|Colonel Thomas W. Higginson Report -
Up the St. Mary's
February 1, 1863
War of the Rebellion Records
|JANUARY 23-FEBRUARY 1, 1863. -- Expedition from Beaufort, S. C., up the Saint Mary's River, in
Georgia and Florida.
Report of Col. T. W. Higginson, First South Carolina Infantry
ON BOARD STEAMER BEN DE FORD,
February 1, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report the safe return of the expedition under my command, consisting
of 462 officers and men of the First Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, who left Beaufort on
January 23, on board the steamers John Adams, Planter, and Ben De Ford:
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.
At Township, Fla. a detachment of the expedition fought a cavalry company which met it unexpectedly
on a midnight march through pine woods and which completely surrounded us. They were beaten off,
with a loss on our part of 1 man killed and 7 wounded, while the opposing party admits 12 men killed,
including Lieutenant Jones, in command of the company, besides many wounded. So complete was
our victory that the enemy scattered and hid in the woods all night, not venturing back to his camp,
which was 6 miles distant, until noon next day, a fact which was unfortunately unknown until too late to
follow up our advantage. Had I listened to the urgent appeals of my men and pursued the fleeing
enemy we could have destroyed his camp; but in view of the darkness, his uncertain numbers, and
swifter motions, with your injunctions of caution, I judged it better to rest satisfied with the victory
On another occasion a detachment of about 250 men, on board the John Adams, fought its way 40
miles up and down a river regarded by the naval commanders as the most dangerous in the
department -- the Saint Mary's --a river left untraversed by our gunboats for many months, as it
requires a boat built like the John Adams to ascend it successfully. The stream is narrow, swift,
winding and bordered at many places with high bluffs, which blazed with rifle-shots. With our glasses,
as we approached these points, we could see mounted men by the hundred galloping through the
woods from point to point to await us, and though fearful of our shot and shell, they were so daring
against musketry that one rebel actually sprang from the shore upon the large boat which was towed
at our stern, where he was shot down by one of my sergeants. We could see our shells scatter the
rebels as they fell among them, and some terrible execution must have been done, but not a man of
this regiment was killed or wounded, though the steamer is covered with bullet-marks, one of which
shows where our brave Captain Clifton, commander of the vessel, fell dead beside his own
pilot-house, shot through the brain by a Minie ball. Major Strong, who stood beside him, escaped as if
by magic, both of them being unnecessarily exposed without my knowledge.
The secret of our safety was in keeping the regiment below, except the gunners; but this required the
utmost energy of the officers, as the men were wild to come on deck, and even implored to be landed
on shore and charge on the enemy.
Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew
nothing. There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read, except it be
the French Zouaves. It requires the strictest discipline to hold them in hand. During our first attack on
the river before I had got them all penned below they crowded at the open ends of the steamer
loading and firing with inconceivable rapidity, and shouting to each other, "Never give it up." When
collected into the hold they actually fought each other for places at the few port-holes from which they
could fire on the enemy. Meanwhile the black gunners, admirably trained by Lieutenants Stockdale
and O'Neil, both being accomplished artillerists, and Mr. Heron, of the gunboat, did their duty without
the slightest protection and with great coolness amid a storm of shot.
This river expedition was not undertaken in mere bravado. Captain Sears, U. S. Army, the contractor
of Fort Clinch had urged upon the War Department to endeavor to obtain a large supply of valuable
bricks, said to remain at the brick-yards, 30 miles up the Saint Mary's, from which Fort Clinch was
originally supplied. The War Department had referred the matter to Colonel Hawley. who approved my
offer to undertake the enterprise. Apart from this, it was the desire of Lieutenant Hughes, U. S. Navy
commanding U. S. steamer Mohawk, now lying at Fernandina, to obtain information regarding a rebel
steamer, the Berosa, said to be lying still farther up the river, awaiting opportunity to run the
blockade. Both objects were accomplished; I brought away all the bricks and ascertained the Berosa
to be worthless.
I have the honor to state that I have on board the Ben De Ford 250 bars of the best new railroad iron,
valued at $5,000, and much needed in this department This was obtained on Saint Simon's and
Jekyl's Islands, Georgia, from abandoned rebel forts, a portion of it having been previously blown up
and collected by Captain Steedman, of the Paul Jones. I have also eight large sticks of valuable
yellow-pine lumber, said to be worth $700, which came from Saint Mary's, Ga. There is also a quantity
of rice, resin, cordage, oars, and other small matters suitable for army purposes. On board the John
Adams there is a flock of 25 sheep from Woodstock, Fla.
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. I have also turned over to Judge Latta, civil provost-marshal at
Fernandina, 4 horses, 4 steers, and a quantity of agricultural implements, suitable for Mr. Helper's
operations at that location.
I have seen with my own eyes, and left behind for want of transportation (and because brick was
considered even more valuable), enough of the choicest Southern lumber to load steamers like the
Ben De Ford--an amount estimated at more than 1,000,000 feet, and probably worth at Hilton Head
$80,000. I also left behind, from choice, valuable furniture by the houseful -- pianos, china, &c., all
packed for transportation, as it was sent inland for safe-keeping. Not only were my officers and men
forbidden to take any of these things for private use, but nothing was taken for public use save
articles strictly contraband of war. No wanton destruction was permitted, nor were any buildings
burned unless in retaliation for being fired upon, according to the usages of war. Of course no
personal outrage was permitted or desired.
At Woodstock I took 6 male prisoners, whom I brought down the river as hostages, intending to land
part of them before reaching Fernandina and return them on parole, but in view of the previous attack
made upon us from the banks this would have seemed an absurd stretch of magnanimity, and by the
advice of Colonel Hawley I have brought them for your disposal.
At the same place we obtained a cannon and a flag, which I respectfully ask for the regiment to retain.
We obtained also some trophies of a different description from a slave-jail, which I shall offer for your
personal acceptance -- three sets of stocks, of different structure, the chains and staples used for
confining prisoners to the door, and the key of the building. They furnish good illustrations of the
infernal barbarism against which we contend.
We returned at the appointed time, although there are many other objects which I wish to effect, and
our rations are not nearly exhausted; but the Ben De Ford is crowded with freight and the ammunition
of the John Adams is running low. Captain Hallett has been devoted to our interests, as was also, until
his lamented death, the brave Captain Clifton.
Of the Planter I have hitherto said nothing, as her worn-out machinery would have made her perfectly
valueless but for the laborious efforts of Captain Eldridge and her engineer, Mr. Barger, aided by the
unconquerable energy of Captain Trowbridge, of Company A, who had the command on board.
Thanks to this they were enabled during our absence up the Saint May's to pay attention to the
salt-works along the coast.
Finding that the works at King's Bay, formerly destroyed by this regiment, had never been rebuilt,
they proceeded 5 miles up Crooked River, where salt-works were seen. Captain Trowbridge, with
Captain Rogers' company (F) and 30 men, then marched 2 miles across a marsh, drawing a boat with
them, then sailed up a creek and destroyed the works. There were 22 large boilers, 2 store-houses, a
large quantity of salt, 2 canoes, with barrels; vats, and all things appertaining.
I desire to make honorable mention not only of the above officers but of Major Strong, Captain James,
Company B, Captain Randolph, Company C, Captain Metcalf, Company G and Captain Dolly,
Company H. Indeed, every officer did himself credit so far as he had opportunity, while the
cheerfulness and enthusiasm of the men made it a pleasure to command them.
We found no large number of slaves anywhere; yet we brought away several whole families, and
obtained by this means the most valuable information. I was interested to observe that the news of the
President's proclamation produced a marked effect upon them, and in one case it was of the greatest
service to us in securing the hearty aid of a guide, who was timid and distrustful until he heard that he
was legally free, after which he aided us gladly and came away with us.
My thanks are due for advice and information to Captain Steedman, U. S. Navy, of the steamer Paul
Jones; to Acting Master Moses, U. S. Navy, of the bark Fernandina; to Acting Lieutenant Budd, U. S.
Navy of the steamer Potomska, for information and counsel, and especially to Lieutenant-Commander
Hughes. U. S. Navy, of the steamer Mohawk, for 20 tons of coal, without which we could not have
gone up the river.
I may state, in conclusion, that I obtained much valuable information, not necessary to make public, in
regard to the location of supplies of lumber, iron, rice, resin, turpentine, and cotton, and it would
afford the officers and men of this regiment great pleasure to be constantly employed in obtaining
these supplies for the Government from rebel sources; but they would like still better to be permitted
to occupy some advanced point in the interior with a steamer or two like the John Adams and an
adequate supply of ammunition. We could obtain to a great extent our own provisions, could rapidly
enlarge our numbers, and could have Information in advance of every movement against us. A chain
of such posts would completely alter the whole aspect of the war in the sea-board slave States, and
would accomplish what no accumulation of Northern regiments can so easily effect.
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 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 end 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.
I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
T. W. HIGGINSON,
Colonel, Comdg. First Regiment South Carolina Volunteers.
Military Governor, &c.
|Col. Thomas Wentsworth Higginson
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