Berrien Minute Men on Sapelo Island: Part 1

Berrien County in the Civil War
29th Georgia Regiment on Sapelo Island
Part 1: Arrival on Sapelo

Sketch of Civil War Earthwork on Sapelo Island

1863 Sketch of Civil War Earthwork on Sapelo Island. near Sapelo Lighthouse,Doboy Sound, Georgia. Fron a reconnaissance made, under direction of C. O. Boutelle, Assistant U.S.C.S., by Eugene Willenbucher, Draughtman C. S. January 1863

Berrien Minute Men on Sapelo Island

  1. Arrival On Sapelo
  2. Place of Encampment
  3. Camp Spalding
  4. Election of Officers
  5. Tidewater Time
  6. In Regular Service

During the Civil War,  two companies of men that went forth from Berrien County, GA were known as the Berrien Minute Men. The first company, organized by Captain Levi J. Knight served temporarily with the 13th Georgia Regiment at Brunswick, GA, before going on to join in a new regiment being formed at Savannah,  GA.  The second company of Berrien Minute Men rendezvoused with Captain Knight’s company at Savannah and was also enjoined  in the formation of the new  regiment. The two companies were mustered in as Companies C and D of the as yet unnamed Regiment.  After brief training in the Camp of Instruction at Savannah and in coastal batteries defending the city, the companies were detailed for duty.

From October, 1861 to January, 1862, the campfires of the Berrien Minute Men  were made at Sapelo and Blackbeard islands protecting the approaches to Darien, GA on Doboy Sound and the Altamaha River. Darien was about 55 miles south of Savannah and 20 miles north of Brunswick, GA.  The environment of Darien, the sea islands and the Altamaha River basin were ideal for the cultivation of rice and long staple Sea Island cotton, and the agricultural economy of the southern tidewater was strategically important to the fledgling Confederate States.

According to historian Buddy Sullivan, “The soils of the Altamaha delta were extremely fertile, both for the production of cotton and sugar cane, but most especially for that of rice.” In the peak decade of the 1850s, the Altamaha delta produced over 12 million pounds of cleaned, hulled rice; “Darien was the center of some of the most extensive rice cultivation on the southeastern tidewater.”  The tidewater agriculture was particularly labor intensive and “paralleled by the prevalence of malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases  and their connectivity with  tidal marshes, mud and water attendant to  the breeding of mosquitoes…Slaves toiled in the wet, marshy rice fields under harsh, demanding conditions.”

“Captain Basil Hall, an English travel writer who visited the Altamaha district in 1828, observed that the growing of rice was ‘the most unhealthy work in which the slaves were employed, and that in spite of every care, they sank in great numbers.  The causes of this dreadful mortality are the constant moisture and heat of the atmosphere, together with the alternating flooding and drying of fields on which the Negroes are perpetually at work, often ankle deep in mud, with their bare heads exposed to the fierce rays of the sun.'”

Slaves working in the rice fields.

Slaves working in the rice fields.

When mosquito swarms peaked in the summer and early fall, the white plantation families of the Altamaha district left the care of the crops to their slaves and migrated to the drier Georgia uplands; they returned to their low country plantations with the first frosts.  Although the proliferation of mosquitoes in the summer months coincided with the incidence of malaria and yellow fever, no connection was made between the events. Instead the common belief was that the tropical diseases were “caused by the “miasma,” a noxious effluvium that supposedly emanated from the putrescent matter in the swamps and tidal marshes, and thought to float in the night air, especially in the night mists as a fog.”

It is perhaps no accident that the deployment of the Berrien Minute Men to Sapelo Island coincided with the waning of the fever season. It appears Captain Knight’s company of Berrien Minute Men (Company C, later reorganized as Company G) embarked from Savannah in September  and had arrived on Sapelo and taken up station on Blackbeard Island by the first of October, 1861.  Sapelo and Blackbeard islands are adjacent, being separated only by Blackbeard creek and a narrow band of marsh.

The Confederate soldiers on the islands had access, albeit limited and inconvenient, to the post office at Darien, GA on the mainland about  10 miles up the Altamaha River. A handful of surviving letters written by the men on Sapelo paint a picture of Confederate camp life on Georgia’s sea islands, including correspondence from William Washington Knight and John W. Hagan of the Berrien Minute Men, Robert Hamilton Harris and Peter Dekle of the Thomasville Guards, and Robert Goodwin Mitchell of the Ochlocknee Light Infantry.

After a number of the men on Blackbeard Island were reported sick, rumors circulated back at home that the regiment was stricken with Yellow Fever. The families of the Berrien Minute Men had reason to fear.  In 1854, a yellow fever outbreak had killed thousands of people on the southeastern coast, including as many as 400 victims at Darien, GA.  But in his letters home, Private John W. Hagan of Berrien county wrote, “as to the reports which was going the roundes in Lowndes in regard to yellow feavor that is all faulce. Some of the men of Blackbeard did not take care of themselves & by exposure and exerting too mutch they became bilious.” The Berrien County men may have just been unacclimatized to the muggy heat of the coast, or the men may have contracted malaria  in the coastal marshes.  Levi J. Knight, Jr. later wrote that one of the Berrien Minute Men, Private Enos J. Connell, became “unfit for duty, rendered so by a protracted illness contracted on Blackbeard Island… the disease when first contracted was said by his physician to have been Billious fever.” Enos J. Connell never entirely recovered and was eventually discharged in June 1862. Private Thomas N. Connell, died at Blackbeard Island on October 2, 1861, the cause of death being given in his service record as “bilious fever.” Bilious fever,  a now obsolete medical diagnosis, was often used for any fever that exhibited the symptom of nausea or vomiting in addition to an increase in internal body temperature and strong diarrhea. Bilious fever (Latin bilis, “bile”) refers to fever associated with excessive bile or bilirubin in the blood stream and tissues, causing jaundice (a yellow color in the skin or sclera of the eye). The most common cause was malaria.  What treatment the sick men may have received on Sapelo Island is not described, but one known remedy for intermittent fever was quinine derived from the Georgia Fever Bark tree, which grew in the Altamaha River Valley.

Company D of the Berrien Minute Men  (later reorganized as Company K) arrived on Sapelo Island in early October. Company D steamed from Savannah late Tuesday evening, October 8, 1861. Among the men of Company D were privates John W. Hagan, William A. Jones, and William Washington Knight, a son of Captain Levi J. Knight.  There was a wharf on the north end of Sapelo at the Chocolate Plantation, then owned by the Spalding family. But the steamboat landed Company D on the south end of Sapelo perhaps at the Spalding’s South End mansion. Company D disembarked at daybreak on Wednesday, October 9, 1861 and then proceeded to encamp at Camp Spalding.

Visiting the camp hospital, Private William W. Knight found of the Berrien men, “only three that were sick much. Several had been sick but were able to wait on themselves.”   William A. Jones was crippled with a severe infection on his knee.   Captain Levi J. Knight had been among the sickest, but was somewhat recovered. Assistant Surgeon William H. Way, of Thomas County, GA, was the only medical officer with the Regiment at the time.  William P. Clower would later serve as Surgeon of the Regiment.

Within an hour of landing at South End on Sapelo , Private Knight started the eight to ten mile trek to the camp of his father’s company on Blackbeard Island. He was accompanied by Sergeant John Isom, who was returning to Company C.

At the bivouac on Blackbeard island, Private Knight found his father still convalescing.  “Father looks very bad, but he is gaining strength very quickly,” he wrote.  No sooner had Pvt. Knight and Sgt. Isom arrived at the camp on Blackbeard, than Captain Knight’s company packed up and  marched back to Camp Spalding on the south end of Sapelo.  Pvt. Knight described the round trip as “seventeen miles, part of it the roughest country on this globe.”

The soldiers would spend the coming weeks establishing their camp and the routine of regimental life on their sea island outpost.

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