The morning of November 7, 1861 started quietly enough in the sea islands along Port Royal Sound in Lowcountry South Carolina. The harvest of sea island cotton was well underway and on this morning enslaved African Americans took to the fields to continue the harvest. But by 9:25 that morning, it became clear to those in and around Port Royal that this was no ordinary day.
Fort Sumter had fallen to Union forces some 7 months earlier. Blockading Federal ships had occupied the South Carolina coastal waters since the fall of that fort. For more than a month, rumors had been circulating among Lowcountry planters that the United States Navy was preparing for an attack on a southern seaport. When the Federal blockade ships began to amass near Port Royal Sound, there soon was little doubt that the Navy’s intended target was Port Royal and the sea islands surrounding it .
At 9:25 on the morning of November 7, Federal ships approached Port Royal Sound. Confederate troops in the forts guarding the harbor opened fire upon the first vessel, and a heated battle ensued. Over the next several hours Federal gunboats rained explosives on the Confederate forts and received heavy fire in return. By 1:00 p.m., though, the Confederate forts were largely in ruins, their guns dismantled and destroyed. Confederate forces were compelled to retreat. The battle for Port Royal was ended.
Above: Detail from “Bombardment and Capture of Port Royal, SC 7 November 1861,” Engraving by W. Ridgway after a drawing by C. Parsons, published by Virtue & Co., New York. Digitized by the U.S. Naval History Center, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-u/unadilla.htm, accessed 6 Jan 2011.
Aftermath of the Fall
The day’s fighting had also set off a hurried exodus of planting families on Port Royal, Hilton Head, St. Helena and Ladies Islands and the surrounding mainland. Evacuees took with them what they could transport – valuables and other personal possessions, some house servants. What they could not carry away were the most valuable of their possessions: sea island cotton plantations, with the crops and enslaved communities upon them.
By nightfall Confederate forces on the sea islands surrounding Port Royal were gone. Within a few days, Union forces occupied Port Royal, Hilton Head and Beaufort; strongholds they would occupy for the remainder of the Civil War.
For African Americans in and around Port Royal Sound, what began as a day like any other proved to be anything but. Isolated as the South Carolina sea islands were from life on the mainland, they were not so isolated that word of the coming battle had not reached enslaved populations. Nor were they too isolated for slaves to know that the coming of Union forces meant the opportunity for freedom. Many years later, Sam Mitchell, then a young slave of John Chaplin on Ladies Island, recalled hearing the guns and thinking them thunder until his mother explained that the sound was the Yankee, coming to give him freedom .
No doubt the enslaved people who knew of the impending invasion had carefully planned how they would respond. Some of the planters who fled in advance of the landing of Union troops attempted to compel enslaved communities to evacuate with them. While some succeeded, the majority failed, in many cases because slaves took to the woods rather than obey orders to gather for evacuation. By nightfall on November 7, 1861, thousands of African Americans were the sole inhabitants of the plantations where they had formerly been enslaved.
For those who remained, life on the sea islands around Port Royal was forever changed. In the days following the capture of Port Royal, some 5,000 African Americans formerly enslaved in South Carolina volunteered to serve in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) to fight for the freedom of those still enslaved .
Beginnings of the U.S. Colored Troops in South Carolina
The first attempt to organize African American troops in South Carolina was made by Major General David Hunter, who took command of Union forces in the Department of the South in March of 1862, four months after the fall of Port Royal. Hunter, an avowed abolitionist and independent thinker, took charge of the forces at Port Royal at a time when the status of formerly enslaved African Americans there was still quite ambiguous.
Within two weeks of assuming command Hunter quietly declared certain of the former slaves in the district free. A month later Hunter issued a proclamation declaring all of the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida free. He commenced recruiting on the plantations for men to serve as United States troops. In May, when the response proved less than he had hoped for, Hunter issued an order that all able-bodied African American men between the ages of 18 and 45 were to be sent to Hilton Head. Some 500 African American men were conscripted on that day .
Support from Washington for Hunter’s order was not forthcoming, however. Within two weeks President Abraham Lincoln countermanded Hunter’s emancipation order, reserving for himself the right to free enslaved African Americans. Nor would Hunter’s actions in organizing an African American military regiment receive political support or official recognition. When a Congressman from Kentucky inquired if it was true that a regiment of fugitive slaves had been organized in Port Royal, Hunter responded by stating that his soldiers were not fugitive slaves, they were former slaves whose late masters were “fugitive rebels.” In organizing the troops, Hunter stated, he had broadly interpreted orders to “employ all loyal persons offering their services in defense of the Union.”
Hunter’s attempts to have the troops recognized as soldiers were not successful. By August, faced with a lack of political support and unable to obtain pay for the men, Hunter disbanded the regiment and sent all but 100 troops home. The company of 100 men who remained was placed on guard duty at St. Simons Island .
1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry
Scarcely two weeks later the President changed his mind and authorized the raising of African American troops. General Rufus Saxton, who had arrived at Port Royal as Hunter’s subordinate in April of 1862, was authorized to “arm, equip and receive into the service of the United States such volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding five thousand.” The first full regiment was mustered in in early November of 1862 as the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. The 100 men who had remained at St. Simons Island became Company A, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, with Captain Charles T. Trowbridge in command. That same month, the troops were engaged in an expedition along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, destroying Confederate saltworks, taking prisoners and carrying off slaves and property .
Above: Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Source: Reminiscences of My Life with the 33rd United States Colored Troops: Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers, By Susie King Taylor
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, received command of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiment. He arrived in December of 1862. Once he settled in camp he commenced a journal of his experiences which survives today as a rich firsthand account of the first colored troops organized in South Carolina.
Higginson headquartered his troops on the Old Fort plantation of J.J. Smith, so named because of its location on the site where the French had erected a fort in the 16th Century. It was there that a grand celebration was held on New Year’s Day of 1863. The regiment had received two stand of colors which were to be presented, but the day’s focal point was the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. The status of those formerly enslaved at Port Royal was no longer ambiguous. Although they had lived as free since the capture of Port Royal, on January 1, 1863 they were offically declared free .
In his journal, Higginson described a deeply touching moment when the colors were presented. From out of the assembled crowd came a lone male voice in song: “My Country ‘t is of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I Sing.” This spontaneous celebration was soon joined in by others in the crowd. Higginson described the moment:
I never saw anything so electric. It made all other words cheap. It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it and when I came to speak of it after it was ended tears were everywhere .
After the festive New Year’s Day celebration, Higginson wasted little time in placing his troops in the field. From January 23 to February 1, 1863, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry was on expedition from Beaufort up the St. Mary’s River, which forms the boundary between Georgia and Florida. The goal was to surprise a Confederate encampment and capture much-needed lumber stores. Acting as guide on this expedition was Corporal Robert Sutton, who had made his escape to Union lines down that very river.
A skirmish developed as the 1st South Carolina was intercepted by a Confederate patrol before reaching the encampment. Private William Parsons of Company G, standing near Higginson, was killed instantly in the opening volley. Several men were wounded, including Corporal Sutton who received three wounds .
By March, the regiment was dispatched to Jacksonville, Florida with orders to occupy Jacksonville and entrench themselves there. Higginson was to “carry the proclamation of freedom to the enslaved; to call all loyal men into the service of the United States; to occupy as much of the state of Florida as possible with the forces under you command; and to neglect no means consistent with the usages of civilized warfare to weaken, harass, and annoy those who are in rebellion against the Government of the United States .” In this endeavor they were successful, occupying and holding Jacksonville until March 31, when they were recalled to Beaufort.
July 9-11, 1863 the troops made an expedition up the Edisto River where, despite navigation difficulties and a heated skirmish, they succeeded in bringing away many enslaved men, women and children who rushed to meet the Union boats. Companies “E” and “K” participated in an expedition to Pocotaligo, South Carolina in November of 1863. In February of 1864 the regiment made an expedition to Jacksonville, Florida. In January of 1864, the regiment was moved to Hilton Head.
1st SC Volunteer Infantry to 33rd United States Colored Troops
On February 8, 1864, the designation 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry was changed and the troops became the 33rd United States Colored Troops (USCT).
In June of 1864, the regiment was ordered to Folly Island until after the siege of Charleston. The troops participated in the battle of Honey Hill and the capture of a fort on James Island, where they sustained casualties . During its last year of service, from February 1865 to February 1866, the regiment was employed in provost and picket duty. The 33rd USCT regiment was mustered out at Fort Wagner on February 9, 1866.
 Rose, Willie Lee. 1964 Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Athens: University of Georgia Press, pp. 11-13.
 “The Battle of Port Royal,” The Macon Telegraph, 13 Nov 1861, In Historical Newspaper Collection, GenealogyBank.com, http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/, Accessed 6 Jan 2011.
 Account of Sam Mitchell, Slave Narrative Collection (WPA Federal Writers’ Project), XIV, Part II, 202-203, quoted in Rose, Willie Lee. 1964 Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Athens: University of Georgia Press, p 12.
 Gourdin, J. Raymond. 1997 104th Infantry Regiment, USCT: Colored Civil War Soldiers from South Carolina. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., p. ix.
 Rose 1964, pp. 141-146.
 Rose 1964, pp. 189-193.
 Rose 1964, pp. 194-196.
 Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. 1870 Army Life In a Black Regiment. Boston: Fields, Osgood and Company. Original from Oxford University, Digitized by Google Books 22 May 2007. Read this book in the SC Full-Text Reading Room
 Higginson 1870, p. 41.
 Higginson 1870, pp. 75-77.
 Higginson 1870, p. 99.
 Higginson 1870, pp. 264-265.