When it learned that the Federal Government was recruiting African Americans, both free men and former slaves as soldiers the Confederate Congress issued this proclamation:
“Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.”
Those who doubt that the leaders of the Confederacy fought the war for any “state right” other than the maintenance and expansion of slavery needs to look at the actions and words of that racist republic.
One hundred and fifty-four years ago today one of those African American regiments went into action against the Confederate works at Battery Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The 54th was raised in Boston and Frederick Douglass was instrumental in recruiting men to serve in it, two of which were his sons, and another the grandson of Sojourner Truth. The regimental commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was the son of wealth abolitionists. When the call for volunteers was made in 1861 joined the 7th New York, and later commissioned in the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with which he fought at the battle of Antietam. After that battle he was offered the command of a black regiment then being raised in Boston. He initially declined the offer but on second thought decided to take it.
Later tonight I will probably watch the film Glory about that regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It was one of the first African American Regiments raised for service in the Civil War. I have seen the movie a number of times, and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Of course I have written a number of articles about the 54th and other African American units in the Civil War, the later “Buffalo Soldiers” and African American military pioneers, but I cannot forget the 54th. These were men who volunteered and remained in service knowing that the Confederate Congress had condemned them to death should they ever be captured. They also endured the mocking of some White Union soldiers as well as pay inequity with whites, for doing the same dangerous job as infantrymen.
When it was decided that an attack would be made on Battery Wagner the 54th was chosen for the mission. General Thomas Seymour provided this rational for leading the attack the the 54th: they “were in any respect as efficient as any other body of men; and as one of the strongest and best officered, there seemed to be no good reason why it should not be selected for the advance”
During their attack on the night of July 18th 1863, 272 members of the 600 men of the 54th who made the attack including their commander, the twenty-six year-old Colonel Shaw were killed or wounded in a bloody but unsuccessful assault on Battery Wagner. Following the assault, “Sergeant William H Carney staggered back from the fort with wounds in his chest and right arm, but with the regiment’s Stars and Stripes securely in his grasp. “The old flag never touched the ground, boys,” Carney gasped as he collapsed at the first field hospital he could find.” He would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Thinking that it was an insult the Confederates stripped Shaw’s body of his uniform and robbed him of his possessions, including his sword. They threw Colonel Shaw’s body in a mass grave with his African American soldiers. When Union commanders asked for the return of his body were told by Confederate commander General Johnson Hagood:
“Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial; as it is, I shall bury him in the common trench with the niggers that fell with him.”
Union officers sought to have his remains returned but Shaw’s father wrote to implore them not to continue the effort. He wrote to the regimental surgeon:
“We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has!”
When Shaw first went to war he wrote to his mother words that should be in all of our hearts when we fight for the rights of others, especially those who are despised due to their race, national origin, color, religion or lack thereof, gender, or sexual orientation:
“We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any.”
That is what we fight for when we stand for the civil rights of others. That is why it is important to remember the example of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.