Friday, January 7, 2011

Hunter's Regiment, first Civil War regiment of former slaves

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Hunter's Regiment was on the first attempts to create a black regiment.  Sergeant Charles Tyler Trowbridge of the New York Volunteer Engineers was first given the responsibility of recruiting in May of 1862 on Hilton Head Island.  At first, because many white officers were not happy with commissioning black soldiers, they instilled fear in many by spreading stories started by slave masters that the "Yankees would sell them to Cuba," and that the Union would make them work without pay. (First African American soldiers strike a blow for freedom as early as 1862).

Even though they did work for a time without pay, and they had no promise that they nor their families would be freed if they fought, they did still enlist.  General David Hunter had, according to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "bad influences around him".  They eventually took the stand that they must enlist every black.  Great suspicion surmounted because of all the rumors, forced enlistments, and lack of pay.  The regiment never could become a cohesive unit.

The regiment except for one company was disbanded in August 1862 after four months and, they never received any pay. Trowbridge and his company were sent to St. Simon's Island along the east coast of Georgia to help Commodore Goldborough to pursue Confederate guerrillas on the island.
See St. Simons Island Experience to learn more about the plantations on this island along the coast of Georgia

On the island they found black men had already taken charge of the situation.  John Brown and Edward Gould commanded twenty-three other escapees.  They pursued the slave masters led by Miles Hazard into a swamp, and when they entered single-file, they were fired upon from behind a log where the slave masters were hiding.

The first in command, John Brown, was killed within six feet of the log and others were wounded. Both sides retreated.   When Trowbridge and his men reached the island, they searched for the rebels, they learned of the events from Clarence Kennon, a slave who had not yet escaped. John Brown may very well be the first African American to die in the Civil War.  His father, Uncle York, and Clarence Kennon went on to serve in the First South Carolina Volunteers under Higginson.

Contraband camps sometimes depict freedmen and women as totally destitute and waiting for the Union Army of the North to put an end completely to their plight, however, at least one piece of oral history helps us to understand some of the activities  which supported the military.  Susie King Taylor (1848-1912), teacher and first African American Civil War nurse, wrote about her experiences on St. Simon's Island and with Trowbridge:

"The latter part of August, 1862, Captain C. T. Trowbridge, with his brother John and Lieutenant Walker, came to St. Simon's Island from Hilton Head, by order of General Hunter, to get all the men possible to finish filling his regiment which he had organized in March, 1862. He had heard of the skirmish on this island, and was very much pleased at the bravery shown by these men. He found me at Gaston Bluff teaching my little school, and was much interested in it. When I knew him better I found him to be a thorough gentleman and a staunch friend to my race.

Captain Trowbridge remained with us until October, when the order was received to evacuate, and so we boarded the Ben-De-Ford, a transport, for Beaufort, S. C. When we arrived in Beaufort, Captain Trowbridge and the men he had enlisted went to camp at Old Fort, which they named "Camp Saxton." I was enrolled as laundress. The first suits worn by the boys were red coats and pants, which they disliked very much, for, they said, "The rebels see us, miles away."

The first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months, and the men had to depend wholly on what they received from the commissary, established by General Saxton. A great many of these men had large families, and as they had no money to give them, their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers of the gunboats and the soldiers, and making cakes and pies which they sold to the boys in camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would not accept this. They wanted "full pay" or nothing. They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all the back pay due." See "On St. Simon's Island - 1862" CHAPTER III, REMINISCENCES OF MY LIFE IN CAMP WITH THE 33RD U.S. COLORED TROOPS, LATE 1ST S.C. VOLUNTEERS

We also have an account from Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

Every Saturday Trowbridge summoned the island people to drill with his soldiers; and they came in hordes, men, women, and children, in every imaginable garb, to the number of one hundred and fifty or two hundred. 

His own men were poorly clothed and hardly shod at all; and, as no new supply of uniform was provided, they grew more and more ragged. They got poor rations, and no pay; but they kept up their spirits. Every week or so some of them would go on scouting excursions to the main-land; one scout used to go regularly to his old mother's hut, and keep himself hid under her bed, while she collected for him all the latest news of rebel movements.

This man never came back without bringing recruits with him. At last the news came that Major-General Mitchell had come to relieve General Hunter, and that Brigadier-General Saxton had gone North; and Trowbridge went to Hilton Head in some anxiety to see if he and his men were utterly forgotten. He prepared a report, showing the services and claims of his men, and took it with him. 
This was early in October, 1862. The first person he met was Brigadier-General Saxton, who informed him that he had authority to organize five thousand colored troops, and that he (Trowbridge) should be senior captain of the first regiment.

This was accordingly done; and Company A of the First South Carolina could honestly claim to date its enlistment back to May, 1862, although they never got pay for that period of their service, and their date of muster was November 15, 1862.

The above facts were written down from the narration of Lieutenant-Colonel Trowbridge, who may justly claim to have been the first white officer to recruit and command colored troops in this war. He was constantly in command of them from May 9, 1862, to February 9, 1866.

Except the Louisiana soldiers mentioned in the Introduction, — of whom no detailed reports have, I think, been published, — my regiment was unquestionably the first mustered into the service of the United States; the first company muster bearing date, November 7, 1862, and the others following in quick succession." See "Army life in a black regiment", by Thomas Wentworth Higginson made available in First African American soldiers strike a blow for freedom as early as 1862

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