A quiet grave site on East Fifth Street next to City Hall in Lumberton, N.C. marks the last resting place of Gilbert P. Higley, a native of Connecticut who migrated to Robeson County in 1843 at age 20. During the last year of the Civil War, he was one of the “Immortal 600,” a group of Confederate officers who were confined by the Union on Morris Island, S.C. in order to protect the Union position at Charleston, S.C.
Many Confederate soldiers are buried in this rather isolated cemetery but Higley alone was a member of the “Immortal 600,” first imprisoned at Fort Delaware, Del., then on Aug. 20, 1864, transferred on the ship Crescent to Morris Island. From there they were shipped to Fort Pulaski,Ga.
Overcrowding at Fort Pulaski led to half of the soldiers being shipped to Hilton Head, S.C. and finally, back to their “prison home,” Fort Delaware, a veritable Bataan death march by water, with brief but significant service as “cannon fodder” at Morris Island. The prisoners were led to believe they would be exchanged first at Charleston, then at Wilmington, N. C., then Norfolk, Va., but an exchange was not in the cards considering the chaotic conditions near the end of the Civil War.
Having settled in Lumberton, in 1850 Higley married Ann Eliza Norment, granddaughter of Gen. Alfred Rowland, War of 1812 veteran. Through the Rowlands, the present-day Robeson County Higleys are direct descendants of James Kenan and Richard Clinton, Revolutionary War heroes from eastern North Carolina.
Before his migration to Robeson County, Higley was apprenticed to a kinsman and became a master builder and carpenter. The Robeson County Higleys have no family history as to why the move was made, as most of the Higleys remained in New England or moved to the Midwest. His forebear, John Higley, who immigrated to Connecticut from England in 1666 as a lad of 17, prospered and became a captain in the militia and a member of the state legislature. His grandfather, Asa Higley, was a lieutenant with the Connecticut state militia during the American Revolution.
One of John’s descendants struck out on his own and established a private mint in the 1700s, coining the “Higley coppers,” many of which are in existence today with the inscription “value me as you will.” Perhaps Gilbert P. Higley had a sense of adventure with a desire to improve his prospects. Maybe Connecticut had become “overbuilt” and our hero struck out on his own to find demand for a master builder in an area short of such skills.
At any rate, Higley prospered and the Robeson County landscape holds testament to his abilities. Within five years of his arrival he gained the contract for building the 1848 Robeson County Courthouse in Lumberton. That courthouse, a two-story brick building, was replaced by the 1908 fondly remembered courthouse.
In 1850 by purchasing Lot 106 at Fifth and Elm Streets from Richard Rhodes, perhaps with the proceeds of the courthouse contract, Higley began a lifelong pursuit of buying and selling land in or near Lumberton. Thus, rather than a step up for Higley, his marriage into the Norment-Rowland family brought a successful businessman to that family. The 1860 census found Higley with two white apprentices and two black apprentices.
These would have been the same apprentices that helped Higley with his crowning antebellum achievement, the building of the Philadelphus Presbyterian Church outside Red Springs, N.C. According to the publication North Carolina Architects and Builders, “Philadelphus is one of an important group of antebellum Greek Revival frame churches built for Highland Scots Presbyterian congregations in the upper Cape Fear region. Higley may have drawn upon New England precedents as well as architectural pattern books in designing the church with its Doric columned portico set beneath … a pediment.”
There is definitely an affinity between the built environment of New England of this era and the Philadelphus Church. No doubt Higley was influenced by the environment of his home territory in the building of this landmark, which survives today and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Higley’s Confederate experience was to enlist and serve as a second lieutenant in Company F, 51st North Carolina Troops, “the Ashpole Boys,” on March 10, 1862. The Confederacy had not adopted a draft in the early part of the war, yet this “Yankee” volunteered at age 38 for Confederate service at a time when he had a wife, three young children and a flourishing enterprise.
Early on, he was stationed in eastern North Carolina to meet the Federal threat at New Bern. Thereafter, he was transferred to Virginia, where he was wounded and captured at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864. He was sent to Fort Delaware, Del., originally designed to house 2,000, but which held 8,000 Confederate prisoners by 1863.
The background of the travails of the “Immortal 600” was the Union bombardment of Charleston, directed from forts at the mouth of the harbor captured by the Union. The Confederates placed captured Union officers in the northern section of Charleston beyond the reach of Union guns but a false rumor was circulated that the Union officers were under fire. In retaliation, the Union transported the 600 Confederate officers from the rank of lieutenant to colonel from Delaware to Morris Island, just below Charleston harbor, for a 45-day baptism of fire before they were shipped to Fort Pulaski.
Upon his return home from the Civil War, Higley resumed his vocation as a master builder and became one of Lumberton’s first developers, buying and selling lots and land in and about Lumberton, including land his wife inherited from her father. In 1878, Higley and his wife transferred one acre of land on Elizabethtown Road to the Bethany Presbyterian Church for the recited consideration of one dollar. The present church building is located on that acre of land. In 1889 and 1892, he and his wife conveyed substantial landholdings to their son Thomas Norment Higley. There were no further transfers of land ownership after those dates, and Gilbert Higley died on July 7, 1896.
His crowning post-war achievement was undoubtedly his part in the building of the Alexander H. McLeod residence in 1876, a large three-story Italianate-style house at Elizabethtown Road and Chestnut Street in Lumberton. Correspondence retained by the McLeod family relative to the installation of windows suggests that only the finest would do in construction. The subcontractor for the windows discussed the greater cost in having the windows custom made rather than manufactured, and the suggestion was that the contractor would be guided by Higley. The McLeod residence would in time pass to the family of E.J. Britt and is familiar to older Lumbertonians even though the residence is no longer standing.
Another Italianate-style residence, a smaller version of the McLeod house, built by Higley is still standing on the northeast corner of Seventh and Cedar Streets in Lumberton. These two residences exemplify the mid-19th century style known as Italianate, which became popular in larger and more “stylish” communities such as Wilmington. Thus, Higley was accomplished in both the Greek Revival style as illustrated by the Philadelphus church and the later Italianate style.
Gilbert P. Higley’s descendants still reside in Lumberton: Mrs. Rupert Collins, Gilbert P. Higley IV and his son Glbert P. Higley V, James Ronald Freeman-Higley, Bruce Higley and Buddy Higley. Yvonne Higley Barber of Wilmington and the late David Eugene Fuller of Charlotte are Higley descendants who grew up in Lumberton.
Considering the extreme sufferings of the “Immortal 600” Confederate officers imprisoned by the Union, it is remarkable that Higley was able to successfully resume the business he left behind in Lumberton after his release when the Civil War ended. In 1869 the plight of the prisoners in their own words was published in a 48-page, first-person pamphlet, “Prison Life During the Rebellion, the Miseries and Sufferings of Six Hundred Confederate Prisoners,” reprinted in 2009 by Old South Institute Press in Harrisburg, Va.
The author used the name Fritz Fuzzlebug, although there is no such person by that name on the list of prisoners. The name obviously was a pseudonym to avoid any repercussions at a time when Union soldiers occupied the South. Perhaps the author was influenced by the name Mr. Fezziwig in a “Christmas Carol,” one of Charles Dickens’ novels popular at that time.
A second source, “Immortal Captives,” confirms the facts in “Prison Life.” This book by Muriel Phillis Joslyn, issued by White Mane Publishing in 1996, takes advantage of memoirs and research in the intervening years, including actual statements from named prisoners. It was republished by Pelican Press in 2008.
Passage to Morris Island
On Aug. 20, 1864, the 600 were packed on the Crescent, an old side-wheeler steamer previously used to haul freight out of New Orleans, bound for Morris Island. The prisoners spent 18 days on the Crescent before reaching Morris Island, twice as long as it should have taken because it ran aground off Cape Romain, S.C. Excerpts from “Prison Life” detail the miseries of prisoners during the passage: “Imagine our condition; huddled together as close as we could stand… The heat being up to 95 without steam… increasing greatly when the boiler was heated, great numbers became sea-sick …”
“Our guard consisted of one hundred Ohio militia …Most were Ohio Fops, scarcely sense enough to carry them to the table. They offered many indignant insults to our honor and cause…. As closely confined as we were the spectacle was horrid — the entire floor covered by sick men … presented a sight too sickening to behold, and too repulsive to endure, and too wretched to describe …”
The food “consisted of pickled pork — having been damaged by shipping and other causes, until it was unfit for use in the army — and army crackers, which looked as though they had been manufactured for use in the War of 1776. … They were completely filled with worms, bugs, and other living creepers … At one time we had no water for 40 hours …After this horrible agony… we were gratified with the return of water… boiling water… During the remainder of our stay in the boat we had no other for use but boiling water as it ran from the condenser.”
Passages contained in “Immortal Captives:” “The water-closet used by the prisoners was in the wheelhouse, … one prisoner at a time was allowed to go to the closet. every morning, nearly all of the 600 would line themselves around the vessel in two ranks. This was in August, and the animal heat… augmented by the heat from the smokestack, became so intolerable, and the smell of the place so offensive, that it was considered a great privilege to go to the water closet for a few minutes … Many of them were not able to stand in ranks until their turn came, owing to their enfeebled condition…” Twenty of the prisoners were amputees who had “to lie on the floor under the ladder leading from the hold to the upper deck, being nearly helpless in assisting themselves to the water closet.” Their fate was compared to the 146 Englishmen confined in the “Black hole of Calcutta” where only 23 survived. The author of “Prison Life” noted that 50 of the enfeebled prisoners had to be carried off the ship at Morris Island.
Col. Hollowell of the 54th Massachusetts infantry was commander of the Morris Island prison. Hollowell had been wounded in the face and groin, losing one eye, in the disastrous 1863 Union attack on the Confederate held Battery Wagner. Hollowell replaced Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who was memorialized in the movie “Glory.”
The officers “were almost to a unit New England offscourings…The conduct of the prison guards toward the prisoners was characterized by “great cruelty and inhumanity.” The author of “Prison Life” said they “frequently pilfered what little the prisoners had.” The 600 were confined to the prison “pen” on Morris Island, a three-acre rectangular space almost square.
The prisoners were sheltered in 150 tents, four men to a tent designed for two men. Sleeping outside the tents was forbidden.
The location of the “pen” was close to Battery Wagner then held by the Union, from whence shells were hurled at Charleston. Also, Battery Wagner “frequently threw shells at Moultrie (held by the Confederates) in order to draw her fire, so that, falling short, it might fall amongst us. This was frequently the case, fragments of shells falling among the prisoners, and indeed, on every side of the pen, yet no man was seriously injured by any explosion.”
They lived on “three crackers and two ounces of meat and some warm water in which beans and rice had been cooked. only a common citizen would come to the pen to examine the sick.” Pills provided proved to be small lumps of dough.
After 45 days when the Union stopped shelling Charleston, the prisoners were shipped to Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Ga., where their treatment improved. “The regiment was commanded by Col. Brown, a New Yorker of fine talents, and possessing all the characteristics of a gentleman of high honor and unblemished deportment. He used all his influence to make us comfortable.”
The food was satisfactory except limited in quantity. However, the prisoners were confined in the casements of the fort and suffered much from chilliness and dampness; there were nine deaths.
On Nov. 19, 1864, overcrowded conditions forced the transport of 200 prisoners from Fort Pulaski by boat to Hilton Head, S.C. Correspondence from Hilton Head existing today proves Higley was one of the 200.
The prisoners were housed for 60 days in wooden barracks “originally erected for the military convicts of the Yankee army.” Thompson, the Union post commander, was described by the author of “Prison Life” as “one of those cowardly, villainous and cannibal Yankees which we so frequently found during our sufferings. He possessed all the cruelty, barbarity and inhumanity which a man or beast could have.”
The author wrote that the prisoners were visited by officers, sailors, marines, soldiers, doctors, ministers, and “Yankee school marms,” each trying “to persuade us to take the oath (to the Union) and be freed from prison … Failing in this, they would try to argue us out of the reasonableness of our cause, and of the wickedness of fighting against the old flag. Neither of these having the desired effect.. a multitude of abuses” followed, and the hope was expressed “that the government would hang us all.”
After two days, the author recited “we were put upon..the diet of retaliation, consisting of cornmeal alone, without either salt, meat , or vegetables of any kind, dry cornmeal “two years old, according to the brand on the barrels. “The meal was given raw and unbaked, and no utensils or cooking vessels of any kind were given us.” About a dozen of the prisoners had money to buy frying pans. “A vast number..were were forced to eat their meal like brutes, raw and dry.”
“On first taking up residence at the convict houses, rats abounded in great quantities, but they soon disappeared … cats played around the prison on our first going there, but they were soon slain … Dogs were greedily devoured.” “Immortal Captives,” quoted Private David White, a Union soldier, “The Rebs are all going to die if they are kept here … they occasionally get hold of a cat or dog, and dress them & eat them.” Rats also were consumed.
One of the captains “caught a cat and cooked it for his mess of four. One of the mess, as a special favor, sent Lieutenant Hawes an invitation to the feast, and he accepted to the extent of looking at them as they ate. It was very kind to invite him, but he couldn’t ‘go’ cat.”
“Prison Life” called the winter in South Carolina “exceedingly cold,” particularly in the unheated barracks. Many men, in order to keep from freezing, “trudged the floor at short intervals from morning to night, and from night to morning.”
“Disease spread among us at a fearful rate. The dry cornmeal produced both chronic diarrhea and scurvy … Several died … Others were carried to the hospital … Others were rendered cripples or invalids for life by the ravages of scurvy.”
According to “Immortal Captives,” in early March 1865 the prisoners were loaded on the Illinois, and bound for Charleston, which had fallen to the Union. Continuing to Wilmington, it was learned that Fort Fisher had fallen also. With the delays, several prisoners died on the ship before reaching Norfolk, Va.
Arriving at Norfolk, Union “medical officers reported our condition was so horrible that we ought not to be sent to Richmond.” On March 13, 1865, the prisoners arrived at Fort Delaware, from whence they came. During their more than seven-month ordeal, 44 Confederate prisoners died, 25 of chronic diarrhea, five of scurvy, four of pneumonia, and 10 of other causes.
Before the fall of Richmond and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, despite the fact that a prisoner could achieve his release by renouncing the Confederate cause, only a few of the 600 took the oath of allegiance to the Union. Those who did were said by Capt. Henry Dickinson of Virginia to “have sold their birthright for a mess of potage.”
Gilbert P. Higley, our Robeson County hero, was one of the last to take the oath, on June 17, 1865, two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Clinton, N. C. is named is named for Richard Clinton, who was a member of the Provincial Congress, lieutenant colonel in the Americal Revolution and a brigadier general in the state militia. In 1784, as a member of the House of Commons, he introduced the legislation that led to the creation of a new county named “Sampson” in honor of his adoptive father, John Sampson. Richard Clinton has been referred to as “Sampson County’s most notable citizen.”
When Clinton died in 1795, his widow, Penelope, moved to Robeson County to be with her daughter, Mrs. Alfred Rowland. Penelope had a mourning broach made, inscribed with a likeness of the tomb of Clinton and “R.C. Jan. 22, 1795.” The broach, in turn, descended to Belle Higley, the great-grand-daughter of Penelope and the daughter of Gilbert P. Higley. This broach was still in the possession of the Higley family at the time it was placed at the Sampson County Museum. It remains one of the most popular exhibits at that facility.