Edward S. Philbrick to his wife The Trip to Port Royal Starting March 2, 1862
Letters from Port Royal
New York City, Sunday, March 2.
We have a rather motley-looking set. A good many look like brokendown schoolmasters or ministers who have excellent dispositions but not much talent. As the kind of talent required where we are going is rather peculiar, the men may be useful, but I don't believe there will be a great deal of cotton raised under their superintendence.
Str. Atlantic, March 5. We all repaired to the Collector's house Sunday evening, and were sworn in squads of half a dozen with our hands on the Bible, after which our passports were made out and signed by Mr. Barney in his library with the whole thirty-three of us standing about.
[The next morning] I found Collector Barney on the pier with his Bible and papers, swearing in the rest of the New York delegation. The last of the cargo was slung aboard about eleven, and we started off at quarter past, in a drizzling rain, freezing fast to everything it touched. Our Boston party consisted of twenty-nine men and four women; the New York one of twenty-three men and eight women, including those from Washington, making sixty-four in all. At dinner (2 p. M.) we found some one hundred and twenty cabin passengers, besides a lot of recruits, perhaps one hundred in all, who live forward. The larger part of the Atlantic's staterooms have been taken out to make room for stowing troops or cargo, leaving enough for only about half our number. These rooms were assigned by the Steward and Mr. Pierce to the ladies and the oldest of us gentlemen; so I got one with Uncle Richard, for most of our party are quite youthful. Half a dozen ladies sat on the bare deck (no other seats provided), during most of the evening, singing Methodist hymns and glory hallelujah till after nine o'clock. I have talked with several of our party, and got slightly acquainted, chiefly with Messrs. Hooper, G—, and Mack; also with Mr. Forbes. There is a general medley of cabin passengers, recruits, sutlers'and quartermasters' agents, and crew, the latter not being dressed in uniform, but in nondescript old garments such as can be found at any old Isaac's shop. Those passengers who are outside our party are coarse- looking and disagreeable, — Mr. Forbes and Mr. Augustus Hurd of Boston being almost the only exceptions. I had some talk with Mr. Pierce yesterday about your coming on, and he said as soon as I found it advisable he would send you a pass, but I am very glad you are not here now, for I don't believe these ladies will find anything but bare boards to sleep on.
Thursday evening, March 6. We had a sort of lecture from Mr. Pierce before dinner, consisting of some very appropriate and sensible advice and suggestions, expressed simply and with a good deal of feeling. Mr. French followed in his vein of honest, earnest Methodism. He is the head of the New York delegation, and a worthy man, though not so practical as Mr. Pierce.
Our Boston party improves upon acquaintance, and the longer I think of the matter the more wonderful does it seem that such a number of disinterested, earnest men should be got together at so short a notice to exile themselves from all social ties and devote themselves, as they certainly do, with a will, to this holy work. It must and with God's help it shall succeed! The more I see of our fellow-passengers and coworkers, the more do the party from Boston stand eminent in talent and earnestness, as compared with those from New York, and I can't help thinking that the former were more carefully selected. The Boston Commission acted with more deliberation than that of New York, and I think the result will be shown in the end. But it's early to form any such opinions, and out of place to draw any comparisons in disparagement of any of our colleagues. We are all yoked together and must pull together. The work is no trifle. It is Herculean in all its aspects — in its reactive effects upon our country and its future destiny, as well as in its difficulties. Yet never did men stand in a position to do more lasting good than we, if we act with a single eye to the object in view and pray God to guide us aright.
Friday, March 7. We waked this morning still adrift off Port Royal Bar, where we had been tossing all night, near the lightship. The wind was blowing cold and clear from the northwest just as it does at home in March, almost cold enough for a frost. We continued to drift till the tide was near the flood, about noon, when a pilot came out and took us in to Hilton Head. Here in this magnificent harbour, larger than any other on our coast, lay some fifty transports and steamers at anchor, and here we dropped our anchor, almost directly between the two forts1 taken by Dupont last November. These forts, by the way, are so inconspicuous as to be hardly perceptible to a passer-by, and would certainly fail to attract the attention of a person not on the lookout for them. The shore is as flat as flat can be, sand- banks and beaches being the only variety, backed by long dark green masses of foliage of the pitch-pine, reminding me forcibly of the coast of Egypt, with its sand and palm forests. Yet even Egypt was sufficiently enterprising to line its coast with windmills, while this state has not yet arrived at a stage of civilization sufficiently advanced to provide them. So, there being no waterpower and no steam, every negro grinds his peck of corn in a handmill as in the year one. We came to anchor about one p. M. and have been waiting for the necessary passes from the quartermaster to enable us to proceed up to Beaufort, the only town in possession of our forces. Here we lie in the still harbour under the splendid moon, surrounded by the regiments encamped on the neighboring islands, with the prospect of another day afloat, before we can begin to be distributed over our field of labor.
8 p. M. The acting Provost Marshal has just come aboard with our passports viseed, enabling us to land here, but I don't care to do that to-night, there being nothing but sand-banks to sleep on, while we have tolerable berths aboard. To-morrow I may go, if there is time before going upstream to Beaufort, though I imagine there is little to see but sand and tents, which look quite as well at a distance.
March 8. We spent the greater part of the day transferring freight and baggage to the Cosmopolitan, a white river- steamer. We got started at last about three p. M. The distance to Beaufort can't be more than fifteen miles, and we had already made half of it at a tolerable rate of speed when we ran aground in the mud, about two hours before ebb tide. We were in the middle of a creek called Beaufort River, between Cat Island and Port Royal Island, whose flat shores did not look very inviting. I fell to reading about cotton-culture in my book, but some of our companions got a boat and went ashore on St. Helena Island, bringing back their hands full of beautiful flowers from some private garden, peach-blossoms, orange-blossoms, hyacinths, fleur-delis, etc. We succeeded in getting afloat about 9.30 p. M. and arrived at Beaufort about midnight, after poking slowly along the crooked channel under the glorious moonlight. On getting up in the morning, which we did betimes, .we found the deck slippery with hoarfrost, and are told that it is the coldest night of this winter. Somebody has told me that Beaufort was on a bluff, and that its environments were not so flat as the rest of the islands.
Beaufort, Sunday, March 9. But I can't find any place over ten feet above tide-water, and no hill over six feet high. So things are judged of by comparison. We all went ashore soon after sunrise and walked about the town, which is laid out in rectangular streets, lined with pleasant but weedy orange-gardens and often shaded by live-oak and sycamore trees, i. e., when the latter leave out, as they will soon. The soil is a fine sand, very like ashes, and the streets are ankle-deep with it already, wherever the grass does n't grow. Dilapidated fences, tumble-down outbuildings, untrimmed trees with lots of dead branches, weedy walks and gardens and a general appearance of wrathrift attendant upon the best of slaveholding towns, was aggravated here by the desolated houses, surrounded by heaps of broken furniture and broken wine and beer bottles which the army had left about after their pillage. Quantities of negro children lay basking in the morning sun, grinning at us as we passed. We saw a chain-pump in a yard and walked in to wash our faces, there having been no chance on the steamer, and were waited upon by an old negro, who brought us bowls, soap, and towels. Mr. Pierce succeeded in getting us some bread and coffee from one of the regiments, having no time to go to headquarters. They were carried to an old negro cabin in the remotest corner of the town, where the coffee was made and served up in the poultry-yard in our tin mugs.
Our quarters are in a very fine house in the east end of the town, bordering on the river, against which is a garden wall, built of oyster-shells and mortar, there being no stone to be had here.
We are to wait here till our positions are assigned to usby Mr. Pierce, which will be done in a few days. He told me he wanted me to take the most important one, which I suppose means Coffin's I am to have W G for my clerk and assistant. He is a very agreeable, quiet fellow, and works like a beaver, but like several others, is too young to take charge of the organization of the labor to good advantage.
There is something very sad about these fine deserted houses. Ours has Egyptian marble mantels, gilt cornice and centre-piece in parlor, and bath-room, with several wash-bowls set in different rooms. The forcepump is broken and all the bowls and their marble slabs smashed to get out the plated cocks, which the negroes thought pure silver. Bureaus, commodes, and wardrobes are smashed in, as well as door-panels, to get out the contents of the drawers and lockers, which I suppose contained some wine and ale, judging by the broken bottles lying about. The officers saved a good many pianos and other furniture and stored it in the jail, for safe-keeping. But we kindle our fires with chips of polished mahogany, and I am writing on my knees with a piece of a flower-stand across them for a table, sitting on my camp bedstead.
I am anxious to get to work, as T. hope to in a few days. Mr. Eustis has gone to his plantation, a few miles distant on Ladies Island, and Mr. Hooper is spending a few days with him. The latter is to be Mr. Pierce's private secretary at present.