Remembering the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
In the honor roll of Civil War sesquicentennials now unfolding — Antietam was the last major observance, Gettysburg and Vicksburg loom ahead in July — time should be taken this Memorial Day to recall that it falls on the eve of the day 150 years ago when the first African-American regiment headed off to fight for the Union. The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was but the first wave of African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Army as a combat formation. Eventually, nearly 200,000 joined the ranks, about 10 percent of the total forces that were mobilized by the Union during the war. One in five of them died in service, a slightly higher percentage than their white brothers-in-arms.
By this point in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had made it clear that the cause was broader than simply seeking to restore the Union — it was now about winning the freedom and recognizing the equality of African-Americans under the law. Ironically, though, their service to the Union during the war was at a lower rate of pay, almost all their officers were white, and they faced much derision and racism from all ranks in the early days of their participation. These hard attitudes began to mellow in July 1863 when the 54th led the assault on Confederate Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina, and suffered nearly 50 percent casualties. They failed — as did the white regiments that followed them in attacking the fort — but won great respect for their courage, a point so nicely made in the film Glory.
And African-Americans needed an extra measure of courage to go into the fight, given that Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued a proclamation in December 1862 — two days before Christmas — in which he called for their execution when captured. Knowledge of this gave African-American soldiers even more incentive to fight hard in the field. Some of their bitter struggles ended in massacre, as at Fort Pillow in 1864, when it seems that large numbers of African-Americans who had been holding this fort on the Mississippi River were killed when trying to surrender. The Confederate commander that day was Nathan Bedford Forrest — one of the South’s finest generals — whose conduct in this matter continues to be debated. Some eyewitnesses said that he tried to stop the slaughter, but the incident put a terrible blot on an otherwise sterling military record.
As we remember the 54th and the movement it started, it is also important to note that the U.S. Navy had brought African-Americans into its ranks earlier than the Army. They served in all sorts of capacities, including as gunners on different types of vessels, and were often in the thick of the fighting in riverine and coastal operations. Seven African-American sailors received Medals of Honor — as did 18 African-American soldiers.
Beyond those African-Americans who served in uniform during the Civil War were the many thousands of freed and escaped slaves who went to work as laborers for the Union forces — every one of them "freeing up a rifleman for the fighting," as a saying of the time put it. Perhaps even more effective were the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped from plantation masters and factories in the South — this usually occurring when Union forces came near — causing a chronic labor shortage that gravely impacted Confederate industrial output. And even slaves who remained under "control" often engaged in acts of sabotage, or quietly played out work slowdowns. These actions, too, had important, beneficial effects on the overall war effort.
Despite all these remarkable contributions on and off the battlefield, once the war ended there was a concerted effort to denigrate African-American contributions. As Civil War historian Joseph Glatthaar once put it, quite simply, "whites closed ranks." Their contention was that African-American contributions were minimal until after the Battle of Gettysburg — the turning point of the war. But the weight of historical opinion today is that the war was only truly won in the hard fighting of 1864, when African-American soldiers were truly coming into their own. Indeed, it was only the capture of Atlanta in September, after a summer of desultory results, that finally made it clear that the Union would win — and that Lincoln would be reelected. As James McPherson has summed it up, "If the election had been in August 1864 instead of November, Lincoln would have lost."
Sadly, the post-bellum efforts to diminish African-American accomplishments in the war, along with the general racist ethos that still plagued American society, delayed full integration of U.S. Army units for 85 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Only in Korea was the spell of segregation finally broken. And ever since, African-Americans have continued to rise within and from the ranks. The U.S. military should be lauded for the overall manner in which it has handled the matter of race over the past half-century. In many ways the military was well ahead of the rest of the country in improving race relations.
Given the military’s ultimate success in skillfully integrating African-Americans, one can only hope that a similarly adroit approach will be taken in the coming years to the matter of weaving gays into the fabric of the armed forces. The same goes for women who, if their great potential is ever to be fully actualized, must be allowed and encouraged to take on as many combat roles whose physical rigors they are able to undertake.
So as we take time to remember all who have died in service to our country, let us recall too the pioneering achievements of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. I hope their ghosts smile when they look out upon today’s military.