On Nov. 7, 1861, Union forces took control of South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound. Two days later the Third N.H. Regiment, part of a large U.S. expeditionary force, landed on Hilton Head Island where it made camp in an abandoned cotton field.
The Third N.H’s band spent the next several weeks entertaining the troops and performing at official functions. At night, the musicians played square-dance music and led sing-alongs around the campfire. During friendly competitions with the Fourth N.H. Regiment’s band, as the Third’s musician Henry S. Hamilton later wrote in his memoir, the band always played its best piece last — “The Mocking Bird,” with “trills and warbles by the inimitable Carl Krebs on the clarinet.” Krebs was a classically-trained clarinetist who had immigrated from Prussia.
As Hamilton described, “The Emerald Isle was well represented in the regiment, with a sprinkling all through, besides one whole company, under its intrepid commander, Capt. M.T. Donohoe, so that St. Patrick’s Day (1862) was enthusiastically observed. In the evening we serenaded the genial captain, who showed himself, as on many other occasions, a good friend to the band.”
Although the musicians had enlisted as noncombatants, in March 1862 Hamilton agreed to serve as the bugler on a reconnaissance mission, and four of his band mates volunteered with him as temporary soldiers. For six days the detachment explored abandoned plantations, farms and shops on the islands along the sound. A few skirmishes broke out with scattered Confederates, but no one was injured.
In early April the regiment was taken by steamer ship to Edisto Island, which the Union had captured, about 60 miles north of Hilton Head. Most of the regiment encamped a few miles inland, but the band remained at the headquarters which the commander, Col. Enoch Q. Fellows. had established on a fine plantation near the shore. The white population had fled, leaving the now former slaves on their own.
During the next few weeks the band’s daily routine included playing for the changing-of-the-guard, drills and dress parades. Large numbers of former slaves attended the band’s evening concerts, which always featured their favorite song, “Dixie.” Most nights the musicians enjoyed blackberry pancakes for supper, and they learned to cultivate and cook local wild mushrooms which other New Englanders shunned as “poisonous toadstools.”
This idyllic interlude ended on June 2, when a large Union force, including the Third N.H. Regiment, moved up the coast with the goal of taking the vital port city of Charleston, S.C. On the morning of June 16, the federal force of 6,600 men repeatedly charged the Confederate defenses on St. John’s Island just outside the city. The Confederates held the line with only 2,000 men. The Union army suffered over 680 casualties in a terrible defeat, while the Confederates lost around 200 men.
This became known as the Battle of Secessionville, after a rural area of St. John’s Island that served as a summer resort for some local plantation owners. Several years before the war the settlement became known as Secessionville because the seasonal residents, trying to escape to a cooler locale during the summer heat, were said to have “seceded” from the rest of the island.
The Third N.H. Regiment’s musicians did heavy duty on the battlefield that day. As Hamilton wrote, “The agonizing groans of the wounded thickly strewn around, calling for help, left no time for reflection, but hard, steady work was before us, picking out the wounded from the dead, and, as tenderly as possible, placing them in the ambulances to be carried to the hospital …”
Hamilton described the solemn funeral for four of the Third N.H.’s soldiers, “It was a solemn scene as they were borne to their graves, on the shoulders of their sorrowing comrades; the band, with slow, noiseless step, with muffled drums, playing the “Dead March in Saul,” followed by the regiment … (which) gave vent to its sorrow in sympathetic tears.” And, in the following days, “The men walk about in silence, and a gloom seems to pervade the entire camp … we were called out and played a few inspiring airs, which, for the time being, seemed to dispel the gloom.”
Charleston would not surrender to the Union army until February 1865.
Next week: The Third NH Regiment’s band is mustered out.