This month marks the 147th anniversary of one of Michigan's greatest moments in the history of individual liberty. When the 1st Regiment Michigan Volunteer Infantry was recruited on Aug. 12, 1863, in light of the Emancipation Proclamation, giving blacks a chance to fight for liberty was a novelty. By the time the 1st Regiment returned in October 1865, however, the war was over, slavery had been abolished, and these brave black soldiers had proved their worth as free individuals.
The United States government reflected proof of some preliminary hesitation to recruiting black soldiers in the organization of the Regiment itself. Unfortunately, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton gave the order that only whites could serve as officers. Although this order was a direct assault on the individual liberty of blacks, the dedication of Michigan's black residents to the cause of freedom shown through these conventions, and 1,446 blacks enlisted as privates.
Leaving Detroit on March 28, 1864, Col. Bennett led the Regiment to Annapolis, Md., then on to Hilton Head, S.C., where he employed them on picket duty at Saint Helena, Jenkins Island, Sea Wall and Spanish Wells. They also constructed fortifications at Port Royal. Clearly, the Regiment was not intended to fight like other white Northern regiments, but that was about to change.
A Confederate cavalry division stormed the Regiment with a sudden and vicious attack while the soldiers were demolishing tracks at the railroad junction of Baldwin, Fla., on June 11, 1863. As if to strike a blow at the U.S. government's false stereotype of them, the Regiment easily repulsed the Confederate cavalry, after which their officers admitted they were both reliable and valiant. The victory at Baldwin not only repelled the Confederate enemy, but also foiled the government's racist restrictions.
Marching almost 100 miles in only five days through eastern Florida, the Regiment built fortifications at Magnolia, and then moved back to Beaufort at Port Royal. Having been sent near the front, they harassed the Confederates on the islands of Coosa, Lady and Port Royal. On one dark October night, the Confederates launched another attack at Lady's Island. The Regiment again forced the Confederates off the island. The battlefield demonstrated there was no difference between black and white. Both were just as human, courageous and free.
Joining Gen. John G. Foster (of Fort Sumter fame), 300 privates along with 12 officers from the Regiment formed a detachment and moored themselves at Boyd's Landing. Along with Foster, they faced vastly greater Confederate numbers at the battles of Honey Hill, Tillifinny and Devaux Neck in South Carolina. Remarkably, only 65 of them were killed in these three battles combined, even with the odds were stacked against them. What's more noteworthy is that the Regiment was assimilated into the fighting with Gen. Forster's white column.
Already distinguished in destroying railroads, fortification construction and full-fledged battle, the Regiment would next try its hand at reconnaissance. After several companies returned on Jan. 19, 1865, from outpost duties to Beaufort, the Regiment departed for Pocotalligo on the 28th. They crossed the Salkehatchie River in early February, penetrated Charleston, and set up a watch around Cuckwold Creek. Confederate skirmishers swarmed the Regiment, but were repeatedly driven out. Steamers transported them to Savanna, Ga., where they struck the Confederate works at Nelson's Ferry.
The Regiment's final campaign was a universal victory. On March 18, 1865, the Regiment joined the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Manchester. Here, these two daring black regiments flanked the Confederates, and kept pushing them towards Statesburg. Suddenly, the Confederate army loomed ahead of the 1st Michigan and 54th Massachusetts volunteer armies, carrying not arms but a flag of truce. Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had honorably surrendered.
The Regiment returned to Detroit in October 1865 to a whole new world. Regardless of how the U.S. government had felt about allowing blacks to fight, the principles of individual liberty in the Emancipation Proclamation were lived out on the battlefield during the last years of the Civil War. Black regiments across the country proved their human liberties with their blood. These regiments, including the 1st Regiment Michigan Volunteer Infantry, were to the Emancipation Proclamation as the patriots were to the Declaration of Independence.
Wesley Reynolds is an operations intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the Center and the author are properly cited.