When we arrived at the bank of the river opposite Wilmington, a whole
world of new and interesting sights opened up before us. Wilmington,
during the last year-and-a-half of the war, was, next to Richmond, the
most important place in the Southern Confederacy. It was the only port
to which blockade running was at all safe enough to be lucrative. The
Rebels held the strong forts of Caswell and Fisher, at the mouth of Cape
Fear River, and outside, the Frying Pan Shoals, which extended along the
coast forty or fifty miles, kept our blockading fleet so far off, and
made the line so weak and scattered, that there was comparatively little
risk to the small, swift-sailing vessels employed by the blockade runners
in running through it. The only way that blockade running could be
stopped was by the reduction of Forts Caswell and Fisher, and it was not
stopped until this was done.
Before the war Wilmington was a dull, sleepy North Carolina Town, with as
little animation of any kind as a Breton Pillage. The only business was
the handling of the tar, turpentine, rosin, and peanuts produced in the
surrounding country, a business never lively enough to excite more than a
lazy ripple in the sluggish lagoons of trade. But very new wine was put
into this old bottle when blockade running began to develop in
importance. Then this Sleepy hollow of a place took on the appearance of
San Francisco in the hight of the gold fever. The English houses engaged
in blockade running established branches there conducted by young men who
lived like princes. All the best houses in the City were leased by them
and fitted up in the most gorgeous style. They literally clothed
themselves in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day, with
their fine wines and imported delicacies and retinue of servants to wait
upon them. Fast young Rebel officers, eager for a season of dissipation,
could imagine nothing better than a leave of absence to go to Wilmington.
Money flowed like water. The common sailors--the scum of all foreign
ports--who manned the blockade runners, received as high as one hundred
dollars in gold per month, and a bounty of fifty dollars for every
successful trip, which from Nassau could be easily made in seven days.
Other people were paid in proportion, and as the old proverb says, "What
comes over the Devil's back is spent under his breast," the money so
obtained was squandered recklessly, and all sorts of debauchery ran riot.
On the ground where we were standing had been erected several large steam
cotton presses, built to compress cotton for the blockade runners.
Around them were stored immense quantities of cotton, and near by were
nearly as great stores of turpentine, rosin and tar. A little farther
down the river was navy yard with docks, etc., for the accommodation,
building and repair of blockade runners. At the time our folks took Fort
Fisher and advanced on Wilmington the docks were filled with vessels.
The retreating Rebels set fire to everything--cotton, cotton presses,
turpentine, rosin, tar, navy yard, naval stores, timber, docks, and
vessels, and the fire made clean work. Our people arrived too late to
save anything, and when we came in the smoke from the burned cotton,
turpentine, etc., still filled the woods. It was a signal illustration
of the ravages of war. Here had been destroyed, in a few hours, more
property than a half-million industrious men would accumulate in their
Almost as gratifying as the sight of the old flag flying in triumph, was
the exhibition of our naval power in the river before us. The larger
part of the great North Atlantic squadron, which had done such excellent
service in the reduction of the defenses of Wilmington, was lying at
anchor, with their hundreds of huge guns yawning as if ardent for more
great forts to beat down, more vessels to sink, more heavy artillery to
crush, more Rebels to conquer. It seemed as if there were cannon enough
there to blow the whole Confederacy into kingdom-come. All was life and
animation around the fleet. On the decks the officers were pacing up and
down. One on each vessel carried a long telescope, with which he almost
constantly swept the horizon. Numberless small boats, each rowed by
neatly-uniformed men, and carrying a flag in the stern, darted hither and
thither, carrying officers on errands of duty or pleasure. It was such a
scene as enabled me to realize in a measure, the descriptions I had read
of the pomp and circumstance of naval warfare.
While we were standing, contemplating all the interesting sights within
view, a small steamer, about the size of a canal-boat, and carrying
several bright brass guns, ran swiftly and noiselessly up to the dock
near by, and a young, pale-faced officer, slender in build and nervous in
manner, stepped ashore. Some of the blue jackets who were talking to us
looked at him and the vessel with the greatest expression of interest,
"Hello! there's the 'Monticello' and Lieutenant Cushing."
This, then, was the naval boy hero, with whose exploits the whole country
was ringing. Our sailor friends proceeded to tell us of his
achievements, of which they were justly proud. They told us of his
perilous scouts and his hairbreadth escapes, of his wonderful audacity
and still more wonderful success--of his capture of Towns with a handful
of sailors, and the destruction of valuable stores, etc. I felt very
sorry that the man was not a cavalry commander. There he would have had
full scope for his peculiar genius. He had come prominently into notice
in the preceding Autumn, when he had, by one of the most daring
performances narrated in naval history, destroyed the formidable ram
"Albermarle." This vessel had been constructed by the Rebels on the
Roanoke River, and had done them very good service, first by assisting to
reduce the forts and capture the garrison at Plymouth, N. C., and
afterward in some minor engagements. In October, 1864, she was lying at
Plymouth. Around her was a boom of logs to prevent sudden approaches of
boats or vessels from our fleet. Cushing, who was then barely twenty-
one, resolved to attempt her destruction. He fitted up a steam launch
with a long spar to which he attached a torpedo. On the night of October
27th, with thirteen companions, he ran quietly up the Sound and was not
discovered until his boat struck the boom, when a terrific fire was
opened upon him. Backing a short distance, he ran at the boom with such
velocity that his boat leaped across it into the water beyond. In an
instant more his torpedo struck the side of the "Albemarle" and exploded,
tearing a great hole in her hull, which sank her in a few minutes. At
the moment the torpedo went off the "Albermarle" fired one of her great
guns directly into the launch, tearing it completely to pieces.
Lieutenant Cushing and one comrade rose to the surface of the seething
water and, swimming ashore, escaped. What became of the rest is not
known, but their fate can hardly be a matter of doubt.
We were ferried across the river into Wilmington, and marched up the
streets to some vacant ground near the railroad depot, where we found
most of our old Florence comrades already assembled. When they left us
in the middle of February they were taken to Wilmington, and thence to
Goldsboro, N. C., where they were kept until the rapid closing in of our
Armies made it impracticable to hold them any longer, when they were sent
back to Wilmington and given up to our forces as we had been.
It was now nearly noon, and we were ordered to fall in and draw rations,
a bewildering order to us, who had been so long in the habit of drawing
food but once a day. We fell in in single rank, and marched up, one at a
time, past where a group of employees of the Commissary Department dealt
out the food. One handed each prisoner as he passed a large slice of
meat; another gave him a handful of ground coffee; a third a handful of
sugar; a fourth gave him a pickle, while a fifth and sixth handed him an
onion and a loaf of fresh bread. This filled the horn of our plenty
full. To have all these in one day--meat, coffee, sugar, onions and soft
bread--was simply to riot in undreamed-of luxury. Many of the boys--poor
fellows--could not yet realize that there was enough for all, or they
could not give up their old "flanking" tricks, and they stole around,
and falling into the rear, came up again for' another share. We laughed
at them, as did the Commissary men, who, nevertheless, duplicated the
rations already received, and sent them away happy and content.
What a glorious dinner Andrews and I had, with our half gallon of strong
coffee, our soft bread, and a pan full of fried pork and onions! Such an
enjoyable feast will never be, eaten again by us.
Here we saw negro troops under arms for the first time--the most of the
organization of colored soldiers having been, done since our capture.
It was startling at first to see a stalwart, coal-black negro stalking
along with a Sergeant's chevrons on his arm, or to gaze on a regimental
line of dusky faces on dress parade, but we soon got used to it. The
first strong peculiarity of the negro soldier that impressed itself, upon
us was his literal obedience of orders. A white soldier usually allows
himself considerable discretion in obeying orders--he aims more at the
spirit, while the negro adheres to the strict letter of the command.
For instance, the second day after our arrival a line of guards were
placed around us, with orders not to allow any of us to go up town
without a pass. The reason of this was that many weak--even dying-men
would persist in wandering about, and would be found exhausted,
frequently dead, in various parts of the City. Andrews and I concluded
to go up town. Approaching a negro sentinel he warned us back with,
"Stand back, dah; don't come any furder; it's agin de awdahs; you can't
He would not allow us to argue the case, but brought his gun to such a
threatening position that we fell back. Going down the line a little
farther, we came to a white sentinel, to whom I said:
"Comrade, what are your orders:"
"My orders are not to let any of you fellows pass, but my beat only
extends to that out-house there."
Acting on this plain hint, we walked around the house and went up-town.
The guard simply construed his orders in a liberal spirit. He reasoned
that they hardly applied to us, since we were evidently able to take care
Later we had another illustration of this dog like fidelity of the
colored sentinel. A number of us were quartered in a large and empty
warehouse. On the same floor, and close to us, were a couple of very
fine horses belonging to some officer. We had not been in the warehouse
very long until we concluded that the straw with which the horses were
bedded would be better used in making couches for ourselves, and this
suggestion was instantly acted upon, and so thoroughly that there was not
a straw left between the animals and the bare boards. Presently the
owner of the horses came in, and he was greatly incensed at what had been
done. He relieved his mind of a few sulphurous oaths, and going out,
came back soon with a man with more straw, and a colored soldier whom he
stationed by the horses, saying:
"Now, look here. You musn't let anybody take anything sway from these
stalls; d'you understand me?--not a thing."
He then went out. Andrews and I had just finished cooking dinner, and
were sitting down to eat it. Wishing to lend our frying-pan to another
mess, I looked around for something to lay our meat upon. Near the
horses I saw a book cover, which would answer the purpose admirably.
Springing up, I skipped across to where it was, snatched it up, and ran
back to my place. As I reached it a yell from the boys made me look
around. The darky was coming at me "full tilt," with his gun at a
"charge bayonets." As I turned he said:
"Put dat right back dah!"
"Why, this don't amount to anything, this is only an old book cover.
It hasn't anything in the world to do with the horses."
He only replied:
"Put dat right back dah!"
I tried another appeal:
"Now, you woolly-headed son of thunder, haven't you got sense enough to
know that the officer who posted you didn't mean such a thing as this!
He only meant that we should not be allowed to take any of the horses'
bedding or equipments; don't you see?"
I might as well have reasoned with a cigar store Indian. He set his
teeth, his eyes showed a dangerous amount of white, and foreshortening
his musket for a lunge, he hissed out again "Put dat right back dah, I
I looked at the bayonet; it was very long, very bright, and very sharp.
It gleamed cold and chilly like, as if it had not run through a man for a
long time, and yearned for another opportunity. Nothing but the whites
of the darky's eyes could now be seen. I did not want to perish there in
the fresh bloom of my youth and loveliness; it seemed to me as if it was
my duty to reserve myself for fields of future usefulness, so I walked
back and laid the book cover precisely on the spot whence I had obtained
it, while the thousand boys in the house set up a yell of sarcastic
We staid in Wilmington a few days, days of almost purely animal
enjoyment--the joy of having just as much to eat as we could possibly
swallow, and no one to molest or make us afraid in any way. How we did
eat and fill up. The wrinkles in our skin smoothed out under the
stretching, and we began to feel as if we were returning to our old
plumpness, though so far the plumpness was wholly abdominal.
One morning we were told that the transports would begin going back with
us that afternoon, the first that left taking the sick. Andrews and I,
true to our old prison practices, resolved to be among those on the first
boat. We slipped through the guards and going up town, went straight to
Major General Schofield's headquarters and solicited a pass to go on the
first boat--the steamer "Thorn." General Schofield treated us very
kindly; but declined to let anybody but the helplessly sick go on the
"Thorn." Defeated here we went down to where the vessel was lying at the
dock, and tried to smuggle ourselves aboard, but the guard was too strong
and too vigilant, and we were driven away. Going along the dock, angry
and discouraged by our failure, we saw a Surgeon, at a little distance,
who was examining and sending the sick who could walk aboard another
vessel--the "General Lyon." We took our cue, and a little shamming
secured from him tickets which permitted us to take our passage in her.
The larger portion of those on board were in the hold, and a few were on
deck. Andrews and I found a snug place under the forecastle, by the
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