54th Regiment remembered: Courage, honor and glory
Brian Wright O’Connor | 7/25/2013, 8:47 a.m.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, conceived in controversy, earned its laurels as the most storied black unit of the Civil War during a daring assault on a heavily fortified Confederate battery 150 years ago.
The attack was suicidal, the battle brief. When it was over, one-half of the regiment lay dead in the sand of Morris Island or in the ramparts of Fort Wagner. The commander, 26-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw, fell with his men, shot through the chest atop the earthen wall.
The engagement in the early evening of July 18, 1863, left no doubt about the ability of black soldiers to defend the Union cause. As a result, over 180,000 African Americans eventually fought on the side of the Stars and Stripes and turned the tide toward freedom. The battle — dramatized in the Hollywood film “Glory” — followed the victory at Gettysburg by less than two weeks and proved equally decisive in the outcome of a war that stretched across five Aprils.
The sesquicentennial celebration of the battle took place on the State House steps last week with the decision of the Trayvon Martin case casting a shadow over the meaning of justice and freedom in America – the same clouds that darkened the landscape of the nation during the war that pitted brother against brother. A black governor, Deval S. Patrick, presided over the ceremony, suggesting the distance the country has come since African Americans were allowed to fight but denied the right to command.
Progress, as the storied black unit proved, comes step by bloody step, the result of steely determination and will.
At the time of the 54th’s formation, Union forces were faltering on the battlefield. The swift victory predicted by those confident of the North’s superior industrial capacity and manpower advantage had failed to materialize. Enlistments were down. A draft, with deferments available to those who could afford to pay their way out of uniform, stirred popular discontent.
As always during the war, racial tensions hovered over every development.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, freeing not every slave, but only those in the states of rebellion. His resolve to preserve the union while maintaining ambiguity toward slavery was captured in a ditty popular at the beginning of the conflict: “To the flag we are pledged: / All its foes we abhor, / We ain’t for the nigger / But we are for the war!”
But for the war to be won, more troops were needed. In spite of huge Union losses, many of Lincoln’s advisers strongly disapproved of his decision to follow up the writ with an order to put African Americans in uniform.
The impetus came from the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew. Leaders of Boston’s free black community, in a series of unusual personal meetings with the governor, including a private dinner at the home of Lewis Hayden, urged him to champion their martial cause. Andrew traveled to the White House to entreat the embattled president to authorize black troops to fight.