The 54th Massachusetts was the first black regiment in the history of the American army. The unit comprised 36 white officers commanding more than 1,000 men. It was established by famed abolitionist governor John A. Andrew in February 1863 to shore up the numbers in the Union Army. Although the state of Massachusetts had few black residents at the time of recruitment, more than 1,000 volunteers turned up in Camp Meigs for training two weeks later. Most men came from the neighboring states of Indiana, New York and even Canada. A quarter of the volunteers hailed from the slave-owning states and the Caribbean. In fact, so many people turned up for the recruitment that the army instituted an extremely rigid and thorough medical examination. As a result, the unit ended up comprising the most exceptional breed of soldiers in the history of the union army.
For the greater good
While Abraham Lincoln argued that the core factor underlying the civil war was to keep the United States from disintegrating, the abolitionists had a different perspective. They argued that putting a stop to slavery was the main reason and as such, it was imperative to let black people join the fight for liberation. Before January 1863, the Union Army did not admit black people among it ranks following a 1792 law barring persons of color from serving in the military. However, following the Emancipation Proclamation decree, healthy black individuals meeting the set criteria were eligible for recruitment. Secretary of State Stanton mandated the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts to create a black regiment from the free black community.
Previously, deep-running misconceptions meant that black people were believed to be socially and intellectually inadequate to serve as soldiers. As such, their involvement was limited to building roads, burying the dead and driving wagons. However, as the Civil War raged on and the northern morale faltered in the face of a series of military defeats and low enrollment among white men, opinions began shifting. The Confiscation Act of 1862 granted slaves from rebel masters freedom as soon as they enrolled in the army. Similarly, the Militia Act empowered the president to accommodate them in any military and naval services as long as they met the requirements.
The price of freedom
John A. Andrews appointed white officers from wealthy and prominent abolitionist families to lead the 54th Massachusetts. It was a perceptive move because such families had considerable political influence and could back the enlistment financially in addition to outfitting the men. Tactfully, the governor enlisted the help of prominent black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who helped to convince the black population. The supporters of the regiment pulled out all the stop to ensure its success and demonstrate the suitability of black men as soldiers and US citizens.
The taste of battle
Colonel Robert Shaw, a 25-year-old soldier who dropped out of Harvard University to enroll in the Union Army, was chosen to lead the 54th Massachusetts. Before departing for South Carolina, the well-trained 54th regiment paraded the streets of Boston to the cheers of thousands of well-wishers. The soldiers had the first taste of battle about two months later, successfully repulsing an attack from Confederate soldiers on James Island.
The supreme test of the regiment’s battle worthiness came on July 18 when they had to lead an assault on the Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island. A grave miscalculation by the Union’s generals saw the 54th take on heavy casualties when 1,700 Confederate forces from inside the fort came out against them. Outgunned and outnumbered, the regiment suffered heavy casualties, losing 281 members of the initial 600 charging force, including the commanding officer, Shaw. Despite losing the battle, the soldiers caused lots of damage to the fort, prompting the Confederate soldiers to abandon it soon after the assault. Over the next two years, the regiment carried out successful raids in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida before returning to Boston in September 1865.
The brave men of the regiment stuck to their guns despite the Confederate army’s hostile declaration. The Confederate Army announced that they would sell any captured black soldiers back to slavery and any captured white officers would be executed. After the battle of Fort Wagner, the Confederate army buried all the fallen soldiers in a single mass grave, hoping to send a chilling message. That, however, did not deter the 54th regiment or the enrollment rates of black people in the Union Army. Despite the regiments’ bravery and valor on the battlefield, their men’s wage were below the standard tariffs. They received a weekly pay of $10 while the white soldiers had an additional $3 every week. The entire regiment boycotted their wages for more than 18 months until the army enacted equal pay for all the men.
The 54th Massachusetts is the embodiment of bravery and honor along with the length that black people were willing to go to secure their freedom. These men were ready to shed blood to fight against the evils of slavery and earn a place in American society.