A crowd of several thousand men, women, and children lined the street before the Massachusetts State House in Boston on May 28, 1863. They had gathered to honor and cheer another regiment from the commonwealth before it departed for the war. This farewell, however, was unlike any that had preceded it. This time, with the stride of each soldier’s step, the onlookers witnessed history. Before them marched the 54th Massachusetts, the first African-American volunteer regiment raised by a Northern state.
Many residents of Massachusetts believed that this day had been long overdue. Some of the state’s most notable citizens had been in the forefront of the antebellum abolitionist movement. Since the Civil War’s earliest days, they had urged emancipation upon President Abraham Lincoln and Congress.
As the months lengthened without action from the Federal government, the abolitionists’ voices became more strident. Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, sanctioned the enlistment of African Americans into the Army and Navy.
Lincoln’s act was part of a swelling current. In July 1862, as part of the Militia Act, Congress had authorized the formation of black units. Union commanders in Kansas and occupied sections of Louisiana and South Carolina began organizing regiments of former slaves and freedmen. By that fall, several regiments had filled their ranks, but no units had been created by Northern state governors.
Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, an abolitionist, had wanted to raise a black regiment for some time. He approached Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and on January 26, 1863, Stanton approved Andrew’s proposal. The state began the recruitment of volunteers at once.
Governor Andrew told black residents: “Every race has fought for Liberty and its own progress. If Southern slavery should fall by the crushing of the Rebellion, and colored men should have no hand and play no conspicuous part in the task, the result would leave the colored man a mere helot.”
The governor assured prospective black recruits that the regiment’s white officers would be committed to the antislavery cause and experienced in combat. Andrew offered the colonelcy to 25-year-old Captain Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. A member of a wealthy and respected abolitionist family, Shaw reluctantly agreed to accept the commission. The state government established Camp Meigs in Readville as a training camp for the new regiment.
The recruitment of volunteers encompassed the entire North. Andrew formed a committee to direct the effort, and abolitionists raised $5,000 to finance it.
Former slave and renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass traveled through the states telling fellow blacks, “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” Earlier he had declared that once a former slave wore the uniform of a soldier, “there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Two of Douglass’ sons enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts.
The recruitment campaign garnered more than 1,000 volunteers. The response had been so successful that Andrew authorized the formation of a second regiment, the 55th Massachusetts. The members of the 54th hailed from 24 states, the District of Columbia, the West Indies and Africa. A quarter of them had been slaves, and a majority listed their occupation as common laborer. Most of the recruits could read and write.
On May 18, Stanton informed Andrew that the 54th Massachusetts had been assigned to the Department of the South at Hilton Head, S.C. Ten days later, with their band playing and citizens waving flags and cheering, the African-American soldiers passed in review for Andrew and an assembly of other dignitaries. They then boarded a transport in Boston Harbor and steamed south.
The 54th Massachusetts joined an operation directed against the defenses of Charleston, S.C. The Union commanders targeted Fort (or Battery) Wagner, an earthwork on Morris Island that guarded the city’s harbor. Shaw had asked his superiors to give his black soldiers an opportunity to prove their courage.
On July 18, in the predawn darkness, the 54th led a frontal assault against Wagner. It was a time for brave men, and they affirmed their bravery, briefly reaching the interior of the fort. The attack failed, with the 54th sustaining the heaviest casualties among the Federal units. Captain Shaw was among the dead.
Several weeks later in a public statement, Lincoln said of black soldiers: “If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”
That promise—the payment of a nation’s terrible debt to some of its own—had impelled men of the 54th Massachusetts and tens of thousands of fellow African Americans to risk their lives for the cause. When the 54th marched down Boston’s storied streets, it heralded the fulfillment of that promise.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.