War-Time Letters From Seth Rogers, M.D. Surgeon of the First South Carolina Afterwards the Thirty-third U.S.C.T. 1862-1863.
Dr. Seth Rogers, surgeon,
First South Carolina Volunteers. Rogers, proprietor of the Worcester Hydropathic Institution, a water cure facility in Worcester, Massachusetts,
was a life-long abolitionist
and friend of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. USMHI.
In November 1862, Dr. Seth Rogers, a medical doctor practicing at Worcester, Massachusetts, volunteered to serve in the United States Army as a surgeon for the black soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Rogers, the proprietor and resident doctor of the Worcester Hydropathic Institution, joined the newly-formed regiment at the invitation of its commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a well-known abolitionist and Unitarian minister. The two men had been close friends for years and shared a deep commitment to bringing an end to slavery in the United States. Rogers, the son of a Quaker farmer from Vermont, had been an abolitionist since childhood.
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, abolitionist, Unitarian minister, author, and commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers. USMHI.
The regiment that Rogers joined had its roots in a May 1862 order issued by Major General David Hunter, then in command of the Department of the South, to organize a regiment of soldiers from among the formerly enslaved African Americans congregating at refugee camps on the Union-occupied Sea Islands off the Carolina coast. Faced with Congressional opposition, and with President Abraham Lincoln refusal to sanction the admission of black men into the army, Hunter disbanded the regiment on August 10, 1862. However, the first one-hundred men enrolled were permitted to remain in Union service to provide military protection for the freed men and women (called “contrabands of war” at the time) in the burgeoning refugee camps. Two weeks later Lincoln changed his mind and authorized General Rufus Saxton, military governor of the Department of the South, to begin recruiting and training a regiment of African American soldiers. The one hundred men held over from Hunter’s regiment were incorporated into the newly organized regiment as Company A, First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, and continued under command of their original officer, Charles T. Trowbridge. In 1864 the regiment was renamed the 33rd United States Colored Infantry and Trowbridge was promoted to Lt. Colonel and given command. He continued in command until the regiment disbanded January 31st, 1866. Company A earned the honor of being the longest-serving African American military unit during the Civil War.
General Rufus Saxton,
Military Governor of the Department of the South. Saxton consistently advocated for expanding the role of black troops in the Union war effort and for equal pay and fair treatment. LC.
Charles T. Trowbridge, Captain of Co. A, 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Trowbridge was promoted to Lt. Colonel in command of the 33rd United States Colored Infantry. He served with the black soldiers of his regiment until January 1866. USMHI.
The men and women shown above as they prepared cotton for ginning were considered to be “contrabands of war” by the Federal forces occupying Port Royal Island in 1862. The term signified that they had either escaped from bondage or had been liberated by Union soldiers. The photograph was taken in 1862 by Timothy O’Sullivan at the former J. J. Smith Plantation at Beaufort, South Carolina. LC.
Dr. Rogers arrived at Camp Saxton, at Beaufort, South Carolina, in December 1862. He was thirty-nine years old at the time. Seven hundred African Americans from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, were in training under Colonel Higginson when Dr. Rogers moved into his tent at the encampment of the 1st SC Volunteers on the grounds of what had been before the war the J. J. Smith Plantation. Dr. Rogers served with the regiments until December 1863 when health problems forced his resignation and return to Massachusetts.
The letters that follow were written between December 27, 1862 and December 2, 1863. It has been suggested that they were written to Dr. Rogers’ daughter, Isabel, who was only eight years old at the time. In context, however, it appears that they were written to an adult, probably his wife, Hannah Mitchell Rogers.
Dr. Rogers accompanied the black soldiers on their military engagements and treated their wounds and illnesses for nearly one year. He resigned his commission as surgeon exactly one year from the day that he accepted it. During the year he served with the regiment he committed his observations to paper in the form of letters, thereby recording for posterity the early military activities of men who had only weeks before been slaves. Once liberated and trained, and with a rifle in their hands, they were suddenly fighting to free their own families and to liberate all persons of African descent in the United States. The letters describe in fascinating detail the events of two historic Florida expeditions by the men of the 1st South Carolina: the January 1863 foray up the St. Marys River, and the March 1863 occupation of Jacksonville. The historian Stephen V. Ash believes that the Jacksonville campaign convinced President Lincoln to issue the order “that committed the U.S. Army to the massive enlistment of black troops.” For Higginson, that decision was of great importance for the successful prosecution of the war and for the fate of African Americans after the war ended. In his classic memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Higginson wrote: “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guarantee of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”
The letters used here are courtesy of The United States Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. See also Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Volume 43, 1910, pages 337-398). The images designated LC are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Photographs and Prints Division, Washington, DC. Images marked USMHI are courtesy of the United States Army Military History Institute, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Ash, Stephen V. Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War. W.W. Norton, 2008.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Field, Osgood & Co., 1870. See also the Collier Books edition, 1962, or the W.W. Norton & Co. edition, 1984.
Looby, Christopher. The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Schafer, Daniel L. Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida. University Press of Florida, 2010.