Up the Edisto.

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


  IN reading military history, one finds the main interest to lie, undoubtedly, in the great campaigns, where a man, a regiment, a brigade, is but a pawn in the game. But there is a charm also in the more free and adventurous life of partisan warfare, where, if the total sphere be humbler, yet the individual has more relative importance, and the sense of action is more personal and keen. This is the reason given by the eccentric Revolutionary biographer, Weems, for writing the Life of Washington first, and then that of Marion. And there were, certainly, hi the early adventures of the colored troops in the Department of the South, some of the same elements of picturesqueness that belonged to Marion’s band, on the same soil, with the added feature that the blacks were fighting for their personal liberties, of which Marion had helped to deprive them.

  It is stated by Major-General Gillmore, in his “Siege of Charleston,” as one of the three points in his preliminary strategy, that an expedition was sent up the Edisto River to destroy a bridge on the Charleston and Savannah Railway. As one of the early raids of the colored troops, this expedition may deserve narration, though it was, in a strategic point of view, a disappointment. It has already been told, briefly and on the whole with truth, by Greeley and others, but I will venture on a more complete account.

  The project dated back earlier than General Gillmore’s siege, and had originally no connection with that movement. It had been formed by Captain Trowbridge and myself in camp, and was based on facts learned from the men. General Saxton and Colonel W. W. H. Davis, the successive post-commanders, had both favored it. It had been also approved by General Hunter, before his sudden removal, though he regarded the bridge as a secondary affair, because there was another railway communication between the two cities. But as my main object was to obtain permission to go, I tried to make the most of all results which might follow, while it was very clear that the raid would harass and confuse the enemy, and be the means of bringing away many of the slaves. General Hunter had, therefore, accepted the project mainly as a stroke for freedom and black recruits; and General Gillmore, because anything that looked toward action found favor in his eyes, and because it would be convenient to him at that time to effect a diversion, if nothing more.

  It must be remembered that, after the first capture of Port Royal, the outlying plantations along the whole Southern coast were abandoned, and the slaves withdrawn into the interior. It was necessary to ascend some river for thirty miles in order to reach the black population at all. This ascent could only be made by night, as it was a slow process, and the smoke of a steamboat could be seen for a great distance. The streams were usually shallow, winding, and muddy, and the difficulties of navigation were such as to require a full moon and a flood tide. It was really no easy matter to bring everything to bear, especially as every projected raid must be kept a secret so far as possible. However, we were now somewhat familiar with such undertakings, half military, half naval, and the thing to be done on the Edisto was precisely what we had proved to be practicable on the St. Mary’s and the St. John’s,—to drop anchor before the enemy’s door some morning at daybreak, without his having dreamed of our approach.

  Since a raid made by Colonel Montgomery up the Combahee, two months before, the vigilance of the Rebels had increased. But we had information that upon the South Edisto, or Pon-Pon River, the rice plantations were still being actively worked by a large number of negroes, in reliance on obstructions placed at the mouth of that narrow stream, where it joins the main river, some twenty miles from the coast. This point was known to be further protected by a battery of unknown strength, at Wiltown Bluff, a commanding and defensible situation. The obstructions consisted of a row of strong wooden piles across the river; but we convinced ourselves that these must now be much decayed, and that Captain Trowbridge, an excellent engineer officer, could remove them by the proper apparatus. Our proposition was to man the John Adams, an armed ferryboat, which had before done us much service,—and which has now reverted to the pursuits of peace, it is said, on the East Boston line,—to ascend in this to Wiltown Bluff, silence the battery, and clear a passage through the obstructions. Leaving the John Adams to protect this point, we could then ascend the smaller stream with two light-draft boats, and perhaps burn the bridge, which was ten miles higher, before the enemy could bring sufficient force to make our position at Wiltown Bluff untenable.

  The expedition was organized essentially upon this plan. The smaller boats were the Enoch Dean,—a river steamboat, which carried a ten-pound Parrott gun, and a small howitzer,—and a little mosquito of a tug, the Governor Milton, upon which, with the greatest difficulty, we found room for two twelve-pound Armstrong guns, with their gunners, forming a section of the First Connecticut Battery, under Lieutenant Clinton, aided by a squad from my own regiment, under Captain James. The John Adams carried, I if I remember rightly, two Parrott guns (of twenty and ten pounds calibre) and a howitzer or two. The whole force of men did not exceed two hundred and fifty.

  We left Beaufort, S. C., on the afternoon of July 9th, 1863. In former narrations I have sufficiently described the charm of a moonlight ascent into a hostile country, upon an unknown stream, the dark and silent banks, the rippling water, the wail of the reed-birds, the anxious watch, the breathless listening, the veiled lights, the whispered orders. To this was now to be added the vexation of an insufficient pilotage, for our negro guide knew only the upper river, and, as it finally proved, not even that, while, to take us over the bar which obstructed the main stream, we must borrow a pilot from Captain Dutch, whose gunboat blockaded that point. This active naval officer, however, whose boat expeditions had penetrated all the lower branches of those rivers, could supply our want, and we borrowed from him not only a pilot, but a surgeon, to replace our own, who had been prevented by an accident from coming with us. Thus accompanied, we steamed over the bar in safety, had a peaceful ascent, passed the island of Jehossee,—the fine estate of Governor Aiken, then left undisturbed by both sides,—and fired our first shell into the camp at Wiltown Bluff at four o’clock in the morning.

  The battery—whether fixed or movable we knew not—met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those moist meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the river-side. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank, and gazed on us as if we had been Cortez and Columbus. They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water; every moment increased the crowd, the jostling, the mutual clinging, on that miry foothold. What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, “like notin’ but de judgment day.” Presently they began to come from the houses also, with their little bundles on their heads; then with larger bundles. Old women, trotting on the narrow paths, would kneel to pray a little prayer, still balancing the bundle; and then would suddenly spring up, urged by the accumulating procession behind, and would move on till irresistibly compelled by thankfulness to dip down for another invocation. Reaching us, every human being must grasp our hands, amid exclamations of “Bress you, mas’r,” and “Bress de Lord,” at the rate of four of the latter ascriptions to one of the former. Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys learned on their back little brothers equally inky, and, gravely depositing them, shook hands. Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad, in such amazing squalidness and destitution of garments. I recall one small urchin without a rag of clothing save the waist or “body” of a lady’s dress, bristling with whalebones, and worn wrong side before, beneath which his smooth ebony legs emerged like those of an ostrich from its plumage. How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!

  Yet at the time we were perforce a little impatient of all this piety, protestation, and hand-pressing; for the vital thing was to ascertain what force had been stationed at the bluff, and whether it was yet withdrawn. The slaves, on the other hand, were too much absorbed in their prospective freedom to aid us in taking any further steps to secure it. Captain Trowbridge, who had by this time landed at a different point, got quite into despair over the seeming deafness of the people to all questions. “How many soldiers are there on the bluff?” he asked of the first-comer.

  “Mas’r,” said the man, stuttering terribly, “I c-c-c—”

  “Tell me how many soldiers there are!” roared Trowbridge, in his mighty voice, and all but shaking the poor old thing, in his thirst for information.

  “O mas’r,” recommenced in terror the incapacitated wit-ness, “I c-c-carpenter!” holding up eagerly a little stump of a hatchet, his sole treasure, as if his profession ought to excuse from all military opinions.

  I wish that it were possible to present all this scene from the point of view of the slaves themselves. It can be most nearly done, perhaps, by quoting the description given of a similar scene on the Combahee River, by a very aged man, who had been brought down on the previous raid, already mentioned. I wrote it down in tent, long after, while the old man recited the tale, with much gesticulation, at the door; and it is by far the best glimpse I have ever had, through a negro’s eyes, at these wonderful birthdays of freedom.

  “De people was all a hoein’, mas’r,” said the old man. “Dey was a hoein’ in the rice-field, when de gunboats come. Den ebry man drap dem hoe, and leff de rice. De mas’r he stand and call, ‘Run to de wood for hide! Yankee come, sell you to Cuba! run for hide!’ Ebry man he run, and, my God! run all toder way!

  “Mas’r stand in de wood, peep, peep, faid for truss [afraid to trust]. He say, ‘Run to de wood!’ and ebry man run by him, straight to de boat.

  “De brack sojer so presumptious, dey come right ashore, hold up dere head. Fus’ ting I know, dere was a barn, ten tousand bushel rough rice, all in a blaze, den mas’r’s great house, all cracklin’ up de roof. Didn’t I keer for see ‘em blaze? Lor, mas’r, didn’t care notin’ at all, I was gwine to de boat.”

  Doré’s Don Quixote could not surpass the sublime absorption in which the gaunt old man, with arm uplifted, described this stage of affairs, till he ended in a shrewd chuckle, worthy of Sancho Panza. Then he resumed:—

  “De brack sojers so presumptious!” This he repeated three times, slowly shaking his head in an ecstasy of admiration. It flashed upon me that the apparition of a black soldier must amaze those still in bondage, much as a butterfly just from the chrysalis might astound his fellow-grubs. I inwardly vowed that my soldiers, at least, should be as “presumptious” as I could make them. Then he went on:—

  “Ole woman and I go down to de boat; den dey say behind us, ‘Rebels comin’l Rebels comin’!’ Ole woman say, ‘Come ahead, come plenty ahead!’ I hab notin’ on but my shirt and pantaloon; ole woman one single frock he hab on, and one handkerchief on he head; I leff all-two my blanket and run for de Rebel come, and den dey didn’t come, didn’t truss for come.

  “Ise eighty-eight year old, mas’r. My ole Mas’r Lowndes keep all de ages in a big book, and when we come to age ob sense we mark em down ebry year, so I know. Too ole for come? Mas’r joking. Neber too ole for leave de land o’ bondage. I old, but great good for chil’en, gib tousand tank ebry day. Young people can go through, force [forcibly], mas’r, but de ole folk mus’ go slow.”

  Such emotions as these, no doubt, were inspired by our arrival, but we could only hear their hasty utterance in passing; our duty being, with the small force already landed, to take possession of the bluff. Ascending, with proper precautions, the wooded hill, we soon found ourselves in the deserted camp of a light battery, amid scattered equipments and suggestions of a very unattractive breakfast. As soon as possible, skirmishers were thrown out through the woods to the farther edge of the bluff, while a party searched the houses, finding the usual large supply of furniture and pictures,—brought up for safety from below,—but no soldiers. Captain Trowbridge then got the John Adams beside the row of piles, and went to work for their removal.

  Again I had the exciting sensation of being within the hostile lines,—the eager explorations, the doubts, the watchfulness, the listening for every sound of coming hoofs. Presently a horse’s tread was heard in earnest, but it was a squad of our own men bringing in two captured cavalry soldiers. One of these, a sturdy fellow, submitted quietly to his lot, only begging that, whenever we should evacuate the bluff, a note should be left behind stating that he was a prisoner. The other, a very young man, and a member of the “Rebel Troop,” a sort of Cadet corps among the Charleston youths, came to me in great wrath, complaining that the corporal of our squad had kicked him after he had surrendered. His air of offended pride was very rueful, and it did indeed seem a pathetic reversal of fortunes for the two races. To be sure, the youth was a scion of one of the foremost families of South Carolina; and when I considered the wrongs which the black race had encountered from those of his blood, first and last, it seemed as if the most scrupulous Recording Angel might tolerate one final kick to square the account. But I reproved the corporal, who respectfully disclaimed the charge, and said the kick was an incident of the scuffle. It certainly was not their habit to show such poor malice; they thought too well of themselves.

  His demeanor seemed less lofty, but rather piteous, when he implored me not to put him on board any vessel which was to ascend the upper stream, and hinted, by awful implications, the danger of such ascent. This meant torpedoes, a peril which we treated, in those days, with rather mistaken contempt. But we found none on the Edisto, and it may be that it was only a foolish attempt to alarm us.

  Meanwhile, Trowbridge was toiling away at the row of piles, which proved easier to draw out than to saw asunder, either work being hard enough. It took far longer than we had hoped, and we saw noon approach and the tide rapidly fall, taking with it, inch by inch, our hopes of effecting a surprise at the bridge. During this time, and indeed all day, the detachments on shore, under Captains Whitney and Sampson, were having occasional skirmishes with the enemy, while the colored people were swarming to the shore, or running to and fro like ants, with the poor treasures of their houses. Our busy Quartermaster, Mr. Bingham—who died afterwards from the overwork of that sultry day—was transporting the refugees on board the steamer, or hunting up bales of cotton, or directing the burning of rice-houses, in accordance with our orders. No dwelling-houses were destroyed or plundered by our men,—Sherman’s “bummers” not having yet arrived,—though I asked no questions as to what the plantation negroes might bring in their great bundles. One piece of property, I must admit, seemed a lawful capture,—a United States dress-sword, of the old pattern, which had belonged to the Rebel general then in command of the outposts. That I have retained to this day.

  A passage having been cleared at last, and the tide having turned by noon, we lost no time in attempting the ascent, leaving the bluff to be held by the John Adams, and by the small force on shore. We were scarcely above the obstructions, however, when the little tug went aground, and the Enoch Dean, ascending a mile farther, had an encounter with a battery on the right,—perhaps our old enemy,—and drove it back. Soon after, she also ran aground, a misfortune of which our opponent strangely took no advantage; and, on getting off, I thought it best to drop down to the bluff again, as the tide was still hopelessly low. None can tell, save those who have tried them, the vexations of those muddy Southern streams, navigable only during a few hours of flood-tide.

  After waiting an hour, the two small vessels again tried the ascent. The enemy on the right had disappeared; but we could now see, far off on our left, another light battery moving parallel with the river, apparently to meet us at some upper bend. But for the present we were safe, with the low rice-fields on each side of us; and the scene was so peaceful, it seemed as if all danger were done. For the first time, we saw in South Carolina blossoming river-banks and low emerald meadows, that seemed like New England. Everywhere there were the same rectangular fields, smooth canals, and bushy dikes. A few negroes stole out to us in dugouts, and breathlessly told us how others had been hurried away by the overseers. We glided safely on, mile after mile. The day was unutterably hot, but all else seemed propitious. The men had their combustibles all ready to fire the bridge, and our hopes were unbounded.

  But by degrees the channel grew more tortuous and difficult, and while the little Milton glided smoothly over everything, the Enoch Dean, my own boat, repeatedly grounded. On every occasion of especial need, too, something went wrong in her machinery,—her engine being constructed on some wholly new patent, of which, I should hope, this trial would prove entirely sufficient. The black pilot, who was not a soldier, grew more and more bewildered, and declared that it was the channel, not his brain, which had gone wrong; the captain, a little elderly man, sat wringing his hands in the pilot-box; and the engineer appeared to be mingling his groans with those of the diseased engine. Meanwhile I, in equal ignorance of machinery and channel, had to give orders only justified by minute acquaintance with both. So I navigated on general principles, until they grounded us on a mud-bank, just below a wooded point, and some two miles from the bridge of our destination. It was with a pang that I waved to Major Strong, who was on the other side of the channel in a tug, not to risk approaching us, but to steam on and finish the work, if he could.

  Short was his triumph. Gliding round the point, he found himself instantly engaged with a light battery of four or six guns, doubtless the same we had seen in the distance. The Milton was within two hundred and fifty yards. The Connecticut men fought then: guns well, aided by the blacks, and it was exasperating for us to hear the shots, while we could see nothing and do nothing. The scanty ammunition of our bow gun was exhausted, and the gun in the stern was useless, from the position in which we lay. In vain we moved the men from side to side, rocking the vessel, to dislodge it. The heat was terrific that August afternoon; I remember I found myself constantly changing places, on the scorched deck, to keep my feet from being blistered. At last the officer in charge of the gun, a hardy lumberman from Maine, got the stern of the vessel so far round that he obtained the range of the battery through the cabin windows, “but it would be necessary,” he cooly added, on reporting to me this fact, “to shoot away the corner of the cabin.” I knew that this apartment was newly painted and gilded, and the idol of the poor captain’s heart; but it was plain that even the thought of his own upholstery could not make the poor soul more wretched than he was. So I bade Captain Dolly blaze away, and thus we took our hand in the little game, though at a sacrifice.

  It was of no use. Down drifted out little consort round the point, her engine disabled and her engineer killed, as we afterwards found, though then we could only look and wonder. Still pluckily firing, she floated by upon the tide, which had now just turned; and when, with a last desperate effort, we got off, our engine had one of its impracticable fits, and we could only follow her. The day was waning, and all its range of possibility had lain within the limits of that one tide.

  All our previous expeditions had been so successful it now seemed hard to turn back; the river-banks and rice-fields, so beautiful before, seemed only a vexation now. But the swift current bore us on, and after our Parthian shots had died away, a new discharge of artillery opened upon us, from our first antagonist of the morning, which still kept the other side of the stream. It had taken up a strong position on another bluff, almost out of range of the John Adams, but within easy range of us. The sharpest contest of the day was before us. Happily the engine and engineer were now behaving well, and we were steering in a channel already traversed, and of which the dangerous points were known. But we had a long, straight reach of river before us, heading directly toward the battery, which, having once got our range, had only to keep it, while we could do nothing in return. The Rebels certainly served their guns well. For the first time I discovered that there were certain compensating advantages in a slightly built craft, as compared with one more substantial; the missiles never lodged in the vessel, but crashed through some thin partition as if it were paper, to explode beyond us, or fall harmless in the water. Splintering, the chief source of wounds and death in wooden ships, was thus entirely avoided; the danger was that our machinery might be disabled, or that shots might strike below the water-line and sink us.

  This, however, did not happen. Fifteen projectiles, as we afterwards computed, passed through the vessel or cut the rigging. Yet few casualties occurred, and those instantly fatal. As my orderly stood leaning on a comrade’s shoulder, the head of the latter was shot off. At last I myself felt a sudden blow in the side, as if from some prize-fighter, doubling me up for a moment, while I sank upon a seat. It proved afterwards to have been produced by the grazing of a ball, which, without tearing a garment, had yet made a large part of my side black and blue, leaving a sensation of paralysis which made it difficult to stand. Supporting myself on Captain Rogers, I tried to comprehend what had happened, and I remember being impressed by an odd feeling that I had now got my share, and should henceforth be a great deal safer than any of the rest. I am told that this often follows one’s first experience of a wound.

  But this immediate contest, sharp as it was, proved brief; a turn in the river enabled us to use our stern gun, and we soon glided into the comparative shelter of Wiltown Bluff. There, however, we were to encounter the danger of shipwreck, superadded to that of fight. When the passage through the piles was first cleared, it had been marked by stakes, lest the rising tide should cover the remaining piles, and make it difficult to run the passage. But when we again reached it, the stakes had somehow been knocked away, the piles were just covered by the swift current, and the little tug-boat was aground upon them. She came off easily, however, with our aid, and, when we in turn essayed the passage, we grounded also, but more firmly. We getting off at last, and making the passage, the tug again became lodged, when nearly past danger, and all our efforts proved powerless to pull her through. I therefore dropped down below, and sent the John Adams to her aid, while I superintended the final recall of the pickets, and the embarkation of the remaining refugees.

  While thus engaged, I felt little solicitude about the boats above. It was certain that the John Adams could safely go close to the piles on the lower side, that she was very strong, and that the other was very light. Still, it was natural to cast some anxious glances up the river, and it was with surprise that I presently saw a canoe descending, which contained Major Strong. Coming on board, he told me with some excitement that the tug could not possibly be got off, and he wished for orders.

  It was no time to consider whether it was not his place to have given orders, instead of going half a mile to seek them. I was by this time so far exhausted that everything seemed to pass by me as by one in a dream; but I got into a boat, pushed up stream, met presently the John Adams returning, and was informed by the officer in charge of the Connecticut battery that he had abandoned the tug, and—worse news yet—that his guns had been thrown overboard. It seemed to me then, and has always seemed, that this sacrifice was utterly needless, because, although the captain of the John Adams had refused to risk his vessel by going near enough to receive the guns, he should have been compelled to do so. Though the thing was done without my knowledge, and beyond my reach, yet, as commander of the expedition, I was technically responsible. It was hard to blame a lieutenant when his senior had shrunk from a decision, and left him alone; nor was it easy to blame Major Strong, whom I knew to be a man of personal courage though without much decision of character. He was subsequently tried by court-martial and acquitted, after which he resigned, and was lost at sea on his way home.

  The tug, being thus abandoned, must of course be burned to prevent her falling into the enemy’s hands. Major Strong went with prompt fearlessness to do this, at my order; after which he remained on the Enoch Dean, and I went on board the John Adams, being compelled to succumb at last, and transfer all remaining responsibility to Captain Trowbridge. Exhausted as I was, I could still observe, in a vague way, the scene around me. Every available corner of the boat seemed like some vast auction-room of second-hand goods. Great piles of bedding and bundles lay on every side, with black heads emerging and black forms reclining in every stage of squalidness. Some seemed ill, or wounded, or asleep, others were chattering eagerly among themselves, singing, praying, or soliloquizing on joys to come. “Bress de Lord,” I heard one woman say, “I spec’ I got salt victual now,—notin’ but fresh victual dese six months, but Ise get salt victual now,”—thus reversing, under pressure of the salt-embargo, the usual anticipations of voyagers.

  Trowbridge told me, long after, that, on seeking a fan for my benefit, he could find but one on board. That was in the hands of a fat old “aunty,” who had just embarked, and sat on an enormous bundle of her goods, in everybody’s way, fanning herself vehemently, and ejaculating, as her gasping breath would permit, “Oh! do, Jesus! Oh! do, Jesus!” when the captain abruptly disarmed her of the fan, and left her continuing her pious exercises.

  Thus we glided down the river in the waning light. Once more we encountered a battery, making five in all; I could hear the guns of the assailants, and could not distinguish the explosion of their shells from the answering throb of our own guns. The kind quartermaster kept bringing me news of what occurred, like Rebecca in Front-de-Bœuf’s castle, but discreetly withholding any actual casualties. Then all faded into safety and sleep; and we reached Beaufort in the morning, after thirty-six hours of absence. A kind friend, who acted in South Carolina a nobler part amid tragedies than in any of her early stage triumphs, met us with an ambulance at the wharf, and the prisoners, the wounded, and the dead were duly attended.

  The reader will not care for any personal record of convalescence; though, among the general military laudations of whiskey, it is worth while to say that one life was saved, in the opinion of my surgeons, by an habitual abstinence from it, leaving no food for peritoneal inflammation to feed upon. The able-bodied negroes who had joined us were, sent to aid General Gillmore in the trenches, while their families were established in huts and tents on St. Helena Island. A year after, greatly to the delight of the regiment, in taking possession of a battery which they had helped to capture on James Island, they found in their hands the selfsame guns which they had seen thrown overboard from the Governor Milton. They then felt that their account with the enemy was squared, and could proceed to further operations.

  Before the war, how great a thing seemed the rescue of even one man from slavery; and since the war has emancipated all, how little seems the liberation of two hundred! But no one then knew how the contest might end; and when I think of that morning sunlight, those emerald fields, those thronging numbers, the old women with their prayers, and the little boys with their living burdens, I know that the day was worth all it cost, and more.

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