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White Stars, Black Shoulders: The First African-American Generals

Black History Month is a time we generally pause and reflect upon the contribution of African-Americans to the rich fabric of America's history. The role of African-Americans in the service of their country as citizens, soldiers, and most importantly as Citizen-Soldiers, is one of great courage, sacrifice, and faith. I offer this little known aspect of National Guard history as a contribution to Black History Month:

The first African-American to become a General Officer in the Regular Army of the United States was Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. in 1940. What is generally unknown is that General Davis was not the first African-American to serve as a General Officer. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the need to once again organize the militia in the Southern states was recognized. In the late 1860's and early 1870's, the former Confederate states once again formed militia organizations. In South Carolina, however, there was a significant difference in the Postwar Militia from that which existed prior to the war: the Militia was composed primarily of African-Americans. The South Carolina Militia was officially designated the "National Guard of the State of South Carolina" by the General Assembly. The 1868 Constitution also provided for the popular election of the Adjutant and Inspector General -- as the office was then called; this practice still continues today in South Carolina, 130 years later, the only State to do so.

The first African-American to become a General Officer was Robert B. Elliott. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General on 1 August 1870. He served as the Assistant Adjutant and Inspector General until he resigned his commission to serve in the U.S. Congress. Elliott also served as the Speaker of the House in the General Assembly.

The other African-Americans who served as General Officers in the South Carolina National Guard were:

Major General Stephen Atkin Swails, commander of the First Division; he was promoted to this rank on 14 July 1873. During the Civil War, Swails served in F Company of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and participated in the regiment's assault on Battery Wagner in July of 1863. Swails also served as the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in the General Assembly.

Major General Robert Smalls, commander of the Second Division; he was promoted to this rank on 14 July 1873. Smalls is best remembered for his daring escape from the Charleston harbor aboard the small Confederate transport, THE PLANTER, during the night of 12-13 May 1862. He also served in both houses of the General Assembly and later in the U.S. Congress.

Major General Prince R. Rivers, commander of the Third Division; he was promoted to this rank on 14 July 1873. Rivers served a Sergeant in the 1st South Carolina Regiment (African Descent), later the 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. Rivers also served in the General Assembly.

Brigadier General Samuel J. Lee served as Chief of Staff and later as the Commander of the First Brigade, National Guard. He was promoted to this rank on 1 December 1873. Lee also served as Speaker of the House in the General Assembly. Lee served as the last Commander of the National Guard's First Brigade in Charleston before it was disbanded in the late 1880's.

Brigadier General William Beverly Nash, Commander of the First Brigade, Third Division; he was promoted to this rank on 1 July 1873. Nash served in both Houses of the General Assembly.

Brigadier General Henry W. Purvis served as The Adjutant and Inspector General of South Carolina from 1872 to 1876, the first African-American in any State to do so. He was promoted to this rank in 1873.

Brigadier General Joseph Hayne Rainey, the Judge Advocate General; he was promoted to this rank in 1873. Rainey served in the Senate of the General Assembly and on 12 December 1870, became the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress.

Brigadier General William J. Whipper was promoted to this rank on 14 July 1873. Whipper served in the General Assembly as later as a Judge in the State Courts.

Brigadier General J.C. Claussen, Commander of the First Brigade, National Guard after serving as the Commander of the First Regiment, National Guard. Claussen was promoted to this rank on 13 October 1885. Claussen and Lee were the last African-Americans to serve as General Officers until Benjamin O. Davis in 1940.

One other State had an African-American serve as a General Officer in its Militia: Louisiana. Brigadier General T. Morris Chester commanded the First Division's Fourth Brigade; he was promoted to this rank on 27 May 1873.

I wish to bring these great men to your attention. They were truly men of great courage and pioneers for changes they never lived to see in their lifetimes. They deserve to be remembered and honored for their role in our nation's history.