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Chapter 3: the sea Islands.

Many of the Fifty-fourth, born in the interior, never had seen the ocean; others had not voyaged upon it. Several of the officers, however, had been over the course, or a portion of it, before. For all it was a season of rest. The ‘De Molay’ was a commodious, new, and excellent transport. The staterooms were comfortable, the cabin finely furnished, and the table well provided. For the men bunks were arranged between decks for sleeping, and large coppers for cooking purposes; plenty of condensed but unpalatable water was furnished. May 29, the sea was smooth all day, and the weather fine but not clear. Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket were passed in the morning. At night a fine moon rose. Foggy weather prevailed on the 30th, with an increasing ground-swell, causing some seasickness. The next day the steamer struggled against a head wind. At midnight the craft narrowly escaped grounding on Point Lookout shoals. Some one had tampered with the sounding-line. June 1, pleasant weather enabled the seasick to take some interest in life. The air was soft and balmy, as we ran down the North Carolina coast, which was dimly visible. A few porpoises and a shark or two followed the ship. Distant sails were sighted at times. When evening came, the sun sank into the sea, red and fiery, gilding the horizon. A [36] stiff breeze blew from ahead, which freshened later. Fine weather continued throughout daylight of June 2. With the evening, however, it clouded up in the south, and a squall came up, with lightning and some rain, driving all below.

Morning dawned the next day, with the sun shining through broken clouds. At reveille, some fifteen sail of outside blockaders off Charleston were seen far away, and soon passed. The sandy shores of South Carolina were in full view, fringed here and there with low trees. A warm wind was blowing, ruffling the water beneath a clouded sky. Every one was busy with preparations for landing, —writing letters, packing knapsacks, and rolling blankets. Running below Hilton Head, a pilot came alongside in a boat rowed by contrabands, and took the vessel back into Port Royal, completing a voyage at 1 P. M., which was without accident or death to mar its recollection. Colonel Shaw, personally reporting to General Hunter, was ordered to proceed to Beaufort and disembark. On that day General Hunter wrote the following letter:—

headquarters Department of the South, Hilton Head, Port Royal, S. C., June 3, 1863.
His Excellency, Governor Andrew, Massachusetts.
Governor,—I have the honor to announce that the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (colored) troops, Colonel Shaw commanding, arrived safely in this harbor this afternoon and have been sent to Port Royal Island. The regiment had an excellent passage, and from the appearance of the men I doubt not that this command will yet win a reputation and place in history deserving the patronage you have given them. Just as they were steaming up the bay I received from Col. James Montgomery, commanding Second South Carolina Regiment, a telegraphic despatch, of which certified copy is enclosed. Colonel Montgomery's [37] is but the initial step of a system of operations which will rapidly compel the Rebels either to lay down their arms and sue for restoration to the Union or to withdraw their slaves into the interior, thus leaving desolate the most fertile and productive of their counties along the Atlantic seaboard.

The Fifty-fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers shall soon be profitably and honorably employed; and I beg that you will send for service in this department the other colored regiment which Colonel Shaw tells me you are now organizing and have in forward preparation.

Thanking you heartily for the kindness and promptness with which you have met my views in this matter, and referring you to my letter to Mr. Jefferson Davis as a guarantee that all soldiers fighting for the flag of their country in this department will be protected, irrespective of any accident of color or birth, I have the honor to be, Governor, with the highest esteem,

Your very obedient servant,

D. Hunter, Major-General Commanding.

It was 4 P. M. when the ‘De Molay’ started for Beaufort, leaving the storehouses, quarters, and long pier making up the military station of Hilton Head. The steamer crossed the grand harbor with some seventy sail moored upon its waters, including the frigates Wabash and ‘Vermont,’ a monitor, several gunboats, and a French steamer, and reached Beaufort before dark. Col. James Montgomery, with the Second South Carolina Colored, was just debarking from a successful foray up the Combahee River, bringing several hundred contrabands. Brig.--Gen. Rufus Saxton was temporarily absent, and Col. W. W. H. Davis was in command of the district. June 4, at 5 A. M., the regiment landed too early in the day to attract the attention of any but a few loiterers. Passing through the [38] town to a point about half a mile from the river, the command bivouacked in an old cotton-field of the Thompson plantation. Shelters from the hot sun were made from bushes or blankets. During this first afternoon on South Carolina soil Colonel Shaw thoughtfully sent to the officers a present of champagne.

Beaufort was our abiding-place for only four days, and the Fifty-fourth never returned to it. Sandy streets shaded with fine oaks crossed one another at right angles. There were some fine old houses and gardens skirting the shell road running along the low bluffs, with churches, public buildings, and a spacious green. Scattered about the island were some white and the two South Carolina colored regiments, besides some cavalry and artillery. The landward side of Port Royal Island, fronting Rebel territory, was strongly picketed and fortified.

While camped there, the days were intensely hot, with cooler nights. Troublesome insects infested our camp. Shelter tents for the men were issued and put up. Our first taste of fatigue work in the field was on June 6, when Companies A, D, and H were sent out on the shell road to work on fortifications. The Second South Carolina had departed for the Georgia coast. Late in the day orders came to embark, Colonel Shaw having applied for active service.

Camp was struck at sunrise on the 8th, after a rainy night, and an hour later saw the regiment in line in accordance with orders establishing the positions of the several companies for the first time. The formation was with Company B on the right as follows:— H F G D E K C I A B. [39]

Having marched to the wharf, embarkation took place at once; but the start was not made until 9 A. M., when the steamer swung into the stream and ran down river, the men singing ‘John Brown’ gayly. About a mile below town the steamer grounded, delaying arrival at Hilton Head until noon. There Colonel Shaw was instructed by General Hunter to report to Colonel Montgomery, at St. Simon's Island, Ga., and the ‘De Molay’ steamed out of harbor at 5.30 P. M.

After a rather rough voyage of some eighty miles during the night, the ‘De Molay’ dropped anchor at 6 A. M. in the sound off the southern point of St. Simon's Island. Colonel Shaw landed and rode across the island to report to Colonel Montgomery. At noon the steamer Sentinel, a small craft that looked like a canal-boat with a onestory house built upon it, came alongside, and eight companies were transferred, Companies A and C under Captain Appleton remaining to get the cargo in readiness for a second trip.

The little steamer took the regiment up the winding river, along the west and inland shore of the island, past Gascoign's Bluff, where the Second South Carolina was encamped, to Pike's Bluff, some eight or ten miles, where the regiment disembarked on an old wharf. It was a pretty spot on a plantation formerly owned by a Mr. Gould. There was a large two-story house surrounded by fine trees, and situated close to the wharf, which was taken for use as headquarters. Close by it was an old barn in which the supplies were stored when they arrived. On the edge of a cleared field the men pitched shelters for the night.

Col. James Montgomery, commanding the post, was a [40] noted man. He was born in Ohio, in 1814. In Kansas, from 1856 to 1861, he was the central figure in the Free State party. Early in the war he was for a time colonel of a Kansas regiment. By bold raids into the enemy's country in 1863, he recruited his colored regiment. He was a man of austere bearing, cool, deliberate, and of proved courage. In personal appearance he was tall, spare, rather bowed, with gentle voice and quiet manner. After his resignation in September, 1864, he returned to Kansas, and died there in December, 1871.

Colonel Montgomery, with five companies of his regiment, on June 6, had made an expedition from St. Simon's up the Turtle River to Brunswick and beyond, and destroyed a span of the railroad bridge over Buffalo Creek. Quartermaster Ritchie issued A and wall tents to the Fifty-fourth on June 10; and all were at work pitching camp and clearing the ground, when a steamer came to the wharf. Colonel Montgomery was on board, and hailing Colonel Shaw from the deck, said, ‘How soon can you be ready to start on an expedition?’Colonel Shaw replied, ‘In half an hour,’ and at once caused the long-roll to be sounded. Hurried preparations were at once made, and at 6 P. M. eight companies of the regiment embarked on the ‘Sentinel.’ Companies F and C were left behind as a camp guard.

Running down the river to Montgomery's camp, the armed transport John Adams was found with troops on board. Besides the Fifty-fourth, five companies of the Second South Carolina, and a section of Light Battery C, Third Rhode Island Artillery, under Lieut. William A. Sabin, took part in the expedition. Owing to the ‘Sentinel’ grounding after proceeding a short distance farther, [41] and the ‘Adams’ also running on a shoal, there was long delay waiting for the flood-tide. Not until 1 A. M. did the ‘Sentinel’ run up the coast, entering Doboy Sound at sunrise. There the gunboat Paul Jones and the ‘Harriet A. Weed’ joined. Entering the Altamaha River, with the gunboats occasionally shelling houses and clumps of woods, the vessels proceeded until the town of Darien appeared in sight. Then the gunboats searched it with their shells and fired at a few pickets seen east of the place.

At 3 P. M. the troops landed without resistance at some of the deserted wharves. Pickets were posted, and the troops formed in the public square. Only two white women and a few negroes were found. The inhabitants were living at the ‘Ridge,’ a few miles inland. Some fifteen or twenty men of the Twentieth Georgia Cavalry, under Capt. W. A. Lane, picketed the vicinity, but had retired.

Darien, the New Inverness of early days, was a most beautiful town as Montgomery's forayers entered it that fateful June day. A broad street extended along the river, with others running into it, all shaded with mulberry and oak trees of great size and beauty. Storehouses and mills along the river-bank held quantities of rice and resin. There might have been from seventy-five to one hundred residences in the place. There were three churches, a market-house, jail, clerk's office, court-house, and an academy.

After forming line, orders came for the Fifty-fourth to make details and secure from the houses such things as would be useful in camp, besides live-stock, resin, lumber, etc. Soon the plundering thus legitimized began. An officer thus describes the scene:— [42]

‘The men began to come in by twos, threes, and dozens, loaded with every species and all sorts and quantities of furniture, stores, trinkets, etc., till one would be tired enumerating. We had sofas, tables, pianos, chairs, mirrors, carpets, beds, bedsteads, carpenter's tools, cooper's tools, books, law-books, account-books in unlimited supply, china sets, tinware, earthenware, Confederate shinplasters, old letters, papers, etc. A private would come along with a slate, yard-stick, and a brace of chickens in one hand, and in the other hand a rope with a cow attached.’

But the crowning act of vandalism is thus set forth in one of Colonel Shaw's letters:—

‘After the town was pretty thoroughly disembowelled, he [Montgomery] said to me, “I shall burn this town.” He speaks in a very low tone, and has quite a sweet smile when addressing you. I told him I did not want the responsibility of it, and he was only too happy to take it all on his own shoulders. . . . The reasons he gave me for destroying Darien were that the Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war, and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God like the Jews of old. In theory it may seem all right to some; but when it comes to being made the instrument of the Lord's vengeance, I myself don't like it. Then he says, “We are outlawed, and therefore not bound by the rules of regular warfare.” But that makes it none the less revolting to wreak our vengeance on the innocent and defenceless.’

By Montgomery's express orders, therefore, the town was fired, only one company of the Fifty-fourth participating with the Second South Carolina, Montgomery applying the torch to the last buildings with his own hand. Fanned by a high wind, the flames eventually destroyed everything but a church, a few houses, and some lumberworks [43] owned in the North. The schooner Pet, with fifty-five bales of cotton for Nassau, lying in a small creek four miles above, was captured, and a flatboat with twentyfive bales near by was also secured.

Our transports had been loaded with plunder, and late in the afternoon the troops re-embarked. Some warehouses had been fired, and the river-bank was a sheet of flame. A few moments' delay or a change of wind might have resulted disastrously. The heat was so intense that all were driven to the farther side of our boat, and gunbarrels became so hot that the men were ordered to hold them upward. Five miles below the town the steamer anchored. The light of the fire was seen that night at St. Simon's, fifteen miles away. Colonel Shaw wrote two official letters bearing upon this expedition. One was to Governor Andrew, giving an account of the expedition, wherein he expressed his disapprobation of Colonel Montgomery's course. The other is as follows:—

St. Simon's Island, Ga., June 14, 1863.
Lieutenant-Colonel Halpine, A. A. G. Tenth Army Corps, and Department of the South.
dear sir,—Will you allow me to ask you a private question, which of course you are at liberty to answer or not? Has Colonel Montgomery orders from General Hunter to burn and destroy all town and dwelling houses he may capture?

On the 11th inst., as you know, we took the town of Darien without opposition, the place being occupied, as far as we ascertained, by non-combatants; Colonel Montgomery burned it to the ground, and at leaving finally, shelled it from the river.

If he does this on his own responsibility, I shall refuse to have a share in it, and take the consequences; but, of course, if it is an order from headquarters, it is a different matter, as in that case I suppose it to have been found necessary to adopt [44] that policy. He ordered me, if separated from him, to burn all the plantation houses I came across.

Now, I am perfectly ready to burn any place which resists, and gives some reason for such a proceeding; but it seems to me barbarous to turn women and children adrift in that way; and if I am only assisting Colonel Montgomery in a private enterprise of his own, it is very distasteful to me.

I am aware that this is not a military way of getting information; and I hope you will feel that I shall not be hurt if you refuse to answer my question.

Believe me, very truly yours,

Robert G. Shaw, Colonel Commanding Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

It is not known to the writer that any answer was vouchsafed to this letter; but Colonel Shaw afterward ascertained that Colonel Montgomery acted in accordance with General Hunter's orders.

The ‘Sentinel’ at 3 A. M. got under way, landing the Fifty-fourth, after a passage of twelve hours, at the camp. Our first mail since leaving home came that afternoon. Colonel Montgomery had gone to Hilton Head, leaving Colonel Shaw in command of the post.

Camped on the Gould place, the Fifty-fourth quietly remained until its departure from St. Simon's. The plunder acquired afforded many comforts and even luxuries. Officers and men lived on army fare, supplemented with poor fresh beef, as a few cattle had been found. Religious services were sometimes held in the yard of a little church near by, most beautifully situated amid a wealth of foliage which overshadowed many old, decayed tombstones. Hardly a day passed without more or less rain falling. It was very warm at midday, but later came cool breezes from seaward. [45]

Besides the usual camp guard the Fifty-fourth furnished details for a long picket line, and a number of posts watching the river.

St. Simon's came nearer a realization of the ideal Eden than one could hope to find the second time. There was a subtile languor in the hum of insects, the song and flight of birds, the splash of the warm green water upon the shore. Grand old oaks, laden with moss and vines, canopied the flowers and verdure beneath. Perfume of shrubs, plants, trees, and grass filled the air, vying with the fresher and more invigorating sweetness from marsh and sea. One could almost see and hear the growth of plant and cane, as the life-giving sun warmed the sap, burst the blossom, and drew the tendril skyward. Gigantic ferns covered the shadier places, while the pools and swamps were beautiful with lilies.

There were a number of deserted plantations on the island, the most notable of which were those of T. Butler King, James E. Couper, and Pierce Butler. The latter was the husband of Fanny Kemble, and his place the one of which she wrote in her ‘Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, in 1838-39.’ All these places were neglected and abandoned, except by a few old negroes.

Historically, St. Simon's Island was noted ground. Near the camp of the Fifty-fourth were the ‘tabby’ walls of Frederica, founded by Governor Oglethorpe in 1736, of which John Wesley was the minister. In the centre of the island was ‘Bloody Swamp,’ where the invading Spaniards were defeated July 7, 1742. It is a fact not widely known that with the Spanish force was a regiment of negroes and another of mulattoes. During the Revolution the British overran the island. On the next [46] island to the south Lamar landed his last cargo of slaves from the ‘Wanderer.’ St. Simon's had been fortified early in the Civil War; but in February, 1862, the armament was removed, and then the few remaining inhabitants went away.

While the Fifty-fourth were enjoying the delights of St. Simon's, Brig.-Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore had relieved General Hunter. Admiral John A. Dahlgren was to replace Admiral Dupont. Tidings of these changes, of Lee having crossed the Rappahannock, the capture of Harper's Ferry, and the investment of Port Hudson, were received by the ‘Harriet A. Weed,’ on June 23. Orders also came for the Fifty-fourth to report at Hilton Head.

During the afternoon and evening of June 24, the regiment was taken in detachments on the ‘Mayflower’ to the ocean steamer, Ben Deford, lying off Montgomery's camp, whence it sailed early the next day for Hilton Head. Colonel Montgomery's regiment was also ordered away. About noon, Colonel Shaw reported his arrival and was ordered to St. Helena Island, across the harbor. A new object of interest was the Confederate ironclad Atlanta, captured June 17 by the monitor Weehawken.

Rain was falling as the Fifty-fourth landed on the wharf. Marching for a mile or so, we camped in an old cotton-field near the water. Many regiments were on the island preparing for active operations. The post was commanded by Brig.-Gen. George C. Strong, a brilliant young officer who had recently arrived. The Fifty-fourth, with the Second South Carolina camped near by, constituted the ‘Colored Brigade,’ under Colonel Montgomery. [47]

Although it rained very frequently, the moisture was speedily absorbed by the sandy soil. There was a terrible thunder-storm on the 28th, accompanied with such violent wind that many tents were blown down. One man was killed, and several stunned, by lightning, in adjoining camps.

Being near the water, sea-bathing was convenient and thoroughly enjoyed. A few trees, shrubbery, and some negro houses bounded the prospect landward. There was swampy ground in front of the camp. Beyond and back from the shore line were many plantations and fine woods. Remains of former camps were found everywhere. Many contrabands were employed planting under Northern men.

While at this camp the condition of the regiment was excellent, and the men in high spirits, eager for service. Drills went on incessantly. A musician of the Fortyeighth New York was instructing the band. On the 30th, the Fifty-fourth was mustered for pay. It was then first rumored that the terms of enlistment would not be adhered to by the Government. The situation is best evidenced by the following letter of Colonel Shaw:—

St. Helena Island, S. C., July 2, 1863.
his Excellency Governor Andrew.
dear sir,—Since I last wrote you, the Fifty-fourth has left St. Simon's Island and returned to St. Helena near Hilton Head. We are now encamped in a healthy place, close to the harbor, where we get the sea breeze.

You have probably seen the order from Washington which cuts down the pay of colored troops from $13 to $10. Of course if this affects Massachusetts regiments, it will be a great piece of injustice to them, as they were enlisted on the express [48] understanding that they were to be on precisely the same footing as all other Massachusetts troops. In my opinion they should be mustered out of the service or receive the full pay which was promised them. The paymaster here is inclined to class us with the contraband regiments, and pay the men only $10. If he does not change his mind, I shall refuse to have the regiment paid until I hear from you on the subject. And at any rate I trust you will take the matter in hand, for every pay-day we shall have the same trouble unless there is a special order to prevent it.

Another change that has been spoken of was the arming of negro troops with pikes instead of firearms. Whoever proposed it must have been looking for a means of annihilating negro troops altogether, I should think—or have never been under a heavy musketry fire, nor observed its effects. The project is now abandoned, I believe.

My men are well and in good spirits. We have only five in hospital. We are encamped near the Second South Carolina near General Strong's brigade, and are under his immediate command. He seems anxious to do all he can for us, and if there is a fight in the Department will no doubt give the black troops a chance to show what stuff they are made of.

With many wishes for your good health and happiness, I remain,

Very sincerely and respectfully yours,

A deserter from the Second South Carolina was brought by Lieut. George W. Brush of his regiment before Colonel Montgomery on June 28. After questioning him, the colonel ordered him to be taken away and shot, which was done at once. Montgomery was never taken to task for this illegal action. Most of the troops at St. Helena had departed for Folly Island by July 3. Fears prevailed that the colored regiments were not to take part in active [49] operations. Colonel Shaw's disappointment found courteous expression as follows:—

General,—I did not pay my respects to you before you left this post because I did not wish to disturb you when making your preparations for departure.

I desire, however, to express to you my regret that my regiment no longer forms a part of the force under your command. I was the more disappointed at being left behind, that I had been given to understand that we were to have our share in the work in this department. I feel convinced too that my men are capable of better service than mere guerilla warfare, and I hoped to remain permanently under your command.

It seems to me quite important that the colored soldiers should be associated as much as possible with the white troops, in order that they may have other witnesses besides their own officers to what they are capable of doing. I trust that the present arrangement is not permanent.

With many wishes for your success, believe me very sincerely and respectfully

Your obedient servant,

Robert G. Shaw, Colonel Commanding Fifty-fourth Regiment Mass. Infantry.

Upon the national holiday all unnecessary duty was dispensed with. Everywhere on land and water the stars and stripes were displayed and saluted. At the camp many men were permitted to pass the lines. Several officers visited the camp of the Second South Carolina. Colonel Shaw and others attended a celebration of the day held by the freedmen in the yard of the Baptist Church, some six miles distant, where the Declaration of Independence [50] was read, hymns sung, and addresses made. Rev. Mr. Lynch, a colored clergyman from Baltimore, held religious services for the Fifty-fourth on Sunday, the 5th. News was received of the promotion of Major Hallowell to be lieutenant-colonel in place of his brother, promoted colonel of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts.

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