Like much of the history of South Carolina’s black community, stories of the 1st S.C. Volunteers — the first official black regiment of the Union Army — have been largely by word of mouth.
“Sometimes, you sit down and talk about things that have occurred here, and when you bring in people who are visiting or have moved into the area, they are truly amazed at what occurred,” said Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen, whose great-great-grandfather was a soldier in the regiment. “It’s one of those things I’m proud that at least my ancestors passed on to me.”
Part of that history will take more concrete form Thursday when the Beaufort History Museum unveils its “1st S.C. Volunteers: From Slaves to Soldiers to Citizens” exhibit.
“Beaufort is a very small place to have such big stories, and this is definitely one of those big stories,” said museum board president Katherine Lang.
Also known as the 1st S.C. Colored Troops, the soldiers officially received their national and regimental colors and were accepted into the army on the same day the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Beaufort, on Jan. 1, 1863. Many were escaped slaves, and they had been considered “contraband” during the Civil War, Lang said.
The exhibit will run through December and include posters, photos, documents, weapon paraphernalia, a steamship model, replica uniform and other objects related to the troops, such as watch pieces that are believed to have been used by soldiers timing their weapons, Lang said. Beaufort Middle School students are creating an artistic Emancipation Oak for the exhibit, and children will be invited to write what the Emancipation Proclamation means to them on a paper-covered wall.
Artifacts came from, among other places, the museum’s collection, the S.C. Carolina Historical Society and the Baptist Church of Beaufort, Lang said.
Still others came from land that was once the J.J. Smith Plantation, where Mossy Oaks is now and the 1st S.C. Volunteers once camped. Andy Holloway, 22, of Lady’s Island used to live there. Fascinated with history and archaeology since middle school, he was captivated by the troops and their story.
A recent graduate of the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in archaeology, Holloway has spent hundreds of hours researching the 1st S.C. Volunteers for school and curiosity.
His research sparked the idea for the exhibit.
“It started as two panels,” said Holloway. “Before I knew it, it grew into this major exhibit.”
Holloway has been working on the exhibit with museum officials — his mother, Libby, is the museum board’s secretary — and has included some of the vast research and stories he has gathered through interviews with people like the Allen family.
Sipping an iced coffee Friday afternoon, he enthusiastically shared story after story about soldiers like Sgt. Prince Rivers, who was born a slave in Beaufort. One of two flag bearers for the troop, Rivers was educated because of his position as a “privileged” slave, Holloway said. He enlisted after escaping, and among his duties was speaking with reporters and giving recruiting speeches.
Allen said he appreciates the enthusiasm and attention Holloway brings to this chapter of history.
“There’s so much that went on here in Beaufort County that has been untold,” Allen said. “... Little or no recognition was given to the black troops, to the colored troops’ involvement in fighting for their freedom. History as it is written does not reflect what they did.”
In addition to the grand opening Thursday, supporting events are planned by the museum and Beaufort organizations. Those include:
Tuesday — Civil War picture display opens at Heritage Library, 852 William Hilton Parkway, Suite 2A, Hilton Head Island.
Friday through Sunday — Natalie Daise presents “Becoming Harriet Tubman” at ARTworks in Beaufort Town Center. Information: beaufortcountyarts.com/theater.htm or 843-379-2787.
Sept. 9 — “Civil War 150: Exploring the War and its Meanings Through the Words of Those Who Lived It,” a national traveling exhibit, begins. An opening reception is planned for 2 p.m. Sept. 12 in the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort Library, 311 Scott St.
Sept. 13 — Tim Johnston of Short Story America will read “The Interruption of Thomas Darrow” about a Union soldier who is on duty for the execution of the co-conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln. The event will be at 7 p.m. at the Beaufort History Museum.
Sept. 20 — Joseph McGill, historian and 54th Massachusetts re-enactor, will present the movie “Glory” at 7 p.m. at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts.
Sept. 21: Reenactment of the encampment of 1st S.C. Volunteers, led by Joseph McGill at 10 a.m. at Naval Heritage Park in Port Royal.
If you go:
The opening of “The 1st S.C. Volunteers: From Slaves to Soldiers to Citizens” exhibit at the Beaufort History Museum will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the museum in Beaufort City Hall, 1911 Boundary St. Tickets are $25 for museum members and $35 for nonmembers and can be purchased at the door. Food, drink and entertainment by the Junior Symphony Orchestra, Ami Rabinowitz and David Laughlin will be provided.