Out on Picket.

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


  One can hardly imagine a body of men more disconsolate than a regiment suddenly transferred from an adventurous life in the enemy’s country to the quiet of a sheltered camp, on safe and familiar ground. The men under my command were deeply dejected when, on a most appropriate day,—the First of April, 1863,—they found themselves unaccountably recalled from Florida, that region of delights which had seemed theirs by the right of conquest. My dusky soldiers, who based their whole walk and conversation strictly on the ancient Israelites, felt that the prophecies were all set at naught, and that they were on the wrong side of the Red Sea; indeed, I fear they regarded even me as a sort of reversed Moses, whose Pisgah fronted in the wrong direction. Had they foreseen how the next occupation of the Promised Land was destined to result, under General Seymour, they might have acquiesced with more of their wonted cheerfulness. As it was, we were very glad to receive, after a few days of discontented repose on the very ground where we had once been so happy, an order to go out on picket at Port Royal Ferry, with the understanding that we might remain there for some time.

  This picket-station was regarded as a sort of military picnic by the regiments stationed at Beaufort, South Carolina; it meant blackberries and oysters, wild roses and magnolias, flowery lanes instead of sandy barrens, and a sort of guerilla existence in place of the camp routine. To the colored soldiers especially, with their love of country life and their extensive personal acquaintance on the plantations, it seemed quite like a Christmas festival. Besides, they would be in sight of the enemy, and who knew but there might, by the blessing of Providence, be a raid or a skirmish? If they could not remain on the St. John’s River, it was something to dwell on the Coosaw. In the end they enjoyed it as much as they expected, and though we “went out” several times subsequently, until it became an old story, the enjoyment never waned. And as even the march from the camp to the picket lines was something that could not possibly have been the same for any white regiment in the service, it is worth while to begin at the beginning and describe it.

  A regiment ordered on picket was expected to have reveillé at daybreak, and to be in line for departure by sunrise. This delighted our men, who always took a childlike pleasure in being out of bed at any unreasonable hour; and by the time I had emerged, the tents were nearly all struck, and the great wagons were lumbering into camp to receive them, with whatever else was to be transported. The first rays of the sun must fall upon the line of these wagons, moving away across the wide parade ground, followed by the column of men, who would soon outstrip them. But on the occasion which I especially describe the sun was shrouded, and, when once upon the sandy plain, neither camp nor town nor river could be seen in the dimness; and when I rode forward and looked back there was only visible the long, moving, shadowy column, seeming rather awful in its snake-like advance. There was a swaying of flags and multitudinous weapons that might have been camels’ necks for all one could see, and the whole thing might have been a caravan upon the desert. Soon we debouched upon the “Shell Road,” the wagon-train drew on one side into the fog, and by the time the sun appeared the music ceased, the men took the “route step,” and the fun began.

  The “route step” is an abandonment of all military strictness, and nothing is required of the men but to keep four abreast, and not lag behind. They are not required to keep step, though, with the rhythmical ear of our soldiers, they almost always instinctively did so; talking and singing are allowed, and of this privilege, at least, they eagerly availed themselves. On this day they were at the top of exhilaration. There was one broad grin from one end of the column to the other; it might soon have been a caravan of elephants instead of camels, for the ivory and the blackness; the chatter and the laughter almost drowned the tramp of feet and the clatter of equipments. At cross-roads and plantation gates the colored people thronged to see us pass; every one found a friend and a greeting. “How you do, aunty?” “Huddy [how d’ye], Budder Benjamin?” “How you find yourself dis mornin’, Tittawisa [Sister Louisa]?” Such saluations rang out to everybody, known or unknown. In return, venerable, kerchiefed matrons courtesied laboriously to every one, with an unfailing “Bress de Lord, budder.” Grave little boys, blacker than ink, shook hands with our laughing and utterly unmanageable drummers, who greeted them with this sure word of prophecy, “Dem’s de drummers for de nex’ war!” Pretty mulatto girls ogled and coquetted, and made eyes, as Thackeray would say, at half the young fellows in the battalion. Meantime, the singing was brisk along the whole column; and when I sometimes reined up to see them pass, the chant of each company, entering my ear, drove out from the other ear the strain of the preceding. Such an odd mixture of things, military and missionary, as the successive waves of song drifted by! First, “John Brown,” of course; then, “What make old Satan for follow me so?” then, “Marching Along”; then, “Hold your light on Canaan’s shore”; then, “When this cruel war is over” (a new favorite, sung by a few); yielding presently to a grand burst of the favorite marching song among them all, and one at which every step instinctively quickened, so light and jubilant its rhythm,—

“All true children gwine in de wilderness,
Gwine in de wilderness, gwine in de wilderness,
True believers gwine in de wilderness,
To take away de sins ob de world,”—

ending in a “Hoigh!” after each verse,—a sort of Irish yell. For all the songs, but especially for their own wild hymns, they constantly improvised simple verses, with the same odd mingling,—the little facts of to-day’s march being interwoven with the depths of theological gloom, and the same jubilant chorus annexed to all; thus,—

“We’re gwin to de Ferry,
De bell done ringing;
Gwine to de landing,
De bell done ringing;
Trust, believer
O, de bell done ringing;
Satan’s behind me,
De bell done ringing;
‘T is a misty morning,
De bell done ringing;
O de road am sandy,
De bell done ringing;
Hell been open,
De bell done ringing”;—

and so on indefinitely.

  The little drum-corps kept in advance, a jolly crew, their drums slung on their backs, and the drumsticks perhaps balanced on their heads. With them went the officers’ servant boys, more uproarious still, always ready to lend their shrill treble to any song. At the head of the whole force there walked, by some self-imposed preëminence, a respectable elderly female, one of the company laundresses, whose vigorous stride we never could quite overtake, and who had an enormous bundle balanced on her head, while she waved in her hand, like a sword, a long-handled tin dipper. Such a picturesque medley of fun, war, and music I believe no white regiment in the service could have shown; and yet there was no straggling, and a single tap of the drum would at any moment bring order out of this seeming chaos. So we marched our seven miles out upon the smooth and shaded road,—beneath jasmine clusters, and great pine-cones dropping, and great bunches of misletoe still in bloom among the branches. Arrived at the station, the scene soon became busy and more confused; wagons were being unloaded, tents pitched, water brought, wood cut, fires made, while the “field and staff” could take possession of the abandoned quarters of their predecessors, and we could look round in the lovely summer morning to “survey our empire and behold our home.”

  The only thoroughfare by land between Beaufort and Charleston is the “Shell Road,” a beautiful avenue, which, about nine miles from Beaufort, strikes a ferry across the Coosaw River. War abolished the ferry, and made the river the permanent barrier between the opposing picket lines. For ten miles, right and left, these lines extended, marked by well-worn footpaths, following the endless windings of the stream; and they never varied until nearly the end of the war. Upon their maintenance depended our whole foothold on the Sea Islands; and upon that again finally depended the whole campaign of Sherman. But for the services of the colored troops, which finally formed the main garrison of the Department of the South, the Great March would never have been performed.

  There was thus a region ten or twelve miles square of which I had exclusive military command. It was level, but otherwise broken and bewildering to the last degree. No road traversed it, properly speaking, but the Shell Road. All the rest was a wild medley of cypress swamp, pine barren, muddy creek, and cultivated plantation, intersected by interminable lanes and bridle-paths, through which we must ride day and night, and which our horses soon knew better than ourselves. The regiment was distributed at different stations, the main force being under my immediate command, at a plantation close by the Shell Road, two miles from the ferry, and seven miles from Beaufort. Our first picket duty was just at the time of the first attack on Charleston, under Dupont and Hunter; and it was generally supposed that the Rebels would make an effort to recapture the Sea Islands. My orders were to watch the enemy closely, keep informed as to his position and movements, attempt no advance, and, in case any were attempted from the other side, to delay it as long as possible, sending instant notice to headquarters. As to the delay, that could be easily guaranteed. There were causeways on the Shell Road which a single battery could hold against a large force; and the plantations were everywhere so intersected by hedges and dikes that they seemed expressly planned for defence. Although creeks wound in and out everywhere, yet these were only navigable at high tide, and at all other times were impassable marshes. There were but few posts where the enemy were within rifle range, and their occasional attacks at those points were soon stopped by our enforcement of a pithy order from General Hunter, “Give them as good as they send.” So that, with every opportunity for being kept on the alert, there was small prospect of serious danger; and all promised an easy life, with only enough of care to make it pleasant. The picket-station was therefore always a coveted post among the regiments, combining some undeniable importance with a kind of relaxation; and as we were there three months on our first tour of duty, and returned there several times afterwards, we got well acquainted with it. The whole region always reminded me of the descriptions of La Vendée, and I always expected to meet Henri de la Rochejaquelein riding in the woods.

  How can I ever describe the charm and picturesqueness of that summer life? Our house possessed four spacious rooms and a piazza; around it were grouped sheds and tents; the camp was a little way off on one side, the negro quarters of the plantation on the other; and all was immersed in a dense mass of waving and murmuring locust-blossoms. The spring days were always lovely, while the evenings were always conveniently damp; so that we never shut the windows by day, nor omitted our cheerful fire by night. Indoors, the main headquarters seemed like the camp of some party of young engineers in time of peace, only with a little female society added, and a good many martial associations thrown in. A large, low, dilapidated room, with an immense fireplace, and with window-panes chiefly broken, so that the sashes were still open even when closed,—such was our home. The walls were scrawled with capital charcoal sketches by R. of the Fourth New Hampshire, and with a good map of the island and its wood-paths by C. of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. The room had the picturesqueness which comes everywhere from the natural grouping of articles of daily use,—swords, belts, pistols, rifles, field-glasses, spurs, canteens, gauntlets,—while wreaths of gray moss above the windows, and a pelican’s wing three feet long over the high mantel-piece, indicated more deliberate decoration. This, and the whole atmosphere of the place, spoke of the refining presence of agreeable women; and it was pleasant when they held their little court in the evening, and pleasant all day, with the different visitors who were always streaming in and out,—officers and soldiers on various business; turbaned women from the plantations, coming with complaints or questionings; fugitives from the main-land to be interrogated; visitors riding up on horseback, their hands full of jasmine and wild roses; and the sweet sunny air all perfumed with magnolias and the Southern pine. From the neighboring camp there was a perpetual low hum. Louder voices and laughter reëchoed, amid the sharp sounds of the axe, from the pine woods; and sometimes, when the relieved pickets were discharging their pieces, there came the hollow sound of dropping rifle-shots, as in skirmishing,—perhaps the most unmistakable and fascinating association that war bequeaths to the memory of the ear.

  Our domestic arrangements were of the oddest description. From the time when we began housekeeping by taking down the front-door to complete therewith a little office for the surgeon on the piazza, everything seemed upside down. I slept on a shelf in the corner of the parlor, bequeathed me by Major F., my jovial predecessor, and, if I waked at any time, could put my head through the broken window, arouse my orderly, and ride off to see if I could catch a picket asleep. We used to spell the word picquet, because that was understood to be the correct thing, in that Department at least; and they used to say at post headquarters that as soon as the officer in command of the outposts grew negligent, and was guilty of a k, he was ordered in immediately. Then the arrangements for ablution were peculiar. We fitted up a bathing-place in a brook, which somehow got appropriated at once by the company laundresses; but I had my revenge, for I took to bathing in the family washtub. After all, however, the kitchen department had the advantage, for they used my solitary napkin to wipe the mess table. As for food, we found it impossible to get chickens, save in the immature shape of eggs; fresh pork was prohibited by the surgeon, and other fresh meat came rarely. We could, indeed, hunt for wild turkeys, and even deer, but such hunting was found only to increase the appetite, without corresponding supply. Still we had our luxuries,—large, delicious drum-fish, and alligator steaks, like a more substantial fried halibut,—which might have afforded the theme for Charles Lamb’s dissertation on Roast Pig, and by whose aid “for the first time in our lives we tested crackling.” The post bakery yielded admirable bread; and for vegetables and fruit we had very poor sweet potatoes, and, in their season, an unlimited supply of the largest blackberries. For beverage, we had the vapid milk of that region, in which, if you let it stand, the water sinks instead of the cream’s rising; and the delicious sugar-cane syrup, which we had brought from Florida, and which we drank at all hours. Old Floridians say that no one is justified in drinking whiskey, while he can get cane-juice; it is sweet and spirited, without cloying, foams like ale, and there were little spots on the ceiling of the dining-room where our lively beverage had popped out its cork. We kept it in a whiskey-bottle; and as whiskey itself was absolutely prohibited among us, it was amusing to see the surprise of our military visitors when this innocent substitute was brought in. They usually liked it in the end, but, like the old Frenchwoman over her glass of water, wished that it were a sin to give it a relish. As the foaming beakers of syrup-and-water were handed round, the guests would make with them the courteous little gestures of polite imbiding, and would then quaff the beverage, some with gusto, others with a slight after-look of dismay. But it was a delicious and cooling drink while it lasted; and at all events was the best and the worst we had.

  We used to have reveillé at six, and breakfast about seven; then the mounted couriers began to arrive from half a dozen different directions, with written reports of what had happened during the night,—a boat seen, a picket fired upon, a battery erecting. These must be consolidated and forwarded to headquarters, with the daily report of the command,—so many sick, so many on detached service, and all the rest. This was our morning newspaper, our Herald and Tribune; I never got tired of it. Then the couriers must be furnished with countersign and instructions, and sent off again. Then we scattered to our various rides, all disguised as duty; one to inspect pickets, one to visit a sick soldier, one to build a bridge or clear a road, and still another to headquarters for ammunition or commissary stores. Galloping through green lanes, miles of triumphal arches of wild roses,—roses pale and large and fragrant, mingled with great boughs of the white cornel, fantastic masses, snowy surprises,—such were our rides, ranging from eight to fifteen and even twenty miles. Back to a late dinner with our various experiences, and perhaps specimens to match,—a thunder-snake, eight feet long; a live opossum, with a young clinging to the natural pouch; an armful of great white, scentless pond-lilies. After dinner, to the tangled garden for rosebuds or early magnolias, whose cloying fragrance will always bring back to me the full zest of those summer days; then dress parade and a little drill as the day grew cool. In the evening, tea; and then the piazza or the fireside, as the case might be,—chess, cards,—perhaps a little music by aid of the assistant surgeon’s melodeon, a few pages of Jean Paul’s “Titan,” almost my only book, and carefully husbanded,—perhaps a mail, with its infinite felicities. Such was our day.

  Night brought its own fascinations, more solitary and profound. The darker they were, the more clearly it was our duty to visit the pickets. The paths that had grown so familiar by day seemed a wholly new labyrinth by night; and every added shade of darkness seemed to shift and complicate them all anew, till at last man’s skill grew utterly baffled, and the clue must be left to the instinct of the horse. Riding beneath the solemn starlight, or soft, gray mist, or densest blackness, the frogs croaking, the strange “chuck-will’s-widow” droning his ominous note above my head, the mocking-bird dreaming in music, the great Southern fireflies rising to the tree-tops, or hovering close to the ground like glowworms, seemingly just evading the horse’s hoofs; through pine woods and cypress swamps, or past sullen brooks, or white tents, or the dimly seen huts of sleeping negroes; down to the glimmering shore, where black statues leaned against trees or stood alert in the pathways;—never, in all the days of my life, shall I forget the magic of those haunted nights.

  We had nocturnal boat service, too, for it was a part of our instructions to obtain all possible information about the enemy’s position; and we accordingly, as usual in such cases, incurred a great many risks that harmed nobody, and picked up much information which did nobody any good. The centre of these nightly reconnoissances, for a long time, was the wreck of the George Washington, the story of whose disaster is perhaps worth telling.

  Till about the time when we went on picket, it had been the occasional habit of the smaller gunboats to make the circuit of Port Royal Island,—a practice which was deemed very essential to the safety of our position, but which the Rebels effectually stopped, a few days after our arrival, by destroying the army gunboat George Washington with a single shot from a light battery. I was roused soon after daybreak by the firing, and a courier soon came dashing in with the particulars. Forwarding these hastily to Beaufort—for we had then no telegraph,—I was soon at the scene of action, five miles away. Approaching, I met on the picket paths man after man who had escaped from the wreck across a half mile of almost impassable marsh. Never did I see such objects,—some stripped to their shirts, some fully clothed, but all having every garment literally pasted to their bodies with mud. Across the river, the Rebels were retiring, having done their work, but were still shelling, from greater and greater distances, the wood through which I rode. Arrived at the spot nearest the wreck—a point opposite to what we called the Brickyard Station,—I saw the burning vessel aground beyond a long stretch of marsh, out of which the forlorn creatures were still floundering. Here and there in the mud and reeds we could see the laboring heads, slowly advancing, and could hear excruciating cries from wounded men in the more distant depths. It was the strangest mixture of war and Dante and Robinson Crusoe. Our energetic chaplain coming up, I sent him with four men, under a flag of truce, to the place whence the worst cries proceeded, while I went to another part of the marsh. During that morning we got them all out, our last achievement being the rescue of the pilot, an immense negro with a wooden leg,—an article so particularly unavailable for mud travelling, that it would have almost seemed better, as one of the men suggested, to cut the traces, and leave it behind.

  A naval gunboat, too, which had originally accompanied this vessel, and should never have left it, now came back and took off the survivors, though there had been several deaths from scalding and shell. It proved that the wreck was not aground after all, but at anchor, having foolishly lingered till after daybreak, and having thus given time for the enemy to bring down their guns. The first shot had struck the boiler and set the vessel on fire; after which the officer in command had raised a white flag, and then escaped with his men to our shore; and it was for this flight in the wrong direction that they were shelled in the marshes by the Rebels. The case furnished in this respect some parallel to that of the Kearsage and Alabama, and it was afterwards cited, I believe, officially or unofficially, to show that the Rebels had claimed the right to punish, in this case, the course of action which they approved in Semmes. I know that they always asserted thenceforward that the detachment on board the George Washington had become rightful prisoners of war, and were justly fired upon when they tried to escape.

  This was at the time of the first attack on Charleston, and the noise of this cannonading spread rapidly thither, and brought four regiments to reinforce Beaufort in a hurry, under the impression that the town was already taken, and that they must save what remnants they could. General Saxton, too, had made such capital plans for defending the post that he could not bear not to have it attacked; so, while the Rebels brought down a force to keep us from taking the guns off the wreck, I was also supplied with a section or two of regular artillery, and some additional infantry, with which to keep them from it; and we tried to “make believe very hard,” and rival the Charleston expedition on our own island. Indeed, our affair came to about as much,—nearly nothing,—and lasted decidedly longer; for both sides nibbled away at the guns, by night, for weeks afterward, though I believe the mud finally got them,—at least, we did not. We tried in vain to get the use of a steamboat or floating derrick of any kind; for it needed more mechanical ingenuity than we possessed to transfer anything so heavy to our small boats by night, while by day we did not go near the wreck in anything larger than a “dug-out.”

  One of these nocturnal visits to the wreck I recall with peculiar gusto, because it brought back that contest with catarrh and coughing among my own warriors which had so ludicrously beset me in Florida. It was always fascinating to be on those forbidden waters by night, stealing out with muffled oars through the creeks and reeds, our eyes always strained for other voyagers, our ears listening breathlessly to all the marsh sounds,—blackfish splashing, and little wakened reed-birds that fled wailing away over the dim river, equally safe on either side. But it always appeared to the watchful senses that we were making noise enough to be heard at Fort Sumter; and somehow the victims of catarrh seemed always the most eager for any enterprise requiring peculiar caution. In this case I thought I had sifted them beforehand; but as soon as we were afloat, one poor boy near me began to wheeze, and I turned upon him in exasperation. He saw his danger, and meekly said, “I won’t cough, Cunnel!” and he kept his word. For two mortal hours he sat grasping his gun, with never a chirrup. But two unfortunates in the bow of the boat developed symptoms which I could not suppress; so, putting in at a picket-station, with some risk I dumped them in mud knee-deep, and embarked a substitute, who after the first five minutes absolutely coughed louder than both the others united. Handkerchiefs, blankets, over-coats, suffocation in its direst forms, were tried in vain, but apparently the Rebel pickets slept through it all, and we exploded the wreck in safety. I think they were asleep, for certainly across the level marshes there came a nasal sound, as of the Confederacy in its slumbers. It may have been a bull-frog, but it sounded like a human snore.

  Picket life was of course the place to feel the charm of natural beauty on the Sea Islands. We had a world of profuse and tangled vegetation around us, such as would have been a dream of delight to me, but for the constant sense of responsibility and care which came between. Amid this preoccupation, Nature seemed but a mirage, and not the close and intimate associate I had before known. I pressed no flowers, collected no insects or birds’ eggs, made no notes on natural objects, reversing in these respects all previous habits. Yet now, in the retrospect, there seems to have been infused into me through every pore the voluptuous charm of the season and the place; and the slightest corresponding sound or odor now calls back the memory of those delicious days. Being afterwards on picket at almost every season, I tasted the sensations of all; and though I hardly then thought of such a result, the associations of beauty will remain forever.

  In February, for instance,—though this was during a later period of picket service,—the woods were usually draped with that “net of shining haze” which marks our Northern May; and the house was embowered in wild plum-blossoms, small, white, profuse, and tenanted by murmuring bees. There were peach-blossoms, too, and the yellow jasmine was opening its multitudinous buds, climbing over tall trees, and waving from bough to bough. There were fresh young ferns and white bloodroot in the edges of woods, matched by snowdrops in the garden, beneath budded myrtle and Petisporum. In this wilderness the birds were busy; the two main songsters being the mocking-bird and the cardinal grosbeak, which monopolized all the parts of our more varied Northern orchestra save the tender and liquid notes, which in South Carolina seemed unattempted except by some stray bluebird. Jays were as loud and busy as at the North in autumn; there were sparrows and wrens; and sometimes I noticed the shy and whimsical chewink.

  From this early spring-time onward, there seemed no great difference in atmospheric sensations, and only a succession of bloom. After two months one’s notions of the season grew bewildered, just as very early rising bewilders the day. In the army, one is perhaps roused after a bivouac, marches before daybreak, halts, fights, somebody is killed, a long day’s life has been lived, and after all it is not seven o’clock, and breakfast is not ready. So when we had lived in summer so long as hardly to remember winter, it suddenly occurred to us that it was not yet June. One escapes at the South that mixture of hunger and avarice which is felt in the Northern summer, counting each hour’s joy with the sad consciousness that an hour is gone. The compensating loss is in missing those soft, sweet, liquid sensations of the Northern spring, that burst of life and joy, those days of heaven that even April brings; and this absence of childhood in the year creates a feeling of hardness in the season, like that I have suggested in the melody of the Southern birds. It seemed to me also that the woods had not those pure, clean, innocent odors which so abound in the New England forest in early spring; but there was something luscious, voluptuous, almost oppressively fragrant about the magnolias, as if they belonged not to Hebe, but to Magdalen.

  Such immense and lustrous butterflies I had never seen but in dreams; and not even dreams had prepared me for sand-flies. Almost too small to be seen, they inflicted a bite which appeared larger than themselves,—a positive wound, more torturing than that of a mosquito, and leaving more annoyance behind. These tormentors elevated dress parade into the dignity of a military engagement. I had to stand motionless, with my head a mere nebula of winged atoms, while tears rolled profusely down my face, from mere muscular irritation. Had I stirred a finger, the whole battalion would have been slapping its cheeks. Such enemies were, however, a valuable aid to discipline, on the whole, as they abounded in the guard-house, and made that institution an object of unusual abhorrence among the men.

  The presence of ladies and the homelike air of everything, made the picket-station a very popular resort while we were there. It was the one agreeable ride from Beaufort, and we often had a dozen people unexpectedly to dinner. On such occasions there was sometimes mounting in hot haste, and an eager search among the outlying plantations for additional chickens and eggs, or through the company kitchens for some of those villanous tin cans which everywhere marked the progress of our army. In those cans, so far as my observation went, all fruits relapsed into a common acidulation, and all meats into a similarity of tastelessness; while the “condensed milk” was best described by the men, who often unconsciously stumbled on a better joke than they knew, and always spoke of it as condemned milk.

  We had our own excursions too,—to the Barnwell plantations, with their beautiful avenues and great live-oaks, the perfection of Southern beauty; to Hall’s Island, debatable ground, close under the enemy’s fire, where half-wild cattle were to be shot, under military precautions, like Scottish moss-trooping; or to the ferry, where it was fascinating to the female mind to scan the Rebel pickets through a field-glass. Our horses liked the by-ways far better than the level hardness of the Shell Road, especially those we had brought from Florida, which enjoyed the wilderness as if they had belonged to Marion’s men. They delighted to feel the long sedge brush their flanks, or to gallop down the narrow wood-paths, leaping the fallen trees, and scaring the bright little lizards which shot across our track like live rays broken from the sunbeams. We had an abundance of horses, mostly captured and left in our hands by some convenient delay of the post quartermaster. We had also two side-saddles, which, not being munitions of war, could not properly (as we explained) be transferred like other captured articles to the general stock; otherwise the P. Q. M. (a married man) would have showed no unnecessary delay in their case. For miscellaneous accommodation was there not an ambulance,—that most inestimable of army conveniences, equally ready to carry the merry to a feast or the wounded from a fray. “Ambulance” was one of those words, rather numerous, which Ethiopian lips were not framed by Nature to articulate. Only the highest stages of colored culture could compass it; on the tongue of the many it was transformed mystically as “amulet,” or ambitiously as “epaulet,” or in culinary fashion as “omelet.” But it was our experience that an ambulance under any name jolted equally hard.

  Besides these divertisements, we had more laborious vocations,—a good deal of fatigue, and genuine though small alarms. The men went on duty every third day at furthest, and the officers nearly as often,—most of the tours of duty lasting twenty-four hours, though the stream was considered to watch itself tolerably well by daylight. This kind of responsibility suited the men; and we had already found, as the whole army afterwards acknowledged, that the constitutional watchfulness and distrustfulness of the colored race made them admirable sentinels. Soon after we went on picket, the commanding general sent an aid, with a cavalry escort, to visit all the stations, without my knowledge. They spent the whole night, and the officer reported that he could not get within thirty yards of any post without a challenge. This was a pleasant assurance for me; since our position seemed so secure, compared with Jacksonville, that I had feared some relaxation of vigilance, while yet the safety of all depended on our thorough discharge of duty.

  Jacksonville had also seasoned the men so well that they were no longer nervous, and did not waste much powder on false alarms. The Rebels made no formal attacks, and rarely attempted to capture pickets. Sometimes they came stealing through the creeks in “dug-outs,” as we did on their side of the water, and occasionally an officer of ours was fired upon while making his rounds by night. Often some boat or scow would go adrift, and sometimes a mere dark mass of river-weed would be floated by the tide past the successive stations, eliciting a challenge and perhaps a shot from each. I remember the vivid way in which one of the men stated to his officer the manner in which a faithful picket should do his duty, after challenging, in case a boat came in sight. “Fus’ ting I shoot, and den I shoot, and den I shoot again. Den I creep-creep up near de boat, and see who dey in ‘em; and s’pose anybody pop up he head, den I shoot again. S’pose I fire my forty rounds. I tink he hear at de camp and send more mans,”—which seemed a reasonable presumption. This soldier’s name was Paul Jones, a daring fellow, quite worthy of his namesake.

  In time, however, they learned quieter methods, and would wade far out in the water, there standing motionless at last, hoping to surround and capture these floating boats, though, to their great disappointment, the prize usually proved empty. On one occasion they tried a still profounder strategy; for an officer visiting the pickets after midnight, and hearing in the stillness a portentous snore from the end of the causeway—our most important station,—straightway hurried to the point of danger, with wrath in his soul. But the sergeant of the squad came out to meet him, imploring silence, and explaining that they had seen or suspected a boat hovering near, and were feigning sleep in order to lure and capture those who would entrap them.

  The one military performance at the picket-station of which my men were utterly intolerant was an occasional flag of truce, for which this was the appointed locality. These farces, for which it was our duty to furnish the stock actors, always struck them as being utterly despicable, and unworthy the serious business of war. They felt, I suppose, what Mr. Pickwick felt, when he heard his counsel remark to the counsel for the plaintiff, that it was a very fine morning. It goaded their souls to see the young officers from the two opposing armies salute each other courteously, and interchange cigars. They despised the object of such negotiations, which was usually to send over to the enemy some family of Rebel women who had made themselves quite intolerable on our side, but were not above collecting a subscription among the Union officers, before departure, to replenish their wardrobes. The men never showed disrespect to these women by word or deed, but they hated them from the bottom of their souls. Besides, there was a grievance behind all this. The Rebel order remained unrevoked which consigned the new colored troops and their officers to a felon’s death if captured; and we all felt that we fought with ropes round our necks. “Dere’s no flags ob truce for us,” the men would contemptuously say. “When de Secesh fight de Fus’ Souf” (First South Carolina), “he fight in earnest.” Indeed, I myself took it as rather a compliment when the commander on the other side—though an old acquaintance of mine in Massachusetts and in Kansas—at first refused to negotiate through me or my officers,—a refusal which was kept up, greatly to the enemy’s inconvenience, until our men finally captured some of the opposing pickets, and their friends had to waive all scruples in order to send them supplies. After this there was no trouble, and I think that the first Rebel officer in South Carolina who officially met any officer of colored troops under a flag of truce was Captain John C. Calhoun. In Florida we had been so recognized long before; but that was when they wished to frighten us out of Jacksonville.

  Such was our life on picket at Port Royal,—a thing whose memory is now fast melting into such stuff as dreams are made of. We stayed there more than two months at that time; the first attack on Charleston exploded with one puff, and had its end; General Hunter was ordered North, and the busy Gillmore reigned in his stead; and in June, when the blackberries were all eaten, we were summoned, nothing loath, to other scenes and encampments new.

All Sub-Works of Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.