West Point cadets visit Beaufort to learn about 1st South Volunteers, Civil War history | Military Digest

BEAUFORT — Upon the group’s arrival at the Baptist Church — once the site of Hospital No. 14, one of the “colored hospitals” during the Civil War — Army Lt. Col. Rory McGovern addressed the 11 West Point cadets.

The young cadets, all freshmen on a “staff ride” to Beaufort during spring break, already had learned about Harriet Tubman and Robert Smalls. They had heard about the courageous Black men who, upon their liberation in 1862, joined the 1st South Volunteer Regiment. They understood the purpose of the Port Royal Experiment and how it was implemented.

Now, McGovern wanted to drive home a point.

“What’s the unifying theme here?” he said to the group. “Agency. Agency and initiative.”

Smalls and Tubman, along with other key figures of the period, were “leaders of character,” regardless of station, McGovern said. They set an example the cadets would be wise to follow.

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West Point cadet Ian Kelley stands outside the Tabernacle Baptist Church during a tour of historic Beaufort with fellow cadets on March 7, 2023. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

This was the second day of the West Point group’s interrogation of the Deep South and its history. These cadets might have traveled to Normandy, France, or to Great Britain, to learn about World War II, but they preferred this option: the Carolina Lowcountry, where the secessionist cause got its start, soon achieved its aim, then ended in defeat — though, as the cadets learned from their guides, that defeat soon was transformed into the mythology of the Lost Cause and a reassertion of white supremacy.

On March 6, they were in Charleston visiting Fort Sumter, the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Robert Smalls historical marker on East Battery. They learned about Denmark Vesey’s failed quest for freedom. They observed the harbor’s old fortifications and imagined the barrage that began the Civil War.

It was, as McGovern put it, a stage-setter for what they would encounter in the Beaufort area.

The experience will inform student research projects and conversations in his history class, McGovern said. Already he has been referring to the heroism of the 1st South and the wartime deeds of Tubman and Smalls.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which produces Army officers, is making an effort to better acknowledge the contributions of African Americans, McGovern said.

In Army History class, he asks cadets repeatedly, “Who serves and why?” The stories of the 1st South and other Black freedom fighters provide bold answers to that question.

Then McGovern asks, “What conditions frame their service, and how do they shape those conditions?”

And here the discussion turns to agency, determination, courage and hope.

Consider Tubman’s role leading three steamers that collected Black people from the banks of the Combahee River at the beginning of June 1963.

Consider the audacity of Smalls who in May 1962 commandeered the CSS Planter and delivered it to the Union side, liberating its passengers.

It all boils down to a simple appeal.

“Be like him,” McGovern, referring to Smalls, will tell his cadets. “The Army will be better.”

Navy renames warship honoring Confederate victory for Black Civil War hero Robert Smalls

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Chris Allen, West Point graduate and National Park Service volunteer, holds up a photo of a Black soldier of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment during a tour of Beaufort with West Point cadets on March 7, 2023. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Learning history

The tour, led by West Point alumnus Chris Allen, a retired Special Forces officer now volunteering as a National Park Service ranger, began with a description of the Lowcountry terrain and the introduction of a few of the 19th century’s main characters in the Port Royal area.

Tagging along was Valinda Littlefield, history professor at the University of South Carolina and now based in Beaufort, and other academics, park rangers and retired military men. Littlefield said she welcomed the collaboration, which started when West Point’s superintendent, at the prompting of Allen and his fellow alumnus Ben Hodges, contacted the USC’s Department of History looking for help.

The cadets were a diverse group that included women and African Americans, all attentive and engaged and clearly affected by what they were learning. The morning was devoted to a walk through downtown Beaufort; the afternoon would take them to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, “the epicenter of Gullah-Geechee culture.”

At the arsenal, they met Victoria Smalls, director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and they heard from Allen about the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, a White militia that enforced the Slave Codes of the time and protected plantation owners from the threat of insurrections.

They also learned of the Union takeover of Port Royal Sound in November 1861, how invading forces pummeled Confederate forts with guns so loud the shots could be heard miles away, terrifying the White planters, who quickly understood their reign was ending. The planters fled with their families, leaving behind 10,000 enslaved people who suddenly questioned their status. Were they free? If so, what next? Where might they go? How can they survive?

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They survived thanks in part to what’s known as the Port Royal Experiment, an effort led by the U.S. Treasury Department to incentivize local labor, provide schooling for adults and children, transfer property to freed African Americans, and bolster the ranks of the Union Army by recruiting Black soldiers.

It was the men of the 1st South who, on Jan. 1, 1863, first heard Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, recited by William Henry Brisbane, a Baptist minister and white supremacist turned abolitionist.

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The cadets eagerly absorbed the information. They visited the future site of the Harriet Tubman monument and learned of this remarkable woman’s many accomplishments, not least her role in the Combahee River Raid, which liberated 756 enslaved people. They visited the grave of Robert Smalls, whose enterprise, creativity and courage made him a war hero and then a statesman who, among other things, helped draft South Carolina’s new constitution in 1868. The document established counties, empowered women, abolished debtors’ prison and the Black Codes, eliminated segregation, and provided for free public education for all.

Eight years later, Redeemers began to infiltrate state government and undermine the new constitution, which was replaced by a white supremacist version in 1895.

They learned of the 1863 tax sale in Beaufort, which gave Black people about a third of the land in the area, enabling them to farm and generate income, and to procure some of the city homes that once belonged to the White elite.

And they learned of the segregated hospital system set up by the Department of the South, and church policies that kept the population divided by race, despite the changes resulting from Union control of the city and its environs.

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West Point cadets Elizabeth Wu (left) and Jacob Crossman look at a copy of a document with Robert Smalls’ name on it during a tour in Beaufort on March 7, 2023. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In the churchyard of the Parish Church of St. Helena, an Anglican congregation, the cadets saw a mix of Confederate and American flags, a list of the Confederate dead engraved in marble and a historic marker erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor Stephen Elliott Jr., a fierce company commander, wounded several times, who rose to the rank of brigadier general of the Confederate States Army. One prominent plot was occupied by the McKee family, which owned Robert Smalls and his mother Lydia Polite.

The morning tour ended at the “Secession House,” once owned by Edmund Rhett, whose brother, Robert Barnwell Rhett, strongly defended the institution of slavery and advocated for secession in the pages of the Charleston Mercury.

“This is where the virus was incubated,” Allen told the group, pointing out that Edmund was a West Point graduate, like a few other Confederate leaders.

In a twist, the Treasury Department’s tax agents were based in the house, organizing the tax sale and helping administer wartime and post-war projects undertaken by the Department of the South, Allen said.

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Then, standing across the street from the property, The West Point officers and alumni considered their institution’s complicity in upholding racist principles and policies. The academy admitted its first Black cadet, James Webster Smith, in 1877 by making an exception to the segregation rule. Ten years later, another Black man was admitted, and a third two years after that. Then Jim Crow took hold. The fourth African American cadet at West Point walked onto the New York campus in 1936.

And for many years after that, the Army’s officer corps remained predominantly White.


Elijah Gates, a 22-year-old Black cadet, said his visit to South Carolina “puts reality to all we read in the textbooks.” And learning about the 1st South Volunteers, in particular, left him feeling profoundly grateful for their service, and for leading the way, he said.

Angelina Pfister, a 19-year-old Black cadet, said her visit put her in the same terrain once trod by Black soldiers determined to help save the Union and, consequently, gain permanent freedom. Getting a feel for the geography of Port Royal helped her imagine the battles and what they wrought.

She said she remembered how, in middle school, she once was asked to name the causes of the Civil War other than slavery. The Lost Cause narrative, which transforms defenders of slavery into heroic figures fighting northern interference and aggression, continues to influence the teaching of American history, Pfister noted.

Will Plank, a 19-year-old White cadet, said the trip helped him better understand this revisionist history.

“Education is the best way to combat that,” he said. Besides, the Army is struggling to find recruits, Plank added. Highlighting military contributions of African Americans could help convince more people of color to sign up and could ensure that Army leaders generally become better advocates of a diverse armed forces.

Hodges said West Point’s interest in the story of the 1st South, which he and Allen have been promoting, and in Civil War history in South Carolina in general, has been gratifying. The two alumni have wanted their alma mater to bring this history to the fore. Two staff rides to Beaufort later, it’s evident that that’s exactly what the academy is doing, Hodges said.

“It’s a seal of approval,” he said.

Allen said the stories here are so compelling that any serious military person, whether plebe or high-ranking officer at the end of a career, can’t help but be impressed.

Some freshmen are on leave during spring break, visiting family; others — the athletes — are on campus training; others still are occupied with projects of their own, McGovern said. More than 30 are traveling to learn about history, and a third of those opted to come to South Carolina. This gives McGovern and his colleagues a chance to combine teaching with mentorship, and to cite examples of high character they want students to model.

Such hands-on experience is invaluable, he said, reflecting on the visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston.

“When you visit the actual place (where history first unfolded), and you see the shackles worn by a 4-year-old, it moves you, and it tells you something,” McGovern said.

Cadets who invest themselves in the subject matter are more likely to delve deeper, practice empathy, refuse injustice.

That, he said, is the kind of Army officer we need.

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