|The United States Army first
began to arm African-Americans as soldiers in 1862. The Louisiana Native
Guards were organized in September, and the First South Carolina in
October. The next black regiment to be raised was the First Kansas Colored,
followed by the fifty-fourth Massachusetts. Governor John Andrew strongly
supported the enlistment of African-Americans, and, in 1863, was authorized
to do so by the Secretary of War. Governor Andrew immediately began to
organize his regiment, his first action being to secure Robert G. Shaw
for commanding officer, which he did, in part, in this
letter to Shaw's father. The
letter also outlines Andrew's wishes and plans for the new regiment.
Shaw accepted Andrew's offer.
Robert Gould Shaw was born
in Boston on October 10, 1837. His parents were Francis Shaw and Sarah
Blake Sturgis. Robert Shaw attended Harvard and served with the Seventh
New York National Guard. He was commissioned a second lieutenant with the
Second Massachusetts Infantry. On May 2, 1863, he married Miss Haggerty
of New York City.
writes, "At the time a strong prejudice existed against arming the blacks
and those who dared to command them. The sentiment of the country and of
the army was opposed to the measure. It was asserted that they would not
fight, that their employment would prolong the war, and that the white
troops would refuse to serve with them" (6). The Confederate government
opposed to the arming of African-American soldiers.
Recruiting of soldiers to
fill the new regiment began in earnest in early 1863. John
Appleton was the senior recruiting officer. He placed an
advertisement in the Boston Journal, requesting volunteers. Respondents
became Company A. Recruiting efforts were also exerted in Philadelphia,
New Bedford, Springfield, and Connecticut. However, the majority of men
who volunteered for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th
were privately contacted by various prominent white men such as Colonel
The regiment first went to camp at Camp Meigs, in Reidville, Massachusetts for initial training. Emilio describes the approximate 400 men, as of April 1, thus:
In addition to battles such
as the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the regiment was also fighting
their own government, which was falling far short on their promised pay
of the soldiers. The men were offered a little more than half of the promised
$13 per month, and this offer they refused. They continued to serve their
letter from a MA 54th soldier was quoted in the Boston
Journal, on the matter of equal pay discusses the feelings of the troops.
Their interest in the matter was not so much a concern for money as it
was for principle.
The regiment was also snubbed on the battlefield. Emilio describes the actions of some towards his regiment:
month following Olustree, in March of 1864, a bill was presented to Congress
in an effort to equalize the pay to soldiers. This bill passed the Senate
on March 10 and was read aloud to every company in the Massachusetts 54th.
The Regiment returned to the Carolina low country. In September the troops
were finally paid. It was an occasion of great celebration, as one
Fifty-fourth assisted Sherman in his "March to the Sea" and destruction
of the railroads. It traveled to Savannah, and later participated in Potter's
Raid. In September, 1865, the regiment returned to Boston where troops
received a hero's welcome. They disbanded.