10: Life at Camp Shaw
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The Edisto expedition cost me the health and strength of several years.
I could say, long after, in the words of one of the men, "I'se been a
sickly person, eber since de expeditious." Justice to a strong
constitution and good habits compels me, however, to say that, up to the
time of my injury, I was almost the only officer in the regiment who had
not once been off duty from illness. But at last I had to yield, and
went North for a month.
We heard much said, during the war, of wounded officers who stayed
unreasonably long at home. I think there were more instances of those
who went back too soon. Such at least was my case. On returning to the
regiment I found a great accumulation of unfinished business; every
member of the field and staff was prostrated by illness or absent on
detailed service; two companies had been sent to Hilton Head on
fatigue duty, and kept there unexpectedly long: and there was a
visible demoralization among the rest, especially from the fact that
their pay had just been cut down, in violation of the express pledges
of the government. A few weeks of steady sway made all right again;
and during those weeks I felt a perfect exhilaration of health,
followed by a month or two of complete prostration, when the work was
done. This passing, I returned to duty, buoyed up by the fallacious
hope that the winter months would set me right again.
We had a new camp on Port Royal Island, very pleasantly situated, just
out of Beaufort. It stretched nearly to the edge of a shelving bluff,
fringed with pines and overlooking the river; below the bluff was a
hard, narrow beach, where one might gallop a mile and bathe at the
farther end. We could look up and down the curving stream, and watch the
few vessels that came and went. Our first encampment had been lower down
that same river, and we felt at home.
The new camp was named Camp Shaw, in honor of the noble young officer
who had lately fallen at Fort Wagner, under circumstances which had
endeared him to all the men. As it happened, they had never seen him,
nor was my regiment ever placed within immediate reach of the
Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. This I always regretted, feeling very
desirous to compare the military qualities of the Northern and Southern
blacks. As it was, the Southern regiments with which the Massachusetts
troops were brigaded were hardly a fair specimen of their kind, having
been raised chiefly by drafting, and, for this and other causes, being
afflicted with perpetual discontent and desertion.
We had, of course, looked forward with great interest to the arrival of
these new colored regiments, and I had ridden in from the picket-station
to see the Fifty-Fourth. Apart from the peculiarity of its material, it
was fresh from my own State, and I had relatives and acquaintances among
its officers. Governor Andrew, who had formed it, was an old friend, and
had begged me, on departure from Massachusetts, to keep him informed as
to our experiment I had good reason to believe that my reports had
helped to prepare the way for this new battalion, and I had sent him, at
his request, some hints as to its formation.
In the streets of Beaufort I had met Colonel Shaw, riding with his
lieutenant-colonel and successor, Edward Hallowell, and had gone back
with them to share their first meal in camp. I should have known Shaw
anywhere by his resemblance to his kindred, nor did it take long to
perceive that he shared their habitual truthfulness and courage.
Moreover, he and Hallowell had already got beyond the commonplaces of
inexperience, in regard to colored troops, and, for a wonder, asked only
sensible questions. For instance, he admitted the mere matter of courage
to be settled, as regarded the colored troops, and his whole solicitude
bore on this point, Would they do as well in line-of-battle as they had
already done in more irregular service, and on picket and guard duty? Of
this I had, of course, no doubt, nor, I think, had he; though I remember
his saying something about the possibility of putting them between two
fires in case of need, and so cutting off their retreat. I should never
have thought of such a project, but I could not have expected bun to
trust them as I did, until he had been actually under fire with them.
That, doubtless, removed all his anxieties, if he really had any.
This interview had occurred on the 4th of June. Shaw and his regiment
had very soon been ordered to Georgia, then to Morris Island; Fort
Wagner had been assaulted, and he had been killed. Most of the men
knew about the circumstances of his death, and many of them had
subscribed towards a monument for him,—a project which originated
with General Saxton, and which was finally embodied in the "Shaw
School-house" at Charleston. So it gave us all pleasure to name this
camp for him, as its predecessor had been named for General Saxton.
The new camp was soon brought into good order. The men had great
ingenuity in building screens and shelters of light poles, filled in
with the gray moss from the live-oaks. The officers had vestibules built
in this way, before all their tents; the cooking-places were walled
round in the same fashion; and some of the wide company-streets had
sheltered sidewalks down the whole line of tents. The sergeant on duty
at the entrance of the camp had a similar bower, and the architecture
culminated in a "Praise-House" for school and prayer-meetings, some
thirty feet in diameter. As for chimneys and flooring, they were
provided with that magic and invisible facility which marks the second
year of a regiment's life.
That officer is happy who, besides a constitutional love of adventure,
has also a love for the details of camp life, and likes to bring them to
perfection. Nothing but a hen with her chickens about her can symbolize
the content I felt on getting my scattered companies together, after
some temporary separation on picket or fatigue duty. Then we went to
work upon the nest. The only way to keep a camp in order is to set about
everything as if you expected to stay there forever; if you stay, you
get the comfort of it; if ordered away in twenty-four hours, you forget
all wasted labor in the excitement of departure. Thus viewed, a camp is
a sort of model farm or bit of landscape gardening; there is always some
small improvement to be made, a trench, a well, more shade against the
sun, an increased vigilance in sweeping. Then it is pleasant to take
care of the men, to see them happy, to hear them purr.
Then the duties of inspection and drill, suspended during active
service, resume their importance with a month or two of quiet. It
really costs unceasing labor to keep a regiment in perfect condition
and ready for service. The work is made up of minute and endless
details, like a bird's pruning her feathers or a cat's licking her
kittens into their proper toilet. Here are eight hundred men, every
one of whom, every Sunday morning at farthest, must be perfectly
soigne in all personal proprieties; he must exhibit himself provided
with every article of clothing, buttons, shoe-strings, hooks and eyes,
company letter, regimental number, rifle, bayonet, bayonet-scabbard,
cap-pouch, cartridge-box, cartridge-box belt, cartridge-box
belt-plate, gun-sling, canteen, haversack, knapsack, packed according
to rule, forty cartridges, forty percussion caps; and every one of
these articles polished to the highest brightness or blackness as the
case may be, and moreover hung or slung or tied or carried in
precisely the correct manner.
What a vast and formidable housekeeping is here, my patriotic sisters!
Consider, too, that every corner of the camp is to be kept absolutely
clean and ready for exhibition at the shortest notice; hospital,
stables, guard-house, cook-houses, company tents, must all be brought to
perfection, and every square inch of this "farm of four acres" must look
as smooth as an English lawn, twice a day. All this, beside the
discipline and the drill and the regimental and company books, which
must keep rigid account of all these details; consider all this, and
then wonder no more that officers and men rejoice in being ordered on
active service, where a few strokes of the pen will dispose of all this
multiplicity of trappings as "expended in action" or "lost in service."
For one, the longer I remained in service, the better I appreciated the
good sense of most of the regular army niceties. True, these things must
all vanish when the time of action comes, but it is these things that
have prepared you for action. Of course, if you dwell on them only,
military life becomes millinery life alone. Kinglake says that the
Russian Grand-Duke Constantine, contemplating his beautiful
toy-regiments, said that he dreaded war, for he knew that it would spoil
the troops. The simple fact is, that a soldier is like the weapon he
carries; service implies soiling, but you must have it clean in advance,
that when soiled it may be of some use.
The men had that year a Christmas present which they enjoyed to the
utmost,—furnishing the detail, every other day, for provost-guard
duty in Beaufort. It was the only military service which they had ever
shared within the town, and it moreover gave a sense of self-respect
to be keeping the peace of their own streets. I enjoyed seeing them
put on duty those mornings; there was such a twinkle of delight in
their eyes, though their features were immovable. As the "reliefs"
went round, posting the guard, under charge of a corporal, one could
watch the black sentinels successively dropped and the whites picked
up,—gradually changing the complexion, like Lord Somebody's black
stockings which became white stockings,—till at last there was only a
squad of white soldiers obeying the "Support Arms! Forward, March!" of
a black corporal.
Then, when once posted, they glorified their office, you may be sure.
Discipline had grown rather free-and-easy in the town about that time,
and it is said that the guard-house never was so full within human
memory as after their first tour of duty. I remember hearing that one
young reprobate, son of a leading Northern philanthropist in those
parts, was much aggrieved at being taken to the lock-up merely because
he was found drunk in the streets. "Why," said he, "the white corporals
always showed me the way home." And I can testify that, after an evening
party, some weeks later, I beard with pleasure the officers asking
eagerly for the countersign. "Who has the countersign?" said they. "The
darkeys are on guard to-night, and we must look out for our lives." Even
after a Christmas party at General Saxton's, the guard at the door very
properly refused to let the ambulance be brought round from the stable
for the ladies because the driver had not the countersign.
One of the sergeants of the guard, on one of these occasions, made to
one who questioned his authority an answer that could hardly have been
improved. The questioner had just been arrested for some offence.
"Know what dat mean?" said the indignant sergeant, pointing to the
chevrons on his own sleeve. "Dat mean Guv'ment." Volumes could not
have said more, and the victim collapsed. The thing soon settled
itself, and nobody remembered to notice whether the face beside the
musket of a sentinel were white or black. It meant Government, all the
The men were also indulged with several raids on the mainland, under the
direction of Captain J. E. Bryant, of the Eighth Maine, the most
experienced scout in that region, who was endeavoring to raise by
enlistment a regiment of colored troops. On one occasion Captains
Whitney and Heasley, with their companies, penetrated nearly to
Pocataligo, capturing some pickets and bringing away all the slaves of a
plantation,—the latter operation being entirely under the charge of
Sergeant Harry Williams (Co. K), without the presence of any white man.
The whole command was attacked on the return by a rebel force, which
turned out to be what was called in those regions a "dog-company,"
consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds.
The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their
old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one. I
had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed
and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair hi
Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not
originally intended as "dogs of war," but simply to detect fugitive
slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales
of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.
Captain Bryant, during his scouting adventures, had learned to outwit
these bloodhounds, and used his skill in eluding escape, during
another expedition of the same kind. He was sent with Captain
Metcalf's company far up the Combahee River to cut the telegraphic
wires and intercept despatches. Our adventurous chaplain and a
telegraphic operator went with the party. They ascended the river, cut
the wires, and read the despatches for an hour or two. Unfortunately,
the attached wire was too conspicuously hung, and was seen by a
passenger on the railway train in passing. The train was stopped and a
swift stampede followed; a squad of cavalry was sent in pursuit, and
our chaplain, with Lieutenant Osborn, of Bryant's projected regiment,
were captured; also one private,—the first of our men who had ever
been taken prisoners. In spite of an agreement at Washington to the
contrary, our chaplain was held as prisoner of war, the only spiritual
adviser in uniform, so far as I know, who had that honor. I do not
know but his reverence would have agreed with Scott's
pirate-lieutenant, that it was better to live as plain Jack Bunce than
die as Frederick Altamont; but I am very sure that he would rather
have been kept prisoner to the close of the war, as a combatant, than
have been released on parole as a non-resistant.
After his return, I remember, he gave the most animated accounts of the
whole adventure, of which he had enjoyed every instant, from the first
entrance on the enemy's soil to the final capture. I suppose we should
all like to tap the telegraphic wires anywhere and read our neighbor's
messages, if we could only throw round this process the dignity of a
Sacred Cause. This was what our good chaplain had done, with the same
conscientious zest with which he had conducted his Sunday foraging in
Florida. But he told me that nothing so impressed him on the whole trip
as the sudden transformation in the black soldier who was taken prisoner
with him. The chaplain at once adopted the policy, natural to him, of
talking boldly and even defiantly to his captors, and commanding instead
of beseeching. He pursued the same policy always and gained by it, he
thought. But the negro adopted the diametrically opposite policy, also
congenial to his crushed race,—all the force seemed to go out of him,
and he surrendered himself like a tortoise to be kicked and trodden upon
at their will. This manly, well-trained soldier at once became a slave
again, asked no questions, and, if any were asked, made meek and
conciliatory answers. He did not know, nor did any of us know, whether
he would be treated as a prisoner of war, or shot, or sent to a
rice-plantation. He simply acted according to the traditions of his
race, as did the chaplain on his side. In the end the soldier's cunning
was vindicated by the result; he escaped, and rejoined us in six months,
while the chaplain was imprisoned for a year.
The men came back very much exhausted from this expedition, and those
who were in the chaplain's squad narrowly escaped with their lives.
One brave fellow had actually not a morsel to eat for four days, and
then could keep nothing on his stomach for two days more, so that his
life was despaired of; and yet he brought all his equipments safe into
camp. Some of these men had led such wandering lives, in woods and
swamps, that to hunt them was like hunting an otter; shyness and
concealment had grown to be their second nature.
After these little episodes came two months of peace. We were clean,
comfortable, quiet, and consequently discontented. It was therefore with
eagerness that we listened to a rumor of a new Florida expedition, in
which we might possibly take a hand.
1. COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, Executive Department,
Boston, February 5, 1863.
To COL. T. W. HIGGINSON,
Commanding 1st Regt. S. C. Vols.,
Port Royal Id., S. C.
COLONEL,—I am under obligations to you for your very interesting
letter of January 19th, which I considered to be too important in its
testimony to the efficiency of colored troops to be allowed to remain
hidden on my files. I therefore placed some portions of it in the
hands of Hon. Stephen M. Weld, of Jamaica Plain, for publication, and
you will find enclosed the newspaper slip from the "Journal" of
February 3d, in which it appeared. During a recent visit at Washington
I have obtained permission from the Department of War to enlist
colored troops as part of the Massachusetts quota, and I am about to
begin to organize a colored infantry regiment, to be numbered the
"54th Massachusetts Volunteers."
I shall be greatly obliged by any suggestions which your experience may
afford concerning it, and I am determined that it shall serve as a
model, in the high character of its officers and the thorough discipline
of its men, for all subsequent corps of the like material.
Please present to General Saxton the assurances of my respectful regard.
I have the honor to be, respectfuly and obediently yours,
JOHN A. ANDREW, Governor of Massachusetts.
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