May 1865: "I made use of the opportunity to talk to him about the uselessness of prolonging the war..."
By Brooke McManus & Elaine Heavey
In this four-page letter to his sister Emma Allen, dated 7 May 1865, Charles Edwards Briggs, surgeon for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, describes events that occurred during April 1865 on his journey from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Charleston, as part of Potter's Raid. A fitting final installment of Looking at the Civil War: Massachusetts Finds Her Voice, Briggs’s insightful letter offers reflections on the significance of Lee's surrender, Lincoln's assassination, and portends the long complicated road facing the nation, particularly the South, during Reconstruction.
Charles Edwards Briggs was born in Boston on 6 April 1833 to Robert and Caroline (Morton) Briggs. He attended Harvard College and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1856. He practiced medicine for several years before taking up teaching Latin and Greek at Burlington College in New Jersey and later at Mr. Churchill's Military Academy in Sing Sing, New York. In August 1862, he was commissioned assistant surgeon in the 24th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was then encamped at New Berne, North Carolina. He was promoted to surgeon and transferred to the 54th Massachusetts in 1863, but did not join his new regiment at Morris Island, South Carolina, until the spring of 1864. He remained with the 54th until he mustered out of service in August 1865.
In the opening pages of this letter, the first he had written since early April, Briggs discusses General Edward E. Potter's three-week raid aimed at destroying railroads as well as rolling stock, war supplies, and cotton that had been stockpiled in remote areas of South Carolina. On 21 April, Briggs accompanied General Potter to Millford Plantation, the home of former South Carolina Governor John Laurence Manning, in search of supplies for his wounded men. Struck by the architecture and "charmingly picturesque" approach to the house, Briggs comments on the clothing and appearance of the Manning family, particularly the "imperious" Mrs. Manning, who wore "flowing black robes."
In letters written to his mother and siblings over the course of the war, Briggs frequently offered commentary on local customs and fashions, even women's hairstyles, so it was not unusual for him to describe the Manning family's appearance in such detail. He was also prone to making observations regarding deeper socio-political issues, as he demonstrates in detailing a conversation he had with the former governor in which he addressed the "uselessness of prolonging the war wh was solely for the planting interest while the poor whites were compelled to fight and their families were not protected at home," adding that his regiment had experienced such poverty first hand during the raid. To Emma he writes, "You probably do not suppose that he accepted my views or my facts."
Millford Plantation itself was spared from destruction. Local legend holds that General Potter was related to Nathaniel Potter, the Rhode Island architect who designed the grand home. Still, Manning informs Briggs he had "lost over four millions of dollars, more than any other man in the Confederacy." Adding he had nothing left "but the house without revenue to support it and could only bear his losses with philosophy." In response Briggs questions "the philosophy that enabled him to bear the suffering of the poor whites."
Beyond Briggs's smart prose and insightful observations, this letter also offers a sense of how slowly information moved through the rural South. Upon his arrival at Millford Plantation on 21 April, General Potter asked the Mannings to provide current newspapers in hopes of confirming the newly-circulating rumor that Lee had surrendered. In fact, the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 9 April, almost two weeks earlier. Later that evening Briggs writes, "news brought in by a flag of truce spread through the column that hostilities had ceased." Briggs also reports that the following day, 22 April, he began to hear rumors of Lincoln’s assassination. He writes "it seemed so strange and improbable that I did not accept it as true. But day by day confirmatory intelligence reached us, till we had no room for doubt that a greater than Caesar had fallen." In a final serious comment Briggs alludes to the challenges that lay ahead for the nation when, reflecting on the death of Lincoln, he informs Emma that he tells "southerners that the South has lost a friend, that other men in power are not so moderate and christian as he was."
After the war, Briggs settled in St. Louis. He married Rebekah Whittaker in 1869, and together they had four children. Briggs became a professor of medicine and also served as vice president of the St. Louis Medical Society. He died in June 1894 following surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Charles E. Briggs Letters document Briggs's service with both the 24th and 54th regiments. Among other things, his letters home describe his work in a hospital in New Bern, N.C., medical care and post-mortem examinations following the Battle of Morris Island, S.C., and conversations with Confederate prisoners.
Briggs, Walter De Blois. 1960. Civil War Surgeon in a Colored Regiment. Berkeley, Calif.: [s.n.], 1960.
Emilio, Luis F. 1995. A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. Boston: The Boston Book Co., 1891.