Soldiers Essay, Research Paper

Mike Simmons

African Studies

Black Soldiers in the Civil War

The true meanings of duty, courage, and commitment were exemplified by the story of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment in the Civil War and the characters in the film Glory. Throughout the many trials and tests of their dignity and bravery, these African-American soldiers prevailed indefinitely in a cause that they firmly believed in. Although the public scrutiny and criticisms that the organizers of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts faced when the formation of an all black regiment was initially announced, these heroic leaders were no thwarted in their attempts to bring an “inferior” race into the Union’s army. Early public disbelief and reaction were not the only form of discrimination that these soldiers so bravely confronted. Also they combated discrimination on the battlefield and camps as well as in training. Besides discrimination, the blacks had to be chivalrous to endure the hardships of battle, create and shape important heroes, and teach the world a lesson that would not be soon forgotten.

Early public disbelief and intolerance nearly obstructed the formation the first black Union soldiers in the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment, but with the courage, persistence and sense of duty that the instrumental leaders possessed, nothing could stop their efforts in an attempt for equal rights. The placement of blacks in the military during the Civil War was a bold experiment that could only be accepted by whites slowly and with determination. John A. Andrews, the governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War, led the movement of Negro troops. He ignored the popular ideals and opinions of his constituents and risked his reputation to express something that he fully believed in. Governor Andrew those who the war was being fought over, participate in it and somehow have dictate the fate of their black “brothers and sisters” in the South. And yet, lingering in the minds of the white Northern population was the “Sambo myth”, an idea popularized at the very peak of slavery. Many considered the blacks to be stupid, slow, and vastly too ignorant to conduct warfare productively. To retort the formation of black regiments, terrible riots shook New York City from July 13 to 16, 1863. These outbreaks were fueled in part by the racism of Irish-Americans who wanted free slaves to have no part in warfare. On July 15, a mob beat to death the nephew of Robert Simmons, a sergeant in the Fifty Fourth, demonstrating the common disapproval of blacks in the military. The riots were also provoked by Northern Democrats in opposition to president Abraham Lincoln’s war policies, including the Emancipation Proclamation and the draft of African-American troops into the army. The soldiers paid no attention to these discouraging remarks and actions but continued to enlist in the Union army. Unfortunately this early discrimination by the public followed the soldiers out onto the battlefield.

Discrimination against black soldiers in training, camps, and in battle was quite evident and yet often ignored or met heard on depending upon the case. The Federal government promised the black soldiers of the Fifty Fourth regiment the same pay as other white soldiers equal to them in rank upon enlistment. Black soldiers were initially paid only ten dollars per month from which three dollars was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of only seven dollars. In contrast, white soldiers received thirteen dollars per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn. Fearlessly, the black soldiers and their white commanders stood up to authority, refusing to accept these terms. For nearly eighteen months the soldiers of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment turned down these low wages but continued to work for the Union’s army. Numerous black soldiers who protested over the pay issue were court-martialed and even executed. In spite of this, soldiers continued to risk their lives, standing up for what they believed in. After a rigorous campaign, the government finally granted them equivalent pay, proving that the blacks’ audacity could accomplish great strides in equality. Another form of discrimination inflicted upon black soldiers was excessive labor duties, beyond their fair share. For long hours, former slaves now enlisted in the army would unload ships, dig trenches, and build roads until exhaustion but never complaining. They had finally achieved the act of being admitted into the army and so they decided to prove their own worth in all aspects of the military. The blacks continued to register in the army, ignoring these unfortunate incidents. Thirdly, commanders of the regiment were hesitant in promoting African-Americans to the position of officer. Governor Andrew defended the decision to first appoint a white soldier, Robert Gould Shaw, to Colonel of the regiment, by stating that superior officers were necessary since the Fifty Fourth was the first colored regiment to be raised in the free states. Its success or failure would be closely watched so an experienced, confident leader was essential. Also, blacks were not appointed to powerful positions because they hadn’t been allowed to serve in army previously, thus lacking experience they needed to serve as officers. Also race prejudice was still so intensely strong in the North at this time, public opinion strongly opposed the elevation of blacks to officers’ ranks. Furthermore, because of this prejudice against them, black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. Although this may have seemed to the black’s advantage, they in fact thirsted for the chance to fight in battle and demonstrate their worth as soldiers. Once these colored troops were allowed into battle, they faced greater peril than the white Union soldiers did when captured by the Confederate Army. In 1863, the Confederate Congress threatened to punish the officers of black troops and to enslave the black soldiers instead of just taking them as prisoner. Much discrimination against the black soldiers of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment occurred in the battlefields, training and camps but could not suppress the feelings deep within the soldiers’ hearts as they continued to fight all injustices surrounding them.

The attack on Fort Wagner, like other battles of the Civil War, was hazardous, dangerous, and required fearlessness to launch against the Confederate States. Like any other regiment involved in this war, the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts mustered together the courage necessary to complete the operations demanded of them. The soldiers of the Fifty Fourth regiment lead the bombardment on Fort Wagner without hesitation and with constant enthusiasm. Although spending the last two nights before the battle on the march through sand and petering rain, and not having been issued regular rations since the evening of July 16th, nearby fifty hours previously, the Fifty Fourth was anxious to go into battle. Despite exhaustion, hunger, and wet clothes, the black soldiers were eager to acquit themselves like men. They had to prove to the world and themselves what they were indeed capable of doing. Still rankling in their minds, were the ideas that the Negro was too ignorant to fire a gun, fight strategically, and perform other military duties. Most of the public still viewed the blacks as not fit to wear the Union uniform because they “belonged to a degraded, inferior race”, lacking many qualities and further reflecting the Sambo myth earlier discussed. On that rainy beach on Morris Island, the soldiers had a very dangerous mission ahead. They had been ordered to storm the fortified walls of this mighty fortress held by both infantry and heavy artillery. It was not easy for a commanding officer to compel even the most experienced troops to advance under the rain of gunfire from the artillery emplacements supported by the incessant barking of small arms. Throughout these frightening experiences, the black soldiers of the Fifty Fourth continued their raid upon Fort Wagner when many without such boldness would have turned back. The most clearly defined denotation of bravery can be observed in the storming of Fort Wagner by Robert G. Shaw’s gallant men. The courage and sense of duty among all of those involved in the formation and implementation of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment molded legendary heroes. In fact, each advocate of equality during the Civil War era should be deemed as a hero, especially Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Sergeant William Carney, and General George C. Strong. Robert Gould

Shaw, a previously experienced soldier from Boston, Massachusetts, was asked to take command of an all black regiment by Governor Andrew. Robert hesitated for a day over Andrew’s offer for he knew that many of his friends would disapprove and that he faced ridicule and ostracism. But he “inclined naturally toward difficult resolves” and eventually accepted the position of colonel. Shaw showed true intrepidity in both public affairs and on the battlefield. He led troops toward Fort Wagner, shouting “Forward, Fifty Fourth”, as they tried to climb the parapet with grenades and bullets exploding upon them. A bullet pierced Colonel Shaw’s heart and he fell forward into the fort during the assault much to his troops’ horror. A well respected man, Shaw was a disciplined leader and kind hearted soul whose audacity inspired all. Another member of the Fifty Fourth regiment, Sergeant William Carney, was held in high esteem for his bravery also. Despite wounds in his legs, breast, and right arm on July 18th, 1863, he planted the flag upon the parapet of Fort Wagner and flattened himself on the outer slope for protection, remaining there for nearly half an hour. Carney heroically crawled back to the Union camp, saving the flag. Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, Massachusetts became the first black soldier awarded the Medal of Honor for “most distinguished gallantry in action”. Also accoladed as a great hero was General George C. Strong. Soldiers had considerable regard for Strong, who on July 10th, had been the first man to step ashore on Morris Island, leading his entire squad in person. Furthermore, General Strong appeared before the Fifty Fourth regiment on the day of the bombardment at Wagner and asked them if they wanted to lead the attack on this mighty fortress. He had questioned his troops about their desires on the battlefield rather than commanding them obey orders previously set. This defied traditional customs and gave the African-American soldiers power over their own survival. The leaders as well as the soldiers of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment showed immense bravery during the attack on the Fort Wagner, South Carolina during the Civil War.

The meanings of duty and courage were solidified into the history of the United States of America by the events, people, and ideas that emerged from the Civil War Fifty Fourth colored regiment from Massachusetts. From a tiny field of battle during 1863, the world was taught a lesson that would not soon be forgotten. More than three hundred bodies of the Fifty Fourth regiment were buried by the Confederate Army in common graves in front of the fort they so bravely strived to seize. Colonel Shaw was buried “in the common grave with the Negroes that fell with him”, bridging the gap between blacks and whites fighting in the Civil War. The Negroes showed their appreciation and respect for Robert Shaw by collecting money to erect a monument to his memory. The movement of desegregation began with these meaningful acts towards a great commander, forever unifying the black and white soldiers of the Union’s army. Revolutionary transformation was created in America by the freeing of millions of slaves in which the Fifty Fourth regiment helped to achieve. Arms in that hands of slaves had been a nightmare in the minds of whites for generations. In 1863 this nightmare came true in the Union’s army, accomplishing a new sense of dignity and self-respect among former slaves. The Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment helped directly to obtain equal citizenship and political rights for the Negroes of the United States.

The meanings of duty, courage, and commitment can be clearly defined by the historic story of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment in the Civil War and the characters in the film Glory. The soldiers of this all black regiment fought both the Confederate States and the prejudices of white Americans as they endured the heavy burden of battle. Disregarding initial public reaction, discrimination on the battlefield, and the actual physical hardships of battle, the soldiers bravely strived to achieve their common goals. Cementing their place in history, these black troops from Massachusetts greatly shaped the perception of the entire black race and its fighting abilities.

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