Black South Carolinians Share a Rich Military Heritage

Black South Carolinians Share a Rich Military Heritage
March 1, 2011
By Maj. William S. McDaniel

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Black soldiers have served and defended South Carolina for more than 300 years. They have sweat, bled, and died in defense of their state.

The first permanent English settlement, Charles Town, S.C., was founded in 1670. The Carolina colony was a major focal point in the territorial disputes between England, Spain and France in the New World. These disputes involved not only the colonists but also many of the local Indian tribes. Indian tribes native to South Carolina were not all friendly.

Security of the colonies was a priority to settlers, and security required soldiers. At first there was little or no concern with arming free blacks or slaves. This changed with the growth of African slavery and the fear of slave revolts.

In 1703, during the start of Queen Anne’s War between England, France, Spain, and their Indian allies, the Carolina government offered freedom to any black slave who could kill or capture a hostile Indian. If he were to be wounded in action, he would be given his freedom. This expanded to include the equipping and arming of slaves at regular musters.

Slaves were included in the resistance against the Spanish and French invasion of Charles Town in 1706. It was an unknown black man that ran through the streets of Charles Town giving the alarm that the enemy had landed on James Island and the Charleston Neck. During the same war, over 1,000 black slaves were armed and on standby to repulse a second French and Spanish invasion.

The Yamasee War (1715-1717) was one of the bloodiest wars against the Indians in North America. The Yamasee and their allies wanted their land, and were unwilling to compromise with the settlers. Many white settlers were unwilling to leave their homes and families in order to assemble with the militia. Thus black men from South Carolina and Virginia played a major part in this conflict.

After the “Battle of the Ponds” near Goose Creek, S.C. between colonists and Indians, Rev. Le Jau later wrote that “George Chicken, Captain of the Goose-Creek Company, had attacked the Indians to the North with a group of nearly 70 white men and about 40 negroes and Indians.’” By all accounts, approximately one-third of the fighting men were black.

The French and Indian War, known as the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761) in South Carolina, saw the participation of black South Carolinians. At the climatic defeat of the Cherokee and burning of Echoee Town, N.C. in 1761, there were 81 known black slaves participating in the fighting alongside British Regulars, South Carolina Provincials, and Militia.

The War for Independence (1775-1782) was no stranger to black South Carolinians. Black men fought on both sides of what was truly a civil war. By this time, all thirteen colonies had African slavery as a protected practice. This created an odd position for the “Patriots,” in that they faced a common enemy but feared an armed slave insurrection more. Even the English writer Samuel Johnson in 1775 stated, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Even George Washington himself gave much opposition for black recruits by state governments. However, most black Soldiers were integrated into existing units, although there were notable exceptions, such as the “Rhode Island Bucks,” a black unit from Rhode Island.

On the other side, many black South Carolina slaves joined up with or followed British units with promises of freedom for loyalty to the British government. After the third attack and fall of Charleston to British forces in 1780, resistance to armed black Soldiers began to change. Open service in the S.C. Militia was not unusual, with it being noted by both British and Patriot observers.

One soldier of note, William Ball, was a black cavalryman who served as Col. William Washington’s bugler and orderly. During the cavalry pursuit of the shattered British forces following the Battle of Cowpens, S.C. in 1781, Trooper Ball saved the life of Washington at close range with a pistol shot to a British cavalryman. Ball wasn’t alone, either. There were 15 known black Soldiers present at the Battle of Cowpens. During the siege of the British fort at Ninety Six, S.C. black South Carolinian Loyalists would slip out through the Patriot siege to get water for all of the defenders inside.

During the War of 1812, blacks saw minor involvement in the campaign against the Creek Indians, but not on the same level as the War for Independence. The fear of slave revolts squelched the idea of arming black men. The failed Denmark Vessey Revolt in Charleston S.C. in 1822, only added fuel to this fear. Even though the planned revolt failed, federal laws were passed that banned states from enlisting black men in the militias.

In the small towns away from Charleston, these laws were often ignored. It was not unusual for the regimental bands of the South Carolina Militia to be composed of black soldiers. The role of the band was not entertainment, but to communicate instructions through sounds and beats, and to act as litter bearers to evacuate the casualties from the fighting.

On the eve of the Civil War was the 10th S.C. Volunteer Infantry, whose band, while encamped at Georgetown, S.C. was entirely black. One of the marching tunes played by the 10th Regiment Band was the Victorian hymn, “Walk in the Light.”

The Civil War saw service of black South Carolinians on the Confederate side serving on an individual and unit level. However, the majority of pension records and eyewitness accounts suggest a heavy emphasis on combat support roles as the laws still forbade black combat soldiers. Historians generally disagree on the total numbers. Dr. Lewis Steiner, chief inspector of the U.S. Army Sanitation Commission, wrote an eyewitness account of Jackson’s Army Group in Frederick, Md. of which Gregg’s S.C. brigade was a part, “over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabres, bowie knives, dirks, etc…and manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.”

One example was Pvt. Henry “Dad” Brown, a free black man from Camden, who volunteered for the Mexican War, Civil War and the Spanish American War. As a drummer it was his role to communicate commands to the formations of troops on the battlefield. Henry Brown was a free man, who earned his living as a brick mason. He moved to Darlington, and during the Civil War he volunteered and served with 1st S.C.(Gregg’s), 8th S.C., and 21st S.C. Volunteer Infantries. He not only served as a musician, but took his turn on sentry duty and as a cook. During reconstruction, he was coroner of Darlington County, but resigned his post in protest to what he perceived to be corruption. He remained loyal to the Darlington Guards, although segregation laws of the late 1800’s amazingly would not let him be a “legal and official” member. Brown continued to muster and drill with the unit, regardless. Upon his death in 1907, it was estimated that nearly 12,000 mourners, both black and white, paid their respects. His unit, the Darlington Guards, provided guard, pallbearers and fired volleys over his grave.

The Union service of black South Carolinians was no small matter from 1862 to 1876. The Union utilized the captured port of Beaufort and its large slave population to beef up the numbers of soldiers. Although at first there was much resistance to the idea from Union leadership, due to the usual racial prejudices and the “bad press” of what appeared to be starting a slave uprising in the Confederate territories. The first two Infantry regiments raised were 1st and 2nd S.C. Infantry, later redesigned as “U.S. Colored Troops.” Several Union Infantry regiments and an artillery battery were raised, and by 1865, 5,000 former slaves from the Beaufort area were members of the U.S. Army.

One famous black Union Soldier, Sgt. William H. Carney, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the second assault on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, S.C. July, 18, 1863. As the Union colors were shot down and were being left behind as the unit withdrew under withering fire, Sgt. Carney went back and retrieved the colors, stating afterwards, “Boys, the old colors never did touch the ground.”

Another famous black South Carolinian, Robert Smalls, was a slave who worked as a steamship crewman. At 3:00 a.m. May, 13, 1862, he and eight black crewmen, with women and children, escaped with the steamship “Planter” with four cannon to the Federal blockade outside the harbor. Smalls became a pilot of steamships for the U.S. Navy and after the war, he became a S.C. Representative, S.C. Senator, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army, Smalls introduced an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army . . . no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” The amendment was not considered by Congress.

World War I saw the expansion of the Army of the United States at such a rapid pace, that black soldiers were an important part of the war effort. The 371st Infantry Regiment, made up of mostly black South Carolinians, was raised and trained at Fort Jackson, S.C. This regiment was assigned to the French Army upon arrival in France during April 1918. They were reissued French weapons and equipment, and proved to be an incredibly lethal unit. In the final offensive of the war during September 1918, the 371st had sustained over 1,000 casualties, captured many German prisoners and much equipment, and shot down three German aircraft with rifle and machine gun fire.

The most famous soldier of this regiment, Cpl. Freddie Stowers of Sandy Springs, S.C., was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading an attack against dug in German machine guns that had faked surrendering and destroyed half of Company C. He led the attack through heavy machine gun fire and into multiple trenches, destroying the enemy, but was killed in the fighting. Stowers award was finally given in 1991 by President George Bush to his two surviving sisters.

The Second World War continued the service started almost seventy years earlier with segregated units. During the horror of the Second World War, black soldiers served in combat arms units, combat support and service support in the European-African-Middle Eastern theatre and the Pacific theatre. Black tank destroyer units in Europe were among some of the best elements of Citizen Soldiers defeating a resilient and resourceful enemy. African-American Infantry units took the fight to the Japanese in the Pacific theatre, helping to set the rising sun of the Japanese Empire. Of particular note is the 92nd Infantry Division, an almost entirely black unit.

The Korean War (1951-53) saw the first real racial integration of Army units within combat arms and combat support formations. It was during the cold, vicious fighting during this war where two black soldiers receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Vietnam conflict saw African Americans serve in many roles. The Army continued with the policy of racial integration, developing mature units that focused more on the team and less on the makeup of the people in it. Sgt. 1st Class Webster Anderson of Winnsboro, S.C. received the Medal of Honor for his courage during an attack by North Vietnamese army regulars against his battery’s defensive position. He single handily jumped on top of a sandbag parapet and returned rifle and directed cannon fire to repulse the enemy. After being severely wounded in the legs by a Vietnamese grenade, Anderson propped himself up on sandbags and continued to direct fires.

Black South Carolinians have a tremendous military heritage, and continue to give of their lives and blood in defense of the Constitution. The sacrifices made by our soldier ancestors should not be forgotten, and should serve as a reminder that we did not get to where we are today solely on our own merit
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