Henry Monroe, African-American Drummer Boy, Faces Enemy Fire On the Civil War Battlefield

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.

Henry Augustus Monroe

Henry Augustus Monroe

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

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 the Standard Bearer and got involved with the Methodist Episcopal church. From 1887 to 1892 he was pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem, where he published his recollections of the Civil War in the weekly church bulletin.

Battle of Boykin’s Mill

Henry Monroe wrote a poem about another battle the 54th Massachusetts participated in, the Battle of Boykin’s Mill. The loss of life in the battle was pointless, as peace had been declared and President Lincoln assassinated. But the news was slow to reach the interior of South Carolina. Monroe described how the men were mowed down under a galling fire as they crossed a narrow bridge, how they stepped over the bodies of their fallen comrades and how the enemy finally responded:

Boykin’s Mill, a few miles from Camden, S.C., was the scene of one of the bloodiest skirmishes that the 54th Regt. ever participated in. We had literally fought every step of the way from Georgetown to Camden, and the enemy made a last desperate stand at this place. No better position could be found for a defense, as the only approach to it, was by a narrow embankment about 200 yards long, where only one could walk at a time. The planks of the bridge over the mill-race were torn up, compelling the troops to cross on the timbers and cross-ties, under a galling fire which swept the bridge and embankment, rendering it a fearful ‘way of death.’ The heroes of Wagner and Olustee did not shrink from the trial, but actually charged in single file. The first to step upon the fatal path, went down like grass before the scythe, but over their prostrate bodies came their comrades, until the enemy, panic-stricken by such determined daring, abandoned their position and fled.

Detail from Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ plaster cast for the 54th Regiment Memorial.

The last two stanzas of Henry Monroe’s poem read:

Facing the scathing fire
Without a halt or break;
Save when with moan or shriek,
In the blood-mingled creek
The wounded fell.

What could resist that charge?
Above the battle’s roar.
There swells a deafening cheer
Telling to far and near,
The Mill is won!

You can see 43 photographs of the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This story was updated from the 2014 version.

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