2 January 1862: “…yesterday was New Year down here in Dixie and one I shall never forget…”

Item description: Letter, 2 January 1862, from Emmett Cole, a Union soldier in Company F, 8th Michigan Infantry Regiment, encamped at Port Royal Island, S.C., to his sister describing the Battle of Port Royal Ferry, fought on New Year’s Day (1862).

[Transcription available below images. Also, a battle summary is included at the end of this post.]

Item citation: From folder 2 of the Emmett Cole Letters #5002-z, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item transcription:

Port Royal, Jan 2d, 1862

Dear Sister,

Having a little time to myself tonight and it being the commencement of a new year I guess I will write few lines and tell you how I spent my New Year day but perhaps you will hear all about the news I shall write long before this will reach you but I would rather have a dozen lines direct from the pen of a friend then a dozen News papers in the first place I am well an perfectly contented for  I am now where I have a chance once in a while to make the cussed Rebels “lick the dust” yesterday was New Year down here in Dixie and one I shall never forget. for three days and nights I have hardly had an Hours rest, but I am not used up yet but some of the Boys are about used up. We have finally got possession of the ferry.  Been on the Main & unfolded the Banner of the free, and seen it wave in honor over another corner of the old Secession Garden. I will give you a short description of our short campaign as short a space as possible. Last Monday night at Midnight, 24 of us were hustled out of bed, got a guide an started for a Headland two miles above the ferry , to meet some Flat Boats that were comeing from Beaufort and take charge of them, also to watch the niggers that rowed them, for they will make themselves almighty scarce. If they think there is to be any fighting to be done, for they are afraid their Masters will get hold of them and they well know what will be their doom if they do. They shoot a great many of them as they are trying to cross the River, but By Hoky that game is played out now. well we lost our path and did not find the place but struck the River, too high up and stayed on the bank until the boats came down. all we could hear of them was the splash of the Oar for the oars were muffled to keep from disturbing the Rebel Pickets as soon as they come along. We kept along the shore until we came to the Headland. which took till about daylight, but by the time the fog was off the river we had the Boats, 20 in No. all under cover and the Niggers in the bushes.  General Stephens came down about eight in the morning with some men to relieve us and we went back to camp. we spent the rest of the day fussing with our guns & c. orders were read on dress Parade to be ready to march at a moments warning. about Midnight the Bugle Parade sounded, and in less than ten minutes we were all ready to march. The night was quite dark and when they would pile around a bend all you could see was a long black line. we soon reached the flat Boats and commenced to embark as fast as possible as fast as the Boars were loaded and fell in line, each Reg. by itself. the N.Y. 79 first and then the Mich 8th the P.A. round Heads and last the P.A. 50th Numbering in all about 2, 800 men. as soon as we were all in the Boats. we commenced pulling  for Ladies Island which is opposite the ferry, but protected from its Batteries by another Headland. everything was done in perfect silence. we got down to the shore and waited for the Gun Boats. it was the sunrise. It was not long before we saw one of the Boats come slowly down the River. every sail fueled ready for fight. it was not long before he was followed by another and then another and then another untill there were five in sight. as soon as there were between us and the Batteries we started round to Headland in their Rear as soon as they came opposite to Batteries. they commenced to shell them and they got them started they doubled the dose. at the same time about a mile above at a place called Sea Brook, some more of our Boats were giveing them Hail Columbia without missing a note they had a battery there larger than at the ferry. as soon as they got them started we, pulled for shore in three or four places and about this time we saw two transports comeing down from Beaufort loaded with troops from Hilton Head. they were the N.Y. 47  & 48 & the N.H. 4th which  increased our force to about 4, 500. as soon as we were on shore we marched for the fort in hopes that we might flank them. as they retreated before they could reach the woods, but their legs were too long for us. they got into the woods and there made a stand. they managed to take two or three field pieces with them and as we were marching between the wood and the river through a large cotton Plantation. they opened up us. General Stephens was in advance with his brag up 79th Highlanders but instead of putting them in, he orderd the 8th Mich. to skirmish the wood and if possible take the battery. the Col. at once orded Co. A, F & D to deploy as skirmishers.  we deployed at once and marched down toward the wood. Co. A was in front of the Battery, F on the right flanked & D on the left. The Ball and shell whistled and passed around our ears, but we didnt care any for them.  we got used to them on the Flat Boats. I had to laugh once, I was carrying my gun at what they call trail arms when all at once the Lieut. Col. ran against the butt of my gun and like to have tripped me up. I supposed it was one of our boys and said, why in the Devil dont you get in your place what you out here for, but on looking around I saws it was the Lieut. Col. he took it all in good part. I must stop writing for I have got something else to do. (all we have to do is to sleep on our arms and be ready to march at a  moments warning. they say there is 15, 000 rebels in sight on the other side the Ferry but we will see before I get through that, that is just what we wanted them to do.) I will now finish the description of the battle.  we marched straight up toward the wood. the cotton and weeds covered us partly from view when we got up within a few rods of the wood. they opened upon us. by gracious, the air was perfectly lousy with rifle balls. we returned the fire and retreated back reloaded and up again we exchanged two or three volleys. the Bugle sounded retreat as rally on the reserve. they discovered that the force was too heavy for us, and having the advance of the wood, and we in the open field. they could mow us down like grass. we started for the reserve and tried to carry of the wounded as we went but we lost two or three that we did not get, then, but they have found some of them since dead among the cotton. I found a poor fellow short through the leg. I had to let him rest every once in a while to keep him from fainting. we soon ralied on the Batalion Closed in mass. the General ordered us to move up a little farther toward the fort & he would fix them, and in less than five minutes the shells from the Boats were firing in among them like hail. when the Bomb commenced to fly they scattered like Black Birds, but not with  out a considerable loss for at sundown when the firing had ceased they came over with a flag of Truce with a  request to take away their dead and the General gave them just one hour and they did not begin to get them all in that time. our loss in the skirmish was three killed and 7 wounded. I dont know how many were killed in the other regiments. we threw our Pickets as far as possible, and built our camp fires for the night. they put me on guard that night and that is the way I spent my New Year. Celestia how did you spend it all night I could plainly see the Rebel camp fires. making plainly the place of their encampment. the next morning the Pickets all came in right away after sunrise. the whole army was at once drawn up in line of battle and the Boats commenced to thunder again and for two hours they poured them Iron hail over our heads and I’ll bet there was not a half acre for three miles back but what catched a Bomb, and at the end of that time we were all safely back across the Ferry the Mich 8th was next to the last to cross & was the only Reg that had a hand to hand fight. you may think strange that we should all leave after once getting over there, but there is policy in war the object was to draw their forces from Savanna and Charlston. So that they cold give them Abe & Becks there and we came down were crossing the Ferry the Gun Boats were all at work and the Buildings all on fire. made a grand picture. and now I have done. If I ever live to get home, I can tell you more than I can write. I have no envelope to put this in now I have got it written, but I will try and get one some where. my respects to my friends & accept this from your affectionate Brother


More about the Battle of Port Royal Ferry:

[Battle summary courtesy of the American Civil War Database]

Port Royal Ferry, South Carolina
Jan 1 1862

– Union killed: 1
– Union wounded: 10
– Total Union losses: 11

Report from “The Union Army, Vol.,6 p.,712”:

Port Royal Ferry, S. C.,
Jan. 1, 1862.

Part of Expeditionary Corps.

The Confederates had established batteries at Port Royal ferry
on the Coosaw river, to obstruct the navigation of that stream,
and Brig.-Gen. Thomas W. Sherman, commanding the expeditionary
corps on Beaufort island, determined to dislodge them. This
work was intrusted to Brig.-Gen. Isaac I. Stevens, whose force
consisted of the 8th Mich., 47th, 48th and 79th N. Y., 50th and
100th Pa. infantry, about 3,000 men, while five gunboats of
Com. Dupont’s fleet, under command of Capt. C. R. P. Rodgers of
the U. S. navy, were directed to cooperate with the land

The plan was for Stevens to cross over from Brick-yard point on
Port Royal island at daylight on the 1st, the crossing to be
covered by the gunboats, two of which were to take position in
the Coosaw for that purpose, while the other three were to
enter Whale branch as soon as it was light enough to see and
move up toward the ferry. Considerable delay occurred in
crossing, so that it was noon before Stevens was ready to begin
his attack.

The 78th N. Y. was in advance, with two companies thrown
forward as skirmishers. Immediately following this regiment
were 2 howitzers that had been sent up from one of the
gunboats, supported by the 8th Mich. and 50th Pa., with the
47th and 48th N. Y. in reserve and the 100th Pa. guarding the
flatboats and keeping open a line of retreat in case it became

As the line advanced the enemy opened a vigorous fire from a
masked battery on the right, and Col. Fenton, commanding the
8th Mich., was ordered to dislodge it. Fenton deployed his
regiment as skirmishers and, protected by the thickets and
ridges in the ground, advanced against the battery, but soon
developed a large force of infantry in support.

The reserves were then pushed out to the right, while Col.
Christ sent part of the 50th Pa. to the left, under
instructions to gain the rear of the enemy if possible. The
movements were well executed and the Confederates were pressed
back at all points. As soon as the line began to move forward
the gunboats commenced throwing shells over the heads of the
Union troops into the fort, which created considerable
consternation in the enemy’s ranks.

In the meantime Col. Leasure, commanding the 100th Pa., who was
under orders to cross over and assist in the assault on the
fort if circumstances favored such a movement, saw from his
point of observation that the Confederates were about ready to
evacuate their works, and threw over a detachment under Lieut.-
Col. Armstrong, which reached the fort just as the enemy was
leaving it and the skirmishers of the 78th N. Y. were taking

Armstrong then made a reconnaissance to the northward and found
that the enemy was in full retreat. The Union loss in this
engagement was 2 killed, 12 wounded and 1 missing. The
Confederates reported a loss of 8 killed and 24 wounded.

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