America's first African American troops shot holes in the South's theory of slavery.
Thomas Frazier was a good soldier.
He was not asked to storm the beaches of Normandy, but he nevertheless influenced world history.
He did not amass earthly goods like the fine homes that surround his quiet burial ground in the heart of Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. But for someone born into slavery, Frazier's legacy on this Memorial Day weekend is a rich one.
His federally issued tombstone reads: "Thos. Frazier Co. A. 21 U.S.C.T." That places him among the first African American troops in American history.
Frazier's story lives in part because his tombstone survives more than a century after he was laid to rest in 1909.
It's among four marked graves in what is called the Lawton Cemetery at the corner of Oyster Landing Road and Oyster Landing Lane -- once part of the rice-producing Lawton Plantation.
In the 1980s, the legal process to move the marked graves was started by the developer of the Oyster Landing Club townhouses on Oyster Landing Lane. Plans changed after the family and community pushed back, and now the club's property owners own and maintain the half-acre site.
Earlier this year, residents Jack and Lisa Kroening worked on the graves with Sea Pines vacationer and history buff Wendell Grayson of Springfield, Ky., who recently refurbished the Gullah cemetery in Harbour Town. They raised and cleaned the stones to protect the data and preserve a building block of history.
Thomas Frazier was no more than 15 or 16 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army 4th S.C. Infantry Regiment in October 1862.
After fits and starts, the federal government sought to raise 5,000 troops from formerly enslaved men on and around the Sea Islands. It began on Hilton Head in May 1862, but it was not official -- with pay for the troops -- until President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863.
Grayson's research shows that in June 1863, Frazier was described by the Army as a 5-foot-3-inch, 18 year old with a dark complexion and hazel eyes. His occupation was listed as "waiter."
Historian Stephen R. Wise of Beaufort said, "The 3rd Regiment and 4th Regiment were used primarily as laborers for a number of months on Hilton Head. They did everything from dig entrenchments to serve as servants and such, and they greatly disliked that type of service. There was actually a mutiny among members of the 3rd Regiment, and the leader of it was eventually court-martialed and executed."
Frazier's regiment would later merge with others to form the 21st U.S. Colored Troops, the name on his tombstone.
Wise said Frazier's regiment fought on James Island in the summer of 1864 and was the first to occupy Charleston when it was evacuated near the war's end.
Frazier's duty ended on May 7, 1866. The scenario he came home to is told in great detail in the book "Dear Sister," consisting of letters home from a Northern school teacher living and working at Lawton Plantation. She even describes a burial in this cemetery, saying it had many graves, mostly unmarked.
Grayson's research shows Frazier got married the year after he returned home. The tombstone of Rosetta Frazier next to her husband's says she was born on Christmas Day 1847 and died March 21, 1936.
The census says they had 12 children and that Frazier was a farmer who could read and write. They successfully applied for a military pension when he became an invalid, many years after the war. Payment could range from $6 to $12 per month.
KILLING A THEORY
Veterans' tombstones like Frazier's are not uncommon in Beaufort County, where thousands of Union troops were raised for Civil War duty.
They silently answer the great questions of their generation: Would the formerly enslaved fight? Would they work? Could they learn?
The service provided income, which with subsequent pensions, enabled freedmen to buy property and pursue an education.
And Army pencil pushers left records that help piece together our heritage.
Historian Wise uses a quote from a well-known Southern politician to illustrate the true significance of Frazier's service.
Howell Cobb of Georgia said in 1863: "You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."
In Wise's translation: "Basically, Cobb says if slaves can be good, solid soldiers, then our idea that they are an inferior race to be kept in slavery as laborers doesn't work anymore."
In that way, more than any other, Thomas Frazier was a good soldier.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.