Appendix B. The First Black Soldiers.

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


  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, S. O. 84, Dept. South.

  Enlistments came in very slowly, and no wonder. The white officers and soldiers were generally opposed to the experiment, and filled the ears of the negroes with the same tales which had been told them by their masters,—that the Yankees really meant to sell them to Cuba, and the like. The mildest threats were that they would be made to work without pay—which was for a time the case—and that they would be put in the front rank in every battle. Nobody could assure them that they and their families would be freed by the government, if they fought for it, since no such policy had been adopted. 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 Foundations” in commemoration of his deeds.

  By patience and tact, these obstacles would in time have been overcome. But before long, unfortunately, some of General Hunter’s staff became impatient, and induced him to take the position that the blacks must enlist. Accordingly, squads of soldiers were sent to seize all the able-bodied men on certain plantations, and bring them to the camp. The immediate consequence was a renewal of the old suspicion, ending in a widespread belief that they were to be sent to Cuba, as their masters had predicted. The ultimate result was a habit of distrust, discontent, and desertion, that it was almost impossible to surmount among the soldiers enlisting in this first company. All the men who knew anything about General Hunter believed in him; but they all knew that there were bad influences around him, and that the government had repudiated his promises. They had been kept four months in service, and then had been dismissed without pay. That having been the case, why should not the government equally repudiate General Saxton’s promises or mine? As a matter of fact, the government did repudiate these pledges for years, though we had its own written authority to give them. But that matter needs an appendix by itself.

  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 black soldiers were sent down on the Ben De Ford, Captain Hallett. On arriving, Trowbridge was at once informed by Commodore Goldsborough, naval commander at that station, that there was a party of rebel guerillas on the island, and was asked whether he would trust his soldiers in pursuit of them. Trowbridge gladly assented; and the Commodore added, “If you should capture them, it will be a great thing for you.”

  They accordingly went on shore, and found that the colored men of the island had already undertaken the enterprise. Twenty-five of them had armed themselves, under the command of one of their own number, whose name was John Brown. The second in command was Edward Gould, who was afterwards a corporal in my own regiment. The rebel party retreated before these men, and drew them into a swamp. There was but one path, and the negroes entered single file. The rebels lay behind a great log, and fired upon them. John Brown, the leader, fell dead within six feet of the log,—doubtless the first black man who fell under arms in the war,—several other were wounded, and the band of raw recruits retreated; as did also the rebels, in the opposite direction. This was the first armed encounter, so far as I know, between the rebels and their former slaves; and it is worth noticing that the attempt was a spontaneous thing, and not accompanied by any white man. The men were not soldiers, nor in uniform, though some of them afterwards enlisted in Trowbridge’s company.

  The father of this John Brown was afterwards a soldier in my regiment; and, after his discharge for old age, was, for a time, my servant. “Uncle York,” as we called him, was as good a specimen of a saint as I have ever met, and was quite the equal of Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom.” He was a fine-looking old man, with dignified and courtly manners, and his gray head was a perfect benediction, as he sat with us on the platform at our Sunday meetings. He fully believed, to his dying day, that the “John Brown Song” related to his son, and to him only.

  Trowbridge, after landing on the island, hunted the rebels all day with his colored soldiers, and a posse of sailors. In one place, he found by a creek a canoe, with a tar-kettle, and a fire burning; and it was afterwards discovered that, at that very moment, the guerillas were hid in a dense palmetto thicket near by, and so eluded pursuit The rebel leader was one Miles Hazard, who had a plantation on the island, and the party escaped at last through the aid of his old slave, Henry, who found them a boat. One of my sergeants, Clarence Kennon, who had not then escaped from slavery, was present when they reached the main-land; and he described them as being tattered and dirty from head to foot, after their efforts to escape their pursuers.

  When the troops under my command occupied Jacksonville, Fla., in March of the following year, we found at the railroad station, packed for departure, a box of papers, some of them valuable. Among them was a letter from this very Hazard to some friend, describing the perils of that adventure, and saying, “If you wish to know hell before your time, go to St Simon’s and be hunted ten days by niggers.”

  I have heard Trowbridge say that not one of his men flinched; and they seemed to take delight in the pursuit, though the weather was very hot, and it was fearfully exhausting.

  This was early in August; and 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 uniform was provided, they grew more and more ragged. They got poor rations, and no pay; but they kept up their courage. Every week or so some of them would go on scouting excursions to the main-land; one scout used to go regularly to his old mother’s hut, and keep himself hid under her bed, while she collected for him all the latest news of 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.

  The above facts were written down from the narration of Lieutenant-Colonel Trowbridge, who may justly claim to have been the first white officer to recruit and command colored troops in the Civil War. He was constantly in command of them from May 9, 1862, to February 9, 1866.

  Except the Louisiana soldiers mentioned in the Introduction,—of whom no detailed reports have, I think, been published,—my regiment was unquestionably the first regiment of freed slaves 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. This was a regiment of free colored men, of whom General B. F. Butler, who formed it, says, “The darkest of them was about the complexion of the late Mr. [Daniel] Webster.” 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 the 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.

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