change of ideas, and having just received from the North Mr. Brook’s beautiful translation of Jean Paul’s “Titan,” I used to retire to my bedroom for some ten minutes every afternoon, and read a chapter or two. It was more refreshing than a nap, and will always be to me one of the most fascinating books in the world, with this added association. After all, what concerned me was not so much the fear of an attempt to drive us out and retake the city,—for that would be against the whole policy of the Rebels in that region,—as of an effort to fulfil their threats and burn it, by some nocturnal dash. The most valuable buildings belonged to Union men, and the upper part of the town, built chiefly of resinous pine, was combustible to the last degree. In case of fire, if the wind blew towards the river, we might lose steamers and all. I remember regulating my degree of disrobing by the direction of the wind; if it blew from the river, it was safe to make one’s self quite comfortable; if otherwise, it was best to conform to Suwarrow’s idea of luxury, and take off one spur.

  So passed our busy life for ten days. There were no tidings of reinforcements, and I hardly knew whether I wished for them,—or rather, I desired them as a choice of evils; for our men were giving out from overwork, and the recruiting excursions, for which we had mainly come, were hardly possible. At the utmost, I had asked for the addition of four companies and a light battery. Judge of my surprise when two infantry regiments successively arrived! I must resort to a scrap from the diary. Perhaps diaries are apt to be thought tedious; but I would rather read a page of one, whatever the events described, than any more deliberate narrative,—it gives glimpses so much more real and vivid:—

March 20, 1863, Midnight.

  For the last twenty-four hours we have been sending women and children out of town, in answer to a demand by flag of truce, with a threat of bombardment. [N. B. I advised them not to go, and the majority declined doing so.] It was designed, no doubt, to intimidate; and in our ignorance of the force actually outside, we have had to recognize the possibility of danger, and work hard at our defences. At any time, by going into the outskirts, we can have a skirmish, which is nothing but fun; but when night closes in over a small and weary garrison, there sometimes steals into my mind, like a chill, that most sickening of all sensations, the anxiety of a commander. This was the night generally set for an attack, if any, though I am pretty well satisfied that they have not strength to dare it, and the worst they could probably do is to burn the town. But to-night, instead of enemies, appear friends,—our devoted civic ally, Judge Stickney, and a whole Connecticut regiment, the Sixth, under Major Meeker; and though the latter are aground, twelve miles below, yet they enable one to breathe more freely. I only wish they were black; but now I have to show, not only that blacks can fight, but that they and white soldiers can act in harmony together.

  That evening the enemy came up for a reconnoissance, in the deepest darkness, and there were alarms all night. The next day the Sixth Connecticut got afloat, and came up the river; and two days after, to my continued amazement, arrived a part of the Eighth Maine, under Lieutenant-Colonel Twichell. This increased my command to four regiments, or parts of regiments, half white and half black. Skirmishing had almost ceased,—our defences being tolerably complete, and looking from without much more effective than they really were. We were safe from any attack by a small force, and hoped that the enemy could not spare a large one from Charleston or Savannah. All looked bright without, and gave leisure for some small anxieties within.

  It was the first time in the war (so far as I know) that white and black soldiers had served together on regular duty. Jealousy was still felt towards even the officers of colored regiments, and any difficult contingency would be apt to bring it out. The white soldiers, just from ship-board, felt a natural desire to stray about the town; and no attack from an enemy would be so disastrous as the slightest collision between them and the black provost-guard. I shudder, even now, to think of the train of consequences, bearing on the whole course of subsequent national events, which one such mishap might then have produced. It is almost impossible for us now to remember in what a delicate balance then hung the whole question of negro enlistments, and consequently of slavery. Fortunately for my own serenity, I had great faith in the intrinsic power of military discipline, and also knew that a common service would soon produce mutual respect among good soldiers; and so it proved. But the first twelve hours of this mixed command were to me a more anxious period than any outward alarms had created.

  Let us resort to the note-book again:—

JACKSONVILLE, March 22, 1863.

  It is Sunday; the bell is ringing for church, and Rev. Mr. F., from Beaufort, is to preach. This afternoon our good quartermaster establishes a Sunday-school for our little colony of “contrabands,” now numbering seventy.

Sunday Afternoon.

  The bewildering report is confirmed; and in addition to the Sixth Connecticut, which came yesterday, appears part of the Eighth Maine. The remainder, with its colonel, will be here to-morrow, and, report says, Major-General Hunter. Now my hope is that we may go to some point higher up the river, which we can hold for ourselves. There are two other points [Magnolia and Pilatka], which, in themselves, are as favorable as this, and, for getting recruits, better. So I shall hope to be allowed to go. To take posts, and then let white troops garrison them,—that is my programme.

  What makes the thing more puzzling is, that the Eighth Maine has only brought ten days’ rations, so that they evidently are not to stay here; and yet where they go, or why they come, is a puzzle. Meanwhile we can sleep sound o’ nights; and if the black and white babies do not quarrel and pull hair, we shall do very well.

  Colonel Rust, on arriving, said frankly that he knew nothing of the plans prevailing in the Department, but that General Hunter was certainly coming soon to act for himself; that it had been reported at the North, and even at Port Royal, that we had all been captured and shot,—and, indeed, I had afterwards the pleasure of reading my own obituary in a Northern Democratic journal,—and that we certainly needed reinforcements; that he himself had been sent with orders to carry out, so far as possible, the original plans of the expedition; that he regarded himself as only a visitor, and should remain chiefly on shipboard,—which he did. He would relieve the black provost-guard by a white one, if I approved,—which I certainly did. But he said that he felt bound to give the chief opportunities of action to the colored troops,—which I also approved, and which he carried out, not quite to the satisfaction of his own eager and daring officers.

  I recall one of these enterprises, out of which we extracted a good deal of amusement; it was baptized the Battle of the Clothes-Lines. A white company was out scouting in the woods behind the town, with one of my best Florida men for a guide; and the captain sent back a message that he had discovered a Rebel camp with twenty-two tents, beyond a creek, about four miles away; the officers and men had been distinctly seen, and it would be quite possible to capture it. Colonel Rust at once sent me out with two hundred men to do the work, recalling the original scouts, and disregarding the appeals of his own eager officers. We marched through the open pine woods, on a delightful afternoon, and met the returning party. Poor fellows! I never shall forget the longing eyes they cast on us, as we marched forth to the field of glory, from which they were debarred. We went three or four miles out, sometimes halting to send forward a scout, while I made all the men lie down in the long, thin grass and beside the fallen trees, till one could not imagine that there was a person there. I remember how picturesque the effect was, when, at the signal, all rose again, like Roderick Dhu’s men, and the green wood appeared suddenly populous with armed life. At a certain point forces were divided, and a detachment was sent round the head of the creek, to flank the unsuspecting enemy; while we of the main body, stealing with caution nearer and nearer, through ever denser woods, swooped down at last in triumph upon a solitary farmhouse,—where the family-washing had been hung out to dry! This was the “Rebel camp”!

  It is due to Sergeant Greene, my invaluable guide, to say that he had from the beginning discouraged any high hopes of a crossing of bayonets. He had early explained that it was not he who claimed to have seen the tents and the enemy’s soldiers, but one of the officers,—and had pointed out that our undisturbed approach was hardly reconcilable with the existence of a hostile camp so near. This impression had also pressed more and more upon my own mind, but it was our business to put the thing beyond a doubt. Probably the place may have been occasionally used for a picket-station, and we found fresh horse-tracks in the vicinity, and there was a quantity of iron bridle-bits in the house, of which no clear explanation could be given; so that the armed men may not have been wholly imaginary. But camp there was none. After enjoying to the utmost the fun of the thing, therefore, we borrowed the only horse on the premises, hung all the bits over his neck, and as I rode him back to camp, they clanked like broken chains. We were joined on the way by our dear and devoted surgeon, whom I had left behind as an invalid, but who had mounted his horse and ridden out alone to attend to our wounded, his green sash looking quite in harmony with the early spring verdure of those lovely woods. So came we back in triumph, enjoying the joke all the more because some one else was responsible. We mystified the little community at first, but soon let out the secret, and witticisms abounded for a day or two, the mildest of which was the assertion that the author of the alarm must have been “three sheets in the wind.”

  Another expedition was of more exciting character. For several days before the arrival of Colonel Rust a reconnaissance had been planned in the direction of the enemy’s camp, and he finally consented to its being carried out. By the energy of Major Corwin, of the Second South Carolina Volunteers, aided by Mr. Holden, then a gunner on the Paul Jones, and afterwards made captain of the same regiment, one of the ten-pound Parrott guns had been mounted on a hand-car, for use on the railway. This it was now proposed to bring into service. I took a large detail of men from the two white regiments and from my own, and had instructions to march as far as the four-mile station on the railway, if possible, examine the country, and ascertain if the Rebel camp had been removed, as was reported, beyond that distance. I was forbidden going any farther from camp, or attacking the enemy’s camp, as my force comprised half our garrison, and should the town meanwhile be attacked from some other direction, it would be in great danger.

  I never shall forget the delight of that march through the open pine barren, with occasional patches of uncertain swamp. The Eighth Maine, under Lieutenant-Colonel Twichell, was on the right, the Sixth Connecticut, under Major Meeker, on the left, and my own men, under Major Strong, in the centre, having in charge the cannon, to which they had been trained. Mr. Heron, from the John Adams, acted as gunner. The mounted pickets of the enemy retired before us through the woods, keeping usually beyond range of the skirmishers, who in a long line—white, black, white—were deployed transversely. For the first time I saw the two colors fairly alternate on the military chessboard; it had been the object of much labor and many dreams, and I liked the pattern at last. Nothing was said about the novel fact by anybody,—it all seemed to come as matter of course; there appeared to be no mutual distrust among the men, and as for the officers, doubtless “each crow thought its own young the whitest,”—I certainly did, although doing full justice to the eager courage of the Northern portion of my command. Especially I watched with pleasure the fresh delight of the Maine men, who had not, like the rest, been previously in action, and who strode rapidly on with their long legs, irresistibly recalling, as their gaunt, athletic frames and sunburnt faces appeared here and there among the pines, the lumber regions of their native State, with which I was not unfamiliar.

  We passed through a former camp of the Rebels, from which everything had been lately removed; but when the utmost permitted limits of our reconnoissance were reached, there were still no signs of any other camp, and the Rebel cavalry still kept provokingly before us. Their evident object was to lure us on to their own stronghold, and had we fallen into the trap, it would perhaps have resembled, on a smaller scale, the Olustee of the following year. With a good deal of reluctance, however, I caused the recall to be sounded, and, after a slight halt, we began to retrace our steps.

  Straining our eyes to look along the reach of level railway which stretched away through the pine barren, we began to see certain ominous puffs of smoke, which might indeed proceed from some fire in the woods, but were at once set down by the men as coming from the mysterious locomotive battery which the Rebels were said to have constructed. Gradually the smoke grew denser, and appeared to be moving up along the track, keeping pace with our motion, and about two miles distant. I watched it steadily through a field-glass from our own slowly moving battery: it seemed to move when we moved and to halt when we halted. Sometimes in the dim smoke I caught a glimpse of something blacker, raised high in the air like the threatening head of some great gliding serpent. Suddenly there came a sharp puff of lighter smoke that seemed like a forked tongue, and then a hollow report, and we could see a great black projectile hurled into the air, and falling a quarter of a mile away from us, in the woods. I did not at once learn that this first shot killed two of the Maine men, and wounded two more. This was fired wide, but the numerous shots which followed were admirably aimed, and seldom failed to fall or explode close to our own smaller battery.

  It was the first time that the men had been seriously exposed to artillery fire,—a danger more exciting to the ignorant mind than any other, as this very war has shown.4 So I watched them anxiously. Fortunately there were deep trenches on each side the railway, with many stout, projecting roots, forming very tolerable bomb-proofs for those who happened to be near them. The enemy’s gun was a sixty-four-pound Blakely, as we afterward found, whose enormous projectile moved very slowly and gave ample time to cover,—insomuch, that, while the fragments of shell fell all around and amongst us, not a man was hurt. This soon gave the men the most buoyant confidence, and they shouted with childish delight over every explosion.

  The moment a shell had burst or fallen unburst, our little gun was invariably fired in return, and that with some precision, so far as we could judge, its range also being nearly as great. For some reason they showed no disposition to overtake us, in which attempt their locomotive would have given them an immense advantage over our heavy hand-car, and their cavalry force over our infantry. Nevertheless, I rather hoped that they would attempt it, for then an effort might have been made to cut them off in the rear by taking up some rails. As it was, this was out of the question, though they moved slowly, as we moved, keeping always about two miles away. When they finally ceased firing we took up the rails beyond us before withdrawing, and thus kept the enemy from approaching so near the city again. But I shall never forget that Dantean monster, rearing its black head amid the distant smoke, nor the solicitude with which I watched for the puff which meant danger, and looked round to see if my chickens were all under cover. The greatest peril, after all, was from the possible dismounting of our gun, in which case we should have been very apt to lose it, if the enemy had showed any dash. There may be other such tilts of railway artillery on record during the war; but if so, I have not happened to read of them, and so have dwelt the longer on this.

  This was doubtless the same locomotive battery which had previously fired more than once upon the town,—running up within two miles and then withdrawing, while it was deemed inexpedient to destroy the railroad, on our part, lest it might be needed by ourselves in turn. One night, too, the threat of the enemy had been fulfilled, and they had shelled the town with the same battery. They had the range well, and every shot fell near the post headquarters. It was exciting to see the great Blakely shell, showing a light as it rose, and moving slowly towards us like a comet, then exploding and scattering its formidable fragments. Yet, strange to say, no serious harm was done to life or limb, and the most formidable casualty was that of a citizen who complained that a shell had passed through the wall of his bedroom, and carried off his mosquito curtain in its transit.

  Little knew we how soon these small entertainments would be over. Colonel Montgomery had gone up the river with his two companies, perhaps to remain permanently; and I was soon to follow. On Friday, March 27th, I wrote home: “The Burnside has gone to Beaufort for rations, and the John Adams to Fernandina for coal; we expect both back by Sunday, and on Monday I hope to get the regiment off to a point farther up,—Magnolia, thirty-five miles, or Pilatka, seventy-five,—either of which would be a good post for us. General Hunter is expected every day, and it is strange he has not come.” The very next day came an official order recalling the whole expedition, and for the third time evacuating Jacksonville.

  A council of military and naval officers was at once called,—though there was but one thing to be done,—and the latter were even more disappointed and amazed than the former. This was especially the case with the senior naval officer, Captain Steedman, a South Carolinian by birth, but who had proved himself as patriotic as he was courteous and able, and whose presence and advice had been of the greatest value to me. He and all of us felt keenly the wrongfulness of breaking the pledges which we had been authorized to make to these people, and of leaving them to the mercy of the Rebels once more. Most of the people themselves took the same view, and eagerly begged to accompany us on our departure. They were allowed to bring their clothing and furniture also, and at once developed that insane mania for aged and valueless trumpery which always seizes upon the human race, I believe, in moments of danger. With the greatest difficulty we selected between the essential and the non-essential, and our few transports were at length loaded to the very water’s edge on the morning of March 29th,—Colonel Montgomery having by this time returned from up river, with sixteen prisoners, and the fruits of foraging in plenty.

  And upon that last morning occurred an act on the part of some of the garrison most deeply to be regretted, and not to be excused by the natural indignation at their recall,—an act which, through the unfortunate eloquence of one newspaper correspondent, rang through the nation,—the attempt to burn the town. I fortunately need not dwell much upon it, as I was not at the time in command of the post,—as the white soldiers frankly took upon themselves the whole responsibility,—and as all the fires were made in the wooden part of the city, which was occupied by them, while none were made in the brick part, where the colored soldiers were quartered. It was fortunate for our reputation that the newspaper accounts generally agreed in exculpating us from all share in the matter;5 and the single exception, which one correspondent asserted, I could never verify, and do not believe to have existed. It was stated by Colonel Rust, in his official report, that some twenty-five buildings in all were burned, and I doubt if the actual number was greater; but this was probably owing in part to a change of wind, and did not diminish the discredit of the transaction. It made our sorrow at departure no less, though it infinitely enhanced the impressiveness of the scene.

  The excitement of the departure was intense. The embarkation was so laborious that it seemed as if the flames must be upon us before we could get on board, and it was also generally expected that the Rebel skirmishers would be down among the houses, wherever practicable, to annoy us to the utmost, as had been the case at the previous evacuation. They were, indeed, there, as we afterwards heard, but did not venture to molest us. The sight and roar of the flames, and the rolling clouds of smoke, brought home to the impressible minds of the black soldiers all their favorite imagery of the Judgment Day; and those who were not too much depressed by disappointment were excited by the spectacle, and sang and exhorted without ceasing.

  With heavy hearts their officers floated down the lovely river, which we had ascended with hopes so buoyant; and from that day to this, the reasons for our recall have never been made public. It was commonly attributed to pro-slavery advisers, acting on the rather impulsive nature of Major-General Hunter, with a view to cut short the career of the colored troops, and stop their recruiting. But it may have been simply the scarcity of troops in the Department, and the renewed conviction at head-quarters that we were too few to hold the post alone. The latter theory was strengthened by the fact that, when General Seymour reoccupied Jacksonville, the following year, he took with him twenty thousand men instead of one thousand,—and the sanguinary battle of Olustee found him with too few.


March 5, 1863.

  COLONEL,—You will please proceed with your command, the First and Second Regiments South Carolina Volunteers, which are now embarked upon the steamers John Adams, Boston, and Burnside, to Fernandina, Florida.
  Relying upon your military skill and judgment. I shall give you no special directions as to your procedure after you leave Fernandina. I expect, however, that you will occupy Jacksonville, Florida, and intrench yourselves there.
  The main objects of your expedition are to carry the proclamation of freedom to the enslaved; to call all loyal men into the service of the United States; to occupy as much of the State of Florida as possible with the forces under your command; and to neglect no means consistent with the usages of civilized warfare to weaken, harass, and annoy those who are in rebellion against the Government of the United States.
  Trusting that the blessing of our Heavenly Father will rest upon your noble enterprise,
                I am yours, sincerely,

Brig.-Gen., Mil. Gov. Dept. of the South.

  Colonel Higginson, Comdg. Expeditionary Corps.


PORT ROYAL HARBOR, S. C., March 6, 1863.

  SIR,—I am informed by Major-General Hunter that he is sending Colonel Higginson on an important mission in the southerly part of his Department.
  I have not been made acquainted with the objects of this mission, but any assistance that you can offer Colonel Higginson, which will not interfere with your other duties, you are authorized to give.
  Respectfully your obedient servant,

Rear-Adm. Comdg. S. Atl. Block. Squad.

  To the Senior Officer at the different Blockading Stations on the Coast of Georgia and Florida.

3 That this device was successful may be seen by the fact that the Rebel General Finnegan wrote to his superiors, “They keep five boats with guns of long range in front and on the sides of the town.” (Official War Records, 1st series, XIV. 228.)
4 Take this for example: “The effect was electrical. The Rebels were the best men in Ford’s command, being Lieutenant-Colonel Showalter’s Californians, and they were brave men. They had dismounted and sent their horses to the rear, and were undoubtedly determined upon a desperate fight, and their superior numbers made them confident of success. But they never fought with artillery, and a cannon has more terror for them than ten thousand rifles and all the wild Camanches on the plains of Texas. At first glimpse of the shining brass monsters there was a visible wavering in the determined front of the enemy, and as the shells came screaming over their heads the scare was complete. They broke ranks, fled for their horses, scrambled on the first that came to hand, and skedaddled in the direction of Brownsville.”—New York Evening Post, September 25, 1864.
5 “The colored regiments had nothing at all to do with it; they behaved with propriety throughout”—Boston Journal Correspondence. (“Carleton.”)
  “The negro troops took no part whatever in the perpetration of this Vandalism.”—New York Tribune Correspondence. (“N. P.”)
  “We know not whether we are most rejoiced or saddened to observe, by the general concurrence of accounts, that the negro soldiers had nothing to do with the barbarous act”—Boston Journal Editorial, April 10, 1863.

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