Elements of what became the First South Carolina Infantry Regiment (later designated the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops) were organized in 1862, giving it the distinction of being the first African American United States Army unit in the Civil War.
The driving force behind the establishment of the regiment was Major General David Hunter. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, he was a career officer in the U.S. Army and was also an abolitionist and friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Promoted to major general early in the war, Hunter commanded the Department of the South in May 1862 and issued an order that declared all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida free. Soon afterward he began recruiting a military unit composed of black men who lived in the United States–occupied area around Port Royal or who had escaped to Union lines from Confederate-controlled areas of South Carolina and Georgia. After few responded, Hunter ordered that all the able-bodied “negroes” between eighteen and forty-five years of age “capable of bearing arms” be sent to his headquarters. Soon there were enough present to organize a five-hundred-man unit commanded by white officers.
In Washington, President Lincoln was not ready for emancipation or the enlistment of black men into the U.S. Army and required Hunter to rescind the proclamation. However, Lincoln did not directly order that the regiment be disbanded. Hunter hoped that the regiment would eventually be accepted and continued to drill and train the men, who were uniformed in red pants, blue coats, and broad-brimmed hats. But Hunter received no support from the government and in August 1862 disbanded all but one company. Finally the U.S. War Department permitted the organization of black units, and in October the company became Company A, First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Other companies were soon organized, and on January 31, 1863, the First South Carolina was officially mustered into United States service.
The regiment spent most of the war participating in various expeditions, skirmishing, or serving on garrison duty along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In February 1864 the unit’s designation was changed to the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops. In the summer and fall of 1864 the regiment participated in the operations against Charleston, serving on James, Folly, and Morris Islands and other locations along the South Carolina coast.
With the fall of Charleston in February 1865, the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops served as part of the city’s Union garrison. This was followed by service in the District of Savannah, Georgia; at Augusta, Georgia; and then at other locations in the Department of the South until the regiment was mustered out of service in January 1866.
Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. 3 vols. 1908. Reprint, New York: Yoseloff, 1959.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. 1870. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1984.
Miller, Edward A., Jr. Lincoln’s Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Taylor, Susie King. A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs: Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops. 1902. Reprint, New York: M. Wiener, 1988.