Private David Sparkman, an African-American soldier who fought for the Union as part of the 33rd US Colored Infantry Regiment is one of the approximately 65- 70 individuals buried in Simmons Cemetery. The 33rd was established in April of 1862 when President Lincoln authorized the raising of African American troops. General Rufus Saxton of Massachusetts was permitted to “arm, equip and receive into the service of the United States such volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding five thousand.” By November of 1862, Saxton had enough men to assemble a regiment which was called the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Their first mission was to destroy Confederate salt works along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia while taking prisoners and carrying off slaves and confederate property. Their commander was Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts.
In March of 1863, the infantry was sent to Jacksonville Florida with a mission to “carry the proclamation of freedom to the enslaved: to call all loyal men into the service of the United States; to occupy as much of the state of Florida as possible with the forces under your command; and to neglect no means consistent with the usages of civilized warfare to weaken, harass, and annoy those who are in rebellion against the Government of the United States.” The mission was a success. For the remainder of 1863 and part of 1864, the regiment would spend time in South Carolina and in Florida.
On February 8, 1864, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry would be renamed the 33rd United States Colored Troops. They would fight in the Battle of Honey Hill and capture a fort on James Island. After the war, the regiment was employed in provost and picket duty. They would be mustered out on January 31, 1866.
C. Coxswain who is also buried at Simmons Cemetery would serve with the 103rd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. This group of black soldiers was organized on March 10, 1865 in Hilton Head. They would serve in the garrison and as a guard duty unit in areas of Georgia and South Carolina. The regiment would be mustered out by April 20, 1866.
After Lincoln’s decree to allow blacks to serve in the Union Army over 5,000 formerly enslaved men would enlist in the United States Colored Troops. By the end of the war approximately 179,000 black men served in the U.S. Army and 19,000 would serve in the Navy. South Carolina would establish six regiments: 21st, 33rd, 103rd, 104th and 128th USCT.
Also buried in Simmons Cemetery is John Bellinger, who served with the 371st Infantry Regiment, which fought in WWI. This regiment was formed in August 1917 and consisted of black draftees who were mostly from South Carolina but would also have members from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Training for the new enlistees was held at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina under the command of white offices. In April of 1918, the regiment arrived at the Western Front where they were placed under French command. The French were in desperate need of troops and it was also thought they could better integrate the unit than the American troops could because of the racial tensions between whites and blacks that existed during this time. Lt. John B. Smith an officer of the 371st would say that “the French people could not grasp the idea of social discrimination on account of color. They said the colored men were soldiers, wearing the American uniform, and fighting in the common cause and they could not see why they should be discriminated against. They received the men in their churches and homes and places of entertainment….”
On June 12, 1918, after French training, the unit went into the trenches with the veteran 157th “Red Hand” division. For over three months, they held the lines at Avocourt and later the Verrieres subsectors northwest of Verdun. In September of 1918, the regiment was pulled out of the line and was transferred to the Champagne region to help defend against the last major German offense on the Western Front. The 371st was one of the forward units of the attacks and would lose 1,065 of their men during an eight day period. For their extraordinary service at Champagne, the entire regiment would be awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition, 146 individuals of the 371st were awarded merits such as the French Legion of Honor, the American Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
The 371st would arrive on U.S. soil on February 11, 1919 and would be back in Columbia by February 28, 1919, where the regiment would be dissolved.