By GLENN DAVID BRASHER
April 11, 2013, 12:30 pm
“Does it not behoove every colored man,” James Henry Gooding, a 26-year-old free black man from New Bedford, Mass., asked the readers of his hometown newspaper in March 1863, “to consider … whether he cannot be one of the glorious 54th?” New Bedford was a wealthy whaling town with a large abolitionist community, but one where many black citizens toiled in poverty. With such conditions likely in mind, Gooding believed that military service provided the key to African-American advancement. “There is more dignity in carrying a musket in defense of liberty and right,” he maintained, “than there is in shaving a man’s face, or waiting on somebody’s table.”
A month earlier, Gooding had enlisted in a new regiment designated the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and hoped to inspire other recruits. “Our people must know that if they are ever to attain … any position in the civilized world,” he argued, “they must forgo comfort … and fight for it; make up their minds to become something more than the hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
Military service was a new opportunity for African-American men in early 1863. At the start of the war many blacks eagerly offered their services to the Union, but were rebuffed because of the prevailing racist assumption that they could not be good soldiers, and because most whites believed that blacks were not citizens and thus the nation was not theirs to defend. Yet the faltering military situation led many white Northerners to decide that it had become a military necessity to call on blacks, and in January 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation specifically encouraged their enlistment.
Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts was determined that his state would produce the first African-American regiment raised in the North. As a radical abolitionist, he wanted to prove that black men would fight well for the country, entitling them to citizenship. “It is my design and hope,” he explained, “to make this a model regiment” and “it is my intention to make it the best.”
The governor asked the antislavery community to provide the regiment’s officers, leading him to 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, the son of two of Massachusetts’s most prominent and wealthy abolitionists. Francis and Sarah Shaw had raised their son in an antislavery home, yet they feared that the handsome and carousing young man was not as committed to abolitionism as they hoped. “Because I don’t talk and think Slavery all the time,” he complained to his mother in 1858, “and because I get tired … of hearing nothing else, you say I don’t feel with you.” But, he said, “I do.”
Robert enlisted when the war began, and his family connections helped him obtain an officer’s commission (and even a five-minute meeting in the White House with President Lincoln). His regiment fought Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Valley Campaign, was hit hard at Cedar Mountain and was in the hellish maelstrom of Antietam’s infamous cornfield. Governor Andrew believed that Shaw’s experience and antislavery credentials made him the perfect man to lead the 54th.
Understanding the importance of the regiment, Shaw was flattered but stunned by the offer, and he rejected it. His mother was heartbroken. “This decision has caused me the bitterest disappointment I have ever experienced,” she told the governor. Yet Shaw reconsidered, feeling deeply that “Mother will think I am shirking my duty.” He wrote his fiancée, Annie Haggerty, confiding that his decision made him “ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.” He also realized that if he took the offer he could see more of her, because a colonel “can much more easily get a furlough.” Thus he changed his mind, feeling “that what I have to do is prove that a negro can be made a good soldier.” His mother was overjoyed and felt his decision meant that she “had not lived in vain.”
With Shaw aboard, Governor Andrew turned to the abolitionist community for funds and recruiting. Some black leaders initially complained because only white officers would lead the regiment, and they pointed out that blacks were asked to fight for a country that did not recognize them as citizens. In response, recruiters emphasized that the regiment would prove that African-Americans would manfully serve the country, demonstrating the injustice of denying black citizenship. Black and white abolitionists took up the cause, including Wendell Phillips, George L. Sterns (one of the “Secret Six” that had financed John Brown’s raid), William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass. Almost every abolitionist in Boston donated funds, and some fanned out across the North (and even into Canada) passionately delivering recruiting speeches. Many abolitionists had long insisted on racial equality and that blacks deserved citizenship. Here was the opportunity for African-American men to prove it. Blacks “should not stand aloof” from the war, one black recruiter exhorted a Chicago gathering. “We have a country and should fight for it.”
The message worked. Shaw chose a training camp just south of Boston in Readville, and throughout March and April 1863 a steady stream of recruits came in. Most were free blacks, but some were runaway slaves, or the children of runaways. Among the first recruits was Abraham Brown, the son of fugitive slaves living in Canada; Alex Johnson, the son of an abolitionist lecturer and lawyer; William Carney, an escaped slave from Virginia; and Lewis and Charles Douglass, two of Frederick Douglass’s sons. Because Shaw wanted the men to be more physically fit than most other soldiers, he instructed the regimental surgeon to adhere to more stringent requirements when accepting recruits, and many men were turned away. Yet by April the regiment lacked only about 300 men to be at full strength, and, as James Gooding reported, “It really makes one’s heart pulsate with pride as he looks upon these stout and brawny men.”
Large numbers of curious visitors came to observe the black soldiers. “We had several officers out to take a look at the men,” Shaw noted, and “they all went away very much pleased. Some were very skeptical about it before, but say, now, that they shall have no more doubts of negroes making good soldiers.” Thus even before leaving camp, the 54th was already accomplishing one of its most important goals. Much of the credit must go to Shaw for insisting upon strict observance of military discipline and for meting out harsh punishments for infractions.
But the African-Americans were changing even Shaw’s mind. His initial letters from camp are sprinkled with racist caricatures, frequently referring to the “nigs,” “Darks” or “darkies.” Yet as training progressed, such language slowly vanished from his writings, as he was impressed with the “snap” with which the men marched and the pride they displayed in wearing the Union blue. Shaw admitted to his mother “the intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me,” and maintained that they learned “infinitely more ready” than the white soldiers he had previously commanded. He was convinced that “we shall leave this state, with as good a regiment, as any that has marched” and invited others to come to Readville to see the 54th for themselves. “The skeptics,” he insisted, “need only come out here now to be converted.”
Yet the 54th’s best asset was that most of the soldiers understood the larger significance of their regiment and thus were passionately committed to its success. “The regiment attracts considerable attention,” James Gooding noted on April 11, “if judged by the number of visitors we have.” Eyes were watching, and therefore “our position is a very delicate one; the least false step, at a moment like the present, may tell a dismal tale.” The men understood that the war was likely to result in the destruction of slavery, but this made it only more imperative for blacks to prove their worth to society. If slavery were to “die without the aid of our race to kill it,” Gooding explained, “language cannot depict the indignity, the scorn, and perhaps violence that will be heaped upon us.” Furthermore, those who supported colonization (which ostensibly still included Lincoln) would seek to “banish us from the land of our birth” once slavery was ended. It was therefore “time to act, Gooding insisted, “for honor, duty, and liberty.”
The regiment was at full strength by May 1863 and ready to move south. Shaw was pleased with the men, but more important, they were proud of themselves. “It seems that most every man in the regiment vies with each other in excellence in whatever they undertake,” Gooding noted.
The soldiers knew that the Confederate government had announced that blacks captured in battle would be enslaved, and that their white officers would face execution. Shaw sped up his engagement, marrying Annie at the start of May “because we are going to undertake a very dangerous piece of work, and I feel that there are more chances than ever of me not getting back.” The soldiers felt the burden, too. “There is not a man in the regiment who does not appreciate the difficulties, the dangers, and maybe the ignoble death that awaits him, if captured by the foe,” Gooding explained.
Yet he knew the men would do their duty. “The 54th will be a credit to old Massachusetts wherever it goes,” he insisted. “I feel confident the Colored Volunteers will add glory to her already bright name.” Indeed, they would soon exceed even the loftiest of expectations.