On this date of January 13, 1863, authority was officially granted to white officer Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson to establish the all-black 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
A first effort toward this organization of former slaves was made in May of 1862 at Hilton Head by General David Hunter. But lacking authority to do, along with abducting recruits in a fashion much too similar to slave life, the effort failed.
A second effort by General Rufus Saxon had better results as a company of 60+ men was formed under the command of Captain C.T. Trowbridge. They fought well along the Florida/Georgia coast, receiving high commendations from officers.
But bringing the regiment to full strength was Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson – an interesting character who was a Massachusetts abolitionist, along with being a scholar and pastor (oh yes, my kind of guy!… though I don’t think we’d have theological agreement). He led them on a late January expedition along the St. Mary’s River near the Georgia/Florida line. There they engaged Confederate forces near Township Landing – winning the battle. Of the regiment’s performance, Higginson would write, “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.”
The regiment was later designated the 33rd USCT South Carolina, and they participated throughout the war in a number of engagements and occupations.
This regiment is written about in the recent Emancipation at 150 Anthology, where Dickinson College professor Matthew Pinkser writes about a scene on New Year’s Day 1863:
If there had been a center of gravity that day for emancipation, it might have been at Port Royal, South Carolina, not Washington, D.C. While President Lincoln was inside his White House office trying to steady his hand before signing the final proclamation at around 2 p.m., a remarkable ceremony on the site of Smith’s former cotton plantation was just then drawing to a close – the largest single gathering in the South of people actually being freed. At what they now called Camp Saxton, the Federal army had organized an official ceremony and celebratory feast for several hundred men of the First South Carolina Volunteers and hundreds more of their contraband guests from around the Sea Islands. The black men stood at attention in specially designed uniforms that included standard-issue blue frock coats and bright scarlet pants. The visitors gathered in a beautiful live-oak grove with just a “glimpse of the blue river” visible, according to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a writer and former ally of John Brown, who now sat on the speaker’s platform and served as commanding officer of the regiment.
The three-hour ceremony included a few too many speeches and presentations, but it was stirring nonetheless. William H. Brisbane, a former South Carolina planter-turned-abolitionist, read Lincoln’s September proclamation, since the final version was not yet available … The cheers were loud. But the excitement reached a crescendo following the presentation of new regimental colors, which included a beautiful hand-sewn silken U.S. flag containing the phrase, “The Year of Jubilee has come!” Yet before Higginson could formally accept the colors, a lone voice rose from the crowd of freed people, singing “America” (1832), and soon many joined in singing this patriotic hymn: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” … “I never saw anything so electric,” Higginson exclaimed afterwards. The regimental surgeon reported, “Nothing could have been more unexpected or more inspiring.”