Black Heroes: The 54th Massachusetts

  • Post category:History

The Rock Upon Which the Old Republic Would Split

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What led to the institution of the 54th Massachusetts? Prior to the 1860s, the American people increasingly became divided over one issue above all others: The institution of African slavery. In 1787, US Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (though it did, unfortunately, contain a fugitive slave clause). While the founding fathers – even those who owned slaves – desired putting slavery on the course of extinction, their belief system was eventually betrayed.

Leading up to the middle of the 19th century, harsh debates ensued over the issue. By the 1850s, anti-slavery Jayhawks and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought violently in the Kansas Territory, shedding blood to decide the fate of Kansas as either free or slave soil. Several other incidents would divide the nation further over the issue, including the Brooks-Sumner Affair, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown’s Raid.

When Abraham Lincoln – the first Republican president – was elected in 1860, it proved to be the final straw for the Democratic South. In the Cornerstone Speech, used by Alexander Stephens to identify slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederate government, Stephens remarked that Thomas Jefferson had predicted slavery “as the rock upon which the old republic would split.”

The 54th Massachusetts: African-Americans in Blue

In April 1861, the Civil War officially began with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter. For the first two years of the war, it became a sentiment in the North that African-Americans should be given the opportunity to enlist and fight. Some Northerners approved of the idea, while many Southerners loathed the thought of seeing Black troops on the front line.

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Following this, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew was given the order to begin training Black troops. Recruiting offices opened and African-Americans began enlisting. Frederick Douglass offered his services to help with enlistment, and his two sons were among those to sign up. With Colonel Robert Shaw having been given command of the troops, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was organized. Though controversial in the North, the troops of the 54th would soon demonstrate amazing capability and ferocity on the battlefield.

Fort Wagner and William Harvey Carney

Perhaps the most famous battle fought by the 54th Massachusetts would be the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. Located on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, this battery was heavily fortified with Confederate forces. On July 11, 1863, the First Battle of Fort Wagner was fought. The result was a Confederate victory, with over 300 Union casualties. One week later, on July 18, the 54th Massachusetts arrived in the harbor.

That evening, they led the charge in what was the second attack on the fort. Though the 54th displayed great courage in the fight, the battle ended in a Confederate victory. Colonel Shaw was killed, as were many other members of the 54th. Nonetheless, the 54th earned their reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

Among these heroes was William Harvey Carney, who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad and joined the 54th Massachusetts as a sergeant. As the battle raged, the color guard was killed, prompting Carney to retrieve the flag. Carney was wounded, but kept the flag with him. Nearly 40 years later, on May 23, 1900, Carney was presented with the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions at Fort Wagner.

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Remembering Hardships

Following Fort Wagner, the 54th fought in various other battles of the Civil War. Around the war’s end, several of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor. Although the soldiers of the 54th had fought gallantly, many of them would return to their homes only to be rejected by a society still unwilling to accept them.

While the Civil War had decided the fate of slavery, African-Americans would continue to experience great hardships. Even after the addition of the three Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws across the nation restricted the rights of African-Americans.

From the Civil War to Vietnam, an unfortunate theme occurred in our history. This theme is one of African-Americans fighting gallantly and dying for their country, only to be rejected and subjected to horror on the home front. The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts should always be remembered for the heroism they displayed during our nation’s most divisive time, and they should always get the credit they deserve.

Garrett Smith
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