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Illinois Men Served in the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth
by John J. Dunphy
Anyone who has watched the film "Glory" will never forget the saga of the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth, one of the first black units to serve in the Civil War. Many people aren't aware, however, that men from other states also served in the Fifty-Fourth -- including men from Illinois. Before the formation of the Illinois Twenty-Ninth Colored Infantry in 1864, Illinois blacks who wanted to fight for the Union had to enlist in units from other states such as the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth, which was founded in 1863. At least thirty-three Illinois men, mostly from Chicago and Galesburg, served in the Fifty-Fourth.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote to Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in January of 1863 to authorize him to form a Union regiment that included "persons of African descent." Andrew wrote to Boston abolitionist Francis Shaw that same month to ask whether his son, Captain Robert Gould Shaw, would agree to serve as colonel of what would be the first black regiment raised in the North. Robert, then serving in Virginia, reluctantly agreed. While not doubting the courage of black troops, he wanted to continue battling the Confederates and was concerned that blacks would never be allowed to engage in combat.
Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass encouraged enlistment in the Fifty-Fourth by declaring in a speech, "We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the state of Massachusetts." White abolitionist Wendell Phillips knew that many potential recruits were discouraged by the prospect of serving in a segregated unit as well as the fact that the Fifty-Fourth would be led by white officers. It was far from ideal, Phillips conceded at a recruitment rally and then added, "But if you cannot have a whole loaf, will you not take a slice?" The men who enlisted knew the risks they were taking. Confederate President Jefferson Davis announced that escaped slaves serving in the Union army when captured would be returned to the states "to which they belong." Shaw and his fellow officers were especially detested. White Union officers in command of black regiments, the Confederate Congress declared, would be regarded as leading slave insurrections and subject to execution if captured.
The Union army paid $13 a month to its soldiers, and the men of the Fifty-Fourth assumed that would be their pay. Upon learning that black Union troops would be paid only $10 a month, the men of the Fifty-Fourth protested by refusing to accept this discriminatory wage. Some wrote letters during their enlistment that were published in the Northern press. Pvt. Edward Washington commented in his missive that black soldiers should receive the same pay as whites since they "take up the same length of ground in a graveyard" when killed in battle. These brave patriots were also frustrated by the Union army's persistence in using them as laborers rather than soldiers. On July 16, 1863, however, the Fifty-Fourth received an opportunity to fight for the Union when it engaged in a skirmish with Confederates on James Island, South Carolina. Just two days later, General George Strong asked Shaw if the Fifty-Fourth would lead the Union column in an assault on Fort Wagner, located on Morris Island in South Carolina. Shaw knew that casualties would be horrendous. Fort Wagner could be approached only through a narrow strip of beach wedged between the ocean and a marsh. His men were exhausted after battling the enemy on James Island, but Shaw dared not refuse such an honor.
Union naval vessels and land batteries bombarded Fort Wagner all day on July 18 in preparation for the assault, which was scheduled for sunset. Addressing the Fifty-Fourth, Strong asked, "Is there a man here who thinks himself unable to sleep in that fort tonight?" The men shouted in unison, "No!" Pointing to the man holding the American flag, Strong then asked, "If this man should fall, who will lift the flag and carry it on?" Shaw replied, "I will!" A witness later stated that a "deafening cheer" went up from "this mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell." This was no exaggeration. As Shaw led the Fifty-Fourth down the beach and came within range of Fort Wagner's defenders, they were met with cannon and musket fire. Lewis Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass and a sergeant in the Fifty-Fourth, said that, "Although swept down like chaffs, still our men went on and on." Upon reaching the fort, hand grenades and lighted artillery shells were thrown down on the Fifty-Fourth.
Shaw and some of his men managed to reach the fort's parapet. "Forward, Fifty-Fourth!" were his last words before being killed by musket fire. The Union men who survived scaling the walls engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Rebels. A Confederate later admitted that his fellow Rebels were "maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops." No quarter was given by either side. The Union units that followed the Fifty-Fourth during the offensive couldn't turn the tide of battle, and the assault failed. The Confederates suffered less than 200 casualties compared to at least 1,500 for the Union. The Fifty-Fourth suffered 281 casualties -- almost half of its men. When Union General Quincy Glanville sent a message to Confederate commander Johnson Hagood regarding the disposition of Shaw's body, Hagood replied, "We buried him with his n-----s." Undaunted, Shaw's father publicly stated, "We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and loyal soldiers." Ironically, the Confederates were forced to evacuate Fort Wagner when the decomposing bodies of the Union dead, which had been buried in a mass trench near the fort, contaminated its water supply.
Although the assault on Fort Wagner failed, the men of the Fifty-Fourth proved that black Americans made brave soldiers who would fight for the United States. The Union army in 1864 began paying black soldiers the same monthly wage as white troops. Chalk that up as a victory for the Fifty-Fourth.