Many enslaved South Carolina men earned their freedom through service.
Story by Richard Thomas
When 50 enslaved Black Africans arrived on the North American continent at the Sapelo Sound in 1526, they were not the first Blacks, enslaved or free, to have set foot in the northern New World. Black conquistadors in Florida and the Gulf had preceded them by at least a decade. When those enslaved in San Miguel de Gualdape took weapons and revolted, it was the first armed group of Blacks and the first armed Black revolt in American history. The Spanish colony of Santa Elena, across Port Royal Sound from Hilton Head Island, had both privately owned and royal enslaved members of its labor force from 1566-1587, and those of royal sourcing would have been supervised by armed Black conquistadors.
During the years of Indian warfare in the South Carolina colony, it was not uncommon for plantation owners to arm those enslaved to defend against the frequent Native American attacks, and some earned their manumission by serving in the militia forces that drove the Indians out of the settled colonial areas.
At the time of the American Revolution, wealthy planters could absolve themselves of the obligation to serve in either Patriot or Tory forces by having an enslaved man serve in their stead. Many did, and again, those who served were given their freedom in the new state of South Carolina. The arming and organizing of Blacks into military units in North America first happened with the British near the end of the Revolutionary War.
The Carolina Corps was a regiment of armed Black troops organized in the Charles Town area when Britain was evacuating its troops after Parliament voted to end hostilities in America in February 1782. Its mission was to ensure peaceful withdrawal of British troops and to guard against Patriot harassment. Also called the Carolina Black Corps, what began as a 100-man cavalry detachment expanded to a 700-man regiment during the final stages of Nathanael Greene’s Southern Campaign In December 1782.
The need for a pioneer corps in St Lucia resulted in 264 volunteers from the Carolina Corps being stationed on the island as a paid provincial unit. They became the first Black unit to become part of the permanent West Indian defense forces, and they were transferred to Grenada at the end of 1783. In 1798 the surviving elements of the Carolina Corps were mustered into service as the nucleus of the First West Indian Regiment, an all-Black unit that saw continuous service into the 1960s.
Blacks began service in U.S. armed forces in the years after the Revolution but were normally assigned as teamsters or manual laborers and not armed. At the beginning of the Civil War, the first two organized Black units comprised of free men of mixed racial background, the Louisiana Native Guards, offered their services to the Confederacy. They served as a labor corps or aboard river boats as teamsters, but they were never armed, and they disbanded in March 1862. The following month General David Hunter on Hilton Head Island ordered the conscription of Black troops for armed service from the men who had fled to the Hilton Head Island headquarters of the Federal Department of the South for refuge. On or about May 20, 1862, the first Black regiment of formerly enslaved men was organized and armed on Hilton Head. An illustration in the June 25, 1862, issue of Harpers Weekly shows a fully equipped and trained regiment, the 1st SC Volunteers of African Descent (SCVAD), assembled for inspection and drill on Hilton Head Island.
Elements of the 1st SCVAD and two companies of the 2nd SCVAD were deployed under arms to clear Confederate resistance and establish Union encampments on the sea islands to the south as far as Jacksonville. The 1st SCVAD, accompanied by members of the two companies of the 2nd, men who had formerly been enslaved on plantations near Jacksonville, led the Federal capture of the city, and the 2nd SCVAD, under the command of a former Kansas Jayhawker, Colonel James Montgomery, began to clear the countryside to the west and south before Hunter called the occupying forces back to Hilton Head to be used in the upcoming campaign for Charleston.
Though a debate as to which all-Black unit was officially mustered into the U.S. Army first continues to this day, by virtue of its induction in late May and its arming by the end of June 1862, it appears that Hilton Head’s 1st SCVAD was the first Black regiment armed and deployed as a combat force in the U.S. Army and the first U.S. Army regiment formed wholly of former slaves.
Without the path-finding of the 1st SCVAD and its distinguished combat service in mid-1862, later U.S. Army Black regiments like the 54th MA Regiment may never have had the chance to form and earn the glory they so richly deserve.