1863: Frederic Denison to John L. Denison

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Chaplain Frederic Denison

This letter was written by Frederick Denison (1819-1901) while serving as Chaplain of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery in April 1863. Denison was a Baptist minister and served early in the war as Chaplain of the First Rhode Island Cavalry. He then volunteered to serve as “aide-de-camp” to Lieut. Col. Willard Sayles. During this time Denison was a correspondent to the Providence Evening Press and wrote numerous dispatches under the heading, “By the Wayside” to the Press. In January 1863, he transferred to the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.

In this letter, Chaplain Denison describes the First Battle of Charleston Harbor under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont who attacked the Confederate defenses near the entrance to Charleston Harbor on 7 April 1863. A greater portion of the letter, however, is devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s “divinely inspired” Emancipation Proclamation and its effect on thwarting foreign interference as well as the hopeful liberation of slaves from bondage. “This is less man’s war than God’s war,” he wrote his brother.


Port Royal, South Carolina
April 25, 1863

John L. Denison, A. M.
Norwich, Connecticut

Dear Brother,

Thanks for your letter. Joy for the loyalists of Old Connecticut. Shake hands for me with Gov. Buckingham. Rhode Island has a true yoke fellow for him in Gov. Smith—both [  ] representative men. Now let them, standing at the helm of states, have the heroism to see to it that only worthy men—all temperate, brave—shall have or hold commissions. Keep the home fires bright.

We sung a land, wild ode in Charleston harbor. I shall never forget the notes though I was ten miles distant. The monitors are Cyclops but the Ironsides is Vulcan. She forges the best thunderbolts. The little iron giants [Passaic Class Monitors] are invulnerable but they lack the number of guns necessary to storm a circle of land batteries. The Keokuk ¹ was but little better than a basket. DuPont did what he could. Hunter stood ready to hold what might be taken. Officers and men behaved well.

We let daylight through Sumter and marred Moultrie. “Conn. was jarred” but not disabled. However the tide will rise again and time will whet his scythe not in vain. All policies must ripen and nations as well as individuals must in due time reap what they have sown. The slave-silled confederate castle must tremble and teeter and fall before the injured and indignant power of Christian civilization. Abraham’s children shall inherit the land.

From exposure on the Charleston Expedition followed by over exertion in caring for the wounded and injured by the explosion of the George Washington ² together with a cold and an attack of my old bilious difficulty, I was taken down more than a week ago. Not having, for the time, any regimental hospital, I was brought to the General Hospital here (Hilton Head) where I still remain but in a state of convalescence, hoping to be in my saddle and on full duty in a few days. I have suffered not a little but am now quite easy most of the time. A little fever and dysentery still hold me to my quarters.

The weather has already become like summer. The Department, however, remains very healthy. Every few days deserters reach our lines at the risk of their lives. Their spirits indicate that the insurgents begin to shake and wilt. Destitution and discontent may yet breed a rebellion in the bosom of the confederacy. But if the Upas is not speedily cut down, it will certainly be girdled.

The ex-slaves are really a hopeful race—kind, faithful, industrious, temperate, and anxious to learn. They are examples in manners and virtue to our soldiers. The colored volunteers have a good military record and will be efficient in the service. Africa is now called upon the stage—her sons will escape from the house of bondage and in the meantime win for themselves rank and favor as actors in human affairs. Abraham’s war missive—the Proclamation—has barred foreign recognition, tripped out the underpinning of treason’s Bastile and cut the hard knot of the problem of the age. One can hardly measure the scope and results of that duty-inspired—-almost devinely inspired—-measure. This is less man’s war than God’s war. It is a day for heroisms of every kind, political, military, social, moral—yes, every power and every quality of every member of the nation must be tried.

Mention my regards to Mr. Learned, to Mr. Park. and all old friends, great and small.

Recollect me to your family and write when time and duties will permit and so oblige.

Your war-worn soldier brother, — Frederic Denison, Chaplain

3rd Regt. R. I. H. Artillery

¹ After taking 90 rounds during the First Battle of Charleston, the iron-clad screw steamer Keokuk sunk off the south end of Morris Island.

² The 243-ton armed sidewheel transport George Washington ran aground on 9 April 1863 in the Coosaw River in South Carolina, Confederate States of America one mile (1.6 km) east of the Port Royal Ferry near Chisholm Island and was ambushed by elements of the Nelson Light Artillery, the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, the 48th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, and the 11th South Carolina Infantry Regiment. During the ensuing action, Confederate gunfire damaged her rudder and struck her ammunition magazine, starting a fire that burned her to the waterline before she sank in shallow water. Her crew and Union Army soldiers on board abandoned her after suffering two killed, ten wounded, and two missing.

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