160 years ago, the first Black Union regiment found glory on Jekyll


For many it was a return, a bittersweet homecoming that celebrated a battle for independence in the truest sense of the term. In January 1863, the First South Carolina Volunteers—the first Black Union Army regiment—arrived at Jekyll Island and laid waste to the Confederate battery.

“Their story is moving,” said Andrea Marroquin, curator of Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum. “This is a triumphant example of formerly enslaved people who freed themselves and others.”

The First South Carolina Volunteers were residents of the Sea Islands who fled slavery in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina to join the Union Army. The First South Carolina Volunteers set out in early 1863, following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, to bring the news to formerly enslaved residents in the Southeast.

When they reached Jekyll, they labored to remove and salvage iron from the abandoned Confederate battery. Some of the troops had, in enslavement, worked for the Confederates to create the battery there.

“The men have been repeatedly under fire . . . and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph,” wrote their commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. 

The First South Carolina Volunteers, later known as the 33rd Regiment in the U.S. Colored Infantry, were the longest-serving Black unit in the Union army. As the group moved through the South spreading news of the Emancipation Proclamation, it followed the motto, “the year of Jubilee has come.”

The story of the regiment is being incorporated into exhibitions at Mosaic, part of ongoing efforts to showcase the island’s African American history in programs and exhibits at the museum. “We want to make history relatable to more people, and tell a more complete history,” Marroquin said.

This article first appeared in Volume 6 Number 1 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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