Civil War Remembered: January 1, 1863
On that January 1, Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Massachusetts, Colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, was preaparing his "colored" troops for their first real engagements with the enemy. This is his story and the story of the 1st.
By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
January 1, 2007
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) served as a schoolmaster, ordained minister and pastor, Congressional candidate, abolitionist activist, women’s rights activist and Captain for the Fifty-first Massachusetts Regiment.
But when he received a quite unexpected offer from General Rufus B. Saxon, his dream of advancing his most beloved cause came within his grasp. Saxon asked if Higginson was available to command the First South Carolina Volunteers: the first Union regiment recruited from the former slave population of the south.
Harrison had a reputation as a firebrand that wanted to see Black troops serving and fighting alongside their White counterparts. Army brass also knew that Higginson was a man of action. A member of the “Secret Six,” which funded John Brown’s abolitionist activities, Higginson was a man of his convictions and steely resolve.
“Had an invitation reached me to take command of a regiment of Kalmuck Tartars, it could hardly have been more unexpected,” Higginson wrote. “I had always looked for the arming of the blacks, and had always felt a wish to be associated with them…. But the prevalent tone of public sentiment was still opposed to any such attempts; the government kept very shy of the experiment, and it did not seem possible that the time had come when it could be fairly tried.”
He recorded some of the details of his decision to resign from the 51st Mass. and accept the position of Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
“My dear mother was wrong in regretting that I exchanged the certain for the uncertain,” wrote Higginson. “Everything I hear of this new opportunity the more attractive it becomes. My lot in the 51st regiment was too smooth; I already had the best company in what was regarded as the best of the 9 months regiments; three first class officers above me took off all difficult responsibility; it was becoming mere play.”
He continued, “Either of my lieutenants could take my work & carry it on well. Here is, on the contrary, a position of great importance; as many persons have said, the first man who organizes & commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important service in the history of the War….”
The First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry was first organized in the Department of the South by General David Hunter at Hilton Head, South Carolina, in May of 1862. Because Hunter had no authorization to recruit Blacks into the service of the United States and because his recruiting methods were questionable, this first group of Black recruits was disbanded. Later, General Rufus B. Saxon set about to make a second try to more appropriately recruit Black men into the First South Carolina. The going was tough. Memories of the failed “Hunter Experiment” discouraged Black men from joining up. Even so, one company was formed under the command of Captain C.T. Trowbridge.
And they wore red pants. The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry would quickly earn a reputation for their determined fighting and their snazzy look!
General Saxton set out to showcase the fighting spirit and ability of the 1st S.C. when he dispatched them under the command of Colonel Oliver T. Beard of the 48th N.Y volunteer infantry on an expedition along the Georgia-Florida coast. Company A, 1st S.C. numbering 62 men, served under Captain Trowbridge.
Staring on November 3, 1863, Company A raided and harassed Confederate pickets, destroyed Rebel salt works and burned a saw mill. The unit liberated 155 slaves and captured valuable stores of rice and lumber. Almost 100 of the captured slaves joined the 1st S.C. and put on the blue uniform with red trousers.
Colonel Beard wrote, “The colored men fought with astonishing coolness and bravery. For alacrity in effecting landing, for determination, and for bush fighting, I found them all I could desire - more than I had hoped. They behaved bravely, gloriously, and deserve all praise.”
On November 10, 1862, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson assumed command of the 1st S.C. This was several months ahead of the formation of the more widely known Black regiment, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Mass. which was celebrated in the film “Glory.”
It was under Higginson’s command that the 1st reached full strength. Higginson drilled the troops until they reached “fighting order.” In fact, because of Higginson’s hard work, the 1st S.C. was now seen as fully combat ready and on a par with any other Union regiment of troops.
On January 23, 1863, Higginson led the regiment on an expedition up the St. Mary’s River along the Georgia-Florida state line. This is in an area just north of Today’s Mayport, Florida.
On January 26, the 1st S.C. was engaged in a skirmish near Township Landing, Florida. Seven men were wounded by enemy action and one Black soldier was killed: Private Williams Parson of Company G.
Higginson wrote of the engagement, “Braver men never lived. . . It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men. They had home, household, and freedom to fight for.”
After the battle, surgeon Seth Rogers reported that one man with two wounds walked more than two miles carrying two muskets from the battle scene. Another, with three wounds (one in the skull) would not tell of his wounds until ordered by his immediate officers. Rogers said of this man, “he is perfectly quiet and cool, but takes the whole affair with religious bearing of a man who realizes that freedom is sweeter than life.”
On February 8, 1864, the regiment was re-designated the 33rd United States Colored Troops. Combined with two other regiments (one white and one black), the Black soldiers were now more or less “integrated” into the Army for the first time. But they were still in all Black units with White officers, a practice that would continue in the United States Army into World War II.
In May 1864, Higginson was wounded at Wiltown Bluff, S. C. and forced to leave the army due to the wound and malaria.
But the 33rd continued to expand upon its reputation.
On July 2, 1864, they made their first assault on a fortification at Battery Gregg on James Island, in Charleston. The combined forces began their attack on the 2nd, overwhelming the garrison and capturing the fort that day. In December, 1864, the 33rd participated with the 55th Massachusetts at the Battle of Honey Hill, an ugly Union defeat.
In the final year of their service, the men of the 1st S.C. served as part of the union garrison of Savannah and Charleston. They were mustered out of service on February 9, 1866 at Fort Wagner. In their final formation, they stood near the spot where Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was buried along with those lost from the 54th Mass. during the desperate attack of July 18, 1863.
After the Civil War, Colonel Higginson became a prolific writer and editor. Frequently published in the Atlantic Monthly, “a magazine of literature, art, and politics,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson corresponded extensively with Emily Dickinson for nearly 25 years. He also offered critiques to Walt Whitman several times in the public forum of the printed essay. His evaluation of Whitman included this gem: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass,’ only that he did not burn it afterwards.”
He also found time to serve as chief of staff to Mass. Governor John D. Long in 1880, was a representative to the state legislature in 1880 and 1881 and was state military and naval historian from 1889-1891. His published writings include histories, biographies and essays.
He critiqued, edited and gave advice to Emma Lazarus, the author of the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…..”).
Colonel Higginson always seemed the proper former pastor and Army man. But the diary of a pretty young Black school teacher named Charlotte Forten shocked the blue blood society of Boston. Charlotte wrote that she had an affair with the Colonel while he was on the Sea Islands near the Georgia coast. She was there too at the same time: making sure young Blacks had the education they needed to transition from slavery to freedom.
Higgingson described his Civil War experiences in “Army Life in a Black Regiment" (1870). He makes many observations in this book that we might not quite understand today. He records this impression of his first walk through the busy encampment of Black soldiers: “It was certainly odd to go about among five hundred men, and not a white face—to see them go through all their cooking &amp; talking & joking (this was after dress parade) just as if they were white. They look so much alike at first too.”
A lifelong radical, in his old age (1906), Higginson joined with Jack London and Upton Sinclair to found the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.
He also contributed to the preservation of Negro Spirituals by copying the verses he learned from the soldiers and documenting the verses and music he heard sung around the regiment’s campfires.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson died in 1911. He is buried at Cambridge Cemetery, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
See a portrait of Higginson at:
The Emancipation Proclamation: