|John Murray Forbes
Diary comments of Passenger who came on Atlantic With
Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes
My father enjoyed his first reveille and all the camp experience which followed. Beaufort was on high ground
overlooking the river. Before the war it had been the Newport of South Carolina, and when the Hilton Head forts
were threatened by the Federal fleet its inhabitants had gone down the river in boats to see it pounded and driven
off; and when, instead of this, the Union flag had promptly gone up on the fort, they had lost no time in getting off
from Beaufort, leaving their houses just as they stood, a great convenience for the incoming tenants. These tenants
in the first instance were the soldiers, and through the military commandant my father at once found a house which
quite answered his purpose. But military rule was now to be qualified by that of the commissioners who had come
down on the Atlantic, authorized to claim all abandoned property on government account; and these, consequently,
became in the eyes of the army and their hangers-on " the most unpopular set of Christians ever seen." They were
nicknamed " Gideonites" by the military.
Apropos of this feeling, my father, in the interest of fair play, had to write in the following month to Mr. Sumner in
Washington : —
"The undercurrent against the commission here is very strong, even among those who ought to know better. First,
the cotton agents think their interests, and their personal use of negroes, horses, and houses, hurt thereby; theu
the sutlers, and finally the military, are all prejudiced, especially the subordinates; the lower you go the worse the
feeling, the generals and those high up doing, I believe, all they can, and showing, so far as I can judge, a good
spirit. . . .
"I don't believe in having two sets of treasury agents here with equal and sometimes conflicting powers, but suppose
this has been made so apparent that Mr. Chase must have stopped it ere this, and put Mr. Pierce distinctly above
the cotton agents. . . . He is here with enemies all around, and in his own association weak brothers and sisters, —
his only friend being the general commanding; and if you hear criticisms you must, and of course would, always
"I think, so far as I can judge, the experiment must be practically a success; not equal to the expectations of
sanguine friends, but making a good beginning, giving most valuable data for other quarters and doing great
positive good to the blacks here, and to the confidence of good men in our power to make the blacks useful."
As a matter of fact, the commission did turn out a practical success and a "positive good to the blacks;" as any one
can learn who will pay a visit to their descendants on the Sea Islands at the present day. In the same letter to Mr.
Sumner, my father returns to the negro question as it then stood, and adds:—
"There is one thing that I would especially urge upon you and your (our) more extreme Republicans: while
struggling for the whole, why neglect to secure half a loaf when you can get it?
"In the present stage of the negro question, you cannot for months to come get the emancipation of all rebel slaves.
. . . Meantime, cannot you get an almost unanimous recognition by Congress of the principle that any slave once
employed to work for the government (by spade, or hoe, or mattock, no matter which) shall from that moment be
free, with his family, — providing compensation for loyal masters?
"If you can do this, clinch it by a registration of slaves called into the government service, which shall hereafter
constitute their free papers. Then let all those Sea Islanders now working under government orders be so
"If you get general emancipation, this will be unnecessary; but if, under either success or disaster, some wretched
compromise is made, you may hereafter, without it, have a hard struggle to prevent these freemen here being given
back to their rebel masters, with thousands of others who have dug our trenches, or otherwise struck a blow for the
"Do not despise the small things within reach while aiming at the large ones you may miss."