Monthly Archives: May 2013

On This Day In 1863 . . .


…in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment from the North, paraded in full dress uniform on Boston Common. Crowds cheered as 1,007 black soldiers and 37 white officers passed in review. After ceremonies at the State House, they marched to Battery Wharf and boarded steamships for South Carolina. Just seven weeks later, 74 men and their commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, were killed in an heroic assault on Fort Wagner. On Memorial Day 1897, 60 veterans of the 54th were among hundreds of people who gathered on the Common for the unveiling of Augustus Saint-Gaundens’ Memorial to Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This statue remains one of the great works of public art in the country.On This Day...


From the very beginning of the Civil War, African American men sought to enlist in the Union Army. Their requests were denied. This was a “white man’s war,” they were told, being fought to preserve the Union. Blacks knew better. The “Negro is the . . . pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns,” said Frederick Douglass. Finally with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the demand for new recruits outstripping supply, the Lincoln administration agreed to enlist black men. Only white men, however, could serve as officers.

Early in 1863, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, requested permission from the War Department to form a regiment of black soldiers. Barracks were built at Camp Meigs in Readville (the Hyde Park section of present-day Boston), and recruitment began.

The enthusiasm of Bay State blacks was tempered by their exclusion from the officers’ corps. The governor assured them that African American soldiers would be treated equally; they would receive the same pay and the same benefits as white recruits. Still, there was hesitation. Of the 1,007 men who enlisted, only 133 were from Massachusetts. Of these, 27 were from Boston, 39 from the whaling port of New Bedford, and 33 from Berkshire County, where a black Congregationalist minister was an active recruiter.

Every effort was made to accept only the healthiest volunteers; approximately a third of the men who responded to the call were turned away. In selecting the white officers, Governor Andrews looked for “young men of military experience, of firm Anti-Slavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color; and have faith in the capacity of Colored men for military service.” The governor asked Robert Gould Shaw, the only son of one of Boston’s leading abolitionist families, to assume command of the regiment.

The stakes were high. The Confederacy had announced that any black who was captured fighting for the Union would be enslaved. (In fact, some were summarily executed.)

But by the middle of May, over a thousand black men from 24 states —15 northern, five southern, and four border states — had been accepted into the Massachusetts 54th. About a quarter of the regiment was made up of farmers, another third, laborers. There were barbers and seamen, waiters and teamsters, cabinetmakers, a dentist, and a druggist. Fathers enlisted with sons, and brothers signed on together — among them two of Frederick Douglass’s sons.

On May 18th, Colonel Shaw received his orders. The 54th was to proceed to Beaufort, South Carolina. On the 28th, the regiment marched through the streets of Boston, which were lined with thousands of well-wishers, to the State House. Following remarks from the governor and other dignitaries, they paraded to the harbor and boarded the ships that would take them south.

One of their first engagements came on July 18th at Fort Wagner, a formidable earth and sandbag fortification on Morris Island, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. As depicted in the film “Glory,” Colonel Shaw led 600 men up the sloped, sandy walls in an unsuccessful attempt to take the fort. Almost half were killed, wounded, or captured. Colonel Shaw died and was buried in a common grave alongside 74 of his men.

In spite of the costly defeat, the battle was hailed as a victory, a demonstration of black soldiers’ skill and courage. As General Colin Powell said in 1997, the fighting “served as a gleaming example of their courage and their fortitude. It was a tremendous moral victory. Black troops had proved every bit the equal of their white brothers.”

Not, unfortunately, in the eyes of the War Department. A member of the 54th wrote home: “When we enlisted we were to get $13 per month, clothing and rations, and treatment the same as white soldiers; and now they want to cheat us out of what is justly due us, but paying us off with $10 per month, and taking three dollars out of that for clothing.” Why, he asked bitterly, “are we not worth as much as white soldiers?”

The men of the 54th decided if they could not receive equal pay, they would accept no pay. Leading abolitionists, the governors of Vermont and Massachusetts, and the black soldiers themselves appealed to the Attorney General, the Secretary of War, and the President. Corporal James Henry Gooding wrote to Lincoln: “Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why,” he asked, “cant we have a Soldiers pay?”

For 18 months the men waited for justice, fighting without being paid. Morale in the black regiments plummeted; soldiers received heartbreaking letters from their impoverished families. Finally, in July 1864, Congress acted to give African American soldiers what they had been promised in the first place: $13 a month, retroactive to the date of their enlistment.

The regiment’s survivors received their discharge papers on September 1, 1865. Almost immediately the black community in Boston launched a drive to erect a memorial to the 54th. It would be more than 30 years before the memorial was completed. The result of 12 years work by the great American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it was the first monument in the country that included African American soldiers in full uniform. It was unveiled on Memorial Day 1897.

The names of the five white officers killed in battle were inscribed on the back of the monument. It was only in 1981 that the names of the black soldiers killed in action were added. The bronze relief sculpture has stood across from the State House for more than a century, an eloquent memorial to the 178,955 black men who fought in the Union Army.


Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, ed. by Martin H. Blatt, Thomas J. Brown & Donald Yacovone (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

We Fight For Freedom: Massachusetts, African Americans and the Civil War (Massachusetts Historical Society, 2001).

[And, oh my, I have an essay in that first book under Sources. Good readin’]

May 28, 1963



Okay, I won’t quarrel with cause/effect/outcome. I will quote a wise southern woman who lived through it all :

“Non-violence does violence to us all.”

It is my opinion that Americans who by birthright were entitled to every right and responsibility of citizenship should never have had to survive years of that particular iteration of racist domestic terrorism to be able to exercise those rights. Many did not survive, black and white, and I, for one, will never forgive our government for a single death or attack from the first sit-in forward.

By Howard Zinn, Memorial Day, 1976

Published on June 2, 1976 in the Boston Globe (from the Zinn Reader)
Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?
by Howard Zinn
ZINNMemorial Day will be celebrated … by the usual betrayal of the dead, by the hypocritical patriotism of the politicians and contractors preparing for more wars, more graves to receive more flowers on future Memorial Days. The memory of the dead deserves a different dedication. To peace, to defiance of governments. 

In 1974, I was invited by Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston Globe, who had been bold enough in 1971 to print part of the top secret Pentagon Papers on the history of the Vietnam War, to write a bi-weekly column for the op-ed page of the newspaper. I did that for about a year and a half. The column below appeared June 2, 1976, in connection with that year’s Memorial Day. After it appeared, my column was canceled.

* * * * *

Memorial Day will be celebrated as usual, by high-speed collisions of automobiles and bodies strewn on highways and the sound of ambulance sirens throughout the land.

It will also be celebrated by the display of flags, the sound of bugles and drums, by parades and speeches and unthinking applause.

It will be celebrated by giant corporations, which make guns, bombs, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and an endless assortment of military junk and which await the $100 billion in contracts to be approved soon by Congress and the President.

There was a young woman in New Hampshire who refused to allow her husband, killed in Vietnam, to be given a military burial. She rejected the hollow ceremony ordered by those who sent him and 50,000 others to their deaths. Her courage should be cherished on Memorial Day. There were the B52 pilots who refused to fly those last vicious raids of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s war. Have any of the great universities, so quick to give honorary degrees to God-knows-whom, thought to honor those men at this Commencement time, on this Memorial Day?

No politician who voted funds for war, no business contractor for the military, no general who ordered young men into battle, no FBI man who spied on anti-war activities, should be invited to public ceremonies on this sacred day. Let the dead of past wars he honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to embark on mass slaughter again.

“The shell had his number on it. The blood ran into the ground…Where his chest ought to have been they pinned the Congressional Medal, the DSC, the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the Italian gold medal, The Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie of Rumania. All the Washingtonians brought flowers .. Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.”

Those are the concluding lines of John Dos Passos angry novel 1919. Let us honor him on Memorial Day.

And also Thoreau, who went to jail to protest the Mexican War.

And Mark Twain, who denounced our war against the Filipinos at the turn of the century.

And I.F. Stone, who virtually alone among newspaper editors exposed the fraud and brutality of the Korean War.

Let us honor Martin Luther King, who refused the enticements of the White House, and the cautions of associates, and thundered against the war in Vietnam.

Memorial Day should be a day for putting flowers on graves and planting trees. Also, for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren.

On Memorial Day we should take note that, in the name of “defense,” our taxes have been used to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a helicopter assault ship called “the biggest floating lemon,” which was accepted by the Navy although it had over 2,000 major defects at the time of its trial cruise.

Meanwhile, there is such a shortage of housing that millions live in dilapidated sections of our cities and millions more are forced to pay high rents or high interest rates on their mortgages. There’s 90 billion for the B1 bomber, but people don’t have money to pay hospital bills.

We must be practical, say those whose practicality has consisted of a war every generation. We mustn’t deplete our defenses. Say those who have depleted our youth, stolen our resources. In the end, it is living people, not corpses, creative energy, not destructive rage, which are our only real defense, not just against other governments trying to kill us, but against our own, also trying to kill us.

Let us not set out, this Memorial Day, on the same old drunken ride to death.


Held Hostage

As Will Rogers said, decades ago,

“We have the best politicians money can buy”



In Memoriam


In this year of the film “Lincoln,” and the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, let’s be clear that freedom was never bestowed upon black Americans.

Remember the thousands upon thousands of black soldiers in all of our nation’s wars, from the Revolution forward. Remember the thousands who fought and died in our Civil War to claim their freedom and that of their people.

This is the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, just one among the black Union regiments. Contrary to the impression left by Hollywood, they were not utterly wiped out at Ft. Wagner. Their numbers restored, they took part in other battles.

The figure floating above the marching troops is the Angel of Death. Emancipation did not come with the stroke of a pen.