The Fight For Equality: The Story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment
Feb 15, 2017
The Civil War and the fight to abolish slavery are among the darkest moments in the history of the United States of America. The war pitted brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. American blood was shed for the ideas of equality, integration, and human rights for all citizens. History details the story of how the “house” as Lincoln eloquently and metaphorically depicted America in a famous speech, crumbled and separated. While many debate the central reason for the war, slavery was on the minds of the citizens of the North and the South.
The enslaved men and women longed for a the day that the sun would set on the evils of slavery and for the dawn to break on their equality. Many discussions of the war usually focus on the battles and the military leaders. The stories of the enslaved people and those that fought for freedom often go unnoticed by the American public. The Purple Heart Foundation wants to help tell the story of those men and women who fought for the ideals of the Republic.
Those that were free had escaped to the North looking to build a new life. Those free men and women wanted to fight for the nation that acknowledged their free status. It was illegal for a “colored person” to be in the fighting forces until January 1, 1863. On this day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which stated, “. . .such person of suitable condition will be received into the armed services of the United States.” The action taken by President Lincoln in the first days of 1863 paved the way for African-American to fight in the armed forces. Thus giving birth to several black regiments including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
The regiment was one of the first all-black regiments that was formed after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was authorized by Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts and commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. Colonel Shaw was from a heavily involved abolitionist family and had enlisted in the 7th New York Militia during the early years of the war. Shaw had been approached by his father in late 1862 to potentially take command of an all-black regiment. He declined the offer.
He later pondered the thought while in the field after his initial reservations about the success of an all-black unit. It was time for hims to start organize and recruit his soldiers. In order to recruit young black men to take up arms, many of the soldiers were recruited by abolitionist families. They received moral support and material support from several well known abolitionists like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Col. Shaw grew close to his men and built a camaraderie with them. He soon learned that his men would not be paid the same as their white counterparts. This infuriated Shaw. He decided to lead the effort in refusing pay along with his regiment until the issue was rectified by Congress. They were granted the full amount at the white pay level in 1863. Col. Shaw would lead the regiment until his death during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner later that year. The life of Colonel Shaw is immortalized in the 1989 film Glory starring Matthew Broderick as the colonel and Denzel Washington as Private Silas Trip.
These soldiers were just young men who wanted to continue to live in a free society. By taking part in the war they could personally see to it. They marched to war with a hate in their heart for the bondage and chains of slavery. This regiment had black and white soldiers fighting side by side while building on the idea of brotherhood. These men saw the carnage of the Civil War after the multiple battles they took part in like the Second Battle of Fort Wagner which earned them much respect for their valor. The regiment also took part in the Battle of Olustee which will soon mark 153 years.
Their first test came in July of 1863 during scuffle with Confederates soldiers in South Carolina who were preparing an assault on James Island. The regiment pushed the Confederates back and lost 42 men in the process. Nevertheless, these men persisted. It became known as one of the toughest regiments by the end of the war because of the extensive bloodshed during the battles. They were in fact used as a recruiting tool along the way so that the Union could enlist more black men. They are credited with enlisting thousands for the Union which has been seen as an advantage.
There were 1,100 men who served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment between the years of 1863-1865. One of the men that stood out was Sergeant William H. Carney of Virginia. He became a key part of the regiment during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. This became the deadliest battle for the regiment. They lost over 270 men, which would be the largest loss for the regiment during a single engagement of the war. While the regiment was being slaughtered by the Confederacy, Sgt. Carney pushed forward.
The color guard was fatally wounded and before the flag fell to the ground Sgt. Carney grabbed it from his comrade. He sustained multiple wounds while carrying the stars and stripes. After the battle, Carney made his way back to the camp. Sgt. Carney told his fellow soldiers that, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!" He was awarded the Medal of Honor 37 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner and 7 months before his death in 1900 for his actions in battle. He is regarded as the first African-American to receive the medal.
The Purple Heart Foundation is committed to telling the stories of America’s heroes and heroines who have fought to keep the republic standing. The stories of African-American heroes will be told throughout the month of February through blog posts and on social media platforms. The Purple Heart Foundation remains committed to assisting veterans in all aspects of their lives. Nearly 90% of cash donations fund the National Service Officer Program, the Scholarship Program, service dog programs, and other recreational and rehabilitative programs. The Purple Heart Foundation acknowledges that the transition from battlefield to the home front can be a difficult one. It is the goal of The Purple Heart Foundation to make that transition as smooth as possible for all veterans.
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