54th Mass. Regimnent
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the rebelling territories of the confederacy and authorizing Black enlistment in the Union Army. Since the beginning of the Civil War, free Black people in general, , were ready to fight on behalf of the Union, yet they were prevented from doing so. Popular racial stereotypes and discrimination against Blacks in the military contributed to the prevailing myth that Black men did not have the intelligence and bravery necessary to serve their country. By the fall of 1862, however, the lack of White Union enlistment and confederate victories at Antietem forced the U.S. government to reconsider its racist policy. As Congress met in October to address the issue of Black enlistment, various troops of Black volunteers had already been organized, including the First South Carolina and the Kansas Colored Troops. It wasn’t until January 26, 1863, however, that secretary of war Edwin Stanton authorized the enlistment of Black troops. As a result, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer infantry was founded, becoming the first all-Black Union regiment raised in the north.(Emilio 1990)
Training began for Black volunteers at Camp Meigs in Readville, MA on February 21, 1863. Although some members of the community voiced opposition to the prevention of Black men from achieving the rank of colonel or officer, most community activists urged Black men to seize the opportunity to serve in the Union forces. The fear many Black volunteers had about the potential racism of White officers and colonels was calmed when Massachusetts Governor John Andrew assured Bostonians that White officers assigned to the 54th Regiment would be “young men of military experience, of firm anti-slavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of colored men for military service.” (Emilio 1990) Andrew held to his word, appointing 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw as colonel and George P. Hallowell as Lieutenant. The son of wealthy abolitionists, Shaw had been educated in Europe and at Harvard before joining the seventh New York National Guard in 1861. In 1862, when Governor Andrew contacted Shaw’s father about the prospect of commissioning his son as colonel of the soon-to-be organized fifty-fourth, Shaw was an officer in the Second Massachusetts Infantry. (Ducan 1992)
Although reluctant to accept the commission, Shaw eventually became colonel. By the time training began at Camp Meigs, Shaw and his officers began work with the soldiers whose bravery would forever change public perception of Black military skills.
Within six weeks after the opening of Camp Meigs for training, a little over 100 volunteers had been enlisted in the fifty-fourth, 47 of them from Boston. Because the Black population of Massachusetts was so small (approximately 4500 in 1860), Governor Andrew asked George L. Stearns to support the enlistment of Black troops throughout the northern states. Abolitionists across the north contributed over $5000 to Stearns’ committee to pay for advertising and publicity, while Stearns solicited the help of Black community leaders across the country. (Glathaar 1990). These leaders, all of whom served as recruiting agents for the Union army, included: Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden, John Coburn, Charles Lenox Remond, and William Wells Brown. As a result, over 1000 volunteers enlisted in the 54th Regiment, a response so overwhelming that Massachusetts organized a second Black regiment, the fifty-fifth. Men of the fifty-fourth represented twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, the West Indies, and Africa.
Approximately 25% of them had been slaves, over 50% were literate, and, even though as civilians they had worked in forty-six different occupations, the overwhelming majority (55%) were laborers. Regardless of origin, occupation, or social class, the men of the 54th Regiment both inspired Boston’s Black community and provided a symbol of pride for abolitionists across the country. (Glathaar 1990). Activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Leonard Grimes visited Camp Meigs to show their support. On May 18, 1863, Secretary of War Stanton notified Governor Andrew that the 54th Regiment was to report to Hilton Head, SC under General David Hunter in the Department of the South. On May 28, before departing from Boston harbor, the men of the 54th Regiment and their officers passed in review before the Massachusetts State House amidst the flag-waving enthusiasm of over 3000 citizens, including Black sculptor Edmonia Lewis, Frederick Douglass, Governor Andrew, and Shaw’s parents. This scene was recreated in the 1988 movie “Glory” staring Denzel Washington.
Although the organization of the 54th Regiment resolved the conflict over Black enlistment in the Union army, the struggle of Black soldiers to gain respect in the military was just starting. When they arrived in the south, the Black soldiers were often treated as common laborers and the potential for their heroic acts on the battlefield was disregarded. Upon arriving in Georgia on June 11, they were ordered by Col. James Montgomery of the Department of the South to raid the town of Darien. Reports of Black soldiers burning buildings and ravaging the homes of townspeople confirmed stereotypes of Black soldiers as un-trainable brutes. Col. Shaw found the raid on Darien barbarous and distasteful, and sent a letter to Brigadier General George C. Strong, requesting that the men be used in the planned attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.(Quarles 1953)
On July 16, the 54th Regiment fought alongside White soldiers of the 10th Connecticut Infantry in a skirmish on James Island, SC. This battle redeemed the Black soldiers’ fighting ability in the eyes of White skeptics, including General Strong, who commanded the 54th Regiment to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, scheduled for July 18. Strategically, a successful attack on Fort Wagner would allow Union forces to seize control of Charleston Harbor. Located on Morris Island, Fort Wagner protected Battery Gregg overlooking Fort Sumter. This means that capturing Fort Wagner was valuable because it enabled the Union to shell Sumter and close the harbor to confederate blockade runners. This would pave the way for further Union attack on Charleston. Fort Wagner was located at the northern tip of Morris Island, was controlled by troops and artillery guns, and was surrounded by water, marsh, and moats that were up to 3 feet deep(Glathaar 1990).
The 54th Regiment arrived on Morris Island after marching for two days from James Island. Depleted to just over 600 men by the skirmish two days previous, the men of the 54th Regiment were ordered to lead the assault on Fort Wagner with the backing of regiments from New York, Connecticut, Maine, and Pennsylvania. Before the charge commenced, Colonel Shaw ordered the regiment to “prove yourselves as men.” Within 200 feet of the Fort, the confederates began to attack as the brave men of the 54th Regiment struggled through darkness, four-foot deep water, and marshland. (Glathaar 1990).
Colonel Shaw, accompanied by dying men, managed to reach the top of the parapet where a bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued, the Black Union soldiers with bayonets against the White Confederate soldiers with handspikes and gun rammers. Colonel Shaw was mortally wounded with a pierce through the heart, along with a dozen of his men. Meanwhile, members of the 54th Regiment – some wounded, some dying – began to retreat; those who refused to back down were taken prisoner. As the smoke cleared, evidence of Confederate victory was immediately apparent, with 174 Rebel casualties and 1515 Union soldiers dead or wounded. Of the eleven regiments who participated in the Union assault, the fifty-forth Regiment accrued the most casualties, with 256 of their 600 men dead or wounded.(O’connor 1997)
Despite the heavy losses, the assault on Fort Wagner proved to the nation and the world the valor of Black soldiers in general and the men of the 54th Regiment . From the ranks of the fifty-forth came stories of unfailing patriotism and undying glory. The most famous of these stories, and the one with the most significant legacy, was that of Sargent William H. Carney. Born a slave in Norfolk, VA in 1840, Carney moved with his family to New Bedford, MA in 1856 after being emancipated by his owner. In 1863, hearing the call for Black men to bear arms for the Union army, Carney enlisted in the 54th Regiment where he became Sargent, the highest rank achievable by Black soldiers at that time. As Colonel Shaw was pierced through the heart, climbing the parapet at Fort Wagner, Carney managed to rescue the Union flag from the hands of the slain color bearer. With wounds in his legs, breast, and right arm, Sgt. Carney continued to crawl on one knee over the bleeding bodies of his fallen comrades; as he placed the Union flag in the Confederate parapet, he was cheered by his fellow soldiers. As he was carried aboard a stretcher to the Union hospital, Carney uttered the famous words, “The old girl never touched the ground, boys.” (Glathaar 1990). As a result of his bravery, Sgt. William H. Carney became the first Black man in history to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1900.
Although the battle of Fort Wagner and the bravery of Sgt. William H. Carney were uncompromising testimony to the capability and nobility of Black soldiers, the battle over equal pay for Black soldiers continued long after Col. Shaw died leading his men through the trenches of Morris IslandBecause of the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, Black men who were recently emancipated were eligible for military service, but only as common laborers. This act did not consider the possibility of Black men bearing arms, so all Black soldiers who enlisted in the 54th Regiment were paid as laborers, not as soldiers. As they began the battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, Black soldiers in the fifty-fourth were receiving $10 per month, minus $3 for clothing, while White soldiers received $13 per month, plus a clothing allowance of $3. This meant that Black soldiers received $6 less than their White counterparts each month of service. (Quarles 1953)
This discrimination in pay led to anger and disappointment both by the soldiers and by Gov. Andrew, who had promised the men equal treatment if they enlisting in the 54th Regiment. In February, 1863, Andrew attended a meeting in Washington with President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Chase, and Secretary of State Seward. Despite Andrew’s pleas for equal pay for Black soldiers, President Lincoln refused to act, and the Governor returned to the Massachusetts legislature with a recommendation – that the its members pass an act to pay the difference of the fifty-fourth’s deserved salary. (Glathaar 1990). Although this act was passed in Nov. 16, 1863, soldiers of the 54th Regiment refused to accept it, because they chose to serve without pay until their enlistment expired rather than allow themselves to be paid by the state rather than the federal government. (Glathaar 1990).
Because of this, Massachusetts Senator Wilson introduced a joint resolution to Congress that would equalize pay for Black soldiers. Four months later, on June 15, 1864, Congress ruled that, retroactively as of January 1, 1864, Black soldiers were to receive equal pay as White soldiers. This act also provided that, if a Black soldier had been free as of April 19, 1861, he would be paid the difference between what he received and the full pay allowed by law during the same period to White soldiers. In late Sept. 1864, members of the 54th Regiment were paid over $170,000 for 18 months of unsalaried service, which amounted to approximately $200 per volunteer. (O’connor 1997)
The men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, their White officers, colonel, and allies, not only struck a blow for American freedom and unity, they also proved to the nation and the world the bravery, and devotion of African American soldiers. In the sacrifice made by Col. Shaw and his soldiers, Americans witnessed, for the first time, the supremacy of equality over racism, discrimination, and ignorance. After his death at Fort Wagner, the body of Col. Shaw was placed in a mass grave on Morris Island along with the bodies of his soldiers. The lack of proper military burial for a man who had distinguished himself as a soldier and as a leader was intended to insult the honor of Shaw and his family, who were called race traitors by Confederates and White unionists alike. However, upon learning that his son had been “buried with his niggers,” Francis Shaw stated, “We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial place is on the field where he has fallen.” (Glathaar 1990). This statement and the honor displayed by the Shaw family and veterans of the fifty-fourth helped immortalize Shaw and his men as symbols of the Civil War battle for unity and equality. As a result of the 54th Regiment, over 180,000 Black men enlisted under the Union flag between 1863 and 1865.
The story of the “Fighting Fifty-Forth” is a true testament of how when a country is in war or a time of despair they can ban together as one ,regardless of race to achieve an objective. Although they were treated unfairly and discriminated against, the 54th regiment paved the way for equality of not only African-American soldiers but for all African-Americans.
Duncan, Russell, ed. Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 3rd Ed. Salem, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1990.
Glathaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press Inc., 1990.
O’Connor, Thomas. Civil War Boston: Homefront and Battlefield. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press, 1953.