previous next

XII: the Black regiment

Before resigning his commission in the 51st Massachusetts, Mr. Higginson went to South Carolina to make sure that the new regiment of freed slaves was really more than a scheme. Satisfied with his survey of the ground, he eagerly accepted General Saxton's offer. When he returned home and announced his decision, a lively niece exclaimed, ‘Will not Uncle Wentworth be in bliss! A thousand men, every one as black as a coal.’

On his way to take command, when the steamer was nearing Charleston, he wrote, November 23, 1862:—

As I approach the mysterious land I am more and more impressed with my good fortune in having this novel and uncertain career open before me . . . . Here is . . . a position of great importance; as many persons have said, the first man who organizes and commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important Service in the history of the war. . . . To say that I would rather do it than anything else in the world is to say little; it is such a masterpiece of felicitous opportunity that all casualties of life or death appear trivial in connexion with it.


A few days later the new colonel recorded that his only discomfort came from the cold nights, and that he was perfectly satisfied he was doing his duty. He was most warmly received by the other officers, and wrote to his mother, ‘Fancy 500 black faces at dress parade, and 2 red legs to each face.’

For two months the regiment remained quietly in camp near Beaufort, South Carolina, and this proved a fortunate opportunity for Colonel Higginson, as it gave time to get his soldiers into fighting trim. He succeeded in securing his friend Dr. Rogers as surgeon, and entered into his new life with an enthusiasm which was contagious. He wrote to his mother that his whole faculties had been switched off in a new direction, and that if he did not come home ‘jet black’ she ought to be very grateful. ‘Do not regret,’ he added, ‘that I am here. I should have missed the best fortune of my life had I not come and this I should say were I recalled to-morrow.’

One of the officers of this regiment, the late Reverend A. W. Jackson, wrote an account of his life as captain under Colonel Higginson, and from his unpublished manuscript these facts are taken. The men were undisciplined and undrilled and the officers despondent and sceptical about the possibility of making soldiers out of plantation slaves. The low esteem in which the black regiment was held by [217] white regiments also made the officers discontented. The new Colonel's arrival at once infused fresh courage into these faint hearts. ‘He was a born commander,’ wrote Captain Jackson. When General Saxton, somewhat later, witnessed the dress parade of this regiment, he said of its Colonel that he knew of no other man who could have magically brought the blacks under a military discipline that made the camp ‘one of the most enviable.’ Colonel Higginson's service for his men was summed up in one sentence by Jackson: ‘He met a Slave; he made him a Man.’

This officer relates his surprise when he discovered that the Colonel was a writer, and his delight in a copy of ‘Outdoor Papers’ that was loaned him by the author. The unusual combination of gifts—physical vigor, dashing courage, and literary ability—whimsically suggested to the younger man ‘a union of Jim Lane and Addison.’ Colonel Higginson cultivated friendly relations with his officers but permitted no undue familiarity, and they never ventured upon coarse remarks in his presence. Once he heard an officer swearing at one of the men, simply hurling oaths at his luckless charge. The Colonel asked gently if so much profanity was necessary and requested the officer to come to his tent. After the interview, the offending captain with tears in his eyes [218] swore a big oath that he would never swear again! The officers were not allowed to inflict ‘degrading punishments’ on the men, or to indulge in ‘insulting epithets’; the word ‘nigger,’ for instance, was tabooed even in conversation. The soldiers were held to strict obedience, but also treated like men. The result Captain Jackson says was a miracle, and that ‘the affection and reverence of his soldiers for their Colonel were beyond words.’ Captain Jackson once expressed a wish to transfer to canvas a picture of his ‘stately Colonel’ bending with uncovered head to listen to the complaints of a ragged and ignorant Negress. ‘No grand lady,’ he added, ‘could win a more responsive interest or a more royal courtesy.’

As for the officers, it was a new experience to be associated with a man of refinement and culture and they received with delight the books and magazines which he sent to their tents. The Colonel wrote home:—

I wish you could see how pretty our encampment looks, with its 250 tents glimmering white in the moonlight . . . . The white curlews hover and wail all night invisibly around us in the air, like vexed ghosts of departed slave-lords of the soil . . . . This was considered an especially severe plantation and there is a tree which was used as a whipping post, so that the marks of the lashes are still to be see . . . . [219]

As I sit in my tent door and adjudicate contested cases where the lingo is almost inexplicable, and the dusky faces grow radiant and sometimes majestic with eager expression, I seem like Rajah Brooke in Borneo; or like Whittier's lost Southern playmate:

The dusky children of the sun
Before me come and go

Who should drive out to see me to-day but Harriet Tubman [the escaped slave, who rescued many of her race and conducted them to freedom] who is living in Beaufort as a sort of nurse and general care take . . . . All sorts of unexpected people turn up here. . . .

My regiment has now 630 and they come in tolerably fast. They are easy to discipline and drill, and do as well as any regiment of equal date,—as well as the 51st. I enjoy it all very much and have never for a moment regretted my promotion: though, without my two months in that regiment, it would have been almost impossible.

In his War Journal, Colonel Higginson noted:—

Just now a soldier was here, defending himself against a Captain's complaint and said indignantly, “I ain't got colored-man principles, I's got white-gentleman principles.” . . . I am not sure if it was one of our men who when asked insultingly, “What are you, anyhow?” answered “When God made me, I was n't much, but I's a man now.” . . . Their buoyant spirits are proof against everything . . . . Their little sorrows are usually like those of children— [220] once make them laugh, and the cloud is dispelled. —Meanwhile on board the transports with white troops, there is generally grumbling and dissatisfaction.—Every captain of a transport who has once taken my regiment wishes to take it again in preference to whites . . . .

The very listening to these people is like adjusting the ear to some foreign tongue. Imagine one of the camp washerwomen saying dramatically to-day, “I took she when she am dat high, and now if him wants to leave we, let he go” ; the person thus chaotically portrayed being a little adopted girl who had deserted her.

In January, the Colonel reports that he has presented a sheep to a fellow-officer's wife, and says:—

You don't know how pastoral I feel, when I contemplate my little flock of sheep straying round to find something to nibble; as soon as they succeed they will grow fat and we shall nibble them. They are pro-slavery sheep, as Kansas used to say.

It was necessary to exercise some ingenuity in order to keep up military guise, for Colonel Higginson wrote to his wife:—

When any occasion requires the Doctor to be magnificent, I am to whip off my shoulderstraps and put on his. So we shall both have a dress coat. No longer will the sentinels in Beaufort shoulder arms remotely to my buttons (salute for a captain) and then hastily present arms when my colonel's straps [221] come within ken. I feel like Hosea Biglow's militia officer, who had brass enough outside “let alone what nature had sot in his featers, to make a 6-pounder out on.”

As to the difficulty of getting money to pay his men, Colonel Higginson wrote home:—

Camp Saxton, Jan. 19, 1863.
About money . . . I don't know when I can get any and there is nothing to be don . . . . If Uncle Sam keeps afloat, I shall have enough for everything, though it seems rather mean to be drawing pay for such pleasant things as power, philanthropy, drilling, outdoor life, and unlimited horseback . . . .The one [horse] which Gen. Saxton “turned over” to me, has sowed his wild oats and become sensible and I ride him at battalion drill.

On January 21, General Hunter made this regiment a visit, promising pay, muskets, and blue trousers, also authorizing the regiment to go on an expedition along the coast to pick up cotton, lumber, and above all recruits, A similar expedition had been declined by the Colonel shortly after his arrival, on account of lack of drill and discipline among both men and officers. In his journal he wrote:—

Jan. 21, 1863, Camp Saxton . . . Our danger in such expeditions is not nearly so great as one would think, as we have cannon and the rebels have not, and they would run away from them. But I think [222] they would run away from our men, even without the cannon—I should think they would—I should. They are perfectly formidable.

The first expedition led the happy Colonel with his dusky troop up the St. Mary's River, which divides Florida from Georgia. He reported to his wife early in 1863:—

We are five days out on a rambling expedition, I with 3 steamers and 400 men, having a very pleasant semi-piratical time. We have had one midnight fight in a wood, with a cavalry company, I killed, 7 wounded of ours, mostly near me, but I had not a scratch. The men are splendidly courageous . . .

We have iron, lumber, rice, recruits, 67 prisoners, a cannon and a flag.

Three days later he wrote to his mother:—

We have made one of the most daring expeditions of the war, forty miles up the St. Mary's river, fought a cavalry company in open field, and defeated it overwhelmingly, and many other things which you will see in my Report to Gen. Saxton. The men have behaved splendidly and I have enjoyed it inexpressibly. When the whole is known, it will establish past question the reputation of the regiment.

To assure his friends, who were anxious about his exposing himself in times of danger, Colonel Higginson wrote February 23:—

I am kept under a tight rein in that respect already; never was a man so teased and badgered as [223] I was on this last trip—I do not need it, because though naturally enjoying danger as much as most men perhaps, I am not such a fool as not to see the value of my life to this regiment.

And again:—

I never shall have a chance to risk myself much. . . . I wore my iron plated vest too, which is very light and comfortable.

Captain Jackson once told the writer of this memoir that his Colonel was always fearless, riding with notebook and pencil in hand amid flying bullets. The fact that the officers of colored regiments were, to use Colonel Higginson's own words, ‘fighting with ropes around their necks,’ did not detract from the charm of that strange life. The ordinary courtesies of war had been denied to officers of Negro regiments, the Southern Confederacy having issued an order to the effect that such officers, if captured, should be hanged.

‘Nothing can ever exaggerate the fascination of war,’ wrote the Colonel.

I hardly hear the crack of a gun without recalling instantly the sharp shots that spilled down from the bluffs at us, along the St. Mary's, or hear a sudden trampling of horsemen without remembering the moonlight and midnight when we were suddenly stopped by hearing it before us, at Township Landing. I never can write about those wakeful yet dreamlike nights of moonlight, it was all too good . . . . As for the courage required [224] and all that, it is infinitely exaggerated — to stop furious runaway horses, to enter a burning house, to plunge in a boiling ocean, requires far more personal pluck than to have “dem dar bullets let loose after we” as my men describe it; the danger is so invisible, it is not nearly so hard to disregard it; I know what I say. Bomb shells are far worse, but we have only fired, not received them.

It amuses me . . . to hear Colonels and Majors of freshwater regiments say guardedly “Your regiment does much better than I expected” when they know and I know and they know that I know that their regiments could n't form square forward on the centre even if there were to be an adjutant's wedding in the middle.

For the delights of skirmishes with the enemy were varied by a wedding in camp, and of this event Colonel Higginson wrote in his journal:—

Well, the Adjutant is fairly and thoroughly married . . . The band of the 8th Maine Regiment appeared at Dress Parade; the men looked neat and soldierly in their blue uniforms (having got rid of the wretched red trousers, which they hated) and all was well . . . .The Army Regulations do not provide for regimental weddings; as Colonel I was first to congratulate the bride, but omitted embraces as not being specified in the Tactics.

Of two of his officers, he wrote:—

Poor weak fellows, they would have been splendid officers without their wives—[who were] two [225] Irish friends; one [of them] swore worse than all my officers put together and the other never opened her lips and was the most formidable tyrant of the two —Those two brave men whom I had seen stand to their guns in the hottest fire on the St. Mary's were like whipped spaniels before those women.

In March, 1863, Colonel Higginson was sent in command of two regiments (1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers) to Florida, the objects of this expedition being to occupy Jacksonville, and to carry Lincoln's ‘proclamation of freedom to the enslaved.’ He wrote to his wife on the 12th that he was quartered in a palatial abode, embowered in tea roses, and that the town had capitulated ‘without a gun.’ Here more or less light skirmishing went on, but the Colonel reported that his regiment lived in clover and brought in ‘contrabands,’ horses, and provisions every day. To hold this post with only a garrison of nine hundred men, it having been evacuated twice before by Union troops, made the officers uneasy, but reinforcements relieved this anxiety. Shells were thrown into the town, with the only result of disposing of a mosquito net; and on March 27, the Colonel in command noted that danger was about over and they were eagerly expecting further orders from General Hunter.

Then came an order for the third evacuation of [226] Jacksonville, and Colonel Higginson with his regiment sorrowfully returned to Beaufort. But in a few days relief came in the form of an order to go ‘out on picket at Port Royal Ferry.’ This new field, the devoted son thus described in a letter to his mother.

Advanced Picquet Station, Port Royal Island, April 8, 1863.
We have happened into the most fascinating regions and life, riding all day through lanes overarched with roses and woods dense with young emerald leaves and looking across blue streams to the wooded and sunny mainland of South Carolina. A life that is as good as anything we have had, were only the zest of immediate danger added!

A few days later he wrote:—

This charming life among Cherokee roses and peach blossoms will last awhile . . . .How funny some of the rumors were about the capture of our expedition—one Democratic paper writing my obituary!

Meantime the delay of payment caused more or less anxiety, though promises kept up hope. ‘The paymaster writes,’ recorded the Colonel, ‘that he is really making up our payrolls and we shall probably be paid in a week or ten days.’

The infinite pains Colonel Higginson took to keep [227] his men in good training is revealed in such notes as these:—

White soldiers [are seen] with coats unbuttoned and black with them buttoned; for this is a cardinal point with me, you know, and my test of the condition of a regiment; if a man begins with swearing and stealing, bad practices grow and you always find him at last with his coat unbuttoned.

In ‘Army Life,’ Colonel Higginson tells of his delight in studying the characteristics of his men and of listening to their ‘spirituals,’ but occasionally in his journal or letters are bits of description not heretofore printed. For instance:—

One of the men [said] to the Quartermaster who had tried long to explain something to him— “You know, Quartermaster, no use for nigger to try to comb he wool straight, he always short and kinky —He brains short, too, sa.”

At Port Royal, Colonel Higginson encountered, in the Brigadier-General commanding opposing troops, a former Brattleboro acquaintance. He wrote, April 19, 1863:—

The best thing is that this Brigadier-General Walker . . . is an old friend! He is that Lieutenant Walker, U. S. A., who was sick at the Water Cure and liked me because of my physique and my abolitionism, he being a desperately pro-slavery invalid; who afterwards met me in Kansas as Captain Walker, [228] with a cavalry company to arrest Redpath and me, and would n't do it for old acquaintance sake— and here he is across the river, face to face with me again!

In July, the absent son wrote of the delight with which a box of goodies from the North was received:—

‘I am sitting at my tent door and there is a great moon rising: the tents look like the Pyramids against it. I have a box from mother with eatables—real boarding-school and I give them to the boys.’ And describing the contents of a later box from home, he says, ‘All the pauses of life filled in with crackers and new books.’

To his mother's anxious inquiry as to food, he wrote:—

I do not know why you think we do not live well, for we certainly do . . . .We have also napkins.

To-day I dined on roast opossum—Done to perfection, done brown with such crackling as Charles Lamb in his vision of roast pig only dreamed of. I found it a dish of barbaric fascination.

And he added that the menu was also varied by alligator steak.

Meantime reports of Northern victories in Virginia arrived, and were duly exciting to Colonel Higginson and his officers. Although the former kept ample notes in his journal, he did not attempt [229] much literary work while in camp. He wrote to his wife:—

Perhaps Hooker's victories will give that cheerfulness to the public mind which J. T. Fields thinks favorable to book publishing; and thus do great events link on to small ones and affect literary Colonels.

It was a great satisfaction to Colonel Higginson, as time went on, to know that the peculiar responsibility which he had felt as commander of the first regiment of freedmen was diminishing, owing to the rapid multiplication of Negro regiments.

‘Any disaster,’ he wrote to his mother on May 18, 1863,

or failure on our part would now do little harm . . . .There is no doubt that for many months the fate of the whole movement for colored soldiers rested on the behavior of this one regiment. A mutiny, an extensive desertion, an act of severe discipline, a Bull Run panic, a simple defeat, might have blasted the whole movement for arming the blacks.

. . . Col. Littlefield (30 regiment S. C.V. in future) says that Secretary Chase told him the Cabinet at Washington kept their whole action in regard to enlisting colored troops waiting to hear from us in Florida, and when the capture of Jacksonville was known, the whole question was regarded as settled, the policy avowed, and Adjutant General Thomas sent out on his mission. This is, I think, the best expression of the importance of our action that has yet occurred. [230]

The other is the saying of one of our men who was asked if he belonged to Col. Montgomery's regiment. “No,” said he proudly, “I'se belong to Colonel Higginson's regulars.” This is the triumph of self-respect, with a witness!.

This war seems to me glorious, however slow, when I think of these freedmen and women here. These are days of the Lord, each a thousand years.

It was while at Port Royal doing picket duty that Colonel Higginson passed a rash night in the water which he described in an ‘Atlantic’ paper and afterwards included in ‘Army Life.’ In July, the regiment made another expedition up the South Edisto River, being gone thirty-six hours. After the capture of Port Royal, the plantations along the coast were abandoned and the slaves withdrawn into the interior. In order to reach the black population, it was necessary to navigate shallow, winding, and muddy rivers for miles. This proved a disastrous adventure for the Colonel. He wrote to his mother from Beaufort:—

July 12, 1863.
Only time to say that we have had another expedition up the South Edisto River . . . 30 miles and brought away 200 contrabands—such a scene— “like notina but de Judgment Day” they said. I had a knock on the side, not breaking the skin, I don't know from what, which still lames me somewhat but it does n't amount to the dignity of a wound, [231] though the papers may spread it. I submit to be quiet for a few days and be taken care of, but I am in camp and have a nice time. You need not fear any bad result.

The curious wound of which the disabled Colonel made light, proved in the end to have jarred his whole system, making the victim a semi-invalid for several years. The surgeons agreed that his life would probably have been sacrificed, had he not always been a total abstainer from whiskey. He wrote to his mother:—

We are now satisfied that nothing touched me, but the shell passed within about six inches of my side just above the hip, making by the concussion a black and blue spot as big as my two hands . . . .

Of all the humbugs of war, commend me to being wounded. . . . No pain, no dressings or doses, a pleasant languor, nothing to do and no wish to do anything, a beautifully kept house and nobody but Dr. R. and myself in it, the hostess herself absent . . . to lie all day on a breezy balcony with green leaves and floating clouds,—why it is Arcadia, Syrian peace, immortal leisure. I blush to have bought it so cheaply as by a mere black and blue spot on the side, to show where a bombshell did not touch me.

Not recovering from his injury, Colonel Higginson procured a month's furlough and went North to recuperate. When he had been at home a week or [232] two, he assured his surgeon that although he was in a haven of peace he wanted to be with the regiment and sometimes felt quite homesick for black faces. This eagerness to return to active duty led the impatient Colonel to go back to the regiment too soon, and finding on his return an accumulation of work, and a visible loosening of discipline, he exerted himself beyond his strength. He wrote to Dr. Rogers who had been obliged to resign on account of ill health:—

Headquarters, 1st S. C.V. Aug. 22, 1863.
My Dear Doctor:
You may thank your stars if you have any love for this regiment that I did come back before I felt fit to do it—for if ever a family of grown up babies needed a papa, this was the one. To be sure if I had come back here sick I should probably have died in a day—for anything so forlorn, dismal, despairing as these dozen officers who were not on the sick list, you can scarcely imagine. Such lachrymose bugbears of diseases, discords, delinquencies, Captains under arrest, officers suspected of cheating their companies, companies of mutiny . . . . Lt. Col. Strong sick in hospital and going North, Major Trowbridge ditto . . . . The first Brigade review of the regiment to come off that afternoon—and no field officer! The Adjutant yellow as gold, and no Quartermaster! In the midst of which gloomy gallery, in popped I! [233]

You are the only person in the Universe who can conceive the picture.

Now you are to observe that by some extra-wonderful stroke of my accustomed good luck, I come on shore from a comfortless voyage perfectly buoyant and hilarious—feeling better than for 6 months back and so invincibly cheerful that everybody began to melt before it—from that hour the Lt. Col. and Major began to mend (though still mere wrecks of themselves) all the wheels began to turn, all cards turned out aces and at this moment I don't see one real worry except that, no doubt, some of the officers are sick. Never was there a greater triumph of sheer health and an unalterable habit of looking on the bright side.

Although the Colonel was himself abstaining from action at this time, his men made occasional sallies into the enemy's territory. On one of these raids a colored sergeant, Henry Williams, engineered the escape of all the slaves from a plantation, and the adventure is thus described in a letter to Mrs. Higginson:—

Camp Shaw, Nov. 26.
We have had quite an excitement in a fight of some of our men on the main land where they brought away 27 colored people and 2 rebel pickets and beat off a cavalry company headed by five blood hounds, all of whom were killed. We have the body of one which James Rogers has skinned and taken to N. Y. to be stuffed and shown. Two of my men were [234] drowned and six wounded—One edifying result is that there was a flag of truce a few days after and the rebel officers readily held official communication with our officers which last summer they would n't do.

One amusing thing was, just before the fight began, the pickets across the river farther down were taunting our pickets— “Why don't you come over,” to which our men answered— “Coming soon enough for you” and even as they spoke the fire up river began and the rebels forthwith mounted their horses and went off in a hurry!

Health and strength did not return to the wounded Colonel, and after getting affairs straightened out there came a collapse. Perfect inaction was enjoined, but with his usual hopefulness the invalid wrote to his wife, ‘With milk and eggs and soup and Scotch ale I think I shall soon come round . . . . No new symptoms develop, only the same “General Debility.” ’

Colonel Higginson then adopted the resource of spending his nights at a neighboring plantation, returning to camp by day. He reported to his wife that the doctor said he had been ‘thrust through and through by malaria without knowing anything about it, because of temperament.’

There were still hard days to live through, official inspections, brigade reviews, and court-martials. [235] Four regiments took part in the brigade drills and the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina wrote:—

I think mine does best, but perhaps each little Col. thinks the same. . . .

I am sitting in Court Martial waiting for the court; this is the 3rd day we have tried to meet ineffectually—we are to try several men for their lives who have tried to desert to the enemy and [we] ought to get at work. Several of the conscripts have tried to bribe negroes to take them to the other side, and have actually started.

Meantime, Mrs. Higginson had decided to remove to Newport, Rhode Island, for her health. Her husband wrote from Camp Shaw, November, 1863:—

I can now see you at Newport, cat and two kitten . . . . I agree with you that at the end of my military pilgrimage, we might try Cambridge— indeed as people grow older they gravitate toward their birthplace.

As Christmas Day approached, the Colonel wrote to his mother that the colored people were planning a great fair in Beaufort ‘which enlisted all hands’; and that on New Year's Day there was to be a barbecue and dance in the evening at the principal restaurant. He added:—

This saloon was to have been called Higginson Hall but the painter objected telling the proprietors [236] that the other Colonels might take offence, so that immortal honor was lost. Instead, the proprietor is one of six (all black) who have made up $60 to buy a sword to be presented me on New Year's Day.

December 28, he wrote:—

We are busy with preparations for New Year's Day. My sword has come, but I have not seen it— it was selected by Frank Shaw and cost $75. This with my captured one and the one given at Worcester will be a memorial, when the war is over, of my share in it.

After the presentation of this sword he reported:—

Jan. 8, 1864.
Did I tell you that after the New Year's Festivals, the little Tribune correspondent came to me for my ‘wemarks’ (he is English, 3 feet high; and a goosey) and the inscription on my sword. I could not give him the former but the latter was easily made visible. It ran thus

Tiffany & Co.

New York.

These three swords entwined with a faded sash are still where Colonel Higginson hung them in the Cambridge house.

The trouble about securing the soldiers' back pay continued, and the anxious Colonel was kept busy writing to various people in Washington and stating [237] the case in Northern newspapers. He said to his former surgeon, ‘I suffer much from anxiety about the arrears of pay, especially since Fessenden's unexpected opposition.’ At length the men were paid in part, but the majority preferred to have nothing if they could not have all. Some of the remarks made by the indignant soldiers are quoted in the War Journal: ‘“We's willing to serve for notina, but the Guvment ought not for insult we too, by offering seven dollars” [instead of thirteen]. Several said, “It's the principle we look at.” Another said, “If we take it, it's because our chilen need it, but it takes de sojer all out of we, to be treated so unjustly.” ’

Through the remaining months of service, impaired health was a constant drawback. Camp life was brightened at this time by the arrival of the Quartermaster's baby, and later Colonel Higginson wrote a paper called ‘The Baby of the Regiment’ which was printed in ‘Our Young Folks,’ afterwards in ‘Army Life,’ and included in Whittier's ‘Child Life in Prose.’ The author wrote to his wife in February, 1864:—

Our ladies are quite alarmed at a Department order inquiring as to the number of officers' wives in the regiment—it is feared they are to be sent North, which heaven forbid. If you could see our evening parlor you would think it very pleasant—the [238] brightest fire and walls decked with holly and vines. They play whist a good deal, but the baby eats up the cards so fast, it is hard to keep a pack full. Pretty little thing—she lies in the hammock on the piazza with her little scarlet hood and cloak and little fat arms coming out through the meshes .. A little hen roosts there at night. . . . The baby cements everybody and goes from one pair of arms to another all day; she is a darling.

A proposition that Colonel Higginson should write Senator Sumner and present his claims to be appointed Brigadier-General in command of colored troops—this appeal to be fortified by an urgent letter from General Saxton, himself,—was thus noted in the War Journal:—

I told him [General Saxton] with some indignation that if I could be made a Major General by writing a note ten words long to a Congressman I certainly would not do it; that I never yet had asked for any position in life and never expected to; that a large part of the pleasure I had had in commanding my regiment grew out of the perfect unexpectedness of the promotion. . .. Emerson says no man can do anything well who does not feel that what he is doing is for the time the centre of the universe—I thank heaven that I never yet have supposed for a moment that any brigade or division in the army was so important a trust as my one regiment—at least until the problem of Negro soldiers was conclusively solved before all men's eyes.


In February the regiment was ordered to Florida, and all was excited anticipation. The Colonel wrote home:—

The expedition is a very powerful one–where I went with 1000 men Gen. Seymour goes with 10,000 including 3 brigades of infantry, eight batteries and 2 mounted regiments. It is not therefore expected that it will take much fighting to repossess Florida, though there may be some marching. Nobody knows what the plans are.

A few days later, he added:—

The steamer is come at last and we go on board the Delaware to-morrow morning. So that matter is settled. The officers and men were all very desirous to go and I should have been sorry had we not done so.

To Dr. Rogers, Colonel Higginson wrote an account of this plan and its outcome:

Headquarters, 1st S. C.V., Camp Shaw, Beaufort, S. C., Feb. 20, 1864.
Such a time as we have had this last fortnight. Sent out on picquet Monday—sitting in great hilarity on Wednesday eve, with a blazing fire, and suddenly summoned back by telegraph that we might be ready to move at a moment's notice—then moving in next day, full of hopes of Florida—hopes checked by Gen. S.'s remonstrance—then a definite order to go when the 4th N. H. came and to [240] report to Gen. Seymour at Jacksonville—then arrived the 4th N. H. but no transportation for us— then came the “Delaware” and we were ordered on board—then Gen. S. played his last card in 13 cases of Small Pox and failed. Up early in the morning (you can judge how early our men might be—), everybody in the highest spirits, taking all our earthly goods in vast wagons and bequeathing all lumber to the 4th N. H. or to the men's wives working furiously on the wharf till noon and then just as the last board but one was disappearing into the capacious jaws of the “Delaware” —down rode Gen. S. with an order countermanding our going because of small pox!

Such a set of forlorn creatures as I marched back to camp that day were never yet seen—they were all so doleful, I rose at last into the highest spirits . . . and now after four cold days, the Camp is in some degree itself again—But there was not one who did not feel the disappointment most keenly, even I who was unfit to go. The S. C. men felt almost as bad as the Florida. Serg't McIntyre sat crying like a child, handkerchief to eyes, several hours after our return.

At first we expected to go when the Small pox had diminished . . . but it is now evident that not much more is to be done in Florida. . . . It was a great delight to Gen. S. to keep us, as you may imagine, and the men with their wonderful elasticity seem to have got over it. One thing pleased me, though they knew for a week they were to leave the post forever, there was not a single desertion. . . [241] But the excitement and work of our abortive departure set me back enough to show how poorly I am fitted, at present, for a campaign.

The Colonel wrote to a Worcester friend, ‘Do you know how near we came to being in that infinitely disastrous and useless defeat of Seymour's in Florida? As senior colored regiment, we should have had a prominent place in the fight and suffered as badly as any.’ He mourned that they had missed ‘both glory and danger,’ and added:—

The night the first load of wounded came in [from the Battle of Olustee] we were having a ball for Washington's birthday—really a fine affair and the description in Childe Harold is not finer than the chill and hush which came over all as in the middle of the Lancers, General Saxton came in, pale and stern, and with a word stopped every foot and every chord—and said that it was wicked to be dancing amidst such suffering and disaster—Lt. Col. Reed, actually dying, had just been carried past the house. There had been a shadow over us all the evening from the mere rumors.

The regiment was now, in the spring of 1864, on ‘advanced picket’ duty, and Colonel Higginson described the life in his letters home:—

Our life here seems like a pleasant country seat with everything very free and easy. Part of the household are just setting off for a little church in [242] the woods about 4 miles off—some on horseback— others in a four wheeled farm wagon called by the people on the plantation reverentially “the buggy” — shutters are taken down and laid across for seats, then restored to their legitimate office on returning. Harness chiefly rope of various dates.

. . . A great dilapidated parlor with hardly a whole pane; and a vast blazing fireplace oa evenings, with arms and accoutrements hung all about, and people reading, working or playing perennial Euchre, with which Dr. Rogers, bless him, demoralized the regiment forever.

By day or night there are interminable rides through woodpaths over the whole island to the different picquet stations . . . your favorite yellow jasmine high and nodding and fragrant and abundant everywhere.

One day Colonel Higginson mentioned in his journal that a few mysterious guns had been fired by the Confederate picket.

Next day there was a Flag of Truce and a courteous young Captain from the other side was asked for information, as it is usually the understanding that the picquets will not fire or be fired on. He only answered, smiling, “You gentlemen are training your Buckinghams (which, it seems, is now their cant phrase for colored soldiers) to shell us from the gunboats, and this little bombardment was our only way to retaliate.”


The following letter, written in March, reminds one of scenes described by Hawthorne:—

Camp Shaw, Beaufort.
I saw in town a sight singular and painful—In front of the Provost Marshal's office in the busiest part of the main street of the town, stood upon a box a well dressed man, large and commanding in appearance, and with gaping gazers all around. He was sentenced by Court Martial to stand there two hours daily for a week, with the inscription on his breast “I sold liquor to soldiers” and with a 24 lb. ball and chain attached to his leg; after which he was to be fined $500 or be imprisoned 6 months, and then sent from the Department forever. But Gen. Saxton in pity for his wife, who is here, took off the inscription and the ball and chain and let the rest take its course. I felt it the more from the fact that I was on the Military commission which tried him, though I happened to be unable to attend the trial. Popular indignation sustains the verdict, partly because of the enormous price at which the man sold the surreptitious whiskey ($12 per gallon) and partly because he came down here as a preacher and like most of that class, exhorted and cheated on alternate days; it is most remarkable how badly all the clerical envoys have turned out. I literally have not known an exception; the only preacher who is respected here is a young lawyer from N. Y. the acting Post Chaplain who can only be “acting” because he has never been ordained. . .

The man excited my sympathy and showed some [244] character by the way which he took to shun the ignominy of this standing pillory. He stood bending over a little blank book or diary in which he was writing busily all the time. He looked as far removed from the world as St. Symon Stylites on his pillar. Indeed there was something inconceivably remote and foreign in the whole scene—the man wore a broad brimmed hat, long straight overcoat and high riding boots and seemed to have stepped out of Puritan days.

Picket duty, which Colonel Higginson regarded as a sort of vacation, was interrupted one April morning, by an order to relieve a departing colored regiment. He wrote:—

The men, always ready for change, enjoyed the suddenness of the order and the march out was as jolly as usual . . . my chief fun came this time from the Drum corps among whom there is wit and frolic and deviltry enough to set up a legion of Topsies . . . .

The 9th is a very fine looking regiment and the officers appear well. The men have different songs and ways from our men, and their type of religious enthusiasm seems different. Our men are chiefly Baptists and those Methodists; the former is certainly better for the body, as involving at least one complete ablution in each life. The 9th U. S. men are farther divided into two subdivisions, in this regard—the Holy Jumpers and the Holy Rollers. The difference between them is that when under conviction, the Holy Jumpers jump and the Holy Rollers [245] roll: a division decidedly more palpable than most sectarian barriers.

In the journal, at about this time, there appears this abstract from acting chaplain Private Thomas Long's sermon:—

We can remember, when we fust enlisted, it was hardly safe for we to pass by de camps to Beaufort and back, lest [unless] we went in a mob and carried our side arms. But we whipped down all dat—Not by going into de white camps for whip um; we did n't tote our bayonets for whip um; but we lived it down by our naturally manhood; and now de white sojers take us by de hand and say Broder Sojer. Dat's what dis regiment did for de Epiopian [Ethiopian] race.

If we had n't become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before; our freedom might have slipped through de two houses of Congress and President Linkum's four years might have passed by and notina been done for we. But now tings can neber go back, because we have showed our energy and our courage and our naturally manhood.

Anoder ting is, suppose you had kept your freedom widout enlisting in dis army; your chilen might have grown up free and been well cultivated so as to be equal to any business, but it would have been always flung in dere faces— “Your fader never fought for he own freedom” —and what could dey answer? Neber can say that to dis African race any more . . . [246]

He also said “Notina makes you more trouble dan dat red flag you keep wagging out of your mouf” [the tongue].

Colonel Higginson's enjoyment of the racy qualities of his men never failed, and he hoped that they would not become so civilized as to lose their piquant use of the personal pronoun. As an example, he gives an imaginary General Order improvised by one of the men:—

Headquarters No. I. General Order No. 162; Heretofore no man must fry he meat, must always boil he.

Perpetual pleasure was also found by the Colonel in the Negro songs.

‘When I am tired and jaded in the evening,’ he wrote, ‘nothing refreshes me more immediately than to go and hear the men singing in the company streets. There is such a world of trustful peace in it, I feel as if they were a lot of babies in their cradles cooing themselves to sleep, the dear, blundering, dusky darlings!’

And he illustrates by the following anecdote their curious mingling of military and scholastic training:

Dear old Uncle York leans in the doorway of Dr. Minot's tent, with his broad brimmed hat on, like a retired Seraph in easy circumstances. Along [247] comes little Ben, Mrs. Dewhurst's page, 2 1/2 feet high, and swaggeringly says, “Uncle York, gwine to school?” and the blessed veteran gets down his primer, dog-eared now as far as four syllables and away they go to the moss house where Mrs. D. holds sway over drummers and divines..

Pete says Uncle York told them that he once walked from a certain point to Darien, twenty miles “discoursing” all the way to himself and that he had finally to stop outside of Darien “to end de discourse” —In this and many other points he constantly reminds me of Socrates, only that Socrates, as it would appear, never did end. . . .

Pete, the Major's boy-servant, who had picked up Gallop dances from native Africans, leads the boys in ‘shouts’ and decorates the school tent very prettily on his own plan. He is rather hard to wake in the morning and when the Major's boot is thrown at him with or without the owner's foot, he pleads apologetically that it is bad luck to wake de fus time you are called. “Sometimes ghosts do call um,” he adds in explanation, which implies the necessity of a wholesome caution.

Colonel Higginson compared Uncle York to the hero of ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin.’ His son, named John Brown, had been killed in the first armed encounter between the Negroes and their former masters, and Uncle York always firmly believed that the celebrated John Brown song related to his son. Another anecdote in the diary about the same old Uncle, who [248] became Colonel Higginson's servant when discharged from the regiment for old age, ran thus:—

Uncle York was telling, the other day, about a master with whom he had deposited his odd earnings and who died without refunding them, so that they were lost altogether. Uncle York finally officiated in driving to the grave, and as the vehicle jolted over the roots in the woods he says, ‘I did n't care how much I jolt he—I pure tink of my money all de time.’ This use of the word pure is genuine old English.

Meantime the chaplain of the regiment, who had been in the habit of varying his spiritual duties by daring forays into the enemy's country, was captured. The Colonel wrote, March 26, 1864:—

We have just heard from our dear old Chaplain, Feb. 12, at Columbia Jail, as cheerily as usual-he says “I find this a good place for study and have concluded to stay two years. I am doing excellent well and am satisfied.” Think of that for a prisoner!

In April, Colonel Higginson felt that he must leave the army. The bursting shell which caused his wound had shattered his digestion. He was obliged to live on rice and hominy and confided to his mother, ‘I feel very weak in these days.’ General Saxton was unwilling to consider his resignation and wished to substitute a six months furlough. But the disabled officer was unconvinced, and wrote home:— [249]

My surgeon's certificate is sent in to the Surgical Board in Beaufort, who have to approve it, and as it contains the word Toxicohaemia, it certainly ought to pull me or any one through. . . . I expect to leave in about 10 days . . . I feel that I have done my work here and am perfectly willing to close it up..

Sometimes I think the greater activity in the book-world makes me feel more as if I had been here long enough—you know when I first came away there was a great stagnation there, and now it seems as if all the wheels were busy again and I must not stay too long away. . . .

People whom I left young come down here old men; last night Carter brought into my tent a handsome man with hair and beard almost silver, and it was Underwood formerly of the Atlantic whom I left a handsome brown-haired youth not long ago.

To his mother, he reported, May 9, 1864:—

All goes well enough in the regiment and I have got all the special jobs done about which I was anxious and have now nothing particular to do and am leading a sort of posthumous life in my military relations, though still in command. I have thoroughly made up my mind to resign, but it takes some three months to get one's Ordnance accounts settled and that must be done first. It seems very wonderful to be recommencing life again and I alternately feel very old and very young when I think of it, usually the latter. . . . I think I shall feel my conscience entirely clear as to my share in the great [250] drama, and quite willing to renounce farther participation.

The following note, received after Colonel Higginson's return to the North, is without date and came from the Office of the United States Tax Commissioners, at Beaufort:—


We take pleasure in informing you that we have given the small village for freedmen, situate just Northwest of this town, the name of Higginson, in honor of yourself, and the valuable services which you have rendered the cause of Constitutional Government.

The recipient of this honor derived much amusement from the ultimate fate of his namesake; as the town of Higginsonville, some years later, was blown away in a hurricane.

The retired Colonel retained an active interest in his regiment, and kept himself informed of all its movements. Reporting its departure from Beaufort to his old surgeon, Dr. Rogers, he adds:—

The men enjoy the way “de shell dey do pop” over their heads: and are quite cheerful—though the parting was hard as they had no money for their families. About this time they are being paid I trust, though I have almost abandoned hope—but not effort—about their arrears.

. . . .I am mending at the rate of an inch a week or so.

[251] From Pigeon Cove, he wrote in August:—

It is strange to come back from the war; one feels like Rip Van Winkle and instinctively grasps round to see if all one's friends are still alive; it is not that one feels old, but only strange, and as if one had been in a trance, during which almost anything might have happened.

It was a relief to Colonel Higginson to receive, in October, his order of discharge, having feared that he might be retained in some recruiting or other minor service. After the regiment was disbanded, the Negro soldiers often wrote affectionate letters to their former Colonel, and he was able to help them in various ways. This extract from one of the men's letters gives a fair sample of their loyalty and orthography, ‘I meet manny of the old Soldiers I Spoke of you—all hailed your name with that Emotion (that become you) of the Sould when hearing of one who when in darkness burst light on their part way.’

The following winter, the returned author reported to Dr. Rogers from Newport that he was writing about the St. Mary's expedition1:—

I never did anything so distasteful to me. It is a kind of posthumous life, now that that book of my existence is closed. My instinct is always to live in the present and it is hard for me to reproduce my [252] own Past. I do it mainly from a sense of duty and because, until it is done, the way will not seem clear for other thing . . . .

I am just opening fire on Congress again about the pay. Wilson presented my petition in the Senate and Boutwell was to do so to-day in the House. I have written a letter to the “Tribune,” which is strangely delayed.

This weary and humiliating struggle for justice finally succeeded, and the promised payment to his soldiers was made in full.

Forty years after this wonderful experience as leader of the first regiment of freed slaves, its officers met in Boston. Their old commander was unable to be present at this reunion, and a memorial signed by his former associates and containing these words was sent to him:—

In those brave days you were not alone our commander; you were our standard also of what is noble in character. We were young and untutored; we saw in you a model of what, deep in our hearts, we aspired to be. Your example was a rebuke to our shortcomings, and from your contact our feebler virtues took healthier tone. Though you parted from us your influence remained with us, a constraint from what is unworthy, and an incentive to what is high. We cannot say that through these many years we have been faithful to the standard; but we may say that in its presence it has been easier to be noble and harder to be mean.

1 ‘Up the St. Mary's,’ Atlantic Monthly, April, 1865.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: