Charleston [S.C.], Jany 6th. 1866.
Genl. I respectfully submit the following report.
By order of Capt Ketchum1 Mr Swails Agent for John's island,2 and myself Commissioner for the same, and Wadmalaw island accompanied by Mr Becket,3 visited the said islands for the purpose of ascertaining the population
On the 3d we reached the plantation of the late Dr Whitridge. A colored man not belonging to the place questioned the authority of Mr Swails and demanded by what right he was on the place Mr Swails produced the order of Capt Ketchum whereupon some insolent gibes were made, and Mr Swails showed his pistol, and said that also was his authority. We then passed on to other houses, and soon encountered some 30 men 3 of whom were mounted with guns in there hands Thomas one of the horsemen refused to give his name or any information in regard to the number of his family, and treated the Agent with marked insolence and contempt. Finding the taking of a census utterly impossible we proceeded to the next Plantation. We were there halted by the said Thomas, and his posse. and after a tirade of abuse we were permitted to proceed on our way to Rockville accompanied by the said Thomas, and Joe of the abovementioned place. A colored man who acted as guard to Mr Swails was threatened with his life and was told that we would be murdered when we reached a certain bend in the road, the two horsemen dashed by us as if intent on executing their threat. We however reached Rockville with our scalps and sought the protection of Mr Ivans the former agent of Wadmalaw isl.4 About a half hour after our arrival at Rockville at least 30 men with arms surrounded our quarters, and after using the most violent, and abusive language, insisted that we should be carried to Edisto. The influence and determination of Mr Swails prevailed and we permitted to spend the night at Rockville. The road leading from Rockville was picketed to prevent our anticipated escape for upwards of five miles. Early next morning the mob reassembled and were more violent than the preceding night They threatened to throw down Mr Swails, and take away his only defence. Mr Becket, and myself were warned never to return to the island. They said that they had rifles that never lied, and if we returned we would be shot. Through the influence of Mr Ivans, and the leaders the matter was adjusted by submitting to the humiliating proposal that we should be marched off the island by 30 horsemen under arms, and as many footman. As soon as we were mounted a horseman placed himself by the side of each of us the remainder in our rear, footman with loaded muskets in front. Thus we were marched through the islands, subjects of ridicule to the spectators and triumph to the participators– Respectfully
G. R. Whitridge
Thomas, Joe, Adam, belong to Dr Whitridge Bob Ned. Green. belong Mr Whaley Elias, (Amos) to Mr Bailey–
G. R. Whitridge to Genl Devens, 6 Jan. 1866, filed with S-165 1866, Letters Received, series 4109, Department of South Carolina, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 1, National Archives. Whitridge prepared this account at the instance of General Daniel E. Sickles, commander of the Department of South Carolina, who asked him to inform the district commander, General Charles Devens, Jr., of the events on Johns and Wadmalaw. Sickles also had his own adjutant write to General Devens. Whitridge, the adjutant explained, “was a member of the board organized to consider and settle the question of labor,” and he and Beckett had gone to the islands under military authority “for the purpose of ascertaining whether the Negroes would accept Employment for wages.” “In the discharge of this proper mission,” the adjutant continued, “they were grossly insulted beset [b]y mobs–their lives threatened by armed people and the laudable object of their visit entirely prevented by lawless violence.” Sickles therefore suggested that Devens send the two men back to the islands with an escort from the 6th U.S. Infantry, “arrest the ringleaders,” and “disarm the disorderly people.” (W L. M. Burger to Bvt Maj Genl. Chas Devens, 6 Jan. 1866, in the same file.) By an endorsement of January 8, Devens's adjutant referred Whitridge's letter to General James C. Beecher, commander of the district's 2nd subdistrict, together with Sickles's suggestion. Troops from the 6th U.S. Infantry were not available, the endorsement reported, but General Beecher should “use such forces as he now has in his Comd. to effect the desired object of enforceing order on these Islands so that the agents of the Govt. can proceed with their duties–” Stephen A. Swails, the Freedmen's Bureau agent who had accompanied the planters, had been “an officer of the highest character” in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Devens's adjutant noted, “and is himself of mixed blood–” In the same file is a report of January 21 by Captain William A. Nerland, the officer Beecher assigned to carry out Devens's instructions. “I've investigated the affair of Jan 4th on the Islands,” Nerland wrote, “but have been unable as yet to arrest the parties named. As far as I've been able to learn the freedpeople had an idea that Mr Whitridge, Mr Beckett and Mr Swails were on the island for the purpose of making contracts. They demanded their authority for taking their (the freedpeople) names. Mr Swails drew his revolver and pointing it at them told [them] that was his authority. This was the cause of the excitement that ensued. The armed men that went with Mr Whitridge and his party to Johns Island did it for their protection.” Nerland had found the freedpeople “very quiet” and “disposed to abide by the law.” (Capt William. A. Nerland to Brvt Brig Genl Jas. C. Beecher, 21 Jan. 1866.) Subsequent endorsements transmitted Whitridge's letter, now accompanied by Nerland's report, back through Devens to General Sickles. According to Devens, other reports from Johns and Wadmalaw confirmed that “there is no difficulty at present, in the way of any person visiting these Islands, who goes under military authority, and follows the rules which have been prescribed.”
1. Captain Alexander P. Ketchum, the officer General O. O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, had put in charge of the process of restoring land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia to ex-Confederate proprietors.
2. Stephen A. Swails, a civilian Freedmen's Bureau agent on Johns Island, was among the small number of black men commissioned as officers during the final months of the Civil War; he had been a lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
3. T. A. Beckett, a Johns Island planter.
4. M. A. H. Evans (not Ivans) had been a Freedmen's Bureau agent on Johns and Wadmalaw islands in 1865.
Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 226–28.