Remembering the 54th Regiment

Last year on Memorial Day, I wrote about Civil War remembrance in general; this year I’m following up with a specific focus on the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, of Glory fame, and several Salem connections.  Thanks to the film, the story of the 54th is pretty well-known:  formed by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew after the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862, it was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, from a distinguished Boston family, to lead the Regiment, which formed a heroic storming column in an effort to take the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, losing nearly half its soldiers in the process, including Colonel Shaw. Shaw and the 54th Regiment were immortalized long before Glory, most prominently on the bronze bas-relief monument of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (completed in 1897), located across from the State House on Boston Common.

Recruitment broadside for the 54th, Massachusetts Historical Society; the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and a plaster casting at the National Gallery of Art.

Less well-known, in varying degrees, is the involvement of three Salem men with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment: Willard Peele Phillips, a prominent Salem businessman (who happened to live in my house at the time, or I live in his now) served on Governor Andrew’s recruiting committee for the regiment, Luis Fenollosa Emilio was a young captain in the Regiment, and later served as acting commander after he became the only officer to survive Fort Wagner, and Francis H. Fletcher, a clerk in a Salem printing office, enlisted in the Regiment and fought until the end of the war. Those are the bare facts, but the involvement of these three men runs deeper.  Phillips raised money, not only men, for the Regiment, Emilio later became the historian of the Regiment with the 1891 publication of The Brave Black Regiment.  The History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863-65, and Fletcher protested the army’s unequal (or nonexistent!) pay system while still in service.

Transcription: You take a far more liberal view of things than you could in my situation. Just one year ago to day our regt was received in Boston with almost an ovation, and at 5 P. M. it will be one year since we were safely on board transport clear of Battery Wharf and bound to this Department: in that one year no man of our regiment has received a cent of monthly pay all through the glaring perfidy of the U.S. Gov’t.

Capts. Tomlinson and Emilio (center) with Lt. Speer, all of Company C of the Massachusetts 54th, May 1863, Library of Congress, Letter of Francis H. Fletcher to Jacob C. Safford, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The heavy losses sustained by the 54th at Fort Wagner in July of 1863 (272 men were killed, wounded or captured, out of the 600 men who participated in the assault), along with young Colonel Shaw’s heroic death, captured some “glory” for the depleted regiment even in its own time. Harpers Weekly and Currier & Ives prints were disseminated to a national audience, engaged in this terrible war to a degree that doesn’t seem possible today.

Casualty List for the Mass. 54th after Fort Wagner, National Archives & Records Administration, Harpers and Currier & Ives lithographs of the Regiment, Library of Congress, tattered remains of the 54th Regiment’s flags displayed c. 1894, Massachusetts Historical Society.



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