Color Plate Commentary


The 54th Massachusetts (Colored) was one of the first African American regiments raised, and one of only four African American regiments which remained in commission until the end of the Civil War to retain a state designation (the 55th Massachusetts and 29th Connecticut Infantry regiments and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry were the others). Famed for its attack on Battery Wagner in July 1863, it fought at other major battles including Olustee. It has been the subject of many books, and the movie Glory.

An elite unit, it was made up of free, mostly educated blacks from throughout the Northern states. Among those enlisting were both sons of Frederick Douglass, James Gooding (a whaler who was also a published author), and George Stephens, a reporter and rights activist. Many enlisted not just seeking freedom for their enslaved brethren, but as a first step in achieving legal equality with whites.

This plate shows the appearance of a typical private of the regiment, prior to its departure to Charleston (1). Like most African American regiments, the 54th was well equipped. The clothing was of good quality, the equipment excellent, and the weapons issued - in this case the 1853 Enfield (2) -

first class. Typical of USCT - when not overloaded with fatigue duties - this soldier maintains his kit and uniform in top condition as a matter of pride. Shown here are external (3) and internal (4) views of a cartridge.


Camp Nelson, Kentucky, was a major training post for USCT soldiers, serving as a depot for blacks from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. Only Camp William Penn, in Philadelphia, exceeded its output of regiments. This plate shows the cycle experienced by USCT soldiers as they trained. A recruiter, usually one of the officers in a regiment under formation, would come to camp with his latest crop of volunteers. Peter Bruner wrote in his memoirs of the party-like atmosphere in his group: "The next morning about five o'clock I got up and started for Camp Nelson... I came upon sixteen colored fellows who were on their way to Camp Nelson and of course I did not get lonesome."

At the camp, recruits were formed into companies. "Immediately upon our arrival here on Wednesday afternoon, we marched to the barracks, where we found a nice warm fire and a good supper in readiness for us. During the evening the

Blacks flock to a recruiting office. (Author's collection)

men were all supplied with uniforms, and now they are looking quite like soldiers," wrote James Gooding of his arrival at a training camp. Initially, as shown in the top scene, drill would be pretty rough, as the men practiced in the yard in front of the barracks at Camp Nelson, but soon the men would come together, and work as a team, as shown at the bottom. At that point, they would be ready to fight.


It must have seemed miraculous that the Army gave a man in the USCT the clothes and tools to be a soldier for free. A soldier's kit was worth $70 to $100 - a fortune to a man who previously had not even owned the clothes on his back. Being told it was his to keep engendered pride of possession and a desire to maintain his property in top condition. Henry Freeman, a white officer in an African American regiment, noted that his men "were pleased with their guns, pleased with their uniforms, and impressed with their own importance as soldiers."

The men in his company would often introduce a new recruit in an established unit to his kit. Often, in addition to his NCO, in this case a corporal, he would be assigned an experienced private, with the willingness to work with the new recruit. He would be shown what the kit consisted of, and how to pack and store the elements that made it up. In this case, our new private has joined one of the 13 heavy artillery regiments in the USCT. These units generally garrisoned a fort, such as those controlling travel on the Mississippi. They lived in permanent barracks, and tended to have more lavish

An African American soldier posting guard at an artillery park. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

kits than troops in campaigning infantry or cavalry regiments. Our soldier has a shell jacket, as well as the sack coat and frock, an additional blanket, and more spare clothes.


African American troops played a key role in the critical Union victory at Nashville in December 1864. They were assigned to Steedman's Division, a provisional force of units left behind when Sherman marched from Atlanta, which was stationed on the Union left. On the morning of battle, December 15, the African American troops were to make a demonstration against the Confederates fortified on Overton's Hill. The troops let their enthusiasm run away with them. Instead of feigning an attack, they charged and almost carried the hill. The attack convinced the Confederates to shift their reserves to that flank. They were caught flat-footed when the main Union attack hit their right in the early afternoon.

Hearing word that the army was attacking, the previously repulsed African American regiments launched a second attack on the reinforced Overton's Hill. Confederate troops, shaken by word that their left was folding, broke and ran just before the wave of black soldiers reached the breastworks. They left several stands of regimental colors and the artillery emplaced there.

It was bitterly cold. Union troops fought wearing their greatcoats, carrying cartridge boxes and canteens. Packs and haversacks were left behind. The enemy defenses, built in the freezing weather of the previous days, consisted of felled trees and piled rock. The Confederates holding the hill were cold, ill fed, and poorly clothed. Rather than the smart uniforms of the Union soldiers, they were clad in the rags that had been their issue clothing and whatever they could scavenge from the battlefield.


Off duty, African American troops tended to be a temperate lot. Capt George Sutherland observed there "was less drunkenness, and less profanity ... than among white troops" (Sutherland, "The Negro in the Late War"). Instead, these soldiers tended to spend their free time tending their equipment or learning. Literate soldiers, generally the sergeants, would teach others to read. George O'Mealiy wrote, "In one corner you would see a grown-up man trying to teach a drummer-boy to write; in another you would see a man about thirty, trying to learn his letters without a teacher" (Post).

A major pastime was religion. "A Negro soldiers' camp at night was sure to be the scene of some religious observance," stated Capt Sutherland. Religion was one of the few comforts allowed slaves, and they carried their belief into camp. Services were performed out in the open air, with a self-appointed lay preacher leading them, often mixing military allusions into a sermon. Sutherland described how "... the preacher rises and pours forth his wild exhortation, 'You must follow the heavenly flag, and shoot with the heavenly gun.'"

Black troops also took their responsibilities seriously when on duty. One task many black troops were used for was guarding Confederate prisoners. The soldier in the inset is shown on guard duty at Elmira Prison in New York, beginning a long night shift. John Whipple, a white guard at Elmira, noted that "the most trustworthy and reliable guards we have at this place are negroes" (Post).


On the same day that the 54th Massachusetts was being repulsed at Battery Wagner, another African American regiment, the 1 st Kansas Infantry (Colored), was contributing to the greatest Union victory of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, at Honey Springs in the Indian Territory. The 1st Kansas (Colored) was probably the best-trained unit on either side. Raised in late 1862 from runaway slaves from Missouri, owing to politics and a mistrust of the reliability of blacks it trained until committed to service in early summer 1863.

In the center of the Union line, exposed to enemy fire, the men were ordered to lie down in the tall grass. The officers remained standing to direct the battle. Several were injured. When a Union Indian Cavalry regiment in reserve behind their line began redeploying, the Confederates assumed the Union was retreating. Anxious to destroy the Yankees, the Confederates, a mixed force of Texas and Confederate Indian cavalry regiments, charged.

As the charge began, the 1st Kansas, on orders from their officers, stood. They fired three volleys in quick succession, shredding the charging cavalry. The plate depicts the 1st Kansas (Colored) as they rose from the grass. The color guard, a picked force of NCOs that guarded the regimental colors, can be seen to the left. The flags shown still exist and are on display in the Kansas State Capitol, with many more battle honors than they had on July 17, 1863.


African American troops faced the same hazards of disease or battlefield injury as the white troops, but they recognized the reality that Confederate troops hated taking black troops prisoner. A Confederate force led by Bedford Forrest took the weakly held Fort Pillow, manned by a white cavalry regiment and a black artillery regiment, both under strength. After the fort surrendered, the Confederates entered the main part of the fort and slaughtered individual members of the garrison as they attempted to surrender. Of 262 African Americans in the garrison only 62 survived.

One survivor, Jacob Thompson, a black cook, testified before a Congressional committee that investigated the massacre. He testified that Confederate soldiers "just called them [garrison members] out like dogs, and shot them down... They nailed some black sergeants to the logs and set the logs on fire" (Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Fort Pillow Massacre).

The Union soldiers fled downhill to the river. Some, like Thompson - as shown in the plate - found boats and escaped downriver. The rest? In Thompson's words, the

Charleston was considered by the Union to be the cradle of the revolution. The 55th Massachusetts is pictured marching through the city after its capture. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Benjamin Butler issued this medal to the African American troops under his command in the Army of the James. It was the only medal exclusively issued to blacks. (Author's collection)

Charleston was considered by the Union to be the cradle of the revolution. The 55th Massachusetts is pictured marching through the city after its capture. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Confederates "called them out from under the hill, and shot them down. They would call out a white man and shoot him down, and call out a colored man and shoot him down; do it just as fast as they could make their guns go off" (Joint Committee).

Forrest abandoned Fort Pillow the next morning. The Union retook the fort. The relieving force, a white infantry unit, buried the dead - white and black - in a mass grave using the dry moat next to the earthen fort's parapet, as shown in the inset. As a warning of what could happen if African American troops surrendered, and as a call for vengeance, "Remember Fort Pillow!" was the rallying cry for the USCT for the rest of the Civil War.


USCT units provided occupation troops after the war's end. It was not duty that sprang from the love of the local population. Lt Col Charles Trowbridge described a typical reception when the 33rd USCI occupied a town in South Carolina: "When we came in sight of the town where we were to make our headquarters we were met by a committee of the citizens who implored me 'not to bring them niggers into their town.' ... I told them that these men were not 'niggers' but United States soldiers, and I should march into the town and quarter my troops in the Court House, the length of time they would to depend entirely upon the conduct of the townspeople towards the men and their officers."

For the occupation troops, it was an opportunity to show that they could carry out their duties as smartly as any white Confederate unit. This was especially true for units like the 35th USCI Regiment, which had been formed from escaped slaves in North Carolina. The sergeant major, shown here in a brief pause from walking his rounds in Charleston Harbor, can be seen to take great satisfaction from his uniform and from his status as the senior NCO in a combat regiment, but most of all from an opportunity to garrison the rebellion's cradle. Four years ago he may have been another slave carting goods on Battery Street. Four years from now, he may be another black laborer in Charleston. But today, the "bottom rail" is on top.

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