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.
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.
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.
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?
(Colonel Higginson’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 195-198.)
- Captain Higginson Takes Command (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Freedom’s Eve ~ Honoring Black Soldiers in the Civil War (indybay.org)
- Emancipation Proclamation at 150: SC pays tribute (miamiherald.com)
- ‘Oh, Freedom': Hundreds gather in Beaufort to mark the 150th anniversary of slavery’s end (islandpacket.com)