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The Hope and Glory of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment

Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts won the Medal of Honor for his valor at Fort Wagner.

Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts won the Medal of Honor for his valor at Fort Wagner.

In the middle of the Civil War, 1,007 African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment disembarked at Boston South Station with 37 white officers and paraded in full dress uniform across Boston Common.

It was May 28th, 1863, and they had trained for several months at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass. They were on the way to war under the leadership of 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

A third were laborers, a quarter farmers. There were teamsters, waiters, barbers, seamen, cabinetmakers, a dentist and a druggist. Fathers had enlisted with their sons, brothers enlisted together. Frederick Douglass' two sons were part of the 54th.

The 54th was greeted by a tumultuous throng as it marched toward the Statehouse. The soldiers passed abolitionist Wendell Phillips’ house, where William Lloyd Garrison watched them with tears streaming down his face. They passed the house of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came out with Henry James, Sr., who saluted his son, an officer in the regiment. Down State Street they marched, where a gang of rowdies tried to attack them. A large police force repelled the toughs. The regiment then marched in review on Boston Common before Gov. John Andrew and set off to Battery Wharf singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in a thousand voices.

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Gov. John Andrew

That stirring moment was largely the work of Andrew, who became Massachusetts governor on Jan. 3, 1861, three months before the Civil War broke out. Andrew, born in Windham, Maine, on May 31, 1818, was a 42-year-old lawyer who had taken up the abolitionist cause with fervor. He handled the legal defense of runaway slaves and helping to found the Republican Party. He was elected state representative from Hingham, Mass., in 1857, and his popularity as an orator and advocate took him to the governor’s office. Detractors called him a ‘straight and impractical republican’ and, worse, ‘a lawyer of a low type and a brutal fanatic.’

As governor he immediately began preparing for war, accepting recruits from other states to serve in Massachusetts regiments. In 1862 he began working with Frederick Douglass to win permission to recruit African-American uniformed soldiers for the Union Army.

”If Southern slavery should fall, and colored men should have no hand and play no conspicuous part in the task, the result would leave the colored man a mere helot,” Andrew wrote. They would have ‘lost their masters, but not found a country.’

Soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts

Soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts

Andrew and a group of Massachusetts radicals – radicals because they thought slavery should be abolished – went to Washington in January to ask President Lincoln for permission to raise a colored regiment. Andrew wanted it to be a model for future African-American regiments.

Henry Augustus Monroe, 13-year-old drummer boy for the 54th Massachusetts.

Henry Augustus Monroe, 13-year-old drummer boy for the 54th Massachusetts.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton granted permission, and the  fabled 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was born. It did indeed pave the way for more African-American soldiers.

Seven months after they paraded on Boston Common, Robert Gould Shaw led about 600 troops of 54th Massachusetts Regiment in an assault on Fort Wagner at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Nearly half were killed, wounded or captured. Shaw was killed and tossed into a common grave with 74 of his men. Though they failed to take the fort, their skill and courage quelled any doubt about the fighting ability of African-American soldiers.

William H. Carney was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1900 for rallying the troops at Fort Wagner.  He was born a slave in Virginia, escaped and enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts. During the fighting, Carney rescued the American flag when the standard bearer fell. He carried the flag to the enemy's ramparts and back, saying "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!"

Henry Monroe was a 13-year-old drummer boy for the 54th Massachusetts. He directed maneuvers with his drum during the battle. Later, as a Methodist minister, he described the rebel fort as a ‘slumbering volcano’ that ‘awoke to action and poured forth sheets of flame from ten thousand rebel fires, and earth and heaven shook with the roar of a hundred pieces of artillery.’

(You can see 43 photographs of the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regimenthere, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

By the end of the Civil War, 10 percent of the soldiers in the Union Army were African American, double their population in the North.

Of the 54th Massachusetts, Andrew said,

I know not where, in all of human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory.

Veterans of the 54th Massachusetts at the dedication of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment on Boston Common, May 31, 1897.

Veterans of the 54th Massachusetts at the dedication of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment on Boston Common, May 31, 1897.

This story was updated from the 2014 version. 

29 comments

  1. Molly Landrigan

    Very interesting. I’ve admired the memorial in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse but never knew the story. Was their a movie about this regiment?

  2. Molly Landrigan

    Thanks, Rob. And, Jay, I agree with you about
    Saint Gaudens and while there you’ll see the copy of the sculptor of Clover Adams, the wife of Henry Adams. I believe the original of Clover is in Rock Creek Park.

  3. Romik Sarkezians

    We are proud of our Yankee Intellectual history here in Boston.

  4. New England Historical Society

    Molly, Clover was moved from Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

  5. Molly Landrigan

    Thanks. It is an interesting sculpture.

  6. Beverly Hector-Smith

    Because the Mass 54th regiment is the only Mass black regiment ever written about, most
    people do not know anything about the Mass 5th cavalry, the only black cavalry raised in the north.

  7. Patrick Donovan

    151 years ago, not 161, right?

  8. New England Historical Society

    ^Patrick, Yes, thank you! (We’re better at words than numbers, we’re afraid.)

  9. Denise Era Schultz

    Great history fact, but I’m still wrapping my head around South Station was a train station that long ago?

  10. Julie Marden

    Augustus St. Gaudens.. Love his work. His museum/workshop is up in Cornish NH. Would love to visit there sometime.

  11. Lynn Sinopole Craft

    “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”
    “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”
    “Still I Rise”

  12. Joyce Ward

    The most majestic sculpture in Boston.

  13. Albert McGilvray

    Denise Era Schultz – the present South Station opened around 1900. It replaced four other railroad terminals that existed in that part of of Boston. The 54th left from one of the earlier raillroad stations.

  14. The image on this page, according to the Library of Congress, is not the 54th Massachusetts, but the District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln – see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000946/PP/

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