Many people may have never heard of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. They also may not have heard of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment which is also called the “1st South Carolina.” However, they are honored on a South Carolina historic marker outside of the National Cemetery in Beaufort, SC as the “1st South Carolina African Regiment.” They were one of the first sets of “negro troops” during the United States Civil War. They had been assembled by General Rufus Saxton. They were also indirectly seen in the movie, “Glory” which was released in February of 1990.
One of my greatest memories from the film “Glory” (next to seeing that one tear come down Brother Denzel Washington’s face), was the scene that took me out of the theater back home to the Sea Islands. The sounds that started to emit from the speakers in the theater where extremely familiar. I knew that cadence well. I knew the gathering that was on screen well. Most Black people that were around back then and saw that film, only need to hear me start singing, “Oh My Lord!” and they jump right in with clapping and saying, “Lord, Lord Lord!” We are all transferred back to that space amidst the ancestors beneath a Sea Island oak tree.
The strength that was shown in the faces in the crowd as they sought GOD’s help the night before battle spoke volumes about my ancestors that had been on Port Royal Island when the 54th Massachusetts Regiment arrived. This led to me seeking more knowledge about who they were. Who was the group that didn’t have the fancy uniforms in the film? I found out, that group was the “1st South Carolina Volunteers” due to the memoir, “Army Life in a Black Regiment” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Decades after reading that, I am still learning more about them and I am proud to celebrate them.
Union Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson led the 1st South Carolina Volunteers after having been a Unitarian minister and abolitionist in New England. He worked with the Underground Railroad and was part of a group that supplied materials to assist John Brown with the Harpers Ferry raid. When the Civil War began, Higginson was commissioned as a colonel of the Black troops training on the Carolina Sea Islands which are now part of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
A journalist named Henry Villard reported about the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and what took place on January 22, 1863 from Port Royal. The 1st South Carolina had only been mustered into service a few months prior to this and they had a much shorter period of time in which to drill than other troops. Nonetheless, the report read:
“Port Royal [South Carolina], January 22, 1863.
General Hunter and staff yesterday afternoon improved the return of clear whether to visit and review the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. I was glad of the early opportunity to see what appeared to me the most interesting feature of South Carolina, and satisfy myself, by personal observation, as to the relative success of the experiment of transforming the black freedmen into Union soldiers.
The party steamed up Beaufort River on the Beaufort packet Flora to Smith’s plantation, some eight miles distant, where the black volunteers had their encampment. We were transferred from the steamer to the right bank in small boats, and, after passing through a magnificent grove of live-oak trees and a “street” of the regimental camp, reached an implanted cotton field, where a line of black faces, blue trousers, red trousers, and muskets told us that the object of our visit was before us.
The General and suite having taken position in front of the line, the regiment was first made to go through the manual of arms. It next marched past the General by companies both in ordinary and quick step, and then went through several battalion manœuvres.
Judged by the absolute standard of perfection in drill, the performances of the black soldiers appeared liable to criticism. But, taking into consideration all the facts bearing upon the case—the low intellectual status of the rank and file, the short training, the inexperience of most of the white officers themselves—no honest-minded, unprejudiced observer could come to any other conclusion than that the regiment had attained a remarkable relative proficiency. I have no hesitation, with my extensive observations of the capacities and acquirements of white volunteers in both the Western and Eastern armies, to say that no body of men in the service has done better in seven weeks, the period during which the dark-skinned South Carolinians have served upon the drilling-ground.
The General [Hunter] stepped inside the square amid three spontaneous cheers from the ranks. He said in few but forcible and moving words that he rejoiced to find the native soldiers so proficient; that, judging from the progress they had already made, he could see no reason why they should not become as good soldiers as any in the world; that he expected them to fight as well as drill, as
only men willing to fight for their liberty are worthy of it, and that he hoped before long to see fifty thousand of their friends striking for freedom from bondage…”
On January 27, 1863, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers had a battle along the St. Mary’s River on the Georgia-Florida boarder. Higginson stated after this:
“I have made the more of this little affair because it was the first stand-up fight in which my men had been engaged, though they had been under fire, in an irregular way, in their small early expeditions. To me personally the event was of the greatest value: it had given us all an opportunity to test each other…Hereafter it was of small importance what nonsense might be talked or written about colored troops; so long as mine did not flinch, it made no difference to me.”
The 1st South Carolina Volunteers proved that they stood as proud Gullah/Geechee men and did not flinch. Yet, with all their bravery, there has been no acknowledgement of them in the education system of South Carolina throughout the years. The Gullah/Geechee Nation Hall of Fame long since acknowledged these Black men and women such as Suzie King Taylor who were primarily from our coast and who fought for us and for our day of emancipation to come. “Oh my Lord! Lord! Lord! Lord!” thank you for the these glorious fighters and all e dun fa allawe! Ta GAWD be de glory!