In the middle of the Civil War, 1,007 African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment disembarked at Boston South Station with 37 white officers. They then paraded in full dress uniform across Boston Common as a tumultuous throng cheered them on.
It was May 28th, 1863, and they had trained for several months at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass. They were on the way to war under the leadership of 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
They marched knowing that the Confederacy had promised to sell black soldiers into slavery if captured, and to execute the white officers.
The 54th Massachusetts
A third had worked as laborers, a quarter farmers. There were teamsters, waiters, barbers, seamen, cabinetmakers, a dentist and a druggist. Fathers had enlisted with their sons, and brothers enlisted together. Frederick Douglass’ two sons joined the 54th.
TDuring their march, the soldiers passed abolitionist Wendell Phillips’ house, where William Lloyd Garrison watched them with tears streaming down his face. They then passed the house of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came out with Henry James, Sr., who saluted his son, an officer in the regiment.
Down State Street they marched, where a gang of rowdies tried to attack them. A large police force, however, repelled the toughs. The regiment then marched in review on Boston Common before Gov. John Andrew and set off to Battery Wharf singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in a thousand voices.
That stirring moment was largely the work of Andrew, who became Massachusetts governor on Jan. 3, 1861, three months before the Civil War broke out.
Andrew, born in Windham, Maine, on May 31, 1818, was a 42-year-old lawyer who had taken up the abolitionist cause with fervor. He handled the legal defense of runaway slaves and helping to found the Republican Party. He was elected state representative from Hingham, Mass., in 1857, and his popularity as an orator and advocate took him to the governor’s office.
Detractors called him a ‘straight and impractical republican’ and, worse, ‘a lawyer of a low type and a brutal fanatic.’
As governor he immediately began preparing for war, accepting recruits from other states to serve in Massachusetts regiments. In 1862 he began working with Frederick Douglass to win permission to recruit African-American uniformed soldiers for the Union Army.
”If Southern slavery should fall, 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,” Andrew wrote. They would have ‘lost their masters, but not found a country.’
Paving the Way
Andrew and a group of Massachusetts radicals – radicals because they thought slavery should be abolished – then went to Washington in January to ask President Lincoln for permission to raise a colored regiment. Andrew wanted it to be a model for future African-American regiments.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton granted permission, and the fabled 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was born. It did indeed pave the way for more African-American soldiers.
Seven months after the parade on Boston Common, Robert Gould Shaw led about 600 troops of 54th Massachusetts Regiment in an assault on Fort Wagner at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Nearly half were killed, wounded or captured. Shaw died in the battle, and the Confederates tossed into a common grave with 74 of his men.
Though the 54th Massachusetts failed to take the fort, the soldiers’ skill and courage quelled any doubt about the fighting ability of African-American soldiers.
Heroes of the 54th Massachusetts
William H. Carney received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1900 for rallying the troops at Fort Wagner. Born a slave in Virginia, he escaped and enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts.
During the fighting, Carney rescued the American flag when the standard bearer fell. He carried the flag to the enemy’s ramparts and back, saying “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!”
Henry Monroe joined as a 13-year-old drummer boy for the 54th Massachusetts. He directed maneuvers with his drum during the battle. Later, as a Methodist minister, he described the rebel fort as a “slumbering volcano.” He then explained how it “awoke to action and poured forth sheets of flame from ten thousand rebel fires, and earth and heaven shook with the roar of a hundred pieces of artillery.”
(You can see 43 photographs of the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)
By the end of the Civil War, 10 percent of the soldiers in the Union Army were African American, double their population in the North.
Of the 54th Massachusetts, Andrew said,
I know not where, in all of human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory.
This story last updated in 2022. For the story of Frederick Douglass’ escape to freedom, click here.
Detail of Robert Gould Shaw Memorial By Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2675742.