Army Life in a Black Regiment
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Part 3 out of 5
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 Vende'e, and I always expected
to meet Henri Larochejaquelein 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 head-quarters
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 re-echoed, 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 head-quarters 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
molasses 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 afterlook 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 reveille 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 head-quarters, 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 head-quarters 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 clew 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 "chuckwuts-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, till the horse raised his hoofs to avoid them;
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 then- 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 then: 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 tune 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,--blackflsh 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
before-hand; 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, Gunnel!" 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 "Con-thieveracy" 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 blue-bird. 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 "dugouts,"
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
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
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 tune; the first attack on Charleston exploded
with one puff, and had its end; General Hunter was ordered North, and
the busy Gilmore reigned in his stead; and in June, when the
blackberries were all eaten, we were summoned, nothing loath, to other
scenes and encampments new.
A Night in the Water
Yes, that was a pleasant life on picket, in the delicious early summer
of the South, and among the endless flowery forests of that blossoming
isle. In the retrospect I seem to see myself adrift upon a horse's back
amid a sea of roses. The various outposts were within a six-mile radius,
and it was one long, delightful gallop, day and night. I have a faint
impression that the moon shone steadily every night for two months; and
yet I remember certain periods of such dense darkness that in riding
through the wood-paths it was really unsafe to go beyond a walk, for
fear of branches above and roots below; and one of my officers was once
shot at by a Rebel scout who stood unperceived at his horse's bridle.
To those doing outpost-duty on an island, however large, the main-land
has all the fascination of forbidden fruit, and on a scale bounded
only by the horizon. Emerson says that every house looks ideal until
we enter it,--and it is certainly so, if it be just the other side of
the hostile lines. Every grove in that blue distance appears enchanted
ground, and yonder loitering gray-back leading his horse to water in
the farthest distance, makes one thrill with a desire to hail him, to
shoot at him, to capture him, to do anything to bridge this inexorable
dumb space that lies between. A boyish feeling, no doubt, and one that
time diminishes, without effacing; yet it is a feeling which lies at
the bottom of many rash actions in war, and of some brilliant ones.
For one, I could never quite outgrow it, though restricted by duty
from doing many foolish things in consequence, and also restrained by
reverence for certain confidential advisers whom I had always at hand,
and who considered it their mission to keep me always on short rations
of personal adventure. Indeed, most of that sort of entertainment in
the army devolves upon scouts detailed for the purpose, volunteer
aides-de-camp and newspaper-reporters,--other officers being expected
to be about business more prosaic.
All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode
along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which
at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was
irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men
or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these
impulses in boat-adventures by night,--for it was a part of my
instructions to obtain all possible information about the Rebel
outposts,--and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly
paddling, with a dusky guide, through the endless intricacies of those
Southern marshes, scaring the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away
into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the ulterior,
between hostile fires, where discovery might be death. Yet there were
drawbacks as to these enterprises, since it is not easy for a boat to
cross still water, even on the darkest night, without being seen by
watchful eyes; and, moreover, the extremes of high and low tide
transform so completely the whole condition of those rivers that it
needs very nice calculation to do one's work at precisely the right
tune. To vary the experiment, I had often thought of trying a personal
reconnoissance by swimming, at a certain point, whenever circumstances
should make it an object.
The oportunity at last arrived, and I shall never forget the glee with
which, after several postponements, I finally rode forth, a little
before midnight, on a night which seemed made for the purpose. I had,
of course, kept my own secret, and was entirely alone. The great
Southern fireflies were out, not haunting the low ground merely, like
ours, but rising to the loftiest tree-tops with weird illumination,
and anon hovering so low that my horse often stepped the higher to
avoid them. The dewy Cherokee roses brushed my face, the solemn
"Chuckwill's-widow" croaked her incantation, and the rabbits raced
phantom-like across the shadowy road. Slowly in the darkness I
followed the well-known path to the spot where our most advanced
outposts were stationed, holding a causeway which thrust itself far
out across the separating river,--thus fronting a similar causeway on
the other side, while a channel of perhaps three hundred yards, once
traversed by a ferry-boat, rolled between. At low tide this channel
was the whole river, with broad, oozy marshes on each side; at high
tide the marshes were submerged, and the stream was a mile wide. This
was the point which I had selected. To ascertain the numbers and
position of the picket on the opposite causeway was my first object,
as it was a matter on which no two of our officers agreed.
To this point, therefore, I rode, and dismounting, after being duly
challenged by the sentinel at the causeway-head, walked down the long
and lonely path. The tide was well up, though still on the flood, as I
desired; and each visible tuft of marsh-grass might, but for its
motionlessness, have been a prowling boat. Dark as the night had
appeared, the water was pale, smooth, and phosphorescent, and I remember
that the phrase "wan water," so familiar in the Scottish ballards,
struck me just then as peculiarly appropriate, though its real meaning
is quite different. A gentle breeze, from which I had hoped for a
ripple, had utterly died away, and it was a warm, breathless Southern
night. There was no sound but the famt swash of the coming tide, the
noises of the reed-birds in the marshes, and the occasional leap of a
fish; and it seemed to my overstrained ear as if every footstep of my
own must be heard for miles. However, I could have no more
postponements, and the thing must be tried now or never.
Reaching the farther end of the causeway, I found my men couched, like
black statues, behind the slight earthwork there constructed. I
expected that my proposed immersion would rather bewilder them, but
knew that they would say nothing, as usual. As for the lieutenant on
that post, he was a steady, matter-of-fact, perfectly disciplined
Englishman, who wore a Crimean medal, and never asked a superfluous
question in his life. If I had casually remarked to him, "Mr. Hooper,
the General has ordered me on a brief personal reconnoissance to the
Planet Jupiter, and I wish you to take care of my watch, lest it
should be damaged by the Precession of the Equinoxes," he would have
responded with a brief "All right, Sir," and a quick military gesture,
and have put the thing in his pocket. As it was, I simply gave him the
watch, and remarked that I was going to take a swim.
I do not remember ever to have experienced a greater sense of
exhilaration than when I slipped noiselessly into the placid water, and
struck out into the smooth, eddying current for the opposite shore. The
night was so still and lovely, my black statues looked so dream-like at
their posts behind the low earthwork, the opposite arm of the causeway
stretched so invitingly from the Rebel main, the horizon glimmered so
low around me,--for it always appears lower to a swimmer than even to an
oarsman,--that I seemed floating in some concave globe, some magic
crystal, of which I was the enchanted centre. With each little ripple of
my steady progress all things hovered and changed; the stars danced and
nodded above; where the stars ended the great Southern fireflies began;
and closer than the fireflies, there clung round me a halo of
phosphorescent sparkles from the soft salt water.
Had I told any one of my purpose, I should have had warnings and
remonstrances enough. The few negroes who did not believe in
alligators believed in sharks; the sceptics as to sharks were orthodox
in respect to alligators; while those who rejected both had private
prejudices as to snapping-turtles. The surgeon would have threatened
intermittent fever, the first assistant rheumatism, and the second
assistant congestive chills; non-swimmers would have predicted
exhaustion, and swimmers cramp; and all this before coming within
bullet-range of any hospitalities on the other shore. But I knew the
folly of most alarms about reptiles and fishes; man's imagination
peoples the water with many things which do not belong there, or
prefer to keep out of his way, if they do; fevers and congestions were
the surgeon's business, and I always kept people to their own
department; cramp and exhaustion were dangers I could measure, as I
had often done; bullets were a more substantial danger, and I must
take the chance,--if a loon could dive at the flash, why not I? If I
were once ashore, I should have to cope with the Rebels on their own
ground, which they knew better than I; but the water was my ground,
where I, too, had been at home from boyhood.
I swam as swiftly and softly as I could, although it seemed as if water
never had been so still before. It appeared impossible that anything
uncanny should hide beneath that lovely mirror; and yet when some
floating wisp of reeds suddenly coiled itself around my neck, or some
unknown thing, drifting deeper, coldly touched my foot, it caused that
undefinable shudder which every swimmer knows, and which especially
comes over one by night. Sometimes a slight sip of brackish water would
enter my lips,--for I naturally tried to swim as low as possible,--and
then would follow a slight gasping and contest against chocking, that
seemed to me a perfect convulsion; for I suppose the tendency to choke
and sneeze is always enhanced by the circumstance that one's life may
depend on keeping still, just as yawning becomes irresistible where to
yawn would be social ruin, and just as one is sure to sleep in church,
if one sits in a conspicuous pew. At other times, some unguarded motion
would create a splashing which seemed, in the tension of my senses, to
be loud enough to be heard at Richmond, although it really mattered not,
since there are fishes in those rivers which make as much noise on
special occasions as if they were misguided young whales.
As I drew near the opposite shore, the dark causeway projected more and
more distinctly, to my fancy at least, and I swam more softly still,
utterly uncertain as to how far, in the stillness of air and water, my
phosphorescent course could be traced by eye or ear. A slight ripple
would have saved me from observation, I was more than ever sure, and
I would have whistled for a fair wind as eagerly as any sailor, but that
my breath was worth to me more than anything it was likely to bring. The
water became smoother and smoother, and nothing broke the dim surface
except a few clumps of rushes and my unfortunate head. The outside of
this member gradually assumed to its inside a gigantic magnitude; it had
always annoyed me at the hatter's from a merely animal bigness, with no
commensurate contents to show for it, and now I detested it more than
ever. A physical feeling of turgescence and congestion in that region,
such as swimmers often feel, probably increased the impression. I
thought with envy of the Aztec children, of the headless horseman of
Sleepy Hollow, of Saint Somebody with his head tucked under his arm.
Plotinus was less ashamed of his whole body than I of this inconsiderate
and stupid appendage. To be sure, I might swim for a certain distance
under water. But that accomplishment I had reserved for a retreat, for I
knew that the longer I stayed down the more surely I should have to
snort like a walrus when I came up again, and to approach an enemy with
such a demonstration was not to be thought of.
Suddenly a dog barked. We had certain information that a pack of hounds
was kept at a Rebel station a few miles off, on purpose to hunt
runaways, and I had heard from the negroes almost fabulous accounts of
the instinct of these animals. I knew that, although water baffled their
scent, they yet could recognize in some manner the approach of any
person across water as readily as by land; and of the vigilance of all
dogs by night every traveller among Southern plantations has ample
demonstration. I was now so near that I could dimly see the figures of
men moving to and fro upon the end of the causeway, and could hear the
dull knock, when one struck his foot against a piece of limber.
As my first object was to ascertain whether there were sentinels at
that time at that precise point, I saw that I was approaching the end
of my experiment Could I have once reached the causeway unnoticed, I
could have lurked in the water beneath its projecting timbers, and
perhaps made my way along the main shore, as I had known fugitive
slaves to do, while coming from that side. Or had there been any
ripple on the water, to confuse the aroused and watchful eyes, I could
have made a circuit and approached the causeway at another point,
though I had already satisfied myself that there was only a narrow
channel on each side of it, even at high tide, and not, as on our
side, a broad expanse of water. Indeed, this knowledge alone was worth
all the trouble I had taken, and to attempt much more than this, in
the face of a curiosity already roused, would have been a waste of
future opportunities. I could try again, with the benefit of this new
knowledge, on a point where the statements of the negroes had always
Resolving, however, to continue the observation a very little longer,
since the water felt much warmer than I had expected, and there was no
sense of chill or fatigue, I grasped at some wisps of straw or rushes
that floated near, gathering them round my face a little, and then
drifting nearer the wharf in what seemed a sort of eddy was able,
without creating further alarm, to make some additional observations on
points which it is not best now to particularize. Then, turning my back
upon the mysterious shore which had thus far lured me, I sank softly
below the surface, and swam as far as I could under water.
During this unseen retreat, I heard, of course, all manner of gurglings
and hollow reverberations, and could fancy as many rifle-shots as I
pleased. But on rising to the surface all seemed quiet, and even I did
not create as much noise as I should have expected. I was now at a safe
distance, since the enemy were always chary of showing their boats, and
always tried to convince us they had none. What with absorbed attention
first, and this submersion afterwards, I had lost all my bearings but
the stars, having been long out of sight of my original point of
departure. However, the difficulties of the return were nothing; making
a slight allowance for the floodtide, which could not yet have turned, I
should soon regain the place I had left. So I struck out freshly against
the smooth water, feeling just a little stiffened by the exertion,
and with an occasional chill running up the back of the neck, but with
no nips from sharks, no nudges from alligators, and not a symptom of
Time I could not, of course, measure,--one never can in a novel position;
but, after a reasonable amount of swimming, I began to look, with a
natural interest, for the pier which I had quitted. I noticed, with some
solicitude, that the woods along the friendly shore made one continuous
shadow, and that the line of low bushes on the long causeway could
scarcely be relieved against them, yet I knew where they ought to be,
and the more doubtful I felt about it, the more I put down my doubts, as
if they were unreasonable children. One can scarcely conceive of the
alteration made in familiar objects by bringing the eye as low as the
horizon, especially by night; to distinguish foreshortening is
impossible, and every low near object is equivalent to one higher and
more remote. Still I had the stars; and soon my eye, more practised, was
enabled to select one precise line of bushes as that which marked the
causeway, and for which I must direct my course.
As I swam steadily, but with some sense of fatigue, towards this
phantom-line, I found it difficult to keep my faith steady and my
progress true; everything appeared to shift and waver, in the uncertain
light. The distant trees seemed not trees, but bushes, and the bushes
seemed not exactly bushes, but might, after all, be distant trees. Could
I be so confident that, out of all that low stretch of shore, I could
select the one precise point where the friendly causeway stretched its
long arm to receive me from the water? How easily (some tempter
whispered at my ear) might one swerve a little, on either side, and be
compelled to flounder over half a mile of oozy marsh on an ebbing tide,
before reaching our own shore and that hospitable volley of bullets with
which it would probably greet me! Had I not already (thus the tempter
continued) been swimming rather unaccountably far, supposing me on a
straight track for that inviting spot where my sentinels and my drapery
were awaiting my return?
Suddenly I felt a sensation as of fine ribbons drawn softly
across my person, and I found myself among some rushes. But what
business had rushes there, or I among them? I knew that there was not a
solitary spot of shoal in the deep channel where I supposed myself
swimming, and it was plain in an instant that I had somehow missed my
course, and must be getting among the marshes. I felt confident, to be
sure, that I could not have widely erred, but was guiding my course for
the proper side of tie river. But whether I had drifted above or below
the causeway I had not the slightest clew to tell.
I pushed steadily forward, with some increasing sense of lassitude,
passing one marshy islet after another, all seeming strangely out of
place, and sometimes just reaching with my foot a soft tremulous shoal
which gave scarce the shadow of a support, though even that shadow
rested my feet. At one of these moments of stillness it suddenly
occurred to my perception (what nothing but this slight contact could
have assured me, in the darkness) that I was in a powerful current, and
that this current set _the wrong way_. Instantly a flood of new
intelligence came. Either I had unconsciously turned and was rapidly
nearing the Rebel shore,--a suspicion which a glance at the stars
corrected,--or else it was the tide itself which had turned, and which
was sweeping me down the river with all its force, and was also sucking
away at every moment the narrowing water from that treacherous expanse
of mud out of whose horrible miry embrace I had lately helped to rescue
a shipwrecked crew.
Either alternative was rather formidable. I can distinctly remember
that for about one half-minute the whole vast universe appeared to
swim in the same watery uncertainty in which I floated. I began to
doubt everything, to distrust the stars, the line of low bushes for
which I was wearily striving, the very land on which they grew, if
such visionary things could be rooted anywhere. Doubts trembled in my
mind like the weltering water, and that awful sensation of having
one's feet unsupported, which benumbs the spent swimmer's heart,
seemed to clutch at mine, though not yet to enter it. I was more
absorbed in that singular sensation of nightmare, such as one may feel
equally when lost by land or by water, as if one's own position were
all right, but the place looked for had somehow been preternaturally
abolished out of the universe. At best, might not a man in the water
lose all his power of direction, and so move in an endless circle
until he sank exhausted? It required a deliberate and conscious effort
to keep my brain quite cool. I have not the reputation of being of an
excitable temperament, but the contrary; yet I could at that moment
see my way to a condition in which one might become insane in an
instant. It was as if a fissure opened somewhere, and I saw my way
into a mad-house; then it closed, and everything went on as before.
Once in my life I had obtained a slight glimpse of the same sensation,
and then, too, strangely enough, while swimming,--in the mightiest
ocean-surge into which I had ever dared plunge my mortal body. Keats
hints at the same sudden emotion, in a wild poem written among the
Scottish mountains. It was not the distinctive sensation which
drowning men are said to have, that spasmodic passing in review of
one's whole personal history. I had no well-defined anxiety, felt no
fear, was moved to no prayer, did not give a thought to home or
friends; only it swept over me, as with a sudden tempest, that, if I
meant to get back to my own camp, I must keep my wits about me. I must
not dwell on any other alternative, any more than a boy who climbs a
precipice must look down. Imagination had no business here. That way
madness lay. There was a shore somewhere before me, and I must get to
it, by the ordinary means, before the ebb laid bare the flats, or
swept me below the lower bends of the stream. That was all.
Suddenly a light gleamed for an instant before me, as if from a house in
a grove of great trees upon a bank; and I knew that it came from the
window of a ruined plantation-building, where our most advanced outposts
had their headquarters. The flash revealed to me every point of the
situation. I saw at once where I was, and how I got there: that the tide
had turned while I was swimming, and with a much briefer interval of
slack-water than I had been led to suppose,--that I had been swept a
good way down stream, and was far beyond all possibility of regaining
the point I had left.
Could I, however, retain my strength to swim one or two hundred yards
farther, of which I had no doubt,--and if the water did not ebb too
rapidly, of which I had more fear,--then I was quite safe. Every stroke
took me more and more out of the power of the current, and there might
even be an eddy to aid me. I could not afford to be carried down much
farther, for there the channel made a sweep toward the wrong side of the
river; but there was now no reason why I should not reach land. I could
dismiss all fear, indeed, except that of being fired upon by our own
sentinels, many of whom were then new recruits, and with the usual
disposition to shoot first and investigate afterwards.
I found myself swimming in shallow and shallower water, and the flats
seemed almost bare when I neared the shore, where the great gnarled
branches of the liveoaks hung far over the muddy bank. Floating on my
back for noiselessness, I paddled rapidly in with my hands, expecting
momentarily to hear the challenge of the picket, and the ominous click
so likely to follow. I knew that some one should be pacing to and fro,
along that beat, but could not tell at what point he might be at that
precise moment. Besides, there was a faint possibility that some chatty
corporal might have carried the news of my bath thus far along the line,
and they might be partially prepared for this unexpected visitor.
Suddenly, like another flash, came the quick, quaint challenge,--
"Halt! Who's go dar?"
"F-f-friend with the c-c-countersign," retorted I, with chilly, but
conciliatory energy, rising at full length out of the shallow water, to
show myself a man and a brother.
"Ac-vance, friend, and give de countersign," responded the literal
soldier, who at such a tune would have accosted : a spirit of light or
goblin damned with no other formula.
I advanced and gave it, he recognized my voice at once. | And then and
there, as I stood, a dripping ghost, beneath the f trees before him, the
unconscionable fellow, wishing to exhaust upon me the utmost
resources of military hospitality, deliberately presented arms!
Now a soldier on picket, or at night, usually presents arms to nobody;
but a sentinel on camp-guard by day is expected to perform that
ceremony to anything in human shape that has two rows of buttons. Here
was a human shape, but so utterly buttonless that it exhibited not
even a rag to which a button could by any earthly possibility be
appended, button-less even potentially; and my blameless Ethiopian
presented arms to even this. Where, then, are the theories of Carlyle,
the axioms of "Sartor Resartus," the inability of humanity to conceive
"a naked Duke of Windlestraw addressing a naked House of Lords"?
Cautioning my adherent, however, as to the proprieties suitable for
such occasions thenceforward, I left him watching the river with
renewed vigilance, and awaiting the next merman who should report
Finding my way to the building, I hunted up a sergeant and a blanket,
got a fire kindled in the dismantled chimney, and sat before it in my
single garment, like a moist but undismayed Choctaw, until horse and
clothing could be brought round from the causeway. It seemed strange
that the morning had not yet dawned, after the uncounted periods that
must have elapsed; but when the wardrobe arrived I looked at my watch
and found that my night in the water had lasted precisely one hour.
Galloping home, I turned in with alacrity, and without a drop of
whiskey, and waked a few hours after in excellent condition. The rapid
changes of which that Department has seen so many--and, perhaps, to so
little purpose--soon transferred us to a different scene. I have been on
other scouts since then, and by various processes, but never with a zest
so novel as was afforded by that night's experience. The thing soon got
wind in the regiment, and led to only one ill consequence, so far as I
know. It rather suppressed a way I had of lecturing the officers on the
importance of reducing their personal baggage to a minimum. They got a
trick of congratulating me, very respectfully, on the thoroughness with
which I had once conformed my practice to my precepts.
Up the Edisto
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 then- 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 ferry-boat, 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
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 shortlived. 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 squalid-ness and destitution of garments. I
recall one small urchin without a rag of clothing save the basque
waist 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
"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
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,
_was gwine to de boat_."
Dore'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 ectasy 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
who afterwards gave the order to bury Colonel Shaw "with his niggers."
That I have retained, not without some satisfaction, 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
hoplessly 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 then:
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-Bceuf 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
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 men 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 then- prayers, and the
little boys with then: living burdens, I know that the day was worth all
it cost, and more.
The Baby of the Regiment
We were in our winter camp on Port Royal Island. It was a lovely
November morning, soft and spring-like; the mocking-birds were singing,
and the cotton-fields still white with fleecy pods. Morning drill was
over, the men were cleaning their guns and singing very happily; the
officers were in their tents, reading still more happily their letters
just arrived from home. Suddenly I heard a knock at my tent-door, and
the latch clicked. It was the only latch in camp, and I was very proud
of it, and the officers always clicked it as loudly as possible, in
order to gratify my feelings. The door opened, and the Quartermaster
thrust in the most beaming face I ever saw.
"Colonel," said he, "there are great news for the regiment. My wife and
baby are coming by the next steamer!"
"Baby!" said I, in amazement. "Q. M., you are beside yourself." (We
always called the Quartermaster Q. M. for shortness.) "There was a pass
sent to your wife, but nothing was ever said about a baby. Baby indeed!"
"But the baby was included in the pass," replied the triumphant
father-of-a-family. "You don't suppose my wife would come down here
without her baby! Besides, the pass itself permits her to bring
necessary baggage, and is not a baby six months old necessary baggage?"
"But, my dear fellow," said I, rather anxiously, "how can you make the
little thing comfortable in a tent, amidst these rigors of a South
Carolina winter, when it is uncomfortably hot for drill at noon, and ice
forms by your bedside at night?"
"Trust me for that," said the delighted papa, and went off whistling. I
could hear him telling the same news to three others, at least, before
he got to his own tent.
That day the preparations began, and soon his abode was a wonder of
comfort. There were posts and rafters, and a raised floor, and a great
chimney, and a door with hinges,--every luxury except a latch, and that
he could not have, for mine was the last that could be purchased. One of
the regimental carpenters was employed to make a cradle, and another to
make a bedstead high enough for the cradle to go under. Then there must
be a bit of red carpet beside the bedstead, and thus the progress of
splendor went on. The wife of one of the colored sergeants was engaged
to act as nursery-maid. She was a very respectable young woman; the only
objection to her being that she smoked a pipe. But we thought that
perhaps Baby might not dislike tobacco; and if she did, she would have
excellent opportunities to break the pipe in pieces.
In due time the steamer arrived, and Baby and her mother were among
the passengers. The little recruit was soon settled in her new cradle,
and slept in it as if she had never known any other. The sergeant's
wife soon had her on exhibition through the neighborhood, and from
that time forward she was quite a queen among us. She had sweet blue
eyes and pretty brown hair, with round, dimpled cheeks, and that
perfect dignity which is so beautiful in a baby. She hardly ever
cried, and was not at all timid. She would go to anybody, and yet did
not encourage any romping from any but the most intimate friends. She
always wore a warm long-sleeved scarlet cloak with a hood, and in this
costume was carried or "toted," as the soldiers said, all about the
camp. At "guard-mounting" in the morning, when the men who are to go
on guard duty for the day are drawn up to be inspected, Baby was
always there, to help inspect them. She did not say much, but she eyed
them very closely, and seemed fully to appreciate their bright
buttons. Then the Officer-of-the-Day, who appears at guard-mounting
with his sword and sash, and comes afterwards to the Colonel's tent
for orders, would come and speak to Baby on his way, and receive her
orders first. When the time came for drill she was usually present to
watch the troops; and when the drum beat for dinner she liked to see
the long row of men in each company march up to the cookhouse, in
single file, each with tin cup and plate.
During the day, in pleasant weather, she might be seen in her nurse's
arms, about the company streets, the centre of an admiring circle, her
scarlet costume looking very pretty amidst the shining black cheeks and
neat blue uniforms of the soldiers. At "dress-parade," just before
sunset, she was always an attendant. As I stood before the regiment, I
could see the little spot of red out of the corner of my eye, at one end
of the long line of men; and I looked with so much interest for her
small person, that, instead of saying at the proper time, "Attention,
Battalion! Shoulder arms!--it is a wonder that I did not say, "Shoulder
Our little lady was very impartial, and distributed her kind looks to
everybody. She had not the slightest prejudice against color, and did
not care in the least whether her particular friends were black or
white. Her especial favorites, I think, were the drummer-boys, who were
not my favorites by any means, for they were a roguish set of scamps,
and gave more trouble than all the grown men in the regiment. I think
Annie liked them because they were small, and made a noise, and had red
caps like her hood, and red facings on their jackets, and also because
they occasionally stood on their heads for her amusement. After
dress-parade the whole drum-corps would march to the great flag-staff,
and wait till just sunset-time, when they would beat "the retreat," and
then the flag would be hauled down,--a great festival for Annie.
Sometimes the Sergeant-Major would wrap her in the great folds of the
flag, after it was taken down, and she would peep out very prettily from
amidst the stars and stripes, like a new-born Goddess of Liberty.
About once a month, some inspecting officer was sent to the camp by the
general in command, to see to the condition of everything in the
regiment, from bayonets to buttons. It was usually a long and tiresome
process, and, when everything else was done, I used to tell the officer
that I had one thing more for him to inspect, which was peculiar to our
regiment. Then I would send for Baby to be exhibited, and I never saw an
inspecting officer, old or young, who did not look pleased at the sudden
appearance of the little, fresh, smiling creature,--a flower in the midst
of war. And Annie in her turn would look at them, with the true baby
dignity La her face,--that deep, earnest look which babies often have,
and which people think so wonderful when Raphael paints it, although
they might often see just the same expression in the faces of their own
darlings at home.
Meanwhile Annie seemed to like the camp style of housekeeping very much.
Her father's tent was double, and he used the front apartment for his
office, and the inner room for parlor and bedroom; while the nurse had a
separate tent and wash-room behind all. I remember that, the first time
I went there in the evening, it was to borrow some writing-paper; and
while Baby's mother was hunting for it in the front tent, I heard a
great cooing and murmuring in the inner room. I asked if Annie was still
awake, and her mother told me to go in and see. Pushing aside the canvas
door, I entered. No sign of anybody was to be seen; but a variety of
soft little happy noises seemed to come from some unseen corner. Mrs. C.
came quietly in, pulled away the counterpane of her own bed, and drew
out the rough cradle where lay the little damsel, perfectly happy, and
wider awake than anything but a baby possibly can be. She looked as if
the seclusion of a dozen family bedsteads would not be enough to
discourage her spirits, and I saw that camp life was likely to suit her
A tent can be kept very warm, for it is merely a house with a thinner
wall than usual; and I do not think that Baby felt the cold much more
than if she had been at home that winter. The great trouble is, that a
tent-chimney, not being built very high, is apt to smoke when the wind
is in a certain direction; and when that happens it is hardly possible
to stay inside. So we used to build the chimneys of some tents on the
east side, and those of others on the west, and thus some of the tents
were always comfortable. I have seen Baby's mother running in a hard
rain, with little Red-Riding-Hood in her arms, to take refuge with the
Adjutant's wife, when every other abode was full of smoke; and I must
admit that there were one or two windy days that season when nobody
could really keep warm, and Annie had to remain ignomini-ously in her
cradle, with as many clothes on as possible, for almost the whole
The Quartermaster's tent was very attractive to us in the evening. I
remember that once, on passing near it after nightfall, I heard our
Major's fine voice singing Methodist hymns within, and Mrs. C.'s sweet
tones chiming in. So I peeped through the outer door. The fire was
burning very pleasantly in the inner tent, and the scrap of new red
carpet made the floor look quite magnificent. The Major sat on a box,
our surgeon on a stool; "Q. M." and his wife, and the Adjutant's wife,
and one of the captains, were all sitting on the bed, singing as well as
they knew how; and the baby was under the bed. Baby had retired for the
night, was overshadowed, suppressed, sat upon; the singing went on, and
she had wandered away into her own land of dreams, nearer to heaven,
perhaps, than any pitch their voices could attain. I went in, and joined
the party. Presently the music stopped, and another officer was sent
for, to sing some particular song. At this pause the invisible innocent
waked a little, and began to cluck and coo.
"It's the kitten," exclaimed somebody.
"It's my baby!" exclaimed Mrs. C. triumphantly, in that tone of
unfailing personal pride which belongs to young mothers.
The people all got up from the bed for a moment, while Annie was
pulled from beneath, wide awake and placid as usual; and she sat in
one lap or another during the rest of the concert, sometimes winking
at the candle, but usually listening to the songs, with a calm and
critical expression, as if she could make as much noise as any of
them, whenever she saw fit to try. Not a sound did she make, however,
except one little soft sneeze, which led to an immediate flood-tide of
red shawl, covering every part of her but the forehead. But I soon
hinted that the concert had better be ended, because I knew from
observation that the small damsel had Carefully watched a regimental
inspection and a brigade drill on that day, and that an interval of
repose was certainly necessary.
Annie did not long remain the only baby in camp. One day, on going out
to the stables to look at a horse, I heard a sound of baby-talk,
addressed by some man to a child near by, and, looking round the corner
of a tent, I saw that one of the hostlers had something black and round,
lying on the sloping side of a tent, with which he was playing very
eagerly. It proved to be his baby, a plump, shiny thing, younger than
Annie; and I never saw a merrier picture than the happy father
frolicking with his child, while the mother stood quietly by. This was
Baby Number Two, and she stayed in camp several weeks, the two innocents
meeting each other every day, in the placid indifference that belonged
to their years; both were happy little healthy things, and it never
seemed to cross their minds that there was any difference in their
complexions. As I said before, Annie was not troubled by any prejudice
in regard to color, nor do I suppose that the other little maiden was.
Annie enjoyed the tent-life very much; but when we were Sent out on
picket soon after, she enjoyed it still more. Our head-quarters were
at a deserted plantation house, with one large parlor, a dining-room,
and a few bedrooms. Baby's father and mother had a room up stairs,
with a stove whose pipe went straight out at the window. This was
quite comfortable, though half the windows were broken, and there was
no glass and no glazier to mend them. The windows of the large parlor
were in much the same condition, though we had an immense fireplace,
where we had a bright fire whenever it was cold, and always in the
evening. The walls of this room were very dirty, and it took our
ladies several days to cover all the unsightly places with wreaths and
hangings of evergreen. In the performance Baby took an active part.
Her duties consisted in sitting in a great nest of evergreen, pulling
and fingering the fragrant leaves, and occasionally giving a little
cry of glee when she had accomplished some piece of decided mischief.
There was less entertainment to be found in the camp itself at this
time; but the household at head-quarters was larger than Baby had been
accustomed to. We had a great deal of company, moreover, and she had
quite a gay life of it. She usually made her appearance in the large
parlor soon after breakfast; and to dance her for a few moments in our
arms was one of the first daily duties of each one. Then the morning
reports began to arrive from the different outposts,--a mounted officer
or courier coming in from each place, dismounting at the door, and
clattering in with jingling arms and spurs, each a new excitement for
Annie. She usually got some attention from any officer who came,
receiving with her wonted dignity any daring caress. When the messengers
had ceased to be interesting, there were always the horses to look at,
held or tethered under the trees beside the sunny _piazza_. After the
various couriers had been received, other messengers would be despatched
to the town, seven miles away, and Baby had all the excitement of their
mounting and departure. Her father was often one of the riders, and
would sometimes seize Annie for a good-by kiss, place her on the saddle
before him, gallop her round the house once or twice, and then give her
back to her nurse's arms again. She was perfectly fearless, and such
boisterous attentions never frightened her, nor did they ever interfere
with her sweet, infantine self-possession.
After the riding-parties had gone, there was the _piazza_ still for
entertainment, with a sentinel pacing up and down before it; but Annie
did not enjoy the sentinel, though his breastplate and buttons shone
like gold, so much as the hammock which always hung swinging between
the pillars. It was a pretty hammock, with great open meshes; and she
delighted to lie in it, and have the netting closed above her, so that
she could only be seen through the apertures. I can see her now, the
fresh little rosy thing, in her blue and scarlet wrappings, with one
round and dimpled arm thrust forth through the netting, and the other
grasping an armful of blushing roses and fragrant magnolias. She
looked like those pretty French bas-reliefs of Cupids imprisoned in
baskets, and peeping through. That hammock was a very useful
appendage; it was a couch for us, a cradle for Baby, a nest for the
kittens; and we had, moreover, a little hen, which tried to roost
there every night.
When the mornings were colder, and the stove up stairs smoked the wrong
way, Baby was brought down in a very incomplete state of toilet, and
finished her dressing by the great fire. We found her bare shoulders
very becoming, and she was very much interested in her own little pink
toes. After a very slow dressing, she had a still slower breakfast out
of a tin cup of warm milk, of which she generally spilt a good deal, as
she had much to do in watching everybody who came into the room, and
seeing that there was no mischief done. Then she would be placed on the
floor, on our only piece of carpet, and the kittens would be brought in
for her to play with.
We had, at different times, a variety of pets, of whom Annie did not
take much notice. Sometimes we had young partridges, caught by the
drummer-boys in trap-cages. The children called them "Bob and Chloe,"
because the first notes of the male and female sound like those names.
One day I brought home an opossum, with her blind bare little young
clinging to the droll pouch where their mothers keep them. Sometimes we
had pretty green lizards, their color darkening or deepening, like that
of chameleons, in light or shade. But the only pets that took Baby's
fancy were the kittens. They perfectly delighted her, from the first
moment she saw them; they were the only things younger than herself that
she had ever beheld, and the only things softer than themselves that her
small hands had grasped. It was astonishing to see how much the kittens
would endure from her. They could scarcely be touched by any one else
without mewing; but when Annie seized one by the head and the other by
the tail, and rubbed them violently together, they did not make a sound.
I suppose that a baby's grasp is really soft, even if it seems
ferocious, and so it gives less pain than one would think. At any rate,
the little animals had the best of it very soon; for they entirely
outstripped Annie in learning to walk, and they could soon scramble away
beyond her reach, while she sat in a sort of dumb despair, unable to
comprehend why anything so much smaller than herself should be so much
nimbler. Meanwhile, the kittens would sit up and look at her with the
most provoking indifference, just out of arm's length, until some of us
would take pity on the young lady, and toss her furry playthings back to
her again. "Little baby," she learned to call them; and these were the
very first words she spoke.
Baby had evidently a natural turn for war, further cultivated by an
intimate knowledge of drills and parades. The nearer she came to actual
conflict the better she seemed to like it, peaceful as her own little
ways might be. Twice, at least, while she was with us on picket, we had
alarms from the Rebel troops, who would bring down cannon to the
opposite side of the Ferry, about two miles beyond us, and throw shot
and shell over upon our side. Then the officer at the Ferry would think
that there was to be an attack made, and couriers would be sent, riding
to and fro, and the men would all be called to arms in a hurry, and the
ladies at headquarters would all put on their best bonnets and come down
stairs, and the ambulance would be made ready to carry them to a place
of safety before the expected fight. On such occasions Baby was in all
her glory. She shouted with delight at being suddenly uncribbed and
thrust into her little scarlet cloak, and brought down stairs, at an
utterly unusual and improper hour, to a _piazza_ with lights and people
and horses and general excitement. She crowed and gurgled and made
gestures with her little fists, and screamed out what seemed to be her
advice on the military situation, as freely as if she had been a
newspaper editor. Except that it was rather difficult to understand her
precise direction, I do not know but the whole Rebel force might have
been captured through her plans. And at any rate, I should much rather
obey her orders than those of some generals whom I have known; for she
at least meant no harm, and would lead one into no mischief.
However, at last the danger, such as it was, would be all over, and
the ladies would be induced to go peacefully to bed again; and Annie
would retreat with them to her ignoble cradle, very much disappointed,
and looking vainly back at the more martial scene below. The next
morning she would seem to have forgotten all about it, and would spill
her bread and milk by the fire as if nothing had happened.
I suppose we hardly knew, at the time, how large a part of the sunshine
of our daily lives was contributed by dear little Annie. Yet, when I now
look back on that pleasant Southern home, she seems as essential a part
of it as the mocking-birds or the magnolias, and I cannot convince
myself that in returning to it I should not find her there. But Annie
went back, with the spring, to her Northern birthplace, and then passed
away from this earth before her little feet had fairly learned to tread
its paths; and when I meet her next it must be in some world where there
is triumph without armies, and where innocence is trained in scenes of
peace. I know, however, that her little life, short as it seemed, was a
blessing to us all, giving a perpetual image of serenity and sweetness,
recalling the lovely atmosphere of far-off homes, and holding us by
unsuspected ties to whatsoever things were pure.
The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a
strange fulfilment of dreams of other days. For instance, the present
writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had
always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own
heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged
crones. It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought
into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and
indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost
always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.
This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years
heard of this class of songs under the name of "Negro Spirituals," and
had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina. I could
now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before
seen as in museums alone. True, the individual songs rarely coincided;
there was a line here, a chorus there,--just enough to fix the class, but
this was unmistakable. It was not strange that they differed, for the
range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida
seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all
were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.
Often in the starlit evening, I have returned from some lonely ride by
the swift river, or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the
camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the
dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a
"shout," chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time,
some monotonous refrain. Writing down in the darkness, as I best
could,--perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,--the words
of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured
bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by. Or, summoning
one of the men at some period of leisure,--Corporal Robert Sutton, for
instance, whose iron memory held all the details of a song as if it were
a ford or a forest,--I have completed the new specimen by supplying the
absent parts. The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more
common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there
were others that occurred only once or twice.
The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original
dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the
misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer. I wished
to avoid what seems to me the only error of Lowell's "Biglow Papers" in
respect to dialect, the occasional use of an extreme misspelling, which
merely confuses the eye, without taking us any closer to the peculiarity
The favorite song in camp was the following, sung with no accompaniment
but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet. It was
sung perhaps twice as often as any other. This was partly due to the
fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses
of other songs might be combined at random.
I. HOLD YOUR LIGHT.
"Hold your light, Brudder Robert,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore.
"What make ole Satan for follow me so?
Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.
Hold your light,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore."
This would be sung for half an hour at a time, perhaps each person
present being named in turn. It seemed the simplest primitive type of
"spiritual." The next in popularity was almost as elementary, and, like
this, named successively each one of the circle. It was, however, much
more resounding and convivial in its music.
II. BOUND TO GO.
"Jordan River, I'm bound to go,
Bound to go, bound to go,--
Jordan River, I'm bound to go,
And bid 'em fare ye well.
"My Brudder Robert, I'm bound to go,
Bound to go," &c.
"My Sister Lucy, I'm bound to go,
Bound to go," &c.
Sometimes it was "tink 'em" (think them) "fare ye well." The _ye_ was
so detached that I thought at first it was "very" or "vary well."
Another picturesque song, which seemed immensely popular, was at first
very bewildering to me. I could not make out the first words of the
chorus, and called it the "Roman-dar," being reminded of some Romaic
song which I had formerly heard. That association quite fell in with the
Orientalism of the new tent-life.
III. ROOM IN THERE.
"O, my mudder is gone! my mudder is gone!
My mudder is gone into heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
Dere's room in dar, room in dar,
Room in dar, in de heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
Can't stay behind, my dear,
I can't stay behind!
"O, my fader is gone!" &c.
"O, de angels are gone!" &c.
"O, I'se been on de road! I'se been on de road!
I'se been on de road into heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
O, room in dar, room in dar,
Room in dar, in de heaven, my Lord!
I can't stay behind!
By this time every man within hearing, from oldest to youngest, would be
wriggling and shuffling, as if through some magic piper's bewitchment;
for even those who at first affected contemptuous indifference would be
drawn into the vortex erelong.
Next to these in popularity ranked a class of songs belonging
emphatically to the Church Militant, and available for camp purposes
with very little strain upon their symbolism. This, for instance, had a
true companion-in-arms heartiness about it, not impaired by the feminine
invocation at the end.
IV. HAIL MARY.
"One more valiant soldier here,
One more valiant soldier here,
One more valiant soldier here,
To help me bear de cross.
O hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary, hail!
Hail, Mary, hail!
To help me bear de cross."
I fancied that the original reading might have been "soul," instead of
"soldier,"--with some other syllable inserted to fill out the
metre,--and that the "Hail, Mary," might denote a Roman Catholic
origin, as I had several men from St. Augustine who held in a dim way
to that faith. It was a very ringing song, though not so grandly
jubilant as the next, which was really impressive as the singers
pealed it out, when marching or rowing or embarking.
V. MY ARMY CROSS OVER.
"My army cross over,
My army cross over,
O, Pharaoh's army drowndedl
My army cross over.
"We'll cross de mighty river,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de river Jordan,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de danger water,
My army cross over;
We'll cross de mighty Myo,
My army cross over. _(Thrice.)_
O, Pharaoh's army drowndedl
My army cross over."
I could get no explanation of the "mighty Myo," except that one of the
old men thought it meant the river of death. Perhaps it is an African
word. In the Cameroon dialect, "Mawa" signifies "to die."
The next also has a military ring about it, and the first line is well
matched by the music. The rest is conglomerate, and one or two lines
show a more Northern origin. "Done" is a Virginia shibboleth, quite
distinct from the "been" which replaces it in South Carolina. Yet one of
their best choruses, without any fixed words, was, "De bell done
ringing," for which, in proper South Carolina dialect, would have been
substituted, "De bell been a-ring." This refrain may have gone South
with our army.
VI. RIDE IN, KIND SAVIOUR.
"Ride in, kind Saviour!
No man can hinder me.
O, Jesus is a mighty man!
No man, &c.
We're marching through Virginny fields.
No man, &c.
O, Satan is a busy man,
No man, &c.
And he has his sword and shield,
No man, &c.
O, old Secesh done come and gone!
No man can hinder me."
Sometimes they substituted "binder _we_," which was more spicy to the
ear, and more in keeping with the usual head-over-heels arrangement of
Almost all their songs were thoroughly religious in their tone, however
quaint then: expression, and were in a minor key, both as to words and
music. The attitude is always the same, and, as a commentary on the life
of the race, is infinitely pathetic. Nothing but patience for this
life,--nothing but triumph in the next. Sometimes the present
predominates, sometimes the future; but the combination is always
implied. In the following, for instance, we hear simply the patience.
VII. THIS WORLD ALMOST DONE.
"Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
Keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
Keep your lamp trimmin' and a-burnin',
For dis world most done.
So keep your lamp, &c.
Dis world most done."
But in the next, the final reward of patience is proclaimed as
VIII. I WANT TO GO HOME.
"Dere's no rain to wet you,
O, yes, I want to go home.
Dere's no sun to burn you,
O, yes, I want to go home;
O, push along, believers,
O, yes, &c.
Dere's no hard trials,
O, yes, &c.
Dere's no whips a-crackin',
O, yes, &c.
My brudder on de wayside,
O, yes, &c.
O, push along, my brudder,
O, yes, &c.
Where dere's no stormy weather,
O, yes, &c.
Dere's no tribulation,
O, yes, &c.
This next was a boat-song, and timed well with the tug of the oar.
IX. THE COMING DAY
"I want to go to Canaan,
I want to go to Canaan,
I want to go to Canaan,
To meet 'em at de comin' day.
O, remember, let me go to Canaan, _(Thrice.)_
To meet "em, &c.
O brudder, let me go to Canaan, _(Thrice.)_
To meet 'em, &c.
My brudder, you--oh!--remember, _(Thrice.)_
To meet 'em at de comin' day."
The following begins with a startling affirmation, yet the last line
quite outdoes the first. This, too, was a capital boat-song.
X. ONE MORE RIVER.
"O, Jordan bank was a great old bank,
Dere ain't but one more river to cross.
We have some valiant soldier here,
Dere ain't, &c.
O, Jordan stream will never run dry,
Dere ain't, &c.
Dere's a hill on my leff, and he catch on my right,
Dere ain't but one more river to cross."
I could get no explanation of this last riddle, except, "Dat mean, if
you go on de leff, go to 'struction, and if you go on de right, go to
God, for sure."
In others, more of spiritual conflict is implied, as in this next
XI. O THE DYING LAMB!
"I wants to go where Moses trod,
O de dying Lamb!
For Moses gone to de promised land,
O de dying Lamb!
To drink from springs dat never run dry,
Cry O my Lord!
Before I'll stay in hell one day,
I'm in hopes to pray my sins away,
Cry O my Lord!
Brudder Moses promised for be dar too,
To drink from streams dat never run dry,
O de dying Lamb!"
In the next, the conflict is at its height, and the lurid imagery of the
Apocalypse is brought to bear. This book, with the books of Moses,
constituted their Bible; all that lay between, even the narratives of
the life of Jesus, they hardly cared to read or to hear.
XII. DOWN IN THE VALLEY.
"We'll run and never tire,
We'll run and never tire,
We'll run and never tire,
Jesus set poor sinners free.
Way down in de valley,
Who will rise and go with me?
You've heern talk of Jesus,
Who set poor sinners free.
"De lightnin' and de flashin'
De lightnin' and de flashin',
De lightnin' and de flashin',
Jesus set poor shiners free.
I can't stand the fire. _(Thrice.)_
Jesus set poor sinners free,
De green trees a-flamin'. _(Thrice_.)
Jesus set poor shiners free,
Way down in de valley,
Who will rise and go with me?
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