By RON SOODALTER May 14, 2013, 12:31 pm
Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation declared that African-Americans, “of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States,” the governor of Massachusetts, John Albion Andrew – one of the most aggressively antislavery officials to hold public office during the Civil War – put out a call across the North for men to fill the ranks of an exclusively black volunteer regiment.
The first enlistments took place on May 12, and soon scores of black men from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, the Midwest states – even Canada – had eagerly signed on. So overwhelming was the response that the governor had to create two regiments, officially designated the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Millions of modern-day Americans know the 54th from the 1989 movie “Glory,” which climaxed with that regiment’s gallant, doomed assault on Battery Wagner, on the South Carolina coast. Nearly 300 men of the 54th became casualties, along with their commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, in a desperate attempt to seize the approach to Charleston. Failure though it was, the action demonstrated to the North, the South, and the nations of the world that black men could and would fight as gallantly as whites.
Meanwhile, the 54th’s sister regiment was fighting an equally courageous, continuing battle – against the federal government. It was waged over their pay.
The standard remuneration for enlisted men in the Union Army was $13 a month, and this was the amount promised the men of the “colored” regiments by both Governor Andrew and the War Department. However, when their first payday came around, the black soldiers were offered only $10, less a $3 clothing deduction. Understandably, the black enlistees reasoned that if they were as willing to fight and die as their white comrades, they were entitled to the same compensation. It was humiliating enough to endure the scorn and abuse of the white units; to be downgraded by the very government they had volunteered to preserve was more than they would tolerate.
The soldiers didn’t strike, but nearly to a man, they refused to accept the lesser pay. This meant that their families at home would have to fend for themselves, and – until the government saw fit to compensate them appropriately — the men would toil, fight and possibly die, without pay.
In late July, shortly after the 54th was repulsed at Fort Wagner, the 55th was ordered to nearby Folly Island, a Union supply depot and staging area along the shipping channel into Charleston Harbor. Charleston – referred to by many as the “Heart of the Confederacy” – was still a strategic objective, and for nearly seven months, the men of the 55th were put to work on constant picket and fatigue duty, digging trenches on Folly and Morris islands. “We went to the front every night and day,” one of the troopers wrote, “mounting cannon, pulling cannon, throwing up batteries, when I would much rather have taken my position in line of battle.”
In December 1863, while the men of the 55th were digging trenches in South Carolina, Governor Andrew powered a law through the Massachusetts State Legislature, authorizing the state government to compensate the soldiers for the additional few dollars a month. But the soldiers refused, opting to wait for the federal government to right the wrong. Recalled their sympathetic white commander, Col. Alfred Hartwell, “They felt their manhood was at stake. They were regarded as good enough to be killed and wounded, and to work in the trenches side by side with white soldiers, so they said they would wait until they got their dues.”
The 55th was ordered to Jacksonville, Fla., in February 1864, in support of an expedition that resulted in a Union defeat at the Battle of Olustee. Meanwhile, Colonel Hartwell was desperately pressuring his superiors on behalf of his troops. “I can hardly write, talk, eat or sleep, “he wrote, “I am so anxious and indignant that pay is not forthcoming … for my men. Can anything be done to hasten this thing? No man staying at home can imagine how great and terrible is the wrong done these men, and the distress they suffer.” Their wives, he wrote, are “often reduced to degradation that drives the husbands almost crazy.”
Colonel Hartwell’s pleas went unheeded, and regimental morale plummeted. To allay the very real possibility of a mutiny, he determined to promote some of his men to the rank of second lieutenant – an unheard-of action in an army where only whites held commissions. Governor Andrew authorized the promotion of one black sergeant, but the department commander, Gen. John Hatch, reversed his action.
In late May 1864, men of the 55th engaged Confederate soldiers on James Island, S.C. Meanwhile, the situation concerning their pay had become desperate. On May 29, a black sergeant in the 55th anonymously penned a powerful letter to the editor of Philadelphia’s Christian Recorder: “We have been told some monstrous falsehoods, and have been deceived and hoodwinked,” he wrote. “While many of our families, our poor wives and children, are at home crying for bread … their husbands and fathers are out upon the field battling in defence of the Union, without receiving a cent of pay.”
In June, Colonel Hartwell sent a letter of appeal directly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The response, forwarded via Gen. Robert S. Foster, called Hartwell’s letter “ill timed,” and added, “The General Commanding is afraid your letters show an inclination to make trouble.”
The following month, the 55th took part in a second battle on James Island, during which they captured two Confederate 12-pound artillery pieces. Then, finally, on Aug. 22, the War Department sent word that all colored troops would be compensated with equal pay retroactive to their date of enlistment — provided they each swore an oath that they were, in fact, free “on or before April 21, 1861.” Most – but not all – of the black troops subjected themselves to this degrading procedure. Lt. Col. Charles B. Fox administered the oath, and later wrote to his wife, “Never may I have such another three hours … I had to use all the eloquence I was master of … until the last man raised his hand.”
Beginning on Oct. 7, and over the next three days, the men received their much deserved pay. Soon, they would more than earn it. On Nov. 30, an ill-conceived and worse-executed battle took place at Honey Hill, S.C., involving a number of federal units, including several companies from both the 54th and 55th. The soldiers of the 54th and 55th performed admirably under heavy fire and in impossible terrain, but the expedition was doomed at the outset. The Union forces, advancing against reinforced rebel breastworks through swamp and tangled woods and underbrush, took a severe beating. The Yankees suffered 88 dead and 623 wounded, including Colonel Hartwell, compared with the Confederate toll of 4 dead and 40 wounded. Hartwell recovered, and he was brevetted a brigadier general for gallantry on the field. A corporal and former slave named Andrew Jackson Smith, who saved and bore the regimental colors through withering grape and canister fire, was awarded the Medal of Honor – by President Clinton, 137 years later.
The 55th would fight in yet another battle for Charleston on James Island in February, and when the rebels finally evacuated the city. Hartwell, now a brigadier general, said: “I had the pleasure of marching through Charleston with a brigade at the head of which was the Negro regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.” Eventually, the promotions of two black sergeants to the second lieutenant’s rank were upheld, despite the threats of several white officers to resign. The regiment – after losing nearly 200 men to wounds and disease — was mustered out of the Army on Aug. 29, 1865, having successfully stood up to rebel fire and to the wrongful policies of its own government.