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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.