Leaves From an Officer’s Journal

The white colonel of the first official black regiment recounts his experience.

By Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Black troops fighting for the Union in November 1864 in Dutch Gap, Virginia (Library of Congress)


The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. Within weeks, preparations began for the organization and training of the first official black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers. The New England minister and frequent Atlantic contributor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had previously served as a captain in the 51st Massachusetts Infantry, was appointed colonel of the new regiment (black regiments were almost always commanded by white officers). He kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal,” and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

—Sage Stossel

I wish to record, as truthfully as I may, the beginnings of a momentous experiment, which, by proving the aptitude of the freed slaves for military drill and discipline, their ardent loyalty, their courage under fire, and their self-control in success, contributed somewhat towards solving the problem of the war, and towards remoulding the destinies of two races on this continent.

During a civil war events succeed each other so rapidly that these earlier incidents are long since overshadowed. The colored soldiery are now numbered no longer by hundreds, but by tens of thousands. Yet there was a period when the whole enterprise seemed the most daring of innovations, and during those months the demeanor of this particular regiment, the First South Carolina, was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. Its officers had reason to know this, since the slightest camp-incidents sometimes came back to them, magnified and distorted, in anxious letters of inquiry from remote parts of the Union. It was no pleasant thing to live in this glare of criticism; but it guarantied the honesty of any success, while fearfully multiplying the penalties, had there been a failure. A single mutiny, a single rout, a stampede of desertions,—and there perhaps might not have been, within this century, another systematic effort to arm the negro.

It is possible, therefore, that some extracts from a diary kept during that period may still have an interest; for there is nothing in human history so momentous as the transit of a race from chattel-slavery to armed freedom; nor can this change be photographed save by the actual contemporaneous words of those who saw it in the process …


November 27, 1862

Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen,—of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers moves forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal …

It needs but a few days to show up the absurdity of distrusting the military availability of these people. They have quite as much average comprehension as whites of the need of the thing, as much courage, (I doubt not,) as much previous knowledge of the gun, and above all, a readiness of ear and of imitation, which, for purposes of drill, counterbalances any defect of mental training …

In noticing the squad-drills, I perceive that the men learn less laboriously than whites that “double, double, toil and trouble,” which is the elementary vexation of the drill-master,—that they more rarely mistake their left for their right,—and are more grave and sedate while under instruction …

december 1, 1862

How absurd is the impression bequeathed by Slavery in regard to these Southern blacks, that they are sluggish and inefficient in labor! Last night, after a hard day’s work, (our guns and the remainder of our tents being just issued,) an order came from Beaufort that we should be ready in the evening to unload a steamboat’s cargo of boards, being some of those captured by them a few weeks since, and now assigned for their use. I wondered if the men would grumble at the night-work; but the steamboat arrived by seven, and it was bright moonlight when they went at it. Never have I beheld such a jolly scene of labor. Tugging these wet and heavy boards over a bridge of boats ashore, then across the slimy beach at low tide, then up a steep bank, and all in one great uproar of merriment for two hours. Running most of the time, chattering all the time, snatching the boards from each other’s backs as if they were some coveted treasure, getting up eager rivalries between different companies, pouring great choruses of ridicule on the heads of all shirkers, they made the whole scene so enlivening that I gladly stayed out in the moonlight for the whole time to watch it. And all this without any urging or any promised reward, but simply as the most natural way of doing the thing. The steamboat-captain declared that they unloaded the ten thousand feet of boards quicker than any white gang could have done it …

december 2, 1862

I believe I have not yet enumerated the probable drawbacks to the success of this regiment, if any …

Our soldiers are constantly twitted by their families and friends with their prospect of risking their lives in the service, and being paid nothing; and it is in vain that we read them the instructions of the Secretary of War to General Saxton, promising them the full pay of soldiers. They only half believe it.

Another drawback is that some of the white soldiers delight in frightening the women on the plantations with doleful tales of plans for putting us in the front rank in all battles, and such silly talk,—the object being, perhaps, to prevent our being employed on active service at all …

december 14

Just now one of the soldiers came to me to say that he was about to be married to a girl in Beaufort, and would I lend him a dollar and seventy-five cents to buy the wedding outfit? It seemed as if matrimony on such moderate terms ought to be encouraged, in these days; and so I responded to the appeal …

january 1, 1863 (evening)

A happy New-Year to civilized people,—mere white folks. Our festival has come and gone, with perfect success …

About ten o’clock [this morning] the people began to collect by land, and also by water,—in steamers sent by General Saxton for the purpose; and from that time all the avenues of approach were thronged. The multitude were chiefly colored women, with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, and a sprinkling of men, with that peculiarly respectable look which these people always have on Sundays and holidays. There were many white visitors also,—ladies on horseback and in carriages, superintendents and teachers, officers and cavalry-men. Our companies were marched to the neighborhood of the platform, and allowed to sit or stand, as at the Sunday services; the platform was occupied by ladies and dignitaries, and by the band of the Eight Maine, which kindly volunteered for the occasion; the colored people filled up all the vacant openings in the beautiful grove around, and there was a cordon of mounted visitors beyond. Above, the great live-oak branches and their trailing moss; beyond the people, a glimpse of the blue river.

The services began at half-past eleven o’clock, with prayer by our chaplain, Mr. Fowler, who is always, on such occasions, simple, reverential, and impressive. Then the President’s Proclamation was read by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, a thing infinitely appropriate, a South-Carolinian addressing South-Carolinians; for he was reared among these very islands, and here long since emancipated his own slaves. Then the colors were presented to us by the Rev. Mr. French, a chaplain who brought them from the donors in New York. All this was according to the programme. Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it on recalling, though it gave the key-note to the whole day. The very moment the speaker had ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice, (but rather cracked and elderly,) into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow,—

“My Country, ’t is of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing!”

People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came this interruption, not set down in the bills. Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. 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.


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