The Battle of Port Royal
As the storm lifted, sails began to appear on the horizon. None of the ships headed straight for Edisto Island, but it soon became apparent that they were dropping anchor just outside the entrance to Port Royal Sound. As they lowered their sails, their masts stood like bristles against the sky. Eddie and Jonathan watched with the kind of fascination that keeps people looking at scenes of terror even as they wish they could look away.
"Port Royal Sound. That's where Hilton Head is, isn't it? And where Peter . . ."
"Yes, but if you breathe a word of this to your mother or sister, I will tear out your tongue!"
"I won't. I'm scared enough for all of them. It looks like the navies of the world out there. Maybe that will scare the soldiers in Fort Walker, and they'll give up without a fight."
"Don't count on that. Soldiers have this thing called honor . . ."
"Which requires them to shoot back at thousands of cannons?"
"But that would be suicide."
And so it was. The guns began early the next morning. Although Fort Walker was some twenty-five miles away, the sound carried long across the water. The air shimmered, and the reverberations echoed deep in the breasts of all who listened. The barrage was steady, although most of the fleet that outlined itself against the sky had not moved from the anchorage.
"How many guns do you think there are?" Eddie asked.
"I have no idea. But those big warships carry dozens."
"And how many guns are there at Fort Walker?"
"Uh . . . Several."
Eddie fell silent, his eyes big with fear.
The cannonade continued until well after noon. But if the noise had been terrifying, the silence was worse. The Battle of Port Royal was obviously over, and it was just as obvious that it had been a huge loss for the Confederate forces. Even the slaves moved quietly back to their hoes, realizing that, in the first battle over the South's right to hold slaves, many men had died. There was no rejoicing at a Northern victory, only an empty feeling of remorse at the losses suffered for their sake.
* * *
Back in Charleston, a different sort of regret was expressing itself. When word came of the imminent arrival of the Northern fleet, Governor Pickens called for a new round of volunteers to protect his state. The message went out to the College Cadets in Columbia. The governor informed that ill-trained band that all able-bodied students were being called up. He had arranged transport for them and would have weapons waiting when they arrived in Charleston. If they were still minors, the law said they were required to have their parents' permission, but the governor waived even that requirement. It would be enough, he promised, if they could get the permission of one of the college staff, who stood in loco parentis, or if they would sign a paper saying that they believed their parents would give permission.
Of course, Johnny Grenville, Alex Croft, and John Calhoun were among the raw recruits who rode a hastily assembled train back to Charleston. They reported their arrival to the governor, but, by the time they were able to do so, the Battle of Port Royal was over. Once again, as in April, there was no role for them. Slightly embarrassed, Pickens sent them off with tents to camp at the Washington Race Course north of the city. They were to serve as his personal bodyguards, should he feel the need for such a guard.
The cadets complained, as soldiers always do, that their tents were too small and their commissary rations barely edible. But the truth was that they were comfortably situated. They sent out scouting parties each morning to buy food from the markets and spent their days lounging, gambling, and chatting with the young women who were drawn to the camp like flies.
They also took turns visiting their homes in the city. Johnny appeared at the Logan Street house one afternoon wearing his dress cadet uniform and strutting like the soldier he really wanted to be. Susan wept in his arms, and Charlotte eased herself down the stairs to pummel her brother with questions about what he had heard of the battle. Fortunately, he had heard little or nothing.
While the reunited family chatted and filled each other in on the changes in their lives, someone knocked at the front door. Sarah hurried to answer it but first peered out of the sidelight to see who it might be. Instead of opening the door, she turned to the assembled group in the parlor, her eyes wide. "It be sum soljer mens," she said.
"They're probably looking for me. Maybe the general has finally found something for us to do." Johnny jumped to his feet and threw open the door with a smile on his face. His smile faded as he realized he didn't know them. "May I help you?"
"We're looking for a Mrs. Rogers. We have a message for her."
"I'm sorry. There's no Mrs. Rogers here. You must have the wrong—"
"John! That's me!" Charlotte was struggling to get up from the settee. "Maybe Peter sent me a letter." She, too, approached the door with a smile on her face—a smile that faded as she saw the expressions of the messengers.
"Ma'am? Are you Mrs. Peter Rogers?"
"Yes. Yes. Where is his letter? Is that it?"
"Ma'am. We're sorry to inform you that your husband was a brave and dedicated soldier, who died while doing his duty and serving his country. This letter from his commander will tell you the details of his final moments. Our deepest regrets, Ma'am."
The speech was well-rehearsed and delivered with all dignity, but Charlotte did not hear it. She had already slumped toward the floor.