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(CIVIL WAR--COLORED TROOPS.) Robert M. Gaston. Letter by a lieutenant in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (Colored). Autograph Letter Signed to friend O.L. Jackson. 4 pages, 9 x 7 1/2 inches, on one folding sheet; minor soiling at folds. Port Royal Island, SC, 15 May 1863
Robert McKee Gaston (1840-1863) was a teacher in Mount Pleasant, PA before enlisting in a state regiment as a corporal. In October 1862 he was awarded a lieutenant's commission in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, one of the first "colored" regiments in the Union army--preceding the official formation of the United States Colored Troops. The important abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson commanded the regiment. Gaston was proud and enthusiastic about his work with these freed soldiers: "I could fight a good fight with these men, and am anxious to try myself. You are right that we occupy a conspicuous position. I would not belong to another kind of a reg't than a colored one. I would rather be 2nd Lt. in this regiment than any white reg't in the U. S. I am not alone in this opinion. . . . The movement that brought down so many curses on its head at first is now becomeing very popular. Colonels of white reg'ts are very anxious to give them up and raise Black ones just as soon as we can get the men." Gaston also discusses a skeptical paymaster who visited his camp: "He ridiculed the idea of making soldiers of Black men and thought this reg't was only the work of a few abolitionists and others who had no other way of filling their pockets from Uncle Sam's purse. They . . . witnessed the co. drills and passed through camp viewing things generally. The result was . . . that they think the ex-slaves better suited for soldiers than any men in the U. S. I heard Major Wood say very positively that Co. G . . . was the best drilled company in the Department—either white or black." Gaston also reflected on the greater significance of the war: "For what was John Brown hung and who hung him? Where are they who hung him and cried for his blood? Traitors to their country and in open rebellion against it. Where are John Brown's friends and fellow sufferers? [Colonels] Higginson & Montgomery live to do the same work for which he was hung." 12 days after writing this letter, Lieutenant Gaston was tragically killed on a scouting expedition--by one of his own troops whose rifle accidentally discharged.
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