The first black troops in the Union Army enlisted on Hilton Head Island in May 1862. Initially, men who escaped plantations and slavery were reluctant to join the army. They did not want to leave their families and new financial opportunities and capture by Confederates meant a return to slavery or death. Also, many Union troops were openly hostile to escaped slaves on Hilton Head Island. To encourage recruits Gen. Hunter issued a pass to those who joined the army: Now, be it known to all from all that, agreeable to the laws, I declare the said person free and forever absolved from all claims to his services. Both he and his wife and his children have full right to go North, South, East, West, as they may decide.
D. Hunter, Major General Commanding. April, 19, 1862.
The unit was disbanded a few months later. Congress did not allow black men to serve until 1863 when the unit was officially organized as the First South Carolina Regiment. The men in the unit were primarily former slaves from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hilton Head Island and Beaufort remained focal points for organizing and stationing of freedom fighters throughout the Civil War.
In the fall of 1864, troops in the 32nd United States Colored Infantry and the 144th New York Infantry constructed Fort Howell.
This sophisticated earthwork fort was located just southwest of Mitchelville and was constructed to protect the village. Despite 150 years of erosion, the fort is still easily discernible; a testament to its engineer, Captain Charles R. Suter, and the men who labored to build it. After building the fort, the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry participated in the Battle of Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, where they sustained fifty-one casualties. The freedom fighters of the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry were among the 179,000 colored men in the Union Army and another 20,000 in the Navy who fought for freedom and an end to slavery during the Civil War.
(top) The First South Carolina Volunteers on dress parade. Taken in Beaufort, S.C., 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
(left) Image of Fort Howell. Image courtesy of the South Carolina Department of History and Archives.
(right) Thomas W. Higginson, c. 1910. Commander of First South Carolina Regiment. A staunch abolitionist who helped self-liberated African slaves to freedom before the war, Higginson wrote that his appointment as commander was "a position of great importance; as many persons have said, the first man who organizes & commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important service in the history of the War," Image courtesy of the Library