Display Case: African Americans in the Civil War

The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History selects the theme for Black History Month. This year, the theme is "African Americans in the Civil War." Correspondingly, the BDC Research Room display case during the month of February highlights some of our holdings illuminating the history of African-Americans during the period 1861 - 1865.

Our display emphasis is on the United States Colored Troops (USCT), free black, runaway slaves, and contrabands who joined the Union Army. Approximately 180,000 African Americans joined 163 units in the Union Army during the Civil War. African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864-1865 except Sherman's invasion of Georgia.

Perhaps the most well known of the USCT were the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. We are particularly proud to have a limited edition print by Don Trioani on display of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, with their distinctive red trousers and blue coats uniform. I'll be posting a selective guide to resources on the USCT later this month into the "Local History Treasures Brought to You by the Beaufort District Collection" section on the Library's "Recommended Reading" web page.

In Beaufort, one should never forget the Navy! Approximately 20,000 African Americans served in the Union Navy. In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, the US Navy has posted an online brochure "Blacks in Blue Jackets: African Americans in the Civil War."

While not technically in the US Navy, Robert Smalls is best remembered for his military services as a pilot transporting Union troops and supporting raids in the lowcountry's waters. We've included some reproductions of images about Robert Smalls, the Planter, and the Combahee Raid from our holdings of the Harper's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper.

On the bottom shelf are some copies of two Civil War era photographs from our collection. Well meaning missionary teachers, white and black, male and female, journeyed to Port Royal (what the Union called all the area surrounding Port Royal Sound) to help the newly freed slaves learn to read and write. One image shows a white female teacher with her black students posing on the steps leading into their school. The other image shows a plantation row of slave quarters with a group of women and children gathered in the street. I'll post a pathfinder to the role of the teachers before the end of February, too.

While few in number, and not always as a result of their free will, some African Americans were attached to the Confederate Army, usually as servants to their white masters. We include the book South Carolina's African American Confederate Pensioners, 1923 - 1925 by Alexia Jones Helsley to whet a viewer's interest to learn more about this little known fact of South Carolina's history. There will be another Connections blog post later this month on precisely this topic!

Please keeping reading Connections, a service of the "Virtual" Beaufort District Collection, Beaufort County Library.

About the Author

Grace Cordial has been responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library since 1999.  The Beaufort District Collection exists to acquire, preserve, maintain and make accessible a research collection of permanent value which records the history, culture, and environment of our part of the South Carolina lowcountry.  Besides the research room, Cordial manages the “Virtual BDC:” the BDC web pages, the Online Obituary Index, two digital collections, a new BDC.BCL Facebook page, and the Connections blog.  
 
Among her duties is to coordinate or present programs about local history, Gullah culture, and our coastal environment, including occasional instructional sessions about how to perform historical and/or genealogical research.