‘They Served,’ too



Hilton Head Island native Murray Christopher was surprised to learn that a piece of his family’s history had been hiding for decades in Civil War pension files preserved by the federal government. But now his ancestor, Samuel Christopher, who served in the U.S. Colored Troop on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War, is receiving long overdue recognition for his service thanks to a new book from the Heritage Library.

Compiled and edited by volunteers from the Heritage Library, “They Served: Stories of United States Colored Troops from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina” is a look at the lives of black soldiers and their families, both before and during the war, through stories collected from Civil War-era pension applications.

“I think the book is fantastic. It was information that was locked away,” Christopher said. “It was an eye-opener because of all of the history that I have should have learned from elementary school to college. None of this information came up during those years. It was as if the Civil War was fought between Northern whites and Southern whites.”

About 15 years ago, Heritage Library volunteers started collecting pension records of black soldiers who had connections to Hilton Head. These soldiers primarily served in the 21st regiment, the United States Colored Troops of the U.S. Army, said Nancy Burke, a volunteer who co-authored the book with Patricia Burke, Susie Marquis and the library. A grant from the Heritage Classic Foundation helped offset the cost of requesting the records from the National Archives and the Records Administration in Maryland. Library volunteers then spent hours indexing the records into individual files.

“We thought it was a shame for this information to sit in these filing cabinets,” Nancy Burke said. She and volunteers Patricia Burke, Elizabeth Hanson and Marquis pulled together the stories told in the pension records and edited them for the book, which features the stories of 71 soldiers or their widows who applied for pensions in the years following the Civil War.

“In order for a soldier or his widow to get a pension, they had to go before a board to prove service,” Nancy Burke said. The soldiers often lacked documents to verify their identities. “So they went to the board and told their stories. Some brought witnesses with them. The witnesses would describe their knowledge of the person.”

Other volunteers agree: The records are a valuable resource in understanding the lives of the area’s black residents during the Civil War.

“In reading these records, you get a sense of what life was like, what home was like, the influence of the church, the importance of ministers, and the attitudes permeating in the black community,” Patricia Burke said.

As they poured over applications, hundreds of names emerged. “We ended up with a huge amount of genealogical information of who these people are,” Nancy Burke said. “There is a large number of people here today who are related to people in the book.”

Among the stories is that of Samuel Christopher — Murray Christopher’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Born as a slave on April 15,1843, on Hilton Head, Samuel enlisted in the Army when he was 20 and was discharged three years later. The chronic eye diseases, rheumatism and other injuries he obtained during his time in service prevented him from earning a consistent living, leading to financial problems that caused him to move his family frequently.

Murray Christopher said he first learned of Samuel after finding his headstone in Drayton Cemetery, a family burial ground near the end of Baygall Road. The headstone was only inscribed with the name S. Christopher, and neither Murray nor anyone in his family knew what the S stood for, or how to find out more about the grave’s inhabitant.

Four years ago, Murray received a call from a volunteer at the Heritage Library about a program tracing the history of people in Mitchelville. It was then that more details began to emerge about Samuel Christopher, giving the family a glimpse at its ancestors.

Thanks to the research conducted by the Heritage Library volunteers, Murray said he has found that blacks, including his relatives, made significant contributions to the Civil War.

“The information is ironclad,” he said. “There were depositions taken through soldier pension applications. In their own words, they told of their life.”

 “They Served” can be purchased on Amazon or at the Heritage Library Foundation, 852 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head Island.