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Monday, March 2, 2015

Dr. Marcy’s March

By Daniel J. Vivian, 2-13-15


As January 1865 drew to a close, Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman readied his army, then camped around Savannah, Ga., to march north into South Carolina. Some 60,000 men strong, Sherman’s troops sensed the Confederacy’s flagging will. Four years of carnage had cost Southerners dearly, and Sherman’s campaign across Georgia had dealt the Confederacy a devastating blow. With the Army of Northern Virginia crouched in defensive positions around Richmond and Confederates scrambling to defend the Palmetto State, Sherman’s men prepared to push on, determined to bring the long and bloody war to an end.

No one better captured the drama of the moment than Capt. Henry Orlando Marcy, a surgeon assigned to the 35th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, who kept a keen-eyed diary throughout the campaign. Marcy, a Massachusetts native, had enlisted upon graduating from Harvard University in the spring of 1863. Abolitionist sentiments made him a minority among Union officers and a keen observer of race and class. As his unit moved into South Carolina, he took note of conflicts at the heart of Southern society. Marcy’s powers of perception, however, did not extend to his own prejudices. He held deep commitments to the men of the 35th but viewed slaves with a combination of paternalism and pity, and at times he showed affinity for Southerners of comparable social rank. Marcy’s writings simultaneously revealed the nobility of the Union cause and its limits.

The Carolinas campaign began in the early morning hours of Feb. 1, when Union troops broke camps in lower Beaufort County, S.C., and surged into the interior of the state. Sherman divided his army into two formations. The 14th and 20th Corps marched along the Savannah River before turning north, a move designed to confuse the enemy. The 15th and 17th corps, which included the 35th U.S.C.T., marched from the vicinity of Beaufort in the direction of Branchville and Fort Motte. They met somewhat greater resistance than their counterparts, but nowhere did Confederates mount a strong defense. Outmanned and caught off-guard by Sherman’s erratic movements, rebel forces found themselves unable to do more than slow the Union advance.

Marcy’s duties included more than medicine. Although he tended to the sick and wounded and administered vaccines, he also supervised foraging parties, destroyed rebel property and carried out patrols. Save for front-line combat, he handled the full range of duties expected of midlevel officers.

As the 35th marched forward, Marcy took note of the changing landscape. Like other Union officers, he viewed the plantations of the coastal region with awe. East of Salkehatchie, he saw a spectacular expanse of rice fields “divided and subdivided into squares as regularly as a city.” Beyond lay “a range of low hills … all cleared and under cultivation.” Several groups of buildings appeared as “distinct villages.” “These are the finest plantations I have ever seen,” Marcy wrote.

Nearly three weeks later, as his unit moved along the Ashley River, Marcy saw some of the oldest plantations in the state. Here he encountered the stately mansion at Drayton Hall and the plantation of Henry Middleton, a one-time minister to Russia. Carefully ordered landscapes, handsome houses, and well-kept grounds demonstrated the authority and power the planter class had traditionally wielded.

Slaves rejoiced upon realizing that the moment of emancipation had arrived. At one plantation, Marcy encountered “slaves overjoyed at our coming. They thank God, and say they have long prayed for coming. Say they don’t want Massa anymore.” On another occasion, Marcy found himself surrounded by slaves giving “various demonstrations of joy.” “All wanted to ‘shake hands.’ Guess this is a custom of theirs,” he mused. Slaves looted the houses of former masters and quickly organized themselves. After watching a group clear land at a Cooper River plantation, Marcy noted, “They are willing to labor hard if they can have reasonable recompense. I encouraged them, promising they should have a part of the crop.”

Even as Marcy admired slaves’ enthusiasm and self-reliance, he sympathized with the planter class, even those he identified as “bitter rebels.” He chafed at an order to burn the house of Charles Heyward, a wealthy planter. “The destruction of such property seems a great pity,” Marcy remarked. In another instance, seeing a grand house in ruins left him despondent. “Tis very sad,” he wrote. “Yesterday it was the finest place I ever saw, now all destroyed. The house was erected before the Revolution and was in splendid keeping.”

The most revealing encounter that Marcy recorded occurred at the Stoney Plantation on Back River, in the vicinity of Goose Creek. As a small group of his men foraged nearby, Marcy found several members of the Stoney family at home. “Intelligent, but bitter rebels,” he noted. “The ladies plainly spoke of their sentiments and gloried in their struggle.” The only male present was “a lame son-in-law.” The family patriarch, Peter Gaillard Stoney, and five of his sons were serving in the Confederate army. The Stoney women invited Marcy and another officer to stay for dinner. “The ladies were so attractive, we accepted,” Marcy explained.

During the meal, Mrs. Stoney mentioned strained relations with the family’s slaves. “Mrs. S. said the niggers had become unruly and she feared trouble with them,” Marcy wrote. The difficulty had begun after a visit by a Union gunboat a few days before. A Union officer had told the slaves to remain on the plantation and continue working as before. Marcy surmised that the man must have been “overcome by the charm of the ladies, or some other motive.” The slaves protested. “This was not what … they had heard Massa Linkinn had promised them,” Marcy noted. Understandably, “They couldn’t exactly see how they were free if they must do just as before.”

Marcy agreed to speak to the Stoney slaves. From a small porch he addressed an audience of about 150 “colored people of all ages and sizes.” They stood “clothed in all sorts of garments, from the ordinary homespun to whole suits made of old carpets and blankets.” Nearly all had “feet and heads bare,” and few “were clothed sufficiently to prevent them from suffering.” No record of his remarks survives, but he noted that the slaves “seemed appreciative and happy, thanked God for freedom and promised to make good use of it.” The Stoneys took a different view. They retreated to a parlor “in silence.” When Marcy joined them, Mrs. Stoney made it clear that “she esteemed my remarks of less value than the colored people.”

The episode at the Stoney plantation revealed conflicts at the heart of the struggle over slavery. Even as emancipation arrived, masters expected blacks to remain subordinate and continue laboring without complaint. Freedpeople demanded autonomy and the ability to shape the circumstances of their lives. Fierce conflicts erupted. For their part, Northerners such as Marcy wavered in their commitment to black equality and large-scale social reform. Most Northerners celebrated slavery’s destruction but opposed African-American equality. Even the minority who supported black civil rights questioned what federal authorities could and should do to reshape the Southern social order.

In the months and years that followed, conflicts over Reconstruction gripped the nation. The untimely assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, left federal policy toward former Confederate states unsettled, and the lenient policies enacted by his successor, Andrew Johnson, enraged the northern public. Congressional Republicans quickly seized control of Reconstruction. For a time, it appeared that federal action might ensure voting rights, full civil rights and possibly even access to economic resources for former slaves. Yet support for such measures quickly faded, and by the time Ulysses S. Grant became president in March 1869, the bid to remake the nation in the name of liberty and equality for all had lost steam. Racialized terror, electoral strife and inadequate support by federal authorities sounded the death knell for a South where blacks rose above the status of a marginalized class.

Marcy’s view of affairs in the spring of 1865 hinted at reasons for the boldness of Reconstruction, and why it ultimately failed. The sincerity of his commitment to the men of the 35th and the cause of racial equality cannot be doubted. When he received his discharge orders on June 1, he professed his love and respect for the “honest, true faithful black men” with whom he had “labored for so long.” The following spring he returned to South Carolina with plans to buy and operate a plantation, a measure intended to help African-Americans “obtain justice.” Although the project failed, it nonetheless demonstrated his desire to create a more equitable South. Yet Marcy’s admiration for the planter class also showed inclinations that undermined the aim of wholesale social reform. When he admired grand houses without recognizing them as products of forced labor, he ignored crucial dimensions of the Union cause. The episode at the Stoney plantation showed how class interests conflicted with the aim of black empowerment. No matter how earnestly Marcy believed in racial equality, he identified more closely with the Southern elite than with newly freed slaves. Between him and the latter lay a social distance that would ultimately undermine efforts to secure black civil rights.

Marcy spent the remainder of the Carolinas campaign in Charleston, where the 35th U.S.C.T. acted as an occupying force. The news of Lincoln’s assassination left him shocked and angry, and he soon found himself questioning the price of victory. “At what terrible cost have we purchased the priceless jewel of liberty?” he asked. In the weeks that followed, he cared for freedpeople on nearby plantations, surveyed the condition of the Medical College of South Carolina, and vaccinated orphans at the Charleston Orphan Asylum. On June 8 he sailed from Charleston on the steamer Clyde. The view from the harbor led him to exclaim: “The war here began is finished, the object of our four years of fighting accomplished. The rebellion dead, arm[ed] treason sinking out of sight and slavery a thing of the past!”

Marcy reached his home in Cambridgeport, Mass., on June 15. He spent the remainder of the year caring for his ailing mother and practicing medicine. New Year’s Eve found him thinking about becoming a missionary in the South. After the failed bid to purchase the plantation in the spring of 1866, he returned to the North and then went abroad. He did postgraduate studies in medicine in London, in Scotland and at the University of Berlin. In 1870 he returned to the United States, having decided to specialize in gynecology. He went on to serve as president of the American Medical Association in 1891-92, became a founding member of the American College of Surgeons and published extensively in medical journals during a long and productive career. He died in 1924.

Marcy played only a small role in the Carolinas campaign, and he had little influence on Reconstruction. Yet his views illustrate the problems that beset the nation as Union victory gave way to new struggles over the postwar order. Reconstruction set bold ambitions for a nation that had always tolerated slavery within its borders, and the failure to achieve its loftiest goals revealed the limits of Northerners’ commitment to social reform in the South. Four years of horrific bloodshed left Americans weary and eager to resume whatever sense of normalcy they could find.

Marcy’s personal story mirrored the broader currents of the era. Though committed to slavery’s destruction, he found racial equality a step too far. In due course, the nation did too. Hence the need for a “Second Reconstruction” – the phrase historians sometimes use in referring to the civil rights movement – a century later. His diary shows the irony and the tragedy of a nation that freed 4.5 million slaves but could neither envision people of color as equals or a society where race did not divide haves from have-nots.

Sources: Henry O. Marcy, “Diary of a Surgeon: U.S. Army, 1864-1866”; Irving A. Watson, ed. and comp., “Physicians and Surgeons of America”; Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 19, 1924; Henry O. Marcy, “The Semi-Centennial of the Introduction of Antiseptic Surgery in America,” in Transactions of the Southern Surgical Association 33 (1921); John G. Barrett, “Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas”; Eric Foner, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877”; David Blight, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”; Michael W. Fitzgerald, “Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South;” Anne S. Rubin, “Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory.”

Daniel J. Vivian is an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville.

Image: Soldiers under Gen. William T. Sherman burn McPhersonsville, S.C. on Feb. 1, 1865.Credit Library of Congress

From: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com


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