By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Image By Sonja Griffin Evans

As a recent transplant from Florida, I’ve spent my life, like most people wondering about who I am, 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 together. Here’s what I knew at the start. My great grandmother’s last name was Ravanell and she was from Ravenel, South Carolina. I also had an aunt who sometimes mentioned that she was a Geechee, but no one really asked her what that meant or what she was talking about. On my father’s side, he came from Virginia and a family with grey and sometimes blue or green eyes, reddish hair and freckles. For years, I have been asked “what are you?” I have been called Caribbean, either Jamaican or Dominican. The complete answer is that I am a Nigerian from the Yoruba tribe, with Gullah roots that include Angolan, Irish, 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 sources, ancestry.com, familysearch.org and the Heritage Library, just to name a few, I have 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 has often been said that generational habits and traits are passed down, and based on some of the stories that I have learned, that old saying is definitely true. Here are some highlights of what I’ve uncovered.   

The Maternal Side of My Family 

Based on my research, so far, I have been able to go back in my family as far as 1847, the year that Caesar Ravenell, 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 his making his way to Hilton Head Island to be registered in the 34th Infantry, US Colored Troops. The 34th organized at Beaufort and in Hilton Head from May 22, 1863, to December 31, 1864; 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. 

Caesar Ravenel, my great great great great grandfather
who was born a slave on Johns Island, SC, escaped and fought in the US Colored Troops.

Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Frederick Douglass

On July 17, 1862, President Lincoln authorized the use of African Americans in federal service by issuing the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation, of January 1, 1863, however, that black men could serve in combat.

The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863. This order established the Bureau of Colored Troops and it recruited many African American men into the Union Army. The regiments of the Union army that were composed of African American men were called the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Soon there were 200,000 black soldiers serving in the Union Army and Navy. These men were paid less than white officers, were given old and worn uniforms and poor equipment, and could not become officers. Despite the unfair treatment, black men volunteered to take part in combat.

The USCT suffered from racial discrimination despite serving the Union forces. Seldom seeing active battle, many troops were assigned as laborers, construction workers, and guards on fortifications throughout the Union, including the Defenses of Washington.

Source: National Park Service www.nps.gov

The regiment that Caesar was assigned to was very active under Union Colonel James Montgomery, was a staunch abolitionist and highly controversial officer who was responsible for several important military markers in our nation’s history, as well as being depicted in the movie ‘Glory’ for his decision to loot and burn the undefended town of Darien, Georgia.   In addition to several battles, both won and lost, he leads his soldiers in a three-day battle, called the Battle of Burdens Causeway or the Battle of Bloody Bridge, which was the largest battle on Johns Island during the Civil War. One of the most notable battles that he leads Caesar’s regiment into was the famous expedition up the Combahee River Raid lead by Harriet Tubman, in her first major military operation. On June 2, 1862 the regiment, which included 150 black Union soldiers, was stationed on St Helena Island. During the raid, they encountered skirmishes, enabling them to capture over 785, several horses and destroy a large amount property. Days later, they went up the Turtle River in Georgia and burned a railroad bridge, then on to the Aftahaha River in Georgia, where they captured a schooner loaded with 80 bales of short-staple cotton and destroyed a large amount of rice and cotton and other valuable property, prior to burning the town.

Learning about Caesar Ravenell’s Civil War experiences and the battles that he encountered, as well as his fortitude and obvious strong survival instincts, proved to me that he was an incredible fighter with the where with all 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!

Its stories like these that have really brought Caesar’s experiences to life. He is 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 a new perspective as well as experiences on the island that I would have never expected, on things like the language and culture.  

My genealogy research has taken me on a very fascinating journey of discovery that I never expected to experience. The information that I have uncovered has given me a clearer vision of not only my family’s struggles to make a life for themselves, but also their triumphs while facing amazing odds against them. I encourage everyone to take the time to ask questions of your family’s elders, so that you can learn more about your ancestors, their memories and experiences, before it is too late. All that you need to start your journey is a name, plus any combination of the following: a place of residence or estimated year of birth or death. The more information that you have, the better. When you discover more about your past, you will be pleasantly surprised with the knowledge that you can gain about how decisions made, sometimes hundreds of years ago, even though they may seem disconnected, can have a direct impact on your life well into the future.

Read more about the USCT Troops and Caesar Ravenel here.

To learn how you can begin your own ancestral journey, read the article Who Are You Really? A Guide to Researching Your Ancestral Roots or The Heritage Library Foundation on Hilton Head Island, SC can get you started.

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