August 11th, 2014
Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.
One of the highlights of the WVRHC is the journal of John W. M. Appleton, part of A&M 92. Appleton was an officer in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War, and later became Adjutant General of West Virginia.1 Appleton’s journal is a unique and valuable research tool, telling the story of one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army through Appleton’s eyes and containing sketches, photographs, and newspaper clippings that give us greater insight into that time.
One of the wonderful things that Appleton saved between the pages of his journal is the full run2 (two issues) of “the most complete surviving regimental newspaper,” the Swamp Angel (Wilson 77-78). I learned of the existence of the Swamp Angel thanks to a researcher’s request. Few copies of this paper still exist, and we are lucky enough to have a copy of both issues thanks to Appleton. The idea to create this paper is credited to Colonel William Davis, and it was printed by members of the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers.3 However, Keith P. Wilson, author of Campfires of Freedom: the Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War, asserts that the paper was published by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers and that the editor of the paper was “an intelligent and politically active noncommissioned officer [of the 54th], Orderly Sergeant John H.W. Collins” (Wilson 78).4 If this paper was created by black troops, that would make it very rare indeed.
Top of page 1 of the May 19, 1864 issue of the Swamp Angel
The name of the paper may ring a bell with Civil War military history buffs–the “Swamp Angel” was the nickname given to a 16,500 pound cannon installed in a marsh, which the Union Army used to shell Charleston, SC in August 1863. The editors of the Swamp Angel wrote in the first issue,
We call our little sheet the “Swamp Angel,” in honor of its illustrious predecessor, who sent the first compliment from this Island to the Charlestonians in the shape of two hundred pound shell, starting them from their pleasant dreams of security and compelling them to leave their luxurious homes for secure but more humble quarters outside the city. Though this little sheet has not the power of shot and shell, yet we hope to fill its columns with reading matter that shall delight loyal readers, and give good advice at every opportunity to our enemies.
Sketch of “A bursted Gun in Wagner” in Appleton’s journal (236) – could it have been the “Swamp Angel”?
Appleton’s copy of the May 19th issue is from that issue’s second printing. In the first column of page 1, the editor notes that “because the demand for the little Angel exceeded our most sanguine expectations, and after printing five hundred copies upon white paper, all we had, we were compelled to take brown [paper] to supply demand.” While explaining why they used poorer quality brown paper, this incident may also be an example of a problem that newspaper printers all over the U.S. faced during the war. The May 21, 1864 issue of the Christian Recorder,5 quoting the New York Express, tells readers of an Associated Press meeting where the high price of paper was discussed: “Paper which commanded 8 and 9 cents a pound in 1861 is now sold, and of a poor quality, at 18 cents.” Perhaps the printers of the Swamp Angel were lucky to have had brown paper to spare so they didn’t have to resort to wallpaper!
In terms of content, the Swamp Angel offered a bit of everything, including advertisements for local military clothing stores, news of military activities, a detailed description of the troops’ location at Morris Island, SC (May 19th issue), satire about Southerners (“Female Clerks in the Treasury Department” and “A Model Love Letter,” May 26th issue), short essays exploring the morals of war in reference to the massacre at Fort Pillow and the morals of army life in general (both in the May 26th issue), and an ode to a dead cat (May 26th issue).
Appleton wrote in his journal on June 4, 1864 that “discontinuance” (Appleton journal 233) of the Swamp Angel was ordered by the General, though not which General or why he gave the order. For those interested in an in-depth exploration of the purpose of the Swamp Angel, the historical context in which it was published, and a theory on the reason behind its cancellation, I recommend pages 77-80 of Campfires of Freedom.
We close this blog post with an excerpt from the final page of the May 26th issue, which serves as an example of some of the more lighthearted fare that appeared in the Swamp Angel:
A disappointed maiden says that “the reason an old maid is generally so devoted to her cat is, that, not having a husband, she naturally takes after the next most treacherous animal.”
Want to read some of the Swamp Angel? Click the thumbnails below for a larger version of each page.
Page 1, May 19, 1864 issue
Page 2, May 19, 1864 issue
Page 1, May 26, 1864 issue
Page 2, May 26, 1864 issue
Page 3, May 26, 1864 issue
Page 4, May 26, 1864 issue
Appleton, John W. M. Journal. Part of A&M 92, held by the West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.
Wilson, Keith P. Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002. Print.
The Swamp Angel. Morris Island, S.C.: Post Printers, 1864. Print.
1 For more information on Appleton and an excerpt from his diary describing the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner (depicted in the film Glory), check out the Fall/Winter 1992 issue of the WVRHC Newsletter.
2 I assume that these two issue comprise the full run because I have not seen any evidence of a third issue before publication ceased. If any of our readers know more, please let us know!
3 According to Wilson (p. 78) and an article in the 3rd column, page 3, of the May 26, 1864 issue of the Swamp Angel.
4 As of this writing, I have not been able to confirm the involvement of Collins in the Swamp Angel.
5 Scans of portions of the Christian Recorder (Philadelphia, Pa.: Rev. Elisha Weaver) are available from the Center for Research Libraries at this link: http://dds.crl.edu/CRLdelivery.asp?tid=16313 (accessed August 11, 2014).