Byline: AMELIA A. HART
FERNANDINA BEACH - In January 1863, three weeks after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, members of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black regiment of former slaves recruited from Hilton Head and Fernandina, and led by white officers, boarded boats at Fort Clinch and set sail up the St. Marys River to engage Confederate forces.
Try to imagine how that scene appeared to those who witnessed it, Amelia Island Museum of History docent Jim Longacre said, as black men in uniform carrying weapons headed toward a fight.
"For most, it would have been just an unthinkable sight a few months earlier," he said.
The members of the 1st South Carolina provided one of the first proofs in the Civil War that black men were able and eager to fight for their freedom, Longacre said.
Among the casualties in the one of the skirmishes was Cpl. Robert Sutton, who was wounded three times, including once in the head.
"They proved they would fight, and fight well," he said.
The story of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers is only part of the little-known history of blacks on Amelia Island - and the men and women who made it - spotlighted by Longacre during a special Black History Month tour at the museum.
"It's just fascinating stuff," Longacre said.
During the one-hour talk, Longacre tells of the arrival of the first blacks on the island, 200 African slaves in 1526, the role the island played as a route to freedom in the 1700s as people made their way into Spanish-controlled territory, and Fernandina's dubious honor as the capital of the illegal slave trade into the U.S in the 1800s.
A self-professed "Civil War nut," Longacre discusses that era, as well as Reconstruction, in detail, introducing those taking the tour not only to Sutton, but to Robert Smalls, the slave who commandeered the Confederate steamer, The Planter, out of Charleston harbor and gave it to the U.S. Navy, and William Fitzhugh, a slave who enlisted in the Navy and became the Union's first black casuality of the Civil War.
He also reads a poignant letter written by Emma Stewart, a former slave, to her husband in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers stationed at Hilton Head, telling of the death of their child.
Museum Director Carmen Godwin said Longacre's research and script for the Black History Tour is being shared with the museum's other docents, who twice daily offer the Eight Flags Tour, an overview of 2,000 years of island history. …