Monday, January 13, 2020

Disgruntlement on Folly Island

              The following letter was written from Folly Island, South Carolina in the spring of 1863 by a member of the 85th Pennsylvania. The regiment spent a year in the area around Charleston Harbor in a fruitless Union attempt to re-capture Fort Sumter and subdue the city of Charleston. His anonymous letter, signed only as "A High Private,"  reflects dissatisfaction with the treatment of the men and the lack of support from their officers. With the direction of the war shifting from restoration of the Union to also freeing slaves, the writer, like many Unionists, balks at the concept of fighting the war for the benefit of enslaved blacks.
Map of Charleston Harbor
Charleston is to the top middle of the map; Folly Island is circled     LOC
    The soldier is from Company D, which was composed of men from Washington County and Greene County. My two ancestors (John and Stephen Clendaniel) were members of this company. But neither one penned this letter. My family has a few of their Civil War letters and they did not have the level of education to write the following. The author remains a mystery. 
     The article appeared originally in the Washington (PA) Examiner (exact date unknown) and was reprinted in The Democratic Watchman from Bellefonte, PA in the center of the state. Both of these newspapers supported positions of the Democrat Party. The date of publication in the Watchman was June 12, 1863. 
     The letter is italicized below. My comments are interspersed throughout the letter in red.

                              “Soldier Sentiment – A Very Interesting Soldier Letter”

Camp Peck
Folly Island, South Carolina
May 20, 1863

     Perhaps a line from the 85th Pennsylvania Regiment might interest you, especially as nearly half our number hail from Washington county. The 85th Pennsylvania consisted of ten companies. Companies A and B, as well as large parts of Companies D and E hailed from Washington County. I would put the percentage from Washington County at around 35-40%, more than the other three counties from which the men came (Fayette, Greene, Somerset).  We have now put in here for four months in this department. The regiment left New Bern, North Carolina in January and landed on the coast of South Carolina for a year-long siege. We came and took possession of this inhospitable island on the 5th of April, preparatory to making an advance on Charleston. They crossed an inlet from Cole Island and landed on Folly Island with no opposition, as the Confederates withdrew just before Union forces arrived. But since the naval attack on Fort Sumpter on the 7th [of April] ult., there has been little said in regard to capturing the city. This failed Union naval attack, consisting mostly of ironclads, was bombarded by Confederate shore batteries, as well guns from Fort Sumter, and withdrew. The Union naval blockade of Charleston was still intact, but Charleston didn't fall until February of 1865 when Sherman's Army caused the Confederate army to abandon the city. The most we hear is from the New York papers. They frequently speak of things which should have happened even in our own camps – things that none of us ever heard of before. Apparently "Fake News" existed during the Civil War.
     About five thousand troops are left here, and the Island is well fortified. Union forces first fortified the
Union camp on Folly Island  LOC
southern end of the island. We have been building forts and breastworks ever since we came.
When Union General Quincy Gillmore arrived in June to take command of the Department of the South, he was puzzled as to why the southern end of Folly Island was fortified instead of the northern end closer to Morris Island. He asked if Union forces planned to swing the island around in order to attack Fort Wagner, Fort Sumter and Charleston.. He soon began fortifying the northern end of Folly Island as a platform to eventually invade Morris Island. We are in view of Sumpter and a portion of the city, and the rebel camps on James Island can be seen, but not reached without a heavy force from all appearances. The rebel pickets come up to within talking distance of us every night, but keep their distance through the day.  Soldiers from the two sides soon began trading with each other (newspapers, coffee, tobacco, sugar, etc.) when the officers were not around. Sometimes they even swam together. The weather is extremely warm – equal to the month of August in Pennsylvania. We get provisions plenty, such as the army rations. All does well enough, except the hard tacks we would willing exchange for bread of some other kind. "Hardtacks" were rather tasteless biscuits made of flour and water. They were rock-hard (until softened in water or coffee) but remained edible for months, even years. The paymaster has visited us twice since we came south, though his presence the
A Soldier in the Civil War, 1886
last time failed to render satisfaction as on former occasions. Our lost clothing had to be paid for. I shall not attempt to give the causes from which our clothing was lost, as it has already been published; but during our campaign last summer and fall all who were not in hospital lost their suits of clothing and had to draw others on requisition. The run up our clothing bill far above our allowance. The government allows us forty-two dollars a year for clothing and our bills overrun our allowance from twenty to fifth dollars to each man.
The 85th PA first left their supplies behind at Seven Pines when they were overrun by Confederates. Their next set of supplies were on a transport that sank while they were on their way to South Carolina. While in North Carolina during December, 1862, the were mocked by Union troops stationed there for the ragged appearance of their often ill-fitting replacement uniforms.
     Our officers admit that they had attended in [illegible] time this money could have been saved us. Yes, had they devoted the time they spent in drafting their resolutions March last, to our affairs, our money would not have been extracted from us. The implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863 caused controversy in the North, as many supported the war to preserve the Union, not for the freedom of slaves. The 85th PA made national news for holding meetings in support of Lincoln’s policies and administration, with some holdouts, such as the writer of this letter. Had they [our officers] devoted the time they spent in drafting their resolutions in March last to our affairs, our money would not have been extracted from us. I see in the papers from the North many patriotic letters and most of resolutions adopted they the officers of the different regiments in this department. Their main object seems to be to denounce the whole Democratic party in general – threatening every loyal heart with the rope and bayonet who mentions conciliation and peace. Western Pennsylvania was strong Democrat Party territory. But unlike the Copperheads who favored a peace settlement to stop the fighting, most Democrats in the regiment wanted to continue the war until victory. They say the soldiers don’t want peace but are eager to fight. Allow me to say this eagerness rests wholly among those who live better than they ever did at home we are willing to fight to the bitter end for the Constitution and the old flag, but we have thus far seen the fruitless efforts to overwhelm the millions arrayed in battle. Still the encrimsoned waters of this civil war is not subsiding. Now the truth of the matter is there is not a man amongst us but would rejoice at the end of this struggle and an honorable peace. A peace satisfactory to the whole American nation is the ardent desire of every soldier in this army. Please say to those noble peace men of our country that the soldiers of the 85th will vote for any man who will bring it about.

                                                                        Truly yours, 
                                                                        A HIGH PRIVATE
                                                                        Co. D   85th P.V.

New York Times
March 21, 1863
      Interestingly, the writer kept his identity secret. Soon afterwards, Lieutenant John E. Michener of Company D sent a pro-war letter to a Republican Party newspaper in Washington (PA) signed by every man in Company D. This implies that the writer of the above letter also signed the pro-war Michener letter. This suggests that the author of the pro-peace letter was either pressured into signing Michener's pro-war resolution, he had changed his mind (unlikely), or decided to join the majority while keeping his pro-peace sentiments to himself.

Shore of Folly Island
The Union blockading fleet is to the right.   LOC

      The 85th Pennsylvania was soon to observe the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts who led an assault on Fort Wagner (Morris Island) with heavy losses. My book, "Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War," published by Monongahela Books, has several first-person accounts  of how this event changed the minds of many white troops about the bravery and discipline of black troops.

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