Leaves From an Officer's Journal

A white Civil War officer recounts his experience as Colonel of the first black regiment

[Read the November 1864 and December 1864 installments of Higginson's Leaves From an Officer's Journal]

January 3, 1864.

Once, and once only, thus far, the water has frozen in my tent; and the next morning showed a dense white frost outside. We have still mocking-birds and crickets and rosebuds and occasional noonday baths in the river, though the butterflies have vanished, as I remember to have observed in Fayal, after December. I have been here nearly six weeks without a rainy day; one or two slight showers there have been, once interrupting a drill, but never dress parade. For climate, by day, we might be among the isles of Greece,--though it may be my constant familiarity with the names of her sages which suggests that impression. For instance, a voice just now called, near my tent,--"Cato, whar's Plato?"

The men have somehow got the impression that it is essential to the validity of a marriage that they should come to me for permission, just as they used to go to the master; and I rather encourage these little confidences, because it is so entertaining to hear them. "Now, Cunnel," said a faltering swain the other day, "I want for get me one good lady," which I approved, especially the limitation as to number. Afterwards I asked one of the bridegroom's friends whether he thought it a good match. "Oh, yes, Cunnel," said he, in all the cordiality of friendship, "John's gwine for marry Venus." I trust the goddess prove herself a better lady than she appeared during her previous career upon this planet. But this naturally suggests the isles of Greece again.

_January 7._--On first arriving, I found a good deal of anxiety among the officers as to the increase of desertions, that being the rock on which the "Hunter Regiment" split. Now this evil is very nearly stopped, and we are every day recovering the older absentees. One of the very best things that have happened to us was a half-accidental shooting of a man who had escaped from the guard-house, and was wounded by a squad sent in pursuit. He has since died; and this very evening, another man, who escaped with him, came and opened the door of my tent, after being five days in the woods, almost without food. His clothes were in rags, and he was nearly starved, poor foolish fellow, so that we can almost dispense with further punishment. Severe penalties would be wasted on these people, accustomed as they have been to the most violent passions on the part of white men; but a mild inexorableness tells on them, just as it does on any other children. It is something utterly new to them, and it is thus far perfectly efficacious. They have a great deal of pride as soldiers, and a very little of severity goes a great way, if it be firm and consistent. This is very encouraging.

The single question which I asked of some of the plantation-superintendents, on the voyage, was, "Do these people appreciate _justice_?" If they did, it was evident that all the rest would be easy. When a race is degraded beyond that point, it must be very hard to deal with them; they must mistake all kindness for indulgence, all strictness for cruelty. With these freed slaves there is no such trouble, not a particle: let an officer be only just and firm, with a cordial, kindly nature, and he has no sort of difficulty. The plantation-superintendents and teachers have the same experience, they say; but we have an immense advantage in the military organization, which helps in two ways: it increases their self-respect, and it gives us an admirable machinery for discipline, thus improving both the fulcrum and the lever.

The wounded man died in the hospital, and the general verdict seemed to be, "Him brought it on heself." Another soldier died of pneumonia on the same day, and we had the funerals in the evening. It was very impressive. A dense mist came up, with a moon behind it, and we had only the light of pine-splinters, as the procession wound along beneath the mighty moss-hung branches of the ancient grove. The groups around the grave, the dark faces, the red garments, the scattered lights, the misty boughs, were weird and strange. The men sang one of their own wild chants. Two crickets sang also, one on either side, and did not cease their little monotone, even when the three volleys were fired above the graves. Just before the coffins were lowered, an old man whispered to me that I must have their position altered,--the heads must be towards the west; so it was done,--though they are in a place so veiled in woods that either rising or setting sun will find it hard to spy them.

We have now a good regimental hospital, admirably arranged in a deserted gin-house,--a fine well of our own within the camp-lines,--a ful-allowance of tents, all floored,--a wooden cook-house to every company, with sometimes a palmetto mess-house beside,--a substantial wooden guard-house, with a fireplace five feet "in de clar," where the men off duty can dry themselves and sleep comfortably in bunks afterwards. We have also a great circular school-tent, made of condemned canvas, thirty feet in diameter, and looking like some of the Indian lodges I saw in Kansas. We now meditate a regimental bakery. Our aggregate has increased from four hundred and ninety to seven hundred and forty, besides a hundred recruits now waiting at St. Augustine, and we have practised through all the main movements in battalion drill.

Affairs being thus prosperous, and yesterday having been six weeks since my last and only visit to Beaufort, I rode in, glanced at several camps, and dined with the General. It seemed absolutely like reentering the world; and I did not fully estimate my past seclusion till it occurred to me, as a strange and novel phenomenon, that the soldiers at the other camps were white.

_January 8._--This morning I went to Beaufort again, on necessary business, and by good luck happened upon a review and drill of the white regiments. The thing that struck me most was that same absence of uniformity, in minor points, that I noticed at first in my own officers. The best regiments in the Department are represented among my captains and lieutenants, and very well represented, too; yet it has cost much labor to bring them to any uniformity in their drill. There is no need of this, for the prescribed "Tactics" approach perfection: it is never left discretionary in what place an officer shall stand, or in what words he shall give his order. All variation would seem to imply negligence. Yet even West Point occasionally varies from the "Tactics,"--as, for instance, in requiring the line officers to face down the line, when each is giving the order to his company. In our strictest Massachusetts regiments this is not done.

It needs an artist's eye to make a perfect drill-master. Yet the small points are not merely a matter of punctilio; for, the more perfectly a battalion is drilled on the parade-ground, the more quietly it can be handled in action. Moreover, the great need of uniformity is this: that, in the field, soldiers of different companies, and even of different regiments, are liable to be intermingled, and a diversity of orders may throw everything into confusion. Confusion means Bull Run.

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