#1 in a journey through African American history – the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

Detail from the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston

I’ve recently returned from a seven city, 10786 mile-long tour across the eastern United States.

This trek sprang from several random “bucket list” items of mine. I was fortunate enough to be able to stitch together an itinerary which did a lot of ticking of my terminal wish list. The visits were all deeply “anorakky” in nature – mainly to museums.

But as I prepared to travel, I noticed that there was a clear theme running through most of my destinations – that of African American history.

I am a complete dunderhead when it comes to American history in general and African American history in particular. I have been disturbed by films such as “Twelve years a slave” and “Detroit”, and alarmed to hear about the horrific treatment of slave ancestors such as those of actor Noel Clarke (albeit that element originating from the Caribbean). It therefore feels appropriate to address my resultant, generalised feelings of disgust and shame by learning a little about the heritage of America’s Black community.

I was also acutely aware of the entreaty of LDV’s esteemed editor, Caron, which could be summed up in the immortal words of her fellow Scots, Charlie and Craig Reid:

When you go will you send back,
A letter from America?

So, as we enter Black History Month, without a great deal of intentional pontification, I will present some of the highlights from my, somewhat random, journey through African American history. I do this to relate my own personal voyage of discovery as a naïve white Englishman, rather than to pretend that I have any special knowledge of the subject to impart.

That journey started with the monument dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. That corps was commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and was the first African American regiment organised by the northern states during the American Civil War. The magnificent memorial, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, stands very proudly just in front of the very grand Massachusetts State House, overlooking Boston Common.

On one side there is a fine bronze tableau of a horse-mounted General Shaw with his Black American troops marching loyally beside him (see photo above). On the other side of the monument, there is a moving and eloquent dedication written by Charles E Elliot, which reads:

The White Officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war and risked death as inciters of servile insurrection if taken prisoners besides encountering all the common perils of camp march and battle.

The Black rank and file volunteered when disaster clouded the Union Cause. Served without pay for eighteen months till given that of white troops. Faced threatened enslavement if captured. Were brave in action. Patient under heavy and dangerous labors. And cheerful amid hardships and privations.

Together they gave to the Nation and the World undying proof that Americans of African descent possess the pride, courage and devotion of the patriot soldier. One hundred and eighty thousand such Americans enlisted under the Union Flag in MDCCCLXIII-MDCCCLXV

I was really impressed by the strength of those words, and the high prominence given to the memorial. It was touching that people have strategically placed flowers into the arms of the African American soldiers depicted in the relief sculpture.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Chris Fauske 1st Oct '17 - 12:03pm

    Even recruiting officers for the regiment from among Union forces was a challenge for the 54th:

    One result was the remarkable career of Luis Emilio, of Salem, MA, the oldest son of a Spanish immigrant. In October 1861, six months into the conflict, Luis lied about his age to enlist in the 23rd Massachusetts Regiment. In less than a year, he had earned the rank of sergeant. Then, at the end of 1862, he was one of four sergeants from F Company, raised in Salem, to volunteer for a commission in the newly created black regiments.

    It was not, the regimental history of the 23rd recorded, a “popular service”. Indeed, only 66 suitable men from the entire U.S. army – the officers were all white – demonstrated the “no little moral courage” it took to volunteer for one of the “’n***** regiments’”.

    On 30 March 1863, Luis was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 54th Regiment, later the subject of the 1989 movie “Glory”. By May that year, he was a captain and at that rank he took part in the assault on Fort Wagner, whose brutal consequences were so well captured in the film.

    All higher ranking officers were either killed or wounded, so Luis, at the age of 19, was for a time the acting commander of the regiment.

  • Simon Banks 2nd Nov '17 - 9:00am

    Attitudes among white Union soldiers to Black volunteers changed considerably during the conflict. There was a lot of racism and also resentment (“Are we fighting for these people?”), but as the conflict wore on, the creditable performance of Black units changed the attitudes of many, so that a white officer of Southern origin could write that if the Blacks killed Rebs and helped end the war sooner, what was the problem?

    Right at the end of the war even the Confederacy formed a unit from Black slaves with a promise of freedom! It never saw action.

    Many of the Black volunteers were escaped slaves from the South. I have wondered if a fair way out of the angry controversy over the removal of Confederate statues like Lee’s would be to leave the Confederate statues in place, as reflecting history and brave men fighting in a bad cause, and erect statues in the southern states to Southern Union soldiers, most of whom were either escaped slaves or “Rednecks” from hill country unsuitable for cotton.

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