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Army Life in a Black Regiment

Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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An account of Higginson's (a white Colonel) Civil War experiences.

This book has 236 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1869.

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Excerpt from 'Army Life in a Black Regiment'

These pages record some of the adventures of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first slave regiment mustered into the service of the United States during the late civil war. It was, indeed, the first colored regiment of any kind so mustered, except a portion of the troops raised by Major-General Butler at New Orleans. These scarcely belonged to the same class, however, being recruited from the free colored population of that city, a comparatively self-reliant and educated race. "The darkest of them," said General Butler, "were about the complexion of the late Mr. Webster."

The First South Carolina, on the other hand, contained scarcely a freeman, had not one mulatto in ten, and a far smaller proportion who could read or write when enlisted. The only contemporary regiment of a similar character was the "First Kansas Colored," which began recruiting a little earlier, though it was not mustered in the usual basis of military seniority till later. [See Appendix] These were the only colored regiments recruited during the year 1862. The Second South Carolina and the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts followed early in 1863.

This is the way in which I came to the command of this regiment. One day in November, 1862, I was sitting at dinner with my lieutenants, John Goodell and Luther Bigelow, in the barracks of the Fifty-First Massachusetts, Colonel Sprague, when the following letter was put into my hands:

BEAUFORT, S. C., November 5, 1862.

MY DEAR SIR.

I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgment I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it, and hope that you may be induced to accept. I shall not fill the place until I hear from you, or sufficient time shall have passed for me to receive your reply. Should you accept, I enclose a pass for Port Royal, of which I trust you will feel disposed to avail yourself at once. I am, with sincere regard, yours truly,

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Genl, Mil. Gov.

Had an invitation reached me to take command of a regiment of Kalmuck Tartars, it could hardly have been more unexpected. I had always looked for the arming of the blacks, and had always felt a wish to be associated with them; had read the scanty accounts of General Hunter's abortive regiment, and had heard rumors of General Saxton's renewed efforts. 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.

For myself, I was at the head of a fine company of my own raising, and in a regiment to which I was already much attached. It did not seem desirable to exchange a certainty for an uncertainty; for who knew but General Saxton might yet be thwarted in his efforts by the pro-slavery influence that had still so much weight at head-quarters? It would be intolerable to go out to South Carolina, and find myself, after all, at the head of a mere plantation-guard or a day-school in uniform.

I therefore obtained from the War Department, through Governor Andrew, permission to go and report to General Saxton, without at once resigning my captaincy. Fortunately it took but a few days in South Carolina to make it clear that all was right, and the return steamer took back a resignation of a Massachusetts commission. Thenceforth my lot was cast altogether with the black troops, except when regiments or detachments of white soldiers were also under my command, during the two years following.

These details would not be worth mentioning except as they show this fact: that I did not seek the command of colored troops, but it sought me. And this fact again is only important to my story for this reason, that under these circumstances I naturally viewed the new recruits rather as subjects for discipline than for philanthropy. I had been expecting a war for six years, ever since the Kansas troubles, and my mind had dwelt on military matters more or less during all that time. The best Massachusetts regiments already exhibited a high standard of drill and discipline, and unless these men could be brought tolerably near that standard, the fact of their extreme blackness would afford me, even as a philanthropist, no satisfaction. Fortunately, I felt perfect confidence that they could be so trained, having happily known, by experience, the qualities of their race, and knowing also that they had home and household and freedom to fight for, besides that abstraction of "the Union." Trouble might perhaps be expected from white officials, though this turned out far less than might have been feared; but there was no trouble to come from the men, I thought, and none ever came. On the other hand, it was a vast experiment of indirect philanthropy, and one on which the result of the war and the destiny of the negro race might rest; and this was enough to tax all one's powers. I had been an abolitionist too long, and had known and loved John Brown too well, not to feel a thrill of joy at last on finding myself in the position where he only wished to be.

In view of all this, it was clear that good discipline must come first; after that, of course, the men must be helped and elevated in all ways as much as possible.

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