Once a year we pause to honor our veterans, not only out of admiration for their courage and dedication, but also out of gratitude for all that they have done to secure the blessings of liberty for us. Among those deserving special mention are the soldiers of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The year 1863 was the turning point of the Civil War. The war had begun badly for the north, with little to celebrate until it won important victories at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3 and at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4.
Even so, the war appeared likely to continue indefinitely. One side or the other would have to acquire an advantage, in order to prevail.
It was the north that acquired that advantage—in the form of the people who, more than any others, had a stake in war’s outcome: black Americans.
The enrollment of black men in the northern war effort was initiated by Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. Besides freeing all slaves in certain specified parts of the country, the proclamation asked that slaves freed under its terms be recruited to garrison forts and perform non-combative duties. Lincoln believed that northern public opinion would not tolerate the actual arming of black men.
Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, however, believed that black men should not be denied the right to fight—after all, the freedom of black Americans was at stake. After many attempts, he obtained permission from the War Department to form a regiment of black soldiers. The new regiment, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, would be the first regiment of black soldiers to fight in the Civil War.
Massachusetts had only a small black population, however. To find enough volunteers to make up the regiment, recruiting stations were set up throughout the north, in states as far away as Ohio. The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote a stirring appeal for recruits. Because of strong opposition throughout the north to the arming of black men, much of the recruiting was done secretly, with many black churches becoming clandestine recruiting centers.
In spite of all obstacles, the appeal for recruits was successful, and the 54th Regiment was formed under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of prominent Boston abolitionists. Two of Frederick Douglass’ sons served in the regiment.
The 54th Regiment began training at Fort Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts, in February, 1863. The recruits drilled on a muddy field throughout a cold and rainy spring. Colonel Shaw remarked that these black recruits learned the business of soldiering more quickly than white recruits that he had worked with. The men were proud to be in uniform and eager to fight.
But their commitment was tested by a proclamation of the Confederate government: black soldiers would be put to death or sold into slavery immediately upon capture. Furthermore, any white officers in command of black troops would likewise be put to death. But the soldiers and officers of the 54th Regiment continued to train, and new volunteers continued to arrive in Boston.
On May 23d, the 54th Regiment boarded ship at Long Wharf in Boston and sailed to South Carolina, where it immediately distinguished itself in small skirmishes. Then, on July 18, it attacked Fort Wagner, the principal defense of Charleston. Of the roughly 600 men taking part in the attack, 272 were wounded or killed.
Among those killed was Colonel Shaw himself, who led his men on foot, pointing the way forward with his sword. The 54th Regiment retreated after engaging in hand-to-hand combat on the parapet. Fort Wagner was abandoned by the Confederates, in September, after weeks of bombardment by Union artillery.
Survivors of the attack on Fort Wagner would continue to fight for the Union. But it was the courage that the 54th Regiment displayed in the attack on Fort Wagner that put to rest any doubts about whether black men could be effective fighters. Other regiments of black soldiers were soon formed throughout the north; by the end of the war, 10 percent of all Union soldiers were black.
Lincoln believed that the North would not have won the war without their help. After the war, the contribution of black men to the Union’s victory made a powerful argument for granting them full political rights.
Today, the 54th Regiment is commemorated by a bronze monument standing on Beacon Street opposite the Massachusetts State House. The monument was dedicated in 1897 after years of delay—a delay that partially resulted from the perfectionism of the sculptor, Augustus Saint Gaudens. He insisted, first of all, on accuracy of detail. The faces of the black soldiers in the monument are all portraits of men whom he hired as models; weapons and uniforms are represented authentically.
But Gaudens gave equal attention to the monument’s overall design, which conveys the forward movement and controlled determination of Colonel Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Regiment. The monument is a masterpiece, and in the opinion of many, the finest Civil War monument in the country.
At the insistence of Shaw’s parents, the monument would bear the motto of the Society of Cincinnati: “Omnia relinquit servare rem publicam”—“ He relinquishes everything to serve the Republic.”
At a ceremony in 1997 marking the 100th anniversary of the monument, General Colin Powell said that the soldiers of the 54th Regiment had made his own career possible. But all of us are in the soldiers’ debt. They helped demonstrate to a skeptical world that democracy is a durable form of government. In helping to make black Americans free, they made the freedom of all Americans more secure. That is why we honor the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry on Veterans’ day, along with all the other men and women in uniform who have served our country so well.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.