Henry Monroe was just 13 years old when he directed maneuvers for the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment during the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Standing at his commanding officer’s side, Henry beat out instructions on his drum: Advance. Halt. Retreat. Cease fire. The beat of the drum was one of the few things that could be heard above the noise of battle.
The 54th Massachusetts’ African-American soldiers led the bloody assault on the Confederate fort. Many were wounded or killed, including their commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The conduct of the 54th Massachusetts troops during the Battle of Fort Wagner put to rest any questions about their courage, and afterward the Union stepped up recruitment of African American soldiers. (The battle also inspired the movie Glory.)
Later in life, as a Methodist minister, Henry Augustus Monroe described the attack. Fort Wagner, he wrote, was 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.’
Many of the drummer boys in the Civil War were either orphans or followed their fathers into the military. They also carried water, took care of horses, gathered wood, cooked, carried the wounded off battlefields and buried the dead. In battle, they were strategic targets for marksmen, for silencing the drum cut off communication to the troops.
Henry Monroe was from New Bedford, Mass., which contributed a number of soldiers to the 54th Regiment. He attended public schools in Boston and New Bedford, graduating at the head of his class in which he was the only African-American.
He was mustered out of the army at the end of the war, and he went on to teach in the Freedman’s Bureau. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him an inspector of customs at the Port of Baltimore. He published a newspaper called