BEAUFORT — When they were students at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the 1970s, Ben Hodges and Chris Allen learned a lot about the country’s various armed engagements.

Many years later — after Hodges retired as a three-star lieutenant general of the Army, after Allen retired from a career in the Special Forces — they discovered a void in their knowledge of U.S. military history.

No one told them much about African American contributions before World War II. Those contributions dated to the Colonial period and, given the widespread and profound impacts of the institution of chattel slavery, were quite significant.

They learned that Black people fought on both sides of the Revolution, but mostly on the British side since a Patriot defeat would have spelled the end of slavery. They learned that Black people fought in the War of 1812, often hoping to take advantage of an offer by the King to relocate to England and be free. And some participated in the 1846-48 expansionist Mexican-American War.

But such service was sporadic, often frowned upon by White leaders, and not always officially sanctioned.

Then they learned about the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, organized in Beaufort in 1862.

“This marks the beginning of continuous service by African Americans in the U.S. Army,” Hodges said. And that service was high-risk and noteworthy.

Now the two friends are pushing for their alma mater — and for other institutions — to place greater emphasis on the history of African Americans’ military service. And they want the 1st South to get some kind of formal recognition.

“We are looking out for the legacy of these anonymous soldiers,” Allen said.

‘Onto something’

Allen, who had achieved the rank of colonel, settled in the Beaufort area in 2012 to enjoy an active retirement. Interested in history, he volunteered to be a docent at the Beaufort History Museum located at the old Arsenal downtown. A paper written by high school student Andy Holloway, whose mother trained Allen in museum pedagogy, opened his eyes to the 1st South.

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Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (left) and Col. Chris Allen are on a mission to raise the historical profile of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, which was formed in 1862 in the Beaufort area. Chris Allen/Provided

Allen was embarrassed he hadn’t heard anything about this Black regiment before, so he started to do his own research, he said.

“We know African Americans served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but it was against the law from 1792 on for African Americans to join the armed forces,” he said.

It was against the law because White people feared that permitting Black people to carry arms could lead to violent rebellion and the overthrow of the slave economy.

Allen contacted Hodges and the two friends discussed the matter. Hodges became similarly intrigued by this history and, being a three-star general, was someone others tend to regard.

They wanted to know: Were they merely ill-educated yokels pursuing a line of inquiry that others, including professional historians, had already mined? Or was this a worthy intellectual expedition that could help illuminate an important part of the past?

Hodges called someone he knew at West Point, Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, head of the history department, and asked for a reality check.

Yup, Seidule said, this part of military history is too little known.

“It gave us some confidence that we were onto something,” Allen said.

What they were onto was a remarkable effort on the part of hundreds of enslaved people suddenly liberated from bondage in the Beaufort area to help the Union wage war against those whose goal was to protect the institution of slavery.

The risk they assumed was enormous. In 1862, no one knew what the outcome would be, and everyone knew they were getting themselves into something ugly and bloody. If a White Union soldier was captured, he might survive his ordeal and eventually return to civilian life; if a Black fighter was captured, he could be sure about his fate: reenslavement (or worse). And it was likely he would never see his family again.

When Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, heard about the 1st South, he declared that any captured members of the regiment would not be considered prisoners of war. Rather, they would be treated as runaway slaves and sold at auction. Any White officers taken prisoner would be hanged.

But for many, the hope for freedom outweighed everything else.

In November 1861, Union troops took control of Port Royal Sound and created a base of operations in the Southeast. Local White property owners in the town of Beaufort and in its surrounding countryside fled. Suddenly, about 10,000 enslaved people were emancipated by default. Union administrators weren’t sure about what they should do.

Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commander of the Army’s Department of the South, assembled a regiment of 500 Black men in March 1862 but lacked the required political support to maintain it. Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls were in Washington, D.C. around this time to argue the merits of enlisting African Americans in the Union Army.

On Aug. 25, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the establishment of a Black regiment.

About 1,000 Black men, some who escaped enslavement, volunteered to sign up. The enterprise, led initially by Gen. Rufus Saxton, was experimental, for White people tended to doubt the abilities or the intentions of their Black neighbors. But this conflict was likely to become a war of attrition, for which many soldiers would be required. Union leaders knew they needed all the help they could get.

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A photograph from 1862 of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment at Camp Saxton on Parris Island. Library of Congress/Provided

‘A powerful symbol’

That wasn’t the only thing Lincoln did that year regarding enslaved Black people. Based in some measure on Hunter’s efforts, the president determined to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. He would announce his intentions in September, then proclaim on Jan. 1, 1863, that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

The members of the 1st South assembled on Port Royal Island that New Year’s Day to hear the proclamation read aloud.

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Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a progressive writer and abolitionist from the north, was assigned to lead the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment. He later wrote about his experience, praising the fortitude and courage of the men he commanded. Library of Congress

By then, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson had arrived to assume command of the regiment. It’s thanks in large part to Higginson, a writer and abolitionist who kept a diary of his experiences in Beaufort, that we know about the 1st South. Documentation is otherwise scarce. An African American nurse, Susie King Taylor, published in 1902 a memoir called “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers” in which she recounted her close association with members of the 1st South (later renamed the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops). One or two photographs survive of the regiment. That’s about it.

Port Royal served as the Union’s main base of operation in the region, and its strategic value could not be overstated. Here, the United States recruited fighting men; here it set up agencies and hospitals; here it managed deployments to other parts of the South; here it coordinated its logistical efforts, such as importing and exporting supplies.

The men of the 1st South were tasked with helping to secure the area. They faced off against Confederate fighters in Georgia, they assisted on expeditions up the St. Marys River and down to Jacksonville, they helped keep Confederate troops at bay on Parris Island, and they helped ensure that Gen. Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864 could safely enter the region during his March to the Sea, for Hilton Head Island was the logistics base for the U.S. Naval blockade of Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville.

As Allen put it, Sherman was the fastball and Hilton Head was the catcher’s mitt.

“(The regiment) becomes a conscious, intended experiment to prove the nation wrong about its assumptions about African Americans’ abilities,” said Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina.

And they operated on a motivating assumption: if they could prove their commitment to the nation, then they could affirm their rightful claim to full citizenship.

“These soldiers in uniform, some with weapons, become a powerful symbol in the Deep South,” Donaldson said. “On one level, these armed Black men are exactly what the Confederates feared; on the other hand, among African Americans, here are men who embodied freedom, who embodied citizenship. They took great pride seeing these soldiers stationed in the South.”

Some escapees, called “contrabands,” followed the soldiers from place to place, seeking protection from the Union Army which provided education and employed them as laborers, he said.

‘Such marked ability’

Hodges said the experiment quickly proved successful. The efforts of the 1st South regiment shows Army leaders, including some skeptical of arming Black men, that African American fighters were desirable, even essential, if the Union was to prevail.

Among the soldiers of the 1st South was Prince Rivers, a sergeant who carried the regimental colors. Rivers is little known but deserves attention, Hodges said. An enslaved coach driver, Rivers was a literate man who escaped bondage to join the 1st South. He impressed Higginson, who wrote of the skilled young soldier, “He writes well enough to prepare for me a daily report of his duties in the camp; if his education reached a higher point, I see no reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac. … No anti-slavery novel has described a man of such marked ability. He makes (Haitian General) Toussaint (Louverture) perfectly intelligible; and if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.”

The Camp Saxton site, which is part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, interprets the history of Civil War military enterprise, including the formation of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Rich Condon/National Park Service/Provided

After the war, Rivers was a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and one of the three Black founders of Aiken County, where he served as a state legislator and trial judge until white supremacists put an end to Reconstruction.

Hodges said Robert Smalls is rightfully recognized as an impressive Black leader of his time, but Rivers ought to stand beside him in the history books.

He wants the U.S. Army Center of Military History and West Point to present the story of the 1st South more assertively, he said.

“We never heard anything about this when we were cadets,” he said.

Hodges also wants to find Rivers’ gravesite and have a veteran’s marker placed there. He wants to move an existing marker about the 1st South from the shadows of Beaufort National Cemetery to a prominent position in town, perhaps adjacent to other historical monuments or markers — where it can be seen by many.

Finally, he wants the South Carolina congressional delegation to take notice of this history and the important figures who played such vital roles in keeping the United States intact.

At West Point, Lt. Col. Rory McGovern applauds the efforts of Hodges and Allen. McGovern, who teaches American military history at the college, has been incorporating information about the 1st South in classroom lessons. Some of his colleagues have been doing the same, thanks in large measure to the advocacy work of the two alumni, he said.

“They’re hitting upon a narrative that is underemphasized, and with real connections to important themes,” McGovern said. “It should be of interest to any historian, especially a military historian.”

Particularly compelling is the putative connection between military service and citizenship, along with the purposeful choice these individuals made to assist the Union so they might improve the status of both the nation and their own lives, he said.

The story of the 1st South has lessons to teach today’s cadets, lessons of extraordinary courage and leadership that fit neatly into the mission of the military college, which is to educate, train and inspire future commissioned officers, McGovern said.

“With this story, I can educate and inspire, two out of three,” he said.

At West Point now, every freshman cadet takes a basic History of the United States course during which three of 30 lessons are devoted to the Civil War. During those lessons, instructors typically discuss emancipation and the formation of African American regiments, McGovern said.

“Because of Hodges and Allen, the story is on the shelf,” he said.

Additionally, he teaches a senior capstone seminar on the Black military experience, which delves into the topic of the 1st South. The school also offers opportunities for individual advanced development that come in the form of “staff rides” — research intensive field trips during spring break or during the summer.

This spring, one of the staff rides will take students to Beaufort and focus on the service of African Americans during the Civil War, including the 1st South, 54th Massachusetts and other Black regiments, Robert Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Prince Rivers and others, McGovern said.

Rich Condon of the National Park Service addresses U.S. Navy staff on the grounds of the Naval Hospital Beaufort grounds. Chris Barr/National Park Service/Provided

‘A grand success’

Rich Condon, a National Park Service ranger based in Beaufort, said efforts to illuminate the history of Reconstruction, and the contributions of African Americans, already have produced results.

Camp Saxton on Port Royal Island is part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, and several other sites in the area are connected to the project, providing plenty of opportunity for historical interpretation, tours, student engagement and public events, he said.

The 1st South Volunteer Regiment absolutely is underresearched and underappreciated, Condon said.

“In hindsight, we know it was a grand success,” Condon said. “But at the time, they weren’t sure.”

For most people interested in this history, it’s the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers who first come to mind, partly because they were the subject of the popular 1989 feature film “Glory,” which inadvertently “pushes the idea that that’s the Black regiment,” he said.

“We don’t talk about the guys who built the foundation for the 54th to be recruited.”

That foundation remains firmly in place. Upon it stands every African American who has served in the armed forces of the United States.