Description of Folly Island--Location of Camp--Troops on Folly Island--Sickness--Sanitary measures--13th Indiana-- Regimental Chapel--Bombardment of Sumter--Reduction of the Forts on Cummings’ Point--Night in the Trenches--Engineering Operations around these Islands--Black Island--Death of Q. M. Waters--Employments for the Winter--Shell gathering--Furloughs--Recruiting the Regiment--Tedium of life on this Island.
Folly Island is nothing but a pair of sand ridges formed ages since
by the action of the waves of ocean upon the drifting sand. Between the inner and outlying ridge
is a ravine; the accumulations of vegetable deposit had made a soil of great fertility, and it was
covered with a dense growth of Palmetto, yellow pine, scrub oaks, and all the exuberant shrubs of
a semi-tropical climate. When our troops first got a foothold on the island, the ridges as well as
the ravine were covered with a thick forest. On the southern extremity was a small clearing. A
house formerly occupied by a wrecker stood here looking towards Stono Inlet. This inlet
separates Folly from Kiawah Island, and is the entrance of Stono River, an arm of the sea which
threads its way among these sea islands. North of Folly, and between it and Morris, is Light
House Inlet so called. Between these two Inlets, on the east or sea face of the Island, is a clean,
wide, smooth beach, forming an excellent road from the lower to the upper end of the Island.
During the high tides, or easterly storms, the ocean waves wash quite up to the outer ridge, and in
some places eat into it, so that the form of the Island constantly changes. On the western side,
towards Folly river, are marshes covered with heavy sea grass.
The only value of the Island in a military point of view, was as a camping ground and base of supplies for troops operating against the Forts defending Charleston Harbor. Morris Island, directly north of it, commanded the Harbor. Here on Cummings Point, its northern extremity, were the formidable earthworks called Forts Wagner and Gregg, Gregg being an enlargement of the original Cummings Point Battery, from which the first gun fired at Fort Sumter, at the commencement of hostilities.
Our camp was located on the eastern side of Folly Island, and about midway between the Inlets. At first the officers pitched their tents upon the crest of the sand ridge, which at this point and for a long distance north, was treeless, and with its clean sand looked like a huge snow drift, covering a line of fence. The tents of the men, after cutting away the underbrush, were pitched in the forest behind the ridge. Soon the officers had to retire behind the ridge also, the sand drifting with the wind filling everything. If you fell asleep, on waking your face would be covered; your clothes were full; trunks even were no protection against the impalpable dust, driven by the fierce easterly winds.
There were two divisions of Gen. Gillmore’s army on Folly Island, under Generals Vodges and Gordon. Foster’s Brigade was assigned to Vodge’s Division. All the troops on the Island were employed on duty on Morris Island, either as grand guard or on fatigue duty, until after the surrender of the Forts. This duty required our Regiment to be on Morris Island as often as every third day, for about a month. The work was not hard, but yet it was exhausting. For two nights and the intervening day, they were able to get but little if any sleep, and the climate was enervating, the season of the year the most unhealthy, the water execrable. All the troops employed suffered severely from sickness, and the colored troops, who were mostly employed in digging, suffered quite as much from sickness as the whites.
The 13th Indiana, which had but a small sick list at Suffolk, had a large one here, and many deaths. The 27th Mass. had so large a sick list and so many deaths, that they were withdrawn, and sent to Fernandina, Fla., to recruit. Although we had left two hundred and twenty-five sick in hospitals North, and the Regiment was supposed to be free from the feeble and sickly, yet the sickness soon became alarming. Diarrheas, dysentery, fevers of an obstinate and malignant character prevailed. Most of the men on duty looked pale and lost appetite and strength. On the 17th Sept. there were but two Captains fit for duty, and one hundred and twenty-seven sick in the Regiment. Every officer had more or less of sickness, and very few men escaped.
Gen. Vodges ordered the most careful policeing of camps, and the Surgeon and a field officer were required daily to inspect the cooking of rations. Recipes for healthful cooking were distributed to every Company. We also received from time to time small supplies from the Sanitary Commission. Here we drew new tents, and had constructed in the rear of the Company streets, a dining room for each Company, covered with old canvass. The tents were raised a uniform height, two and half feet from the ground, and made very comfortable. The camp, when completed, was considered the handsomest on the Island, and elicited much commendation. All trees but the Palmetto were cut out, and these left standing with their long feathery leaves shading the tents, gave to it an aspect altogether unique.
Our Brigade consisted of the 112th N.Y., Col. Drake, the 13th Indiana, Lieut. Col. Dobbs, and the 169th N.Y., Col. Buel. Col. Buel was present with this Regiment but a few weeks. Lieut. Col. Mconhie commanded. The camp of the 13th Indiana was on the right of the 112th, and but a short distance from it. Between this regiment and ours there always existed the pleasantest of feeling and a mutual respect. It was one of the oldest and best regiments in the service, having been originally recruited in the Spring of 1861 for three months service; afterwards re-enlisting for three years under Col., late Brig. Gen. R.S. Foster. They were our companions in Brigade from shortly after our arrival in Suffolk, until after the battle of Cold Harbor, June 1864 when the 112th was assigned to a new Brigade. While on Folly Island, the two regiments jointly built a commodious chapel for mutual use, on the open space between their camps, the Chaplain of the 112th officiating for both regiments. This chapel was built with no other tools except axes, hatchets and spades. The forest around supplied all the materials except a few nails. The posts were of palmetto logs set in the ground, the plates and rafters of yellow pine, the sides thatched with the leaves of the palmetto, the seats and platform made of palmetto logs split and faced with axes, the backs of the seats made by driving stakes into the ground at each end and in the middle, and nailing a pole across the tops. The floor was clean white sand, which had this advantage over other floors, that it needed no sweeping, and the stains of tobacco juice which on common church floors are so disgusting, were easily obliterated by a single brush of the foot. The roof was of old canvass from condemned tents. When finished it was very commodious and comfortable, and though not artistically elegant, yet as a work of art possessed no small merit, when we consider the tools with which it was built. Here religious services were held every Sabbath day, a preaching service in the morning, a bible class in the afternoon, and a prayer meeting in the evening, until we broke camp and left the Island. The 169th N.Y., under the superintendence of their Chaplain, and having command of more varied materials, built later in the season a far more elaborate chapel within their camp. It was a gem of beauty, both in its structure and adornments.
The 17th August, Gen. Gilmore having completed his batteries and mounted his heavy guns, opened upon Fort Sumter, over the heads of Wagner and Gregg. The ironclads in the Harbor cooperated. Foster’s Brigade was ordered out at 3 o’clock A.M. to move over to Morris Island as reserve force. Having stacked their arms our of the range of the enemy’s fire, there was a fine opportunity of seeing the bombardment. The heaviest artillery ever used for breaching fortifications was brought to bear upon Fort Sumter.
Forts Wagner and Gregg were silenced by the fire of the Navy, and some 20 pound Parrot guns in our batteries. When the bombardment had fairly begun, the 200 pound Parrots from our batteries hurling their huge shells, the Monitors, Ironsides and other vessels of the fleet firing incessantly, responded to by the batteries on James’ and Sullivan’s Islands, the Forts on Cumming’s Point, and now and then a shot from Sumter, made a grand spectacle, Morris Island shook and trembled like a Mississippi steamer under high pressure. From our position, the fire of the fleet could be distinctly traced. Watching the turrets of the Monitors you saw a spurt of flame followed by a huge column of smoke that completely hid the sea monster from your view; three seconds after the flame and you heard a heavy muffled sound, not at all like the full jarring report of field batteries; then directing your eye along the course of the shot, you saw the water thrown up in jets, like skipping stones on a huge scale, then as the shells bounded over the parapets of Wagner, a sharp report, a puff of smoke, and a huge mass of sand lifted high in air and then falling back. With a field glass the effect of the firing upon Fort Sumter could be distinctly seen. After a fortunate shot, a huge cloud of dust would rise; when it cleared away, the rent in the wall was plainly visible. Before night many ugly holes had been made, and on the 24th, at the close of seven days bombardment, Gen. Gillmore sent a dispatch to the War Department at Washington, that "Fort Sumter was practically demolished, be no longer of any use in the defenses of Charleston." This boast was afterwards proved premature; for though it was in consequence of this subsequent bombardment a shapeless mass of ruins, yet out of the debris, the enemy were able to make the place as impregnable as ever, and as effective a guard of the harbor channel. Gen. Gilmore now with characteristic energy and skill, turned his efforts to reduce the forts at the head of the Island. His plan was novel and ingenious. The broad portion of the Island upon which the Forts are situated could only be approached along a narrow strip of sand ridge not more than twenty yards in width. The men excavating the zig-zag trenches were exposed to the fire of the Forts, also to those of James and Sullivan’s Islands. Contrary to the acknowledged rules of engineering science, he pushed his parallels along until he had prepared a passage around the corner of the Fort, by which he could move a storming party along the sea face of it. This was done by incessant artillery firing during the day, and by means of a strong calcium light at night, throwing such a glare upon the Fort that our riflemen and artillerists could prevent the enemy from repairing the damage done during the day, while we were enveloped in darkness.
On the afternoon of the 6th September, Foster’s Brigade, Col. Drake in temporary command, was ordered to Morris Island as grand guard of the trenches. Arriving at the post of the reserve about 6 o’clock, they were obliged to wait until after dark before the force they were to relieve could be withdrawn, and they take their assigned positions. That night and the next day was to complete the preparations preliminary to storming the Fort.
The scene from the trenches was wildly sublime. It was dark all around the parallels, and where the reserve was posted, but a glare like a burning village at night illumined the whole northern extreme of the Island, and even revealed Sumter, two miles distant. From every direction, with a sweep like that of rockets, huge missiles of destruction were flying through the air. Two hundred pound Parrots made the ground shake as they roared over the heads of our men. The huge mortars so rent the air that those in front of them, though separated by several parallels, involuntarily gasped for breath. No nerves not practiced could endure any close proximity to either of these, without the most unpleasant sensations, and to the artillerists themselves, the working of such pieces was in the highest degree exhausting. Passing along these winding passages through the sand, passing by several mortar batteries and rifle pits where sharp shooter lay, with their guns pointed towards the Fort, passing by the extreme guard and along the line where the negroes were busily engaged digging and throwing our sand, until you came to the end of the flying sap; then looking a little to the left and you saw within a few feet apparently, the huge and now shapeless mass of Wagner. There was no sign of life in the Fort, no gun was fired. A shell went rushing over head and exploded quite over the Fort, lighting up for a moment this shapeless ruin, then again darkness and silence. Passing out again and looking toward James Island, you saw a sharp flash, soon the smothered sound of a heavy gun, then you could for some seconds see what appeared to be a ball three or four inches in diameter, with a fiery tail, mounting upward very deliberately, then having reached its altitude, curving downward. Now cover! Every man sought a hiding place under the bank or under a place prepared with logs covered with sand. With a peculiar rushing sound, and an explosion lighting the darkness around, and scattering iron in every direction the huge shell fulfilled its mission. Not wholly however, for men were seldom hit. With a strong bomb proof near of access, you could enjoy the scene without peril.
Sometimes those places of retreat were not well built, and then they were a poor protection. This night a private of the 169th N.Y. was struck by a piece of iron which penetrated quite through the sand and wood under which he was lying, so mangling him that he died the next day.
For several days, as the parallels approached completion, our pickets conversed with the rebel pickets, but woe to the man who should show his head above the embankment--twenty bullets from guns already aimed would be after him. There were on the average five or six casualties daily, during the progress of the work, most of them slight--a small number when we consider the intensity of the fire from every direction.
As the work advanced the men constantly came upon torpedoes which the rebels had buried. Most of these were removed without exploding. The last day before the evacuation, as one of the engineer corps was working over a torpedo, handling it carelessly, it exploded, carrying away his head, and slightly wounding two negroes who were assisting him. The day passed without any casualties in the 112th, though there were several very narrow escapes. A 5 P.M., regiments arrived from Folly Island to relieve the Brigade, but it was 9 o’clock before it was ready to start for camp. Before leaving, two men of the 13th Indiana had ventured to look over the parapet of Wagner, and seeing no one, they returned declaring their belief that it was evacuated.
The next morning while busy preparations were making for an assault from the ocean-front, a few men of the guard went up to the Fort, entered it, were convinced that it was evacuated, and while looking about the magazine, eight rebel soldiers came out and surrendered themselves and pointed out a torpedo at the entrance, so placed as to explode when out men entered, and fire the magazine. They reported that the work of evacuating both Forts had been going on for three nights. These facts being made known to the commanding General, a squad of men was sent to Fort Gregg, who took eighty prisoners.
Thus, after two bloody and unsuccessful assaults, and two months siege, the whole of Morris Island came into Gen. Gillmore’s possession, by the enemy leaving it, without the necessity of another assault.
The attention of the General was now directed to remodeling these works and fitting them for offensive use in further operations for the recovery of Sumter and the occupation of Charleston. An immense amount of labor was expended. The huge guns which had been employed in their reduction, were transferred and mounted upon them. A new battery called Chatfield’s, was constructed midway between them on a point which was somewhat nearer to Charleston, and a 300 bounder Parrot gun mounted upon it, for the purpose of shelling the city. This monster gun, which required a schooner specially fitted up to transport it from Philadelphia, was drawn along the beach by details of 500 men from the colored regiments, so as to avoid all noise of horses or mules, and by these same men put in the position it was to occupy.
While Forts Wagner and Gregg were thus being prepared to operate against Charleston, active engineering operations were going on, on all the outlying islands, to guard against the enemy coming round in the rear and taking Morris or Folly Island by surprise. Pickets occupied the coast islands as far as Hilton Head. Earthworks were constructed; piers built at the head of Folly Island, and opposite on Morris; a saw mill set in operation to furnish lumber for Quartermasters, Commissary and Ordnance use. To have properly occupied the forts that were constructed, and keep up the long picket line, would have easily absorbed all the force in the Department, without leaving a Regiment for offensive operations.
The Department of the South was, during this winter, by far the most expensive of any, and the results small. All the fleet of Dahlgren, with our force at the bend of Morris Island, were not able entirely to close Charleston Harbor to blockade runners, and all the expense lavished so profusely here, had neither given Sumter or Charleston back to loyal hands. And if it had, what after all had been the gain? What progress toward closing up the rebellion?
On the 20th September, the Regiment was ordered to Black Island, an island lying between Morris and James, for the purpose of doing picket duty, and also constructing new earthworks on that island. While here they were exposed to the fire of the enemy’s batteries on James Island, and were obliged to live in bombproof, burrowing underground; but on the whole the situation was pleasanter than on Folly Island. They were not under such stringent military discipline. On Folly Island it was a penal offense to be found outside the Regimental camp guard; an officer could not go to either extreme of the island, without a pass signed by two Generals, and could not visit Morris Island without a pass from Department Head-quarters. In every duty, and in every position, at every turn, they were made to feel the cramping of military rule. To volunteer troops, nothing is more grinding than this rigid exaction of the regular service. At Black Island they escaped this, while at the same time, by fidelity to duty, they won the praise of Gen. Terry, under whose temporary command they were, and a flattering notice from him to Head-quarters. During the constant excursions to Morris Island before the surrender if the Forts, not a man had been maimed or killed.
At Black Island, on the morning of the 25th, a private of Company H, George Thompson, had just come in from picket, and was warming himself by the fire, when a shell thrown from the batteries on the other island, bursting, a fragment struck him, breaking an arm and leg, and terribly lacerating the other leg. A fragment of the same shell stuck very near a party of officers who had just landed upon the island, spattering them with mud. Every attention was bestowed upon Thompson; Lieut. Barber, with a detail from his Company, conveyed him in a launch to Morris Island, where was the operating hospital. Amputation was skillfully performed by the Surgeons there, but to no avail. He died in fifteen minutes after the operation. In the hospital on Folly Island, seventeen had already died of disease. Every few weeks a hospital boat visited the island to convey to the General Hospital at Hilton Head, Beaufort, or North, those who in the judgment of a medical commission needed some such change to save life. The number in every Brigade needing such change was so great, that the boat was never able to carry all that were recommended, and it was necessary to limit the number taken from each Regiment.
Lieut. Frank Waters, Regimental Quartermaster, originally Captain of Company E, which position he resigned to accept the office he held, a gentleman of high character, an energetic business man, and the oldest officer in the Regiment, was taken sick the last of September. His disease was dysentery of a most virulent character; no remedies used had the slightest effect to arrest it. He gradually sunk under it. Yielding to his earnest wish, he was at last sent to Beaufort on board the hospital boat. He was taken to the Hospital there, and every attention paid to him, but it was unavailing. He died October 3rd, greatly lamented by all his brother officers.
The Regiment having accomplished the work assigned to it, was returned to Folly Island the 15th of August. Their tarry on Black Island had been a pleasant episode in the monotonous life of the sand bank to which they now returned. No one will ever forget the frequent excursions between Folly and Black Islands. The river, as it was called, threaded its tortuous way through a marsh, and there were so many channels branching off, that it required an experienced eye to keep the true one; for some of them led inconveniently near the range of the enemy’s guns.
During the days of early October, these trips between the Islands were delightful, the scenery such as only can be witnessed there. The swift flow of the tide either way made it necessary to time the voyage when the tide was rising or falling, for it was almost impossible to move against it.
The Regiment was now so divided up into various details, that only the shell of it was left in the old camp. Picket duty and fatigue work daily drills of companies and battalions, brigade and division drills, officers recitations every other evening, formed the staple of the work. The recreation consisted in gathering shells.
While their friends at home were crazy with the excitement of seeking for oil, the forces at Folly Island were afflicted with a like mania for seeking sea shells. After every storm the wide beach would be covered with small shells of various descriptions, thrown up by the waves. And day after day, at low tide, the whole beach, as far as eye could reach up and down, would be covered with men, toiling as diligently to gather periwinkles and other twisted specimens of old Ocean’s playthings, as if they were gathering diamonds, or in the wilds of Pennsylvania were endeavoring to "strike ile." All grades of military, from the Major General to the drummer boy, met upon the beach in blissful forgetfulness of rank, in this greed for shells. Shells of rare beauty were exhibited through camp, and frequently changed hands at high figures. Barrels of them were sent in small parcels, to various States, from Maine to Indiana, and will in many a cottage and many a mansion descend from generation to generation as mementoes of the ever memorable campaign of 1863-4 upon the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
During the month of November all the Regiments on Folly Island were in camp in fine condition, the camps regularly laid out, some of them made very beautiful by various adornments. Gen. Gillmore had moved his Headquarters down from Morris Island, and located them about half a mile south of our camp. The 1st N.Y. Independent Engineer Regiment had a camp closely adjoining ours. Here they erected a Masonic Temple, commodious and a beautiful work of art, constructed of the rustic materials the Island afforded. There were many very ingenious artificers in this Regiment. Under Col. Serrell they had done a vast amount of work in the various engineering operations of the Department. Their Lieutenant Colonel, since Brigadier General, James F. Hall, was the able and efficient Provost Marshal of the Department, a gentleman whom our officers will always remember with pleasure for kindly courtesies in many ways received. Nor will the Quartermaster of their Regiment, Lieut. D.C. Brown, be forgotten, as a kind and obliging officer, from whom the Regiment received many favors.
Gen. Gillmore was so well pleased with the conduct of the troops employed in the reduction of the forts, that he awarded medals to soldiers who had signally distinguished themselves, and also furloughs for twenty days to those whose good conduct had merited such; each regiment being allowed to send home two men for every hundred on duty. This gave our Regiment nine; and it was understood that on their return, the same percentage--another like number--would be sent.
This winter it was determined to recruit up the forces in the field to their maximum, in order to repair the waste of the past campaign. Brig. Gen. J. T. Sprague, Adjutant General of the State of New York, visited the Department to confer with the commanding officers of New York Regiments, as to the most practical method of placing the desired number of recruits in the field. The meeting was held at the Head-quarters of Gen. Gillmore, the 19th November, and the plan adopted was to send one field officer with an Adjutant; also one line officer and three enlisted men for every fifty recruits needed to bring the number up to the maximum.
Lieut. Col. Carpenter, Captains Ludwick, Curtis and Dunham, Lieutenants Talcott and Kimberly, were selected, also twelve men representing the rank and file. After various delays, the recruiting party left Stono Inlet for Hilton Head on the morning of December 21st. From this time for more than a month, the monotony of life here was very tedious. In the "New Gospel of Peace" according to St. Benjamin, we are told that "whereas the Iankees lived ten years in one day, the Tychmen did not live ten days in one year." On Folly Island our life was like that of the "Tychmen." It was the same thing over and over again. We looked every hour upon the same naked banks of sand, the same drooping palmettos, and listened every moment to the same roar and swash of the surf dashing upon the beach at our feet. No wonder the Antediluvians before the days of inventions, when there were no books, newspapers or telegrams, lived all the way from two to nine hundred years; they did not live so very long after all. Nine hundred of the centuries of the World’s History were hardly equal to ninety of the present.