The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry


On this day in labor history, the year was 1863.

That was the day the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched through the streets of Boston in a farewell parade and then boarded ships headed for Beaufort, South Carolina.

Thousands lined the streets for the send off, including prominent abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass.

It was the first Black regiment organized to fight in the Civil War.

Abolitionists had wrestled with Lincoln and others that the Civil War wasn’t just about preventing national disintegration but about ending the slave labor system.

They were emphatic that slaves and free black men had a right and a vested interest in fighting for their freedom and the freedom of their families.

Finally the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 codified that demand as it abolished the slave system.

The Union Army began accepting black enlistees and embarked on recruitment campaigns to enlist future black soldiers.

By May, over 1000 black men had enlisted from 24 states.

Others came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean.

Fathers and sons enlisted together.

The Union Army was far from free of its own anti-black prejudices.

Secretary of War Edward Stanton determined white officers would lead all black regiments.

Nonetheless, black enlisted men were trained, armed and ready to fight.

A young Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was put in charge of the regiment.

Though Shaw and hundreds of troops would soon be killed in battle at Fort Wagner, the regiment forced the Confederacy to abandon the Fort altogether.

The “Swamp Angels” as they were called, would continue to exact justice throughout the South for the duration of the war.

They served as a model for other black regiments, whose fighting proved decisive for victory.

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