Today marks the anniversary of the attack on Battery (Fort) Wagner in 1863 by the soldiers of one of America’s first black regiments during the U.S. Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The exploits and struggles of this heroic unit are presented in the marvelous 1989 film Glory, a movie that earned Denzel Washington a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (I might also add the film also offered Matthew Broderick a.k.a. Ferris Bueller the opportunity to deliver his most powerful and mature performance as an actor up to that point in his career.) Looking at today’s round-up of news on my Google home page disappointed me: I did not see one story that recognized this significant date in U.S. history. Of course, in a world where there are millions of news stories floating around on the Internet I could have simply not seen the recognition that is out there somewhere.
But the absence is one keenly felt for reasons germane to this blog. Both North and South, the adversaries in the U.S. Civil were firmly convinced that they were fighting the Second American Revolution. In the South, that meant a war to gain independence from a “tyrannical” northern government that did not respect property rights and the “right to rise” based on the ownership of slaves. In the North, many believed the war would complete the work that Thomas Jefferson started with the words “all men are created equal.” North and South, black Americans whether slave or free knew the war was about their freedom in both Jeffersonian and practical terms. None other than Frederick Douglass urged fellow black men to join the fight. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow….I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity.”
Regrettably, bigotry was the greatest obstacle to the service of those brave men. To retain the loyalty of the remaining border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) President Abraham Lincoln insisted at first that the war was not about slavery or black rights. It was a war to preserve the Union. Early in the war, most white northerners were not interested in fighting to free slaves or in giving rights to black people. The government turned away African-American volunteers who rushed to enlist. Lincoln at first upheld the laws barring blacks from the army, proving to northern whites that their race privilege would not be threatened.
However, even if Lincoln was not ready to admit it, blacks knew that this was a war against slavery. Many black leaders such as Douglass called from the beginning to lift the ban on black soldiers. A de facto revocation of the ban occurred on August 6, 1861, when fugitive slaves were declared to be “contraband of war” if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. If found to be contraband i.e. illegally held property, slaves were declared free and frequently employed by Union forces as laborers (a common job was gravedigger, a role portrayed with both dignity and sly humor by Morgan Freeman in Glory), cooks, and menial workers. But many, many blacks still wanted to take up arms “like the old boys in the Revolution” – a phrase potent with the memory that nearly 20 percent of the Continental Army had been black soldiers who had fought for American independence.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln relented for two reasons. As much as Lincoln hated slavery, it is obvious that he maintained some of the racial attitudes of his age including doubts regarding the intelligence and abilities of blacks as a whole. Those attitudes changed in later years, particularly during his time in the White House when he met and befriended Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as when he began to know intimately blacks who worked as domestic staff in the White House such as his manservant William Johnson and Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckley. Political more than personal reasons probably outweighed most of the factors that led to the president dragging his heels about black soldiers in the Union Army, but by 1863 one thing was obvious: If the United States had any hope of winning, it needed African-American troops. Lincoln finally embraced the idea that an untapped reservoir of dedicated and highly motivated volunteers eagerly awaited their chance to prove themselves on the battlefield.
The 54th Massachusetts was seen by abolitionists as noble experiment. To many whites in the North it was a questionable sop thrown to anti-slavery Republicans to keep their votes. To Southerners, the soldiers were deemed a danger to society and promised a death sentence if captured. Blacks were offered less pay than white soldiers – in fact, both the white officers of the unit and the African-American soldiers refused to accept any pay until the War Department paid both white and black enlisted soldiers equally. The men who fought in the 54th Massachusetts knew they faced vicious bigotry and unrelenting skepticism. However, their desire to fight for a nation that at least held out the hope of freedom and independence to black Americans and their embrace of what was almost a blood oath to prove their manhood prompted them to fight with immense bravery and tenacity. One surviving member of the unit’s attack on Battery Wagner described black troops before the assault as a “mighty host of men, about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of hell.” It is important to note that the 54th Massachusetts volunteered for the mission, an attack that could be easily called suicidal.
I have so much respect for those “sable soldiers” who many would have thought had nothing to gain by fighting for a nation that had embraced racism as the main justification for enslaving one particular group of people. Yet, as has happened so often before the ideas that make the United States what it is, the ideas so well articulated in the Declaration of Independence, inspired men of various racial backgrounds to fight for the survival of the “the last, best hope of Earth.” If you are interested in learning more about the 54th Massachusetts, I strongly urge you do two things: Read One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard and visit the Web site “Written In Glory: Letters from the Soldiers and Officers of the 54th Massachusetts.” The blacks who served in the Civil War are some of the greatest heroes the U.S. armed forces ever possessed. Efforts to take the fort and destroy its guns were thwarted in brutal hand-to-hand combat and the unit suffered 50 percent casualties, but even doubters acknowledged that African-American soldiers could serve with bravery and distinction. Approximately 180,000 “colored troops” comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more served in the Union Navy. Few people of any race in American history have personified the pledge of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.