Upon witnessing his men in combat for the first time, Charles Trowbridge the lieutenant of Company A, Hunter’s regiment wrote in 1862, “(The rebels) were shot down by the negro volunteers, who fought like tigers.” They did not just fight well, their future commander, an abolitionist minister named Thomas Wentworth Higginson, went even further by dictating that his regiment included some of the best, and happiest, soldiers in the Union army. These were the men of what would become the 1stSouth Carolina Volunteer Infantry. These men once subjugated as slaves on the cotton plantations of the Sea Islands would finally celebrate their day of Jubilee as the first federally recognized African-American combat regiment in US history.
And it all happened right here in Beaufort.
Their story begins in the aftermath of the battle of Port Royal, the first amphibious assault of the American Civil War. It was here in 1862 that General David Hunter gathered five to six hundred men and hastily began to arm and train them. “Hunter’s regiment” spent their short existence camped on Hilton Head as stevedores, loading and offloading cargo and equipment from steamers. When President Lincoln was informed of their existence, he officially reprimanded Hunter for arming ex-slaves without authorization. Defeated, Hunter ordered his men decommissioned to return home as he prepared himself to face his bosses up north.
Shortly thereafter, an isolated detachment of Hunter’s men were attacked on Hilton Head while under the observation of Hunter’s replacement, General Rufus Saxton. By all accounts, including Lieutenant Trowbridge’s, the men of Hunter’s regiment fought with valor. In response to their courage under fire, Saxton wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for permission to muster a force of men as laborers outfitted and officered by the army. Stanton’s response authorized Saxon to enlist a regiment of soldiers to be trained and armed to fight for freedom. To command the regiment, Saxton tapped Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a supporter of John Brown. As they finished their training, Higginson became enamored with his men and constantly doted on them in dispatches to his superiors.
On January 1, 1863, the 1st South Carolina was given their colors and officially mustered into service. Under the stewardship of Higginson and his staff, the 1st South found themselves victorious while campaigning up the St. Mary’s river and at the second Union occupation of Jacksonville. With the departure of Higginson in 1864, the regiment was transferred to guard duty on Morris Island under now Colonel Charles Trowbridge.In 1866, they were discharged at Fort Wagner where the 54thMassachusetts gloriously charged and died in the name of freedom. On December 16, 1865, eight months after the war ended, the thirteenth amendment of the Constitution was ratified. Finally, and without doubt or contest, the men of the First and their families were free.
For more information on the 1stSouth Carolina you can pick up Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson or Firebrand of Liberty by Stephen V. Ash.