Immigrant Reporter Henry Villard Visits an Experiment in Black Freedom in 1863

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The men of the First South Carolina were former slaves who fought to defend free black communities in coastal Carolina and Georgia.

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The German immigrant Henry Villard had been the first reporter to bring the unwelcome news of the Union disaster at Fredericksburg to the Northern reading public in December, 1862. The bludering Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, made plans for new operations in Virginia, but Villard felt he would be wasting his time staying with the bogged down Army of the Potomac while it made its fruitless “mud marches” in the cold and wet territory of Northern Virginia.1

Charles Halpine used the character of Miles O’Reilly to provide a humorous representation of Irish Civil War soldiers.

Villard suggested to his editors at the New York Tribune that he be allowed instead to go to Coastal South Carolina where a combined Army and Navy operation was planned against Charleston. He set sail from Washington the first week of January 1863 on the steamer Argo heading for Port Royal. On the ship were Major General David B. Hunter, and his assistant Major Charles Halpine. Hunter was in his sixties, but Villard says he tried to give a youthful appearance by wearing a black wig and dyeing his beard. The German immigrant Villard found the Irish immigrant Halpine to be a more interesting and engaging character. “I knew Major Halpine as an Irish poet and wit, under the sobriquet of “Miles O Reilly,” and a writer for the New York Times before the war, and found him again a very entertaining and amusing companion,” he wrote later. “Miles O’Reilly” was a satirical character created by Halpine to represent the Irish immigrants in the Union army. Halpine’s wit and humor made him an officer that even Lincoln sought out.2

On the voyage, Villard learned that the struggle against the Confederacy was not only being carried on by armed men. Among the passengers were women from Pennsylvania “who, like so many other patriotic and self-sacrificing Northern women, had volunteered for educational work among the negroes of the Sea Islands.” The women would work with Hunter, Halpine, male missionaries, Union soldiers, and newly freed African Americans to create one of the first experimental free black communities in the South.3

Slaves escaped from coastal plantations to the islands off the Carolina Coast held by the Union Army and Navy.

Villard soon found out that the military was as bogged down in South Carolina as it had been in Virginia. Rather than wasting time waiting for the generals and admirals to decide what to do, Villard set out to visit the growing black refugee communities forming on the islands off the Carolina Coast. Villard travelled by boat to the town of Beaufort on St. Helena, now the heart of the new Reconstruction National Monument created by President Obama. “Our boat was the small side-wheeler Planter, that had been run out of Charleston harbor with a load of heavy siege-guns and delivered to the blockading fleet by her colored pilot, Robert Smalls, who had been its captain since,” wrote Villard. Robert Smalls was an enslaved man who had served as a ship’s pilot. He and seven other enslaved crewmen had stolen the Confederate armed transport C.S.S. Planter on May 13, 1862 under the guns of Confederate batteries. Smalls and his men had delivered not just the ship to the surprised Union commanders, but also a load of Confederate artillery. Villard found Robert Smalls “good-looking, intelligent, and well-informed.” Smalls was Villard’s introduction to the blacks of South Carolina who were leaving the Confederacy and slavery by the thousands and joining the Union forces fighting to destroy it.4

Susie King Taylor was a 14 year old slave when she escaped from slavery to the Union Army off the coast of Georgia. She set up a school to teach other escaped African Americans how to read. She later served as a nurse to the men of the 1st South Carolina (Union) regiment.

When Villard set foot in Beaufort, the unofficial capital of the free black communities, he saw the work of the Federal government, Northern missionary societies and the emerging communities of freedpeople.  Buildings that had once served as vacation resorts for wealthy slaveowners were now repurposed. “Some served as boarding- and lodging-houses for the volunteer teachers of the freedmen from the North, and some for the schools in which colored adults and children received free instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as in sewing, cutting, cooking, and other domestic arts,” he wrote.5

Villard travelled to South Carolina in time to see the organization of one of the first regiments of black soldiers in the United States Army. On January 22, 1863, he sent a dispatch to the New York Tribune in which he answered the question many whites in the North had; Did  African Americans have the will and courage to fight for their freedom? Villard saw the military exercises of the 1st South Carolina Regiment, made up mostly of former slaves. He wrote for the Tribune that “I was glad of the early opportunity to see what appeared to me the most interesting feature of South Carolina, and satisfy myself, by personal observation, as to the relative success of the experiment of transforming the black freedmen into Union soldiers.” Many whites believed that Blacks could never be soldiers. Villard informed them that “no honest-minded, unprejudiced observer could come to any other conclusion than that the regiment had attained a remarkable relative proficiency. I have no hesitation, with my extensive observations of the capacities and acquirements of white volunteers in both the Western and Eastern armies, to say that no body of men in the service has done better in seven weeks, the period during which the dark-skinned South Carolinians have served upon the drilling-ground.”6

A company of the 1st South Carolina near Beaufort, South Carolina.

Villard pointed out to his white readers that every one of the more than 800 black soldiers he saw was a volunteer. The men were all well-aware that they were fighting for the freedom of their families. He saw in these soldiers “unmistakable intelligence, true warmth of emotion and firmness of resolution.” Villard wrote that “the wildest shouts of joy broke out when General Saxton announced, after General Hunter had concluded, that fifty thousand muskets were arriving from the North to arm the freedmen of South Carolina. Cheers for liberty and the Union were never given more heartily by white volunteers…” Villard believed that the men understood that the struggle for emancipation was finally the cause of the United States.7

On January 1, 1863 the 1st South Carolina, Union officers, missionaries from the North, and teachers at the Freedmen’s schools held a celebration on the day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry was commanded by abolitionist and Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He led his men on an expedition to coastal villages where slaveowners had abandoned their lands when the Union forces moved through them. Villard said that Higginson “intended to produce a moral effect on the slave population by the sight of the colored troops, who were to circulate the President’s Emancipation Proclamation…Colonel Higginson was overflowing with praise of the gallant conduct of his command, which had inspired him with the conviction, loudly proclaimed, that nothing would end the war quicker than the employment of negro troops on the largest possible scale.”8

First Person Witness:

Susie King Taylor, a former slave who escaped to Union lines as a teenager, attended the January 1, 1863 celebration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation at Camp Saxton at Port Royal, South Carolina. Here is her account of that day:

ON the first of January, 1863, we held services for the purpose of listening to the reading of President Lincoln’s proclamation by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, and the presentation of two beautiful stands of colors, one from a lady in Connecticut, and the other from Rev. Mr. Cheever. The presentation speech was made by Chaplain French. It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion we had a grand barbecue. A number of oxen were roasted whole, and we had a fine feast. Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish. The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted “Hurrah!” all through the camp, and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of this memorable day.

Resource: 

In 2016 President Obama created Reconstruction National Monument centered in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Sources:

  1. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) pp. 3-4.

2. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 4.

3. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 4.

4. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 14-15.

5. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 13-15.

6. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 14-16.

7. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) pp. 16-17.

8. Memoirs of Henry Villard by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904) p. 19.

 

 


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