Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 2/24
At Hilton Head.—1863
FOR a few days I was quite a lion in Washington as the first arrival from the front. The Tribune office was crowded day and night with army officers, members of Congress and others who wished to talk with me about the battle. Wherever I went—in the departments, at the hotels, in private houses, and on the sidewalks—I was beset by eager inquirers. I did not mince words, and can flatter myself that my earnest denunciations had something to do with the early inquiry into the Fredericksburg campaign instituted by the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, which fully brought out the facts of the case. Owing to the contradictory evidence given by the commanders involved, the public mind, however, remained much befogged as to where the real responsibility for the disaster belonged.
It is a matter of record that Burnside, notwithstanding his thorough defeat, clung for some time to the plan of trying another offensive movement without delay, and that his obstinacy and illusions in this respect were brought to an end only by his famous so-called "mud march" on January 21. But I was convinced that the unfavorable season and the condition of the army rendered further collisions be tween the armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia before spring very improbable. I advised our managing editor that I thought it not worth while on that account to return to the front, and suggested that I be sent to the coast of South Carolina in order to witness the impending combined land and naval attack on Charleston. My recommendation was approved, and, accordingly, I left Washington in the first week of January, 1863, for New York, and sailed thence on the 14th on the steamship Arago for Port Royal harbor.
The Arago had been running regularly before the war as a passenger and freight steamer in the Havre trade, and was a large and commodious, but not very fast, ship. She had been chartered by the Government for some time, and was making three trips a month to the port mentioned, carrying Government supplies, but only such passengers as were in the public service or had permits from the War Department. Captain Gadsden was very obliging and jolly. There were only seven passengers in all in the first cabin, besides myself, including my old acquaintance, Major-General David B. Hunter, and his assistant ad jutant-general, Major Halpine, two other staff officers, and some very nice ladies from Pennsylvania, who, like so many other patriotic and self-sacrificing Northern women, had volunteered for educational work among the negroes of the Sea Islands. Major-General Hunter had been in command of the Department of the South since the preceding summer, but, having become involved in mis understandings with the Washington authorities, had asked and obtained leave in August to visit the capital for explanations. It was then decided to replace him by General O. M. Mitchel, who died late in October, 1862, after holding the command for a few weeks. Hunter was now return ing to resume his position. He was over severity years old, but tried to assume a younger appearance by wearing a full, dark-brown wig and giving his short moustache the same artificial color. He was a man of moderate ability, but an ardent patriot, a true gentleman, and very pleasing in his intercourse with others. I knew Major Halpine as an Irish poet and wit, under the sobriquet of "Miles O Reilly," and a writer for the New York Times before the war, and found him again a very entertaining and amusing companion.
With the luxurious comforts of the Arago, the voyage ought to have been a pleasure trip, but we had stormy weather from Sandy Hook to beyond Cape Hatteras; all the passengers except myself were very sick. We arrived on the afternoon of the 18th of January. As we entered the harbor, the forts taken from the rebels, on the right and left of its mouth, fired salutes in honor of the department commander. After we were made fast to the long dock, built out since the Federal occupation, from Hilton Head Island, which formed the south side of the harbor, many army and navy officers at once boarded the Arago, including Brigadier-General Ferry and Fleet-Captain Rodgers, to welcome General Hunter. Captain Gadsden kindly permitted me to remain on the Arago while she stayed in port, thus giving me several days in which to consider and decide upon my future course.
A brief review of the operations of the Union army and navy along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia be fore my arrival will be in place here. A direct and special punishment of the former State, as the hotbed of secession, had been insisted upon by public opinion in the loyal North ever since the first outbreak of the Rebellion. The Federal Government was quite disposed to yield to the popular demand. The occupation of the South Atlantic ports was the subject of special study by a board of officers which sat in Washington in June and July, 1861. In the first days of August, orders were issued to General Thomas W. Sherman to form an expeditionary corps of 12,000 men in the New England States, and to Captain Dupont of the navy to collect a fleet of vessels in Hampton Roads, for a combined aggressive movement down the coast. According to Nicolay and Hay, President Lincoln explained personally at a Cabinet meeting the purposes of the Government in this direction to General Sherman, and expressed to him the desire that the expedition should start early in September. The starting was, however, postponed till October, and did not actually take place before the end of that month. On October 29, between fifty and sixty steam-vessels, of which fourteen were men-of-war and the remainder loaded with troops and quartermasters' and commissary stores, stood out from the Roads. The fleet encountered a storm the very next day, which resulted in the loss and disabling of some of the transports. The remainder reached Port Royal harbor in safety. On November 7 the men-of-war attacked the two rebel forts on the north and south sides of the entrance, mounting, respectively, twenty and twenty-three heavy guns, while the Federal ships carried one hundred and thirty. Nine of the ships, led by the frigate Wabash, moved up the harbor, following each other in a single line at short intervals, and delivering their broadsides against the two forts as they passed them. When beyond the range of the rebel guns, the death-dealing procession steered around and steamed back to the entrance, again firing broadsides while passing the rebel works. This movement was repeated three times, when the rebels abandoned, first, the strongest fort on the south side, and, later, that on the north side. The fire of the vessels had been so sweeping and destructive that the enemy became panic-stricken and sought safety in precipitate flight. Our victory cost only eight killed and twenty-three wounded. The fugitives spread the panic from the forts to the whole coast, from North Edisto to Warsaw Sound, with the result that the Sea Islands and the harbors of Port Royal, St. Helena, North and South Edisto, Tybee Roads, Warsaw Sound, and Ossabaw Sound fell under Federal control without the shedding of another drop of blood.
The troops were landed on the south shore of Port Royal harbor and established themselves in regular camps. From this base of operations the land and naval forces, during 1862, gradually reëstablished the Federal authority, not only along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, but also at points on the Florida coast, including Fernandina, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine. The most noteworthy achievement was the reduction, in April, 1862, of Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Cockspur River, commanding the approach to the city of Savannah, under the direction of General Quincy A. Gillmore of the regular Corps of Engineers. He accomplished an extraordinary feat by planting, during many weeks of night labor, eleven batteries of thirty-six heavy guns, weighing from eight to eight and a half tons each, in a bottomless morass, without discovery and interference by the enemy. The siege was remarkable also as the first practical demonstration of the worthlessness of walls of masonry as a defence against modern rifled artillery. The fire of our guns, at ranges from 1650 to 3400 yards, made the fort untenable in thirty hours, and surrender unconditional.
In the early spring of 1862, Major-General Hunter was assigned to the chief command of the Department of the South, while General T. W. Sherman remained in charge of that of South Carolina. Hunter soon attracted general attention by the famous order he issued on May 9, 1862, announcing that "slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible. The persons in the three States of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free." This act was nothing less than the abolition of slavery by military authority, five months in advance of the preliminary, and eight months before the definitive, Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. General Hunter had no special authority from the War Department to issue the order, but promulgated it by virtue of his absolute powers as military ruler over territory under martial law. As one of the truest loyalists in the regular and volunteer armies, he was also moved by his sense of duty to the Government, and was among the first to perceive that one of the most effective blows that could be struck at the Rebellion would be to deprive it of the benefit of unpaid slave labor in civil pursuits and for military purposes. His strong anti-slavery convictions doubtless likewise prompted him to adopt this radical measure. The order made quite a sensation in the North, and led to attacks upon its author and the Administration by the Conservatives and Anti-War-Democrats, which moved President Lincoln to issue his well-known proclamation of May 19, 1862, in which, after affirming that the Government had no knowledge of, or part in, Hunter's act, he declared it null and void, and asserted his exclusive right to determine whether it was competent for him as Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy to declare slaves in any State or States free, and whether, at any time and in any case, it had become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the Government to exercise such a supposed power.
General Hunter, though repudiated, remained in command, and soon found occasion to try another military method of dealing with the slavery problem, which, while not at once practically successful, was not disowned by the Government, and was even subsequently adopted by the War Department, and contributed much to the ultimate triumph of the North. In other words, he was the first to attempt to form military organizations out of fugitive and abandoned slaves. The desertion of their plantations on the Sea Islands by the great slave-owners had left thousands of their human chattels without control or restraint of any sort, and, as was natural, their sudden, absolute freedom exposed them to the dangers of idleness, vagabondism, and general lawlessness. Even before General Hunter's advent, efforts had been inaugurated, under the leadership of Northern philanthropists, to take the blacks of the islands in hand, to systematize their labor, and to teach them frugal and industrious ways. There were then some fifty devoted men and women from the North engaged as teachers and overseers in that benevolent calling. They had come South under the leadership of Edward L. Pierce of Massachusetts, who had been put in charge, first, of the organization of the colored refugees flocking to Fortress Monroe into working parties, and now of the same task in South Carolina, at the instance of Secretary Chase, whose friend and supporter he was. (Mr. Pierce subsequently became widely known as a politician of the better class, law writer, and biographer of Charles Sumner.) On a number of the larger plantations, the regular work was thus being carried on again.The undertaking proved so great that the War Department lent a helping hand by detailing Brigadier-General Saxton to take supreme charge of the "Freedmen's Aid" movement in April, 1862. Still, the islands swarmed with great numbers of idlers that could not, or would not, be employed, and had to be fed and clothed at the expense of the Government. General Hunter, on seeing this state of things soon after his arrival, and upon the recommendation of General Saxton, made up his mind that the best solution would be to enroll as soldiers the negroes physically qualified, and use them for whatever military purposes they might be fit. He lost no time in applying to the Secretary of War for 50,000 muskets, and "authority to arm such loyal men as I can find in the country." He coupled his requisition for arms with another which caused much wonder and some merriment at the time, asking for 50,000 pairs of scarlet pantaloons. "This is all the clothing," he wrote, "I shall require for these people." The Major-General soon tried the effect of scarlet cloth on the blacks in an attempt to organize a black regiment. It was actually formed, but did not hold together more than a few weeks, mainly owing to the unwillingness of the blacks to serve. The attempt was renewed, in pursuance of an order of the Secretary of War, dated August 25, 1862, authorizing Brigadier-General Saxton to arm, uniform, equip, and drill not more than 5000 volunteers of African descent, to guard and protect the plantations and settlements of Port Royal and elsewhere. Only one regiment of a thousand men was, however, got together after three months, of which T. W. Higginson, the well-known Massachusetts liberal clergyman and littérateur, became the colonel. This regiment donned red trousers.
Such was the situation in South Carolina when I stepped for the first time upon the sacred soil of the Palmetto State on Hilton Head Island, bordering the harbor on the south side and washed by the ocean on the east, on which the Union troops had made their first landing, and on which the department headquarters were situated. "The Head," as the natives called it for short, presented a very uninviting, dreary aspect. It was, indeed, but a dead waste of deep sand, "as flat as a pancake," varied only by a line of low sand-hills or dunes. Not a tree, not a shrub, not a green plant of any kind, was in sight; the only green spots being a few small grassplots produced by irrigation. Before the landing of the Federal forces, no buildings existed, and but a few scattering ones had been erected since. The principal were two long one-story frame structures of the plainest outer and interior finish, erected as quickly and cheaply as possible for use as headquarters. They extended along the shore, with a fine beach between them and the water. A few hundred feet from their rear stood a small but more substantial-looking two-story building, in which the United States Custom-house was established. There was also a group of board shanties and wall-tents, some with and some without wooden floors, which served as mess-houses and sleeping quarters for the customs officials and the officers and employees of the quartermaster's and commissary department. The habitations stood directly on the virgin sand, without artificial walks or streets. The truth was, indeed, that I had dropped into a very desolate place, of which the only redeeming feature was the bay and the ocean. I was comforted by the expectation that my stay would be a short one—in which hope I was, however, to be greatly disappointed.
Major Halpine promptly redeemed his voluntary promise to provide me with quarters by assigning to me an empty front room in one of the headquarters buildings, to which I moved from the Arago. It was small, but with a good-sized window overlooking the beach and bay. It being entirely unfurnished, the Major showed me further favor by sending me a small table, roughly made on the spot, and a camp-stool. The next thing was to find something to sleep on (as I had brought with me only a small pillow and blankets) and washing utensils. As there was nothing of that kind to be got at "The Head" for love or money, I concluded to row back to the Arago and appeal to the generosity of Captain Gadsden. He at once authorized the steward to sell me a mattress, and advised me to apply to the quartermaster on shore for a tin basin and cup, in which quest I was successful. I slept on the mattress on the floor for several days, when I persuaded the post-carpenter to make me a bedstead and washstand out of unplaned lumber. With these appointments I managed to get along during my sojourn at "The Head."I found board as easily as lodging. I had brought a letter of introduction from Secretary Chase to Mr. T. C. Severance, the Collector of the Port, who at once invited me to join his mess. We had an excellent table, indeed as good meals as at a first-class hotel in the North, and at a very reasonable price. The mess consisted of the Collector, two of his office assistants, a New England clergyman acting as Freedmen's agent, some commissary and quartermaster's clerks, Henry J. Winser, correspondent of the New York Times, and myself. Mr. Severance had been a banker at Cleveland, but had failed at the beginning of the Civil War. His good nature and willingness to oblige were without limit. His official responsibilities were not great, the arrivals of vessels subject to entry not averaging more than one a month, and what little work there was, his chief clerk did. Winser had a room next to mine and proved a very genial, gentlemanly companion, with whom I kept up close relations till his death in 1896. Mr. Howard, the Freedmen's agent, was a Harvard graduate and a well-informed, entertaining, liberal-minded man. The other members of the mess were like the good children who are seen but not heard.
I made it my first business to become acquainted with the officers of the fleet, not one of whom I knew. Assistant-Secretary Fox had kindly given me a letter to Rear-Admiral Dupont, in chief command of the South Atlantic blockading squadron, which I presented, two days after my landing, on board the flagship Wabash. The Admiral received me most courteously, and introduced me at once to Captain C. R. P. Rodgers, his chief of staff, and the other members of his official household, as well as the officers of the frigate. The Admiral was one of the stateliest, handsomest, and most polished gentlemen I ever met. He looked the ideal naval commander. Captain Rodgers also had a fine presence, and was most courteous and obliging. It will always be a source of pride to me that I won the lasting friendship of these two distinguished officers. Besides the flagship, there was, riding at anchor near it, the New Ironsides, an iron-plated frigate under command of Commodore Thomas Turner, with thirty-two Dahlgren guns in broadside. The very next morning we had a stirring surprise in the appearance of the Montauk, a reproduction of the original Ericsson monitor, in tow of the war-steamer Rhode Island, and commanded by John L. Worden, the hero of the ever-memorable fight between the Monitor and the rebel ram Merrimac. The Montauk was the forerunner of the fleet of eight ironclads of the monitor and other types that were expected from the North.
The presence of but one of these showed that I had left the North under a wrong impression in supposing that the preparations for the naval attack on Charleston were nearly completed and that it would certainly come off shortly after my arrival. This was confirmed by the Admiral himself. As I had been commended by Assistant-Secretary Fox to his confidence, I did not hesitate to ask him during my first visit whether he felt at liberty to say to me, under seal of secrecy, whether Charleston would be attacked soon or not. He replied that he had no objection to telling me that the fleet was not quite ready for it. I interpreted this to mean that there would be considerable delay yet, and my surmise proved correct. I learned by degrees that, from the chief commander down to the lieutenants, the officers of the fleet had not much faith in either the offensive capacity or the speed of the new forms of ironclads, which were to be the principal instruments of attack, and that they were to be given practical trials in both respects before being actually used in the proposed grand effort to subdue Charleston.
I readily perceived that the key to the confidence of the Admiral and his chief of staff was the strict observance of their injunction not to say anything regarding the condition and purposes of the fleet in my correspondence, except what they should authorize to be published. I advised the managing editor of my intention to submit to this restriction, and confined myself at first to gathering material for purely descriptive letters. The supply proved rather meagre. One letter exhausted all that could possibly be said about Hilton Head, the army headquarters, and the fleet. The only other available sources of useful matter were excursions on the ordinary steamboats that kept up communication between the headquarters and the different points of occupation on the Sea Islands, and some reconnoissances by armed boats in the direction of the mainland, and especially of the Savannah River, through the network of tide-water inlets connecting the islands with one another. The steamboats made regular runs, but the reconnoitring trips, of course, took place only at the will of those in command.
My first excursion was to the famous town of Beaufort on St. Helena, the principal one of the islands. Our boat was the small side-wheeler Planter, that had been run out of Charleston harbor with a load of heavy siege-guns and delivered to the blockading fleet by her colored pilot, Robert Small, who had been its captain since, and whom I found a good-looking, intelligent, and well-informed mulatto. Beaufort was not more than eighteen miles from "The Head"—four across the bay, and the rest of the distance through the inlets connecting Port Royal harbor with St. Helena Sound. Extensive plantations with large mansions and scattered live-oaks and palmetto trees were visible on both sides of our course. Beaufort did not belie its renown as the favorite pleasure-resort of the South Carolina slaveholding aristocracy. The town consisted of one grand, broad avenue, two hundred and fifty feet wide, lined with great evergreen oaks, behind which the stately homes of the cotton lords stood, separated from each other by gardens filled with a variety of brilliant flowers, indicative of the mildness of the winter climate. The houses, while built of wood in a plain style, were nearly all three stories high and of generous proportions, and impressed one as both spacious and comfortable. Their owners, almost without exception, had abandoned them to the care of their slave servants. Several were made use of for various purposes by the Northern invaders. One was occupied by General Rufus Saxton, the Military Governor of the islands; another by the General Agency of the Freedmen's Bureau. Some served as boarding- and lodging-houses for the volunteer teachers of the freedmen from the North, and some for the schools in which colored adults and children received free instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as in sewing, cutting, cooking, and other domestic arts.
I paid my respects to General Saxton, whose marked personality proved very true to the descriptions I had heard given of him. He was a regular artillery officer, and one of the few outright abolitionists in the army. He had a slender, wiry figure of middle height, a small head with fiery black eyes, short-cropped black hair, and full beard. His intense zeal in the Union cause and the sincerity of his deep hatred of the Rebellion and what he considered its main support—slavery—made him seem at first a glowing zealot, like the martyred preachers of the Faith. But, while ardent and unflinching in his duty, he was at heart as gentle as a lamb. He was certainly the man for the task intrusted to him of making soldiers out of the "contrabands" of South Carolina and Georgia. He expressed himself as very much pleased with his success so far in that direction, and spoke very highly of the aptitude of the negroes for military service. I also made the acquaintance of his assistant adjutant-general, Edward W. Hooper, son of the well-known Massachusetts Congressman, Samuel Hooper, and one of many Harvard graduates who, from the loftiest motives, had left college to enter the service. In the same spirit, this exemplary character devoted his life after the war to the public weal in various capacities, ending with the treasurership of Harvard College. I likewise met there, for the first time, Mrs. Frances D. Gage, a lovable woman of middle age, an able writer for the press (she wrote the best letters on the "contrabands" to the Tribune), and an enthusiastic anti-slavery advocate and champion of other reforms. She was one of the Freedmen's Bureau agents, and discharged her duties with untiring zeal, true benevolence and great ability.
Immediately after my Beaufort trip I had an opportunity to witness the novel and interesting spectacle described in the following reproduction of my letter to the Tribune on the subject:
Port Royal, January 22, 1863.
General Hunter and staff yesterday afternoon improved the return of clear weather to visit and review the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. I was glad of the early opportunity to see what appeared to me the most interesting feature of South Carolina, and satisfy myself, by personal observation, as to the relative success of the experiment of transforming the black freedmen into Union soldiers.
The party steamed up Beaufort River on the Beaufort packet Flora to Smith's plantation, some eight miles distant, where the black volunteers had their encampment. We were transferred from the steamer to the right bank in small boats, and, after passing through a magnificent grove of live-oak trees and a "street" of the regimental camp, reached an implanted cotton field, where a line of black faces, blue trousers, red trousers, and muskets told us that the object of our visit was before us.
The General and suite having taken position in front of the line, the regiment was first made to go through the manual of arms. It next marched past the General by companies both in ordinary and quick step, and then went through several battalion manœuvres.
Judged by the absolute standard of perfection in drill, the performances of the black soldiers appeared liable to criticism. But, taking into consideration all the facts bearing upon the case—the low intellectual status of the rank and file, the short training, the inexperience of most of the white officers themselves—no honest-minded, unprejudiced observer could come to any other conclusion than that the regiment had attained a remarkable relative proficiency. I have no hesitation, with my extensive observations of the capacities and acquirements of white volunteers in both the Western and Eastern armies, to say that no body of men in the service has done better in seven weeks, the period during which the dark-skinned South Carolinians have served upon the drilling-ground.
It is said by those unwilling to give the blacks credit for any human capabilities that, although they may master the mere mechanism of the service, through their great natural gift of imitation, they will yet never become efficient soldiers, owing to the want of "spirit"—of "heart" in the profession, and of proper appreciation of the cause for which they bear arms. In refutation, the fact that every one of the eight hundred and sixty men volunteered might be sufficient. But the best possible evidence to the contrary is furnished by what happened at the close of the review. Having formed the regiment in square, Colonel Higginson requested General Hunter to say a few words to the men.
The General stepped inside the square amid three spontaneous cheers from the ranks. He said in few but forcible and moving words that he rejoiced to find the native soldiers so proficient; that, judging from the progress they had already made, he could see no reason why they should not become as good soldiers as any in the world; that he expected them to fight as well as drill, as only men willing to fight for their liberty are worthy of it, and that he hoped before long to see fifty thousand of their friends striking for freedom from bondage.
There was unmistakable intelligence, true warmth of emotion and firmness of resolution speaking out of the enthusiastic response of the black audience to these remarks. The most venomous pro-slavery agitator in the North could not have denied that the General was fully understood. But the wildest shouts of joy broke out when General Saxton announced, after General Hunter had concluded, that fifty thousand muskets were arriving from the North to arm the freedmen of South Carolina. Cheers for liberty and the Union were never given more heartily by white volunteers than those elicited by the announcement.
The monitor Montauk departed a few days after my arrival for the Ogeechee River for a trial of her offensive and defensive strength against the rebel Fort McAllister, which protected the approaches to the city of Savannah. Colonel Burton, of the Forty-eighth Regiment of New York Volunteers, who was in command of the captured Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah, had come to Hilton Head on official business, and invited me to accompany him on his return trip in order to witness the exploits of the monitor. We left on January 28, reaching Pulaski in the evening. The fort had been entirely restored and made stronger than before. It mounted eighty guns and had a garrison of two regiments. The next morning we started early for the Ogeechee by the inland passage. We passed by the Tybee River and Warsaw Sound into the network of channels connecting the latter with Ossabaw Sound. Our pilot lost his way, and we found ourselves caught in the Romney Marsh in a passage so narrow and shallow that our boat grounded and touched the banks on both sides. It was extricated with great difficulty from its perilous position. As it was unarmed, we should have been an easy prey to the enemy, who happily did not discover our plight. It was a narrow escape for me from a taste of Southern prisons. We steamed back to Fort Pulaski, reaching there only late in the evening. Our mishap was the more provoking as we had been so near the scene of action that we not only heard the firing, but saw the puffs of powder-smoke ascend after each discharge. We learned the next morning from the attacking fleet that there had been a severe artillery fight, lasting nearly all day, between the Montauk, four gunboats, and a mortar-boat on our side, and the rebel fort, mounting thirteen heavy guns. The Montauk approached within a mile of the fort, when she was stopped by a row of close piles driven into the channel. She was struck thirteen times by heavy shot, but not injured beyond slight dents in her armor. The attack led to the discovery that the rebel cruiser Nashville was still in the Ogeechee, seven miles from Fort McAllister. She had run in some months before, and was prevented from getting to sea again by the vigilance of our cruisers and the obstructions placed by us in the outlets from the Ogeechee.
It was the purpose of Captain Worden, in command of our flotilla, to get by the fort with the Montauk and attack the rebel vessel. Our fire was supposed to have disabled most of the armament of Fort McAllister. Captain Worden was bent upon overcoming the obstructions in the river, but, as this would take time, I returned to Hilton Head. I found that the military and civilian community was much stirred up by very exciting news, just arrived, of a partially successful attack made by rebel rams from Charleston harbor upon our blockading fleet, preceded by the disablement and surrender of one of our gunboats in Stono River. The veteran braggart, Beauregard, was in command of Charleston at the time. On receiving the report of the rebel rams, he launched forthwith a proclamation to the civilized world announcing that the Federal blockading fleet, having been either destroyed or dispersed, had disappeared, and that the blockade was therefore raised. The proclamation was accompanied by an official statement of a British naval officer and the resident British consul that they had been out to sea on a tug, but had seen no sign of the blockading fleet. The rebel Secretary of State followed this up by a circular to the Confederate agents in Europe, announcing the reopening of Charleston harbor to the ships of seafaring nations. This performance of Beauregard and the British officials ranks high among the many extraordinary perversions of current events which occurred during the Rebellion. It was denounced as an absolute falsehood in a protest addressed to Admiral Dupont by all the commanders of the blockading men-of-war. At first the rebel story was believed even by the Washington Government, and credited by the Northern press, which indulged in severe criticism of the blockading fleet. The feelings of the Admiral and his subordinates on reading these rash effusions may be imagined. A partial compensation for the losses inflicted by the rebel rams was the capture at that time of several vessels with valuable cargoes trying to run the blockade. A great prize among them was the British steamer Princess Royal, which was brought to Port Royal harbor and which I visited. She carried machinery and guns for the rebel navy, besides a large miscellaneous cargo of merchandise.
Another noteworthy event was the return of the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment from an expedition to the coasts of Georgia and Florida, and up various rivers into the interior of those States. It was intended to produce a moral effect on the slave population by the sight of the colored troops, who were to circulate the President's Emancipation Proclamation. Another object was to secure brick, lumber, and other material needed for military purposes. The expedition was successful in every respect. The black soldiers received their baptism of fire, having had several victorious encounters with rebel infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Colonel Higginson was overflowing with praise of the gallant conduct of his command, which had inspired him with the conviction, loudly proclaimed, that nothing would end the war quicker than the employment of negro troops on the largest possible scale.
The long-announced reinforcements consisted of the entire Federal force that had operated under command of Major-General Foster on the North Carolina coast. It arrived successively in a great fleet of one hundred and twenty-five vessels. The transports had encountered severe gales, which had blown violently for a week along the South Carolina coast and made us very anxious for them. No disaster occurred, however, but the crowded troops suffered greatly from seasickness. Port Royal harbor was so much disturbed by the storm that the transports could not land the troops for several days; they were finally put ashore, mostly on St. Helena Island. Their advent was considered another sure indication that the opening of offensive operations by land and sea was not far off, but the general expectation in this regard was once more doomed to disappointment. Many weeks were yet to elapse before hope deferred became fulfilled. Moreover, the coming of General Foster led to lamentable dissensions between the commanders of the land forces, which threatened to have a paralyzing effect upon military operations. Although General Hunter was, by seniority, the ranking major-general, and, by general order of the War Department, the ranking general officer took command when troops passed from one military department into another, General Foster expected to remain in independent command of all the forces he brought to South Carolina, and was greatly taken aback when, during his temporary absence on a flying trip to North Carolina, General Hunter issued a general order assuming command over his troops. Foster would not accept the situation, but left for Washington on the first steamer to make a personal appeal to the Secretary of War and the President for the recognition of his claim. As he did not succeed in this, he asked to be and was relieved from duty in South Carolina. He left his staff behind, who had so little sense of propriety and subordination that they loudly boasted of the sure success of their chief's mission, which would, of course, have resulted in the retirement of General Hunter. Their indiscretion soon brought upon them an order of expulsion from the Department, when they followed their general to the North. Other subordinates of Foster were similarly infected. The chief quartermaster actually refused to turn the control of the steam transports over, as in duty bound, to the chief quartermaster of the Department, and had to be placed under arrest. One of the brigadiers, General Stevenson, openly proclaimed that he and his command would not fight beside "niggers," for which General Hunter had him arrested and confined. General Naglee, another brigadier, was also removed from command later on and sent North for manifesting a similar spirit of insubordination. Some of Foster's troops were guilty of perpetrating great outrages upon the colored people on some of the Sea Islands, and had to undergo rigorous disciplinary treatment. Altogether, the morale of the accessions from the North was unsatisfactory, and it was fortunate that offensive movements did not commence until the bad spirit had been in a measure suppressed.
I had announced in the Tribune, about the middle of February, that the intention was to send another expedition of colored troops from Hilton Head on a regular recruiting mission among the negro population of a certain Southern State, and that thousands of muskets would be taken along to arm male slaves. The publication caused a great sensation in the North, some of the conservative Republican papers pronouncing the news an outright malicious canard, while the "Copperhead" press denounced in the most violent language the attempt to excite "servile insurrection." I was even personally attacked as the author of the bogus intelligence. But, a week later, the correctness of theinformation was proved by the actual departure of over a thousand black troops, under Colonel Higginson, on the very errand I had foretold. Forays were made up a number of streams on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, but the expedition was far less successful than expected, as many slave-owners had run their human chattels off into the interior. It brought back, however, a few hundred black recruits, many of them with their families.
Excepting the incidents mentioned, the month of February passed away in rather monotonous quietude. The land forces were ready for active work, but the navy was not yet fully prepared for it. I clearly understood the true cause of the past delay and of that still before us, but for public reasons said nothing about it in my correspondence. It was the procrastination in the North in getting ready the monitors which were to play the leading part inAdmiral Dupont's offensive, to the number of seven. They all had been expected to be with the fleet by the end of February at the latest, but only the Montauk, the Patapsco, and the Nahant had then turned up, much to the disappointment of the Admiral and his officers and men.
I devoted part of my abundant leisure to a careful study of the condition of the slave population on the Sea Islands within our lines. It numbered a little over 9000, including 3617 children. General Saxton's department was divided into two divisions. That comprising the islands embraced no less than eighty-two plantations with 4015 adults and 2200 children, under the superintendence of Mr. Soule, a man especially well fitted for his task by his qualities of mind and heart. I visited the agencies in charge of subdivisions, either with him or with a Northern clergyman by the name of French, who acted as a sort of general Protestant missionary among the more than half-heathenish blacks. We could not understand the jargon spoken by them, and they did not comprehend our English, yet my clerical companion preached to them as though he were addressing a Northern congregation. His whole gospel work seemed, indeed, perfunctory and even farcical. The fact was, that savage superstitions still prevailed among the blacks, and that they practised fetish worship. On one occasion, my reverend companion, after he got through with his prayers and exhortation at a Sunday service in one of the rude structures used for places of worship for the slaves on the plantations, called on "Brother" Villard to address "our colored brethren." I did so, but let the gospel alone, and explained to my hearers as well as I could what rights and duties their liberation had vested them with. Although I used the simplest possible language, I felt sure that I was not understood. Such an audience I never looked upon before or since. Most of the jet-black faces, with their protruding, glaring eyes, thick noses, heavy outturned lips, glittering teeth, low receding foreheads, and coarse twisted, matted hair, spoke plainly of the Niger and the Congo. It seemed to me that the efforts of the volunteer male and female teachers from the North to instil even a little rudimentary knowledge into the skulls of the adults were bound to prove futile, and so they did. Nothing else could be expected, indeed, from creatures who had been purposely kept in the condition of brutes.
Upon the first appearance of the Northern liberators, either the terror-stricken masters had sought safety in flight and left their slaves to shift for themselves as best they could, or the latter had taken refuge with them in the Confederate lines. This inevitably produced a state of entire disorder on the plantations. Most of the blacks abandoned their customary work, and took advantage of the indiscriminate distribution of free rations that was at first practised by our commanders. But the demoralizing influence of this system was soon recognized, and it was abolished after our occupation had been extended over the larger islands and the plantations taken possession of by Government agents. The plan had been adopted, and generally carried out, of letting the freedmen (as they came to be called) become cultivators of the soil on the estates to which they belonged, either as employees of the Government or for their own account. In the former case they were required to perform regular daily tasks, and were allowed in payment regular rations and small wages. In the latter, they were allotted a certain acreage near their cabins on which they could grow such crops as they chose. The first-mentioned mode of employment, according to the testimony of the agents, promised better results than the latter, but the trial had not been going on long enough to justify definite conclusions. The agents expressed very favorable opinions of their people as regarded docility, willingness to work, and aptitude to learn, among both young and old. They could not speak so well of them in the matter of tidiness, truthfulness, and morality. I found them, as a rule, well behaved, well fed—plenty of cornmeal, bacon and molasses, a stock of pigs and chickens, made up the sum of earthly bliss for them, and all these blessings were now within their easy reach—and contented, yes, happy, in their inborn lightheartedness. Slavery had confined them to the simplest requirements in regard to habitation and personal wear, and they had not yet risen above their compulsory indifference to appearances beyond a fondness for loud colors, so that they presented a tattered, dirty appearance as a rule. A noteworthy characteristic was their proneness to express their moods of joy and sorrow in original songs, which indicated the natural musical gift of the race.
The last days of February brought great cheer to the navy, so eager for revenge for the attack of the rams on the blockaders. The joyful news reached Hilton Head by a despatch-boat that the Nashville had been utterly destroyed by the Montauk. The rebel craft had lain quiet for a long time under the protecting guns of Fort McAllister, watching for an opportunity to slip out to sea unobserved by our vessels, but her attempts to do so were repeatedly baffled by their vigilance. On February 27, she tried to run out under cover of a thick fog. She got aground, and was discovered in that predicament by the Montauk when the fog lifted. Captain Worden lost no time in going for his prey. He ran his monitor as close as possible to the obstructions in the river, getting within 1200 yards of the Nashville. Disregarding the furious fire of the fort upon his vessel, he devoted himself exclusively to his victim. His first experimental shots missed the mark, but, the proper range being obtained, thirteen- and fifteen-inch shells were sent one after another into the doomed vessel. The fourth fifteen-inch shell burst in her and set her on fire. The flames spread rapidly, and speedily heated her guns so as to explode their charges. Soon another shell went crashing through her side, penetrating her powder-magazine and causing a fearful explosion that finished the work of destruction. The officers of the Montauk described the burning and blowing up of the Nashville as a sight grand beyond description. No damage whatever to ship or crew was suffered by the Montauk.
The monitors Patapsco and Nahant had been ordered to Ossabaw Sound by the Admiral, but arrived too late to share in the glory of the Montauk. They were followed by the monitor Passaic, just arrived from the North, and by several mortar-boats. The Admiral ordered all the newcomers to try their guns against Fort McAllister. The Passaic, Patapsco, and Nahant accordingly moved towards the fort on the morning of March 3, and took up positions at distances of 1200, 1600, and 1800 yards, with the mortar-schooners behind them. The fort promptly answered the fire of the monitors from all its guns, and the exchange of shots continued all day. The fire of the fort was rapid and ill aimed, while that of our vessels was slow and deliberate, the main object being to make thorough tests of the range and accuracy of fire of their guns. It was indeed, on our part, a leisurely bombardment rather than a spirited offensive action. The monitors stopped their work at nightfall and fell down the river beyond the range of the fort. They returned to Hilton Head during the following days. The trial attack apparently demonstrated that the three monitors engaged were as invulnerable as the Montauk. The Passaic, being nearest to the fort and hence most exposed to its fire, was struck thirty-three times upon deck and turret by the heaviest shot and shell, which left, however, only slight indentations on her armor. Most of the rebel missiles were broken into fragments against it. One ten-inch shell fell unexploded upon the deck, after striking the pilot-house, and a thirteen-inch shell struck the deck directly without causing more than a crack. The Patapsco and Nahant were also hit but not injured. As was to be expected, all rebeldom burst out into a shout of triumph over the apparent repulse of our ironclads.