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Major General David Hunter wanted to make Yankee soldiers of former slaves—but first he had to win a battle with the government.

Corporal Robert Sutton of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers had been an escaped slave when he last saw his old home in northern Florida. It was now January 1863, and Sutton was a Union soldier. His white commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, took special delight in re-introducing Corporal Sutton to the woman who once had owned him.

“I never saw a finer bit of unutterable indignation than came over the face of my hostess, as she slowly recognized him,” Higginson wrote. “She drew herself up, and dropped out the monosyllables of her answer as if they were so many drops of nitric acid. ‘Ah,’ quoth my lady, ‘we called him Bob!’”

Sutton and Higginson served in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the offspring of a controversial effort to arm former slaves that was originally conceived by ambitious and hot-tempered Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commander of the Union’s Department of the South. Although official indifference, bureaucratic turf battles and his own hasty and ill-conceived actions often got in the way, Hunter opened a door that more than 179,000 African-American soldiers would pass through by war’s end.

Hunter had launched a lackluster Army career—much of it in the Paymaster Corps—after graduating from West Point in 1822. Once war broke out, Hunter pestered President Abraham Lincoln, whom he had befriended in 1860, for a military assignment. He had been given command of a division but was wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run. Soon after, Hunter was promoted to brigadier general as Maj. Gen. John Frémont’s second in command in the Department of the West.

Frémont had fallen into official disfavor by issuing an order freeing all the slaves in Missouri. Lincoln, performing a delicate balancing act between the slavery-hating Republicans in Congress and the slave-owning border states remaining in the Union, repudiated Frémont’s order. “The Pathfinder” was removed from command and Hunter briefly took over his post before being assigned to the newly formed Department of Kansas.

From Kansas, Hunter jealously eyed Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Department of the Ohio, which included Kentucky. “With Buell’s command in Kentucky, which my rank entitles me to, I would advance south, proclaiming the negro free and arming him as I go,” he wrote to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull. “The Great God of the Universe has determined that this is the only way in which this war is to be ended, and the sooner it is done the better.”

Instead, Hunter received orders to report to Port Royal, S.C., and take command of the Department of the South. If anything, he was now in an even better position to ally himself with the Great God of the Universe—although his motivation remains murky.

“The question arises about Hunter’s sincerity in raising the slavery issue,” wrote Edward A. Miller Jr. in Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter. “Some have speculated that he only did so to ingratiate himself with the Radical Republicans in Congress, but there is no evidence either way.”

Whatever his motives, Hunter was moving faster than the Federal government, which remained hesitant to use black soldiers and even turned away black volunteers. Congress passed the Confiscation Act in July 1862, giving the president authority to enlist black troops, but Lincoln, ever mindful of the border states, did not use it.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron favored arming blacks and gave Brig. Gen. Thomas Sherman, then preparing to capture Port Royal, permission to “avail yourself of the service of any persons, whether fugitives from labor or not.” But Cameron worded the order cautiously, and before long he was the ex-secretary of war.

After Hunter reached Port Royal at the end of March, he pushed forward with a plan to augment his forces by arming former slaves, apparently operating under a vague promise from new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that Washington would provide the general with “whatever force” he requested. On April 3, Hunter asked Stanton for 50,000 muskets, 10 million rounds of ammunition and “authority to arm such loyal men as I can find in the country.” To clothe those men in distinctive uniforms, Hunter also sought 50,000 pairs of scarlet pantaloons. Hunter didn’t explicitly mention arming slaves, but Stanton must have realized his intentions.

Stanton, however, provided neither arms nor authority. The general moved forward nonetheless—despite a marked lack of interest from local former slaves, who contemplated the Union forces with suspicion; perhaps because their owners had spread rumors that the Federals intended to sell them into bondage in Cuba. When volunteers didn’t flood in, the impulsive Hunter ordered his troops to round up all able-bodied black men between 18 and 45 and conscript them by force—an action hardly likely to stir pro-Union sentiment.

Hunter also faced opposition from Treasury Department representatives in South Carolina who were responsible for overseeing the region’s abandoned plantations and feeding and educating its population. Hunter’s draconian methods made relations with the department even worse. “All those on this plantation were called in from the field, the soldiers, under orders, and while on the steps of my headquarters, loaded their guns, so that the negroes might see what would take place in case they attempted to get away,” protested Edwin L. Pierce, the Treasury agent appointed to supervise the department’s work.

“This conscription, together with the manner of its execution, has created a suspicion that the Government has not at heart the interest of the negroes it professed to have, and many of them sighed yesterday for the ‘old fetters’ as being better than the new liberty,” complained another Treasury official.

Hunter had also failed to learn from Frémont’s example about moving ahead of the president on the subject of emancipation. On May 9, 1862, he issued General Order No. 11, freeing all the slaves in his department. The president quickly issued his own counter order, which said “neither General Hunter nor any other commander or person has been authorized by the Government of the United States to make proclamation declaring the slaves of any State free, and that the supposed proclamation now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void so far as respects such declaration.” Lincoln reserved to himself the right to free slaves.

Having crossed the president, Hunter soon met with Congress. Word of Hunter’s black soldiers traveled north, and in June, Kentucky Congressman Charles Anderson Wickliffe demanded to know if Stanton had sanctioned Hunter’s actions. Stanton referred the inquiry to Hunter, who took sardonic pleasure in making his response. As to whether he had organized a regiment of “fugitive slaves,” Hunter replied that he had not.

“There is, however, a fine regiment of loyal persons whose late masters are ‘fugitive rebels’—men who everywhere fly before the appearance of the National Flag, leaving their loyal and unhappy servants behind them, to shift, as best they can, for themselves,” Hunter wrote, provoking unbridled amusement when the letter reached Congress.

“The Clerk could scarcely read it with decorum; nor could have his words be heard amidst the universal peals of laughter in which both Democrats and Republicans appeared to vie as to which should be the more noisy,” wrote Hunter’s aide, Major Charles Halpine. “It was the great joke of the day, and coming at a moment of universal gloom in the public mind, was seized upon by a whole loyal press of the country as a kind of politico-military champagne-cocktail.”

But Hunter had a serious point to make amid the sarcasm. “The experiment of arming the blacks, so far as I have made it, has been a complete and even marvelous success,” he informed Congress. “They are sober, docile, attentive, and enthusiastic—displaying great natural capacities in acquiring the duties of the soldier.”

Still, Hunter received no official approval for his regiment, or funds to support it. If Stanton had truly promised Hunter anything he needed, the secretary of war did not follow through. Hunter disbanded the 1st South Carolina Volunteers in August, leaving intact only a single company of soldiers commanded by Captain Charles T. Trowbridge.

Hunter didn’t stick around much longer himself. After asking to be reassigned, he received a 60- day leave and departed for Washington, his future uncertain. He wouldn’t return to South Carolina until the following January.

Official Washington remained ambivalent about Hunter’s efforts, but Confederate Richmond did not. President Jefferson Davis—once a friend of Hunter’s—issued orders that should the Union general be captured he would be treated as a felon, not a prisoner of war, subject to execution. Hunter addressed a letter to the “Titular President of the so-called Confederate States” promising that he would hang any Rebel officers under his control if Davis didn’t revoke the order. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the letter was never sent.

With Hunter back in Washington, the future of black soldiers in South Carolina was left in the hands of Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton. Stanton proved more willing to accommodate Saxton than Hunter—when Saxton asked Stanton if he could “recruit and arm 5,000 black quartermaster employees,” Stanton not only agreed, but told Saxton that he could recruit 5,000 black soldiers as well, and said they would “receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.” Stanton’s order marked a landmark change in Union policy.

To command the reborn 1st South Carolina Volunteers, Saxton turned to a man with impeccable abolitionist credentials. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Massachusetts-born and Harvard-educated, was a theologian by trade and a fervent opponent of slavery. Higginson had visited “Bleeding Kansas” to bring supplies and arms to abolitionists there, and later became one of the “Secret Six” who raised money to finance John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Once war broke out, Higginson enlisted as a captain in the 51st Massachusetts Volunteers, where he was serving when Saxton offered him command of the 1st South Carolina.

The first step was to transform the newly freed men into soldiers. Even before Higginson arrived, Saxton decided to test the mettle of the black soldiers he had managed to recruit, and in early November he sent Trowbridge with 62 members from Hunter’s original regiment on a marauding expedition along the Georgia and Florida coasts. They skirmished with Confederate pickets, killed nine enemy soldiers, captured three prisoners and destroyed some $20,000 in Rebel property. They also freed 150 slaves.

“It is admitted upon all hands that the negroes fought with a coolness and bravery that would have done credit to veteran soldiers,” Saxton reported to the War Department.

On New Year’s Day, 1863, the men of the 1st South Carolina were read the text of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which formally freed slaves in areas currently in rebellion against the United States. Hunter, newly returned to the department, arrived to inspect the regiment on January 21 and promised them their pay, new Springfield rifles, blue trousers to replace the hated scarlet pantaloons—and a chance to fight.

Two days later the regiment left Beaufort aboard three steamers on an expedition to northern Florida and up the St. Mary’s River, where they would gather lumber and other Rebel supplies. Higginson’s goal was to get his men “under fire as soon as possible, and to teach them, by a few small successes, the application of what they had learned in camp.”

Higginson got his wish. Learning Southern cavalry was camped near the river, he set out with his regiment on a night march to attack them. Both sides were surprised when Southern horsemen stumbled across the Union troops in the dark. After a brief skirmish the Confederates retired, and Higginson pulled his men back to the river. One man was dead and seven wounded, one mortally. Higginson marked it as a great victory. “Hereafter it was of small importance what nonsense might be talked or written about colored troops,” he said. “So long as mine did not flinch, it made no difference to me.”

It was later on this expedition that Corporal Sutton returned to his old plantation. Sutton had not only escaped when he paddled down the St. Mary’s River in a dugout canoe, he had returned to rescue his wife and children. Higginson reported that the Union soldier remained impassive in the face of his former owner’s disdain. “He simply turned from the lady, touched his hat to me, and asked if I would wish to see the slave-jail, as he had the keys in his possession.” Higginson toured that “villainous edifice” with a sense of loathing. He saw the stocks— with holes small enough to fit women and children—and a device that imprisoned slaves in such a way that they could neither sit, stand nor lie down. “I had thought myself seasoned to any conceivable horrors of Slavery,” Higginson wrote, “but it seemed as if the visible presence of that den of sin would choke me.”

The regiment returned to South Carolina on February 1, laden with captured bricks, railroad ties, six prisoners and a captured cannon and flag. “Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle,” Higginson wrote. “There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read, except…the French Zouaves.” He praised Sutton in particular as “a man of extraordinary qualities, who needs nothing but a knowledge of the alphabet to entitle him to the most signal promotion.”

Despite his glowing reports, Higginson still looked on his black charges as a strange and alien race. He was fascinated by their “shining black faces, eyes and teeth all white with tumultuous glee,” and amazed at “seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white.” He called them “a mysterious race of grown-up children” and a “simple and lovable people, whose graces seem to come by nature, and whose vices by training.” He was, in short, a 19th-century white man, for whom the separation between the races remained a wide, perhaps uncrossable, divide.

In fact, the racial gulf worried Higginson more than encounters with Confederates. He fretted about what might happen if his black soldiers had to fight alongside white ones, and how a racial incident could derail his entire effort. “I shudder, even now, to think of the train of consequences, bearing on the whole course of national events, which one such mishap might then have produced,” he wrote in a memoir.

Higginson experienced some anxious moments on a second expedition to Florida in March 1863, when soldiers of the 8th Maine and 6th Connecticut arrived in Jacksonville and joined the black regiments, but no incidents between the white and black soldiers occurred.

By this time, Colonel James Montgomery and a second African-American regiment, the 2nd South Carolina, had joined Higginson’s regiment. Montgomery’s antislavery credentials were at least equal to Higginson’s; he had actually fought with John Brown in Kansas and he brought Brown’s zeal to his new assignment. Convinced that blacks and whites could live together after the war only if the Southern slave culture were wiped out, Montgomery used his regiment to destroy plantations, free slaves and put the torch to slave-owners’ properties.

Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina were joined for a time by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments raised in the Union. But Montgomery’s tactics horrified Shaw—especially a June 1863 raid on Darien, Ga., in which Montgomery had the town plundered and burned. Shaw wrote to Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts and asked that his regiment never be used in that manner again. A month later Shaw and many of his men were dead, killed during the assault on Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor.

Higginson was invalided home in May 1864. Shortly thereafter, the regiment became the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops under Charles Trowbridge’s command. The regiment took part in a few actions during the siege of Charleston and served in various Southern coastal cities on provost duty. It was mustered out on February 9, 1866, in a ceremony above the grave of Robert Gould Shaw near Battery Wagner.

The 54th Massachusetts’ sacrifice demonstrated to the nation that black soldiers were willing to fight and die for their country, but the 1st South Carolina Volunteers had already shown that; other African-American units proved it again and again. By war’s end, roughly 179,000 black men had joined the Union Army, and their actions should have banished once and for all the opinion that African-Americans were unwilling or unable to take up arms.

“No doubt there were reasons why this particular war was an especially favorable test of the colored soldiers,” Higginson wrote. “They had more to fight for than the whites. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home and wife and child. They fought with ropes around their necks, and when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death on capture, they took a grim satisfaction. It helped their esprit de corps immensely.”


Tom Huntington is author of Pennsylvania Civil War Trails (Stackpole Books, 2007) and Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia: A Guide (Stackpole Books, 2006). His articles have appeared in many publications.

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here