Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States. – Frederick Douglass
The practice was not as foreign as many people thought. African Americans had fought in American wars before the Civil War. From the very beginning of the United States, at the battles of Lexington and Concord free African Americans took up arms. When Washington was stranded on Long Island in August 1776, sailors from Marblehead, MA came to the rescue; a large majority of them were free African Americans. Free African Americans also played a significant role in Commodore Oliver H. Perry’s success at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.i Nonetheless, the utilization of African Americans during the first two years of the Civil War as soldiers in combat was nonexistent. With the growing successes of the Confederate army and the waning support for the Union cause, there was need for change in the Union military plans. 26 January 1863 was a day that many free African Americans had been waiting for, the commissioning of an African American regiment from Massachusetts. The 54th Massachusetts’ formation and the utilization of African American soldiers in the Civil War was a major contributing factor to Union victory. By looking at the Civil War before the 54th Mass., the Battle of Fort Wagner, and the post-Wagner reactions to African American soldiers, it can be determined that the formation of one regiment changed the face of the war for eternity.
Division leading up to the Civil War between North and South was along a relatively African American and white line and between two distinctly different economic systems. As far back as 1820 with the Missouri Compromise, battles were beginning to rage in the legislative halls of the nation and its’ states over the spread of what was later dubbed the Peculiar Institution.a The fight over the spread of slavery spurred much tension from 1820-1860. The evolution of the push for wider acceptance of slavery led to disdain and racism both in the South and the North. The Fugitive Slave Law, key legislation in the Compromise of 1850, required that runaways be returned to their owners when caught. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the incidents in “Bleeding Kansas” showed just how violent citizens would become because of slavery. Through all this the newly formed Republican Party decided to put Abraham Lincoln on their ticket even though he believed the South had a Constitutional right to retain their slaves. However, it is not to say that Lincoln believed in slavery, for he did not believe in the system.b Even amongst all of these seemingly pro-Southern sentiments, South Carolina left the Union shortly after learning of Lincoln’s election to the White House. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina follow suit. The build-up had begun; war appeared imminent.
When the call for soldiers came down, thousands of African American men and women attempted to volunteer for the military. However, even though the Union recruitments of whites did not reach the desired levels, African Americans were not allowed into the military as soldiers.ii Even though today the rejection of the African American soldiers is horrific and racist, at the time and in the circumstances their rejection into the volunteer Army in part makes sense. First, it is doubtful that most Northern whites would appreciate fighting side-by-side with African Americans because of the preconceived notions that whites held about African Americans. Corporal Felix Brannigan, 74th New York Volunteers, in a letter to his sister wrote, “We don’t want to fight side and side with the n----r. We think we are a too superior race for that.”iii Not only were the African Americans seen as inferior to whites, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Scott v. Sanford (1857) in his opinion said that slaves were not even people, they were property, and thus did not possess one of the most basic tenants of freedom that American citizens share, the right to defend themselves in a court of law.iv Taney’s opinion, at face value, only refers to slaves as not possessing citizenship, but in essence Taney was implying that not only slaves but all African Americans would fall under the ruling.
Northern whites also viewed the Civil War as a white man’s war that lacked ties with slavery. However absurd that seems, it was a tactical move by the Commander-in-Chief to keep free African Americans out of the military. Lincoln also was able to keep his promise to the people of the Border States by not touching slavery where it existed.v Although it could be argued that the Civil War was always a war attacking the institution of slavery, it was not official government policy until the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863.
The real logical follow-up is asking why African Americans would want to fight in the Civil War, even though so many factors stood in their way. There are a couple idealist reasons that African Americans would wish to become involved in the conflict, the first of which being a pride felt for their country. For most African Americans, they were two, three, or four generations removed from the shackles of slavery, and they felt justified in their desire to fight for the country that they lived free in. One particular letter from a group of Northern African Americans was sent to President Lincoln:
We, the undersigned, respectfully represent to Your Excellency that we are native citizens of the United States, and that, notwithstanding much injustice and oppression which our race have suffered, we cherish a strong attachment for the land of our birth and for our Republican Government. We are filled with alarm at the formidable conspiracy for its overthrow, and lament the vast expense of blood and treasure which the present war involves….We are anxious to use our power to give peace to our country and permanence to our Government.vi They seem very firm in their support of the country, even referring to it as “our country.” Still others wanted to fight so, if the situation arose, they could free others from the bounds of slavery. And there was a third group of men that fought because earlier free African Americans had fought before them. A special hero for many was Crispus Attucks, an African American man that is said to be the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. One member of the 54th Mass. wrote a short poem about Crispus Attucks:
O give us a flag, all free without a slave,
We’ll fight to defend it as our fathers did so brave.vii Despite the racist view of most Northern whites, their opposition to African Americans in the military, and Lincoln labeling the early Civil War as a war to preserve the Union, free African Americans still turned out at the recruitment tables by the thousands, hoping to get their chance to fight against the institution that, in some way, affected nearly all of their lives.
The summer and fall of 1862 forced Northern leaders to reconsider the use of African American troops. The bloodbaths at Shiloh and Antietam, along with the Union defeat at Fredericksburg not only called for rejuvenated motivation for war but also a new supply of men. Finally, the free African Americans had their chance to prove worthy, and the 54th was the first regiment which was brought together.
Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts received notice to commission the 54th in January. Governor Andrew thought the most important goal was to find the right commander for the unit. Logically he found a Massachusetts man that was from a strongly anti-slavery family. The crucial leader was Robert Gould Shaw, 25, and a Captain with the Massachusetts Second Infantry. Captain Shaw accepted the position amidst scrutiny from both extended family members and friends. April 11 saw Shaw be promoted to Major.viii Governor Andrew also used popular African American leaders as recruiters for the unit; a pantheon of anti-slavery advocates from Frederick Douglass to William Wells Brown to Henry Highland Garnet. Their recruiting line stretched from Massachusetts to St. Louis and encouraged over one thousand troops from every state to sign up.ix
The 54th Massachusetts may not have been the first African American regiment to engage the enemy but decisive action by an African American regiment did not occur until the eighteenth day of July. The battle that would ensue at Fort Wagner became one of the most important battles in the war, even though the Union Army was horrendously crushed. As orders arose for that July day, the 54th Mass. was set to serve as a flanking regiment during the assault. Colonel Shaw, who had earlier been promoted from major, was annoyed by the assignment and asked commander Brig. Gen. George C. Strong to reconsider and place the 54th at the point of the attack.x
Ironclad battleships opened up rounds on the fort in order to soften the defenses and allow easier access for the land troops. However, eager commanders, desperate to take Fort Wagner on Morris Island, were overanxious when the naval barrage of Wagner quieted its guns. Believing the guns were quiet either because of casualty or lack of ammo, the land forces gathered together and began their attack. Confederate commanders reasoned that the Union naval barrage would be followed by a land assault and quit firing at Union ships. They waited until the land assault commenced and when they did the howitzers were battle-ready as the sky rained lead once again. Despite the ferocious attack from Fort Wagner, the 54th Mass. led the frontal assault on the fort, along the eastern beach. The 54th traversed down into a ditch in order to get to the sloped parapets at the edge of the earthwork fort, all while under intense fire. As the slaughter continued, the first wave of the 54th made the top of the parapets, led by Colonel Shaw. The top of the parapet proved to be the deathtrap for Shaw and his men as a second wave of fire ended the young Colonel’s life.xi Colonel Shaw was among the forty percent casualty rate of the 54th at Fort Wagner.
The following day when the Confederates were burying the bodies they dug a mass grave where they buried the bodies of the 54th. When they came across the body of Shaw they unceremoniously buried him in the mass grave, not following military protocol for deceased officers. One soldier remarked, “We have buried him with his n-----s!”xii The attempt at insulting the Union military backfired as the death of Colonel Shaw became a rallying cry for not only those men that served under him but also to the white soldiers who learned of the story. One African American sergeant demonstrates how the treatment of Colonel Shaw invigorated the African American soldiers: “I still feel more Eager for the struggle than I ever yet have, for I now wish to have Revenge for our galant Curnel and the spilt blood of our Captin. We Expect to Plant the Stars and Stripes on the Sity of Charleston (sic).”xiii The Civil War had just reached a pivotal point: the decision not only to attack the South but to attack the very institution that the South stood for.
The courage that the 54th and their commander showed on 18 July 1863 did not go unnoticed by the still relatively racist Northern public. The importance of their assault on Wagner was summarized in the New York Tribune:
It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have been put into the field, or would not have been put in for another year, which would have been the equivalent to protracting the war into 1866. But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.xiv
The 54th’s courage opened up opportunity for the inclusion of more African Americans into the Union forces. Even Lincoln, who previously spoke out against African American troop use, issued a public letter demonstrating his support:
Some of the commanders of our armies in the field…believe that emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion….You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you.xv
The words written by Lincoln show a tremendous change in the view of African American soldiers. His eloquent words demonstrate his shift towards the use of African American soldiers in the military, and it shows the trust that he has for his commanders.
The public sector had not yet expressed their show of support for the government policy changes. A few months after Lincoln penned his public letter the people of New York City responded. The 20th U.S. Colored Infantry of New York, of the newly formed United States Colored Troops, paraded through the streets of New York City. The riots that had once littered the city and led to the brutal murders of many African Americans had morphed in fewer than nine months into a place where “thousands of people, both white and African American, lined the avenues to cheer these African Americans in Union blue.”xvi Without the tremendous courage of both Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the entire 54th Mass. regiment, the soldiers of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry would never have received the fanfare of the parade, because they would have never been assembled in the first place.
The 54th Massachusetts may not have been the very first African American regiment to engage in battle during the Civil War. Previous regiments had fought in minor skirmishes though, contrary to the 54th which took the point on a nearly impenetrable fortification on Morris Island. Not only did they take the point, but they choseto take the point; Colonel Shaw was actually offended when they were assigned to a flank. The courageous fight they endured, along with their forty percent casualty rate, was not in vain. One battle changed a war. Military leaders that had initially opposed African American troop involvement wrote letters to President Lincoln asking for approval to use African American troops. Following the battle at Fort Wagner, nearly two-hundred thousand African Americans would wear the Union blue. The use of the African Americans was more significant than just for soldiers, which were deeply needed. Instead, the use of African American soldiers following Fort Wagner was the first time that the Union actually attacked the Southern Institution of Slavery, not just merely the Southern Army. Before 18 July 1863, as a Union army approached a plantation, the owner looked out the window and was scared that the white men would use his house. After 18 July 1863, a plantation owner that looked out his window at an approaching Union army would be terrified, for regiments of soldiers in that army were most likely African American.
a The PeculiarInstitution is a book written by Kenneth Stampp.
b In Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address he even touched on the help he would provide the South: “…that all the protection which, consistently with the Constitution and laws, can be given to all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause – as cheerfully to one section as to another.
i US Brig Niagra. (Website) <http://www.brigniagara.org/battle.htm> [accessed on 10 November 2007].
ii Bethuel Hunter, “No Man Can Hinder Me” African American Troops in the Union Armies During the American Civil War. (Exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 2003-2004) 5.
iii Hunter, 6.
iv Epstein, Lee and Walker, Thomas G. “Scott v Sanford” Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Institutional Powers and Constraints 6th Edition. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007) 354-359.
v Zilversmit, Arthur, ed. “Speech at Freeport, Illinois” Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc.:1971) 43-47.
vi McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965) 33.
vii McPherson, 12.
viii Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953) 9.
ix Quarles, 8-9.
x Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Aliiance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. (New York: Meridian, 1990) 138.