Reference Entry

Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

Thomas D. Mays

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

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Although the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry was not the first African American unit to serve or fight in the Civil War, it became the most celebrated black unit of the war owing to the sacrifices and bravery of the men. On 1 January 1863 President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation authorized the enlistment of African Americans in the Union army. Several black units had previously been organized in the occupied South, and by the end of January 1863 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had authorized the enlistment of black units in the North. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts became the first African American regiment raised on northern soil. In February 1863 the regiment organized at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. Governor John Albion Andrew went out of his way to ensure that the white leaders of the Fifty-fourth would be veterans who held antislavery views. He offered command of the regiment, with the rank of colonel, to twenty-five-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a wealthy and prominent abolitionist family. Shaw had been serving as a captain in the Second Massachusetts Infantry and was wounded during the battle of Antietam. Recruiting went slowly in early 1863. Massachusetts had only a small population of free blacks to draw from, so Governor Andrew asked a leading abolitionist, George L. Stearns, to head a recruiting drive in the northern states. Stearns sought the support of black leaders, and the renowned abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass took the lead in speaking at recruiting rallies. Douglass's sons Lewis and Charles joined the regiment as privates (Lewis eventually rising to the rank of sergeant major). The men in the unit came from a variety of backgrounds. They hailed from twenty-four states, Africa, and the West Indies. Most could read, and about a quarter were former slaves. At the end of May 1863 the unit was ordered to report to Major General David Hunter in Hilton Head, South Carolina. There, authorities felt that the black troops were unprepared for combat and used them for fatigue details. Colonel Shaw pressed for action, and General Hunter attached the unit to Colonel James Montgomery for a raid on Darien, Georgia. The raid went poorly. Despite encountering no enemy forces, black troops under Montgomery's command burned and looted the town, creating much negative press. Shaw was dissatisfied and, wishing to demonstrate the ability of the Fifty-fourth alongside white troops, wrote to his commander, Brigadier General George C. Strong, asking that the men be sent to reinforce Union troops then preparing to assault the outer islands of Charleston, South Carolina. The fall of Charleston would be a major moral and strategic victory for the United States. On 16 July, after arriving on James Island, South Carolina, the men found themselves in their first engagement with the Confederates. Fighting alongside white soldiers of the Tenth Connecticut Infantry, the men of the Fifty-fourth proved themselves to many skeptics by repulsing a Rebel charge. After the fight, the Fifty-fourth was ordered to General Strong's headquarters on Morris Island. They arrived on 18 July after traveling night and day. Strong asked Shaw if his men would lead an assault on Fort Wagner that night. Fort Wagner was one of the batteries protecting the entrance to Charleston Harbor. If it were to fall, Fort Sumter and the town would follow. Shaw accepted. Fort Wagner was at the northern end of the island. It was well defended on the flanks by the sea and swamps and boasted formidable breastworks protected by seventeen pieces of artillery and seventeen hundred resolute Confederate soldiers. About six hundred men of the Fifty-fourth advanced alongside several white regiments. As they charged up the beach, their ranks were cut down by artillery and rifle fire. Colonel Shaw and a handful of men struggled to reach the parapet, only to be met in a deadly hand-to-hand fight with the defenders. Shaw was shot through the heart as the men continued on. Sergeant William H. Carney, a former slave from Virginia, saw the color bearer go down and retrieved the regimental flag. Wounded in several places, Carney carried the colors to the top of the fortification to the cheers of the attackers. However, the tide soon turned, and Carney and the other survivors were driven back. Although the Fifty-fourth was repulsed in the attack, they had demonstrated enormous bravery. Of the 600 men who made the charge, 256 were killed or wounded. The gallantry of the Fifty-fourth did not go unnoticed. Their conduct that day did much to change popular opinion regarding the ability of black troops to fight. Sergeant Carney's actions in the battle won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although it was not bestowed upon him until 1900, he is widely credited as the first African American to be awarded the decoration. In addition to the enemy to their front, the men of the Fifty-fourth faced discrimination at home. When the government first called for black volunteers, they were promised the same pay as white troops, thirteen dollars per month. Later, the War Department argued that colored troops would be used only as laborers and were to be paid ten dollars per month. To mitigate the situation, Governor Andrew offered to make up the difference from state coffers. The men of the Fifty-fourth refused and served without pay. Both Frederick Douglass and Governor Andrew complained to President Lincoln. Lincoln urged patience: the government would remedy the situation in time. On 15 June 1864 Congress authorized full pay, but there was a catch. Only soldiers who could prove they had been free before the start of the war would be given full back pay. Former slaves would receive retroactive full pay only to 1 January 1864. Officers settled the dilemma by having the men swear that they owed no man forced labor before the war (regardless of their status). by Louis Kurz and Alexander Allison, 5 July 1890. These artists formed the famous printing firm of Kurz and Allison in Chicago in 1885. It was the midwestern counterpart of Currier and Ives and was noted especially for commemorative scenes from American history, rendered in a broad, vivid, action-filled style that reflected Kurz's experience as a muralist. Library of Congress. As the men gained combat experience, they chaffed at being under the leadership of only white officers. In 1864 Corporal James Henry Gooding argued that many of the black noncommissioned officers were just as capable of leading men as their white officers. Governor Andrew agreed and commissioned Sergeant Stephen A. Swails as a second lieutenant in the regiment. The War Department actively blocked this and other commissions of black men by the governor and refused to discharge them as enlisted men so they could receive their new state commissions as officers. In early 1865, after months of public pressure from the black troops and their supporters, the War Department backed down and commissioned Swails and several other black officers. After Colonel Shaw's death, Colonel Edward N. Hallowell assumed command of the regiment. It later served in an advance from Jacksonville, Florida, in early 1864. The Fifty-fourth and a second black regiment were brought in near the end of the battle of Olustee (Florida) as the Union forces fell back. The black units' heroic stand may well have saved the Union command from annihilation. The regiment continued to serve in the Charleston area until the close of the conflict. Its members were mustered out of service in August 1865. The bravery displayed by the men of the Fifty-fourth during the charge on Fort Wagner was responsible for a marked change in attitude by United States citizens regarding the ability of black soldiers to fight. Facing an enemy in the front who refused to grant quarter and a government in the rear that refused to treat them as equals, the men of the Fifty-fourth and other black units nevertheless served with distinction. See also Andrew, John Albion; Civil War; Civil War, Participation and Recruitment of Black Troops in; Douglass, Charles Remond; Douglass, Frederick; Douglass, Lewis Henry; Emancipation Proclamation; Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; Military; Stearns, George Luther; and Union Army, African Americans in.

Reference Entry.  1446 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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