By Luana M. Graves Sellars
My great great great great grandfather, Caesar Ravenel. A former slave who fought for freedom as a US Colored Troop Soldier
As a recent transplant from Florida, I’ve spent my life, like most people wondering about who I am. Especially questions like, where did my ancestors come from and what character traits did I inherit that make me, well, me. My oldest daughter began to ask some of the same questions when she became a teenager. So, to answer her questions as well as my own, we decided to start on a journey of self-discovery in search of a greater sense of self. Through that self-discovery, I learned a lot about who I really am and where I came from and why finding my “self” in a place where being at home really feels like.
Based on my grey eyes and brownish-red hair, for years, I have been asked “what are you?” Most of the time, I have been thought to be Caribbean. The actual answer is that I am a Nigerian from the Yoruba tribe, with Gullah roots that include Irish, Scottish, Angolan, Seminole, and Cherokee.
Since I have such a random combination of DNA, I decided to do some research into my family tree to discover more about my family. With the help of several online sources and the Heritage Library Foundation, I’ve been able to uncover more about not only what makes me into me, but some fascinating information about my relatives that came before me. It’s often said that generational habits and traits are passed down and based on some of the stories that I’ve learned that old saying is definitely true. Here are some highlights of what I have uncovered.
So far, I’ve been able to go back in my family as far as 1847, the year that Caesar Ravenel, my grandmother’s great-great grandfather was born a slave on Johns Island. Caesar was 20 years old when he escaped, making his way to Charleston where he enlisted to fight in the Civil War. His orders included being posted on Hilton Head Island and registered in the 34th Infantry, US Colored Troops. The 34th was organized in Beaufort and in Hilton Head from May 22, 1863, to December 31, 1864; before mustering out, in Jacksonville on February 28, 1866.
During those times, soldiers were responsible for purchasing their own equipment. Even though the Union enabled Blacks to fight in the war, the government issued substandard equipment to the Colored Troops, from used uniforms to sometimes broken and defective artillery. To add insult to injury, according to his military service records, at the end of his service, Caesar owed the US government $32.82 (which at that time was probably a month’s wages) for his equipment and gear!
At that time, soldiers were supposed to be paid $13 a month and a lot of the Colored Troops were actually paid $7 a month, which led Caesar’s commander, Colonel Montgomery to argue on behalf of the Colored Troops to receive equal pay. Looking deeper into Caesar’s war records and that of his regiment, I was able to uncover even more fascinating information about the experiences that he had.
Learning about Caesar Ravenel’s Civil War experiences, the battles he encountered, as well as his fortitude and obvious strong survival instincts, prove to me that he was an incredible fighter. He had the perseverance to live through a series of military campaigns that were daring, as well as dangerous. Historical information about the risks to escaped slaves fighting in the South posed additional issues to soldiers that faced torture, being returned or even death!
It’s stories like these that have really brought Caesar’s experiences to life. He’s no longer just a name that was passed down through my family. In addition to his life as a soldier, I have learned a lot of other fascinating information about my background, including confirmation that I AM GULLAH. My ongoing Gullah “education” has given me new perspectives while living on Hilton Head Island, as well as experiences that I would have never expected, on things like the language and culture.
Recently, I recorded a video (which can be found on the Lowcountry Gullah YouTube Channel) for the Heritage Library Foundation sharing Caesar’s story and my connection to the island’s historic places. Not that I hadn’t already known about the historic treasures that Hilton Head possesses, but I never expected that living here would be more than just a great place to live.
In our day to day living, it’s easy to ignore what’s around you. However, this island is packed with several incredible historic Civil War assets like Fort(s) Mitchel and Howell; giving every step that I take an extra special meaning.
I don’t know where Caesar might have been on the island, but I do know that this is exactly where Caesar sought and fought for his freedom. Places like Fort Mitchel may even be where he walked. What I am sure about, is that it’s where my family’s struggles and dreams of freedom came to fruition.
Though my research on the island’s history and my genealogy, I have been on a very fascinating journey of discovery that I never expected to experience. Today, I have a clearer vision of my family’s struggles to make a life for themselves, but also their triumphs while facing amazing odds against them. Now, I also know what having a greater sense of self, place and belonging really means.
For more on my journey learning about my Gullah roots, read I AM GULLAH
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