Uncle Charlie and Col. Higginson

Uncle Charlie and Col. Higginson

Daniel Charles Potter, Uncle Charley, as he was known by the next generations, was a man of many taleSummer 1914: Massachusetts volunteer encamp near D. C. Potter's home.nts and interest.  He read widely and voluminously, as indicated in his letters and the extent of his library.  He has mentioned the Sea Islands, “entirely of alluvium silt” and the “famous long staple Sea Island Cotton,” indicating knowledge of geology and the cotton industry.  Unfortunately his handwriting, particularly aboard ship (and I read it on 100-year-old paper) is not always decipherable, so I can’t tell exactly what was “made known to the world by Col. Higginson’s Life in a Black Regiment, which is worth reading.”

Uncle Charley, if he joined the Union Army at age 18, would have joined the same year Col. Higginson began training the black regiment, but I have no information on when he did serve.    The only fact concerning his service that I have found is this photo.  The captain of 1914 is not identified, but the occasion was “an encampment of Massachusetts volunteers” at “Ocean View,” likely adjacent to the Potter property.  Uncle Charley was then in his 70’s

Colonel Higginson’s book is available on line in its entirety, almost 300 pages, thanks to the support of Tufts University.  It is also available in Kindle from Amazon.  I quote parts of the first paragraph and two others, and, like Uncle Charley, I find it worth reading.

These pages record some of the adventures of the First South Carolina Volunteers,–the first slave regiment mustered into the service of the United States during the late civil war. It was, indeed, the first colored regiment of any kind so mustered, except a portion of the troops raised by Major-General Butler at New Orleans.

I had been expecting a war for six years, ever since the Kansas troubles, and my mind had dwelt on military matters more or less during all that time. The best Massachusetts regiments already exhibited a high standard of drill and discipline, and unless these men could be brought tolerably near that standard, the fact of their extreme blackness would afford me, even as a philanthropist, no satisfaction. Fortunately, I felt perfect confidence that they could be so trained,–having happily known, by experience, the qualities of their race, and knowing also that they had home and household and freedom to fight for, besides that abstraction of “the Union.” Trouble might perhaps be expected from white officials, though this turned out far less than might have been feared; but there was no trouble to come from the men, I thought, and none ever came… Of discipline there was great need,–that is, of order and regular instruction. Some of the men had already been under fire, but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty…  The first need, therefore, was of an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left the camp, and got occasional leisure moments for a fragmentary journal, to send home, recording the many odd or novel aspects of the new experience. Camp-life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers…

There was another family of brothers in the regiment named Miller. Their grandmother, a fine-looking old woman, nearly seventy, I should think, but erect as a pine-tree, used sometimes to come and visit them. She and her husband had once tried to escape from a plantation near Savannah. They had failed, and had been brought back; the husband had received five hundred lashes, and while the white men on the plantation were viewing the punishment, she was collecting her children and grandchildren, to the number of twenty-two, in a neighboring marsh, preparatory to another attempt that night. They found a flat-boat which had been rejected as unseaworthy, got on board,–still under the old woman’s orders,–and drifted forty miles down the river to our lines. Trowbridge happened to be on board the gunboat which picked them up, and he said that when the “flat” touched the side of the vessel, the grandmother rose to her full height, with her youngest grandchild in her arms, and said only, “My God! Are we free?” By one of those coincidences of which life is full, her husband escaped also, after his punishment, and was taken up by the same gunboat.  I hardly need point out that my young lieutenants did not have to teach the principles of courage to this woman’s grandchildren.

I would like to have known Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  He seems like a strong, principled, and compassionate man.

I wish I had known Uncle Charlie.  The little I know paint a picture of a man of versatile talents who read widely, valued education, and supported those qualities in his daughter and others, like Will Hobby.

  • He seems to have served during part of the Civil War, with a Massachusetts volunteer regiment, and came out a captain.
  • He owned a dairy farm, from which he marketed butter, during the early years of his marriage.
  • He attended college (The University of Massachusetts) shortly before his daughter started at Pembroke College in Brown University.  He graduated in 1895, she in 1897.
  • He was a professional surveyor, then started a landscape design business in which his daughter joined him.
  • He quotes, in his letters, from classic literature and poetry.
  • He was a skilled woodworker, producing ornate picture frames and shelving.  It’s likely, but I have no proof, that he made his daughter’s high chair.
  • He, with his wife, visited the Panama Canal a few months before its official opening, just before Will Hobby departed Panama.

Perhaps one reason Uncle Charlie appreciated Col. Higginson’s writing was that Col. Higginson was also a man of many talents.  Politically, the Colonel was radical, supporting not only emancipation but women’s rights (as did Uncle Charlie’s daughter), contributing articles and poetry to The Atlantic Monthly (to which the Potters were long-time subscribers), even maintaining a substantial correspondence with the poet Emily Dickinson and assisting after her death in publishing her work.

What an example of multi-directional connections: Civil War, camp life, steamship travel, college educations, women’s suffrage, dairy farming, Emily Dickinson…!

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