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54th Mass. Regiment to march in inaugural parade

Tierney McAfee | 1/14/2009, 4:15 a.m.
The Massachusetts National Guard’s newly designated 54th Volunteer Regiment will march in President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural parade on Jan. 20. Staff Sgt. Don Veitch

The Massachusetts National Guard’s newly organized and designated 54th Volunteer Regiment (Selected Honor Guard) will carry its proud lineage to Washington, D.C., to march in President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural parade on Jan. 20.

The historic predecessors of today’s unit — the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the nation’s first all-African American military regiment — earned fame for fighting for the North during the Civil War.

The unit was noted for its charge on Battery Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 and for producing the nation’s first black Medal of Honor winner, Sgt. William Carney. Later, their story was dramatized in the Academy Award-winning 1989 film “Glory.”

The 54th was disbanded after the war, but was reactivated on Nov. 21, 2008, in a State House ceremony to serve as the Massachusetts National Guard ceremonial unit for military funerals and state functions.

Composed of about 50 individuals, the new incarnation of the 54th was chosen from a record number of applicants to march in the parade. Member Maj. David Hencke said that is no coincidence.

“These exceptionally brave men took military action that was part of the force that changed the whole direction of the country,” Hencke said during a telephone interview with the Banner. “Here we are today, with an African American man as chief executive of the country, and I think in a lot of ways, this historical change is a result of people like those soldiers leading the way.

“The 54th Regiment didn’t get to march through Washington in 1865, so it’s an honor to finally be able to do what they weren’t able to do then,” he added.

A Boston resident who has been a member of the regiment since its reactivation, Hencke said he feels privileged to simultaneously celebrate Obama’s presidency and the regiment’s original members.

 “It’s a great honor to be a part of such an amazing legacy and this heritage of the 54th Regiment,” Hencke said. “Our intent is to continue to keep that legacy alive and educate people about it, so it’s obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity for us and a tremendous chance to be a part of this phenomenal event.”

The unit won’t be alone in celebrating their proud history and Obama’s swearing-in down in D.C. Civil War re-enactors of the original 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment will accompany them on their march from the Capitol to the White House. About 25 members of the Mattapan-based re-enactment group, which has been active for about 20 years, will attend.

“They’ve been around for several years, so when we re-formed [the unit], we invited them to fully participate with us,” said Hencke. “They are in a sense members.”

There has been a lot of preparation for the event, according to Chaplain Paul Minor of Belmont, with dress rehearsals and weekly meetings to attend, security measures to consider, and most notably, he said, the battle for rare blue overcoats.

Minor said the unit struggled for months to locate enough of the uncommon coats, typically donned by the Old Guard and similar in design to Civil War period attire.

But Minor, who will become the second member of his family to march in an inaugural parade, said the sometimes tedious process of ironing out the dozens of details associated with an undertaking like marching in the inaugural parade have not affected the unit’s moral.

“It’s been a major thing to plan, bigger than I ever thought,” said Minor by phone. “But it hasn’t taken away from our excitement. Our spirits are high and I think everyone still has their eye on the big picture.

“This is a historic and exciting event,” Minor added. “As one of us said the other day, ‘How many soldiers anywhere can say they’ve been a part of an inaugural parade?’ Not many.”