Ever hear of or see the the movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington? Well, that is of our Commonwealth’s very own 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The 54th Volunteer Regiment was the first organized regiment of the US Army that was comprised of African American soldiers. They fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
The Civil War began on April 1861, the 54th Regiment was not established until March of 1863. It was only after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, eliminating slavery in most Southern states, in January of 1863 that the Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, authorized the new regiment. Governor Andrew appointed Colonel Robert Gould Shaw to lead the regiment, who was from a family of abolitionists. People like the Shaw’s recruited African American men for the regiment by speaking at the Joy Street Church (in today’s Beacon Hill) and even putting out an advertisement in the Boston Journal.
Once the regiment had enough volunteers, they began training at Camp Meigs, in Readville which is now a part of Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Once the regiment began to gain popularity, many famous abolitionists began to donate money to them, providing battle flags, warm clothing, and money to be put towards equipment and training.
Though many Northerners supported the 54th Regiment, there were also those who did not. Upon enlisting in the service, the men were told they would receive a payment of $13 dollars per week. However, when the regiment arrived in South Carolina in May of 1863, they were told they would be receiving $10 dollars, with $3 taken out immediately for clothing. This sparked outrage by the unit and the commanders, and even though Massachusetts offered to make up for the difference, the unit caused boycotts on pay day, objecting the inequality. It wasn’t until September of 1864, and after a bill from Congress, that the men were paid their full wages. However, taking a stand against the unfair pay gave the men a moral boosting reason to keep fighting and win the war for the Union.
The last battle the original regiment fought together was in Charleston, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. Out of the 500 men who attacked Fort Wagner that day, only a devastating 228 soldiers survived. Colonel Shaw also died that day. As was supposed to be an insult by the Confederacy, the soldiers buried him in a mass grave with the rest of the soldiers that had died. But, Shaw’s family, wife, and friends, all agreed that there was no better place for him to be interred than beside his troops.
Since the end of the Civil War, Massachusetts has taken pride in the 54th Regiment, creating memorials throughout the state, including one that stands in front of the Massachusetts State House in the Common (pictured), known as the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. The memorial, unveiled in May of 1897, is inscribed with a poem by James Russell Lowell called “Memoriae Positum,” which reads:
Right in the van of the red rampart’s slippery
swell with heart that beat a charge he fell
forward as fits a man: but the high soul burns
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