“A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment” by Luis Emilio tells the history of one of the most famous infantry regiments ever to serve in any American War. It primarily consisted of black soldiers who were led by white officers, and they provided valuable service to the Union Army during the American Civil War.
It was one of the first black combat units assembled in the Northern States so there was a lot of interest and curiosity surrounding it. At a time when there was a lot of debate about the suitability of using blacks for armed combat, its performance was always going to be closely monitored, and the outcome would have a significant bearing on the fate of blacks in the army and the country as a whole.
There were so many negative perceptions surrounding blacks serving in the army around this time but this only served to foster a sense of unity and determination amongst the black soldiers and their white officers, which spurred them to fight gallantly in the battles that they were involved in as a unit.
History of Formation
The outbreak of the Civil War saw many free black men volunteer to enlist in the U.S. military but there was a 1792 law in place that barred colored people from serving in the military. With the Union forces suffering a series of heavy military defeats, and fewer white men volunteering to join the army, Congress repealed the 1792 law in 1862 and passes a Militia Act that gave the president powers to employ blacks in any military or naval service.
In March 1863, the then Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew authorized the formation of the regiment and personally picked Colonel Robert Gould Shaw to command the unit. The recruitment process was mainly done by white abolitionists, including Colonel Shaw’s parents, with the help of prominent black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass whose two sons were amongst the recruits.
The unit trained at Camp Meigs in Reedville, near Boston under the close supervision of white soldiers. The 54th left Boston in May 1863, ready to do battle for the union, but were initially used to provide manual labor behind the frontlines. They tasted their first battlefield action when they stopped a Confederate assault in July the same year.
Author Luis Emilio clearly documents how the black soldiers of the 54th regiment were discriminated against in terms of payment for military service. During recruitment, they were promised salaries and allowances equal to that being paid to the white soldiers, which was $13 a month at that time. Instead, the black soldiers were paid $10 per month, and still $3 from this were withheld for clothing, meaning they took home only $7 per month.
This drew wide protests from many quarters. Colonel Shaw, the white officers and the black soldiers of the 54th regiment boycotted collecting their pay until this matter was addressed. Congress eventually enacted legislation that granted equal pay to black soldiers in June 1864.
A Lasting Legacy
The 54th regiment was disbanded after the end of the Civil War, but it left an indelible mark in history. The black soldiers of the 54th and in other units played a crucial role in helping the union achieve victory in the war. The black soldiers were tough, resilient and brave, and they fought with a lot of determination.
A monument was constructed in their honor in 1884-1898 on the Boston Common and is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail. Colonel Shaw died in battle, and was buried in the trenches alongside the other black soldiers who suffered the same fate. Shaw’s parents supported this, as they felt that their son deserved to lie amongst his soldiers that he had led so valiantly in battle.
The 54th regiment also produced the first black man to win the Medal of Honor. Sgt. William H. Carney of Company C received this recognition for exceptional bravery on the battlefront in which he risked his life openly to save their flag. The spreading news of heroics of the 54th regiment led to more blacks enlisting for service in the army in many other units all over the country.
In writing “A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment”, Luis Emilio documents a very important turning point in America’s history that paved the way to the acceptance of blacks as first class American citizens, enjoying all the freedoms and privileges like their white counterparts.
Black leaders pushed strongly for the recruitment of black troops since it presented the perfect opportunity for the black man to prove his courage and patriotism on the battlefield. The nation would be obligated to grant them first class citizenship if they participated in the war to defend their territory. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, blacks got their chance to fight for full citizenship.
The Civil War become about more than preserving the Union; it became the war of freedom for all American people, both white and black. The role played by the black soldiers of the 54th regiment, and all the black soldiers who fought in the war, helped speed up the general acceptance of black people as true American citizens.
Emilio, Luis. A Brave Black Regiment. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Luis, Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1995), 210.
Luis, Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1995), 214