Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fessenden Morse: January 31, 1865

Headquarters Second Mass. Inf'y,
RoBeRTSVille, S. C, January 31, 1865.

Since my last letter we have pushed farther into this miserable, rebellious State of South Carolina. We came very slowly, as we had to cut our way for the first ten miles through continuous rebel obstructions; but after that distance, the enemy evidently began to think it was no use trying to stop us, and the fallen trees became fewer and further apart. As we marched on from Purysburg, we gradually got out of the swamps and into rich plantations showing signs of the wealth of their old owners. Just think of single fields comprising at least one thousand acres. In the centre or in some part of each one of these great fields, would stand the universal cotton press and cotton gin. The planters' houses were rather better than the average through Georgia, but none of them were what we should call more than second or third class houses in the North; generally they stand half a mile or a mile back from the road, at the end of a perfectly straight, narrow avenue, in fact, nothing more than a cart path.

The most of them are surrounded by magnificent old live oaks and cypress trees, draped all over with the gray Spanish moss which gives to the deserted mansions a very sombre, funereal appearance. In rear of the houses are the rows of negro quarters, and the various outbuildings required on large plantations. So far, on this march, I have seen only one white male inhabitant and very few negroes. Every place is deserted; the valuables and most of the provisions are carried off; but I went into one house where there were rooms full of fine furniture, a fine piano, marble-topped tables, etc.; there was a valuable library in one room, of four or five thousand volumes. I saw a well bound copy of Motley's Dutch Republic, and a good set of Carlyle's works. This property is, of course, so much stuff strewn along the wayside. Unless there happens to be a halt near by, no one is allowed to leave the column to take anything; but stragglers, wagon-train men, and the various odds and ends that always accompany an army on the march, pick up whatever they want or think they want, and scatter about and destroy the rest, and by the time the last of a column five or six miles long gets by, the house is entirely gutted; in nine cases out of ten, before night all that is left to show where the rich, aristocratic, chivalrous, slave-holding South Carolinian lived, is a heap of smoldering ashes.

On principle, of course, such a system of loose destruction is all wrong and demoralizing; but, as I said before, it is never done openly by the soldiers, for every decent officer will take care that none of his men leave the ranks on a march. But there is no precedent which requires guards to be placed over abandoned property in an enemy's country. Sooner or later, of course, as we advanced and occupied all of the country, it would be taken, and I would rather see it burned than to have it seized and sent North by any of the sharks who follow in the rear of a conquering army. Pity for these inhabitants, I have none. In the first place, they are rebels, and I am almost prepared to agree with Sherman that a rebel has no rights, not even the right to live except by our permission.

They have rebelled against a Government they never once felt; they lived down here like so many lords and princes; each planter was at the head of a little aristocracy in which hardly a law touched him. This didn't content these people; they wanted “their rights,” and now they are getting them. After long deliberation, they plunged into a war in order to gratify their aristocratic aspirations for a Government of their own, and to indulge in their insane hatred for us Yankee mud-sills. The days of the rebellion are coming to an end very fast; even its lying press cannot keep up its courage much longer. For a year they have met with a series of reverses sufficient to break the spirit of the proudest nation, and this next spring will see a combination of movements which must destroy their only remaining bulwark, Lee's army, and then the bubble will burst; and I believe that we shall find that Jeff Davis and other leading Confederates will be abused and hated by men of their own section of country more than they will by the Northerners.

No, I might pity individual cases brought before me, but I believe that this terrible example is needed in this country, as a warning to those men in all time to come who may cherish rebellious thoughts; I believe it is necessary in order to show the strength of this Government and thoroughly to subdue these people. I would rather campaign it until I am fifty years old than to make any terms with rebels while they bear arms. We can conquer a peace, and it is our duty to do it.

This little, deserted town of Robertville we reached two days ago; our whole left wing is close by. We shall fill up again with supplies, and in about two days strike into the country. Barnwell, Branchville, Augusta, Columbia, and Charleston are all threatened. I hope the rebels know as little as we do which one is in the most immediate danger of a visit. Wheeler's cavalry is all around us, but as yet no infantry. A regiment of his command tried to stop our coming into this town. The Third Wisconsin, without firing a shot, charged them, broke them all to pieces, and lost only three men.

SOURCE: Charles Fessenden Morse, Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865, p. 209

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