The story of how black soldiers were allowed to fight in the Civil War

November 16, 2012, 12:30 pm
Capt. Thomas Wentworth Higginson spent the fall of 1862 whipping raw recruits for the Massachusetts 51st into fighting shape. After declining an officer’s commission in the early months of the Civil War, the 38-year-old Transcendentalist minister had decided that if “antislavery men” expected to influence the conduct and settlement of the conflict, then they “must take part in it.”
By mid-1862, he was recruiting and then training boys from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., to serve in the 51st. “My company is admitted to be the best drilled & disciplined in the regiment,” he boasted on Nov. 9 from a camp on the outskirts of the Massachusetts town, where the unit awaited word of when and to where it would be deployed.
But five days later, Higginson received an offer that “fell like a bombshell” into his quarters. “I am organizing the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers with every prospect of success,” wrote Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton from his headquarters in the South Carolina Sea Islands, which the Union had captured in November 1861. “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.”
A dress parade of the First South Carolina Volunteers.
Library of CongressA dress parade of the First South Carolina Volunteers.
General Saxton’s invitation was “a thing utterly undreamed-of,” Higginson later confessed privately. “After many months of longing, I was at length embarked for the war, with a company of my own raising, & whom I already loved like my own children.” Yet, as Higginson wrote his mother on Nov. 16, Saxton’s offer “may change all my plans.”
Why would an abolitionist officer like Higginson consider abandoning his boys for a new command in South Carolina? For the chance to lead the nation’s first regiment of former slaves.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, circa Civil War years
Few Union officers were better suited to this role than Higginson. Having fought alongside runaways on the streets of Boston and written essays about servile insurrection, he believed that the enslaved must play an active role in the destruction of the peculiar institution. The most radical member of a clandestine group of John Brown supporters known as the “Secret Six,” Higginson helped plan and finance the ill-fated 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Va. Higginson now had a chance to pick up where Brown had left off.
But Higginson also had serious reservations about Saxton’s offer. “Had the time come for the experiment?” he wondered. “Was it to be tried in earnest?”
These doubts brought Higginson to “the point of infinite anxiety.” He later wrote, “Given a fair opportunity to organize & drill a regiment of freed slaves, and it seemed the culmination of the training of a life.” But, he went on, “To assist in the formation of a mere plantation guard, or a Sunday school in regimentals,” was “by no means the entertainment to which I wished to be invited.”
Higginson had good reason to worry. Despite abolitionist entreaties to enlist and arm African-Americans, President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department had refused to put black men in blue. Nowhere was this policy clearer than in the South Carolina Sea Islands — to which Higginson was being recruited. In the fall of 1861, Lincoln had intervened when Secretary of War Simon Cameron opened the door for black enlistment on the coastal cotton plantations between Charleston and Savannah. In draft orders, Cameron suggested that a small Union expedition to the Sea Islands could be bolstered by recruiting local slaves. After reviewing Cameron’s draft orders, however, Lincoln added a sentence that explicitly prohibited “a general arming” of freedmen “for military service.”
The following spring the president’s new secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, undermined Sea Island enlistment in a more oblique fashion. Acting without official authorization, Maj. Gen. David Hunter had begun recruiting freedmen from Sea Island plantations in May. Over the next few months, the antislavery general repeatedly asked Stanton for arms, uniforms and compensation for his new regiment. But Hunter’s requests went unanswered, and, by August 1862, he was forced to disband all but one company.
Just a month later, of course, Lincoln changed the course of the war by issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. But the president was not yet ready to embrace African-American recruitment, at least in public. Days before he made his momentous announcement, Lincoln told a group of Chicagoans that he was “not so sure we could do much with the blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.”
Behind the scenes, however, there were signs that the War Department was warming to black recruitment. In late August, Stanton had quietly authorized Rufus Saxton to enlist 5,000 freedmen to guard captured Sea Island plantations, though he explicitly warned Saxton not to let the order “see daylight.” Still, no one knew for sure if Lincoln would ever permit black men to fight.
Thus, as Higginson considered Saxton’s offer, he knew that he could count on lukewarm support at best from Union command. What is more, Higginson would have to win back the faith of local freedpeople, who had chafed at Hunter’s unorthodox recruitment tactics that spring. When few South Carolina freedmen flocked to join his regiment, Hunter had sent white soldiers into area swamps, woods and cotton fields, compelling former slaves to “volunteer” at bayonet point. These heavy-handed tactics, Higginson later complained, produced “a habit of distrust, discontent and desertion” among Sea Island recruits that “was almost impossible to surmount.”
Yet Higginson also had reason to believe that this time things could turn out differently in the Sea Islands. For one thing, Hunter, despite his embarrassing recruitment record, remained committed to the antislavery cause. So, too, was Saxton, a Massachusetts man with ties to the Transcendentalist circles in which Higginson ran. In addition, Higginson had the personal assurances of James H. Fowler, a fellow Harvard graduate who served as the black regiment’s chaplain. On Nov. 10, Fowler wrote Higginson that more than 500 freedmen had already volunteered. “The opportunities are abundant, the soldiers are ready,” he promised. “The key is to form no idle camp in which men enter to die and rot.”
Higginson could not agree more, and, just days after he received Saxton’s offer, he appeared to have all but made up his mind. “In a few days I expect to go to Beaufort S.C. to take command of a black regiment,” he wrote his editor at the Atlantic Monthly, where he was a contributor. But he had to see things for himself to be sure, so the abolitionist officer secured a furlough and headed south.
Higginson never really looked back. While aboard a ship off the coast of North Carolina, he admitted that his captaincy in the 51st seemed like “mere play” in comparison to the “position of great importance” that lay before him. “To say that I would rather do it than any thing else in the world is to say little,” he admitted. “It is such a masterpiece of felicitous opportunity that all casualties of life or death appear trivial in connection with it.”
Higginson arrived in the Sea Islands on Nov. 24. Swept away by the beauty of the “picturesque plantation” where the First South Carolina Volunteers had set up camp, he was also impressed by his new commanding officer. “There is nothing in the world which Gen Saxton will not do for me & the regiment,” he wrote his mother.
What finally convinced Higginson to take on the new command, however, were the volunteers themselves. The Worcester reformer, to be fair, was not without his prejudices. “My young barbarians,” he paternalistically confided in his journal after just three days in Camp Sexton, “are not truthful, honest or chaste.” But, he said, “they are simple, docile and affectionate.”
Unlike most 19th-century whites, however, Higginson did not take black stereotypes at face value. While many thought that black soldiers were either too timid to fight or too savage to fight effectively, Higginson had little doubt that black men could be fine soldiers. “It needs but a few days to show the absurdity of doubting the equal military availability of these people, as compared to whites,” he wrote. “There is quite as much average comprehension of the need of the thing, as much courage I doubt not, as much previous knowledge of the gun, & there is a readiness of ear & of imitation which for purposes of drill counterbalances any defect of mental training.”
A few days after Higginson arrived in the Sea Islands, a steamer headed north carrying his resignation from the 51st. “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,” he later wrote.
The only question left in the newly appointed colonel’s mind was whether his troops would be allowed to prove their martial capacities on the battlefield. The volunteers had briefly exchanged fire with Confederates on raids that fall, but it was not clear if the War Department would ever authorize full black participation in the war.
Higginson appeared to have his answer on Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln publicly endorsed arming black men for the first time in his final Emancipation Proclamation. In the months that followed, Higginson and the men of the First South Carolina Volunteers would indeed see battle, blazing a trail for the nearly 200,000 black men who eventually fought for the Union Army.

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