January 13, 1863 (Tuesday)
In many cases during the war, Southern writers refered to all Unionists and Union officers as “abolitionists.” In most cases, it was either completely untrue or a gross exaggeration. In the case of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, however, it was absolutely accurate. Higginson was the abolitionists’ abolitionist.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a humble family comprised of eleven children – his mother hoped that he would be their last such blessings. He was.
After studying at Harvard, he became an abolitionist, wrote poetry and met Mary Channing, the girl who would soon become he wife. He then moved on to the Harvard School of Divinity where Higginson was called to the pulpit. But he would not follow the same path as his Puritan ancestor who preached to and helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had discovered Transcendentalism, and hung out with Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s brother Samuel.
By 1845, while still in divinity school, Higginson was already an outspoken proponent of not only abolition, but of women’s suffrage, temperance, and labor unions. He began drifting towards the Unitarian Church, which was big on his wife’s side of the family. There, he preached from his heart, but was seen as being too radical and was soon out of a job.
After an unsuccessful bid for the Massachusetts congress (as a member of the Free Soil Party), he was invited to preach at the Free Church, an organization much more suited to his perspective. There, he blossomed into a charismatic speaker and defender of equal rights for all. He attracted such people at P.T. Barnum, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Unbeknown to most, deciding that his words were not enough, he took an avid roll in the Underground Railroad, raising money to help escaped slaves, or finding them a place to hide. In 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed, he went to Kansas with a large party of abolitionists.
At first, he was convinced that slavery could be abolished by peaceful means. After seeing what would be the fate of such peaceful abolitionists, he began running guns, even cannons, into Kansas. After a couple of years, he was quickly coming to the conclusion that disunion was the only way to rid the country of slavery. As he put it, “the disease is too deep for cure without amputation.”
Higginson’s work, in early 1858, attracted the attention of John Brown, a name he was familiar with, but had never the chance to meet. They met in Boston, where Brown described his plan to take fugitive slaves to Canada. Higginson told Brown that he was “always ready to invest money in treason, but at the present have none to invest.”
He, along with five others, began raising money, hoping that Brown could act in a few months. Due to finances, however, the plan had to be postponed. It’s not clear if any of them truly knew what John Brown had planned. Most seemed to think that he would take the money back to Kansas.
Of course, Brown did not. In October of 1859, John Brown failed at Harpers Ferry and was arrested. Most members of the “Secret Six” who had raised money for Brown, fled to Canada or Europe to avoid prosecution. Higginson stood his ground, loudly preaching his support. He even came up with a plan to free Brown, but the prisoner would have nothing of it, understanding that his death would bring martyrdom.
He also devised a plan to kidnap Virginia’s Governor Wise and free two members in John Brown’s party. Both had to be abandoned. For reasons even he could not understand, he was never arrested or brought in to testify.
When the South seceded and war broke out, Higginson did not, at first, enlist. But as the regiments formed near his home, he grew more and more restless. In Autumn of 1861, he began to put together a regiment, but after several companies were raised, the call for enlistments was canceled.
After the cold winter of 1861-62, the call was reopened for nine-month enlistments. He personally raised a company and became their captain. All of August and September (of 1862) were spent drilling his boys. His regiment, the 51st Massachusetts, remained in Worcester through November, waiting to be shuffled into the bureaucracy of Washington.
But it was in November that General Rufus Saxton, who had been sent by Washington to oversee the newly freed slaves in the Department of the South, wrote to him, offering a colonelcy in one of the black regiments. Higginson had known Saxton from the start of the war, and agreed with his anti-slavery politics. But first, he would have to sail down to South Carolina and take a look at this for himself.
The trip was a quick one, and it took him little time to make up his mind. By November 23rd, he had returned from South Carolina, said his good-byes to his company in the 51st and his family, and boarded a steamer to return to the South.
For two chilly months, he and his regiment drilled near Beaufort, South Carolina. He was strict, but fair. None of his officers were allowed to berate the men. The use of the word “nigger” was strictly forbidden, even swearing was outlawed. Simply, he treated the former slaves as men, and in return, they held Higginson in high respect. He was even honored by a visit from Harriet Tubman, who was working as a nurse nearby, and would soon serve as the regimental cook.
It wasn’t until this date, however, January 13, 1863, that it was made official as the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Though the first company had been formed in May of 1862, and his colonelcy dated to November 10, 1862, it was not officially recognized until now.
Another regiment, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, raised by James Lane in Kansas, was also officially mustered into service on this date. Both the 1st SC and the 1st Kansas claimed to be the first, but according to Higginson, his regiment deserves the true first (apart from the Louisiana Home Guards) since the first company was (officially) mustered in May of 1862.
((Sources: Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story of His Life by Mary Potter Thacher Higginson.))