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.”  Hagan knew something about yellow fever. His father, John Fletcher Hagan, had died of yellow fever in 1853.

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.

If not actually ill, some men got sick and tired of the heat, bugs, exertion and boredom of camp life. 

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 camp and the routine of regimental life on their sea island outpost.

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John W. Hagan Witnessed “Unholy War” and the Execution of Elbert J. Chapman

John W. Hagan

John W. Hagan of Berrien County, GA

John W. Hagan of Berrien County, GA

John William Hagan, born October 10, 1836 in Jefferson County, FL, was a son of John Fletcher Hagan and Elizabeth Dayton. He came to Berrien County, GA around 1858 when he married Amanda Armstrong Roberts. She was the 15 year-old daughter of Reubin Roberts (1807-1874)  and Elizabeth A. Clements (1815-1862), and a niece of Bryant J. Roberts (see Bryan J. Roberts ~ Lowndes Pioneer  and Bryan J. Robert’s Account of the Last Indian Fight in Berrien County).

With the outbreak of the Civil War John W. Hagan enlisted for service in the Confederate States Army, mustering into the 29th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company D, the Berrien Minute Men, in the fall of 1861.  Hagan had prior military experience, having served in 1856-1858 as a private in the Florida Mounted Volunteers, in Captain Edward T. Kendrick’s Company, in actions against the Seminole Indians.  Perhaps because of his education and prior experience , albeit limited,  he was elected on October 1, 1861 to serve as 3rd Sergeant of Company D (Company K after reorganization) of the 29th GA Regiment.

Initially, the 29th Regiment was engaged at advanced batteries providing coastal  defense for Savannah, GA.  In the spring of 1863, the regiment was sent to Charleston, NC, but was quickly dispatched from there to Mississippi in a futile attempt to shore up the defenses of Vicksburg against the advances of federal forces under Ulysses S. Grant.

John W. Hagan wrote regularly from field camps and battle lines to his wife and family back in Berrien County. His letters frequently contain mention his relatives and colleagues in the Berrien Minute Men, including Bryant J. RobertsLevi J. Knight, Jonathan D. Knight, William Washington Knight, Henry Harrison KnightJames Fender  and many others.   In all there are 43 confederate letters of John W. Hagan.

In his letter of July 23, 1863 Hagan,  after two years  of war, was obviously disgusted with the looting and destruction the Confederate Army visited upon its own citizens. Writing to his wife, he stated ” I beleave our troops are doing as much harm in this country as the yankees would do with the exception of burning houses.”

While Hagan was with the 29th Regiment in Mississippi deserter Elbert J. Chapman, a private known to the company as “Old Yaller“, was captured and returned to his unit. Chapman, while absent without leave from the Berrien Minute Men, was still acting the part of a soldier fighting with a Texas Cavalry unit.

John W. Hagan in a letter to his wife dated  May 29, 1863 posted from “Camp near Deaconsville, Miss”    included the following:

“Amanda, I have some news to write you. One of our deserters was arrested yesterdy & brought to camp. E. J. Chapman was taken at Canton City. He was a member of a cavelry company in Canton & arrested & brought to camp by one of the Sharp Shooters. He says he has bin in service in this State 5 months, but we do not know what to beleave about him. He also says B. S. Garrett was taken up in this state & shot as a Yankee spye.  If  such is the case I am satisfide with his death but I am sorry he did not get his deserts from the proper hands.  I do not know what will be done with Chapman.  We are going to carry him to Canton City to day or tomorrow, turn him over to the military authority to be  dealt with according to the nature of his offence.”  -May 29, 1863

A month later Hagan, obviously weary of the death and destruction of war, wrote of the court martial and execution of Chapman.

Camp near Forrest City , Miss     July 23rd, 1863

My Dear Wife, I this evening seat myself in this benighted reagen [region] to write you a short letter which leaves Thomas & myself in fine health &ct. I have no news to write cience [since] our retreat from Jackson.  We fought the Yankees 8 days but was forced to retreat for want of  more force.  When we first arrived in Jackson after retreating from Big Black [river] I was confident we could stand our ground & give the Federals a decent whiping. But the longer we stayed and fought them the more reinforcements they got & if we had have stayed & fought a few days longer I fear we would have suffered, for our lines was so long we did not have men to fill the entrenchments & support our batteries.  So we retreated in good order & we had a trying time when we made the retreat. Our Regt was left on the field to hold the enemy in check while the other portion of our Brigade made there escape. The projic [project] was not made known to but few of the men and offercers of the Regt & when we went to leave the field it was suppose by the most of the men that we was only changing our position & they did not know we was retreating until we was all out of danger.  The retreat was well conducted & we lost no men or property on the retreat. We are now stationed near the rail road & expect in a few days to be shiped to some place.  Some think we will go to Tennessee & some think we will go to Charleston or Savannah, but I have but little hope of going to either Savannah or Charleston.  But I beleave we will go to Tennessee or to Mobile.  The fact is, this army is too small to do anything in this country & I think will it will be divided & some sent to Savannah & Charleston & some to Mobile & the rest will be sent to Gen Bragg in Tennessee.  Gen Johnston has given up command to Gen Hardee & has gone on to assist Gen Bragg. We are now waiting for transportation & as soon as transportation can be furnished we will leave for some place we cannot say whear to.  We have had some hard fighting cience [since] we have bin out hear, but our Regt has suffered the least of any Regt in our Brigade or divission. We only lost 9 in killed & wounded while other Regts lost 3 times that number.  I would give you a ful account of the fight & the causilties but I wrote a letter to James & Ezekiel & give them a list of the killed & wounded & requested them to send the letter to you. I did not know then but we would march on to some other place whear I would not have an opportunity of writing to you.

I also give them a tolerable fair account of the fight.

Amanda, I never new [knew] how mean and army could do in a country.  I beleave our troops are doing as much harm in this country as the yankees would do with the exception of burning houses.  But our men steal all the fruit, kill all the hogs & burn all the fence and eat all the mutton corn they can camp in reach of.  Our army have destroyed as much as 200 acres of corn in one night. We carry a head of us all the cattle we find & at night they are turned into some of the finest fields of corn I ever saw & in fact wheare this army goes the people is ruined.  I am disgusted with such conduct & feel that we will never be successful while our troups are so ungrateful.  I dread to see our State invaded but I hope this war will cease soon, but I havent grounds to build my hopes upon. But I & every Southern Soldier should be like the rebbel blume which plumed more & shinned briter the more it was trampled on, & I beleave this siantific war fear [scientific warfare] will have to ceace,  & we will have to fight like Washington did, but I hope our people will never be reduced to distress  & poverty as the people of that day was, but if nothing else will give us our liberties I am willing for the time to come. I am truely tyerd of this unholy war.  Amanda, you must use your own pleasure about fattening the hogs, but I think you had better fatten all the hogs that you think you can make weight 100 lbs by keeping them up until January or Febuary for pork will bring a good price, & in case our portion of the State is invaded that much will be saved, & if our troops should pass through there & are as distructive of as army is, we would have nothing, & if such a thing should happen I want you to turn every thing in to money & leave for some other place. But I hope such a thing will never happen, but if Charlston should fall Savannah is shure to fall, & then our country will be over run by troops. This country is now in a glumy state, but the dark part of the night is allways jest before day, so we may be nearer peace than we think.

We had a hard cien [scene] to witness on the 22nd.  E. J. Chapman was shot to death by sentance of a cort martial.  It was a hard thing to witness, but I beleav he was a fit subject for an example, for he confessed being guilty of everything that was mean. & if you write you must direct to Forrest City & I will write again soon. I do not have any eyedia [idea] of having an opportunity of goine [going] home until the war is ended but if times gets no better than at at present I shal not want to leave the field. But if times gets esy you know I would be proud to see you & my little boy.  I have so far ben verry lucky & I hope I shal continue so. Tom [Roberts] sends his love to you all & says you must not look for him nor be uneasey about him for he isn’t far the way. I must close I must close as I have to write on my knee.

I remain as ever yours affectsionately

John W. Hagan

Of course, the execution of E. J. Chapman, CSA for desertion was hardly an isolated event. So many soldiers deserted, the Confederate States Army eventually developed an amnesty policy in an attempt to return them to duty. But before that, many deserters were executed. On March 2, 1863 John W. Gaskins of the Berrien Light Infantry, Company I, 50th Georgia Regiment wrote home to his family that three men in the Regiment had been shot for desertion. Two of his company mates from Berrien County, Absolom B. Dixon and Irvin Hendley, had served on the firing squad that shot Private Isaac Morgan, Company B, 50th Georgia Regiment.

About the post war period, historian Bell I. Wiley reported,

After release from military service Hagan returned to Berrien County where he lived until 1881.  He then moved to Lowndes County where he acquired a large tract of land and was a successful farmer.  He changed his residence to Valdosta in 1896 and entered the livestock business in partnership with Jessie Carter.

Hagan became engaged in politics and was a local leader of the Populist Party

He represented Lowndes County in the Georgia House of Representatives for two terms (1886-87, 1890-91) and beginning in 1904 was for four terms a member of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners, during two of which he served as chairman. He died in Valdosta on May 17, 1918 at eighty-one and was buried at Union Church Cemetery (then called Burnt Church) near Lakeland, Georgia.

Children of John William Hagan and Amanda Armstrong Roberts:

  1. Susan E. Hagan, born March 30, 1860, Lowndes County, GA; died August 25, 1860, Lowndes County, GA
  2. Reubin Columbus Hagan, born May 21, 1861, Lowndes County, GA; married Laura Roberts
  3. Georgia Hagan, born March 17, 1866, Berrien County, GA; married  James John Bradford, November 14, 1888
  4. Emma Tallulah Hagan, born June 08, 1867, Berrien County, GA; married J. A. Smith
  5. Fannie Ellen Hagan, born October 27, 1868, Berrien County, GA; married James Baskin
  6. Ida Ann Hagan, born August 16, 1870, Berrien County, GA; married John T. Smith
  7. Amanda Josephine Hagan, born March 05, 1872, Berrien County, GA; married Frank Arnold

Child of John William Hagan and Mary “Pollie” Smith Giddens (widow of Aaron Giddens):

  1. Texas Hagan, born June 19, 1875

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Confederate Letters of John William Hagan

In 1954, the Confederate letters of John W. Hagan were published by  Bell Irvin Wiley.  Hagan lived in the Cat Creek community near Rays Mill (now Ray City), GA.  In the Civil War, Hagan enlisted in  the “Berrien Minute Men,” a Confederate army unit organized by  Levi J. Knight, original settler at the site of Ray City.  Hagan served in the 29th GA infantry in Company  D, (later reorganized as Company K, the Berrien Minutemen),  and was elected 3rd Sergeant.  By 1864, he was serving as 1st Sergeant, and at times was in command of the Company.

Confederate Letters of John W. Hagan

Confederate Letters of John W. Hagan

John W. Hagan wrote regularly from field camps and battle lines to his wife and family back in Berrien County. His letters were typically addressed to Amanda Hagan, his wife, or  Rueben Roberts, his father-in-law.  He frequently mentions relatives, colleagues in the Berrien Minute Men, and other Wiregrass Georgia residents including James Roberts, Ezekiel Roberts, Stephen Roberts, Sherard Roberts, Kiziah Roberts, Bryant J. Roberts, John J. Roberts, George Roberts, James Roberts, Levi J. Knight, Jonathan D. Knight, William Washington Knight, William Sirmans, John Herndon, Wiley E. Baxter, Barzilla Knight, John M. Griffin, Thomas Griffin, Asa Newsome, William Roberts, Benjamin S. Garrett, J. L. Robert, Elias Thomas, Harriet Newell Wilson, Ellen Groover Clifford,  John Moore, Nancy Moore, Isbin B. Giddens, William J. Beatty,  James L. O’Neil, William Giddens, Burrell H. Howell, Moses H. Giddens, James Turner, Edward Maloy, U.D. Knight, Henry Harrison Knight, Edwin Griffin, Wiley E. Baxter, William Cameron, Jonas Tomlinson, Thomas Clifford, Jasper Roberts, John C. Clements, Thomas W. Ballard, James W. Mathis, James D. Pounds, James Giddens, Elias Lastinger, James Fender, Aaron Mattox,  Moses F. Giddens, and  William Anderson.

John W. Hagan witnessed  and described the death of Major John C. Lamb, who commanded the 29th Georgia Regiment until he was killed during the retreat from Vicksburg, MS in 1863.  Hagan also wrote about the execution of “Old Yaller” Elbert J. Chapman, who was shot for desertion even though he had left the 29th Georgia Regiment to serve with another unit.

John W. Hagan was captured during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864 along with John Hearndon, Jonathan D. Knight, James D. Pounds, among others, and was sent to Camp Chase, OH for the remainder of the war .

The 43 letters he wrote home between 1861 and 1865 were published by Bell Irvin Wiley, and subsequently appeared in the Georgia Historical Quarterly.  The content of these letters may now be viewed online through JSTOR archives of the journal articles.

cover-georgia-historical-quarterlyTHE CONFEDERATE LETTERS OF JOHN W. HAGAN. Part I

Bell Irvin Wiley
The Georgia Historical Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 2  (June, 1954), pp. 170-200
Published by: Georgia Historical Society
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40577510

cover-georgia-historical-quarterlyTHE CONFEDERATE LETTERS OF JOHN W. HAGAN: Part II

Bell Irvin Wiley
The Georgia Historical Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 3  (September, 1954), pp. 268-290
Published by: Georgia Historical Society
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40577711
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