Sea Islands Hurricane


In August 1893 a major hurricane, known as the "Sea Islands Hurricane" struck the offshore barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Over 1,000 people were killed (mostly by drowning); and 30,000 or more were left homeless as nearly every building along the barrier islands was damaged beyond repair. After the disaster, a 10-month relief effort was run by the American Red Cross.

 

Sea Island residents before hurricane.The year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety-three will long be remembered as the year of storms. Inland gales rose and blew furiously southward. Cyclones rushed out of the tropics and raged northward. Hurricanes plunged through the Mexican Gulf and shook the southern region. Tornadoes crashed along the Atlantic coast, carrying death and destruction with them. The memory of the oldest inhabitant fails him when he tries to recall such another year of storms. The records show no parallel to it. And the storms themselves have wrought unprecedented destruction to life and property.

A storm in the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts is no new experience to the people who live near the danger line of the sea, nor even to the people who live far inland. It is a part of the climate. It belongs to expectation. These elemental disturbances are confined to no particular area, as the oldest inhabitant will tell you. Their feeding-grounds are in the tropical seas, the treacherous West Indian waters - but when they gather strength and gain bulk, they rush madly forth, describing vast circles, or tearing straight ahead until they exhaust themselves. They sweep along the coasts, or go raging inland, sometimes in the shape of a whirling cyclone, and sometimes in the shape of a roaring hurricane. And the effects of them are felt hundreds of miles in all directions, even when they fail to break across the coast-line barriers; for the inland winds that are roguishly playing rock-a-bye baby in the tree-tops are keen for a frolic, and no sooner do they feel that preparations for one are going forward in the tropics than they hurry to join and feed the monstrous riot of the elements.

 

"The August hurricane was not unexpected. In fact it had been heralded, and for at least three days before it made its appearance warnings had been given."

 

And so wildly do they rush and tear along in their haste to become part of the whirl and swirl in the tropics, that trees and houses fall before them. This sweep of the inland winds to the central disturbance, or to the mad vacuum behind it, is usually described as a storm, but the frolicsome gales that form it are merely feeders of the real storm.

On the morning of the 28th of last August, a heavy gale arose in Atlanta, coming out of the northwest. It increased steadily until its velocity reached fifty miles an hour.  

 

"Savannah was more directly in the path of the storm, and the Sea Islands, that lie between that city and Charleston, were exposed to the full fury of the tempest."

 

With less steadiness this gale would have been dangerous to life and property, but it rose slowly, maintained its greatest velocity for some hours, and then gradually subsided. The heel of the weathervane, veering slowly from the southeast to the east, pointed in the direction of the great disturbance, central in the Bahamas, and heading for the Atlantic coast. The gale that passed over Atlanta was rushing to that center and feeding the tremendous hurricane that swept up the South Atlantic coast during the night and fell upon the Sea Islands.

 

II

Sea Island fishermanA YEAR of storms! The August hurricane - the October tornado that followed in the hurricane's track - the October cyclone that swept down upon the Gulf coast! It is a record full of the horror of death and devastation! Of the Gulf cyclone not much need be said. It may be disposed of as it disposed of its hundreds of victims, briefly. It was the intention of this investigating expedition to treat of the great Gulf whirlwind at some length - to unravel some of the storm-twisted details -  but little was left to treat of. The record of the cyclone is as brief as it is awful. It swept down upon the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts and the island homes of the fishermen, wiped out the population, swallowed the boats and the luggers, stripped the land bare, and so disappeared. That is the whole story shorn of its ghastly particulars.

Scarcely a bush or a tree was left for charity to hang her gray hood upon, and it is said of those who were swift to carry succor there, that they wandered about aimlessly in the waste places, finding only a few lonely and heart-broken young men to call upon them for aid. The Chandeliers, Cheniere Caminada, and Grand Island were struck with the force and fury of a titanic explosion, and when all was over the few cripples that crawled from the dire wreck, and the fewer who had saved themselves in rafts or by clinging to trees, were not able to bury the dead that lay in ghastly and festering heaps around them. That is the brief record of the storm. Even now, those who have had an opportunity to measure its results, say that in that region there has never been anything comparable to this awful calamity since the country was settled. It stands unparalleled in its completeness. In the track of the cyclone everything was wrecked. Nearly two thousand people were killed and five million dollars worth of property blown as it were from the face of the earth. A similar disaster on the Gulf coast caused the death of 286 persons, and six years ago 220 lives were lost in the storm that struck Johnston's Bayou. But in the October storm that fell on the coast and islands of the region that lies between Lake Borgne and the Gulf, 1,972 lives were lost.

 

"Two thousand persons, the great majority of them Negroes, were drowned or killed on the night of the storm. The others died from exposure, from a lack of food, or from the malarial fever that was epidemic on the islands during the hot September days that succeeded the disturbance." 

 

One peculiarity of this storm was that the aged, the very young, and the infirm were all killed. The survivors were young men in the vigor of manhood. Very few were seriously wounded, and hundreds were found without a bruise on their bodies. They were killed by the sheer pressure and fury of the wind. In the settlements where the storm was worst, not a single child survived, and very few women. At Cheniere Caminada, opposite Grand Island, 822 people perished. Of these 496 were children. From this one settlement 240 fishermen were lost at sea in their boats - more than one thousand dead out of a community of 1,640 souls. There were 310 houses in the settlement, and 3 were left standing. At the Chandeliers, and in the center of the storm - where 200 fishermen dwelt - not a soul escaped. 

The dead were buried in trenches, where they were buried at all. In many instances, the young men who survived the shock of the storm were compelled to bury the rest of their families. The wind blew at the rate of 125 miles an hour, and those who were exposed to its fury needed to be robust indeed to survive. Many died from the peculiar nervous collapse that is the most vivid - * experience of those who are caught in a cyclone. One hundred and twenty schooners and barges and 265 luggers were sunk.

Fortunately for the survivors, they were in reach of immediate aid. They lived near New Orleans, one of the richest and most charitable communities in the country, a community in which the organization of benevolence has reached the highest point of efficiency. Relief was instantly forthcoming; there was not a moments delay. Before the violence of the sea had subsided the work of charity had begun, and it was forwarded by the enterprise of the newspapers - the Picayune and the Times Democrat - which sent relief boats to the suffering survivors. Relief was as complete as it was prompt. The fishermen are a hardy race that do not depend on agriculture, and all they asked was a few days grace to enable them to set their tackle together.

III

And so, hearkening to the clamors in behalf of the distressed, and following the tide of relief that was beginning to flow tardily in, investigation turned its attention to the Sea Islands on the South Atlantic coast; and it found there, after painstaking exploration, a situation that has probably never had a counterpart at any previous time or in any other region on this continent. But, to be appreciated it must be described, and to be described it must be approached as the Sea Islands themselves are approached,  by sinuous channels that turn upon themselves and wind in and out, and lead in unexpected directions. The facts of the situation do not lie upon the surface.

The details that stand out most sharply, and that form the basis of the fragmentary information current along the coast and among the Sea Islands, are the extraordinary freaks of wind and wave. All are curious, and some are even humorous. It seems to be a relief to those who are asked to tell about the storm, to turn from the horrible story of death, and wreck, and devastation, and recall some of the queer incidents of that dismal night. All the reports of the great storm are of a fragmentary character - almost as commonplace as taking a census, or as a sum in subtraction. This report will not be an exception. In order to present the situation, it will have to conform to the requirements of that situation. It will have to jump from one fact to another, and return along a devious way, and take up the thread of such a narrative as can be woven out of the tremendous jumble left by the storm. 

But it should be said here, that the Scribner expedition had every means of getting at the true condition of affairs on the islands. It had advantages for investigation that were not of the ordinary. Tug-boats and steam-launches were placed at its disposal, and the people, as well as current events, seemed to combine to forward its purpose.

 

IV

A glance at a map of the Gull coast will show that the Chandeliers, curving outward, present a sort of barrier between the Gulf and Lake Borgne. The fishermen on the Chandeliers perished - there were two hundred perched on that lonely and insecure foothold - but it is natural to presume that the reef, owing to its position and formation, had some influence in mitigating the force of the inflowing tide. There was no such barrier between the August storm and the Sea Islands on the South Atlantic coast. These islands lie open to the sea, and the wind struck the richest and most thickly populated with full force and fury. The islands that suffered most lie between Port Royal and Charleston, and it is on these that the eye of the public has been turned since the first intimations of the results of the August storm.

The formation - the contour of the Sea Islands is peculiar. The sea has crept in between them and the mainland in the most wonderful way - sometimes in the shape of a large river that is called a creek, or in the shape of a sound that is called a river; sometimes only a wide and level marsh intervenes through which are sinuous water-ways, known only to the native boatmen. What the lapping tide takes away from one shore it gives to another, so that the islands bear about the same relation toward each other from age to age.

 

 

At the ancient town of Beaufort, one is nearer to the group of islands devastated by the storm than at any other point. The autumn days pass pleasantly at this old place. The midday sun throws the shadows far northward, but there is no sign of winter. The summer foliage is still  fresh and green, and June seems to have taken the place of November. But the lonely and far-reaching marshes, with their rank and waving sedge, yellow as if waiting for the sickle, give a somber touch to the scene that does not belong to spring, nor yet to summer. And the long gray moss, streaming from the trees like ghostly signals long hung out for succor unavailing, is another element that subdues the mind and imparts a sense of solemnity. The birds may sing never so blithely, the flowers bloom never so gaily, and the sun shine never so brightly, but they are all overshadowed by the brown marshes, and by the gray beards of these immemorial oaks.

All day long, the Negroes go by in their queer little two-wheeled carts, each drawn by a diminutive steer or a more diminutive donkey. All day long the Negro pedestrians tramp back and forth. All day long the Negro boatmen shoot out from, or disappear in, the tall marsh grass. There is not much noise of vehicles; the sand prevents that. There is not much noise from the passers-by or from the boats that flit in and out the marsh grass. There is no loud laughter on the streets; there are no melodious songs wafted back from the water.

The streets swarm with Negroes, on the sidewalks, in the middle way, and on the corners. At the headquarters of the Red Cross Society, which has in hand the work of relief, they are huddled together until they block the way. And yet there is no loud talking, no loud laughter, no singing. The mind resents this as unnatural. Where there are Negroes there ought to be noise, surely there ought to be laughter and song. What is the trouble? You look into these black faces and see it is not sullenness. You note these quick smiles and discover that it is not depression. If the puzzle brings a frown to your face, as it did to mine, an old Auntie will look at you steadily until she catches your eye, and then, dropping a courtesy, will exclaim: "You look worry, suh!"  And then, when you turn to her for an explanation, "I bin worry myse'f, suh. Many time." Whereupon you will be no longer puzzled, for here is a type of Negro different from that of the upland regions - a type that knows how to be good-humored without being boisterous, and that has the rare gift of patience. Coming or going, men, women, and children will pause to salute you, and their courtesy is neither familiar nor affected. Their pensiveness fits in with the somber marshes and the gray moss that swings solemnly from the trees. 

 

 

"It is a great pity," says the oldest inhabitant, waving his shining cane in the air, that you could not have come here before the storm struck this grove. You see how the trees are stripped and twisted." 

At last your companion has hit upon the matter that is uppermost in your mind, and so, gently - very gently and cautiously, for fear of a relapse - you lead the genial old gentleman to forget about the antiquity of the old fort and the practical utility of Port Royal harbor - "the most magnificent that the flag can claim, sir -" and tell you some of the experiences of the August tornado; to give you some idea of the horror and confusion of that vast elemental disturbance; and to present to your mind a clear outline of results.

But this seems to be out of the question. The memory of the oldest inhabitant is more to be depended on in the recital of events that have become matters of tradition. He gives you details that bear no definite relation to the large results. The storm blasted hundreds of landmarks that were a part of his daily associations. Curious incidents occur to his mind. A lad clinging to an overturned dredge for thirty-six hours, finally gave up all hope and sank back into the water. The tide brought him twenty miles to Beaufort and landed him in a pile of driftwood near his mother's door, where he was found and, strange to say, restored to life. Immense lighters employed in the phosphate business were lifted out of the water and driven far on shore. The barometer on the tug Weymouth dropped to 27.60 and stood there quivering like the hammer of an alarm-clock. Yes! and a great many Negroes were drowned - hundreds of them, poor things!

The impression left seems to be as vague and as shapeless as the tempest was. Nevertheless, the more active and alert representatives of the younger generation have no advantage over the oldest inhabitant in the matter of definite information. Nor have the newspaper correspondents, nor has any living soul, so far as I have been able to discover. There are those who know what was and who know what is; but between what was and what is lies the awful cataclysm of the storm. The curtains of the night flapped over it; the cavernous clouds enveloped it; the raging tempest drowned it; the thundering tide covered it. The leaf from the tree, the ship from the sea, and man that was set to rule over all, became companion atoms, and all were caught by the storm and hurled into chaos. And when the morning dawned, and the tide fell, and the sun shone serenely over the scene of wreck and devastation, there was none left to tell the definite story of the hurricane on the Sea Islands. There is none to tell it today.

V

The oldest inhabitant is able to remember some very severe storms, but not such another year of storms. He is able to measure the intervals that have elapsed between these disturbances, and from this measurement he has constructed the comfortable theory that after every severe storm there must be a peaceful interlude of ten or fifteen years. But to-day, as he stands in the bright sunshine, the solemn mystery of the marshes. stretching away before him as far as the eye can reach, he shakes his head sadly, and digs his cane feebly into the sand. His theory has been blown northeastward into the sea, and it is no wonder he sighs as he walks by your side and points to signs of the storms devastation that might otherwise escape the eye of a stranger. A house was here or a cabin. Near by a shoal of dead bodies had been seen drifting along, or were washed ashore. Here was where a magnificent dock and warehouse stood, but there is nothing now to mark its site except a few scattered piles which, at low tide, are important only as showing the architectural ability of the teredo, the insect that eats them away. But the oldest inhabitant has no appreciation of the ability of the teredo. He lifts his shaggy brows when you ask about it, and dismisses the wonderful little worker in wood with a wave of the hand. 

All around, and for miles and miles, farther than the eye can reach, as far as a shore bird can fly, the results of the storm lie scattered. Here a house has staggered upon its end, there a boat has been flung into the arms of a live oak, and yonder a phosphate dredge, weighing hundreds of tons, has been lifted from the water and turned completely over; here a magnificent grove of live oaks has been uprooted; there a broad-beamed lighter has been lifted across the marshes; and yonder hundreds of tons of marsh sedge have been spread over arable land.

 

The old man casts his eyes seaward across the long stretch of marshes that lead to the inland shore of St. Helena. A small column of smoke stands out against the sky, and seems to be fixed there. "The poor things!"  he sighs. "They are trying to burn the marsh sedge off their potato patches."

Then he grows reminiscent. He has heard his father tell of the great storm of 1804, which began on the morning of the 8th of September and raged until ten o'clock at night. Hundreds of Negroes in the islands were drowned. Eighteen vessels were destroyed in the harbor of Savannah, and several large boats were wrecked. The devastation on the Sea Islands and all along the South Atlantic coast was terrible, but the story of the storm lost something of its horror because there were no lines of communication by which the details could be gathered. They became known little by little, and so lost something of their force and effect.

In 1830 a storm curved in from the sea, striking the coast above Cape Hatteras and doing great damage to shipping. On September 10, 1854, a storm of great violence passed over Savannah and the Sea Islands, devastating the whole coast region. The yellow fever was raging in Savannah at the time, and the storm was accompanied by a tidal wave that carried destruction with it and left pestilence in its wake. 

In 1873, a violent storm passed between Cape Hatteras and the Bermudas, striking the northern coast in the neighborhood of Nova Scotia and seriously crippling the fishing industries of the United States and Canada. Twelve hundred and twenty-three vessels were lost in this storm. In 1881 a storm passed over the Sea Island region and northwestward into Minnesota, pursuing a very unusual course. A tidal wave accompanied the storm, and more than four hundred persons lost their lives.

On these dates, the oldest inhabitant had formulated his storm-period theory. Every tenth year he expected a storm. If it failed then it was sure to come on the twentieth year. And the theory has had full confirmation in experience until 1893, when the storm period was reduced to a few brief weeks. There is nothing for the oldest inhabitant to do but to shake his head sadly, as much as to say the times are out of joint, and tell you of the more eccentric features of the storm that is newest in his experience, the storm that has caused more suffering and loss of life than any that has preceded it.

VI

The August hurricane was not unexpected. In fact it had been heralded, and for at least three days before it made its appearance warnings had been given. The Weather Bureau, sensitive to such disturbances, had found it in West Indian waters, and so the announcement went forth that a storm was forming in the neighborhood of St. Thomas. Next day the bulletins stated that the disturbance near St. Thomas had moved slowly westward. The day after came the announcement that the West Indian storm, after moving to the west and then to the south, had turned and was heading directly for the South Atlantic coast.

How aptly these announcements would fit the mad antics of some wild and terrible monster! It is found roaring and wallowing in its tropical pasture. It runs westward, and then southward, feeding and gathering strength as it goes. Then turning about, it rushes furiously northwestward, carrying terror before it, and leaving death and destruction in its path. One of its wings touched Brunswick, a city already stricken with the yellow plague, but the touch was light. Savannah was more directly in the path of the storm, and the Sea Islands, that lie between that city and Charleston, were exposed to the full fury of the tempest. And the winds fell upon them as if trying to tear the earth asunder, and the rains beat upon them as if to wash them away, and the tide rose and swept over them twelve feet above high-water mark. Pitiable as the story is, it may be condensed into a few words: near three thousand people drowned, between twenty and thirty thousand human beings without means of subsistence, their homes destroyed, their little crops ruined, and their boats blown away.

The tangled thunders of chaos shook the foundation of things. The bellowing waters of the sea leapt up and mingled with the shrieking spirits of the air. Out of the seething depths disaster sprung, and out of the roaring heavens calamity fell.  No just and reasonable estimate of the loss of life on these islands has been made. The adjacent coast was prompt to tell of its losses over the long tongue of the telegraph. Its dead were known and identified. Its searching-parties found them out. Its tugs and launches brought them ashore.

But the Sea Islands were dumb, and they are dumb to this day. When the tide was friendly, it carried their dead ashore, or lodged them in the rank marsh sedge, but when the tide was careless it drifted the bodies seaward. In one little corner of St. Helena, the coroner inspected eighty bodies that had been thrown ashore, and then went on about his business. Some were known, but a great many were not identified and never will be. All about the channels and through the boatways in the waving  marsh-grass, the bodies of the unknown drifted, and some floated miles away. Some had their clothes torn from them, mute witnesses of the fury of the tornado. All this is to be heard away from the islands. The islands themselves have not spoken, and they will not speak. Gentle, patient, smiling, and good-humored, the Negroes have no complaints to make. They discuss the storm among themselves, but not in a way to impart much information to a white listener. They speak in monosyllables. They strip phrases to the bone and get to the core of words. Their shyness is pathetic, and their smiling patience is in the nature of a perpetual appeal to those who come in contact with them.

 

"Were many lives lost around here?" an old man was asked. He stood with his hands folded in front of him and his eyes seeking the ground. If he had held his faded and flabby hat in his hands his attitude would have been that of the peasant in Millets picture of the Angelus. He stood stock-still, his bare feet placed close together.

"He gone deaf, suh," said a woman standing near.  She touched him gently on the arm, and instantly he was alert. The question was repeated. "Were many lives lost around here?"

"Oh, yes, suh; 'bunnunce!" His voice sounded as if it came from far away.
"How many?"

"One, two, t'ree -" he held up the fingers of one thin hand. "Mebby se'm. Mebby l'em. Enty?"  He turned to the woman to confirm his figures, but she merely smiled. "We no count dem," he went on, shaking his head and shutting his eyes. "Dee gone!"

Then the old man relapsed into his former attitude. His eyes sought the ground, his hands clasped in front of him, his bare feet close together. The woman who had spoken for him formed part of a little group standing near. She was rubbing the head of a four-year-old pickaninny.

"How many children have you?" she was asked. 
"Tree, suh. Two boy; one lil' gal." 
"Were any of them drowned?"
"How dee gwan drown, suh?"  she answered, laughing. The intonation of her voice was indescribable. "I up'd de tree," she said, after a pause, with a gesture that explained how she saved them. "Dee choke -  dee strankle -  I up'd de tree!" The woman turned and pointed to another woman who was
standing apart by the waters edge, looking out over the lonely marshes. "She los' dem chillun, suh. She have trouble."

And so it turned out. This woman, standing apart, as lonely as the never-ending marshes, had lost three children. She had five. In the fury and confusion of the storm, she had managed to get them all in a tree. The foundations of this place of refuge were sapped, and the tree gave way before the gale, plunging the woman and her children into the whirling flood. Three were swept from under her hands out into the marsh, into the estuary, and so into the sea. They were never seen any more. She had nothing to add to this story as brief as it is tragic. One mo ment she had five children clinging to her, in another moment there were only two. The angry winds and the hungry waters had torn them from her and swept them out of hearing before they could utter a cry. But what this wom an said did not run in the direction of grief. "I glad to God I got two lil' one lef'." After all, the woman had reason to be glad. Pathetic as her own story was, it was not as touching as another that she told of a neighboring family. She showed where the house had stood, but there was nothing to mark its site, save a blackened stone that had lain in the fireplace. Every other vestige of the cabin, and of the other cabins that had clustered near, was swept away.

"T'irteen in de house, suh," the woman said, "I call dem w'en I run. I call dem an' run. If dee make answer, I no yeddy dem. Dee gone!"

An entire family swept away, and their friends and neighbors too busy with their own troubles to grieve after them, unless, indeed, a keen ear might catch a note of sorrow in the plaintive voice that told the story.

VII

But this is not even the beginning. It hardly gives an intimation of the worst. The great trouble about these islands is the lack of communication. On the 30th of August, two days after the storm, not a word had come from the Sea Islands, and it was only through the adventurous energy of a newspaper reporter from Atlanta, that the public knew of the condition of Beaufort and Port Royal on that day. On the first of September, four days after the storm, there were vague hints of the condition of the islands. Beaufort and Port Royal, while engaged in rescuing their own dead from the tide, found the bodies of strangers among the rest. Two of these were identified as Negroes living on the farther side of Ladies Island, and another was thought to be the body of a woman from Coosaw. Still there was no definite information.

But on September 2nd, Charleston heard a part of the dismal story, and on the same day the people of Beaufort and Port Royal awoke to the fact that, severe as their own trouble was, the trouble on the Sea Islands was greater. A demand for instant relief came from these settlements, and the demand was the more imperative because of its plaintive ness. It was the more urgent because of the knowledge of the whites of the exposed situation of the islands that faced the open sea. Prompt measures were taken, but, in the very nature of the case, they could bear no proportionate relation to the demand that was made on the zeal, energy, and benevolence of those who, before slavery was abolished, held themselves responsible for the safety and well-being of the Negroes on the islands, and who, in some sort, still feel
the pressure of the old habit of responsibility. 

Relief would have been inadequate if it had been on a much larger scale than the adjacent communities could afford. It would have been tardy if it had been undertaken the day after the storm. But the work was undertaken as soon as possible and went as far as it could go. At the very best, the lack of communication is remarkable. No other portion of the continent is more secure in its isolation. Doubtless the tax-collector visits the islands - he goes everywhere; perhaps a pension agent is to be found there occasionally, for there are pensioners on the Sea Islands; but, practically, the people are isolated. They come to market in their little boats, but they have no regular channels of communication. Their coming and going is intermittent. If a stranger wants to visit the islands he must depend on a happy chance, and if he is in a hurry he will go away without seeing them. This was so before the August storm, and it will be so when the storm has become a tradition.

But on the day after the hurricane, and for days that must have seemed an age to the Negroes on the wind-torn and tide swept islands, there were no possible means of communication. The little boats of the Negroes had been blown away; the tugs and launches in and around Charleston, Beaufort, and Port Royal were driven ashore or temporarily disabled; a clean sweep had been made of all the craft that are available on ordinary occasions. It is said that the first information of the real condition of the islands was brought to Beaufort by two Negroes in a boat, one rowing and the other bailing; and only men impelled by dire necessity would have dared to venture across from one island to another in such a disabled canoe.

VIII

It has been said of the Gulf storm that it is unparalleled in its terrible completeness. It should be said of this South Atlantic hurricane that it is the most disastrous that ever visited this coast. It struck helplessness where it was weak. It is not to be measured by the destruction to life which it caused, though that was something terrible, but by the suffering which has followed.

It is estimated - and the estimate is not in the nature of a rough guess - that two thousand five hundred lives were lost in the islands and on the adjacent coast. The truth would not be missed very far if the number were placed at three thousand. Not all of those were lost in the storm. Two thousand persons, the great majority of them Negroes, were drowned or killed on the night of the storm. The others died from exposure, from a lack of food, or from the malarial fever that was epidemic on the islands during the hot September days that succeeded the disturbance.

This epidemic originated from two causes - from the stench of bodies buried hastily in shallow graves where the tide could uncover them - and from the stagnant pools of water left when the high tide receded. The wells on the islands were filled with sea-water. The first reports of the dead left un buried were exaggerated. 

 

The Negroes were quick to bury their dead, but the work was necessarily hurried, for there was a great deal of it to be done. But they have a superstition or belief -  these island Negroes - that is tersely expressed in one of their childish rhymes - "Die by water, Lie by water." That is to say, those who are drowned should be buried as near to the water as possible. In their haste they buried many where the tide could uncover them, and the exposure of these added to the epidemic.

Surgeon Magruder, of the Marine Hospital, who inspected the sanitary condition of the largest of the islands during the first weeks after the storm, reports that three thousand seven hundred and nine cases of sickness were treated, of which two thousand five hundred and forty-two were malarial fever. This report covers only eight of the islands. The same condition existed on all the islands.  There was a windfall for St. Helena. The storm brought close to its shores the wreck of the City of Savannah. When the passengers and crew were rescued, the Negroes seized upon the stores that had been left, and surely Providence never poured timelier gifts into the laps of the needy. Almost out of reach of relief, many of these Negroes must have perished but for this succor, sent them on the wings of the storm that had stripped them of their small possessions. But the wreck was a bone that was soon picked. Its stores were but a mouthful as compared with the needs of the population.

It has been estimated that at least thirty thousand people were left practically homeless and in need of relief by the storm. I cannot vouch for this estimate, but it has not been challenged. It is made by those who have made a thorough canvass of all the islands exposed to the storm. But let us give cold doubt the benefit of its prudence a prudence that is frequently untimely; let us say that there are twenty thousand Negroes on the Sea Islands whose possessions were destroyed by the hurricane - twenty thousand who stand in need of relief; is not this something for the benevolent to think about, even now?

Bear in mind that relief in this in stance means not a momentary ebullition of benevolence, but the actual means of subsistence for a period covering several months. The Negroes have lost not their possessions alone, but their growing crops. When the storm swooped down upon them they were just getting ready to market their cotton - the famous Sea Island cotton that enters into the manufacture of the finer grades of goods - they were just getting ready to dig their sweet potatoes. But the wind whipped their cotton out of the bolls and off the stalks, the salt sea-water rose and ruined their potatoes; and wind and sea carried away their boats; so that relief, in order to be at all effective, must carry these practically helpless Negroes over the period that lies between two crops. And there comes into the calculation this additional problem - to what extent has the deluge of salt-water destroyed the productive capacity of the land? All these things are to be considered, and the Red Cross Society is engaged in considering them.

To provide for the pressing and immediate wants of twenty or thirty thousand people from the first of September to the end of February, a period of six months; to give them subsistence without making beggars or drones of them; that is the task to which the Red Cross Society has set itself. It is a task so noble in its conception and purpose that it ought to attract the sympathetic attention of the American people; for its success depends wholly on those who have the will and the means to fill the hands of the little band which, marching under the flag of the Red Cross, is devoting itself with an unselfishness that involves the sacrifice of all personal comfort, and with a zeal that is beyond all praise, to the work of relieving the victims of the storm.

Until now I have not mentioned, except incidentally, the Red Cross Society, of which Miss Clara Barton is president. The work of that organization, the methods it has employed, and the results it has wrought out of resources the most slender, will be fully set forth in another article. But meanwhile, before that article can appear - even before this can be printed - it is to be feared that the apathy of the public will have cut down the means of the Society to a limit too pitiful to think about. These means were pitifully narrow in November, and at that time the flood-tide of public benevolence was flowing in to aid Miss Barton's Society. The newspapers were devoting columns to the necessities of the storm sufferers, and one enterprising journal, the New York World, had chartered a railway train to convey sup plies to the coast. From every quarter came food, clothing, tools. The sympathy of the public had been thoroughly aroused.

But there were from twenty to thirty thousand people to be tided over the winter months and into the spring. Recognizing this fact, Miss Barton and her assistants adopted from the very first the most rigid system of economy a system far more efficacious in the end than any lavish dispensation of charity could have been. A peck of grits and a pound of pork - these are the rations for a family of six. They seem at first thought to be a poor excuse for charity, and the Negro who goes after them in his little ox-cart most likely takes them away with a disappointed look on his face, glancing back at the little bundles as he drives along, or shaking his head doubtfully as he measures their weight by lifting them in his hand. "Mockin' bud been eat mo' dun dat!" He remembered the days when the Government poured out its bounty through the Freedman's Bureau.

But a peck of grits and a pound of pork mean something more than momentary relief - something more than mere charity. They mean that the head of a family which has to depend on them for a week's subsistence must bestir himself; that he must catch fish to go with the rations; that, in short, he is not to eat the bread of idleness. This rigid economy on the part of the Red Cross Society grows out of the necessities of the situation, and is not intended primarily to spur the needy ones to provide for themselves. It is a pinching policy that does not, I imagine, commend itself very heartily to the approval of Miss Barton, except as a measure of absolute necessity that looks carefully to the future. But those who have seen measures of relief misdirected and private bounty mismanaged, will recognize in this economy of the Red Cross Society, a wise administration of the resources that benevolent people have placed at the disposal of those who were despoiled by the storm. For surely that measure of relief is wise (whether dictated by necessity or by experience) that prevents those whom it succors from sitting in idleness to be maintained by charity, public or private.

 In November the Red Cross Society had barely completed its work of organizing relief for the suffering and destitute on the Sea Islands. Compared with the demands made upon it, the Society's resources were small, and the fear - which may have developed into absolute certainty by the time these pages go to the public - was that they would grow smaller and smaller as the cold weather came on. Miss Barton's last word to inc was to ask that an appeal be made to benevolent people throughout the country, to the end that the resources at the command of the Red Cross Society may not be sensibly diminished by reason of the increased demands made upon them in the winter months, and to the end that, at least by the first of April, these unfortunate Negroes, despoiled by wind and tide, may be placed securely on their feet, as nearly independent as they were the day before the storm.

I went to the Sea Islands with no prejudice against the Red Cross Society, but certainly with no prepossession in its favor. I had pictured it in my mind as a sort of fussy and contentious affair, running about with a tremendous amount of chatter and flourishing a great deal of red tape - a sort of circumlocution office, situated in the air between individual officiousness and newspaper notoriety. 

As a matter of fact, the Red Cross Society as I saw it at Beaufort is something entirely different from any other relief organization that has come under my observation. Its strongest and most admirable feature is its extreme simplicity. The perfection of its machinery is shown by the apparent absence of all machinery. There are no exhibitions of self-importance. There is no display -no torturous cross-examination of applicants - no needless delay. And yet nothing is done blindly, or hastily, or indifferently.

This poor little tribute to Miss Clara Barton I want to pay in heartily seconding her appeal to the benevolence of the whole country to aid her in carrying out her work on the Sea Islands. Such aid will be more important in the last days of her mission than it was when the sympathies of the public had been touched by the awful story of the disaster that went tingling over the wires on the last day of August.

...from Scribner's Magazine, February 1894