THE FIRST BLACK SOLDIERS
THE FIRST BLACK SOLDIERS
(Extracted from "Army Life in a Black Regiment" - Higginson. Published: Fields, Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1870.)
|It is well known that the first systematic attempt to organize colored troops during the war of the rebellion was the so called "Hunter Regiment." The officer originally detailed to recruit for this purpose was Sergeant C.T. Trowbridge of the New York Volunteer Engineers (Colonel Serrell). His detail was dated May 7, 1862; Special Order 84, Department of the South.
Enlistments came in very slowly, nevertheless, they gradually enlisted, the most efficient recruiting officer being Sergeant William Bronson, of Company A, in my regiment, who always prided himself on this service, and used to sign himself by the very original title, "No. 1, African Foundation" in commemoration of his deeds.* * * * *
The "Hunter Regiment" remained in camp on Hilton Head Island until the beginning of August, 1862, kept constantly under drill, but much demoralized by desertion. It was then disbanded, except one company. That company, under command of Sergeant Trowbridge, then acting as captain, but not commissioned, was kept in service, and was sent (August 5, 1862), to garrison St. Simon's Island, on the coast of Georgia. On this island (made famous by Mrs. Kemble's description) there were then five hundred colored people, and not a single white man.* * * * *
* * * * * the company remained two months at St. Simon's, doing picket duty within hearing of the rebel drums, though not another scout ever ventured on the island, to their knowledge. 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 uniforms 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 mainland; one scout used to go regularly to his old mother's hut, and keep himself hid under the bed, while she collected for him all the latest news of the 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.* * * * *
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.
The second regiment in order of muster was the "First Kansas Colored," dating from January 13, 1863. The first enlistment in the Kansas regiment goes back to August 6, 1862; while the earliest technical date of enlistment in my regiment was October 19, 1862, although, as was stated above, one company really dated its organization back to May, 1862. My muster as colonel dates back to November 10, 1862, several months earlier than any other of which I am aware, among colored regiments, except that of Colonel Stafford (First Louisiana Native Guards), September 27, 1862. Colonel Williams, of the "First Kansas Colored," was mustered as Lieutenant Colonel on January 13, 1863; as colonel, March 8, 1863. These dates I have (with other facts relating to the regiment) from Colonel R.J. Hinton, the first officer detailed to recruit it.
To sum up the above facts: my late regiment had unquestioned priority in muster over all but the Louisiana regiments. It had priority over those in the actual organization and term of service of one company. On the other hand, the Kansas regiment had the priority in average date of enlistment, according to the muster rolls.
The first detachment of the Second South Carolina Volunteers (Colonel Montgomery) went into camp at Port Royal Island, February 23, 1863, numbering one hundred and twenty men. I do not know the date of his muster; it was somewhat delayed, but was probably dated back to about that time.
Recruiting for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (colored) began on February 9, 1863, and the first squad went into camp at Readville, Massachusetts, on February 21, 1863, numbering twenty-five men. Colonel Shaw's commission (and probably his muster) was dated April 17, 1863. (Report of Adjutant General of Massachusetts for 1863, pp. 896-899.)
These were the earliest colored regiments, so far as I know.
The following extracts from instructions given General Saxton contain the authority for raising the First South Carolina Volunteers as noted above:War Department, Washington City, D.C. August 25, 1862.
3rd. In view of the small force under your command, and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion, and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip and receive into the service of the United States, such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding five thousand, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service, and their officers, to be entitled to, and receive, the same pay and rations as are allowed, by law, to volunteers in the service.
Yours truly, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.