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Chapter 14: Charleston and Savannah.

All the strong positions along the railroad having been abandoned by the enemy, the road to Charleston was now open to the Coast Division for an advance without opposition. Colonel Hallowell, on February 15, was ordered with the Fifty-fourth, One Hundred and Twenty-seventh New York, some artillery, and a small force of cavalry to proceed to Ashepoo by way of a road above the railroad leading through Blue House. We moved at noon of a bright, warm day, the companies on picket joining the regiment as it passed. From recent rain the road was heavy with clayey mud, making marching most wearisome. There was constant delay passing through overflowed places, or while bridges were being repaired. We reached Blue House and a mile beyond at 8 P. M., making but six miles. Three bridges had been rebuilt, and two more were reported just in front. Colonel Hallowell, finding it impossible to longer pursue that route, then moved back. We were on a causeway, and in turning around, a wagon stalled and was abandoned. The Fifty-fourth secured from it one hundred and thirty pairs of trousers and three hundred pairs of shoes, free of government charges. After one of the hardest marches the Fifty-fourth ever made, we reached Salkehatchie fort at 3 A. M. on the 16th. Our advance troops were, on the 15th, at the junction of the roads to Jacksonboro and Parker's Ferry. [278]

February 16, Colonel Hallowell was directed to move forward again by way of Combahee Ferry; and at 9 A. M. the Fifty-fourth proceeded, with the usual rests, over a rough country. Much standing water was found in places, and at times the wading was knee-deep. In the afternoon we came to a higher point, where a view of the region bordering the river was obtained. Spread below us was the finest tract we saw in the South,—a cultivated country, thickly spotted with plantations. It was the famous and fertile valley of the Combahee, devoted to rice culture. The negro quarters and mills had been burned by our advance. After crossing a bridge over the river, we moved on a mile and rested after a march of twelve miles.

With fine weather again, on the 17th the Fifty-fourth marched at 9 A. M. toward Ashepoo, which being only eight miles distant and the road excellent, we reached at 1 P. M. There we camped near the railroad bridge on the plantation of Col. Charles Warley. The mansion of this gentleman of wealth and prominence had been plundered by the first comers; and fine books, furniture, and household effects were strewn about, making a sad scene of wastage and pitiless destruction.

Reveille was sounded by the Fifty-fourth bugles at sunrise on the 18th. Foraging parties brought in immense quantities of corn, poultry, sweet potatoes, and honey. Many of the field-hands were found on the plantations, and our coming was welcomed with joyful demonstrations. A Dr. Dehon and his son were brought in and entertained by the brigade staff that night. Refugees and contrabands were coming into our camps in considerable numbers.

Having repaired the bridge over the Ashepoo, the First [279] Brigade crossed on the 19th, and marched for the South Edisto. Our Second Brigade remained. Dr. Dehon had been sent to General Hatch, but returned that afternoon. Lieutenant Ritchie relates the following particulars of this gentleman's troubles:—

‘While gone, his ‘chattels’ had been helping themselves and carrying furniture off by whole boat-loads. Dehon brings an order from General Hatch that his ‘slaves’ shall be permitted to choose for themselves whether to go back to the plantation with him or not. Dehon got us to back this up, and as a consequence, loses all his slaves, young and old.’

Just at dark, we received the great news that Charleston was evacuated by the enemy. Cheer after cheer rang out; bonfires were lighted; and the soldiers yelled long and frantically. Far into the night nothing else was talked about around the camp-fires.

Our Third Brigade having arrived at Ashepoo on the 20th, at 1 P. M., the Second Brigade moved for Jacksonboro and the Edisto, where our advance had crossed that day in boats. The Fifty-fourth arrived at the Edisto by 5 P. M., going into bivouac in a pine grove but thirty miles from Charleston. We were detained there by repairs upon the burnt bridges over the river until noon of the 21st, when the march was resumed. Just beyond, we passed a Rebel work mounting four guns. Proceeding three miles, the Second Brigade turned to the right into a road running nearly parallel with the main route, and four miles farther brought us to Adam's Run. This was a small hamlet with numerous rough barracks,—an old and important camp of the Confederates. Beyond, some four miles, we camped at a cross-road about 6 P. M., where the One Hundred and Second United States Colored Troops joined us at [280] 9 P. M. During that day the country was thoroughly scouted as the division advanced by the different roads. February 22 we resumed the onward march at 9 A. M., the Fifty-fourth in rear, and passed through woods nearly the whole day, with here and there a plantation and cultivated fields. By orders everything along the road was burned. Foraging parties brought in all kinds of provisions which they loaded into every description of vehicle; wagons, carts, and even antiquated family coaches were used, drawn by horses, mules, and bullocks, which, with the contrabands, made our train a curious spectacle. Some twelve miles from the Ashley River we passed an abandoned battery of three guns commanding Rantowle's Ferry; another was found on the right at Wallace's. The Fifty-fourth camped at dark ten miles from Charleston. Our bivouac was a festive one, for supplies of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, honey, rice, meal, sheep, and beef, were in profusion. Only a few armed but ununiformed men had been seen, who, when we followed, escaped, and were thought to be guerillas.

A move was made early on the 23d, our Second Brigade in advance, the Third Brigade following. The First Brigade remained to secure abandoned guns, for the whole region was thickly studded with works. We marched rapidly over good roads, arriving at the Ashley at 1 P. M. There, across the river, we saw Charleston, long the Mecca of our hopes; but the bridges were burned, so we camped with our long train, impatiently awaiting orders to cross. Captain Emilio was made acting assistant provost-marshal of the division, with Company E and a company of the One Hundred and Second as the guard. While there, the weather was rainy and chilly. On the 25th orders came [281] for the First Brigade to report to General Potter, our Second Brigade to take post on Charleston Neck and the Third Brigade to remain. At 6 P. M. we marched to a wharf, but as transportation was not furnished, returned again to camp. With this day the Fifty-fourth completed its longest term of field service.

General Hardee in command of Charleston, disregarding General Beauregard's orders, deferred abandoning the city until the last moment. For some days previous to February 17, trains loaded with army supplies and citizens with their effects were being sent away. At the last the place was largely deserted by its people, the streets littered with refuse and the books and papers of the merchants, and stores and residences showed few signs of occupancy. From James and Sullivan's islands the Confederates moved to the city on the 17th, thence taking the road to Cheraw, their ranks depleted by desertion as they marched. Detachments were left in the city until the 18th with orders to burn every building holding cotton. They fired a large shed at the Savannah railroad wharf and another on Lucas Street. Lucas's mill and Walker's warehouse were destroyed. The bridge over the Ashley was burned. A terrific explosion occurred at the Northeastern Railroad Depot, filled with ordnance stores, causing great loss of life and communicating the flames to several adjoining blocks.

Not only on land but on the water was this fell work carried out. The gunboats Palmetto State,Chicora,’ and ‘Charleston’ were fired, and blew up with deafening reports; and vessels in the shipyards, torpedo-boats, and blockade-runners, were scuttled or burned. Over 450 pieces of ordnance in the city and vicinity were abandoned, [282] besides immense stores of provisions and army supplies. That the whole city was not obliterated in consequence of these acts of General Beauregard and his subordinates, can only be attributed to the exertions of our soldiery and the negro inhabitants.

Our companies at Morris Island passed the winter months with little of moment to disturb the quiet of garrison life. At about 1 A. M., on February 18, the bridge over the Ashley River was discovered burning, fires were seen in various parts of Charleston, and the storeship ‘John Ravenel’ was a mass of flames lighting up the harbor. At 6 A. M. the magazine of Battery Bee blew up. When day dawned, a heavy fog covered the waters, but at 7.45 A. M. it lifted. With powerful glasses no enemy could be seen at Sumter, James, or Sullivan's Island, although Rebel flags were over the works.

Lieut.-Col. A. G. Bennett, Twenty-First United States Colored Troops, commanding Morris Island, gave orders for his force to gather at Cumming's Point, and had boats prepared to transport the troops. Major Hennessy, Fifty-second Pennsylvania, was sent to Sumter, and Lieut. John Hackett, Third Rhode Island Artillery, to Moultrie, and the navy despatched Acting Ensign Anson to Moultrie, and Acting Master Gifford to Mt. Pleasant. At all these points, about 9.30 A. M., the Rebel flags gave place to the stars and stripes planted by these officers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett, with Lieut. J. F. Haviland, One Hundred and Twenty-seventh New York, joined on the way by other boats containing a few officers and men of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania and Twenty-first United States Colored Troops, reached Mills's wharf on the city front at 10 A. M., after hoisting the United States flag over [283] Castle Pinckney and Fort Ripley. There they were welcomed by a gathering of colored people, who cheered them and the national symbol. Soon George W. Williams, Dr. Albert G. Mackey, and other citizens appeared, and representing that the Rebel rear-guard was still in the place, begged protection, and assistance in quelling the flames, which threatened the total destruction of the city. Major Hennessy was despatched to the arsenal, and Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett with the remainder of his force, which had been increased by the arrival of some of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, moved to the Citadel. Guards were soon sent to public buildings, storehouses, and important points, and the abandoned fire apparatus, manned by negroes, firemen, and soldiers, was put into use, checking the fires.

Captain Walton and Lieutenant Newell with Company B, and Captain Bridge with Company F, on the 18th, proceeding from Morris Island in rowboats, reached Charleston after the advance troops under Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett. Being the first considerable body of colored soldiers to arrive, their march through the streets was a continual welcome from crowds of their people of both sexes. Upon reaching the Citadel, officers and men were placed on provost duty. Lieutenant Edmands and his Fifty-fourth men at Black Island, with the Fifty-second Pennsylvania companies there, rowed to Fort Johnson, where they remained until the 19th and then joined Company F in Charleston.

General Schimmelfennig, with a force from Cole's Island, crossed to James Island on the night of the 17th. He early discovered the evacuation, and at 1 P. M., on the 18th, entered Charleston after crossing the Ashley. General Potter learned of the abandonment on the 19th, and moved [284] from Bull's Bay through the Christ Church lines to Mt. Pleasant on the 20th. Potter, on the 22d, with a force, followed Hardee's track to St. Stephen's depot, but as the latter had burned the Santee River Bridge, he returned.

Into the war-ravaged city of Charleston, with its shattered buildings, disrupted grass-grown streets, deserted wharves, and scuttled hulks, the Fifty-fourth entered at 9 A. M., on the 27th, having crossed the river on the steamer Croton. We could not but be exultant, for by day and night, in sunshine and storm, through close combat and far-reaching cannonade, the city and its defences were the special objects of our endeavor for many months. Moving up Meeting and King streets, through the margin of the ‘burnt district,’ we saw all those fearful evidences of fire and shell. Many colored people were there to welcome the regiment, as the one whose prisoners were so long confined in their midst. Passing the Mills House, Charleston Hotel, and the Citadel, the Fifty-fourth proceeded over the plank road one and a half miles to the Neck, where the Confederate intrenchments extended clear across the peninsula. Turning to the right, we entered Magnolia Cemetery, through which the line of works ran, and camped along it among the graves. It was the extreme right of the fortifications, fronting Belvedere Creek. The One Hundred and Second took post on our left. Brigade headquarters were at the Cary house near by. Companies B and F, relieved in the city, re-joined the regiment that day.

Our camp among the tombstones seemed a desecration of the beautiful grounds which should have been sacred to the dead; but our foes were responsible for constructing the lines there. Lieutenant Cousens, on the 28th, was sent for our camp effects at Morris Island, and as a portion [285] was brought in small boats, some damage by water resulted to company books and officers' baggage. Major Pope, on March 1, with Companies C, E, H, and I, visited the Benjamin Whaley place thirteen miles distant, moving over the plank road and fording Nine-Mile Run on the way. At the plantation the detachment rested for the night, receiving abundant supplies from the negroes. Some fifty hands were found there, and the next day returned to Charleston with our force.

There was bad weather the first week of March; then warm and springlike days came. We received a large number of men who had been detailed, detached, or were sick when the Fifty-fourth left Morris Island. Details were furnished for picket duty, generally along the plank road. Headquarters for the line were at the Four-Mile House, which had been a tavern, but was then occupied by a hospitable Irishman—Lawler by name—and his wife. Opportunities were given officers and men to visit the city, where they wandered about, deeply interested in sight-seeing. Several Fifty-fourth officers were detailed there, and always entertained visiting associates. The most interesting building to us of the Fifty-fourth was the jail,—a brick structure surmounted by a tower and enclosed with a high wall, where the prisoners of the regiment were confined many months with black and white criminals as well as other Union soldiers.

Of the townspeople but some ten thousand remained, largely blacks, all mainly dependent upon our bounty. The whole banking capital of Charleston was lost. A loyal edition of the ‘Courier’ newspaper was being issued; the ‘Mercury’ had decamped to Cheraw. Schools were opened, and market-wharves designated. The post-office was established [286] at the southwest corner of King and George streets, the headquarters of the commandant at the northwest corner of Meeting and George streets, and General Hatch, the district commander, was at No. 13 King Street. Applicants thronged the provost-marshal's office to take the oath of allegiance, and the recruiting of colored troops was going on rapidly.

Regimental orders, on the 8th, directed the line to be formed as below, with Company F on the right,— E G D A H B I K C F The brigade having been ordered to Savannah, on the 12th, Lieutenant-Colonel Hooper marched the right wing to the city and embarked on the steamer W. W. Coit, which in the afternoon ran down the harbor past the now silent batteries on either side, and arrived at Hilton Head about midnight. Proceeding in the morning, the steamer entered the Savannah River and tied up at the city front at noon. Disembarking, the wing moved out Bull Street and to the edge of the place, where on high ground it took possession of a fine camp of board shelters constructed by Sherman's men, near the One Hundred and Second United States Colored Troops, camped on our right. Major Pope, with the left wing, left Charleston March 13 on the steamer Chas. Houghton, arriving at Hilton Head about midnight. There the men disembarked on the pier, while the vessel went elsewhere to coal. At 3 P. M., on the 14th, this wing proceeded by way of Shell Creek and the inside channel, arriving at Savannah four hours later.

Upon the 14th also the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops arrived, and with the Fifty-fourth and One Hundred [287] and Second United States Colored Troops, made up the colored brigade under Colonel Hallowell, who occupied No. 109 Broad Street, procured for him by Lieutenant Ritchie at the same rent as the Jacksonville houses. Bvt. Maj.-Gen. Cuvier Grover commanded the district, and his division of the Nineteenth Corps held the posts. Bvt. Brig.-Gen. E. L. Moleneux commanded the defences.

Savannah was a most attractive city, with wide, shaded streets, numerous parks, and many good buildings, and elegant residences. All the approaches to it had been well fortified by the enemy, for there were heavy works on the river and a line of fortifications from the Savannah to the Little Ogeechee River. Beyond, facing this land defence, were the works thrown up by the besiegers. On every side were the deserted camps of Sherman's and Hardee's armies, marked by debris, rough shanties, cleared spaces, and approaching roads. When captured, the population was estimated as twenty thousand, of whom thousands were supported upon army supplies or those sent from the generous North by ship-loads. The most attractive spot was the beautiful cemetery of Bonaventure, with its majestic live-oaks and wooded paths. Savannah had fallen by siege in every war; to the British in 1788 and 1812, and to the Federal troops in 1864.

It was a busy time, our short stay there, for returns were in arrears, and the books had to be written up. Clothing was issued and drills resumed. The regiment furnished picket details in proper turn for the brigade. It was delightful weather, the gardens already blooming with camellias, japonicas, and Cape jessamine. On the 18th, the Fifty-fourth with the whole division was inspected by Brig.-Gen. Seth Williams, U. S. A. Our regiment was in [288] excellent condition, and the colored brigade made a good appearance, numbering twenty-three hundred men.

It seemed that the government, having paid us once in the two years service, was allowing that to suffice, for six months pay was due at this time. The officers were penniless, and had to send North for money or borrow it to subsist upon. Sherman's victorious progress, Sheridan's brilliant successes, Lee's inability to hold back Grant, and the whole seaboard fallen, made it manifest that the war was virtually over. The Fifty-fourth then expected but a brief period of garrison duty, followed by a homeward voyage, without again hearing a hostile shot; but a new field of service was before them, for after a review of the troops on the 25th by General Grover at ‘The Plain,’ orders came for the Fifty-fourth and One Hundred and Second United States Colored Troops to proceed to Georgetown, S. C.

The following changes took place among the officers at Savannah,—Lieutenant Emerson re-joined; Lieutenant Knowles resigned at the North; Captains Emilio and Homans were mustered out at the expiration of their personal terms of service; Lieutenant Chipman was promoted captain of Company D; Lieutenant Duren, still at the North, was appointed adjutant.

On the 27th Lieutenant-Colonel Hooper embarked with the right wing on the steamer W. W. Coit, accompanied by Colonel Hallowell. The same day Major Pope with the left wing boarded the steamer Canonicus. After getting to sea, both transports touched at Hilton Head and then went on to Charleston, where Colonel Hallowell was directed to report to General Hatch. Bad weather and the want of coal prevented sailing thence until the morning of the 31st, when the voyage was resumed.

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