Unit had its role to play in war
By Frank Mastin, Jr.
Black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment went through hell for the right to fight and die like men in the Civil War. When they were permitted, grudgingly, to fight in July 1863, they faced death in combat as well as execution by the Confederates if they were captured.
“This unit wanted to prove that blacks were not afraid to fight,” said historian Richard Bailey, research and writing specialist with the Air University Press at Maxwell Air Force Base.
“Any blacks who fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union Army and were captured by the Confederacy were not treated like prisoners of war. (They) were killed, there is no question about it,” said Bailey, who earned his doctorate from Kansas State University. He specializes in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was formed reluctantly at the request of Frederick Douglass, a leading spokesman for blacks in the 1800s, Bailey said. Douglass had petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to form a black regiment so blacks could fight for their freedom. His son, Lewis Douglass, served with the 54th Massachusetts. Frederick Douglass argued that blacks should be allowed to fight for their freedom because the war was about slavery.
Initially, he was rebuffed by Northern whites who said, “‘They won’t fight, and, besides, this is not about slavery,”‘ Bailey said. Slavery became a major issue of the Civil War as the fortunes of war shifted to the Union side after 1862, Bailey said. Anthony Gene Carey, associate professor of history at Auburn University, said that while the North entered the war to reunite the secessionist Southern states, the goal of the Confederacy was to maintain its independence, which included the preservation of slavery.
In 1863, Douglass got his wish and the 54th Massachusetts was formed of free blacks from Massachusetts and other Union states, Bailey said. The regiment saw combat for the first time July 18, 1863. Led that day by their white commanding officer, 26-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the men of the 54th conducted a frontal assault across open ground against the heavily defended and well-fortified Fort Wagner, S.C., according to Bailey’s book “Neither Carpetbaggers nor Scalawags” (Third Edition, 1997).
From inside Fort Wagner, 1,700 defenders trained their muskets on 600 members of the 54th, killing 34 and wounding 146. Another 92 men of the 54th were captured or reported missing in action. The Confederates lost only eight men. The regiment’s attack on Fort Wagner is portrayed with chilling effect in the 1989 movie “Glory,” which won three Academy Awards.
Carey said the role of the 54th Massachusetts was an important part of the Civil War story. “I think the regiment itself is important, at least symbolically, or as an example of what African-Americans can and would do in battle,” Carey said. “By the end of the Civil War, 186,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army – that’s a lot of folks,” Carey said. “Historians now appreciate the contributions of black soldiers in the last couple of years of the war in terms of victory,” he said, “even if, as often was the case, they served in garrison duty.”
Although the black garrison soldiers freed their white Union comrades to fight, Carey said, many other black units, such as the 54th, actually saw combat.
Originally Published: Montgomery Advertiser, 26 May 1997