One day in February 2023, Elizabeth Laney stepped out into the National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. The grass was still faded beneath the tombstones, waiting for the sun to bring back warmth and light.
A National Park historian led her to the gravesite of Sergeant William Bronson, who more than 160 years ago raised his hand to join a new regiment – the first Union regiment made up of Black men.
“According to primary sources, Bronson was the first man to volunteer to serve with the 1st South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent when it was unofficially formed by General David Hunter in May 1862,” says Laney, a graduate student in the Department of History.
Troops made up of Black volunteers were not officially sanctioned by the Union at first, but later that year, the volunteers in Port Royal, South Carolina, were officially sworn into military service.
“This began a continuous line of Black service in the U.S. Army that began with Bronson and goes on to this day,” Laney says.
A second-time graduate student, Laney has been studying the history of African American military service for nearly fifteen years, but she learned about Sgt. Bronson from Christopher Allen, an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service.
Along with other veterans and historians, Allen worked to establish an initiative with USC professor Valinda Littlefield to bring greater attention to the story of the 1st SC Volunteers.
“As the first Black regiment and the community that led the way into the Reconstruction era, this truly is national history,” Littlefield says. “And it started here, in Beaufort, South Carolina.”
But despite their groundbreaking contributions, the 1st SC Volunteers are not well-known.
“It’s more than time for the story of this regiment to be told, and I’m excited to be part of the process,” Laney says.
Breathing Democracy in the classroom
Laney has worked as a research assistant for Littlefield since the fall and is part of a special course Littlefield offered at USC this spring. Called “Breathing Democracy into Spaces,” Littlefield’s class gives advanced history students an introduction to the 1st SC Volunteers through student research projects.
Laney is collaborating on a project to compile a “muster roll,” an official list of those in the military unit, which does not exist for the regiment.
“Compiling a muster roll is an important first step for future research,” Laney says. “Once we have the names, their companies and their basic enlistment information, we can then learn about their pasts, their post-war experiences and perhaps locate their final resting places so their memories can be honored.”
Some students are transcribing diaries and papers from people who served with or alongside the regiment, such as women who worked in the hospitals and taught soldiers. Another student is looking at pension documents, searching for clues about what happened to the men who served.
Littlefield says all these efforts combined will give a more complete record of the regiment, and students are making significant progress in expanding the regiment’s history.
“They’ve discovered 300 additional names of 1st SC Volunteers,” Littlefield says. “One undergraduate student came up with those additional names, and the graduate students cross-checked for accuracy.”
Among other projects is a study of medical treatment for these soldiers and the development of new curriculum aligned with the South Carolina Social Studies standards.
“The great thing about our class’s research is that it isn’t limited to the military history,” says Claire Ouzts, a graduate student in USC’s 5-year Master of Education in Teaching program. Ouzts is working on the curriculum project with the goal of teaching about the regiment's history in schools.
“The amount of information we have on this history can be used to teach about everything from the experiences of South Carolinians to Civil War military strategies, to the expansion of natural rights for African Americans – all of which fulfill state standards,” she says.
Chelsea Johnson, an undergraduate student in the class, says she had little to no knowledge of the regiment until she started working as a research assistant for Littlefield.
“If it was taught in my high school history courses, it was something that was covered so briefly that I did not remember it or realize why it was important,” Johnson says.
Personal connections with history
Eboni Belton, a graduate student in the public history program, first learned about the 1st SC Volunteers of African Descent through tours she led for Columbia SC 63: Our Story Matters.
“We always start our tours at the African American Monument on the State House grounds,” Belton says. “One of the panels depicts the 1st SC Volunteers.”
“To help people understand, we often compare the group to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which is more well-known because of the 1989 film Glory,” she says.
Glory tells the story of a Northern regiment who fought bravely in the South. Like the 1st SC Volunteers, many soldiers in the 54th had liberated themselves from slavery and fought to free those who remained enslaved.
Another student in the class, sophomore Benjamin Goff, also cites Glory as informing his prior knowledge of Black Civil War troops. The film depicts the racism these soldiers faced and the danger of fighting against adversaries who viewed them as less than human.
“It was a brave thing they did,” Goff says. “They knew they were not going to be treated as prisoners of war if captured, and that they would likely be sold into slavery or killed.”
For Goff, the history of the 1st SC Volunteers holds special meaning because, as a cadet in USC’s ROTC program, he plans to serve in the military upon graduation.
“It’s important to me to know who came before us and know why they served,” he says.
“When you start researching the people in a regiment, it takes you out of thinking in terms of numbers and dates and battles. Every single casualty was an individual who was fighting for something he believed in.”
Monument to Reconstruction
The class at USC is one part of a multifaceted initiative years in the making. Funded by a McCausland Innovation Fund grant, Littlefield’s work on the regiment’s history involves institutions from local to national, including West Point and the U.S. Army.
Students from USC-Beaufort are tracking down land deeds and other records for those who took part in early Reconstruction and after. Littlefield also instructed two groups of middle- and high school students, who gathered oral histories and created art projects highlighting the regiment and the area's history.
One day this winter, these students met at the Grand Army Hall of the Republic, a historic building that is still a community hub for the regiment’s descendants and veteran groups.
GAR members and Marine veterans presented their stories and an exhibit of Civil War army wares. A drumming group set the scene, demonstrating the beats and cadences which called the soldier to action.
“The GAR members brought out Civil War muskets, pistols, sabers and a saddle,” Littlefield says. “They explained how, as a solider on a horse, you also needed to manage all this stuff.”
Passed down through generations, local historians have carried on the memories of the Civil War soldiers, including returning to honor those who sacrificed their lives.
“They called it Decoration Day,” Littlefield says. “It was their Memorial Day. The parade started at the Grand Army Hall building, and they went to decorate the graves of the soldiers.”
In 2019, the National Park Service established the nation's first and only Reconstruction Era park in Beaufort, and the GAR building is part of its network.
Students from both USC and USC-B have interned with the National Parks Service to help preserve the location's history, a relationship Littlefield hopes to see continue in coming years.
To conclude the semester, the class from USC will travel to Beaufort to tour the park and the GAR building, bringing their knowledge full circle as they see the place where a new chapter in national history began.
For Eboni Belton, studying the 1st SC Volunteers has added to her pride and identity as a Black South Carolinian.
“Although the history of this state can be quite negative, especially in the way African Americans have been treated since enslaved Africans arrived at the ports in Charleston, my people have persevered through it all,” Belton says.
“Those stories deserve to be told.”
Breathing Democracy into Spaces: 1st South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent
On April 8, students involved in this research presented their work at a special symposium held on USC’s Beaufort campus. The event included panel discussions, an exhibit of student work and a documentary film about Littlefield’s ongoing projects.