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SYMHC Classics: Leading the Charge - The Massachusetts 54th

2019-02-02 | 🔗

This episode revisits a 2012 episode from previous hosts Sarah and Deblina. A 1792 law prevented African Americans from taking up arms in the Civil War. As attitudes against blacks serving changed, black regiments were formed. But prejudices remained until the heroism of black soldiers won the attention of the nation.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Hosts Sarah into Billina no country. stuff, you missed in history class from Housetop works dot com. allow me to welcome to the past unfair, daddy and I'm going to talk or body, and probably for the first time in our three hundred work and be talking about a subject that most of you might know better from the movie version. The fifty fourth Massachusetts Colored infantry- and if you please the nineteen eighty nine film glory. You know that the story covers and all african american Regiment in the civil war in their white, Colonel Robert Goods,
his played by a barely out of Ferris Bueller, Matthew, broader egg, and despite required, Hollywood twigs and change timeline. Community gonna sell tickets, after all, glory is considered one of the best civil war films, probably because it had shall be foot the author as its historical adviser and a really well respected CAS Roderick Morgan Freeman, a young Denzil Washington, actually checked out the review of glory in the New York Times Articles archives, and they said he was clearly way to a major screen career. Indeed, the word, of course, going to be talking about some of the high points featured in the film glory. The regiments parade through Boston. There are pay refusal their tragic battle at Fort Wagner, but we're also going to be talking about why the 54th was so remarkable in the first place and why it took until one thousand eight hundred and sixty three
for a northern state to raise and all black regiment that last factors especially surprising when you consider African Americans fought in the revolutionary war. So why? In the civil war, when there, Liberty was again at stake: were blacks not initially allowed to fight? Well, when the war began. Many free blacks wanted to join Seventeen ninety two law prevented them from doing so and also northerners as a whole weren't in favour of it. They believed african Americans were unsuitable, soldiers, cowardly or unintelligent, and they thought that they weren't equipped to do thing beyond the hard labor work that was required for war, so grave digging, hauling cooking things like that, and if you listen to our epoch, on the stoner rebellion and if you ve heard of other revolts lake, not Turner's. It's also easy to see that there was a fair amount of fear involved.
steamed, a risk, almost outfit, an armed black soldiers, but opinions did start to change over time, partly because the war dragged on longer than people had expected it to you in a few, are white men wear so gung ho to go and lift anymore also abolitionists started to make promoting black service a prime wartime goal. Many saw it as the natural road toward full freedom that you had to participate in learning that freedom by fighting and one of the most famous abolitionists of the day, the former slave Frederick Douglass even said quote. Once the black man gets upon his person, the brass letters: U S a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket. There is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United,
states. Finally, though, some northern generals not all saw enlisting african american troops as a way to win the war to end the war General Grant considered enlisting black troops as a definitive way to beat the confederacy. I mean it makes sense to you. Have this huge minority of the population with a very strong investment in the fight? So why not let them I have? Let them have a go at it. So by July, one thousand eight hundred and sixty two laws did start to change to allow more black participation Congress. First of all, Repealment seventeen, me, too law, barring blacks from service. They also pass that confiscation act. Made all slaves of rubble masters free as soon as they crossed union lines and they passed Militia ACT which empowered the president to set up a black militias. So within a mile the war department had authorized Brigadier General Rufus Sexton, who controlled the union occupy
if South Carolina to raise five black regiments with white officers and the volunteering was sluggish at first but by November, the First South Carolina Volunteer regiment was mustard under the command of Massachusetts, abolitionists named Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higgins, and a second regiment then formed soon after commanded by Colonel James, Montgomery and the first Second, Carolina regiments quickly proved their worth. They rated Georgia, Florida and even occupy Jacksonville, and similarly organized groups of soldiers were soon formed and can fifth and occupied areas of Louisiana,
made up of freed man and former slaves, though by fall. Eighteen sixty two there were a few regiments of black soldiers and action, but so far none had been created by northern states still seem like a black army was a ways off. One obstacle, of course, was the border states. President Lincoln at San quote, to arm the negroes would turn at fifty thousand bayonets from the loyal border states against us that were for us, but the abolition is really continued to pay their cause, as did the realities of a long war. Ain't got to have enough soldiers to fight the thing and finally, on January first, one thousand eight hundred and sixty three Lincoln sign the Emancipation proclamation into law and the proclamation
That Lincoln could not only remove resources from their conquered owners and laboring slaves from their conquered owners. He could use those Friedman to further his own wartime aims by turning them into soldier, so african Americans could now enlist in the army and Navy and the way Lincoln put it to grow. really kind of sums. The whole thing up. He said it works, doubly weakening the enemy and strengthening us. So message It seemed like a natural place to form and all black state regiment, since it had been the heart of the abolition movement for years Massachusetts Governor, John Andrew, who was an abolitionist himself believed ardently that African Americans must play a part in ending southern slavery, really saw it as a moral issue like if this happens without their participation. How can we all go on with that? As far as the reality
where he petition Secretary of WAR Edwin, stand for permission to form a state regiment and was approved by the end of January, so it was officially on at that point, its first Order of business was, of course, attracting soldiers. Massachusetts did not have a law african american population. At this time, and according to William, see cash citizen american history, only one hundred men volunteered in those first six we somehow must have been a major blow to Andrew, whose so excited about that prospect of forming a regiment in his state. So he decided to spanned his that go beyond Massachusetts and with the help of other abolition, as he raised five thousand dollars to set up these recruiting post across the northern states, trying to draw the cream the crop in basically eventually attracting one thousand recruits
He soon had enough recruits to form not only a Massachusetts. Fifty fourth but a Massachusetts. Fifty fifty two in the fifty fourth was a pretty diverse bunch, as you were as you'd finger from these recruiting posts all over the north, the fifty fourth featured men from twenty four different states, the District of Columbia, the West Indies and Africa. Twenty five percent of them had been slaves and some are pretty high profile, guys to to Frederick Douglass of funds for it
dense enlisted. It was like a third kind of the best of the best where attracted to this regiment. Governor Andrew also promised potential black recruits, though this wasn't a set up and white officers wouldn't be against their own men. They'd be committed abolitionists with real war experience. I think the fear was that they would they would pair of the black troops with somebody who either didn't care about them. You know was re rags or somebody who just didn't know what he was doing, and that would certainly speak How much you cared about your regiment, if you put them with a poorly trained officer, was Governor Andrews Peck ended up being Captain Robert Gould Shaw, the twenty five year old Son of Abolitionists Francis and Sarah Shaw, ensure Father was an extremely wealthy former emerged from Boston who had retired early to West Roxbury for an academic life translating literature and sugar. Attending top schools around New York in Europe and was seen as a private when the war started and son
and hard to discipline as he was shot really thrived in the army, where he was eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant and finally, a captain with the second regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry. he saw action and was wounded twice. So he had abolitionist cried on. Hand. He also had war experience, on the other hand, and together When you put these two together, he seems like the perfect candidate Tulia, fifty four just the kind of guy that Governor Andrew with looking fire, but when she always offered the command delivered person from the governor to Shaw's father. So he received this this offer from his own father. He didn't jump at the chance than he had a few reasons for for doing that. For one thing he liked his current gig. He liked being a captain with the Massachusetts.
fuck it. He was a thrill that the idea of what would undoubtedly be a very high profile, controversial and likely unpopular job, no Laana eyes would be on him and then, most surprisingly, he was it really that much of an abolitionist that had been a major point in his election, but his personal belief, weren't as strong as those of his parents and surely his friends must have known that us, but to the wider world. His parents reputation basically made his own. They join the american Anti sway we society a year after he was born and he had grown up with William Lloyd, garrisons kids, but shot himself while anti slavery, he didn't see that it is his pride motivation for fighting. He was more of a patriot. He felt at that that the north was being flight Eddie. Now they wasn't, it wasn't about slavery for him.
According to a Russell Duncan book on Shaw and eleven thousand, eight hundred and fifty eight letter Shaw actually wrote to his mother quote. I don't talk and think slavery. All the time and it's likely that it was Shaw's mother who finally urged him to accept the offer that his letter to future wife, Annie Haggerty, suggest that he also had glory on his mind as a motivator. He said quote, you know, how many eminent men consider a negro army of the greatest importance to our country at this time. If it turns out to be so, how fully repaid the pie? Here's the movement will be for what they may have to go through. I feel can I shall never regret having taken this step. As far as I myself am concerned for awhile was undecided. I felt ashamed of myself as if I were cowardly party cleared out my whole data. We secure the whole day
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So whatever his reason, Shaw did ultimately accept the commission and he was promoted to colonel and from air he oversaw the training of his men at a camp near Boston. But one important thing to remember here: all of the officers in the unit, not just Shaw, were white and many of them started working with pretty stereotypical views. of their soldiers, then Shaw is certainly included in that he would use racial names on raining home to his parents. He expressed his surprise that how intelligent his men were, things that
seem a little Ikey now, and he read them today, but working together did eventually foster a sense of unity between the soldiers and the officers, especially since both of them, both the men and officers, were under intense scrutiny from white soldiers, for instance, when the man who had been promised fair pay at recruitment were only offered ten dollars per month, which three dollars. Less than white soldiers were paid. Shaw wrote to the governor vowing that the whole regiment, including him, would refuse payment until it was fair and equal and we're gonna talk about that pay question a little bit more later. It's kind of overshadowed by later events that the fifty fourth go through, but it's one of their most import contributions to the war and the bravery of both the man and the officers was also tested long before they even left the tree in grounds shortly after muster the Confederate Congress pass an act stating
that any black soldier or white officer commanding black soldiers would be summarily executed if caught behind rubble lines. For that something, that's gonna certainly strengthen the ties between the officers and men and fell so the development of the fifty. Fourth, though, as we said, it was under intense scrutiny, but it was also a kind of a spectator sport. Almost about three thousand people ended up visiting them to watch the training and Frederick Douglass stop by not he's the pricing of his sons were were involved that all sorts of people came by to watch their progress. People were interested in it invested in it, but by May eighteen sixty three. It was time for the men to to ship out
get going and on the 18th governor Andrew himself delivered the regimental flags to Shaw and they got their first assignment, which was going to be South Carolina. So, unlike those earlier earlier troops, we mentioned that were in Kansas or in Louisiana. They were going to really be in the thick of things their procession to the Boston Harbour included a march through downtown and review in front of the governor before they border to shit bound for Port royal island. South Carolina reporting to the department of the south for duty So what was going on in South Carolina this time? They were attacks on Charleston Fortifications, most sleep.
Not for Shaw's land, they were met with the bitter disappointment of manual labour, which they what this was supposed to not be abolished, they showed up and they had to do some ditch digging, so it seemed like they were back to square one. How I go through all this training, all this pageantry and just go back to digging ditches, though the fifty four it didn't get fee any action until June Eighth, when they joined the troops of Colonel James, Montgomery and his all african american Second foul, Caroline Regiment. Even this, though their first taste of soldiering was pretty much disappointment, Shaw and his men, under the command of Karl Montgomery, were ordered to plunder and burn. This tiny town in Georgia called Darien. It's a bit north of Brunswick and shop with deeply
stirred with the order to burn down this defenceless, pretty unimportant town and afterward wrote to his superiors about the incident. Knowing that writing about talking about it like this could mean disciplinary action verb speaking up Ultimately, though, the officer who commanded Montgomery to sack the town was not too long after relieved of his command by Lincoln, so maybe it was worth it for four shot, a speaker finally, Thou July sixteenth, the fifty four I saw the type of action they had been hoping for all long, not ditch digging, not burning down people's homes or businesses. actual soldiering yeah. They joined white troops on James Island near Charleston, carrying them. Oh well and ensure the safe retreat of the Tenth Connecticut Infantry after surprise, confederate attack, one Connecticut soldier even home to his mother, that the fifty fourth had quote fought like heroes, so Shaw's burger
commander, General George, see strong, had heard how well the men had done on James Island and Aunt Shaw if he led an attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, one of the strategic defenses of Charleston Harbor. So he was all for this mean this was a great opportunity for then Shaw had angling for this assignment and he and his men as well a strong saw it as a great honor. It was an honour to to leave the attack like this, but not everybody saw it that way division commander. Major General Truman Seymour only agreed to strong request because he saw the fifty fourth as disposable suffer him at his. It was not a privilege to give these men, though the honour of leading the attack against the, for they were just cannon fodder and he would just assume dispose of them. First, the geography of Fort Wagner made the Athol especially tricky and organ, and have to explain it a little bit for the attack. It fell to make
and so from afar, the earthen work for really looked conflict sand hills, but inside there were one thousand three hundred men from the North Carolina fifty first and thirty first and some South Carolina artillery man. So it's very well
and it, and since it was in the middle of a sandy peninsula, the for it was only opened to direct assault on one side, which happened to be this tiny little sliver of sand. That was between the surf and the marsh mean if you ve ever been to any of the sea. I lend you can kind of imagine the terrain em in the less developed areas, though this meant that the charge would have to be led in waves cause. They only have that tiny sliver of land to work on, and they could only fit a few men shoulder to shoulder on the shorter to run ahead. So all through the day on the eighteenth, the union artillery shelled for Wagner you hoping to weaken the advance of the little bit by early evening, Shaw and six hundred of his men had group themselves into two wings made a five companies than they were using the surface, their guide to the fore, but before the charge Shaw told them the eye.
Of thousands will look on what you do tonight. He handed over his personal effects to a civilian. He had made friends with knowing full well that he was probably not going to come back from this charge, but using his words for motivation. They built to a full sprint across the sand and made it all the way to the fort under heavy fire sergeant major Louis Douglas wrote that quote not a man flinched though it was a trying time, would explode and clear space of twenty feet. Our men would close up again shawl the charge until he was shot dead at the parapet. The flag bear a stake: the flat in the parapet, but the men only had the fort for a short time before being forced to retreat and some were shot by advancing friendly fire when they did so twenty three year old, sergeant William Carney by this point, shot in the head chest right arm and leg grabbed the flag on his way out, delivering it back to the union lions, and for this he became the first of twenty one. black men during the war to win the medal of Honor
other men, of course, couldn't make that retreat and became prisoners Mina. Maybe they were too wounded to be able to get out sergeant. Robert J Simmons, for instance, was shot in the arm taken prisoner and died later in a charge. In hospital, and if you listen to our earlier episode on the New York draft riots, This'Ll really resonate with you, but when storming the fort, he hadn't known that only three days earlier, New York draft rioters had attacked his mother and sister there and beat his seven year old, nephew to death. So one of the play greatest tragedies of the fifty four later waves of soldiers couldn't hold for it either, though you know it wasn't just the fifty fourth trying to China. Take it over all one thousand five hundred fifteen union men were killed, wounded or went missing with two hundred fifty six of them from the fifty fourth, which was the highest regimental casualty number among the participating regiment.
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No Apparently, the mission was considered a failure scouting had been said par. That was one reason why the four hadn't been adequately. We and and the men leading the charge of the fifty fourth had never practised storming of Fort slower alot of working against. Like obvious fly too, I mean that they were able to even make. It now seems surprising when you know that they haven't been able to practise that, but the discipline in the bravery of the food, before it was duly noted a month after the disaster Grant wrote to Lincoln phasing, how much he now supported the use of black troop than according to a Michael J R Hola article in the boar times by December of that theme year, sixty black regiments head
formed in the Union Army and they weren't regiments of grave digger, as are cooks, are laborers but regiments of soldiers than by the words and about a hundred and eighty thousand black men had fought burns. Documentary on the civil war includes, and even more startling figure, though, blacks made up less than one percent the northern population at the start of the war by the end of the Are they made up a ten percent of the army? So what ultimately happened to the fifty? Fourth after that fateful battle? While this battle, pretty much talk, the regiment apart, it wouldn't fight in another major engagement again, and it took until March eighteen, sixty five for Congress, finally order that the men who had now unpaid for eighteen months to be compensated retro actively for their service Shaw, was buried with his men in a pet at these site of Fort Wagner as a fine of disrespect. But when
father learned where he was learned how he was buried? He said he was pleased that his son had been buried with his men on the field where he fell even prevented later attempts to relocate Shaw's body and so with his family, definitely assuring his legacy with act like that. It's no surprise, Shaw became kind of a martyred figure after the fact, and if you take a closer look at his letters which contain as historian Joan, why put that racism condescending language, you know that may have affected that reputation a little bit, but certainly not during the lifetime of his man. I think that's an important thing to consider. He wasn't he wasn't reduced in their eyes. It seems only two weeks after the attack on Fort Wagner, one of his sergeants had written quote. I still feel more eager for the struggle than I ever yet have right now,
to have revenge for our gallant, colonel and spilt blood. Of our captain. We expect to plant the stars and stripes on the city of Charleston veterans of the fifty fourth quickly began, raising money for their colonels memorial, hoping to build something on Morris Island They instead wound up sponsoring a school for emancipated children in South Carolina, which was named for Shaw, while Boston Apples, and ass, raise money for a monument in their city by eighteen. Eighty four, the commission was given Ass to Saint Gardens, who is the biggest american sculptor of that day and he finished his work in eighteen. Ninety seven, but while some have criticised thank God and for elevating Shaw above his man on horseback and for a model. The black soldiers from life subjects instead of old photos. Its generally considered leant, memorial, Alison, Luke's who's, the curator of sculpture at the National gallery of art, calls it quote and knock out the name think Ogden might ring a bell for some of you.
Still we mention term, or rather David Mccullough, mentioned him a bit and our interview with him less year. Another referendum side note to Shaw: isn't the only family? Member with a memorial, his sister Josephine Shaw LAW, who was a social reformer, was the first woman to earn a public memorial in New York City. For there you go I bought a lot about this store in a way. It is her row egg and I can definitely see the the outcome is positive, that African Americans are able to fight when they want to, but the three really kind of bothered me in a way to it, took such an ethic failure to catch people's attention and change mine that that disturbed me that it took fell. My end, the little, the other things, the fact that they didn't get paid. I mean there's a lot that doesn't quite set
There are about all the details of the story on another thing to consider. Two black soldiers had already fought admirably at Port Hudson and millions banned by this but neither event really receive much coverage. So it's almost like it took something this horrible, this disaster as to catch people's attention in India, as far as me, and I think, if you want to learn a little bit more about the plight or life depending on how you look at it of a black soldier there, some great resources that the National Park Service has on line really fantastic accounts of the history of African Americans in them. Terry in the civil war. Another resource, I might recommend, is the mass. She sits historical society. They have portraits of many of the men of the fifty. Fourth, I think one criticism of this story sometimes
that you have Shaw, he's a well defined figure and very much tied up with the regiment, but its harder to get as detailed personal stories from many of the men of the regiment. It is, after all, a company of man. You know it's: it's a large group of people, but the Massachusetts Historical facts, piety, does have portraits portraits of the little drummer boys and staff who look like they're in their very early teens at the older than I think for me that helped put a little personality behind the men of the regiment and not just Shaw, that's good to know. That's one thing I thought of tea while going through this is that although we did have a couple of quotes and hear from soldiers, but it would have been nice to know,
little bit more about the individuals who find. Thank you so much for joining us on this Saturday. If you have heard an email address or a facebook url or something similar over the course of today's episode, since it is from the archive that might be out of date, now you can email us at history, podcast at how stuff works, dot com- and you can find us all over social media at missed in history, and you can subscribe to our shadow on apple podcast, Google podcast the Iheart Radio APP and wherever else he wasn't the bogged down for more on this and thousands of other topics visit how stuff works, dot, com
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