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TWO YEARS WITH A COLORED REGIMENT
A WOMAN'S EXPERIENCE
by Frances Beecher Perkins
Reminiscences of our civil war have been given to the public again and again, and our most able men have recited the details of the great battles and stirring events. But there are few records of the experiences of women in that war. This narrative, therefore may perhaps claim the one merit of novelty. My wish to preserve the memory of a gallant regiment and its beloved colonel forms another plea for my writing. The present, too, seems an opportune time for me to write, as public interest in the colored troops has been newly awakened by the unveiling in Boston of the beautiful memorial to Colonel Shaw and by Colonel Higginson's testimony, so widely read, to the value of the colored soldiers. In contrast, the regiment of which I write, though associated with the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw's regiment, throughout its whole career, and specially distinguished in the battles mentioned in the recent review of its work, has had no one to sound its praise. It belonged to no state, and therefore called forth no state pride; while the colonel who recruited it landed in New York at the beginning of the war after years of absence as seaman's chaplain in China, and therefore was also without state ties. It was in July, 1864, that I succeeded in getting a pass to enable me to join my affianced husband, Colonel James C. Beecher, in Jacksonville, Florida, which was then a fortified city and held by United States troops. An order had just been issued excluding women in general from the department of the South, lest their presence should interfere with the stern duties of war. I had therefore to go to Washington and present myself in person before our distinguished Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, to show reasons why an exception might be made in my favor. Colonel Beecher had twice failed in his attempt to come North to have our marriage celebrated in our own village church, and at length begged me to come to him, thinking he could at least meet me at Hilton Head, S.C. After months of planning to go with certain friends who would act as escort, and then hesitating to do a thing so utterly opposed to conventional ideas, the fortunes of war prevailed, and the steamer Fulton took me from New York to Hilton Head in five days' time. I was there met by friends with the news that Colonel Beecher had been sent into the interior, and could not meet me at that point. After a few days' delay, the morning of July 18th found me steaming up the lovely St. John's river to Jacksonville, through the enemy's country, with officers, soldiers and other more material supplies of war. Colonel Beecher was out on a raid near the mouth of the river, but sighted the expected boat with his spyglass, and hastened to meet me at the army headquarters, in the largest house in the city, then occupied by General William Birney. I will here copy part of a letter which I sent North the next day, and which was preserved by my mother.
"Ah, dear friends, if you could all have been present at that little military wedding at seven o'clock last evening, my happiness would have been complete. I have never read in fact or fiction of a wedding more unique and romantic, and yet so touching and so solemn. Imagine two large parlors thrown into one, with long windows and moonlit verandas at either end; in place of the usual elegant furnishings, see tables and desks strewn with despatches and writing materials; behold the glowing western sky without, and the picturesque groups of colored people looking in from the piazzas at the unusual sight. Within are four young men in the full dress uniform of a general's staff; a handsome colonel also waits, and a minister in clerical dress. A few moments, and then a fine looking, gray-haired general with sash and star brings in upon his arm a little woman in half bridal attire, and gives this woman to be married to this colonel. Soon the words are heard, 'Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.' Then they salute the bride, and she receives the kisses with the feeling that they represent the good wishes and blessings of all her dearest friends. Then came the wedding supper, also unlike any other; and then while we sat in the moonlight on the broad upper piazza, the well-trained band of the 7th US gave us a serenade that might well make us believe sorrow and sin had left the earth forever."
In a few days a house which had been occupied not long before by my cousin, General J. R. Hawley, was assigned to us as a regimental headquarters. This we called "home" for the next four months, and before it, by night and by day, a colored sentinel constantly paced, with his gun on his shoulder. And thus it continued during my two years' stay in the South -- a soldier was ever on guard before our door, presenting arms as we passed in and out; keys were unknown, and an orderly was ever within call. Being the only woman in the city, and having gained a little reputation for bravery, it may be imagined that I did not suffer for lack of courteous attention. I was pleased to find that our occasional receptions for the officers of our own and other regiments were regarded as an alleviation to the home- sickness so natural under the circumstances. Housekeeping claimed my attention at once, as our staff officers "messed" with my husband; and I found it pleasant to vary the army rations by my New England culinary skill, aided by the colored satellites whom it was a mercy to employ. During the middle of the day I could do little but submit to the heat and remain indoors; but at night, when my colonel was not away on duty in the vicinity, I rode on horseback with him on his various rounds. The proudest day of my life was when I first donned my new habit, with its military buttons of eagle stamp, and rode by the side of the Colonel to see the dress parade of our regiment at 6 pm. I may truly say that during my whole time in the South I saw no regiment more manly in appearance, none with straighter line or better drill, nor any more worthy of their uniform, than that which was then called "The First North Carolina Colored Volunteers."
This was one of the first colored regiment, raised at a time when the nation's prejudice against employing the negroes as soldiers had yet to be overcome. It was recruited in Newbern, S. C. [New Bern, N.C.], about a year before by Colonel Beecher himself, from the slave population of that region. On June 13, 1863, he wrote me: "I am amazed at the promptitude of these men to learn military drill. In spite of my hard work, I am becoming somewhat of an enthusiast. I wish doubtful people at home could see my three weeks' regiment. There is an amount of muscle in it of which few in the service can boast. In three more weeks we shall make a creditable show, and I think the government will not grumble at a regiment enlisted, organized, uniformed, armed and handsomely encamped in six weeks."
Their battle flag, which can now be seen with its many marks of service in the nation's storehouse at Washington, was largely the gift of the colored women of Newbern, assisted by our beloved sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was made of dark blue silk, fringed with gold, with the rising Sun of Liberty on one side and "God is our Sun and Shield" on the other, and was presented to the regiment on the 4th of July, 1863. Having no chaplain, and being, like his father and his six brothers, a Congregational minister, the Colonel undertook the spiritual care of his men after the Puritanical fashion. He wrote me as follows:
"Sunday eve. Had service at 6 P. M., before dress parade. I formed the battalion into close column by division and gave out, 'My country, 'tis of thee.' Six or seven hundred good, pleasant voices came in grandly. Then I read the 34th Psalm, 'This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,' etc. Then I prayed with them. I had given no directions, but the men knelt down and bowed their heads. It affected me beyond measure, and I prayed for them in faith. When I spoke of their past lives, of their being bought and sold like brutes, of their wives and children not their own, of their sorrow and degradation, many wept like children."
When the regiment left Newbern, they joined the siege of Charleston, and were there kept digging in the trenches until December. They did, however, have an occasional drill, but it was on the beach by moonlight. "Those who saw it," wrote an officer, "will not forget the romantic sight. The hard, white beach, with the ocean waves foaming and tumbling over it, the long line of black soldiers, with their guns shining in the moonlight, the low words of command, the prompt, soldierly obedience, -- a regiment of slaves, but lately come out of captivity, drilling there at midnight in sight of the great land of slavery!" Who would then have said that in less than two years' time their drills would be in the very center of Charleston and their home in its citadel?
Just before its departure for Florida, this regiment appeared in review before General Terry. He turned to a companion with admiration glowing on his face and said: "That is the best regiment that has appeared on the ground," and spoke further of the wonderful precision of their movements.
After only nine months of training, the First N.C.C. Volunteers came to their first battle, that of Olustee, Fla. A letter from one of its officers, which appeared in the Boston Journal, said: "Our men were brave beyond description; and as their comrades fell around them, they stood nobly without once shrinking. Overpowered by numbers, our retreat was steady and cool. After falling back a few paces, we about faced, and gave three cheers for the flag, which all the time had been waving, while the enemy's had been twice shot down. When the right arm of our color-sergeant was broken, he knelt down and with his left hand held up the dear old flag until relieved." The Herald correspondent wrote of this engagement: "The First North Carolina and the 54th Massachusetts of the colored troops did admirably. The former held the various positions in which it was placed with the greatest tenacity, and inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. It was cool and steady and never flinched for a moment. The 54th sustained the reputation gained at Wagner, and bore themselves like soldiers throughout the battle... The two colored regiments had stood in the gap and saved the army." The First N.C.C. Volunteers was said to have suffered more than any other regiment that went into action. The lieutenant colonel was killed, the major taken prisoner and sent to Andersonville, and of the eighty-six men composing the color company only thirty-four were left. The other companies lost in proportion.
The weeks succeeding this battle, until the time of my joining the regiment, were spent in dislodging the enemy from various small points in the state and holding them until there was no fear of their being retaken. An entire company was taken captive on the steamer Columbine, and sent with their captain and lieutenant to Andersonville, Georgia. Those who survived until the close of the war were then released.
Jacksonville has changed wonderfully in the thirty-three years which have elapsed since that date. At a little distance it then looked like a New England town, with its white houses and heaven-pointed spires. There was no carriage but an ambulance, and the sand was too deep for walking. Service was held every Sunday in the largest church in the place, which was filled to overflowing with the colored regiments and their white officers. I used to wish my friends at home could see with me that novel gathering, and hear with me our grand old hymns sung with that indescribable pathos and power that only the many voices of such men can give. My mornings were spent in teaching the men of our regiment to read and write, and it became my pleasing duty and habit, wherever our moving tents were pitched, there to set up our school. Sometimes the chaplain assisted, and sometimes the officers; and the result was that when the men came to be mustered out each one of them could proudly sign his name to the payroll in a good legible hand. When enlisted, all but two or three of them were obliged to put a mark to their names as written by the paymaster, thus:
John x Jones
while their eagerness to learn and the difficulty that many found in learning were very touching. One bright mulatto man particularly worked at his letters for two years, and then could only write his own name; while others learned at once. Whenever they had a spare moment, out would come a spelling book or a primer or Testament, and you would often see a group of heads around one book.
A few days after my arrival, Colonel Beecher was sent westward about thirty miles to seize and hold a junction of the railroad at Baldwin; and there he remained for a month. We exchanged letters daily by means of a little railway train, and I was twice invited to go and spend a few hours at Baldwin. I shall never forget that first ride in a camp chair on a platform car, escorted by the assistant adjutant general, the provost marshal, and others. The officers and enlisted men were constantly spying right and left for the enemy, and stopping the train to hear the reports of the scouts. We found Colonel Beecher with his headquarters established in a railroad water tank, and his men sickening at the rate of twenty a day from exposure day and night on swampy ground. How we rejoiced when they were recalled to garrison duty at Jacksonville!
Later on, I went up the river on a steamer to Magnolia and Green Cove Springs, both now famous winter resorts. The latter was of great interest from the wonderful green color of its many pools and miniature lakes, which might have issued from Tartarus itself. A shot was heard while our surgeon and others were indulging in a bath, and their wild scrambling into uniform again was the subject of much merriment. Later still, on more than one Saturday afternoon, the Colonel and his staff detailed a boat's crew from the regiment, and we went, like children released from school, rowing, within bounds on the beautiful river, where the sunsets equal or surpass those of Italy. Being deprived of the luxury of ice, we were glad to land and refresh ourselves with buttermilk from a farm on the opposite shore, or with a sour and bitter orange from the wild native stock, a kind never exported. At length came Thanksgiving day, which we kept in New England fashion, feasting on wild turkey shot by one of our men. It was the largest and handsomest bird I ever saw, the opalescent plumage being entirely different from that of the tame turkey.
But that very night came marching orders for active duty, and at two o'clock in the morning our regiment, with four or five others, under command of my husband, sailed down the river, leaving behind the chaplain, the sick, the lieutenant colonel's wife (lately arrived), myself and other impedimenta, with a small garrison force. Oh, then, the weary, weary waiting for tidings day after day, without boat or mail! The tenth morning brought news that our troops had been in a hard fight, and that my husband had been three times wounded and his horse shot from under him, and that he wished me to come to him at the officers' hospital at Beaufort, S. C. He wrote a few lines himself, to spare me unnecessary alarm. A returning steamer took me at once to Hilton Head, but there was some difficulty in finding transportation to Beaufort, --and the most touching sympathy and help were given me. A New York City pilot boat was at length placed at my disposal, and a few hours more of sailing brought me to the ward where my husband lay upon a cot, with five other officers in the same room. Our meeting can better be imagined than described.
My brother-in-law, Henry Ward Beecher, sent me a letter written to him by the father of our lieutenant colonel, which is now before me as I write. It says: "All colored troops behaved nobly, and especially your brother's regiment [then known as the 35th United States Colored Troops], never breaking or flinching under the severest fire. Your brother is reported to have distinguished himself for his bravery, and to have been dangerously wounded. He is said to be idolized by his men, so much so that there is not one in the regiment who would not sacrifice his life for him."
After the war was over Colonel Beecher met one of the colonels of the opposing force in the Honey Hill battle who said it was no wonder he and his great gray horse were hit so many times during that disastrous half-hour at noon, for the word was passed to the Confederate soldiers to aim at the officer on the light gray. He headed his men in five distinct charges against the enemy, and after the bullet entered his thigh at noon, he stood in front until night, before he would allow his surgeon to help him off the field. His men brought off his saddle as a trophy, which is now an heirloom in the family.
In Beaufort for four weeks I found board near the hospital, and was more than thankfful for my privileges as nurse. Nor were there wanting, even there, kind-hearted women to send their nourishing soups and jellies to the sick and to offer creature comforts to the wounded, irrespective of politics or creed. At Christmas, Colonel Beecher was sufficiently recovered to be removed to the house of General Saxton; and I am sure the spicy evergreens, with which his house was filled, could never be associated with a livelier joy than mine. We accepted his hospitality until it was deemed safe to travel, and then took a steamer North on furlough.
The following 18th of February found us again at Hilton Head, where Colonel Beecher rejoined the army, and reported to General Hatch, of the First Brigade, Coast Division. He found his command at Combahee Ferry, and was received with cheers and every demonstration of joy. He was kept busy for some days in clearing the vicinity of Charleston and wrote of being in the saddle from 6 am until 6 pm.
I went with General Gilmore's party to Charleston about two weeks after its evacuation, and found board with a family of Governor Aiken's former slaves, who were living in one of the large deserted houses. It would be difficult to describe the emotions with which I traversed the abandoned city and saw the churches and houses riddled with our shells, wondering that so few people were killed by them, and listening to the stories told by those who stood the siege, of how quickly they became accustomed to the terrific explosions. The various fires had laid waste a third of the city, and the ruined chimneys and walls still stood, block after block, while the grass grew in some of the finest streets. But as Nature always hastens to throw her mantle of beauty over the wrecks of time, so here I could enjoy to the full the luxuriance of the high-walled gardens, whose owners had disappeared and left me to wander at will among them. The perfume of those roses still lingers with me, and I know my husband was justified later in saying he could not find a tumbler to drink from nor a bowl in which to wash his hands, everything in our house was so filled with roses.
One curious trait of the Northerners in the city met you on every hand. Each person was eagerly seeking some bit of shattered stone or wood or tree or things even more valuable, to send home as mementos of the ill-starred city, until it seemed as if it might be entirely carried away by these relic hunters. For myself, I must always say to Charleston, "With all thy faults I love thee still," so very beautiful are its situation and climate, its flowers and fruits, and so thoroughly did I become at home there during the months that followed.
At this time I made the acquaintance of Mr. James Redpath, the correspondent of the New York Tribune, who had been appointed superintendent of schools in that city, and was by him made principal, pro tem., of one of the public schools, with thirty teachers and six hundred children under my charge. One floor was occupied by the white children and their teachers, and the remaining three by the colored ones, so great was their eagerness to learn. Colonel Beecher reached Charleston March 13, and encamped with his men for two days. One of them being Sunday, he preached in Zion Church on Calhoun Street, the largest church in the city. His beloved friend and surgeon, Dr. Marcy, today a resident of Boston, high in the medical profession, thus wrote of the chaplain-colonel: "He entered the pulpit in full uniform, through a crowd that filled every standing place, followed by members of his staff. Unbuckling his sword and laying it tenderly on the desk, he took for his text, 'The liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.' His impassioned oratory at times swayed the vast audience, as a mighty wind the tree-tops; again, recounting God's care for his children, it fell as the soft dews from heaven, and there was not a dry eye in the house; and when at the close all bent in prayer, broken sobs and utterances of, 'Thanks to God we's free' attested his power."
The next day we were ordered to Mount Pleasant, a village about three miles across the bay, on the other side of the Ashley, where I had the opportunity of visiting all the famous forts in and about the harbor. My first work was, of course, to set up our household goods from the mess chests and packs of baggage, so that in half a day's time our headquarters had as civilized and peaceful a look as if we were truly at home. Our troops were still in active raiding service for the protection of Charleston, and about the first of April we were recalled to that city, and my husband was put in command of the northern half, with the rank of brevet brigadier general, his men occupying the citadel on the central square. Here we remained for three months, and here "I dwelt in marble halls," for our headquarters were in the house on the corner of Charlotte and Meeting Streets, opposite the citadel, with a white marble front sufficiently imposing for the representatives of the restored United States government.
With the incoming of peace, on the 9th of April, came also the party of northern civilians for the re-raising of the flag of Fort Sumter, attending our good brother, Henry Ward Beecher, the orator of the day. I had the pleasure of entertaining him and his wife and several others of the party in our newly occupied but thoroughly dismantled house. We had only two rooms even partly furnished, so we gave our friends a taste of our army picnic life, putting them to sleep on the floor on mattresses borrowed from our surgeon's hospital stores. But every one was so jubilant over the fact that "the cruel war was over," that we would not have murmured at any kind of hardship. Fortunately we had secured the services of one of the best of the famous South Carolina cooks, and our first breakfast of deviled crabs and corn bread, cooked over the open fire in the usual far-away kitchen, was voted worthy of the occasion. The 14th of April was to us, as to all the nation, a day to be remembered. I have a photograph of the scene in the fort just before the flag went up, and with the aid of a magnifying glass, can show our family party. But, alas! Our joy was turned to sorrow the next day by the news of the assassination of our good president, and the northern party returned at once to their homes. I shall always remember our view of the retreating streamer and the group of sad-faced people waving their good byes and catching the shower of flowers tossed to them by the grateful colored people on the dock.
Then came the reconstruction time. It was difficult for me to realize that the war was over, because everything still proceeded according to military routine: drills, dress parade and general orders were unceasing. The army at once reversed its occupation and set about establishing the arts of peace. The planters and freedmen were induced to make contracts by which the ground should be tilled and the produce divided equitably when gathered; and these agreements were to last until the 1st of January, 1866.
Many a little detail of my half Bohemian life at this time comes to my mind; for I was sufficiently at rest about my husband to thoroughly enjoy it. In the early morning I drove out with an orderly in a confiscated buggy lent me by General Hatch, to the various markets. These were made interesting by the quaint headdresses of the good-natured colored women, the flowers and vegetables, and the grave, ugly buzzards. Teaching and domestic cares occupied the day until evening, when I rode on horseback with a larger or smaller party, or visited some of the northern women called to the South by the Freedmen's Bureau to act as teachers of "the nation's wards." These, with the white officers, formed our only society while in the South; but a very pleasant society it was, the women coming from our best and most cultured families.
Our next move was in July to Summerville, about twenty miles from Charleston, the headquarters of the second sub-district of the military district of Charleston, called also the Collection district. Here my husband was in command of a territory about ninety miles square, in which were 600 plantations, two quite large towns, and the sea islands so famous for their cotton. Summerville is today advertised in our northern papers as being a peculiarly healthful and attractive resort, and was then so considered by all the rice planters, who were unable to remain on their plantations during the heat and malaria of summer. Our regiment has not yet lost its connection with this pleasant spot, for one of its captains is now the postmaster. I found it one immense pine grove, miles in extent, with neat piazzaed houses tucked in wherever there was room among the trees; for there were no fences or gardens to speak of, and the roads wound in and out among the trees without law or order. The spicy smell of the pines filled the air, and the clouds and sky seen through their tops were enchanting. We had the largest house in the place as headquarters, and at one end of the room extending across the whole front of the house my General had his desk, and gave audience in the morning when at home, while I had mine at the other extremity; and a very busy life we led, for our fatherly Government, after chastising its children for misconduct, sought to restore them to their former place by feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, distributing seed and implements to the laborers, and protecting all until the civil courts could resume their functions. People came to our headquarters from twenty miles around to receive the ration tickets for meat, corn meal, coffee, sugar and beans, as required by the necessities of each case. Able-bodied persons were set at work, and only the old, the sickly, and young children were thus fed. The examination of these pensioners was at first conducted by our quartermaster; but it proved to be more truly a woman's work, and was therefore given to me. The tickets were issued without regard to color, and I had on my list some most touching cases of ladies born and reared in luxury, whose pride had to suffer agonies in receiving the necessities of life from our restored Government at the hands of its Yankee representatives. I remember also some very demonstrative and pretty mulatto women, who with prayers and tears would throw themselves at my feet and embrace my dress. The saddest cases to look on were those of the "poor white trash" with their bloodless faces and mournful eyes. As winter came on, boxes of clothing were sent me from England and elsewhere for distribution. I recall one box in particular, from the Quakers, with fifty dresses in it of pretty new plaid homespun stuff, and underclothing to correspond. It was then one of my special pleasures to receive some ragged, perhaps half-orphan child, lead her or him first to the bathroom maid and then to the clothing room, where I would select appropriate apparel, have it put on, and then give the happy little person a good dinner, after which the child went out of the house so transformed as to be almost beyond recognition.
Another pleasure that autumn I recall with a special vividness. A certain bridge over the Ashley, on an important road about five miles from Summerville, had been destroyed by our troops in the necessities of war, and was again needed. My husband, being a man of versatile talent, detailed a sufficient force of his men for the work, and in three weeks had thrown a very pretty and graceful structure over the river. Toward the middle of each day while he was at work on the bridge, I mounted my horse and, taking two orderlies with provisions, cantered down to the lovely spot. Here under the trees, near the camp fire and the river, we spread our repast, and roasted oysters in the shell, broiled our chicken or venison, and made our coffee. Life with the army did not seem an unpleasant thing in those days! Nor did it while we had command of the railroad from Summerville to Charleston and rode like the present millionaire magnates of the North. The train of several cars would be made up and ready to start, when the proper officer would step forward and, touching his Cap, say, "General, the train is ready."
Our Christmas of 1865 deserves mention, as Peace on Earth was specially illustrated in home decorations of holly and mistletoe mingled with drapings of our beloved banner, and at the schoolhouse by the largest evergreen tree that could be procured. This was brilliant with gifts for our two hundred colored children, who, wreathed in smiles and new clothing, delighted us in our turn with their singing and good manners. After the usual elaborate dinner, which seemed strange enough with the weather as warm as summer, we ended the day with a wedding, the General performing the ceremony in a very impressive manner. One of our enlisted men was united to the girl of his choice, with some fifty of their friends as onlookers; then a big bridal cake was distributed, and we had fireworks on the lawn. These weddings were a very common occurrence at our headquarters, being in accordance with the instruction of the Rev. General. He was very particular that there should be no "cause why the two persons present should not be joined together"; and therefore, while he examined the groom in one room, I took the female candidate into another and questioned her. Many a dusky bride I helped to adorn with white robes for her bridegroom, for they thought they could be married in nothing else.
My Husband always invited me to go with him when it was possible, on what to me were pleasure excursions to different parts of his district. I should otherwise have seen little of him, as he was always taking a few men and a week's rations and going from one point to another where he was needed. Once we took the cars from Charleston to Branchville, sixty-two miles, and then a horse and buggy, twenty-one miles to Bamberg on the Augusta railroad, where a business meeting of planters had been called. We had to ford a deep stream where the water came over the sides of the buggy and lifted it from the ground with every prospect of overturning it. A letter which I wrote my mother that winter lies on my desk, dated January 7, 1866, at Lowndes' plantation, Combahee Ferry, S.C. It says:
"Here I am unexpectedly in a large, old, empty house on an immense rice plantation--the only house left standing for miles around, for we are on the line of Sherman's march. The first floor is occupied by a detachment of our troops, and the second by a surgeon and two young men who came for a week of duck shooting, the General, two orderlies, my maid and myself. I did not think of stopping here more than an hour when I rode up in a mule cart from the landing, but being urged to stay. I am glad to have so entirely new an experience. Imagine me walking on the narrow paths where the rice is sown, and feasting on the most delicious, delicately fed ducks in the world. We have them broiled for breakfast, and roasted for dinner on a bayonet thrust through a pine box, open towards a roaring wood fire, and then we have them again cold for supper. Pine boxes supply our only furniture, but the garden still has blossoming jessamine and japonicas. The people are different from any I have met hitherto. The blacks are more ignorant, and are obstinate and repulsive in appearance,-- indeed, they are unable to talk so that we can understand them; while the white planters are the most cultured and gentlemanly possible. I met on the boat a member of the Heyward family, so lately the owner of seven hundred negroes, and nothing could exceed his courteous ways and words. My husband is doing a great work here, organizing labor on a plan hitherto unattempted."
When the order was issued forbidding the further use of the mutilated prayer for the President and commanding the return to the old words, "Behold and bless thy servant, the President of the United States and all others in authority," there were found some who did not at once obey, and General Beecher had to notify them by letter or personally. One of these cases was that of the rector of the Summerville church where he attended worship, and the result of the acquaintance, begun in so unpromising a manner was a most enjoyable and lifelong friendship. Mr. W. was ill at one time, and fainted in the pulpit, and the first to spring forward and carry him into the vestry was my husband. Afterwards, when an organist was not forthcoming, the similar anomaly was presented of a Confederate clergyman officiating at one end of the lovely old church while the general commanding the United States forces presided in the organ gallery at the other extremity.
Our Sunday services, however, were frequently held in the groves, which were God's first temples. The General found that the freed people, being religiously inclined, could be taught their new duties in no way so well as by his plain sermons and speeches, combined with singing and prayer. Therefore many a romantic and beautiful spot, where country roads intersected, saw a quiet Sunday crowd, sitting on fallen trees, fence rails, stones, and even on horseback and in wagons, listening to the eloquent teacher with eager attention. Men, white and black, with women and little children were there; and at the close what hand-shakings and blessings there were! My memory pictures of those scenes I value most of all.
I must say a word of the army work which came under my own eyes. Our district had, in consequence of its vicinity to Charleston, suffered more than any other. It was first stripped of supplies for the Charleston army, then by that army on its retreat, again by the Coast Division of the United States Army, and continually by scouts and bushwhackers. It was a difficult task to bring order out of all this confusion, and to convince men that the rein of peace had begun. The change from slave to freed labor was a most radical one, and affected all classes. No one knew exactly what ought to be done, and in the absence of any general law regulating labor and payment for labor each officer was left to rely mainly on his own judgment. Some trouble came also through the agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, who were not always wise. They seemed to consider it their duty to pet the freed people, to promise them land for their own, to excuse them from labor, and to foster a spirit of distrust of their late owners. My husband thought the Bureau should be used only as an agengy to help those people to take care of themselves. He did not believe that a forty- acre lot was a necessary adjunct to freedom, nor that a man was degraded by working for wages. Between the planters and their freed servants the first contracts were a military necessity, and lasted until the first of January, 1866. They provided that the negroes should remain on the plantations where they were, and go to work. A certain share of the crop was to be theirs--a fourth, a third, or a half, as agreed; and in spite of all obstacles, sufficient crops were thus harvested to provide food for another year. In a letter to his sister that winter, General Beecher says:
"A perfect chaos was anticipated, so I started in December and addressed public meetings of whites and freed people in various parts of my district. My motto was 'Fair work for fair wages.' In consequence, by the middle of February 300 contracts were made, and before the end of the month the whole mainland of my command was in complete order. No loafers, white or black, were allowed, and only ninety whites and eighty colored perrsons were receiving rations, and these were entirely women and children. Then I inspected thoroughly the sea islands of my command, which were held in special charge of the Bureau. Affairs there had become so demoralized that I was obliged to move a force upon the island and disband the so-called local police, and thus preserve order. This was done to the entire satisfaction of the Major-General Commanding (Sickles). Then the Government began to restore plantations to the original owners, and the question of contract came up. I found here an entirely different class of people from those I had instructed on the mainland. Their worst feelings of bitterness and laziness had been encouraged, carpet baggers had speculated among them, and the Government had been swindled by improper issue of ration tickets, until no white man could go upon the island except at the risk of his life. I quietly sent a guard with orders to arrest any officer of less rank than myself, who should issue a ration on the islands of my command. These were Edisto, Wardmelaw, Johns and James. I set the people at work on all the plantations where the owners were not on hand, and made order that the owner of every restored plantation should first offer to his own people a fair contract, which they should accept, or leave the place to give room for others to come in. This so pleased General Sickles that he made the order general throughout his department. This has been a labor requiring intense study, hard riding, and no small amount of patience. But it has 'paid.' "
General Beecher was very successful in this new and difficult task of the re-organization of industry and restoring of civil government. He restrained all excesses, and tried to develop a spirit of harmony between the planters and laborers, so that his district, from being the worst in the state, gained an enviable reputation. He merited that which a paper of the time said of him: "Honest, bold, uncompromising and consistent, with his whole heart in the work of securing equal rights to all men without regard to color, he brought order out of confusion, and obtained the confidence of both the freedmen and their late owners." If the freed labor system thus begun had been guided for a sufficient time by our best military leaders, who had won the respect of the best men in the South, and had had their hearty cooperation, no such time of misrule would have been known as followed the withdrawal of our troops.
The three years for which General Beecher's regiment was enlisted came to a close the first of June, 1866, and the whole regiment was then brought to Charleston and bivouacked near the city. They were paid off and discharged the next day; and then most of the men went quietly back to Newbern. It was recorded in their favor that no regiment ever went out of service more quietly and handsomely. Many a letter have I had since that day from those stalwart colored men, some of them written in a hand laughably like my own, telling me of the education they had gained while in the regiment and of their devoted love to their Colonel, so that the memory of his words and teaching had been ever with them. Many of them are today filling positions of honor and trust, and for my own part I am grateful that I was counted worthy to have a hand in the uplifting of such a race. Some years ago the men of the 35th U.S.C.T. sent to me for a life-size portrait of their loved Colonel. When it reached them draped in a large silk flag, they hung it on the walls of Post No. 11 of the Grand Army of the Republic. This they had organized and named the James C. Beecher Post; and there today the name and the picture together form a touching memorial in the very heart of Charlestown, of a faithful Northern general.
Source: “Two Years With A Colored Regiment: A Woman’s Experience” by Frances Beecher Perkins; New England Magazine, XVII, pp. 533-543; January, 1898.
Copyright 1998 John McGowan
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