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’]