First Union black regiment was NOT the 54th Massachusetts

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1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the June 2009 Civil War Times edition (p. 32) the author states, [The] “54th Volunteer Massachusetts . . . [was] the first black regiment raised in the North.”

This is not entirely accurate. The 54th Mass was the first Union black regiment formed in Massachusetts, but NOT the first-ever black Union troops raised to fight for the North. The 54th was initially formed in late February 1863 and then began to be mustered into service in late March 1863.

The first Union black regiment to be raised and formed was the 1st South Carolina Infantry.  The story of how the approval for the first black regiment came about is fascinating.

Escaped slave and Union war hero Robert Smalls went to Washington in August with Mansfield French to seek permission from President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the Union forces.  That meeting took place on August 20, 1862.  Lincoln no doubt remembered meeting Smalls in late May 1862 when he awarded Smalls his reward-bounty for turning the Confederate steamer – The Planter – over to the Union navy in mid May. Smalls surely used his leverage as a war hero to implore the President to allow the first black troops to be officially organized.

On August 25th, 1862, Secretary of War Stanton officially authorized the raising of the first black soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Rufus Saxton.

According to McPherson (p. 167, The Negro’s Civil War), by November 7th the ranks of the first black Union regiment were filling up rapidly and the 1st South Carolina Infantry was mustered in. The first black recruits were mostly made up of Sea Island blacks, otherwise known as Gullah.  Robert Smalls himself was a Sea Island former slave.  Robert was born in Beaufort but his mother Lydia was born on Ladies Island in the low country.

Thus the first black Union soldiers wearing the blue uniform, and officially recognized by the war department, were largely Gullah blacks from the low country of South Carolina.

According to Dyer’s Compendium, the 1st South Carolina Infantry saw the following action before the 54th Mass was even mustered into service (late March 1863).

  • 3 Companies on Expedition along coasts of Georgia and Florida November 3-10, 1862.
  • Spalding’s, on Sapello River, Ga., November 7 (Co. “A”).
  • Doboy River November 8.
  • Expedition from Beaufort up St. Mary’s River in Georgia and Florida January 23-February 1.
    Read Higgonson’s Report
  • Duty at Beaufort, S. C., and Port Royal Island till March, 1863.

Source: Frederick A. Dyer “A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion” vol. 3

About 200,000 blacks fought for the Union during the American Civil War. Many historians agree that without the assistance of the black Union soldiers, the war would have gone on much longer or may not have even been won by the North.

Sources referenced:

* James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War. 2003 (revised).
* Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty. 2008.

3 comments

  1. The 1st Kansas Colored Regiment was organized on Aug 4th 1862. This was before the South Carolinians. It saw battle on Oct 4, 1862 in Bates county, MO, the first colored regiment to see action. It was officially mustered in on January 13, 1863. It was the first colored regiment. If It had been on the east coast or in the South it would not have been ignored.

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