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March, 1863 – Life in Camp

March of 1863 was relatively a quiet time in the nation. Most regiments were in winter camp. But this raised another problem. It was much easier to slip out of camp and head for home and loved ones.

Desertion had been a problem in all regiments. To avoid have to execute so many for desertion, Abraham Lincoln issued a decree of amnesty on March 10 for men absent without leave from their regiments. They must return by April 1 or be considered deserters.
It was a quiet time for Will County regiments as well. Most of the regiments were camped in winter conditions, but the 39th was camped at St. Helena Island, near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina where spring was in bloom.

Dr. Charles Clark wrote a history of the 39th in 1889. He was a surgeon in the 39th. He writes about life on the island and how the regiment occupied its time. He says some things in his description that today would be incredibly offensive. However we leave them in so you can gauge the general atmosphere and feelings of the time. It is in no way an approval of what he has to relate.

He says, “Great attention was paid to the matters of drill and discipline while located on this island, the whole regiment being exercised twice daily in field evolutions and the manual of arms. Two hours of the morning were spent in company drill, and the same length of time in the afternoon was devoted to battalion exercises. Great proficiency was attained in this manner, and the officers and men of the regiment enjoyed the proud satisfaction of being reported at department headquarters by an experienced U. S. General Inspector as the best drilled and disciplined regiment in the Department of the South.”

“The leisure hours that were at our disposal, aid when permission could be obtained, were spent in making excursions to Hilton Head or the surrounding islands.”

“Hilton Head Island, the headquarters of General Hunter, was at this time quite a city in a business aspect if in no other. The general hospital was located here, together with the quartermaster’s and commissary’s depot, and the medical purveyor’s store; and besides, there were scores of traders in all sorts of .merchandise who had built large structures for containing and bartering goods.”

“Sometimes a trip was made up Broad river to Beaufort where the Sanitary and Christian Commissions had headquarters. At other times we would gratify our passion for fishing and hunting by proceeding up the island to a large plantation house which had been turned over to the Freedmen’s Bureau and the plantation worked by giving a certain percentage on the sale of products to the negro, or else paying him or her so much a day for labor.”

“There was a school established there, but we were never fully satisfied that the negroes appreciated their advantages. The negroes on this and adjoining islands were the most obtuse and thick-headed that we came in contact with.”

“They came regularly to camp each morning with something for sale – sweet potatoes, oysters, clams, shrimps, etc., and such gibberish, such unintelligible mutterings were never heard before. We might as well have attempted the translation of the “Congo” dialect as try to understand the “lingo” of these “mokes” of both sexes.”

“It must be confessed that we had had some respect for the negro as we had seen him in Virginia and at home, but here, there was nothing but approximation to the monkey tribe, and to call the thick-lipped, monkey-faced negro with his gibberish, a fellow “gentleman” on all occasions was more than could be expected.”

“At the plantation house before mentioned, we would secure a boat and a guide and sail down the inlet to the sea. On the way and while passing through the rice swamps we often found wild ducks and reed birds for our sport, and with the use of a trolling hook and line would manage to catch good fish, to say nothing of the crabs fastened to the line at each haul.”

Dr. Clark was indeed correct. The African Americans on St. Helena were not speaking his language – they were Gullah’s. They speak a language all their own unique to the barrier islands of North and South Carolina. The Gullah language is based on English with strong influences from West and Central African languages such as Mandinka, Wolof, Bambara, Fula, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Kongo, Umbundu and Kimbundu. It is still spoken there today.

In the later part of March, the 39th made preparations to move again; this time to Folly Island where General Hunter was organizing his troops to take Charleston. Charleston was where this whole thing started, and the men were eager to show them a thing or two about secession.