11: Florida Again?
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Let me revert once more to my diary, for a specimen of the sharp changes
and sudden disappointments that may come to troops in service. But for a
case or two of varioloid in the regiment, we should have taken part in
the battle of Olustee, and should have had (as was reported) the right
of the line. At any rate we should have shared the hard knocks and the
glory, which were distributed pretty freely to the colored troops then
and there. The diary will give, better than can any continuous
narrative, our ups and down of expectation in those days.
"CAMP SHAW, BEAUFORT, S. C.,
February 7, 1864.
"Great are the uncertainties of military orders! Since our recall from
Jacksonville we have had no such surprises as came to us on Wednesday
night. It was our third day of a new tour of duty at the picket
station. We had just got nicely settled,—men well tented, with good
floors, and in high spirits, officers at out-stations all happy, Mrs.
—— coming to stay with her husband, we at head-quarters just in
order, house cleaned, moss-garlands up, camellias and jessamines in
the tin wash-basins, baby in bliss;—our usual run of visitors had
just set in, two Beaufort captains and a surgeon had just risen from a
late dinner after a flag of truce, General Saxton and his wife had
driven away but an hour or two before, we were all sitting about busy,
with a great fire blazing, Mrs. D. had just remarked triumphantly,
'Last time I had but a mouthful here, and now I shall be here three
"In dropped, like a bombshell, a despatch announcing that we were to be
relieved by the Eighth Maine, the next morning, as General Gillmore had
sent an order that we should be ready for departure from Beaufort at any
"Conjectures, orders, packing, sending couriers to out-stations, were
the employments of the evening; the men received the news with cheers,
and we all came in next morning."
"February 11, 1864.
"For three days we have watched the river, and every little steamboat
that comes up for coal brings out spy-glasses and conjectures, and
'Dar's de Fourf New Hampshire,'—for when that comes, it is said, we go.
Meanwhile we hear stirring news from Florida, and the men are very
impatient to be off. It is remarkable how much more thoroughly they look
at things as soldiers than last year, and how much less as home-bound
men,—the South-Carolinians, I mean, for of course the Floridians would
naturally wish to go to Florida.
"But in every way I see the gradual change in them, sometimes with a
sigh, as parents watch their children growing up and miss the droll
speeches and the confiding ignorance of childhood. Sometimes it comes
over me with a pang that they are growing more like white men,—less
naive and less grotesque. Still, I think there is enough of it to last,
and that their joyous buoyancy, at least, will hold out while life does.
"As for our destination, our greatest fear is of finding ourselves
posted at Hilton Head and going no farther. As a dashing Irish officer
remarked the other day, 'If we are ordered away anywhere, I hope it will
be either to go to Florida or else stay here!'"
"Sublime uncertainties again!
"After being ordered in from picket, under marching orders; after the
subsequent ten days of uncertainty; after watching every steamboat that
came up the river, to see if the Fourth New Hampshire was on board,—at
last the regiment came.
"Then followed another break; there was no transportation to take us. At
last a boat was notified.
"Then General Saxton, as anxious to keep us as was the regiment to go,
played his last card in small-pox, telegraphing to department
head-quarters that we had it dangerously in the regiment. (N. B. All
varioloid, light at that, and besides, we always have it.)
"Then the order came to leave behind the sick and those who had been
peculiarly exposed, and embark the rest next day.
"Great was the jubilee! The men were up, I verily believe, by three in
the morning, and by eight the whole camp was demolished or put in
wagons, and we were on our way. The soldiers of the Fourth New Hampshire
swarmed in; every board was swept away by them; there had been a time
when colored boards (if I may delicately so express myself) were
repudiated by white soldiers, but that epoch had long since passed. I
gave my new tent-frame, even the latch, to Colonel Bell; ditto
Lieutenant-Colonel to Lieutenant-Colonel.
"Down we marched, the men singing 'John Brown' and 'Marching Along'
and 'Gwine in de Wilderness'; women in tears and smiles lined the way.
We halted opposite the dear General's; we cheered, he speeched, I
speeched, we all embraced symbolically, and cheered some more. Then we
went to work at the wharf; vast wagon-loads of tents, rations,
ordnance, and what-not disappeared in the capacious maw of the
Delaware. In the midst of it all came riding down General Saxton with
a despatch from Hilton Head:—
"'If you think the amount of small-pox in the First South Carolina
Volunteers sufficient, the order will be countermanded.'
"'What shall I say?' quoth the guilty General, perceiving how
preposterously too late the negotiation was reopened.
"'Say, sir?' quoth I. 'Say that we are on board already and the
small-pox left behind. Say we had only thirteen cases, chiefly
varioloid, and ten almost well.'
"Our blood was up with a tremendous morning's work done, and, rather
than turn back, we felt ready to hold down Major-General Gillmore,
commanding department, and all his staff upon the wharf, and vaccinate
them by main force.
"So General Saxton rode away, and we worked away. Just as the last
wagon-load but one was being transferred to the omnivorous depths of the
Delaware,—which I should think would have been filled ten times over
with what we had put into it,—down rode the General with a fiendish joy
in his bright eyes and held out a paper,—one of the familiar rescripts
"'The marching orders of the First South Carolina Volunteers are hereby
"'Major Trowbridge,' said I, 'will you give my compliments to
Lieutenant Hooper, somewhere in the hold of that steamer, and direct him
to set his men at work to bring out every individual article which they
have carried hi.' And I sat down on a pile of boards.
"'You will return to your old camping-ground, Colonel,' said the
General, placidly. 'Now,' he added with serene satisfaction, 'we will
have some brigade drills!'
"Brigade drills! Since Mr. Pickwick, with his heartless tomato-sauce and
warming-pans, there had been nothing so aggravating as to try to solace
us, who were as good as on board ship and under way,—nay, in imagination
as far up the St. John's as Pilatka at least,—with brigade drills! It
was very kind and flattering in him to wish to keep us. But unhappily we
had made up our minds to go.
"Never did officer ride at the head of a battalion of more wobegone,
spiritless wretches than I led back from Beaufort that day. 'When I
march down to de landin',' said one of the men afterwards, 'my knapsack
full of feathers. Comin' back, he lead!' And the lead, instead of the
feathers, rested on the heart of every one.
"As if the disappointment itself were not sufficient, we had to return
to our pretty camp, accustomed to its drawing-room order, and find it a
desert. Every board gone from the floors, the screens torn down from the
poles, all the little conveniences scattered, and, to crown all, a cold
breeze such as we had not known since New-Year's Day blowing across the
camp and flooding everything with dust. I sincerely hope the regiment
would never behave after a defeat as they behaved then. Every man seemed
crushed, officers and soldiers alike; when they broke ranks, they went
and lay down like sheep where their tents used to be, or wandered
disconsolately about, looking for their stray belongings. The scene was
so infinitely dolorous that it gradually put me in the highest spirits;
the ludicrousness of the whole affair was so complete, there was nothing
to do but laugh. The horrible dust blew till every officer had some
black spot on his nose which paralyzed pathos. Of course the only way
was to set them all at work as soon as possible; and work them we did,—I
at the camp and the Major at the wharf,—loading and unloading wagons and
just reversing all which the morning had done.
"The New Hampshire men were very considerate, and gave back most of what
they had taken, though many of our men were really too delicate or proud
to ask or even take what they had once given to soldiers or to the
colored people. I had no such delicacy about my tent-frame, and by night
things had resumed something of their old aspect, and cheerfulness was
in part restored. Yet long after this I found one first sergeant
absolutely in tears,—a Florida man, most of whose kindred were up the
St. John's. It was very natural that the men from that region should
feel thus bitterly, but it shows how much of the habit of soldiers they
have all acquired, that the South Carolina men, who were leaving the
neighborhood of their families for an indefinite time, were just as
eager to go, and not one deserted, though they knew it for a week
beforehand. No doubt my precarious health makes it now easier for me
personally to remain here—easier on reflection at least—than for the
others. At the same time Florida is fascinating, and offers not only
adventure, but the command of a brigade. Certainly at the last moment there
was not a sacrifice I would not have made rather than wrench myself and
others away from the expedition. We are, of course, thrown back into the
old uncertainty, and if the small-pox subsides (and it is really
diminishing decidedly) we may yet come in at the wrong end of the
"Not a bit of it! This morning the General has ridden up radiant, has
seen General Gillmore, who has decided not to order us to Florida at
all, nor withdraw any of this garrison. Moreover, he says that all which
is intended in Florida is done,—that there will be no advance to
Tallahassee, and General Seymour will establish a camp of instruction in
Jacksonville. Well, if that is all, it is a lucky escape."
We little dreamed that on that very day the march toward Olustee was
beginning. The battle took place next day, and I add one more extract to
show how the news reached Beaufort.
"February 23, 1864.
"There was the sound of revelry by night at a ball in Beaufort last
night, in a new large building beautifully decorated. All the collected
flags of the garrison hung round and over us, as if the stars and
stripes were devised for an ornament alone. The array of uniforms was
such that a civilian became a distinguished object, much more a lady.
All would have gone according to the proverbial marriage-bell, I
suppose, had there not been a slight palpable shadow over all of us from
hearing vague stories of a lost battle in Florida, and from the thought
that perhaps the very ambulances in which we rode to the ball were ours
only until the wounded or the dead might tenant them.
"General Gillmore only came, I supposed, to put a good face upon the
matter. He went away soon, and General Saxton went; then came a rumor
that the Cosmopolitan had actually arrived with wounded, but still the
dance went on. There was nothing unfeeling about it,—one gets used to
things,—when suddenly, in the midst of the 'Lancers,' there came a
perfect hush, the music ceasing, a few surgeons went hastily to and
fro, as if conscience-stricken (I should think they might have
been),—then there 'waved a mighty shadow in,' as in Uhland's 'Black
Knight,' and as we all stood wondering we were 'ware of General
Saxton, who strode hastily down the hall, his pale face very resolute,
and looking almost sick with anxiety. He had just been on board the
steamer; there were two hundred and fifty wounded men just arrived,
and the ball must end. Not that there was anything for us to do; but
the revel was mistimed, and must be ended; it was wicked to be
dancing, with such a scene of suffering near by.
"Of course the ball was instantly broken up, though with some murrmurings
and some longings of appetite, on the part of some, toward the wasted
"Later, I went on board the boat. Among the long lines of wounded, black
and white intermingled, there was the wonderful quiet which usually
prevails on such occasions. Not a sob nor a groan, except from those
undergoing removal. It is not self-control, but chiefly the shock to the
system produced by severe wounds, especially gunshot wounds, and which
usually keeps the patient stiller at first than any later time.
"A company from my regiment waited on the wharf, in their accustomed
dusky silence, and I longed to ask them what they thought of our Florida
disappointment now? In view of what they saw, did they still wish we had
been there? I confess that in presence of all that human suffering, I
could not wish it. But I would not have suggested any such thought to them.
"I found our kind-hearted ladies, Mrs. Chamberlin and Mrs. Dewhurst, on
board the steamer, but there was nothing for them to do, and we walked
back to camp in the radiant moonlight; Mrs. Chamberlin more than ever
strengthened in her blushing woman's philosophy, 'I don't care who wins
the laurels, provided we don't!' "
"But for a few trivial cases of varioloid, we should
certainly have been in that disastrous fight. We were confidently
expected for several days at Jacksonville, and the commanding general
told Colonel Hallowell that we, being the oldest colored regiment,
would have the right of the line. This was certainly to miss danger
and glory very closely."
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