The 54th Massachusetts U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) is generally recognized as the first black regiment to serve in the Union army. Free blacks made their way from many different states, including Delaware, to muster into this unit soon after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and became active that March.
In November 1862, however, freed slaves or “contrabands” in the South formed the 1st South Carolina USCT under a white officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Those slaves were left behind when Confederate forces and plantation owners fled the area around Port Royal, S.C., under the bombardment of Delawarean Adm. S.F. DuPont’s federal fleet that captured the city in November 1861.
The black soldiers became subject to a death sentence when Confederate President Jefferson Davis threatened that members of the regiment would not be treated as prisoners of war if taken in battle. Rather, the enlisted men would be auctioned off as slaves, and the white officers summarily executed. Although the ominous threat was not carried out officially, it hung over the heads of those men who chose to fight for freedom.
Earlier, black units had formed unofficially in Louisiana and Kansas, but Lincoln and the War Department in Washington chose not to sanction them. Yet, Congress passed the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, which gave the president power to use blacks “for any military or naval service.”
As Joseph T. Glatthaar pointed out in “The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers & White Officers,” following the Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln gave the go-ahead to Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton to raise a black regiment in South Carolina with Higginson in command.
Higginson, a graduate of Harvard and a Unitarian minister, had been active in rescuing runaway slaves and supported John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 as a member of a clandestine group that funded and lent moral support to Brown and his followers (see “The Secret Six” by Edward J. Renehan Jr.). Higginson was one of many men of the cloth on both sides who served in combat roles during the Civil War.
In organizing these black units, the Union army chose to staff them with white officers “with high morals who were willing to make a commitment to uplifting the black race.” While Higginson favored officers with abolitionist credentials, regardless of military experience, Union Adjt. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, also from Delaware, chose to obtain officers already serving in volunteer units and created division boards to certify their qualifications.
One problem with the ex-slaves who filled the ranks of the 1st South Carolina USCT was their lack of literacy. Higginson later began to overcome this shortcoming for his regiment, redesignated the 33rd USCT, by recruiting his friends among free black men in the North.
Higginson noted that, over time, black soldiers “attach themselves to every officer who deserved love, and to some who did not.” The recruits proved capable of putting behind them the discrimination that existed in the North and enslavement in the South.
Soon after its formation, the 1st South Carolina made an expedition along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, destroying Confederate salt-works, taking prisoners and carrying off slaves and property.
In his journal, Higginson described a moment when the colors were presented on the occasion of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to the regiment on Jan. 1, 1863: “From out of the assembled crowd came a lone male voice in song: ‘My Country ’tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I Sing.’” Others in the crowd joined in, and Higginson recorded, “I never saw anything so electric … tears were everywhere.” (http://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-sta...)
Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor from Maryland, served with the 1st South Carolina (33rd USCT) as a cook, nurse, spy and scout. Susie King Taylor, whose husband and relatives were members of the unit, also traveled with them, as a laundress and nurse. She later published her experiences in “My Life in Camp.” (http://civilwartalk.com/threads/1st-south-carolina-volunteers-usct.78843...)
The Academy Award winning film “Glory,” starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, made the 54th Massachusetts USCT familiar to millions around the world who learned of the tribulations and exploits of the first Civil War unit composed of free black men. Much less celebrated are former slaves who joined the 1st South Carolina USCT and became the initial fully-sanctioned black regiment to engage in combat.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.