Chapter 3: up the St. Mary's.
If Sergeant Rivers
was a natural king among my dusky soldiers, Corporal Robert Sutton
was the natural prime-minister.
If not in all respects the ablest, he was the Wisest man in our ranks.
As large, as powerful, and as black as our good-looking Color-Sergeant
, but more heavily built and with less personal beauty, he had a more massive brain and a far more meditative and systematic intellect.
Not yet grounded even in the spelling book, his modes of thought were nevertheless strong, lucid, and accurate; and he yearned and pined for intellectual companionship beyond all ignorant men whom I have ever met. I believe that he would have talked all day and all night, for days together, to any officer who could instruct him, until his .companion, at least, fell asleep exhausted.
His comprehension of the whole problem of Slavery was more thorough and far-reaching than that of any Abolitionist, so far as its social and military aspects went; in that direction I could teach him nothing, and he taught me much.
But it was his methods of thought which always impressed me chiefly: superficial brilliancy he left to others, and grasped at the solid truth.
Of course his interest in the war and in the regiment was unbounded; he did not take to drill with especial readiness, but he was insatiable of it, and grudged every moment of relaxation.
Indeed, he never had any such moments; his mind was at work all the time, even when
he was singing hymns, of which he had endless store.
He was not, however, one of our leading religionists, but his moral code was solid and reliable, like his mental processes.
Ignorant as he was, the “years that bring the philosophic mind” had yet been his, and most of my young officers seemed boys beside him. He was a Florida man, and had been chiefly employed in lumbering and piloting on the St. Mary's River
, which divides Florida
Down this stream he had escaped in a “dug-out,” and after thus finding the way, had returned (as had not a few of my men in other cases) to bring away wife and child.
“I would n't have leff my child, Cunnel
,” he said, with an emphasis that sounded the depths of his strong nature.
And up this same river he was always imploring to be allowed to guide an expedition.
Many other men had rival propositions to urge, for they gained self-confidence from drill and guard-duty, and were growing impatient of inaction.
“Ought to go to work, Sa,--don't believe in we lyin‘ in camp eatin‘ up de perwisions.”
Such were the quaint complaints, which I heard with joy. Looking over my note-books of that period, I find them filled with topographical memoranda, jotted down by a flickering candle, from the evening talk of the men,--notes of vulnerable points along the coast, charts of rivers, locations of pickets.
I prized these conversations not more for what I thus learned of the country than for what I learned of the men. One could thus measure their various degrees of accuracy and their average military instinct; and I must say that in every respect, save the accurate estimate of distances, they stood the test well.
But no project took my fancy so much, after all, as that of the delegate from the St. Mary's River
The best peg on which to hang an expedition in the Department of the South, in those days, was the promise of lumber.
Dwelling in the very land of Southern pine, the Department authorities had to send North for it, at a vast expense.
There was reported to be plenty in the enemy's country, but somehow the colored soldiers were the only ones who had been lucky enough to obtain any, thus far, and the supply brought in by our men, after flooring the tents of the white regiments and our own, was running low. An expedition of white troops, four companies, with two steamers and two schooners, had lately returned empty-handed, after a week's foraging; and now it was our turn.
They said the mills were all burned; but should we go up the St. Mary
's, Corporal Sutton
was prepared to offer more lumber than we had transportation to carry.
This made the crowning charm of his suggestion.
But there is never any danger of erring on the side of secrecy, in a military department; and I resolved to avoid all undue publicity for our plans, by not finally deciding on any until we should get outside the bar. This was happily approved by my superior officers, Major-General Hunter
and Brigadier-General Saxton
; and I was accordingly permitted to take three steamers, with four hundred and sixty-two officers and men, and two or three invited guests, and go down the coast on my own responsibility.
We were, in short, to win our spurs; and if, as among the Araucanians, our spurs were made of lumber, so much the better.
The whole history of the Department of the South had been defined as “a military picnic,” and now we were to take our share of the entertainment.
It seemed a pleasant share, when, after the usual vexations and delays, we found ourselves (January 23, 1863)
gliding down the full waters of Beaufort River
, the three vessels having sailed at different hours, with orders to rendezvous at St. Simon's Island
, on the coast of Georgia
Until then, the flag-ship, so to speak, was to be the “Ben De Ford,” Captain Hallett
,--this being by far the largest vessel, and carrying most of the men. Major Strong
was in command upon the “John Adams
,” an army gunboat, carrying a thirty-pound Parrott gun, two ten-pound Parrotts, and an eight-inch howitzer.
(since promoted Lieutenant-Colonel
of the regiment) had charge of the famous “Planter,” brought away from the Rebels
by Robert Small; she carried a ten-pound Parrott gun, and two howitzers.
The John Adams
was our main reliance.
She was an old East Boston
ferry-boat, a “double-ender,” admirable for riverwork, but unfit for sea-service.
She drew seven feet of water; the Planter
drew only four; but the latter was very slow, and being obliged to go to St. Simon
's by an inner passage, would delay us from the beginning.
She delayed us so much, before the end, that we virtually parted company, and her career was almost entirely separated from our own.
From boyhood I have had a fancy for boats, and have seldom been without a share, usually more or less fractional, in a rather indeterminate number of punts and wherries.
But when, for the first time, I found myself at sea as Commodore
of a fleet of armed steamers,--for even the Ben De Ford
boasted a six-pounder or so,it seemed rather an unexpected promotion.
But it is a characteristic of army life, that one adapts one's self, as coolly as in a dream, to the most novel responsibilities.
One sits on court-martial, for instance, and decides on the life of a fellow-creature, without being asked any inconvenient
questions as to previous knowledge of Blackstone
; and after such an experience, shall one shrink from wrecking a steamer or two in the cause of the nation?
So I placidly accepted my naval establishment, as if it were a new form of boat-club, and looked over the charts, balancing between one river and another, as if deciding whether to pull up or down Lake Quinsigamond
If military life ever contemplated the exercise of the virtue of humility under any circumstances, this would perhaps have been a good opportunity to begin its practice.
But as the “Regulations” clearly contemplated nothing of the kind, and as I had never met with any precedent which looked in that direction, I had learned to check promptly all such weak proclivities.
proved the most frank and manly of sailors, and did everything for our comfort.
He was soon warm in his praises of the demeanor of our men, which was very pleasant to hear, as this was the first time that colored soldiers in any number had been conveyed on board a transport, and I know of no place where a white volunteer appears to so much disadvantage.
His mind craves occupation, his body is intensely uncomfortable, the daily emergency is not great enough to call out his heroic qualities, and he is apt to be surly, discontented, and impatient even of sanitary rules.
The Southern black soldier, on the other hand, is seldom sea-sick (at least, such is my experience), and, if properly managed, is equally contented, whether idle or busy; he is, moreover, so docile that all needful rules are executed with cheerful acquiescence, and the quarters can therefore be kept clean and wholesome.
Very forlorn faces were soon visible among the officers in the cabin, but I rarely saw such among the men.
Pleasant still seemed our enterprise, as we anchored at early morning in the quiet waters of St. Simon's Sound
, and saw the light fall softly on the beach and the low bluffs, on the picturesque plantation-houses which nestled there, and the graceful naval vessels that lay at anchor before us. When we afterwards landed the air had that peculiar Mediterranean translucency which Southern islands wear; and the plantation we visited had the loveliest tropical garden, though tangled and desolate, which I have ever seen in the South
The deserted house was embowered in great blossoming shrubs, and filled with hyacinthine odors, among which predominated that of the little Chickasaw
roses which everywhere bloomed and trailed around.
There were fig-trees and date-palms, crape-myrtles and wax-myrtles, Mexican
agaves and English ivies, japonicas, bananas, oranges, lemons, oleanders, jonquils, great cactuses, and wild Florida
This was not the plantation which Mrs. Kemble
has since made historic, although that was on the same island; and I could not waste much sentiment over it, for it had belonged to a Northern renegade, Thomas Butler King
Yet I felt then,/as I have felt a hundred times since, an emotion of heart-sickness at this desecration of a homestead,--and especially when, looking from a bare upper window of the empty house upon a range of broad, flat, sunny roofs, such as children love to play on, I thought how that place might have been loved by yet innocent hearts, and I mourned anew the sacrilege of war.
I had visited the flag-ship Wabash
ere we left Port Royal Harbor, and had obtained a very kind letter of introduction from Admiral Dupont
, that stately and courtly potentate, elegant as one's ideal French marquis;
and under these credentials I received polite attention from the naval officers at St. Simon
's,--Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Budd
, of the gunboat Potomska
, and Acting Master Moses
, of the barque Fernandina
They made valuable suggestions in regard to the different rivers along the coast, and gave vivid descriptions of the last previous trip up the St. Mary
's undertaken by Captain Stevens
, U. S. N., in the gunboat Ottawa
, when he had to fight his way past batteries at every bluff in descending the narrow and rapid stream.
I was warned that no resistance would be offered to the ascent, but only to our return; and was further cautioned against the mistake, then common, of underrating the courage of the Rebels
“It proved impossible to dislodge those fellows from the banks,” my informant said; “they had dug rifle-pits, and swarmed like hornets, and when fairly silenced in one direction they were sure to open upon us from another.”
All this sounded alarming, but it was nine months since the event had happened; and although nothing had gone up the river meanwhile, I counted on less resistance now. And something must be risked anywhere.
We were delayed all that day in waiting for our consort, and improved our time by verifying certain rumors about a quantity of new railroad-iron
which was said to be concealed in the abandoned Rebel forts on St. Simon's
and Jekyll Islands
, and which would have much value at Port Royal
, if we could only unearth it. Some of our men had worked upon these very batteries, so that they could easily guide us; and by the additional discovery of a large flat-boat we were enabled to go to work in earnest upon the removal of the treasure.
These iron bars, surmounted by a dozen feet of sand, formed an invulnerable
roof for the magazines and bomb-proofs of the fort, and the men enjoyed demolishing them far more than they had relished their construction.
Though the day was the 24th of January, 1863, the sun was very oppressive upon the sands; but all were in the highest spirits, and worked with the greatest zeal.
The men seemed to regard these massive bars as their first trophies; and if the rails had been wreathed with roses, they could not have been got out in more holiday style.
Nearly a hundred were obtained that day, besides a quantity of five-inch plank with which to barricade the very conspicuous pilot-houses of the John Adams
Still another day we were delayed, and could still keep at this work, not neglecting some foraging on the island, from which horses, cattle, and agricultural implements
were to be removed, and the few remaining colored families transferred to Fernandina
I had now become quite anxious about the missing steamboat, as the inner passage, by which alone she could arrive, was exposed at certain points to fire from Rebel batteries, and it would have been unpleasant to begin with a disaster.
I remember that, as I stood on deck, in the still and misty evening, listening with strained senses for some sound of approach; I heard a low continuous noise from the distance, more wild and desolate than anything in my memory can parallel.
It came from within the vast girdle of mist, and seemed like the cry of a myriad of lost souls upon the horizon's verge; it was Dante
become audible: and yet it was but the accumulated cries of innumerable sea-fowl at the entrance of the outer bay.
Late that night the Planter
We left St. Simon
's on the following morning, reached Fort Clinch
by four o'clock, and there transferring two hundred men
to the very scanty quarters of the John Adams
, allowed the larger transport to go into Fernandina
, while the two other vessels were to ascend the St. Mary's River
, unless (as proved inevitable in the end) the defects in the boiler of the Planter
should oblige her to remain behind.
That night I proposed to make a sort of trial-trip up stream, as far as Township Landing, some fifteen miles, there to pay our respects to Captain Clark
's company of cavalry, whose camp was reported to lie near by. This was included in Corporal Sutton
's programme, and seemed to me more inviting, and far more useful to the men, than any amount of mere foraging.
The thing really desirable appeared to be to get them under fire as soon as possible, and to teach them, by a few small successes, the application of what they had learned in camp.
I had ascertained that the camp of this company lay five miles from the landing, and was accessible by two roads, one of which was a lumber-path, not commonly used, but which Corporal Sutton
had helped to construct, and along which he could easily guide us. The plan was to go by night, surround the house and negro cabins at the landing (to prevent an alarm from being given), then to take the side path, and if all went well, to surprise the camp; but if they got notice of our approach, through their pickets, we should, at worst, have a fight, in which the best man must win.
The moon was bright, and the river swift, but easy of navigation thus far. Just below Township I landed a small advance force, to surround the houses silently.
With them went Corporal Sutton
; and when, after rounding the point, I went on shore with a larger body of men, he met me with a silent chuckle of delight, and with the information that there was a negro in a neighboring
cabin who had just come from the Rebel
camp, and could give the latest information.
While he hunted up this valuable auxiliary, I mustered my detachment, winnowing out the men who had coughs (not a few), and sending them ignominiously on board again: a process I had regularly to perform, during this first season of catarrh, on all occasions where quiet was needed.
The only exception tolerated at this time was in the case of one man who offered a solemn pledge, that, if unable to restrain his cough, he would lie down on the ground, scrape a little hole, and cough into it unheard.
The ingenuity of this proposition was irresistible, and the eager patient was allowed to pass muster.
It was after midnight when we set off upon our excursion.
I had about a hundred men, marching by the flank, with a small advanced guard, and also a few flankers, where the ground permitted.
I put my Florida
company at the head of the column, and had by my side Captain Metcalf
, an excellent officer, and Sergeant McIntyre
, his first sergeant.
We plunged presently into pine woods, whose resinous smell I can still remember.
marched near me, with his captured negro guide, whose first fear and sullenness had yielded to the magic news of the President
's Proclamation, then just issued, of which Governor Andrew
had sent me a large printed supply;--we seldom found men who could read it, but they all seemed to feel more secure when they held it in their hands.
We marched on through the woods, with no sound but the peeping of the frogs in a neighboring marsh, and the occasional yelping of a dog, as we passed the hut of some “cracker.”
This yelping always made Corporal Sutton
uneasy; dogs are the detective officers of Slavery's police.
We had halted once or twice to close up the ranks, and had marched some two miles, seeing and hearing nothing more.
I had got all I could out of our new guide, and was striding on, rapt in pleasing contemplation.
All had gone so smoothly that I had merely to fancy the rest as being equally smooth.
Already I fancied our little detachment bursting out of the woods, in swift surprise, upon the Rebel
quarters,--already the opposing commander, after hastily firing a charge or two from his revolver (of course above my head), had yielded at discretion, and was gracefully tendering, in a stage attitude, his unavailing sword,--when suddenly There was a trampling of feet among the advanced guard as they came confusedly to a halt, and almost at the same instant a more ominous sound, as of galloping horses in the path before us. The moonlight outside the woods gave that dimness of atmosphere within which is more bewildering than darkness, because the eyes cannot adapt themselves to it so well.
Yet I fancied, and others aver, that they saw the leader of an approaching party mounted on a white horse and reining up in the pathway; others, again, declare that he drew a pistol from the holster and took aim; others beard the words, “Charge in upon them!
But all this was confused by the opening rifle-shots of our advanced guard, and, as clear observation was impossible, I made the men fix their bayonets and kneel in the cover on each side the pathway, and I saw with delight the brave fellows, with Sergeant Mcintyre
at their head, settling down in the grass as coolly and warily as if wild turkeys were the only game.
Perhaps at the first shot a man fell at my elbow.
I felt it no more than if a tree had fallen,--I was so busy watching my own men and the enemy, and
planning what to do next.
Some of our soldiers, misunderstanding the order, “Fix bayonets,” were actually charging
with them, dashing off into the dim woods, with nothing to charge at but the vanishing tail of an imaginary horse,--for we could really see nothing.
This zeal I noted with pleasure, and also with anxiety, as our greatest danger was from confusion and scattering; and for infantry to pursue cavalry would be a novel enterprise.
stood by me well in keeping the men steady, as did Assistant Surgeon Minor
, and Lieutenant
, now Captain
How the men in the rear were behaving I could not tell,--not so coolly, I afterwards found, because they were more entirely bewildered, supposing, until the shots came, that the column had simply halted for a moment's rest, as had been done once or twice before.
They did not know who or where their assailants might be, and the fall of the man beside me created a hasty rumor that I was killed, so that it was on the whole an alarming experience for them.
They kept together very tolerably, however, while our assailants, dividing, rode along on each side through the open pinebarren, firing into our ranks, but mostly over the heads of the men. My soldiers in turn fired rapidly,--too rapidly, being yet beginners,--and it was evident that, dim as it was, both sides had opportunity to do some execution.
I could hardly tell whether the fight had lasted ten minutes or an hour, when, as the enemy's fire had evidently ceased or slackened, I gave the order to cease firing.
But it was very difficult at first to make them desist: the taste of gunpowder was too intoxicating.
One of them was heard to mutter, indignantly, “Why de Cunnel order Cease firing
, when de Secesh blazin‘ away
at de rate ob ten dollar a day?”
Every incidental occurrence seemed somehow to engrave itself upon my perceptions, without interrupting the main course of thought.
Thus I know, that, in one of the pauses of the affair, there came wailing through the woods a cracked female voice, as if calling back some stray husband who had run out to join in the affray, “John, John, are you going to leave me, John?
Are you going to let me and the children be killed, John?”
I suppose the poor thing's fears of gunpowder were very genuine; but it was such a wailing squeak, and so infinitely ludicrous, and John was probably ensconced so very safely in some hollow tree, that I could see some of the men showing all their white teeth in the very midst of the fight.
But soon this sound, with all others, had ceased, and left us in peaceful possession of the field.
I have made the more of this little affair because it was the first stand — up fight in which my men had been engaged, though they had been under fire, in an irregular way, in their small early expeditions.
To me personally the event was of the greatest value: it had given us all an opportunity to test each other, and our abstract surmises were changed into positive knowledge.
Hereafter it was of small importance what nonsense might be talked or written about colored troops; so long as mine did not flinch, it made no difference to me. My brave young officers, themselves mostly new to danger, viewed the matter much as I did; and yet we were under bonds of life and death to form a correct opinion, which was more than could be said of the Northern
editors, and our verdict was proportionately of greater value.
I was convinced from appearances that we had been victorious, so far, though I could not suppose that this
would be the last of it. We knew neither the numbers of the enemy, nor their plans, nor their present condition: whether they had surprised us or whether we had surprised them was all a mystery.
was urgent to go on and complete the enterprise.
All my impulses said the same thing; but then I had the most explicit injunctions from General Saxton
to risk as little as possible in this first enterprise, because of the fatal effect on public sentiment of even an honorable defeat.
We had now an honorable victory, so far as it went; the officers and men around me were in good spirits, but the rest of the column might be nervous; and it seemed so important to make the first fight an entire success, that I thought it wiser to let well alone; nor have I ever changed this opinion.
For one's self, Montrose
's verse may be well applied, “To win or lose it all.”
But one has no right to deal thus lightly with the fortunes of a race, and that was the weight which I always felt as resting on our action.
If my raw infantry force had stood unflinchingly a night-surprise from “de hoss cavalry,” as they reverentially termed them, I felt that a good beginning had been made.
All hope of surprising the enemy's camp was now at an end; I was willing and ready to fight the cavalry over again, but it seemed wiser that we, not they, should select the ground.
Attending to the wounded, therefore, and making as we best could stretchers for those who were to be carried, including the remains of the man killed at the first discharge (Private William Parsons
of Company G), and others who seemed at the point of death, we marched through the woods to the landing,--expecting at every moment to be involved in another fight.
This not occurring, I was more than ever satisfied that we had won
a victory; for it was obvious that a mounted force would not allow a detachment of infantry to march two miles through open woods by night without renewing the fight, unless they themselves had suffered a good deal.
On arrival at the landing, seeing that there was to be no immediate affray, I sent most of the men on board, and called for volunteers to remain on shore with me and hold the plantation-house till morning.
They eagerly offered; and I was glad to see them, when posted as sentinels by Lieutenants Hyde
, who stayed with me, pace their beats as steadily and challenge as coolly as veterans, though of course there was some powder wasted on imaginary foes.
Greatly to my surprise, however, we had no other enemies to encounter.
We did not yet know that we had killed the first lieutenant
of the cavalry, and that our opponents had retreated to the woods in dismay, without daring to return to their camp.
This at least was the account we heard from prisoners afterwards, and was evidently the tale current in the neighborhood, though the statements published in Southern newspapers did not correspond.
Admitting the death of Lieutenant Jones
, the Tallahassee Floridian of February 14th stated that “Captain Clark
, finding the enemy in strong force, fell back with his command to camp, and removed his ordnance and commissary and other stores, with twelve negroes on their way to the enemy, captured on that day.”
In the morning, my invaluable surgeon, Dr. Rogers
, sent me his report of killed and wounded; and I have been since permitted to make the following extracts from his notes: “One man killed instantly by ball through the heart, and seven wounded, one of whom will die. Braver men never lived.
One man with two bullet-holes through
the large muscles of the shoulders and neck brought off from the scene of action, two miles distant, two muskets; and not a murmur has escaped his lips.
Another, Robert Sutton
, with three wounds,--one of which, being on the skull, may cost him his life,--would not report himself till compelled to do so by his officers.
While dressing his wounds, he quietly talked of what they had done, and of what they yet could do. To-day I have had the Colonel order
him to obey me. He is perfectly quiet and cool, but takes this whole affair with the religious bearing of a man who realizes that freedom is sweeter than life.
Yet another soldier did not report himself at all, but remained all night on guard, and possibly I should not have known of his having had a buck-shot in his shoulder, if some duty requiring a sound shoulder had not been required of him to-day.”
This last, it may be added, had persuaded a comrade to dig out the buckshot, for fear of being ordered on the sick-list.
And one of those who were carried to the vessel — a man wounded through the lungs — asked only if I were safe, the contrary having been reported.
An officer may be pardoned some enthusiasm for such men as these.
The anxious night having passed away without an attack, another problem opened with the morning.
For the first time, my officers and men found themselves in possession of an enemy's abode; and though there was but little temptation to plunder, I knew that I must here begin to draw the line.
I had long since resolved to prohibit absolutely all indiscriminate pilfering and wanton outrage, and to allow nothing to be taken or destroyed but by proper authority.
The men, to my great satisfaction, entered into this view at once, and so did (perhaps a shade less readily, in some cases) the officers.
greatest trouble was with the steamboat hands, and I resolved to let them go ashore as little as possible.
Most articles of furniture were already, however, before our visit, gone from the plantation-house, which was now used only as a picket-station.
The only valuable article was a piano-forte, for which a regular packing-box lay invitingly ready outside.
I had made up my mind, in accordance with the orders given to naval commanders in that department,1
to burn all picket-stations, and all villages from which I should be covertly attacked, and nothing else; and as this house was destined to the flames, I should have left the piano in it, but for the seductions of that box. With such a receptacle all ready, even to the cover, it would have seemed like flying in the face of Providence
not to put the piano in. I ordered it removed, therefore, and afterwards presented it to the school for colored children at Fernandina
This I mention because it was the only article of property I ever took, or knowingly suffered to be taken, in the enemy's country, save for legitimate military uses, from first to last; nor would I have taken this, but for the thought of the school, and, as aforesaid, the temptation of the box. If any other officer has been more rigid, with equal opportunities, let him cast the first stone.
I think the zest with which the men finally set fire to the house at my order was enhanced by this previous abstemiousness; but there is a fearful fascination in the
use of fire, which every child knows in the abstract, and which I found to hold true in the practice.
On our way down river we had opportunity to test this again.
The ruined town of St. Mary's
had at that time a bad reputation, among both naval and military men. Lying but a short distance above Fernandina
, on the Georgia
side, it was occasionally visited by our gunboats.
I was informed that the only residents of the town were three old women, who were apparently kept there as spies,that, on our approach, the aged crones would come out and wave white handkerchiefs,--that they would receive us hospitably, profess to be profoundly loyal, and exhibit a portrait of Washington
,--that they would solemnly assure us that no Rebel pickets had been there for many weeks,--but that in the adjoining yard we should find fresh horse-tracks, and that we should be fired upon by guerillas the moment we left the wharf.
My officers had been much excited by these tales; and I had assured them that, if this programme were literally carried out, we would straightway return and burn the town, or what was left of it, for our share.
It was essential to show my officers and men that, while rigid against irregular outrage, we could still be inexorable against the enemy.
We had previously planned to stop at this town, on our way down river, for some valuable lumber which we had espied on a wharf; and gliding down the swift current, shelling a few bluffs as we passed, we soon reached it. Punctual as the figures in a panorama appeared the old ladies with their white handkerchiefs.
Taking possession of the town, much of which had previously been destroyed by the gunboats, and stationing the color-guard, to their infinite delight, in the cupola of the most conspicuous house, I deployed skirmishers along the exposed
suburb, and set a detail of men at work on the lumber.
After a stately and decorous interview with the queens of society of St. Mary's,--is it Scott
who says that nothing improves the manners like piracy?-I peacefully withdrew the men when the work was done.
There were faces of disappointment among the officers,--for all felt a spirit of mischief after the last night's adventure,--when, just as we had fairly swung out into the stream and were under way, there came, like the sudden burst of a tropical tornado, a regular little hail-storm of bullets into the open end of the boat, driving every gunner in an instant from his post, and surprising even those who were looking to be surprised.
The shock was but for a second; and though the bullets had pattered precisely like the sound of hail upon the iron cannon, yet nobody was hurt.
With very respectable promptness, order was restored, our own shells were flying into the woods from which the attack proceeded, and we were steaming up to the wharf again, according to promise.
Who shall describe the theatrical attitudes assumed by the old ladies as they reappeared at the front-door,being luckily out of direct range,--and set the handkerchiefs in wilder motion than ever?
They brandished them, they twirled them after the manner of the domestic mop, they clasped their hands, handkerchiefs included.
Meanwhile their friends in the wood popped away steadily at us, with small effect; and occasionally an invisible field-piece thundered feebly from another quarter, with equally invisible results.
Reaching the wharf, one company, under Lieutenant
, was promptly deployed in search of our assailants, who soon grew silent.
Not so the old ladies, when I announced to them my purpose, and added, with extreme regret, that,
as the wind was high, I should burn only that half of the town which lay to leeward of their house, which did not, after all, amount to much.
Between gratitude for this degree of mercy, and imploring appeals for greater, the treacherous old ladies manoeuvred with clasped hands and demonstrative handkerchiefs around me, impairing the effect of their eloquence by constantly addressing me as “Mr. Captain
” ; for I have observed, that, while the sternest officer is greatly propitiated by attributing to him a rank a little higher than his own, yet no one is ever mollified by an error in the opposite direction.
I tried, however, to disregard such low considerations, and to strike the correct mean between the sublime patriot and the unsanctified incendiary, while I could find no refuge from weak contrition save in greater and greater depths of courtesy; and so melodramatic became our interview that some of the soldiers still maintain that “dem dar ole Secesh women been a-gwine for kiss de Cunnel,” before we ended.
But of this monstrous accusation I wish to register an explicit denial, once for all.
Dropping down to Fernandina
unmolested after this affair, we were kindly received by the military and naval commanders,--Colonel Hawley
, of the Seventh Connecticut (now Brigadier-General Hawley
), and Lieutenant- Commander Hughes
, of the gunboat Mohawk
It turned out very opportunely that both of these officers had special errands to suggest still farther up the St. Mary
's, and precisely in the region where I wished to go. Colonel Hawley
showed me a letter from the War Department, requesting him to ascertain the possibility of obtaining a supply of brick for Fort Clinch
from the brickyard which had furnished the original materials, but which had not been visited since the perilous river-trip of the Ottawa
wished to obtain information for the Admiral
respecting a Rebel steamer,--the Berosa
,said to be lying somewhere up the river, and awaiting her chance to run the blockade.
I jumped at the opportunity.
Berosa and brickyard,--both were near Woodstock
, the former home of Corporal Sutton
; he was ready and eager to pilot us up the river; the moon would be just right that evening, setting at 3h. 19m. A. M.; and our boat was precisely the one to undertake the expedition.
Its double-headed shape was just what was needed in that swift and crooked stream; the exposed pilot-houses had been tolerably barricaded with the thick planks from St. Simon
's; and we further obtained some sand-bags from Fort Clinch
, through the aid of Captain Sears
, the officer in charge, who had originally suggested the expedition after brick.
In return for this aid, the Planter
was sent back to the wharf at St. Mary's, to bring away a considerable supply of the same precious article, which we had observed near the wharf.
Meanwhile the John Adams
was coaling from naval supplies, through the kindness of Lieutenant Hughes
; and the Ben De Ford
was taking in the Jumber which we had yesterday brought down.
It was a great disappointment to be unable to take the latter vessel up the river; but I was unwillingly convinced that, though the depth of water might be sufficient, yet her length would be unmanageable in the swift current and sharp turns.
The Planter must also be sent on a separate cruise, as her weak and disabled machinery made her useless for my purpose.
Two hundred men were therefore transferred, as before, to the narrow hold of the John Adams
, in addition to the company permanently stationed on board to work the guns.
At seven o'clock on the evening of January 29th, beneath a lovely moon, we steamed up the river.
Never shall I forget the mystery and excitement of that night.
I know nothing in life more fascinating than the nocturnal ascent of an unknown river, leading far into an enemy's country, where one glides in the dim moonlight between dark hills and meadows, each turn of the channel making it seem like an inland lake, and cutting you off as by a barrier from all behind,--with no sign of human life, but an occasional picket-fire left glimmering beneath the bank, or the yelp of a dog from some low-lying plantation.
On such occasions every nerve is strained to its utmost tension; all dreams of romance appear to promise immediate fulfilment; all lights on board the vessel are obscured, loud voices are hushed; you fancy a thousand men on shore, and yet see nothing; the lonely river, unaccustomed to furrowing keels, lapses by the vessel with a treacherous sound; and all the senses are merged in a sort of anxious trance.
Three times I have had in full perfection this fascinating experience; but that night was the first, and its zest was the keenest.
It will come back to me in dreams, if I live a thousand years.
I feared no attack during our ascent,--that danger was for our return; but I feared the intricate navigation of the river, though I did not fully know, till the actual experience, how dangerous it was. We passed without trouble far above the scene of our first fight,--the Battle of the Hundred Pines
, as my officers had baptized it; and ever, as we ascended, the banks grew steeper, the current swifter, the channel more tortuous and more encumbered with projecting branches and drifting wood.
No piloting less skilful than that of Corporal Sutton
and his mate, James Bezzard
, could have carried us through, I thought; and no side-wheel steamer less strong than a
ferry-boat could have borne the crash and force with which we struck the wooded banks of the river.
But the powerful paddles, built to break the Northern
ice, could crush the Southern
pine as well; and we came safely out of entanglements that at first seemed formidable.
We had the tide with us, which makes steering far more difficult; and, in the sharp angles of the river, there was often no resource but to run the bow boldly on shore, let the stern swing round, and then reverse the motion.
As the reversing machinery was generally out of order, the engineer stupid or frightened, and the captain excited, this involved moments of tolerably concentrated anxiety.
Eight times we grounded in the upper waters, and once lay aground for half an hour; but at last we dropped anchor before the little town of Woodstock
, after moonset and an hour before daybreak, just as I had planned, and so quietly that scarcely a dog barked, and not a soul in the town, as we afterwards found, knew of our arrival.
As silently as possible, the great flat-boat which we had brought from St. Simon
's was filled with men. Major Strong
was sent on shore with two companies,--those of Captain James
and Captain Metcalf
,--with instructions to surround the town quietly, allow no one to leave it, molest no one, and hold as temporary prisoners every man whom he found.
I watched them push off into the darkness, got the remaining force ready to land, and then paced the deck for an hour in silent watchfulness, waiting for rifle-shots.
Not a sound came from the shore, save the barking of dogs and the morning crow of cocks; the time seemed interminable; but when daylight came, I landed, and found a pair of scarlet trousers pacing on their beat before every house in the village, and a small squad of prisoners, stunted and forlorn as Falstaff
regiment, already in hand.
I observed with delight the good demeanor of my men towards these forlorn Anglo-Saxons, and towards the more tumultuous women.
Even one soldier, who threatened to throw an old termagant into the river, took care to append the courteous epithet “Madam
I took a survey of the premises.
The chief house, a pretty one with picturesque out-buildings, was that of Mrs.
A., who owned the mills and lumber-wharves adjoining.
The wealth of these wharves had not been exaggerated.
There was lumber enough to freight half a dozen steamers, and I half regretted that I had agreed to take down a freight of bricks instead.
Further researches made me grateful that I had already explained to my men the difference between public foraging and private plunder.
Along the river-bank I found building after building crowded with costly furniture, all neatly packed, just as it was sent up from St. Mary's when that town was abandoned.
Pianos were a drug; china, glass-ware
, mahogany, pictures, all were here.
And here were my men, who knew that their own labor had earned for their masters these luxuries, or such as these; their own wives and children were still sleeping on the floor, perhaps, at Beaufort
; and yet they submitted, almost without a murmur, to the enforced abstinence.
Bed and bedding for our hospitals they might take from those store-rooms,--such as the surgeon selected,--also an old flag which we found in a corner, and an old field-piece (which the regiment still possesses),--but after this the doors were closed and left unmolested.
It cost a struggle to some of the men, whose wives were destitute, I know; but their pride was very easily touched, and when this abstinence was once recognized as a rule,
they claimed it as an honor, in this and all succeeding expeditions.
I flatter myself that, if they had once been set upon wholesale plundering, they would have done it as thoroughly as their betters; but I have always been infinitely grateful, both for the credit and for the discipline of the regiment,--as well as for the men's subsequent lives,--that the opposite method was adopted.
When the morning was a little advanced, I called on Mrs.
A., who received me in quite a stately way at her own door with “To what am I indebted for the honor of this visit, Sir?”
The foreign name of the family, and the tropical look of the buildings, made it seem (as, indeed, did all the rest of the adventure) like a chapter out of “Amyas Leigh
” ; but as I had happened to hear that the lady herself was a Philadelphian, and her deceased husband a New-Yorker, I could not feel even that modicum of reverence due to sincere Southerners.
However, I wished to present my credentials; so, calling up my companion, I said that I believed she had been previously acquainted with Corporal Robert Sutton
I never saw a finer bit of unutterable indignation than came over the face of my hostess, as she slowly recognized him. She drew herself up, and dropped out the monosyllables of her answer as if they were so many drops of nitric acid.
“Ah,” quoth my lady, “we
called him Bob!”
It was a group for a painter.
The whole drama of the war seemed to reverse itself in an instant, and my tall, well-dressed, imposing, philosophic Corporal dropped down the immeasurable depth into a mere plantation “Bob” again.
So at least in my imagination; not to that person himself.
Too essentially dignified in his nature to be moved by words where substantial realities were in question, he simply turned from the lady, touched
his hat to me, and asked if I would wish to see the slave-jail, as he had the keys in his possession.
If he fancied that I was in danger of being overcome by blandishments, and needed to be recalled to realities, it was a master-stroke.
I must say that, when the door of that villanous edifice was thrown open before me, I felt glad that my main interview with its lady proprietor had passed before I saw it. It was a small building, like a Northern corn-barn, and seemed to have as prominent and as legitimate a place among the outbuildings of the establishment.
In the middle of the door was a large staple with a rusty chain, like an ox-chain, for fastening a victim down.
When the door had been opened after the death of the late proprietor, my informant said, a man was found padlocked in that chain.
We found also three pairs of stocks of various construction, two of which had smaller as well as larger holes, evidently for the feet of women or children.
In a building near by we found something far more complicated, which was perfectly unintelligible till the men explained all its parts: a machine so contrived that a person once imprisoned in it could neither sit, stand, nor lie, but must support the body half raised, in a position scarcely endurable.
I have since bitterly reproached myself for leaving this piece of ingenuity behind; but it would have cost much labor to remove it, and to bring away the other trophies seemed then enough.
I remember the unutterable loathing with which I leaned against the door of that prison-house; I had thought myself seasoned to any conceivable horrors of Slavery, but it seemed as if the visible presence of that den of sin would choke me. Of course it would have been burned to the ground by us, but that this would have involved the sacrifice of
every other building and all the piles of lumber, and for the moment it seemed as if the sacrifice would be righteous.
But I forbore, and only took as trophies the instruments of torture and the keys of the jail.
We found but few colored people in this vicinity; some we brought away with us, and an old man and woman preferred to remain.
All the white males whom we found I took as hostages, in order to shield us, if possible, from attack on our way down river, explaining to them that they would be put on shore when the dangerous points were passed.
I knew that their wives could easily send notice of this fact to the Rebel
forces along the river.
My hostages were a forlorn-looking set of “crackers,” far inferior to our soldiers in physique
, and yet quite equal, the latter declared, to the average material of the Southern
None were in uniform, but this proved nothing as to their being soldiers.
One of them, a mere boy, was captured at his own door, with gun in hand.
It was a fowling-piece, which he used only, as his mother plaintively assured me, “to shoot little birds with.”
As the guileless youth had for this purpose loaded the gun with eighteen buck-shot, we thought it justifiable to confiscate both the weapon and the owner, in mercy to the birds.
We took from this place, for the use of the army, a flock of some thirty sheep, forty bushels of rice, some other provisions, tools, oars, and a little lumber, leaving all possible space for the bricks which we expected to obtain just below.
I should have gone farther up the river, but for a dangerous boom which kept back a great number of logs in a large brook that here fell into the St. Mary
's; the stream ran with force, and if the Rebels
had wit enough to do it, they might in ten minutes so
choke the river with drift-wood as infinitely to enhance our troubles.
So we dropped down stream a mile or two, found the very brickyard from which Fort Clinch
had been constructed,--still stored with bricks, and seemingly unprotected.
Here Sergeant Rivers
again planted his standard, and the men toiled eagerly, for several hours, in loading our boat to the utmost with the bricks.
Meanwhile we questioned black
witnesses, and learned for the first time that the Rebels
admitted a repulse at Township Landing, and that Lieutenant Jones
and ten of their number were killed,though this I fancy to have been an exaggeration.
They also declared that the mysterious steamer Berosa
was lying at the head of the river, but was a broken-down and worthless affair, and would never get to sea. The result has since proved this; for the vessel subsequently ran the blockade and foundered near shore, the crew barely escaping with their lives.
I had the pleasure, as it happened, of being the first person to forward this information to Admiral Dupont
, when it came through the pickets, many months after,--thus concluding my report on the Berosa
Before the work at the yard was over the pickets reported mounted men in the woods near by, as had previously been the report at Woodstock
This admonished us to lose no time; and as we left the wharf, immediate arrangements were made to have the gun-crews all in readiness, and to keep the rest of the men below, since their musketry would be of little use now, and I did not propose to risk a life unnecessarily.
The chief obstacle to this was their own eagerness; penned down on one side, they popped up on the other; their officers, too, were eager to see what was going on, and were almost
as hard to cork down as the men. Add to this, that the vessel was now very crowded, and that I had to be chiefly on the hurricane-deck with the pilots.
, master of the vessel, was brave to excess, and as much excited as the men; he could no more be kept in the little pilot-house than they below; and when we had passed one or two bluffs, with no sign of an enemy, he grew more and more irrepressible, and exposed himself conspicuously on the upper deck.
Perhaps we all were a little lulled by apparent safety; for myself, I lay down for a moment on a settee in a state-room
, having been on my feet, almost without cessation, for twenty-four hours.
Suddenly there swept down from a bluff above us, on the Georgia
side, a mingling of shout and roar and rattle as of a tornado let loose; and as a storm of bullets came pelting against the sides of the vessel, and through a window, there went up a shrill answering shout from our own men. It took but an instant for me to reach the gun-deck.
After all my efforts the men had swarmed once more from below, and already, crowding at both ends of the boat, were loading and firing with inconceivable rapidity, shouting to each other, “Nebber gib it up!”
and of course having no steady aim, as the vessel glided and whirled in the swift current.
Meanwhile the officers in charge of the large guns.
had their crews in order, and our shells began to fly over the bluffs, which, as we now saw, should have been shelled in advance, only that we had to economize ammunition.
The other soldiers I drove below, almost by main force, with the aid of their officers, who behaved exceedingly well, giving the men leave to fire from the open port-holes which lined the lower deck, almost at the water's level.
In the very midst of the melee Major Strong
came from the
upper deck, with a face of horror, and whispered to me, “Captain Clifton
was killed at the first shot by my side.”
If he had said that the vessel was on fire the shock would hardly have been greater.
Of course, the military commander
on board a steamer is almost as helpless as an unarmed man, so far as the risks of water go. A seaman must command there.
In the hazardous voyage of last night, I had learned, though unjustly, to distrust every official on board the steamboat except this excitable, brave, warm-hearted sailor; and now, among these added dangers, to lose him!
The responsibility for his life also thrilled me; he was not among my soldiers, and yet he was killed.
I thought of his wife and children, of whom he had spoken; but one learns to think rapidly in war, and, cautioning the Major
to silence, I went up to the hurricane-deck and drew in the helpless body, that it should be safe from further desecration, and then looked to see where we were.
We were now gliding past a safe reach of marsh, while our assailants were riding by cross-paths to attack us at the next bluff.
It was Reed's Bluff where we were first attacked, and Scrubby Bluff, I think, was next.
They were shelled in advance, but swarmed manfully to the banks again as we swept round one of the sharp angles of the stream beneath their fire.
My men were now pretty well imprisoned below in the hot and crowded hold, and actually fought each other, the officers afterwards said, for places at the open port-holes, from which to aim. Others implored to be landed, exclaiming that they “supposed de Cunnel knew best,” but it was “mighty mean” to be shut up down below, when they might be “fightin‘ de Secesh in de clar field
This clear field, and no favor, was what they thenceforward
sighed for. But in such difficult navigation it would have been madness to think of landing, although one daring Rebel actually sprang upon the large boat which we towed astern, where he was shot down by one of our sergeants.
This boat was soon after swamped and abandoned, then taken and repaired by the Rebels
at a later date, and finally, by a piece of dramatic completeness, was seized by a party of fugitive slaves, who escaped in it to our lines, and some of whom enlisted in my own regiment.
It has always been rather a mystery to me why the Rebels
did not fell a few trees across the stream at some of the many sharp angles where we might so easily have been thus imprisoned.
This, however, they did not attempt, and with the skilful pilotage of our trusty Corporal, --philosophic as Socrates
through all the din, and occasionally relieving his mind by taking a shot with his rifle through the high port-holes of the pilot-house,--we glided safely on. The steamer did not ground once on the descent, and the mate in command, Mr. Smith
, did his duty very well.
The plank sheathing of the pilot-house was penetrated by few bullets, though struck by so many outside that it was visited as a curiosity after our return; and even among the gun-crews, though they had no protection, not a man was hurt.
As we approached some wooded bluff, usually on the Georgia
side; we could see galloping along the hillside what seemed a regiment of mounted riflemen, and could see our shell scatter them ere we approached.
Shelling did not, however, prevent a rather fierce fusilade from our old friends of Captain Clark
's company at Waaterman's Bluff, near Township Landing; but even this did no serious damage, and this was the last.
It was of course impossible, while thus running the gauntlet, to put our hostages ashore, and I could only explain to them that they must thank their own friends for their inevitable detention.
I was by no means proud of their forlorn appearance, and besought Colonel Hawley
to take them off my hands; but he was sending no flags of truce at that time, and liked their looks no better than I did. So I took them to Port Royal
, where they were afterwards sent safely across the lines.
Our men were pleased at taking them back with us, as they had already said, regretfully, “S'pose we leave dem Secesh at Fernandina
, General Saxby
won't see 'em,” --as if they were some new natural curiosity, which indeed they were.
One soldier further suggested the expediency of keeping them permanently in camp, to be used as marks for the guns of the relieved guard every morning.
But this was rather an ebullition of fancy than a sober proposition.
Against these levities I must put a piece of more tragic eloquence, which I took down by night on the steamer's deck from the thrilling harangue of Corporal Adam Allston
, one of our most gifted prophets, whose influence over the men was unbounded.
“When I heard,” he said, “de bombshell a-screamin‘ troo de woods like de Judgment Day, I said to myself, ‘If my head was took off tonight, dey could n't put my soul in de torments, perceps [except] God was my enemy!
’ And when de rifle-bullets came whizzin‘ across de deck, I cried aloud, ‘ God help my congregation!
Boys, load and fire!’
I must pass briefly over the few remaining days of our cruise.
we met the Planter
, which had been successful on her separate expedition, and had destroyed extensive salt-works at Crooked River
charge of the energetic Captain Trowbridge
, efficiently aided by Captain Rogers
Our commodities being in part delivered at Fernandina
, our decks being full, coal nearly out, and time up, we called once more at St. Simon's Sound
, bringing away the remainder of our railroad-iron
, with some which the naval officers had previously disinterred, and then steamed back to Beaufort
Arriving there at sunrise (February 2, 1863), I made my way with Dr. Rogers
to General Saxton
's bedroom, and laid before him the keys and shackles of the slave prison, with my report of the good conduct of the men, _ as Dr. Rogers
remarked, a message from heaven and another from hell.
Slight as this expedition now seems among the vast events of the war, the future student of the newspapers of that day will find that it occupied no little space in their columns, so intense was the interest which then attached to the novel experiment of employing black troops.
So obvious, too, was the value, during this raid, of their local knowledge and their enthusiasm, that it was impossible not to find in its successes new suggestions for the war. Certainly I would not have consented to repeat the enterprise with the bravest white troops, leaving Corporal Sutton
and his mates behind, for I should have expected to fail.
For a year after our raid the Upper St. Mary
's remained unvisited, till in 1864 the large force with which we held Florida
secured peace upon its banks; then Mrs.
A. took the oath of allegiance, the Government
bought her remaining lumber, and the John Adams
again ascended with a detachment of my men under Lieutenant Parker
, and brought a portion of it to Fernandina
By a strange turn of fortune, Corporal Sutton
) was at this time in jail at Hilton Head
sentence of court-martial for an alleged act of mutiny,an affair in which the general voice of our officers sustained him and condemned his accusers, so that he soon received a full pardon, and was restored in honor to his place in the regiment, which he has ever since held.
Nothing can ever exaggerate the fascinations of war, whether on the largest or smallest scale.
When we settled down into camp-life again, it seemed like a butterfly's folding its wings to re-enter the chrysalis.
None of us could listen to the crack of a gun without recalling instantly the sharp shots that spilled down from the bluffs of the St. Mary
's, or hear a sudden trampling of horsemen by night without recalling the sounds which startled us on the Field
of the Hundred Pines
The memory of our raid was preserved in the camp by many legends of adventure, growing vaster and more incredible as time wore on,-- and by the morning appeals to the surgeon of some veteran invalids, who could now cut off all reproofs and suspicions with “Doctor
, I's been a sickly pusson eber since de expeditious
But to me the most vivid remembrancer was the flock of sheep which we had “lifted.”
The Post Quartermaster discreetly gave us the charge of them, and they filled a gap in the landscape and in the larder,--which last had before presented one unvaried round of impenetrable beef.
Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck
, when he decided to adopt a pastoral life, and assumed the provisional name of Thyrsis, never looked upon his flocks and herds with more unalloyed contentment than I upon that fleecy family.
I had been familiar, in Kansas
, with the metaphor by which the sentiments of an owner were credited to his property, and had heard of a pro-slavery colt and an antislavery cow. The fact that these sheep were but recently converted from “Secesh”
sentiments was their crowning charm.
Methought they frisked and fattened in the joy of their deliverance from the shadow of Mrs.
A.‘s slave-jail, and gladly contemplated translation into mutton-broth for sick or wounded soldiers.
The very slaves who once, perchance, were sold at auction with yon aged patriarch of the flock, had now asserted their humanity, and would devour him as hospital rations.
Meanwhile our shepherd bore a sharp bayonet without a crook, and I felt myself a peer of Ulysses and Rob Roy
,--those sheep-stealers of less elevated aims,--when I met in my daily rides these wandering trophies of our wider wanderings.