Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day: 54th Massachusetts Regiment

Though Memorial Day has come to honor all of America's war dead, it was initially established in 1868 by Union Army general John Logan to commemorate soldiers who perished in the US Civil War. (The 11 former Confederate states didn't acknowledge the holiday until its tribute was generalized after World War I.) I thus think it's appropriate to dedicate this post to the first all-Black regiment in that war, the Union's Army's 54th Massachusetts Infantry, whom the poet Robert Lowell memorialized in a somewhat backhanded way in his famous poem, "For the Union Dead," and who gained even greater public fame as a result of Edward Zwick's 1989 film, Glory, which starred Denzel Washington in the role of Pvt. Trip. His unforgettable performance earned him his first Academy Award, in the best supporting actor category.
Lewis Douglass
The 54 Massachusetts Infantry, as is well known, came into being as the result of several years of agitation by notable abolitionist figures, including Frederick Douglass, to allow Blacks to serve in the war ("Men of Color, To Arms!"), and through the leadership of Massachusetts' White abolitionist governor, John A. Andrew, who felt that Blacks should be allowed to fight and die for their freedom. In 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Andrew, after gaining approval from War Secretary Edward Stanton to organize regiments that could "include persons of African descent. . .", selected the White officers for the company from his state's richest and most prominent abolitionist families, with 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw serving as the company's commander, and enlisted prominent free Blacks such as Douglass, William Wells Brown and Lewis Hayden to field Black infantrymen. The 100 soldiers who'd signed up just six weeks after the training camp opened at Ft. Meigs in Readville Massachusetts comprised free Blacks and former slaves; 47 alone came from the small Black population (4,500 in 1863) of Massachusetts. Two of Frederick Douglass's sons, Charles and Lewis (at right, courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University) and one of Sojourner Truth's grandsons were among them.

There was considerable public and political opposition to and disbelief in the idea of an armed, Black Union company (as well as a fear about enlisting escaped slaves in the battle), and considerable doubt then as now about Black people's ability even to function at the level required to be soldiers, so the regiment's White and Black supporters strove to ensure that the the men were properly funded, accoutered, implemented and trained. They knew that any problems would be used as an excuse to prevent further Black regiments. The 54th Massachusetts passed its first test on July 16, 1863, when it participated with the White troops of the 10th Connectictut Infantry in repelling an attack on James Island, South Carolina. The soldiers' bravery and fearlessness impressed numerous critics, including skeptical White Army generals. Its most famous moment came soon thereafter, on July 18, 1863, when Shaw chose to have the regiment lead the assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate installation on Charleston's Morris Island. One of Shaw's best remembered statements was his address to his company before launching their charge: "I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight."

Carney250 troops, including members of the 54 Massachusetts regiment and its commander, Shaw, died during or as a result of the assault, but the survivors participated in the eventual capture of Fort Wagner. Sgt. William H. Carney (pictured at left) became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor for his valor and patriotism in the battle. The infantry company subsequently fought throughout the final two years of the war at Olustee, Florida (with the 35th Colored Regiment), and at Honey Hill and Boykin's Mills, both in South Carolina.

Their exemplary fortitude and bravery on the beaches at Fort Wagner and their subsequent successes (despite being paid less than White troops) paved the way for the enlistment of more than 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors throughout the remaining years of the conflict. I've always considered the 54th Massachusetts Infantrymen, and all of the other Black Union military servicepeople, among the most heroic figures in our nation's history; as with their predecessors in the French-Indian and Revolutionary Wars, and their heirs in subsequent wars (before Vietnam), they served despite widespread societal hostility, terrible odds, and appalling circumstances that many White soldiers would or could not condone. And if they were captured, most knew they faced certain death at the hands of Confederate troops or marauders. (Eerily enough, a 2004 Guardian UK report on the insurgents-resistors in Iraq noted that they took special pleasure in killing Black American and British troops, whose presence on their soil they considered to be a particularly serious offense.) Still, an extraordinary number of men (and women) did serve in the Civil War--they literally were fighting for their freedom--and for their vision, courage and leadership, and for all similar freedom fighters in our history, I offer this tribute today.


  1. thanks for this, john. i read up on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in high school and high school, to prove a point to my racist history teacher (that, despite your CLEAR revision of american history that doesn't include anyone of color, here's something that PROVES you're a moron and incompetent...and LOOK a movie about it to boot. now what?) and in college, just to supplement one of my classes in african american studies, my major.

    i was actually thinking a LOT about people who've given their lives for this country..not just war veterans but people who have lost their lives in the pursuit of making america a "better place", etc. (Malcolm X, Marting Luther King, etc. come to mind)

    but, thanks for this, john.

  2. For an account of another Black man who gave his life in service to an unappreciative country, see these accounts of Sgt. Henry Johnson of Albany, NY who single-handedly fought off German troops during World War I, won the French Croix de Guerre, but didn't receive recognition from the US goverment until two years ago.

  3. Ryan and Bernie, thanks for the responses, and Bernie, I'll definitely check out Henry Johnson's life story. What you recount is sadly not at all surprising. I also think every day about the Black and Latino and other non-white troops over in Iraq, who are literally fighting based on lies and misperceptions, and who'll return--if they return, God willing--to face discrimination here in the US, even though we're in the 21st century.

  4. A cast of the Shaw monument to the 54th is on display in the National Gallery in Washington. It is *extremely* moving, as St. Gaudens manages to capture the expressions on the faces (and almost the personalities) of the various black soldiers surrounding Col Shaw in the regiment. Very much worth taking a look at...

    My 'favorite' black Civil War hero is Robert Smalls, a sailor (of course:) who commandeered a Confederate steamer, sailed it through a blockade in Charleston harbor, and turned it over to the Union Navy in 1862, freeing himself, his family, and a number of other slaves to boot. During Reconstruction he was a US Congressman from South Carolina. ( There was someone else as well mentioned in Eric Foner's excellent RECONSTRUCTION who managed to be in both the Union Army and Navy, and entered post-bellum politics as well...THESE are the stories we need to hear more about/pass on to the next generation. Keep up the Great Work John!

  5. Reggie, yes, Robert Smalls! He *is* one of the most fascinating Black military figures from the Civil War. Actually, there are many, and I felt like I should highlight the the quintessential (and, in certain ways) first group of official Black soldiers on a day that originally sought to honor the fallen from the conflict they fought in, but you're right, there are many other notable figures. I'm also excited you mentioned Foner's book, which is excellent! And of course we both loved Bolster's book on black seamen--I wonder why? :)