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Civil War: Skirmish on Magnolia Beach 150 years ago ended in hanging of Union sailor
By Charles Swenson
George Brinsmaid never said a word.
He was ordered ashore with a party of sailors from the brig Perry on Dec. 5, 1863 to burn a schooner that was loading with turpentine in Murrells Inlet and preparing to run the Union blockade. Brinsmaid had enlisted just 72 days earlier. He had been a laborer. Now he was rated a landsman like others with no experience at sea.
Brinsmaid was supposed to go ahead as a scout, but the expedition was barely under way when the 16 sailors were attacked by Confederate cavalry and surrounded. Brinsmaid was shot in the left hand, one of several wounded before the sailors surrendered.
The first stop on their march to captivity was the woods at the Oaks plantation where the cavalry was camped. Brinsmaid was taken away by two cavalrymen and a man in civilian clothes. A horse’s halter was placed around his neck and he was hanged from a tree limb. He was then shot twice in the chest.
He was 23; a native of Connecticut. And, George Brinsmaid was black.
An estimated 18,000 men of African decent served in the Union navy, 20 percent of its enlisted strength. “African-Americans were admitted to the U.S. Navy right from the start of the war,” said Joseph Reidy, a professor of history at Howard University in Washington and director of the African-American Sailors Project.
The Navy had always been open to black enlistments. “At the start of the Civil War, a number of men who had served on merchant ships or whaling ships presented themselves for service,” Reidy said. The Navy also drew black recruits from among the dock workers at the Northern ports.
Brinsmaid grew up along the shore of Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn. Census records show his father was also a laborer. Records show his brother, Willis, enlisted in the infantry.
The Union navy needed ships and men to enforce its blockade of the South. In the spring of 1861, it had just 82 ships. By the end of that year, it had 264.
“They were turning everything into navy ships,” said Mark Schultz, a professor of history at Lewis University in Illinois. “They were putting everything they had into this blockade.”
Schultz specializes in the history of the Jim Crow era, but as a graduate student, he wrote about one of the men who rose to command ships in the blockade, Samuel B. Gregory.
Gregory was a shoemaker in Marblehead, Mass., but he came from a family of sea captains. He received his commission in October 1861 and was assigned as acting master of the steamer Western World, a converted cattle boat. He sailed to join the blockade off South Carolina in January 1862.
His service history is a hard luck tale. “What jumped out first was how often he had to discipline his men,” Schultz said. “He had a hard time keeping guys from getting drunk and falling asleep on duty.”
In 10 months, the 90 men in the Western World’s crew committed 49 violations, with nearly 40 percent of the crew being placed in irons at one time or another.
In spite of that, Gregory won praise for his role in capturing ships trying to run the blockade. “He actually did a pretty good job,” Schultz said.
After putting down a mutiny on the Western World, he took command of the brig Perry, which had also had problems with its crew. The Perry was a sailing ship, built by the Navy in the 1840s.
“The Perry was a man-of-war of the fourth rate, carrying 10 broadside guns and one howitzer. She was a very fast sailer, but very cranky or top-heavy, on account of the heavy battery on deck and her lofty spars,” wrote George Anderson, an ensign who joined the ship in Boston in September 1863. As a merchant sailor he had admired the Perry when he saw her in the harbor at Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s. “Now the circumstances were altogether different. It was a most undesirable vessel to be attached to in war times.”
Brinsmaid enlisted in New York on Sept. 24, 1863. He was transferred to the Perry in time for its journey south.
Anderson, who wrote about his war service 34 years later, recalled that Brinsmaid “was useless for going aloft, or anything else, for that matter, so he had extra guard duty to perform. He was given a loaded rifle and stationed at the port gangway.”
Anderson said he continually found Brinsmaid asleep on duty. “The fact that he was so useless formed circumstances which resulted in his death,” he wrote.
“There was still quite a bit of what we would call discrimination or racist behavior,” Reidy said of the Navy. “But if they were good at what they did, they would hold their own.”
Brinsmaid was one of 13 blacks in the 45-man crew of the Perry. All but one had enlisted in New York. The other enlisted in Boston. The proportion of blacks in the crew, 29 percent, was slightly above the average for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, according to Reidy’s figures.
The Perry arrives
The Perry took up its station off Murrells Inlet late in 1863.
With the Union navy occupying the lower end of Winyah Bay, Georgetown was no longer a safe port for blockade runners. Brig. Gen. James Trapier, who commanded the Georgetown district, said he didn’t have the resources to open the port. Murrells Inlet could accommodate small ships with a draft of 9 feet. “Having entered the harbor, however, they would not even then be altogether safe, as it is narrow and short,” Trapier wrote in an assessment of the local ports in November 1863. Also, goods would have to be hauled 3 miles to the Waccamaw River for transportation inland.
Trapier said any increase in blockade running in the area would have to be accompanied by an increase in troops. “The region of the country hereabout is not of much value to the enemy, either in military or commercial point of view,” he wrote. “Give him the inducement by making here ports of entry for blockade runners, and he will not be slow to avail himself of our comparatively defenseless condition.”
A month earlier, a former Charleston pilot boat, Rover, ran aground in Murrells Inlet while trying to run the blockade with a load of cotton. It was set on fire and destroyed by a shore party from the schooner Ward. The sailors returned to scout the area and found another schooner, Cecilia, farther up the creek. While they weighed their options, the officer and 10 men were attacked by a detachment from the 21st Georgia Cavalry and captured. Trapier was pleased. Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, was not.
While the destruction of the blockade runner was encouraging, the Navy Department “must express its disapprobation of officers and men straying from their vessels, either with or without permission, resulting in their capture,” Welles wrote the commander of the blockading squadron.
The Perry was judged a better armed ship capable of dealing with the Confederates at Murrells Inlet.
Anderson wrote of making several scouting trips into Murrells Inlet after the Perry anchored offshore. The blockade runner was docked at the south end of the inlet. It could be seen by going landing on the beach and crossing the dunes. He could see the cavalry camped about a mile from the beach.
On one trip, they got aboard the Cecilia and found the cargo of turpentine. He regretted not burning the vessel, but said his orders were to gather information. There were brushes with the Confederate cavalry, but each time, the shore parties got away safely.
On Dec. 5, Gregory sailed the Perry as close to the beach as possible and began to shell the Cecilia. After three hours, she was still intact, so he sent a shore party of 16 men to destroy her.
“We all well knew there would be resistance offered to our landing, under the circumstances, but I received orders to set fire to the schooner, and therefore had nothing to say,” Anderson wrote.
In a report written in 1864 after he was exchanged from prison in Richmond, Va., Anderson wrote that Gregory ordered Brinsmaid to join the shore party to scout. In his later account, he wrote that he asked to have Brinsmaid, whose job would be to carry a small keg filled with strands of rope and turpentine, to set fire to the schooner.
“Everybody thought it would be a good joke, so Mr. Brinsmaid was ordered into the boat, and promoted to the office of bearer of combustibles,” Anderson wrote. It was a dangerous time as well as a dangerous place.
After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing the slaves and allowing the enlistment of free blacks and former slaves, Confederate President Jefferson Davis responded with a policy that black Union troops would be enslaved or executed if captured. Lincoln replied with an order that one Confederate solider would be killed for every Union soldier “killed in violation of the laws of war.” For each one enslaved, a Confederate would be “placed at hard labor.”
“At the policy level, they were trying to work through this,” Reidy said. “At the local level, passions often ran high.”
The Navy lands
Two boats rowed ashore from the Perry to what was then known as Magnolia Beach. While Anderson, Ensign William Arrants and 14 others headed across the beach, six sailors moved the boats just beyond the surf.
“When we got to the sand dunes, indications pointed strongly to the fact that we had got into a bad scrape,” Anderson wrote. The sand had been turned up by a large number of hoof prints. He posted a sailor, Samuel Gregory Jr., the captain’s son, with a signal flag so covering fire could be called if there was an attack.
The cavalry charged up the beach in two files. There were 120 horsemen from the 21st and 5th Georgia Cavalry. They cut off Anderson’s party from the boats. Rather than signal the brig, young Gregory ran to warn Anderson.
Anderson still expected to receive cover from the Perry’s guns. “But, much to my surprise, the captain had allowed the brig to swing around stern to shore, and not a gun could be brought to bear on the enemy,” he said.
Anderson’s men took shelter in the dunes from one group of cavalry. Failing to capture the boats, the other cavalrymen came up behind the sailors. It was over in five minutes.
One cavalryman lay dead. Five sailors were wounded. One, James Pinkham, was shot in the hip and lying in the sand. He was ordered to get up. He said he couldn’t and was shot again by one of the officers, Anderson said. Pinkham died later.
Another sailor tried to run. He was shot in the leg and recaptured.
The cavalry men “were very indignant because Brinsmaid had been take n prisoner,” Anderson said. “‘Get in line there with your nigger brother!’ was the first order we got.”
Brinsmaid was killed when they reached the cavalry’s camp. “The poor fellow never spoke a word after leaving the brig,” Anderson said. “Some of the Confederates proposed hanging all of us, on account of have a ‘nigger’ with us.”
But tempers cooled and the sailors were marched off to Georgetown on their way to jail in Columbia.
“It becomes my painful duty to report the loss of three of my officers and twelve men,” Gregory began his report to Rear Adm. John Dahlgren, commander of the Southern Blockading Squadron. (His count of the loss, 15, doesn’t tally with that of the Confederate commander or Anderson, who agree on 16.)
Gregory claimed he ordered one man to scout the schooner and two more to set it on fire if the way was clear. It was Arrants who was in charge of the party, he said. “To my surprise he landed all but two of the crew from the first cutter.”
Gregory also said it was shell fire from the Perry that broke up the attack on the boats waiting beyond the surf.
“These blunders are very annoying,” Dahlgren wrote to the Navy secretary. “And yet I do not like to discourage enterprise and dash on the part of our officers and men; better to suffer from the excess than the deficiencies of these qualities.”
He put the blame on Arrants, based on Gregory’s report. “If he were in my power he should surely answer for it,” Dahlgren said.
But Dahlgren didn’t let it rest there. He continued to make enquiries.
Ten days after the capture of the landing party, Gregory sent someone ashore under a flag of truce to find out if any of his men had been killed, and to learn the fate of his son, who was 17. “There were three wounded, one mortally,” he was told.
Dahlgren sent four ships and 100 marines to Murrells Inlet in response to the capture of the sailors from the Perry. Escaped slaves who met the new ships at the end of December supplied the first rumors of Brinsmaid’s hanging. They also produced some clothing they said belonged to the dead man. Dahlgren told Gregory to look into it.
“I have no evidence that he was hung,” Gregory replied.
Dahlgren told the Navy secretary, “If such an outrage has been perpetrated, it will be known satisfactorily from some of the boat’s crew captured, and suitable measures taken to punish it.”
Overall, he concluded, “it was a blundering affair – without judgment on the part of the commanding officer, and aggravated by the alleged disobedience of the officer sent ashore in charge of the party.”
Trapier reported the capture of the Yankee sailors to headquarters in Charleston. “The whole party, with but one exception, [was] taken, with most of their arms,” he wrote. “The missing prisoner is not yet officially accounted for.”
Anderson was exchanged in October 1864. He gave an account of the landing party’s capture that said two cavalrymen and a civilian took Brinsmaid away. “A few minutes later, we heard a loud yell, and immediately after the report of two guns,” he wrote. The cavalrymen returned to say they had hanged and shot Brinsmaid. “This fact was afterwards affirmed to us by several officers of the command.”
He provided additional details in a memoir written in 1897, which also made it clear he was in command. He said his orders were to destroy the blockade runner and buildings and “do all the damage possible.” Gregory denied giving those orders, he said.
Nothing further appears in the official records about the death of George Brinsmaid. But it was remembered.
In 1937, Genevieve Chandler recorded an interview with a former slave, Ben Horry, who was then 88 years old.
“Yankee soldier come off in a yawl boat and our soldier caught two of them men. And they hang that man to Oaks seashore,” he said. “When the Yankee find out, a stir been a stir here.”
The shelling of the Cecilia by the larger force caused damage “clean to Sandy Island,” Horry said.