Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fight for Equality

Veterans Day serves as a time of reflection and remembrance for those who have helped defend and maintain America’s freedom and equality. Take a walk through downtown Boston you will find statues, memorials, and grave sites for many famous veterans. One monument in particular that stands out is of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The regiment, which trained in the Readville neighborhood of Boston, was one of the first official African-American units in the Union Army during the Civil War. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation passed, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew authorized and oversaw the creation of the regiment.

Some may recognize the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from the 1989 film Glory, based on their brave story. Others, perhaps, from their monument on Beacon Street that serves as one stop on the Boston Black Heritage Trail. The reasons for their recognition stem from their bravery and influential acts during America’s Civil War. Not only were they one of the first African-American regiments in the Union, but they were also the most effective. This can be attributed to their extensive training in Readville sponsored by many famous Boston abolitionists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. The abolitionists were not just fiscally helpful: they offered moral support and encouragement while assisting in recruitment too. Secondly, the 54th Regiment led the successful fight for equal pay amongst black and white soldiers. Initially promised equal pay upon enlisting, African-American soldiers were paid $10 a month compared to $13 for whites. In addition, black soldiers had three dollars withheld per month for clothing leaving them with a net pay of only seven dollars.

In 1863 Governor John Andrew appointed Robert Gould Shaw to command the recently created 54th Regiment. Shaw, the son of wealthy abolitionists and Harvard attendee, stood with his soldiers in protesting the wage differences. Together they boycotted their pay until it became equal. The 54th Regiment, including two sons of Frederick Douglass, left Boston in May of 1863.
On July 18, 1863 Shaw led his troops in an effort to capture Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The assault was unsuccessful and Commander Shaw was killed in action. Confederate soldiers typically treated African-American regiments with great cruelty and inhumanity and this attack proved no different. Intended as an insult, Shaw, who was white, was buried in a massive unmarked grave with his black soldiers. Although defeated and their commander dead, the 54th regrouped and continued on as one of the most successful African-American units in the Union army. For his bravery in the attack on Fort Wagner, Sergeant William Carney should have become the first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor, but his actions were not recognized until three decades later.

Colonel E.N. Hallowell continued Commander Shaw’s fight for equal pay and on September 28, 1864 Congressed passed a bill guaranteeing just that. Black soldiers would be paid equally and in full for their service dating back to their first enlistment date. The regiment returned to Boston in September of 1865 and disbanded later that year with the end of the Civil War. Their monument on the Boston Common, constructed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was unveiled in 1897.

The soldiers of 54th Massachusetts regiment were pioneers in many ways. The regiment consisted of decorated men who accomplished many firsts for African-Americans in service and their camaraderie was essential in fighting for and gaining equal pay. These men played a pivotal role in securing victory for the Union and for America, and their fight for equality should be remembered.

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