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Massachusetts United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

It took a lot of guts for a Black man to sign up

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Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, urged the United States government to raise colored troops to fight the Civil War. He thought that would gain full citizenship for Black people.

“Once let the Black man gets upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny he has earned the right to citizenship,” he said.

Getting the brass letter, eagle, gun and bullets did not come easily or quickly for Blacks in the Civil War. One reason northern soldiers fought the war was to defeat slavery. But that did not translate into Black men fighting for that cause, even as they clamored to do so.

But by 1863, the war that both sides predicted would end in a few months had dragged on for two years. There was no end in sight. Heavy casualties had forced a rethinking in the North of allowing Blacks to serve in uniform.

Beginning of the Colored Troops

As early as August 1861, Congress instituted the First Confiscation Act. Then again in July of 1862, it expanded the Act instituting the Second Confiscation Act. The Act freed from their masters, on paper at least, all enslaved people fighting or working for the Confederacy. It was a paper tiger, of course, since no slaves fought for the Confederacy. But many slaves used for hard labor had no way to take advantage of the Acts. That assumes they even knew they existed and Confederate authorities would allow that to happen.

But the Acts did permit the Union to bring Blacks into the military, though not in combat. It did allow for several Black regiments in two slave states — South Carolina and Louisiana. Parts of those states were controlled by Union forces. Three colored regiments were raised in Louisiana and one in South Carolina. In the disputed border state of Kansas, one regiment was raised. But even with the enthusiasm of recruits, they were not allowed to actually fight and saw little official support.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. It marked the beginning of the U.S. government efforts to raise colored troops. Not until May 22, 1863, did the War department start to establish procedures to actively recruit African Americans. General Order No. 143 established the Bureau of Colored Troops, setting up the creation of regiments called United States Colored Troops. By the end of the war, about 180,000 Black soldiers and 19,000 sailors fought, bled and died for the Union.

The Massachusetts 54th

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Massachusetts took the lead in raising colored troops. The commonwealth recruited three regiments of U.S. Colored Troops – the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (USCT), the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (USCT) and the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (USCT). The call went out for officers. The call went out for “young men of military experience, of firm anti-slavery principles, ambitions, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and have faith in the capacity of colored men for military service.”

Of course, this meant white officers, since they were the only ones with military experience. NCOs, however, were created from the Black recruits,, a crucial development for the effective functioning of the units.

The first and most famous regiment raised in Massachusetts was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored Troops). Led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a veteran of the battles of Cedar Mountain and Antietam, the 54th gained fame after its depiction in the 1990 film Glory.

Recruiting began in February 1863 and the Regiment was mustered and trained at Camp Meigs, Readville, Mass. (modern Hyde Park). Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Massachusetts Gov. John Albion Andrews worked tirelessly for its recruitment.

John Andrew

The Confederacy’s threats of enslaving captured Black soldiers and executing white officers had little impact on recruiting.

On May 28, 1863, the now over-1,000-man strong regiment went south to Beaufort, S.C. While greeted with enthusiasm by local Blacks and Northern abolitionists, their reception by local white inhabitants went unrecorded.  Initially not trusted by the Union leadership, it was relegated to manual labor and minor raiding.

Change in Fortune

That all changed on  July 16, 1863, when the 54th fought and distinguished itself at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on James Island, S.C. The battle was a prelude to the attempt to take Fort Wagner. Described as a “desperate battle” by 1st Sgt. Robert John Simmons, the 250 pickets of the 54th held off  900 Confederates, later supported by about 3,000 more. The regiment lost 14 killed, 17 wounded and 14 taken prisoner in its first action. Their commanding general noted their exemplary conduct.

The 54th Massachusetts gained further fame for its assault on Fort Wagner. With morale high, and having proved its worth at Grimball’s Landing, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts in the abortive assault on Fort Wagner. While the film Glory focuses on the regiment with the unspoken suggestion that it fought a largely unsupported battle, this was not the case.

The 54th belonged to Brig. Gen. George Strong’s brigade, and the entire brigade, along with Col. Haldimand S. Putnam’s brigade, took part in the assault. The bravery of the 54th was not in dispute, and elements breached the fort’s walls and engaged in hand-to-hand combat before being pushed back. Colonel Shaw, General Strong, and Colonel Putnum all died in the assault. Of the 1.515 Union losses, the 54th Massachusetts went into the battle with about 600 men and lost 40 percent of them. Fifty four were killed or mortally wounded, 52 went missing and probably died, 149 were wounded, and 15 captured.

William Harvey Carney

In this action, Sbt. Willam Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the U.S. flag. He recovered the flag during the assault and carried it to the ramparts and back, although severely wounded. Talking to veterans later he said: “Boys, I did my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground.” By the time he was awarded the medal on May 25, 1900, other African Americans had earned it. But his action was the earliest for which a medal was awarded to an African American.

Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts won the Medal of Honor for his valor at Fort Wagner.

After Fort Wagner, the worth of the 54th Massachusetts was never in doubt. Before the war ended, they fought in three more engagements at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, Honey Hill in South Carolina and Boykin’s Mill in South Carolina, the latter two part of Sherman’s campaign. The regiment mustered out on Aug. 20, 1865 at Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Formation of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (USCT)

When the 54th Massachusetts was raised, recruitment reached such a level that the 54th could not accept all the enlistments. This led to the formation of a sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (USCT). While only 22 of the new enlistees came from Massachusetts, the regiment’s ranks were swelled by the formerly enslaved who had fled north and free Blacks who flocked to the colors from all over the North. One historian stated that at least 25 percent of the enlistees were former slaves. Given that they could expect harsh treatment or death from the Confederates if captured, it took a great deal of courage and dedication for an escaped slave to enlist.

Training started for the regiment in May 1863 at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass. (Hyde Park). The regiment received its colors on July 20, 1863, two days after the Battle of Fort Wagner. The news hadn’t reached Boston yet. The 55th was sent to North Carolina, where it learned of the tragedy and gallantry of its sister regiment. At Fort Wagner the 55th had its baptism of fire, manning trenches for a 58-day siege. The Confederates abandoned the fort on Sept. 7, 1863.

The 55th marches into Charleston, S.C.

The Battle of Honey Hill

The next year saw the 55th Massachusetts in South Carolina and Florida. It performed picket and fatigue duties, but saw no major action. Then late in 1864, the regiment joined General Sherman’s army. It assaulted the Confederate fortifications at the Battle of Honey Hill on Nov. 30, 1864. Attacking through a torrent of grape, canister and lead, the 55th and sister attacking units were forced back with heavy losses. But the regiment earned the respect of those around them.

Two men earned the Medal of Honor for their actions at Honey Hill. Thomas F. Ellsworth was recognized for carrying his injured superior office from the field. and Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith was honored for saving the colors after the color bearer fell.

The 55th participated in no more major actions. At the fall of Charleston, S.C., the 55th was one of the first regiments to enter the captured city on Feb. 21, 1865. It remained in South Carolina on occupation duty until September 1865. The regiment then went back to Boston and mustered out later that month at Gallops Island in Boston Harbor.

J.M. Trotter

At least four men of color became officers, including 2nd Lt. Charles Lewis Mitchell, later one of the first two African-Americans in the Massachusetts Legislature. 2nd Lt. James Monroe Trotter, who mustered in as a private, was promoted to sergeant major before becoming an officer. The other two were also second lieutenants, John F. Shorter and William Dupree.

William Dupree

5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment (USCT)

The last of the colored regiments raised in Massachusetts was the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (USCT). Organized from  Jan. 9-May 5. 1864,  it trained at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass., like the two other colored regiments. At the time, this caused a bit of controvery because cavalry regimentscost much more and involved more intensive logistics than than infantry. Two out of three soldiers in the regiment had been enslaved. Though raised as cavalry, it served as infantry. This was not unique to the colored regiments. At this point in the war, the army needed infantry was more than cavalry. Several white cavalry and artillery regiments also served as infantry.

The regiment went to Maryland in May 1864,  assigned to guard the Confederate Prisoner of War camp at Point Lookout. After a month, it was posted to the siege lines at Petersburg. It had its baptism of fire at the Battle of Baylor’s Farm from June 15-18, 1864. The battle was a bloodbath for the Union.  But the colored regiment only lost seven men killed or mortally wounded during its entire service, so it did not suffer significant casualties in the battle.

The War Winds Down

At the end of June 1864, it was sent back to Lookout Point, Md., where it remained until March 1865 when it returned to the siege lines around Petersburg. When Richmond fell on April 1865, the 5th Massachusetts was one of the first units to enter and occupy the city.

Unlike popular modern conceptions, the Civil War did not end with Lee’s surrender since there were still Confederate armies in the field. One of those was led by Kirby Smith in Texas and the 5th Massachusetts was sent there to deal with the problem. However, by the time they arrived, Smith had surrendered. The regiment mustered out at Clarksville, Texas, on  Oct. 31, 1865. It then travelled by steamer back to Boston. At the end of November, it was paid off and discharged at Gallop’s Island.

Notable Members of the 5th

Notable men fighting in the 5th Massachusetts included Frederick Douglass’ son, Cpl.Charles Douglass, who had previously belonged to the 54th Massachusetts. He had not seen any action with that regiment. It also included  Pvt. Prince Romerson, a native of the Kingdom of Hawaii and not royalty as the name suggests. One of 119 documented Hawaiins who fought in the Civil War, he later fought as a Buffalo soldier.

North Caolina-born George Lawrence Mabson, the son of a white father and Black mother, went to school in Boston and joined the Union Navy. Later he joined the 5th Massachusetts. After the war, he returned to Wilmington, N.C., and was the first Black lawyer in the state, He served in the North Carolina House of Representatives and Senate.

Finally, Cpl. William R. Meadows escaped slavery in Alabama, found his way north and enlisted in the 5th. Returning to Louisiana after the war, he served as a delegate to the 1868 state convention. There the Ku Klux Klan murdered him. A local newspaper of the day commented, “Meadows was a former soldier in the Yankee army, and made himself quite obnoxious to our citizens while clothes {sic} with a ‘little brief authority’.”

More Indignity for the Colored Troops

All the colored regiments had to undergo one further indignity after enlistment, this time at the hands of the US Congress. Promised the same pay of $13.00 a month enjoyed by all their white counterparts, about $486.00 in 2024, the government reneged on this promise after the regiments were deployed to the field. It initially gave them only $10.00 a month, and then charged them $3.00 a month for clothing. White soldiers did not have to pay for clothing.

The Massachusetts Black regiments then refused to accept any pay. They boycotted the monthly pay tables, all the while continuing to serve. At the Battle of Olustee, the 54th Massachusetts attacked shouting, “Massachusetts and Seven Dollars a Month.”

 

Edward Hallowell

Feeling the heat, Congress set legislation to pay the Black troops on June 16, 1864. However, even then, it tried to cheat them. Congress only let them claim full pay if they were free men as of April 19, 1861. That effectively excluded many who joined in 1863 and later because they had been enslaved. Col. Edward Hallowell, then commanding the 55th Massachusetts (USCT) and a Quaker, devised an oath, which was duly sworn to by all the Black regiments: ”You do solemnly swear that you owed no man unrequited labor on or before the 19th day of April 1861. So help you God.” Finally succumbing to the pressure, probably because losing Black troops would severely hurt the Union cause, Congress passed equal pay action on Sept. 28, 1864.

Colored Troops After the Civil War

Black soldiers may have fought well for the Union, but that did not mean they could join the postwar military. The Black units  raised in the next 80 years through the end of World War II were segregated. They had mostly white, and all too often, racist officers. Not until July 1948 did President Truman issue an order ending segregation. Even then, all the services, except the newly created Air Force, fought its implementation tooth and nail.

The Army would begin full integration only after the Korean War. It did not fully embrace senior promotions in the officer corps until the late 1970s. The Marines were even worse. They didn’t even allow Blacks to join until 1942, and full integration did not happen until after 1960. The Navy simply ignored the order for 20 years. In the end, the modern U. S. military simply could not exist except as an integrated force.

As for a lasting legacy, on Nov. 21, 2008, Massachusetts reactivated the 54th Massachusetts as a ceremonial unit of the National Guard. The commonwealth named it the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.


The author’s 7th Cousin, 4 times removed, Francis Lee Higginson, was a 2LT & CPT in Company E, 54th Massachusetts, fighting at Grimball’s Landing and Fort Wagner. Later he transferred to the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry where commanded Company E. He fought at Baylor’s Farm and the Siege of Petersburg.

 

 

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