Roughly 36,140 African-Americans died in the service of the United States during the Civil War. Eighteen black soldiers and seven black sailors were recipients of the Medal of Honor. Fredrick Douglas encouraged free Black men to serve in the Union Army
"Men of Color, to Arms! We can get at the throat of treason through the State of Massachusetts. She was first in the War of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools. She was first to answer with her blood the alarm-cry of the nation when its capital was menaced by the Rebels. Massachusetts now welcomes you as her soldiers." (Frederick Douglass)
The Massachusetts 54th was depicted in the movie Glory. They fought heroically in many battles. One of the most famous, was Ft. Wagner
The Union soldiers were cut down by a devastating torrent of gunfire. Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, wrote of the slaughter in a letter to his fiancée.
"It was terrible. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. Remember, if I die, I die in a good cause.
272 members of the 54th were either killed or wounded in the attack. The units’ commanding officer, 25-year old Colonel Robert Shaw was one of those who lost his life.
Corporal James Gooding described the moment he fell. "We were exposed to a murderous fire from the battery of the fort. Mortal men could not stand such a fire. When the men saw their gallant leader fall, they made a desperate effort to get him out, but they were shot down, or reeled in the ditch below”.
When the color bearer was wounded, Pvt. William Carney raced forward to rescue the American flag. As the former slave fought his way back to the Union lines he was shot in the head, chest, right arm and both legs. Despite his wounds, the 23-year-old soldier staggered into camp clutching the bloody flag. His surviving comrades broke into cheers as William Carney proudly exclaimed, "Boys, I did my duty. The dear old flag never touched the ground."
Despite their heroics, the United States Government was paying its black soldiers less than its white troops. Members of the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers, led by 23-year-old Sergeant William Walker, objected. He was promptly charged with mutiny, arrested, placed before a firing squad and executed. Months earlier, Massachusetts 54th veteran Corporal James Gooding had appealed to President Lincoln for equality.
“When the war trumpet sounded over the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation, and he was refused. When the arms of the Union were beaten... again the black man begged the privilege of aiding his Country in her need, to be again refused. And, now he is in the War, and how has he conducted himself? Let the rich mold around Fort Wagner's parapets be upturned, and there will be found an eloquent answer. Now your Excellency, we have done a Soldier's Duty. Why can't we have a Soldier's pay?"
The Massachusetts 54th and other Black Civil War soldiers are featured in the documentary of Black Military History, "For Love of Liberty."
The heroic black soldiers of the US Civil War are featured in the documentary of Black Military History, "For Love of Liberty."