Forgotten Freedom Fighters: Indiana Blacks in Massachusetts Regiments
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Forgotten Freedom Fighters
LETTERS FROM PRIVATE WILLIAM EDRINGTON,
A native of Brookville, Indiana, William E. Edrington was the son of Gustavus V. Edrington, who moved to Centerville, Indiana and opened a barber shop in the Jones building during the war. In addition to cutting hair, Gustavus had a soda fountain and sold ice cream, one of his customers being Isaac Julian, editor of the Indiana True Republican. William worked as a farm hand until his enlistment, but eventually followed his father into the barbering profession. A cordial relationship between the Edrington and Julian families led William to write the following letters which appeared in the True Republican. Following the war, William came home, became a barber, married, and started a family in Ohio, but dropped out of sight after filing for a pension in 1890.
Army in the Field, and
Mr. Editor, — Sir, Having the time and opportunity, I thought I would give you a brief sketch of army life in the South. I will mention our first engagement with the enemy.
We landed on James Island, where we met the enemy in very large force, their pickets were stationed all around us. The fight began early in the morning, of July 16th, but, owing to superior numbers, our little band of patriotic heroes were compelled to fall back.
Our little force, composed of three companies, B, H and K, the latter of which I am an humble member. There were five killed and seven wounded in Company K. There was but one Indiana boy wounded in Company K [Joseph Wilson]. He was a brave and noble soldier, he formerly worked for Mr. J. H. Thomas, of Richmond.
After the Gunboats and Light Artillery had played upon them for one hour and a half, the rebels retreated back to Seceshville. Finding the enemy in too large a force, our General in command, thinking it best, we evacuated the Island. We then all got ready and went aboard the General Hunter, and landed on Folly Island about 10 o'clock. We were then landed on Morris Island, and marched to this place, which we now occupy as our camping ground. We were then brought to a halt, and a couple of hours for rest allowed us, as we were nearly exhausted, we then prepared for the charge which proved so disastrous to us. We then marched within three hundred yards of the fort and, by orders from the Colonel, we fell upon our knees. Solid shot and shell went whistling over our heads. They having passed, we arose to our feet. The Colonel, speaking aloud, said: "Boys are you ready to take that fort?" "Yes! yes!" Springing towards the fort, with not a gun loaded, but with our glittering bayonet to defend ourselves with, we reached the fort, the rebels pouring grape and cannister into us, all the time, cutting our boys down, like grass before the mower's scythe. One of my bunk-mates, a resident of Newport [Thomas R. Ampey], fell among those cruel traitors. How hard it was to part with that noble companion, though he fell in a good cause. Also, that noble color bearer, that carried that noble flag, it was hauled from the staff, but he, clinging to the staff, brought it safe back to camp. He escaped uninjured. But, alas, that brave and noble Colonel, that marched at the head of his regiment, waving his sword over his head, fell dead — in the fort. We also lost our Captain.
The order to retreat being given we fell back in some disorder, about 600 or 700 yards from the fort, where the rear guard was stationed. The 9th Maine being drawn up as a support for the gallant 54th, they being somewhat excited, fired volley after volley into our boys, killing and wounding a great many. But the gallant 100th N. Y. supported us, as a hen that gatherth her brood under her wings.
Our number, in killed and wounded, is estimated at, or near 400. I must say, and thank God for it, that I have been spared, while many of my companions have fallen for that glorious Union, that must and shall be preserved.
I have no doubt that the letter I wrote to my parents after the charge on Fort Wagner relieved their minds of much anxiety on my account. Some of the boys are home on furlough, and I hope to be able to pay you all a visit, soon. We have been doing fatigue and picket duty every day, since the fight, and were under fire all the time from five or six different points. Our regiment is generally very healthy. I have stood it better than I expected to. We dug trenches day and night, until we reached the parapet of the fort. The land batteries then opened on the fort. The fleet, composed of the Ironsides and Monitors, then steamed up near the fort and opened fire upon it, and shell came whistling over our heads from the land batteries. We entered the fort about daybreak the next morning, taking but few prisoners. There was plenty of provisions in the fort, we all eat of the rebs crackers and meat. The soldiers seem to relish it very much. The rebs did not leave but two animals in the fort, (one being a jackass, the other a mule.) One of the Marines wishing to try their speed mounted one's back, rode it nearly to death and pronounced it unfit for service. From all I can learn, they are a couple of recruits that had retreated from Charleston, as provisions were scarce, they fell into the hands of the Yankees. I am sorry to say that we have deprived the Gen. of his tobacco. A few more such fights and we will break into some of their strongholds. For a specimen — Fort Wagner is one they skedaddled from, leaving behind them, their guns. The Fort being very strong, having very splendid bombproof, magazines, &c.
I must close my letter as it is getting late.
William E. Edrington
Headquarters, Morris Island,
Mr. Editor. — I wish to inform the relatives and friends of the soldiers of this Regiment that they will confer a favor upon us by directing their letters to this regiment according to its established name, which is the so-called 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, and I will also embrace the opportunity of remarking that the friends and relatives will confer another favor upon the Regiment in answering all letters as speedily as possible, which are sent to them from the regiment. No one knows in civil life how much a soldier appreciates a letter from those whom he regards as near and dear to him. In many instances our soldiers will beg paper and ink enough to write to some dearly beloved wife, brother or sister or friend, who would apparently shake their hand off at home, and after receiving their letters, they are not punctual enough or carelessly forget to answer them. I know this from experience by the return of soldiers from home, they will mention of such and such a one that received letters from us and he must write again. They don't know that some of the letters sent to them cost a very big price, for many of the soldiers who can't write themselves have to pay others to do it for them, and sometimes it is almost impossible for a soldier to get pen, ink or paper or pencil. Any wife that is a wife, or friend that is a friend, or relative that is a relative should never think it too much trouble to write to a soldier two, three or four times before getting an answer from him, for that very soldier probably can't get means to write with, as he may be on picket duty 48 hours where every moment demands the greatest vigilance to keep himself out of the way of sharpshooters or being detected by his own men for sleeping on post, is certain death, and by the time the soldier gets back to where he might possibly write a few lines, he is so exhausted that without even eating probably, he falls asleep, and when he wakes, some thief likely has stolen his pen, ink and paper, or it has rained and destroyed his paper, and thus he can't write after all. But I can't enumerate half the obstacles labored under by a soldier. But this I do say, that all persons receiving letters from soldiers should answer them immediately, and if they care anything about the brave defenders of justice, right and equality, they should write to their brothers and defenders of our country without being written to first. I have seen soldiers go from day to day asking for letters and, on a continual reply in the negative, they would look so downcast that I would feel sorry for them in my heart. I have seen others after a long suspense get a letter, and it seemed to illuminate their very souls with joy.
Let the friends of the soldier write to him, and if you know the whereabouts of the Regiment, write to him first and then write again, and cheer him up while lying from day to day under ball and shell of your and his enemy, and do away with this idle and mean habit.
I have the honor to remain,
Headquarters Dep't of the South,
Mr. Editor — Sir: — Since I penned my last to you, we have been met with quite a change, which you may be informed of. What we have long contended for came at last — the paymaster with the full amount of pay from date of enlistment: $13 up to May; from May, $16. Now, Mr. Editor, we as soldiers enlisted for three years unless sooner discharged. We have thus far fought the battles of our country with the honor that is just to every true patriot. So, by the way, we have gained that can be left for the brave who never falter. But a curse to those who by every means have tried to cheat the soldier of color out of his rights. We received the honor of guarding six hundred rebel prisoners, — their rank being from first lieutenant to colonel. Some of them have been prisoners twenty-two months. But still they think it rough treatment, while in the post field hospital here, they received if anything, better treatment than Old Abe's boys. We are relieved from guarding them, they have sailed for a point unknown to us.
The health of the regiment is good. We are divided into detachments of one, two and three companies together. I will close until you hear from me again.
I remain, yours truly,