"This journal, from which Higginson drew his celebrated memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment, finally receives its deserved full publication. Higginson was a minister, naturalist, ardent abolitionisthe was one of the 'secret six' who supported John Brownand commander of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, one of the Union's earliest forces of freed slaves during the Civil War. . . . The immediacy of Higginson's reflections, as well as their sharp insights, make this journal both distinctive and enduringly compelling. . . . Higginson's vivid texts can once again educate, gratify, and delight readers."Publishers Weekly
"The lively and detailed wartime diary of the leader of the first black regiment to be formed in the Civil War offers a refreshingly uncensored portrait of life in the Union Army from an officer's point of view. . . . The original journal format allows Higginson a greater frankness in discussing his men, his motivations, and war's weird mix of numbing routine and terror. . . . Higginson made use of the privacy his diary offered to record candid assessments of other officers, and to capture the raw humor that develops among men in combat. His portraits of the soldiers, of the routines of camp life, and of southern landscapes all have great impact. He is also amazingly frank about his divided feelings for his men. . . . A model of how such material should be presented and a fascinating glimpse of a regiment that helped, by its formation and success, to make history."Kirkus Reviews
"This is by far the fullest and best edition of an important set of writings by a significant figure in American literary and cultural history as well as in the drama of black soldiers in the American Civil War. The book's greatest importance lies in the information and insights it offers about the experiment of enlisting black troops in the Civil War. Higginson was determined that it not fail, and his journal and letters offer a fascinating story of his step-by-step efforts to make a success of the experiment. Christopher Looby's edition is unique in its scope and originality."James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
An excerpt from|
The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Edited by Christopher Looby
Sunday morning Nov 23D
The loveliest of Sunday morningswith just breeze enough to keep our sails full. We shall reach Beaufort tomorrow morning. It is amusing to see how the stiffness disappears from people after being a few days at sea, how they cease to mount guard against each other, and find out who is who; which are the important officials, which the Herald reporter, 1 which the Revd Dr Peck, 2 which the distressed widow & the eligible young lady & so on. Especially the transition is marked with officers who at first can only locate each other by the shoulder straps, & the second lieutenant is deferential to the unknown Major until the Major turns out a greater goose than even the Lieutenant.
As I approach the mysterious land I am more & more impressed with my good fortune in having this novel & uncertain career open before me when I thought everything definitely arranged. My dear mother was wrong in regretting that I exchanged the certain for the uncertain. Every thing I hear of this new opportunity the more attractive it becomes. My lot in the 51st regiment 3 was too smooth; I already had the best company in what was regarded as the best of the 9 months regiments; 4 three first class officers above me took off all difficult responsibility; it was becoming mere play. Either of my lieutenants could take my work & carry it on well. Here is, on the contrary, a position of great importance; as many persons have said, the first man who organizes & commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important service in the history of the War; & this undertaking will be more easy to me than to almost any one, perhaps, because it falls so remarkably into the line of all my previous preparations. To say that I would rather do it than any thing 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. It would seem too good to become real, but for the similar good fortune which has marked all my entrance on military life and indeed all my life heretofore.
Now there is a pretty group; the ladies are singing hymns & three or four soldiers with them; three or four grim fellows in the foreground join in the chorus, while they wash their faces in the deck buckets; a squad of younger soldiers lean their heads above from the hurricane deck, & listen; a little orphan girl, the pet of all the passengers stands eagerly listening, with bare head, black eyes & brown cheeks, a little Cosette; 5 over head a white gull hovers with black tipped wings, & the innumerable waves toss their white heads around.
I have certainly escaped one duty which would have been painful, by coming thus, alone; to see all my nice boys sea sick in the miserable quarters allotted necessarily to troops on transports would have been very uncomfortable, even with the favorable weather we have had; while such scenes as those which the recent regiments experienced in Boston harbor would have been simply horrible. I can judge of that from the little I have seen in the same line. So you see I have improved my lot in some respects.
Now the soldier boys are in ecstacies at a school of porpoises & run lumbering from one side the deck to the other to watch them. They are much like porpoises themselves, young Maine recruits, tumbling about the deck in noisy play till they almost roll overboard; & still the sweet singing goes on, and brown little Cosette listens & the gulls hover & the white waves sparkle over blue depths for we are nearing the Gulf Stream.
The superintendant told me a Miss Helen Windsor 6 of Boston, a girl of 23 who must be a remarkable person, undertook the Eustis estate in addition to one she already managed; and with the most perfect success. No trouble about discipline & she without any male assistant has managed the cotton planting & carried on a school on each estate, ever since.
River opposite Beaufort
Yesterday afternoon we steamed over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor floor, no sail in sight, nor land, till at last one light house (Cape Romaine) & then a line of trees & two distant vessels and nothing more. The sunset, a great bubble of light, submerged in a vast line of rosy suffusion; it grew dark, after tea all were on deck, the ladies sang hymns, the moon set, a moon but two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backward on a radiant spot which rose from the ocean to meet it; it sank slowly & the last tip wavered and went down like the mast of a vessel of the skies. Toward morning the boat stopped & when I rose before six
The watch lights filtered on the land
Hilton Head lay on one side & the naval vessels on the other; all that was raw & bare in the low buildings of the new settlement softened into picturesqueness by the early light. Stars were still overhead, gulls wheeled and shrieked & above us the broad lagoon rippled towards Beaufort.
The shores were low & wooded, like any New England shorethere were a few men of war & twenty schooners with a few steamersone the famous "Planter" which Robert Small the slave presented to the nation. 8 The shores were soft, though low & as we steamed up to Beaufort on the flood tide this morning, it seemed almost as fair as the canal between whose banks Captain Stedman floated into lovely Surinam. 9 The air was cool as at home yet all the trees were green, glimpses of stiff tropical vegetation showed along the banks, with great clumps of some pale flowering shrub. Then appeared on a picturesque point an old plantation with decaying avenues and house & little church amid the woods, like Virginia; & behind a broad encampment of white tentsand there said my companion is your regiment of Maroons. 10
10 P.M. Camp Saxton
I have entered on command and am trying to play Col. Sprague 11 as well as may be. Spent morning with Gen. Saxton who is quite absorbed in this regiment & gave up all else for meHe gives me Carte blancheI am to send for Dr Rogers & James. 12 The line officers I like much, young & not highly educated but thoroughly manly & very ready to meet me as I wish. My adjutant is a Boston Fraternity 13 man and heard me in my Crumble lecture say Come & is delighted to have me, as they all are. Gen. S. had many applications for the place but left it to me. The Lieut. Col. & Major 14 I like least as military men. I am to live in a tent when I can get one. Meanwhile in a forlorn plantation house. Soon after my arrival this morning, in marched a company of my men, to be mustered inall black as coals as Margaret 15 predicted, not a mulatto among them, but marching well with their red legs 16 which are the only peculiarity of their uniform, as distinct from the ordinary. Gen. Saxton talked to them a littleso did I & they know what they are doing, I assure you. Being introduced to one who has been wounded in the late (second expedition) 17 I said "Did you think that was more than you bargained for"? "Dat's just what I meant for Massa" says he. Very good for my first exchange of remark with my men, was it not?
It was certainly odd to go about among five hundred men, and not a white faceto see them go through all their cooking & talking & joking (this was after dress parade 18) just as if they were white. They look so much alike at first too. I saw their 2nd dress parade, almost as good as our 2nd at Worcester & the precision of time with which they slapped down their hands after saluting, was astonishing, so in marching. Our camp is by a beautiful river where I can bathe & row or rather be rowed up to the city tomorrow.
With this letterfarewell
Camp Saxton. New Year's Eve.
My housekeeping at home is not perhaps on any very extravagant scale. Buying beefsteak, I usually go to the extent of two pounds. Yet when this morning the Quartermaster inquired how many cattle I wished to have killed for roasting I answered composedly "Ten, & keep three to be fatted." Fatted, quothaNot one of the beasts has one ounce of superfluous flesh. Never was seen such lean kine. As they swing on vast spits, composed of young trees, the fire light glimmers through their ribs, lantern like. But they are cooking, nay are cooked. One at least is taken off to cool & will be replaced tomorrow to warm up. It was cooked three hours & well done, for I tasted it. It is so long since I tasted fresh beef that I may have forgotten; but I fancied this to be successful. I tried to fancy that I liked the Homeric repast; certainly it was all far more agreeable than I expected. The doubt now is, whether I have made sufficient provision for my family; I should have roughly guessed that ten beeves would feed as many million people it has such a stupendous sound; but Gen. Saxton's estimate for tomorrow is 5,000. & we fear meat will run short, unless they prefer bone. One of the cattle is so small, I am hoping it may turn out veal.
For drink we aim at the simple luxury of molasses & water, a barrel per company. Liberal housekeepers may like to know that for a barrel of water is allowed three gallons of molasses, half a pound of ginger & a quart of vinegar, this last being a new ingredient for my untutored palate though the rest are amazed at my ignorance. Hard bread with more molasses, with subsequent tobacco, complete the repast destined to cheer but not inebriate.
On this last point, of inebriation, this is certainly a wonderful camp. For us it is absolutely omitted from the list of vices. I have never heard of a glass of liquor in the camp nor of any effort to keep it out. A total absence of the circulating medium might explain the abstinence, but not the non allusion to the subject. The craving for tobacco is hourly and constant, like that of a mother for her children; but I have never heard whiskey even wished for, save on Christmas Day, & then only with a hopeless far off sighing as you on that day might have visions of strawberries. I am amazed at this total omission of the most inconvenient of all camp-appetites.
I do not think there is great eagerness for tomorrow, as a day, for they know that those in this Department are nominally free already, and also they know that this freedom has yet to be established on any firm basis. Still I expect a large gathering of people & a cheerful time.
January 1. A happy new year to civilized peoplemere white folks. Our festival has come & gone with perfect success, and our good Gen. Saxton has been altogether satisfied. Last night the great fires were kept smouldering in the pits & the beeves were cooked more or less, chiefly more; it does not really take more than 4 hours, during which time they are stretched on great stakes made of small trees, and turned by main force at intervals. Even the night before I carried a small piece to supper in my fingers, from the first cooked, & there is really nothing disagreeable about the looks of the thing, beyond the scale on which it is done.
About ten these people began collecting, steamboats from up & down river, sent by Gen. Saxton to convey them, & from that time forth the road was crowded with riders & walkerschiefly black women with gay handkerchiefs on their heads & a sprinkling of men. Many white persons also, superintendents & teacherstwo of the Wares 19 & Edward Hall, a young minister whom Dr Rogers admires. Edward Hooper 20 in Captain's uniform & Dr Rogers' pretty little Quadroon friend, Charlotte Forten, who is here as a teacher. But most of these superintendents do not interest me much & seem rather secondrate & inefficient.
My companies were marched to the neighborhood of the platform & collected sitting or standing, as they are at Sunday meeting; the band of the 8th Me regiment was here & they & the white ladies & dignitaries usurped the platformthe colored people from abroad filled up all the gaps, & a cordon of officers & cavalry visitors surrounded the circle. Overhead, the great live oak trees & their trailing moss & beyond, a glimpse of the blue river.
The services begun at 11 ½prayer by our chaplainPresident's proclamation read by Dr W H Brisbane, 21 a thing infinitely appropriate, a South Carolinian addressing South Carolinianshe was reared on this very soil, and emancipated his own slaves here, years ago. Then the colors were presented to me by Rev Mr French, 22 who received them in N.Y. for us, unknown to us & had that fact very conspicuously engraved on the standarda fact which saves the need of saying anything more about the Revd Mr French. But whatever bad taste was left in the mouth by his remarks was quickly banished. There followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected & startling that I can scarcely believe it when I recall it, though it gave the key note to the whole day. The very moment Mr French had ceased speaking & just as I took & waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong but rather cracked & elderly male voice, into which two women's voices immediately blended, singing as if by an impulse that can no more be quenched than the morning note of the song sparrowthe hymn
"My country 'tis of thee
People looked at each other & then at the stage to see whence came this interuption, not down in the bills firmly & irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others around them joined; some on the platform sung, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap, it seemed the choked voice of a race, at last unloosed; nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it; & when I came to speak of it, after it was silent, tears were everywhere. If you could have heard how quaint & innocent it was! Old Tiff & his children 23 might have sung it; & close before me was a little slave boy, almost white, who seemed to belong to the party, & even he must join in. Just think of it; the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people,& here while others stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words these simple souls burst out in their lay, as if they were squatting by their own hearths at home. When they stopped there was nothing to do for it but to speak, & I went on; but the life of the whole day was in those unknown people's song.
I spoke, receiving the flags & then gave them into the hands of two noble looking black men, as color guard, & they also spoke, very effectively, Prince Rivers & Robert Sutton. 24 The regiment sang Marching along & Gen. Saxton spoke in his own simple & manly way, & then Mrs F D Gage 25 spoke to the women very sensibly & a Judge somebody 26 from Florida & then some gentlemen 27 sang an ode & the regiment the John Brown song & then they seemed to have a very gay time; most of the visitors dispersed before dress parade, though the band staid to enliven us. In the evening we had letters & so ended one of the most enthusiastic & happy gatherings I ever saw. The day perfect & nothing but success. Now I must stop
Camp Saxton Feb 4th
It is not easy to begin journalizing again, after the stirring life of the last fortnightwhich was very much like a chapter of Amyas Leigh, 28 but not much nearer to camp life than home life. It seems a little strange at first to be the undisputed master of 3 steamboats, one of them the largest I ever was on board ofbut I had previously been part owner in several punts, wherries &c & found that the imagination could easily expand to a Great Eastern & all her crew if necessary,so I governed my fleet with a mind calm & serene, & selected my rivers as coolly as if balancing between beef & mutton at dinner. I always thought a pirate's life must be fascinating, & so it is; & when I landed at Fernandina between my forays, I fancied Col. Hawley, with his placid Connecticut regiment, regarded me a little as the magistrates of the Orkneys did Cleveland. 29
When you set (empty) houses on fire, do you kindle on the windward or leeward side? there are advantages in each& oh, how beautifully they blaze. Nothing benefits the manners like piracy, you should have seen the elegant courtesy with which I informed the three old crones who garrison St Mary's 30 for the secesh, (better than a regiment could do) that I should begin burning in the house next to theirs, so that they, being women, should'nt suffer. Dr Rogers hoped their house would catch, but it didn't of course, the wind being the other waybut Dr Rogers was very much excited. You see the trouble is, at St Mary's, when you approach, the women come out & wave their white handkerchiefs & their long arms, then you land & the old crones tell you that no rebels ever come into the town, & that they are devotedly loyal, and show you a painting of Gen. Washington& as soon as you leave the wharf the rebels fire into you; this has happened repeatedly, & in such cases it is one's duty to burn the town & we ought to have taken the old ladies to Fernandina & burned their house too, but I was too softhearted. All the other houses were empty but theirs is crammed with furniture from garret to cellar. They were so grateful to me that some of the soldiers declare that one of them wanted to kiss mebut this is scandal.
Nothing could be neater than our trip to Woodstock 31 40 miles up the riverwe left Fort Clinch at the mouth, after dark, & after grounding 8 times in the narrow channel, dropped anchor before Woodstock an hour before daybreak. I sent troops on shore with the Major,boat after boat disappeared into the darkness & silence. I walked the deck an hour listening in vain for musket shots, & then going on shore myself after day light, found a line of red legs round every house in the village. We took a flock of sheep & lots of things useful for the army, 7 prisoners, a cannon & a flag; but passed by house after house stored with costly furniture from down river; pianos were a drug. We left fifty thousand dollars worth of lumber, such as cannot be bought for money nowSouthern pine. I did not injure anything except the feelings of the inhabitants, who did chafe at the complexion of my guardsblackguardsthough the men behaved admirablyeven one who threatened to throw an old termagant into the river took care to add the epithet "Madam"you would all laugh for 10 years if you could hear some of the descriptions the men give around the camp fires of their conversations with these women.
I took all the men we found in Woodstock prisoners, meaning them for hostages in case we got into any serious trouble on the river & then meaning to put all but one a shore farther down, but their friends attacked us so vehemently, there was no chance for chivalry. I felt ashamed of them, to keep them, they were such forlorn specimens, Falstaff's ragged regiment, 32 though the men say they are a fair type of the whole. I tried to make Col. Hawley at Fernandina take them off my hands, & offered to get his wife another piano, if he would, but the 7th Ct. have their full piano rations already & the bribe was vain. Even mutton didn't move him, so I brought them to Beaufort & the men were delighted. They said "Spose we leave dem dar secesh at Fernandina, Gen. Saxby w'ont see them." As if they were playthings. Only one of them was an upper crust seceshhim I took out of bed, with the most distinguished courtesy, he being a slight invalid, first having Dr Rogers feel his pulse & inspect his health with his most delicate & sympathetic manner on. "Allow me sir to examine your lungs"then ausculating him as tenderly as if he were a dying saintI sitting by, with as Cromwellian 33 an expression on my countenance as its natural benignity admits, and a stately daughter, too angry to sit down, standing with averted head in the background.
Still more stately was Mrs Alberti the widowed lady of the house & proprietor of the whole wealth of the premises. You should have seen her come out to meet me on the steps, as composedly as Goethe's Duchess met Napoleon. 34 "To what am I indebted for the honor of this visit, Sir"? But our intercourse rose into something more than frankness when we partedafter I had just discovered the slave jail with its abominations & brought away its stocks & shackles. She & her husband, (born in Philadelphia & N.Y.) had "devoted themselves for years to training & elevating these poor people". (N.B. The late Alberti left at his death a slave chained to this floor, whom the widow unpadlocked & sold soon after.)
Mrs Alberti also owned my kingly corporal Robert Sutton & I took the liberty to introduce him "Ah" said she, after some reflection, "We called him Bob." Oh dear! it was all very dreamlike & funny beyond description.
Would you believe that during one of the pauses of our cavalry fight, in the midnight moonlit woods, there came wailing through the woods the most cracked of female voices, calling back some stray individual who had run out to join our assailants "John, John, are you going to leave me, John are you going to let me & the children be killed, John.["] I suppose the poor thing's fears of gunpowder were genuine & serious, but it was such a wailing squeak, & so infinitely ludicrous that I could see my men showing all their white teeth with laughter, in the midst of the row. She & the children were so profoundly safe & John's risk so entirely for himself that the preposterousness was feminine & sublime.
It was easy to see how little it costs to be courageous in battle. There are a thousand things that require far more daring; the reason being that the danger does not come home so vividly to the senses, in battle; there is the noise & the smoke, & then besides, no matter how loud the bullets may whiz, so long as you are not hit, they don't mean you, & after they do mean you, it's too late to be frightened. To a person afraid of lightening, for instance, a severe storm is far more terrifying than a battle, because you sit silent waiting for the flash & wondering if the next will strike you& you have not the excitement of flashing back again.
Our danger in such expeditions is not nearly so great as one would think, as we have cannon & the rebels have not, & they run away from them. But I think they would run away from our men, even without the cannonI should think they wouldI should. They are perfectly formidable. That night in the woods they wanted to plunge off in pursuit of the enemy, which as it afterwards appeared, they might have done with safety; & coming down the river they were furious at being kept down below, "What for de Cunnel say cease firing, & de secesh blazing away at de rate of ten dollars a day"! They "supposed de Cunnel knowed best, but it was mighty mean to keep them shut down in de hold, when dey might be shooting in de clar field." They desired intensely to get on shore & fight it out.
My Major is a man of immense pluck and exceedingly valuable. He was once on the Police in N.Y. & acquired that willingness to front danger alone that a police man acquires.
You will see my official report 35 & I cannot possibly write much more. I did not there speak of the endurance of these men under wounds. After the battle at Township, 36 one of the men with two wounds in the shoulder, brought 2 guns back to the shore, where we bivouacked all night. Robert Sutton with three bullet wounds, stood guard all night on the shore, & did not report to Dr. Rogers till next day, another, with 3 buckshot in his neck, never reported to the Surgeon at all, for fear of being kept from service next day, but got a comrade to dig out the buckshot. Still another, who seemed dying, from a wound through the lungs, said nothing as they carried him to the vessel except to ask 3 times if "de Cunnel was safe." He is now getting well, as are all, they were only flesh wounds.
Dr Rogers is a treasure, & enjoyed the trip immensely as did James, though I kept him rather out of all dangerous parts of it, he complains. I never shall have a chance to risk myself much, they are all lecturing me all the time, & I have got quite used to putting my head in safe corners. I wore my iron plated vest too, which is very light & comfortable.
I dare say this expedition may have to last us some time, as Gen Hunter is bent on the advance towards Charleston or Savannah, & we are more likely to be left here for garrison duty. Gen Saxton is not anxious to make us prominent in the Charleston movement.
Dr Rogers & I landed at day break in Beaufort I carrying my report in one hand & the shackles from the slave jail in the other. As Dr Rogers said a message from heaven & one from hell. I walked into the Gen.l's bed room & left him reading the report.
Online information about the First South Carolina Volunteers:
The First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry from John Raymond Gourdin's website.
Data on the First South Carolina Volunteers can be found in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System of the National Park Service, however it is indexed under the unit's later name, the 33rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops.