Expedition to Johns Island--Skirmish--March across the Island--Retreat--Leave for Florida--Arrive in Jacksonville-- Camp--Arrival of Recruits--Moral Tone of the Regiment--Excursions.
During the month of January, troops began to be drawn off Folly
Islands. Rumors of a campaign in Florida were rife, but there was nothing definitely known.
On the 7th of February, the Regiment was ordered to be ready to move at evening, with three days cooked rations, on an expedition to John’s Island. This Island was crossed by the Savannah & Charleston R.R. It was proposed to strike rapidly across the Island to Rantowl’s Bridge, destroy it and threaten Charleston from the rear, for the purpose of drawing attention from Gen. Seymour’s expedition to Florida.
We started from camp at 9 P.M. After marching a mile, the 169th and 117th N.Y. joined the 112th. Col. Drake was in command of the Brigade, Maj. J. F. Smith in command of the 112th. We marched two and a half miles to Stono Inlet. It was a bitter, chilly, dark night, with a wind blowing off the sea. At Stono the force remained until midnight, awaiting their turn to be ferried across the Inlet to Kiawah. The men sweating from the march were obliged to burrow in the sand, to screen them from the intense chill. The inlet here is about three-fourths of a mile wide. Two steamers were busy moving the troops across. Landing on the beach and waiting till all the troops were over, the column moved down a mile, then struck into a fine wide path through dense woods, reaching the place of halting about 6 A.M. Here the whole force rested during the day, which was as much like midsummer as the preceding night had been like mid-winter.
At 10 o’clock at night the column moved on again, taking the night so as to avoid notice, and this late hour so as to strike the shoals between Kiawah and Seabrook at low water when it could be forded. It was 2 o’clock A.M. when the ford was reached, the water breast high. The men stripped off pants, drawers, boots and stockings, and waded. Absolute silence had been enjoined, but it was impossible to prevent men from indulging in frolic, so cold was the water at this season of the year. After crossing and moving half a mile, before they had got warmed up, they were halted an hour, an artillery wagon being stuck fast in a sand bank.
The scenery, as we marched through the woods across Seabrook in the dim morning hours, was weird and imposing. The huge oaks were festooned with hanging moss and climbing shrubs, and vines of every Southern variety twisted around them. The buds were swelling, and the young leaves were seen bursting from some of the earlier shrubs. Emerging from this wood road soon after day break, the path led through a large cotton plantation. The white inhabitants had all left; a few old negroes only remained. The fields were bordered with live oak, and belts of timber left on the windward side for a screen. On this plantation the column halted, while the advance guard made ready to move quickly across the only bridge, an old rickety affair, leading to John’s Island. We moved a mile to the bridge and halted. The advance had crossed and brisk firing was going on. In a few moments it was over, and the main column crossed to occupy the works. There was only a small picket force holding the Island--the three videttes at the bridge were in a neighboring house having a dance. The play suddenly stopped, and the lively soldiers were turned over to the Provost Guard. Then crossing and pushing on to the reserve picket, who at first showed fight, but soon their heels, they took some prisoners and killed three or four, among them the Captain in command of the picket, who was the owner of the large plantation on which he was killed. Two men of the 142d N.Y., who were in the advance, were wounded, one of them mortally; the other a brave Sergeant--late Lieut. Johnson on Gen. Curtis’ Staff, who had scouted all over the island, lost his arm. It was evidently a surprise to the rebels, and had our advantage thus gained, been pushed immediately, the railroad bridge might have been reached and torn up, before troops could have been gathered up to oppose our force. But after sending out a small reconnoitering party, the main body of the troops remained and began to throw up earthworks. The next day, having made their position secure, the force was divided. Von Glissa’s Brigade moving on the left and direct road to the bridge, soon encountered the enemy, and a sharp artillery duel occurred, in which they lost eight men wounded. The Brigade on the right commanded by Col. Drake moved across a bayou and through a plantation belonging to the Legarre family, about five miles. Brig. Gen. Schimmelfennig, who commanded the expedition, accompanied Col. Drake. This plantation was a fine specimen of a Southern gentleman’s country residence. It was deserted and had been for a year. In the fields, the last year’s wild grass had grown high as the heads of the men, and was standing yellow and dry in the place where cotton was wont to grow. Connected with the house was a spacious flower garden, which showed that a family of taste and cultivation had cared for it in the past. Across the rear was an orange bower, the trees interlacing overhead and covering a wide walk. There were in the garden many rare plants and shrubs, among them two of the American Aloe, twelve feet high, alas, touched by the unprecedented frost of the last month and killed. Also a huge specimen of the century plant, covering a mound eight feet in diameter. Jonquils were already in full bloom; but these were only vestiges of a beauty which belonged to other days. The house bore marks of the ravages of the soldiers. Many names of Southern soldiers and their regiments were scribbled on the walls.
Without accomplishing anything, the force retired within their earthworks late in the afternoon, and as soon as dark, the work of preparing to return was hurried on. At midnight the whole force left the Island, burning the house and bridge. The golden moment to have accomplished anything was when we first arrived. Troops were then at Savannah on their way to Florida: and all night we could hear the cars that brought them back to oppose our progress to the bridge.
Seymour’s movement in Florida had also been delayed beyond the appointed time, and after we were out of the way, the same troops that had come up from Savannah, were forwarded to Florida, and were in abundant season to deal Seymour a disastrous blow at Oulustee, which at once checked and finally changed the whole programme of affairs in the Southern Department.
The Regiment returned to camp on the afternoon of the 11th. Nothing of interest after this, transpired during our stay on Folly Island.
On the 20th February occurred the disastrous battle at Oulustee, Fla. The forces under Gen. Seymour were severely repulsed. On the 22d, the mail boat from Hilton Head brought the order for Ames’ Brigade of Gordon’s and Foster’s Brigade of Vodge’s Division, to take transports for Florida, leaving tents and extra baggage. An extract from a letter written to a friend at this time, will convey more vividly than present recollections could, the scene of our departure. "We were not expecting this order, as our Brigade was so much more broken up by details than some others; and the idea of leaving our new comfortable tents, with all their nice fixings, for a winter campaign, is not at all exhilarating. But orders have come and time will not wait; so I arose early this morning and worked hard, sorting, packing, arranging, deciding what to throw away, what to carry, what to leave to be transported. It was noon, and I had made but little headway toward getting the Regimental library together and packed, rations purchased for mess, and many other matters that were to be done, when the order came for three Companies to move to the landing immediately. We ate dinner in a hurry and then to work again. In half an hour the order came for the rest of the Regiment to move. Two hours work yet to be done; but I had been in the service long enough to know that putting troops on transports is very slow work, so took it easy. With the help of some convalescents from the Hospital all things were ready in an hour; and putting blankets, valise and saddle bags on the team, and leaving all other traps in charge of the Q. M. Sergeant, who was to remain in care of the baggage, started on foot for the landing a mile distant. I looked upon my nice little stove which for so many weeks had warmed me, and wondered what barbarian from the regiments around, would steal it. I looked upon my neat camp table, with its convenient drawers, and rack full of little slips for papers and letters and books. Alas, shall I ever again sit by it and read letters, and write to my friends far away? I looked over the tent nicely fitted up with an inner frame, which renders it stout to resist the most furious gales; the neatly framed door with canvass covering; the door latch that was a day’s work to carve out of a piece of live oak. These were all the work of the men who are ever willing and glad to do anything for my comfort.
"Outside of my tent, I stopped to look at my chimney, a tall palmetto tree twenty feet in length, split carefully, then the pith inside chopped out so as to leave a smooth, round channel for the smoke, lined inside with cast away tin cans. Jule was half a day picking up two grain bags full, around the various camps. These made it fire proof; it was bound with hoop iron to hold it together, and to shed rain, and old tin basin, mounted on pieces of hoop iron kept guard over the top. Willie L--- and John R--- worked a day to make it; alas, it will soon be consumed with ten hundred days work about the camp. I part with these comforts with a sigh and a shrug, when the idea of sleeping on the ground without shelter, comes up. Goodbye old sand patch---the fleas and mosquitoes and ‘fiddlers’ are welcome to you."
Three companies of the Regiment with Col. Drake and staff embarked on board the "Helen Getty." The remainder of the Regiment went on the "Ben Deford." The first afternoon’s sail was a very short one, down to Stono Inlet, about four miles. In the morning all the transports moved out together, and early the next morning had passed over the bar at the mouth of the St. Johns river. The reason of stopping over night at Stono was, to avoid crossing the bar near night. The Captain of the boat said "he did not like to get too near that ugly piece of sand after dark." This sand bar makes the entrance to the river somewhat perilous; but once within, the river is wide and the channel deep enough for the largest vessels.
The passage up the St. Johns to Jacksonville was delightful; the air soft as June and a clear sky overhead. It was noon before the steamer reached the wharf, and the troops disembarked. We there met old friends from regiments that participated in the battle of the 20th, and heard repeated over and over the sad tale of that disaster.
The Regiment marched into a vacant field within the city, and a hundred men were detailed to work all night, throwing up earthworks along the front occupied by our Brigade. A like detail from other regiments was employed in the same way. These works were afterwards enlarged and made formidable for any force likely to be hurled against them.
Jacksonville is admirably situated for defense---the line of defense not more than a mile and a half, and either flank resting on the river. A gun boat was so placed as to enfilade the enemy, should they attempt to approach our works.
On the afternoon of the 28th, the Brigade moved outside the works across the marsh, about three-fourths of a mile from the business part of the city, down the river. The location was a pleasant one; the camp but a short distance from the bank of the river; near it a steam saw mill built and owned by men from the eastern part of the State of Maine. Four vacant welling houses furnished ample quarters for the Colonel and Staff; and a pile of old boards at the mill, with the fences about the fields where our camp was located, enabled the men to fix up their quarters comfortably. It is surprising in how short a time old soldiers will make themselves comfortable, if there is any material lying around, that can be begged, borrowed or "confiscated." In spite of the most stringent orders, board fences will disappear from the whole region; and in spite of arrests or punishments, the siding of vacant buildings will mysteriously pass away in the night, and before morning be worked up into such shape that it would be impossible to identify them.
In this new camp, the general health of the Regiment was better than at any previous time. They had regular drills, and improved greatly. Twenty-nine recruits came to the Regiment the 6th of March. Four had come to us on Folly Island, and the close of the month fifty-three had been added to the "total present."
There were several boats around the mill, and many pleasant excursions down the river and across to the opposite side, are remembered. Indeed, Jacksonville will ever be held as a bright spot in the campaign experiences of the Regiment. The season of the year in this Southern climate was the best for enjoyment. In February, gardens were in full bloom, roses in profusion, honeysuckles and verbenas shed their fragrance. The oaks by the wayside were just dropping their old leaves for the new vestments of Spring. On the peach trees the fruit had formed, and the orange trees were covered with ripe abundance.
The moral tone of the 112th, and indeed of all the forces here, was at this period higher than ever before. Religious meetings were held in town every night, in the spacious Methodist Church, and the building filled to overflowing.
In our own camp we had a building rudely fitted up for a chapel, and many will never forget the solemn interest of the gatherings there.
In the early history of Volunteer Regiments, the sharp antagonism brought from the localities where they were recruited, worked to beget rivalries and jealousies, and a general disharmony. After a regiment has been long in the field, these melt away in the presence of the better felling engendered by the sense of mutual dependence, and the sharing of common dangers, hardships and sufferings. This Regiment had now been together long enough to be welded firmly, and a kindly sympathy pervaded it, which continued to unite officers and men to the close of its career.
The 31st day of March, the steamer "Maple Leaf" arrived at Jacksonville, bringing from Folly Island Capt. N.S. Scott with sixty men, who had been left there when the Regiment was ordered to Florida; also the camp and garrison equipage of the Regiment. Before the freight was taken off, the steamer was ordered to Pilatka, seventy miles up the river, with a battalion of Cavalry. Ten men of the Regiment went as guard of the Regimental property. Early in the morning, this ill starred vessel came in contact with a torpedo floating in the river, which exploded under her bow, sinking her at once. Fortunately the water was shallow, and all on board escaped. Valuable Company books and papers, which would have been of essential service in preparing the statistical records of the Regiment, as well as the tents and other property of the Regiment were lost. The loss of personal property to officers was severe and embarrassing, many of them having left at Folly Island everything except the clothing that covered them.
Early in March, Gen. Hatch superseded Gen. Seymour in command of the military district of Florida. Gen. Vodge's and Gen. Foster were detailed to a Court Martial at Hilton Head, which placed Col. Drake in command of the Division, and Col. Dobbs, 13th Indiana, in command of the Brigade. Maj. J. F. Smith had been detailed on the staff of Gen. Vodges as Division Provost Marshal. Capt. Wm. H. Chaddock commanded the Regiment until Maj. Smith returned to assume command early in April.
The recruiting party which had been sent North in December, reached Chautauqua County too late for effective results. The larger part of the men raised to fill the quota of the County, had gone into other organizations. Eighty-eight men, including a Brigade Band consisting of sixteen choice performers, was the result of their joint endeavors. Most of the recruits joined the Regiment in Florida; the remainder at Gloucester Point, Va.
All over the theatre of conflict, vast preparations were in progress for the coming campaign. A new policy was to be pursued---concentration of forces in opposition to the wide diffusion of the past year. Congress had revived the rank of Lieutenant General, and Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was called to the command of all the forces of the United States.
The larger part of the forces in the Department of the South constituting the 10th Army Corps, under Maj. Gen. Gilmore, were to be added to the armies operating against Richmond.
About the middle of April, Port Royal Harbor began to be crowded with transport steamers, there collected for the purpose of gathering up the troops scattered from
Charleston Harbor to the upper waters of the St. Johns, and conveying them to Gloucester Point, opposite Yorktown, on the York River, Va.