From: Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1882 Boston


  MY personal forebodings proved to be correct, and so were the threats of the surgeons. In May, 1864, I went home invalided, was compelled to resign in October from the same cause, and never saw the First South Carolina again. Nor did any one else see it under that appellation, for about that time its name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops, “a most vague and heartless baptism,” as the man in the story says. It was one of those instances of injudicious sacrifice of esprit de corps which were so frequent in our army. All the pride of my men was centred in “de Fus’ Souf”; the very words were a recognition of the loyal South as against the disloyal. To make the matter worse, it had been originally designed to apply the new numbering only to the new regiments, and so the early numbers were all taken up before the older regiments came in. The governors of States, by especial effort, saved their colored troops from this chagrin; but we found here, as more than once before, the disadvantage of having no governor to stand by us. “It’s a far cry to Loch Awe,” said the Highland proverb. We knew to our cost that it was a far cry to Washington in those days, unless an officer left his duty and stayed there all the time.

  In June, 1864, the regiment was ordered to Folly Island, and remained there and on Cole’s Island till the siege of Charleston was done. It took part in the battle of Honey Hill, and in the capture of a fort on James Island, of which Corporal Robert Vendross wrote triumphantly in a letter, “When we took the pieces we found that we recapt our own pieces back that we lost on Willtown Revear (River) and thank the Lord did not lose but seven men out of our regiment.”

  In February, 1865, the regiment was ordered to Charleston to do provost and guard-duty, in March to Savannah, in June to Hamburg and Aiken, in September to Charleston and its neighborhood, and was finally mustered out of service—after being detained beyond its three years, so great was the scarcity of troops—on the 9th of February, 1866. With dramatic fitness this muster-out took place at Fort Wagner, above the graves of Shaw and his men. It was still under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Trowbridge, who had originally enlisted its first recruits, in General Hunter’s day. Brevet Brigadier-General W. T. Bennett, of the One Hundred and Second United States Colored Troops, who was assigned to the command, never actually held it, being always in charge of a brigade.

  The officers and men are scattered far and wide. One of our captains was a member of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention, and is now State Treasurer; three of our sergeants were in that Convention, including Sergeant Prince Rivers; and he and Sergeant Henry Hayne are still members of the State Legislature. Both in that State and in Florida the former members of the regiment appear to do themselves credit. The increased self-respect of army life fitted them to do the duties of civil life. It is not in nature that the jealousy of race should die out in this generation, but I trust they will not see the fulfillment of Corporal Simon Crum’s prediction. Simon was one of the shrewdest old fellows in the regiment, and he said to me once, as he was jogging out of Beaufort behind me, on the Shell Road, “I’se goin’ to leave de Souf, Cunnel, when de war is over. I’se made up my mind dat dese yere Secesh will neber be cibilized in my time.”

  The only member of the regiment whom I have seen after leaving it was a young man, Cyrus Wiggins, who was brought off from the main-land in a dug-out, in broad day, before the very eyes of the Rebel pickets, by Captain James S. Rogers, of my regiment. It was one of the most daring acts I ever saw, and as it happened under my own observation, I was glad when the Captain took home with him this “captive of his bow and spear” to be educated under his eye in Massachusetts. I had at first letters from the men, very quaint in handwriting and spelling; but the correspondence gradually declined.

  We who served with the black troops have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. In that contest, all the ordinary ties of patriotism were the same, of course, to us as to the rest; they had no motives which we had not, as they have now no memories which are not also ours. But the peculiar privilege of associating with an outcast race, of training it to defend its rights and to perform its duties, this was our especial meed. The vacillating policy of the Government sometimes filled other officers with doubt and shame; until the negro had justice, they were but defending liberty with one hand and crushing it with the other. From this inconsistency we were free. Whatever the Government did, we at least were working in the right direction. If this was not recognized on our side of the lines, we knew that it was admitted on the other. Always knowing ourselves to be denied the ordinary courtesies of war till we ourselves compelled their concession, we could at least turn this outlawry into a compliment. We had touched the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation, or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guarantee of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.

All Sub-Works of Army Life in a Black Regiment (1882):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.