Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First African American soldiers strike a blow for freedom as early as 1862

This post was inspired by Angela Y. Walton-Raji
The First South Carolina Volunteers
The first black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War were enrolled in March 1862 at Union-occupied territory on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. One-hundred men from that unit became members of the First South Carolina Volunteers. LC. 
The photograph was taken at the former J.J. Smith Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. USMHI. 

(Florida History Online)

In May 1862, General David Hunter commanded a regiment of soldiers comprised of former slaves to be formed.  President Lincoln and Congress were opposed to admitting them into the army.  They were known as Hunter's Regiment.  General Hunter disbanded the regiment on August 10, 1862, however, 100 of the men first enrolled were allowed to stay in Union service to protect the freedmen and woman in refugee camps.  Also a "company of thirty-eight men was sent to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where they helped to defend themselves against Confederate attack." See "Black Troops in Civil War Georgia."

There is evidence that these soldiers were gathering under General David Hunter's command even before May.  Before the Confederates surrendered Fort Pulaski at Savannah on April 11, 1862, Abraham Murchison, an escaped slave  preacher was already assisting General Hunter by recruiting 150 other former slaves to join Hunter's Regiment at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

Some may ask, "Why Hilton Head?"  Hilton Head fell to Union forces as early as 1861.  In 1862, Union General Ormsby Mitchel (1805-1862) organized Mitchelville, a community sustainable and governed by freed slaves.  Abraham Murchison became the mayor of Mitchelville.  See more in the video, Mitchelville, SC: The Town that Time Forgot. Also see Gullah Heritage: less traveled, not forgotten.

Two weeks after Hunter's Regiment was disbanded, President Lincoln changed his mind and authorized a regiment of African American soldiers to be trained.  They became known as The First Carolina Volunteers, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), an abolitionist minister.  I find some of the highlights from the life of  Higginson to be very interesting.

He went to Harvard at the age of 13 and graduated second in his class in 1841. He took graduate courses at Harvard Divinity in 1n 1847 and later served as a nondenominational minister for the Unitarian First Religious Society who forced him to resign after two years because the congregation  disagreed with his abolitionist ideas.  

Higginson was criticized for nominating Susan B. Anthony for the World Temperance Convention.  He was among the party that attacked the Boston Courthouse to free a slave, Anthony Burns who was returned to his master.  Higginson participated in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, and the charges against him were later dropped.  

He remained in command of The First South Carolina Volunteers from 1862 until 1864 when they were renamed as the 33rd United States Colored Infantry which did not disband until January 31, 1866.  It became the longest African American military unit that served in the Civil War.  

In 1886, he volunteered to edit Emily Dickinson's poems upon her death.  He was criticized for making those edits.  We are very fortunate to have the account of his experience with the African American men who served in The First South Carolina Volunteers.  

His account written in 1870 is below, and we will review his stories throughout the next few posts where we can get to know his soldiers a little better.

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