On June 3, 1863, Major-General David Hunter addressed a letter to Governor John A. Andrew, reporting the arrival of a new regiment at Hilton Head:
Governor: I have the honor to announce that the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (colored troops), Colonel Shaw commanding, arrived safely in this harbor this afternoon and have been sent to Port Royal Island. The regiment had an excellent passage, and from the appearance of the men I doubt not that this command will yet win a reputation and place in history deserving the patronage you have given them. Just as they were steaming up the bay I received from Col. James Montgomery, commanding Second South Carolina Regiment, a telegraphic dispatch, of which certified copy is inclosed. Colonel Montgomery’s is but the initial step of a system of operations which will rapidly compel the rebels either to lay down their arms and sue for restoration to the Union or to withdraw their slaves into the interior, thus leaving desolate the most fertile and productive of their counties along the Atlantic sea-board.
The Fifty-fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers shall soon be profitably and honorably employed, and I beg that you will send for service in this department the other colored regiments which Colonel Shaw tells me you are now organizing and have in forward preparation.
Hunter also included a copy of recent correspondence to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Hunter had complained to the rebel leader about the treatment of black troops and laborers captured by Confederates. I’ll save full discussion of that subject for another day.
The arrival of the 54th Massachusetts, just as the 2nd South Carolina returned from the Combahee Ferry Raid, offers up yet another example of the Emancipation Proclamation applied to action. Yet, as we know, there was a contrast between the method by which the two regiments were recruited…or shall we say “gathered.”
At the same time, a message from the Confederates arrived at Hilton Head. Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan expressed his outrage about certain particulars by which flags of truce were exchanged. Just before the Combahee Raid, Brigadier-General W. S. Walker complained about a new Federal practice.
When we wish to communicate we are deprived of the opportunity by the action of the enemy in sending over negroes and their officers to receive us. When they wish to communicate with us they send officers representing white commands in order to secure a hearing. If this is permitted the advantages of such intercourse will be entirely with the Abolition forces and we will be debarred from them.
Indeed, can you imagine the awkward situation where a master might approach, under a white flag, his former chattel asking for a parlay?
In his letter to Hunter on June 3, Jordon echoed Walker’s observations:
The virtual effect of which is apparent to exclude us from all communication by flags of truce, while our enemy retains that privilege by compliance in the composition of the escort of his flag with our regulations. I cannot believe that this is your actual intention, that is, that you have determined by the obnoxious complexion of the detachment sent to receive our flags to reject all flags of truce from our side, while exercising the privilege of the flag of truce to its fullest extent on your own side. Therefore am I induced to present the matter frankly and plainly for your consideration, and to ask to be made acquainted with your future intentions in the premises.
Hunter responded to Jordon a few days later:
That no invidious distinction, as you seem to suppose, was intended to be made between the class of officers instructed to receive flags of truce from you and those sent by me with flags of truce to your lines.
The Government of the United States recognizes no difference between officers mustered into her service and fighting under her flag. All are equally competent to be intrusted with the duties of their respective positions, and all are accorded equal protection and rights.
It is the invariable practice of all armies for the senior officer on outpost duty to receive flags of truce sent to that portion of the lines under his charge, and it happened on the occasion of your sending a flag to which you refer that the regiment on duty was the First South Carolina Regiment of loyal volunteers. No change of the regular practice was thought necessary in the case, nor can any change of the practice, invidious to any portion of the soldiers of the United States, be allowed. The flag of the United States covers all its defenders with equal honor and protection, irrespective of any accidents of color. This is now the avowed and settled policy of my Government and of all other governments under whose flags colored soldiers, whether African or East Indian, have been or are employed. No principle of international military usage is better settled or more universally recognized amongst civilized nations. The flag of truce sent to you by my order was, as is also usual, intrusted to a staff officer of the post through which it was sent, and in so sending it no regard was had to the fact whether he was or was not commissioned to serve with colored troops.
Yes, if now the two South Carolina regiments, comprised of former slaves, was assigned garrison duty to relieve the white regiments for field campaigns… well who do you think will be accepting those truce requests?
But I don’t think Hunter was completely honest here. Without doubt the arrangements were made to press a delicate point. Perhaps something akin to refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the midst of war?
As the number of blacks in arms or otherwise employed by the Federals increased, such as here with the 54th Massachusetts, the Confederates faced an ever more complex situation. Escaped slaves were easily translated to spades worth of sand not excavated, cotton not harvested, or other labor not completed. And with the arming of those former slaves, the Confederates were forced into awkward, to say the least, situations.
Debate the causes all you want. Cite speeches and letters of firebrands, please. But at the front lines of the Civil War, slavery was at center stage.
(Hunter’s letter to Governor Andrew is from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 462-3. Walker’s letter to Jordon is in the same serial, page 962. Jordon’s letter to Hunter on page 464. And Hunter’s response on pages 465-66.)