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Led On: Step By Step, Scenes From Clerical, Military, Educational, and Plantation Life In the South, 1828-1898 by Anthony Toomer Porter

Led On! Step By Step, Scenes From Clerical, Military, Educational, and Plantation Life In the South, 1828-1898 
by 
Anthony Toomer Porter

Chapter XIII
War In Earnest

My chaplaincy in the Washington Light Infantry—The delusion of secessionists as to peace—Fort Sumter is fired on—The surrender of Major Anderson—Some difficulties of recruiting—Some young Confederate heroes—Bull Run.

THE Washington Light Infantry was organized in 1808 and was the oldest volunteer company in the State. I had been elected their chaplain in 1858, succeeding Mr. Oilman, a Unitarian minister, who had succeeded the Roman Catholic Bishop England, and he succeeded Rev. R. Dewer Simons. I am therefore the fourth chaplain, and have held the office for thirty-eight years. On Saturday, 28th, I received a note from Captain Simonton, afterwards Colonel, and now United States District Judge, asking me to come to Castle Pinckney, and hold service for the boys. I did so and preached a sermon, choosing my text from Second Timothy, ii., 3, "As a good soldier of Jesus Christ." Thus I had the honor of preaching the first sermon to the troops in the civil war. The Church of the Holy Communion I had, of course, closed on the occasion.

When we were rowing back after the service, Pinckney Lowndes said, "Look here, Chaplain, you have scared us out of our wits; you tell us there will be fighting, and fighting means killing and wounding. So we are all ready to resign right away and go home." 

Of course he was joking as to the latter part, but the first was true. I did not believe that this question could be settled peaceably.

The Friday night after Major Anderson had gone to Sumter, I went down to walk on the Battery, for I was oppressed and depressed. Events had followed so quickly one on the other, that the reality of the situation began at last to appear. On the Battery, I met Colonel James Chestnut, ex-Member of Congress. I remarked to him, "These are troublous times, Colonel; we are at the beginning of a terrible war.''

"Not at all," he said, " there will be no war, it will be all arranged. I will drink all the blood shed in the war." So little did some of our leaders realize the awful import of what we were doing. 1

Some time later in the winter of 1861, the Washington Light Infantry with the Rifle Regiment were sent to Sullivan's Island to guard the north end, for the fleet was at anchor outside the bar. Why they did not land a force and take Sullivan's Island, and from there march to Mt. Pleasant, and Charleston in the rear, I have never heard explained. A strong force could have captured the island at any time for months after Fort Sumter fell. I went down with the company, coming off and on to the city; holding service in the morning at the Church of the Holy Communion, and at night at the camp.

One evening the officers were sitting round the table playing whist, when a sergeant, who was in command of the pickets, came rushing in as pale as a ghost. "Captain! Captain! "he exclaimed," the boat is full of creeks.''

He was so excited (or scared) that he had put creeks in the boat, instead of boats in the creek. The Company was turned out and we all went to do or to die. But as it was a false alarm, we neither did nor died, but came back to quarters and went to bed. Some old bills of Klinck & Wickenberg, who were the grocers of most of us, show how sadly far off we were from the real state of the case. Champagne, madeira, and sherr}-, pate de foie gras, and French green peas, sardines and Spanish olives, Spanish cigars, with other luxuries, formed then the staple of our stores of soldiers' fare. The time came when a sweet potato would have been an acceptable luxury, if we could have had enough of them.

The fateful day of April 11, 1861, came. At four o'clock in the morning, I heard the boom of a cannon. I happened to be awake, and ran in and woke up Captain Simonton, saying, "The first gun has been fired; Fort Sumter has been attacked.''

We were all soon upon the beach.

Shot after shot was following from Fort Moultrie and battery Gregg on Morris Island. But Sumter looked grim and was silent. Not until full daylight did Major Anderson open fire, but when he did, he gave it all round. We could see the shot strike the beach and ricochet along the sand. Many of us ran after them; some of us went into the tower of the Moultrie House. I suppose the crowd of us was seen, and our position being the most elevated point on the Island, must have been taken for a post of observation, for soon shot after shot struck the building. At last one shot crashed into the tower in the story below us. It was getting too much of a good thing, and we scrambled out of that place without "looking upon the order of our going.''

On the second day, Moultrie set fire to Sumter, and every gun we had at Fort Johnson, Battery Gregg, and the other batteries on Sullivan's Island opened simultaneously on the devoted Sumter. It was enveloped in smoke and bombarded by fifty guns, and out of the smoke came a flash. Anderson had answered back.

I witnessed then a scene that I doubt was ever equalled. The gallantry of the defense struck the chivalry of the attackers, and without a command every soldier mounted the parapet of everj' battery of the Confederates and gave three cheers for Major Anderson. Soon after the white flag went up, firing ceased, and Major Anderson had surrendered. The most remarkable thing about that fight was, that not a man received a scratch on either side, and no blood was shed until the next day, when Major Anderson was permitted by General Beauregard to salute the United States flag before it was hauled down. On that occasion, a gun exploded and killed two or three Federal soldiers. So ended the first chapter of that story written in blood, in sorrow, and ruin.

Soon after the fall of Sumter, the Washington Light Infantry was ordered back to Charleston, and I continued at the church. Colonel Gregg's regiment was sent to Virginia, and a call was made for the companies and regiments to volunteer. A meeting of the Washington Light Infantry was called, and after much debate, it was resolved that the time had not come to leave the State.

This was a great mortification to not a few of us.

The next day I was walking through Washington Square, when I heard my name called. Looking around I saw J. M. Logan following me. He was a clean-faced, handsome boy with a sweet, gentle expression, almost like that of a girl.

"What do you think of the action last night of the Washington Light Infantry?" he asked.

"I am distressed," I replied, "such action by the oldest organization will have an injurious effect."

"No man can now afford to look back," Logan said, "and I am glad of it. Will you help some of us to get up a company of volunteers?"

"Who are the 'some of you'?

"Theodore Klinck, Wm. A. Dotterer, and myself wish to get up a company, but we need an older man to lead."

"Very well," I said, "ask Klinck and Dotterer to come to my house to-night, and bring the roll of the
company." 

They came. We divided the roll into four lists; each took the men over whom he had the most influence, and agreed to see them the next day, and to report at my house the next night. The next night we had a roll of about thirty. We then proceeded to advertise a call of all the Washington Light Infantry who had agreed to form a company to go to Virginia, to meet in my Industrial School rooms the following night. This was the first public notice of our movement, when the thirty came, and a large number of others, so that we enrolled about sixty. These elected W. H. Peroneau, Captain; Klinck, 1st Lieutenant; Dotterer, 2d Lieutenant, and T. M. Logan, 3d Lieutenant.

We met next night in the same place, to hear who had accepted. We learned that Peroneau had declined, but a number of names was added to the roll. E. L. Parker was then elected Captain, but he declined. Mr. Benj. Johnson was then elected. As he was known to but few of the company, and lived some sixteen miles from Mt. Pleasant, in Christ Church parish, I was asked to go to him and offer him the command. Next day, accordingly, I went over to Mt. Pleasant, hired a buggy and horse, and drove to his plantation. I arrived there towards the dusk of the evening, and was warmly and hospitably received. He had no idea of my mission. It was a happy Christian home I found at the plantation. I have often recalled my feeling of pain when I arrived as a harbinger of evil to them.

We passed as happy an evening as was possible to me, with the knowledge of my object in my mind. At last the servants all came into family prayers, and after the family had retired, I informed my host of my mission, telling him that he had been elected Captain of the Washington Light Infantry Volunteers for Virginia, and asked him to accept it.

He was much startled and said, "It has come sooner than I expected, but I cannot answer until the morning." 

Next morning after prayers, and breakfast, we strolled out. I had noticed, as we left the house, deep traces of the night's anxiety on the face of Johnson's lovely wife, but I saw in her eye that she would not stand between her husband and his duty to his country. So when Mr. Johnson accepted the election I was not surprised.

I hastened back to Charleston. Logan was waiting on the market wharf, and when I gave him the signal agreed on, he did not wait to meet me, but rushed off to the bulletin board, and put up a notice of the acceptance of the commission by Mr. Johnson. He then called a meeting at the Military Hall in Wentworth Street. I met the volunteers and related to them all about my visit, and announced Mr. Johnson's acceptance, adding that he would be in Charleston the next evening to take command.

The evening came, the hall was crowded. Mr. Johnson was in the building, the committee, Klinck, Dotterer, and Logan, were with him. The meeting, after some delay, was called to order with myself as chairman. The newly elected Captain then rose to his feet and said, "Gentlemen, I hold myself bound to you, by the promise I made to Doctor Porter, but here is a telegram from Colonel Wade Hampton, offering me the place of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Legion he is raising to go to Virginia.

What am I to do?"

We immediately released him from his engagement to us and begged him to accept Colonel Hampton's offer, and he left the building. Gallant man, he was killed at the first battle of Manassas, as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Hampton Legion.

The task now before us was greater than ever. We had to meet the men and tell them of our disappointment. Three men had been elected Captain, and all had declined. I resumed the chair and Logan made the announcement. It fell upon the men like snow upon flowers. Murmuring and discontent appeared. Klinck and Dotterer spoke, but a motion was offered and seconded to disband. I then left the chair, and taking the floor, made a speech.

I gave the meeting a detailed account of every movement in forming a company from the beginning, and gave our pledge, that if mover and seconder of the motion to disband would withhold that resolution, and give us one more day, we would find the right man by the next night, or would oppose them no longer, but agree to disband.

To this they assented, and Logan and I went off in hope, although absolutely nonplussed. We could not think of a man.

Next day about eleven o'clock we met at the corner of Church and Broad Streets, where the Charleston Library now is, and neither of us had found the man. While we were talking, James Conner came out of Paul and Brown's grocery store, and walked up Broad Street, towards St. Michael's Church. Instinctively I slapped Logan on his back saying, ''What fools we are! Why, there is the very man whom of all men in this community we want. He is far ahead of all the others we thought of.''

"Go after him!" said Logan. 

I crossed over, and before we reached St. Michael's I had offered him the unanimous vote of the company as Captain. We stopped under St. Michael's porch, he hesitated, said he must take time to think.

"No time, Mr. Conner," I said; "Now! we must have an answer now! we must go to that meeting with our man, or they will disband to-night."

"Well," he said, "on your assurance that the election is unanimous, I will accept."

I ran back to Logan, and if there were two happy men in the city, we were those men.

We put up a notice of the meeting for that night, urging every man to be present, as the business was vital. We kept the secret from all but Klinck and Dotterer, and when we met, the hall was crowded. We four were jubilant. Logan nominated James Conner.

"Will he accept?'' came from all quarters.

"He will, if the election is unanimous."

I put the vote viva voce, and the yea was a yell, for he was a distinguished lawyer, and immensely popular. How we had never thought of him before was a wonder to us. When I put the negative—''There are none here,'' was the answer; ''we are all aye.''

Conner was waiting in the building, and Klinck, Dotterer, and Logan at once waited on him and escorted him in, and he was greeted with a tremendous cheer. As soon as I could be heard, I said, "Men, here is the Captain we pledged to you last night." Turning to Captain Conner, I proceeded, "I resign the chair to you, sir, and turn over the command." 2

The company offered themselves to Colonel Hampton, and was made Company A of his Legion. How they demeaned themselves, is recorded on a monument erected in Washington Square, within fifty feet of the spot on which Logan and I held our first conversation. The long roll of killed shows how they fought. I delivered the oration when the monument was finished.

The Hampton Legion went to Virginia, and Captain Conner had promised me whenever a battle was imminent to telegraph me, ''Come at once,'' and I would understand. I soon after received the telegram from him, and left as soon as I could, but reached Manassas Junction four days after the first battle of Manassas.

End Notes

1    Twenty-four years afterward, Sunday falling on February 22d, the anniversary of the Washington Light lnfantry, I, as usual, preached to them at the Church of the Holy Communion, and I used the same manuscript, writing a short introduction, without altering one sentence in the sermon. I could have preached it at the foot of the Bunker Hill Monument in 1860, for it was as applicable there as here. I note this to show the spirit that animated some of us in those trying days. There were only six or eight of the old command left and present; many of my last hearers had not been born when the sermon was first preached.

2    James Conner rose to be General; he lost a leg in Virginia. After the war he was foremost in council, and his influence and cool bravery saved this city from awful carnage at the time of the riot in 1876; but for him many lives would have been lost, and thousands of negroes would have been massacred, and the consequences no one can foresee. Klinck and Dotterer were both killed. Logan won his spurs, and was the youngest General in the Confederate service when the war ended.

A. Toomer Porter, Led On! Step By Step, Scenes From Clerical, Military, Educational, and Plantation Life In the South, 1828-1898, An Autobiography (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), 121-129.

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