Tag Archives: Rufus Saxton

“To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

Raids from Port Royal into the coastal plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were commonplace by the fall of 1863.  Starting early that year, these raids focused on something more than simple harassment of Confederate posts.  As seen with the St. Mary’s River expedition,the Combahee Raid, and later Edisto River operation, Federal forces engaged in what I’d cite as the active component of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Another of those type operations took place on November 23-24, 1863.

Tipped that a group of thirty slaves were gathering in the vicinity of Pocotalio, South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton in Port Royal dispatched a small force to that vicinity.  Captain John E. Bryant, of the 8th Maine Infantry, lead this force, consisting of sixty men of Companies E and K, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd US Colored Troops).  Bryant had already established a reputation as a scout in the swamps and marshes.  Captain Alexander Heasley, of Company E, and Captain Henry Whitney, of Company K, commanded their respective detachments under Bryant.

CunninghamsBluff

The raiders would advance by way of ships up the Broad River to the Pocotalio River. There they would move by boats through the marshes to a landing and proceed on foot to the designated rendezvous point. Along the way, they had to capture a known Confederate picket post along the Broad River in order to keep the movement secret.

Execution of the first phases of the raid fell not to a white officer, but to a black sergeant in the ranks of Company K, as Saxton reported:

The pickets, 2 in number, with their horses, were captured. Sergt. Harry Williams, of Company K, went with a party and liberated 27 slaves on the Heyward plantation, 6 miles in advance of our force and within 4 miles of the enemy’s headquarters. Great credit is due this dusky warrior for the skill with which he managed his part of the affair.

HarryWilliams

Sergeant Harry Williams

Coming back with the freed slaves, the party ran into fog that prevented their return to the boats. The raiding party, escaped slaves, and Heasley’s covering force waited in the fog for the boats. Meanwhile, according to a report filed by Brigadier General William S. Walker, Confederate commander of the Third Military District, a rebel detachment responded to alarms sent from Heyward’s plantation.

They were closely pursued by Captain [J. T.] Foster, with 25 men of Rutledge’s regiment of cavalry. The negroes took shelter in a very dense thicket near Cunningham’s Bluff (opposite Hall’s Island). Captain Foster dismounted his command and charged them, in skirmishing order.

In Foster’s party were a group of men in charge of bloodhounds.  Walker described the pursuit as a “fox chase.” Heasley waited until the dogs were practically upon the force before ordering bayonets against the dogs, followed by a volley against the Confederates. This killed three of the dogs and drove off Foster’s men for the moment.   Other Confederate forces under Colonel B.H. Rutledge arrived, but were unable to get at the Federal party due to the marshes.

As the Federal force withdrew further, the Confederates continued to press them.  Whitney’s detachment, which was positioned to guard the bluffs, then ambushed the pursuers. Saxton wrote, “he opened fire upon them, killing, among others, the commander of the company and the remaining bloodhounds.”  Saxton added:

To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight, this daring act of Captain Whitney and his little band of 10, opening fire unhesitatingly upon a full company, not less than 100 of the enemy’s cavalry, and repulsing them, this will be a startling fact.

With that, the raiding force returned to the boats and departed for Port Royal Sound.

Federal reports mentioned seven wounded, though none seriously.  But Rufus claimed five Confederate killed and many more wounded, out of an estimated 1,000 (!) sent in pursuit.  On the other hand, Walker reported only three wounded, none seriously.  One of the two captured pickets later escaped.  Walker added, “this is the first time the men of this portion of the command have been under fire.”

Both accounts emphasized the employment of the dogs in the pursuit.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson added some perspective:

The whole command was attacked 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 in 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.

To some degree these raiding actions were simply wide scale slave escapes, now encouraged by forces which only years earlier had been legally bound against such activity.  However, in the broader context of the Civil War, these raids were sapping away the labor force on which the Confederacy depended.  At the same time, raids such as that conducted on the Pocotaligo 150 years ago were manifestations of a war policy set forward with the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated only days earlier at Gettysburg.  The best counter to the “dog-companies” was an armed U.S Colored Troops detachment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 745-6; Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Oxford University, 1870, pages 230-1.)

150 Years Ago: Bricks for Fort Clinch… gathered by the “Sable Arm”

I’m a bit early with this sesquicentennial themed post.  But there are several events “stacked up” at the end of this month, furthermore the topic goes well with today’s holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Fort Clinch, near Fernandina Beach, Florida, protected the entrance to St. Mary’s River, bordering Georgia and Florida.  The five-million or so bricks of Fort Clinch have captured my attention on each visit to the site.  Even a casual observer notes the distinct line of colors in the brickwork.

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Fort Clinch – looking to the west end of the gorge wall

Most of the lower, grayer bricks are from the initial construction period and were drawn from local sources.  Although started in 1847, work proceeded slowly.  Even when Federals occupied the fort in March 1862, the work was still far from complete.  Authorities felt, even though the fort was a backwater in a backwater theater, Fort Clinch should be completed in order to shore up defenses along the coast.   Such efforts required bricks… and labor.

Project engineer Captain Alfred F. Sears began contracting “contraband” labor in 1862.  But he was short of bricks, with no available source on the barrier island.  The brickyard which had supplied the fort’s builders before the war lay some thirty miles upstream on the St. Mary’s River, behind Confederate lines.  With Sears’ urgings, an expedition formed in mid-January 1863 with the aim to secure the bricks.  It is easy to overlook this activity with much larger events occurring in the major theaters of war at around the same time.  Call them “raids” or “expeditions,” such forays occurred with regularity along the coastlines during the war.  What draws my attention to this particular expedition are the troops employed – the First (US) South Carolina Infantry.

The 1st South Carolina first formed, by order of General David Hunter, in the spring of 1862 from contrabands at Hilton Head.  Under political pressure, the regiment was disbanded.  But by November the regiment reformed under Colonel Thomas W. Higginson.  Despite the state designation, the regiment consisted of a number of escaped slaves from Georgia and Florida.  That factor worked in favor of the expedition.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Despite the military air of his portrait, Higginson was not a military man by training.  A minister and ardent abolitionist, Higginson hailed from Massachusetts.  Before the war he’d supported John Brown, going as far to say that slavery had to end even if it meant war.  And when war came, Higginson went as a Captain of the 51st Massachusetts.  His beliefs and reputation, despite his lack of experience, led General Rufus Saxton to offer command the 1st South Carolina to Higginson.

Higginson’s expedition left Beaufort, South Carolina on January 23.  The 1st South Carolina, consisting of 462 officers and men, loaded into three steamers.  As reports go, Higginson’s was one of the worst in terms of formatting.  In reciting the details, he failed to provide any specifics as to the routes taken or even dates of activities (although he did offer a chapter length account of the expedition in Army Life in a Black Regiment, published in 1870).  By February 1, the expedition returned to South Carolina.  He could report accomplishment of his primary objective – “I have turned over to Captain Sears about 40,000 large-sized bricks, valued at about $1,000, in view of the present high freights.”  Higginson went into great detail about the stores and supplies acquired, and in some cases left behind due to lack of transport.

But in a broader perspective, one might say the 1st South Carolina took away some bricks, but left behind something more important.  The expedition was among the first, if not THE first, operation involving black troops after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That fact was not lost on Higginson:

The expedition has carried the regimental flag and the President’s proclamation far into the interior of Georgia and Florida. The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph.

Higginson reported a few slave families returned with the expedition.  But he didn’t figure the count of freed slave to be the measure of success at this stage of the war:

No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops. Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, while white troops do not, and, moreover, that they have peculiarities of temperament, position, and motive which belong to them alone. Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops what I have successfully accomplished with black ones. Everything, even to the piloting of the vessels and the selection of the proper points for cannonading, was done by my own soldiers. Indeed, the real conductor of the whole expedition up the Saint Mary’s was Corpl. Robert Sutton, of Company G, formerly a slave upon the Saint Mary’s River, a man of extraordinary qualities, who needs nothing but a knowledge of the alphabet to entitle him to the most signal promotion. In every instance when I followed his advice the predicted result followed, and I never departed from it, however slightly, without finding reason for subsequent regret.

We might write this off as Higginson championing his abolitionist aims. However, he was right in some regards.  The President’s proclamation, now a war aim, depended upon the Army and Navy for successful enforcement.  But likewise, the Army and Navy needed the “Sable Arm” in order to prosecute the war.  The Army needed more Corporal Suttons.

A year or so later the 1st South Carolina became the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops.  Such completed the transition of this pre-Emancipation Proclamation regiment.  But Fort Clinch remained incomplete, needing more bricks.  Eventually bricks shipped down from the north allowed the completion of the major portions of the wall. Their composition stood out as a distinct line compared to the locally produced bricks.

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Several colors of Bricks in the Fort Clinch Wall

But this came at a time when brick fortifications were just not worth maintaining.  After decades of neglect and intermittent military activity, the fort received the attention of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934.  The CCC and later the State of Florida restored the brickwork, adding newer bricks where needed. The end result is a patchwork of colors in the wall.

Perhaps a standing, physical metaphor for us to consider?

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Interior of Fort Clinch

(Colonel Higginson’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 195-198.)