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The African American troops who secured the city of Charleston after the Civil War

The African American troops who secured the city of Charleston after the Civil War
February 2021

Some formerly had been enslaved

When African American troops entered the city, crowds of formerly enslaved people celebrated.

On the morning of February 18, 1865, Charleston was burning. Confederate troops had evacuated the day before, torching cotton and supplies that could have benefitted their enemy. Then, residents witnessed something many never thought possible in the seat of American slavery—African American troops in Union uniforms marched through the streets singing “John Brown’s Body” as they put out the fires. With every step, the members of the 21st US Colored Troops (created from the Third and Fourth SC Colored Infantry) advanced freedom where it had never existed.

That afternoon, a company from the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, the regiment that had been turned back from an earlier attack (the basis for the film Glory), marched on Marion Square (then called the Citadel Green); and some 10 days later, the 55th Massachusetts also entered to help secure the city. A reporter for the New-York Tribune described the scene: “The negroes cheer us, bless us, dance for joy when they see our glorious flag—pray for us, fight for us, ‘can’t love us enough,’ as they beautifully express it.” Among the liberators, were some soldiers previously enslaved in the Lowcountry.

Today, Charleston still has some 40 more years before it will have been a free city longer than a slave city. But nothing was going to be the same after that day in February when the fires were put out, the smoke cleared, and everyone could see history in the making.