Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review - "An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers" by John Saucer

[An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers by John Saucer (America Through Time, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:268/320. ISBN:978-1-63499-126-1. $22.99]

The brainchild of ardent abolitionist and major general David Hunter, the First South Carolina was initially formed in March 1862, making it the war's first attempt at organizing an all-black regiment. While the unit was not disavowed by the Lincoln administration, official support was withheld as political and popular opposition to using black soldiers in combat roles was widespread at that early date. After Hunter was transferred out, subsequent Department of the South commanders (first Ormsby Mitchel then John Brannan) were far less keen on the project, but military governor Rufus Saxton continued to shepherd the unit along. Lack of recognition from above as well as slow recruitment on the ground eventually led to the regiment's disbandment, though in anticipation of a later rebirth General Saxton kept a single company active to form the nucleus of any new regiment. After the Emancipation Proclamation, proponents of black enlistment were finally given the green light, and the new version of the First South Carolina was officially mustered into service at the end of January 1863, a time that also coincided with Hunter's second and last stint as head of the Department of the South.

The regiment long lacked a modern standalone study, but that dearth of book-length coverage ended with the 2014 publication of John Saucer's An We Ob Jubilee: The First South Carolina Volunteers. Reissued with the same title but through a different publisher, the new 2019 edition also marks the beginning of an even more ambitious project, a planned multi-volume treatment that promises to become the standard history of the regiment for some time to come.

The long period of fits and starts involved in the regiment's 1862-63 organization are detailed at length in the book. The winding story of the formation of the First South Carolina illustrates the critical importance of upper chain of command support in getting any controversial or revolutionary initiative off the ground. Most of the credit goes to generals Hunter and Saxton for their perseverance and ultimate success in the face of cautious political leadership and active opposition within the military.

Who would lead the regiment would be another key decision. As the book demonstrates, Thomas Wentworth Higginson proved to be a judicious choice. Though he was only a captain in the 51st Massachusetts before his promotion to colonel, Higginson's abolitionist credentials were thought to supersede command experience when it came to the fostering trust between white officers and black enlisted men (all of whom were ex-slaves from coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida).

Of equal importance to its reputation within the military was how the home front would perceive the regiment. Though being led by ideological firebrands raised the danger of black units being seen primarily as retributive instruments rather than disciplined units that could effectively serve alongside white regiments, Higginson appears to have run the First in a more restrained manner than that employed by fellow colonel James Montgomery (the Kansas Jayhawker who would lead the Second South Carolina). While the 1st SC did burn the town of St. Marys, Georgia, the author joins fellow unit historian Stephen Ash in attributing the destruction of Jacksonville, Florida to incendiaries from a Maine regiment.

Much of the book addresses in minute detail the military operations that the regiment participated in along the waterways of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. As mentioned before, when the first iteration of the regiment was disbanded, one company (Co. A) was retained. During 1862, the men of Company A gained valuable military experience picketing Union-held sea islands off the South Carolina coast and in repelling the occasional Confederate recon mission.

The study covers the regiment's war service up through April 1863, when it was ordered to evacuate the city of Jacksonville (which was held by a small Union force for three weeks). While the brief Jacksonville occupation has been well documented in recent books from Daniel Schafer and the aforementioned Stephen Ash, the book's coverage of the several riverine raids conducted within the Department of the South over the first months of the unit's existence is unprecedented in depth. Though the First did not participate in any military actions approaching the size of a real battle, they nevertheless became seasoned troops during the skirmishes and raids described in the book.

Also of importance was the valuable experience gained in combined operations with the navy. The soldiers proved to be vital assets. As many of them came from plantations located along raid routes, the enlisted men were able to supply information that greatly contributed to the success of the waterborne operations recounted in the book. While the primary goal of finding recruits proved to be a signal failure, as most of the slave population was already relocated into the interior, war material of much quantity and value (especially lumber and iron) was seized.

Though documenting the service of a regiment of ex-slaves meant that an author did not have access to a ready supply of soldier letters, journals, and diaries, Saucer was nevertheless able to assemble an impressive collection of other source materials. In terms of drawbacks, the book's small collection of old maps is an inadequate accompaniment to the highly-detailed narrative accounts of the unit's operations. Investment in a few original maps would have gone a long way toward enhancing geographical understanding of the routes taken during the many obscure raids recounted in the narrative. As for wishlist items, one hopes that the author plans to include an index and roster at some point. Those criticisms and suggestions aside, Saucer appears to be well on his way to creating a definitive-level treatment of the Civil War history of the First South Carolina.

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