General Order 3 was read to the enslaved African American population and their enslavers in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865 by Union Major General Gordon Granger.
General Order No. 3 states:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
The proclamation he’s referring to is Proclamation 95 which is commonly known as the Emancipation Proclamation dated January 1, 1863.
He didn’t tell them they had been legally free for two years, four months and eighteen days. Or that the Civil War had ended two and a half months earlier which codified their freedom. There was no offer of income, or other funds to allow them to move about freely. No employment offers. No suggestions on where the free could live freely. He didn’t even tell them that their former enslavers would be compensated by the government for the loss of their forced laborers. However, he made sure to tell them to return freely to the plantations they were just freed from and expect wages from their new employers/former masters. He made sure to tell them not to bother approaching the military for any assistance. And he clearly told them they would not be supported anywhere.
This is how the last of the enslaved African American population was informed of their freedom in the failed experiment that is the United States of America. No grace. No urgency. No mercy. Even from the side that wants to be celebrated as emancipators.
I feel I am something of a novice upon this platform. Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded. About two years ago, I stood within the shadows of my home. A great sorrow had fallen upon my life. My husband had died suddenly, leaving me a widow, with four children, one my own, and the others stepchildren. I tried to keep my children together. But my husband died in debt; and before he had been in his grave three months, the administrator had swept the very milk-crocks and wash tubs from my hands. I was a farmer’s wife and made butter for the Columbus market; but what could I do, when they had swept all away? They left me one thing-and that was a looking glass! Had I died instead of my husband, how different would have been the result! By this time, he would have had another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, and sold his bed, and taken away his means of support.
I took my children in my arms, and went out to seek my living. While I was gone, a neighbor to whom I had once lent five dollars, went before a magistrate and Swore that he believed I was a non-resident, and laid an attachment on my very bed. And I went back to Ohio with my orphan children in my arms, without a single feather bed in this wide world, that was not in the custody of the law. I say, then, that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.
We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. At the South, the legislation of the country was in behalf of the rich slaveholders, while the poor white man was neglected. What is the consequence today? From that very class of neglected poor white men, comes the man who stands to-day, with his hand upon the helm of the nation. He fails to catch the watchword of the hour, and throws himself, the incarnation of meanness, across the pathway of the nation. My objection to Andrew Johnson is not that he has been a poor white man; my objection is that he keeps “poor whites” all the way through. That is the trouble with him.
This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.
I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.
You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars — I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia-and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.
Going from Washington to Baltimore this Spring, they put me in the smoking car. Aye, in the capital of the nation, where the black man consecrated himself to the nation’s defense, faithful when the white man was faithless, they put me in the smoking car! They did it once; but the next time they tried it, they failed; for I would not go in. I felt the fight in me; but I don’t want to have to fight all the time. Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this? Not long since, a colored woman took her seat in an Eleventh Street car in Philadelphia, and the conductor stopped the car, and told the rest of the passengers to get out, and left the car with her in it alone, when they took it back to the station. One day I took my seat in a car, and the conductor came to me and told me to take another seat. I just screamed “murder.” The man said if I was black I ought to behave myself. I knew that if he was white he was not behaving himself. Are there not wrongs to be righted?
In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out its hands to a feebler race, and asked that race to help it, and when the peril was over, said, “You are good enough for soldiers, but not good enough for citizens.”
We have a woman in our country who has received the name of “Moses,” not by lying about it, but by acting it out — a woman who has gone down into the Egypt of slavery and brought out hundreds of our people into liberty. The last time I saw that woman, her hands were swollen. That woman who had led one of Montgomery’s most successful expeditions, who was brave enough and secretive enough to act as a scout for the American army, had her hands all swollen from a conflict with a brutal conductor, who undertook to eject her from her place. That woman, whose courage and bravery won a recognition from our army and from every black man in the land, is excluded from every thoroughfare of travel. Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
On Sunday, June 26, Jesse Williams won the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award. He gave a powerful acceptance speech that is an on-point statement highlighting racial inequality in America today. It’s ironic that is was given before a room full of entertainers, one of which was posturing with pointing to the brand on his shirt right before Jesse called out the culture of selling ourselves for brands when we prayed and worked for centuries to escape being branded.
“This award is not for me. This is for the real organizers across the country: the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. Right? It’s kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.”
“There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There’s no job we haven’t done. There’s no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free – they keep telling us. But… she…she would have been alive had she not acted so… free. Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job. Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance… for our resistance, then you better have an establish record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
“The thing is though, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Looking backward over a space of fifty years or more, I have in remembrance two travelers whose lives were ·real in their activity; two lives that have indelibly impressed themselves upon my memory; two lives whose energy and best ability was exerted to make my life what it should be, and who gave me a home where wisdom and industry went hand in hand; where instruction was given that a cultivated brain and an industrious hand were the twin conditions that lead to a well balanced and useful life. These two lives were embodied in the personalities of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray his wife.
They met at the base of a mountain of wrong and oppression, victims of the slave power as it existed over sixty years ago, one smarting under the manifold hardships as a slave, the other in many ways suffering from the effects of such a system.
The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told-you all know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray, to whose memory this paper is written.
Anna Murray was born in Denton, Caroline County, Maryland, an adjoining county to that in which my father was born. The exact date of her birth is not known. Her parents, Bambarra Murray and Mary, his· wife, were slaves, their family consisting of twelve children, seven of whom were born in slavery and five born in freedom. My mother, the eighth child, escaped by the short period of one month, the fate of her older brothers and sisters, and was the first free child.
Remaining with her parents until she was seventeen, she felt it time that she should be entirely self-supporting and with that idea she left her country home and went to Baltimore, sought employment in a French family by the name of Montell whom she served two years. Doubtless it was while with them she gained her first idea as to household management which served her so well in after years and which gained for her the reputation of a thorough and competent housekeeper.
On laving the Montells’, she served in a family by the name of Wells living on S. Caroline Street. Wells was Post-master at the time of my father’s escape from slavery. It interested me very much in one of my recent visits to Baltimore, to go to that house accompanied by an old friend of my parents of those early days, who as a free woman was enabled with others to make my father’s life easier while he was a slave in that city. This house is owned now by a colored man. In going through the house I endeavored to remember its appointments, so frequently spoken of by my mother, for she had lived with this family seven years and an attachment sprang up between her and the members of that household, the memory of which gave her pleasure to recall.
The free people of Baltimore had their own circles from which the slaves were excluded. The ruling of them out of their society resulted more from the desire of the slaveholder than from any great wish of the free people themselves. If a slave would dare to hazard all danger and enter among the free people he would be received. To such a little circle of free people–a circle a little more exclusive than others, Frederick Baily was welcomed. Anna Murray, to whom he had given his heart, sympathized with him and she devoted all her energies to assist him. The three weeks prior to the escape were busy and anxious weeks for Anna Murray. She had lived with the Wells family so long and having been able to save the greater part of her earnings was willing to share with the man she loved that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess. Her courage, her sympathy at the start was the main spring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass. As is the condition of most wives her identity became so merged with that of her husband, that few of their earlier friends in the North really knew and appreciated the full value of the woman who presided over the Douglass home for forty-four years. When the escaped slave and future husband of Anna Murray had reached New York in safety, his first act was to write her of his arrival and as they had previously arranged she was to come on immediately. Reaching New York a week later, they were married and immediately took their wedding trip to New Bedford. In ”My Bondage of Freedom,” by Frederick Douglass, a graphic account of that trip is given.
The little that they possessed was the outcome of the industrial and economical habits that were characteristic of my mother. She had brought with her sufficient goods and chattel to fit up comfortably two rooms in her New Bedford home-a feather bed with pillows, bed linen, dishes, knives, forks, and spoons, besides a well filled trunk of wearing apparel for herself. A new plum colored silk dress was her wedding gown. To my child eyes that dress was very fine. She had previously sold one of her feather beds to assist in defraying the expenses of the flight from bondage.
The early days in New Bedford were spent in daily toil, the wife at the wash board, the husband with saw, buck and axe. I have frequently listened to the rehearsal of those early days of endeavor, looking around me at the well appointed home built up from the labor of the father and mother under so much difficulty, and found it hard to realize that it was a fact. After the day of toil they would seek their little home of two rooms and the meal of the day that was most enjoyable was the supper nicely prepared by mother. Father frequently spoke of the neatly set table with its snowy white cloth- coarse tho’ it was.
In 1890 I was taken by my father to these rooms on Elm Street, New Bedford, Mass., overlooking Buzzards Bay. This was my birth place. Every detail as to the early housekeeping was gone over, it was splendidly impressed upon my mind, even to the hanging of a towel on a particular nail. Many of the dishes used by my mother at that time were in our Rochester home and kept as souvenirs of those first days of housekeeping. The fire that destroyed that home in 1872, also destroyed them.
Three of the family had their birthplace in New Bedford. When after having written his first narrative, father built himself a nice little cottage in Lynn, Mass., and moved his family there, previously to making his first trip to Europe. He was absent during the years ’45 and ’46. It was then that mother with four children, the eldest in her sixth year, struggled to maintain the family amid much that would dampen the courage of many a young woman of to-day. I had previously been taken to Albany by my father as a means of lightening the burden for mother. Abigail and Lydia Mott, cousins of Lucretia Mott, desired to have the care of me.
During the absence of my father, mother sustained her little family by binding shoes. Mother had many friends in the anti slavery circle of Lynn and Boston who recognized her sterling qualities, and who encouraged her during the long absence of her husband. Those were days of anxious worry. The narrative of Frederick Douglass with its bold utterances of truth, with the names of the parties with whom he had been associated in slave life, so incensed the slaveholders that it was doubtful if ever he would re turn to this country and also there was danger for mother and those who had aided in his escape, being pursued. It was with hesitancy father consented to leave the country, and not until he was assured by the many friends that mother and the children would be care fully guarded, would he go.
There were among the Anti-Slavery people of Massachusetts a fratern l spirit born of the noble purpose near their heart that served as an uplift and encouraged the best energies in each indi vidual, and mother from the contact with the great and noble workers grew and improved even more than ever before. She was a recognized co-worker in the A. S. Societies of Lynn and Boston, and no circle was felt to be complete without her presence. There was a weekly gathering of the women to prepare articles for the Annual A. S. Fair held in Faneuil Hall, Boston. At that time mother would spend the week in attendance having charge, in com pany of a committee of ladies of which she was one, over the re freshments. The New England women were all workers and there was no shirking of responsibility-all worked. It became the custom of the ladies of the Lynn society for each to take their turn in assisting mother in her household duties on the morning of the day that the sewing circle met so as to he sure of her meeting with them. It was mother’s custom to put aside the earnings from a certain number of shoes she had bound ,as her donation to the A. S. cause. Being frugal and economic she was able to put by a portion of her earnings for a rainy day.
I have often heard my father speak in admiration of mother’s executive ·ability. During his absence abroad, he sent, as he could, support .fur his family, and on his coming home he supposed there would be some bills to settle. One day while talking over their affairs, mother arose and quietly going to the bureau drawer produced a Bank book with the sums deposited just in the proportion father had sent, the book also containing deposits of her own earnings-and not a debt had been contracted during his absence.
The greatest trial, perhaps, that mother was called upon to endure, after parting from her Baltimore friends several years before, was the leaving her Massachusetts home for the Rochester home where father established the “North Star.” She never forgot her old friends and delighted to speak of them up to her last illness.
Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Sydney Howard Gay and many more with their wives were particularly kind to her. At one of the Anti-Slavery conventions held in Syracuse, father and mother were the guests of Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister and an ardent Anti-Slavery friend. The spacious parlors of the May mansion were thrown open for a reception to their honor and where she could meet her old Boston friends. The refreshments were served on trays, one of which placed upon an improvised table made by the sitting close together of Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison and Sydney Howard Gay, mother was invited to sit, the four making an interesting tableaux.
Mother occasionally traveled with father on his short trips, but not as often as he would have liked as she was a housekeeper who felt that her presence was necessary in the home, as she was wont to say ”to keep things straight.” Her life in Rochester was not less active in the cause of the slave, if anything she was more self sacrificing, and it was a long time after her residence there that she was understood.
The atmosphere in which she was placed lacked the genial cordiality that greeted her in her Massachusetts home. There were only the few that learned to know her, for, she drew around herself a certain reserve, after meeting her new acquaintances that forbade any very near approach to her. Prejudice in the early 40’s in Rochester ran rampant and mother be came more distrustful.
There were a few loyal co-workers and she set herself assiduously to work. In the home, with the aid of a laundress only, she managed her household. She watched with a great deal of interest and no little pride the growth in public life of my father, and in every possible way that she was capable aided him by relieving him of all the management of the home as it increased in size and in its appointments. It was her pleasure to know that when he stood up before an audience that his linen was immaculate and that she had made it so, for, no matter how well the laundry was done for the family, she must with her own hands smooth the tucks in father’s linen and when he was on a long journey she would forward at a given point a fresh supply.
Being herself one of the first agents of the Underground Rail road she was an untiring worker along that line. To be able to accommodate in a comfortable manner the fugitives that passed our way, father enlarged his home where a suite of rooms could be made ready for those fleeing to Canada. It was no unusual occurrence for mother to be called up at all hours of the night, cold or hot as the case may be, to prepare supper for a hungry lot of fleeing humanity.
She was greatly interested in the publication of the “North Star” or Frederick Douglass’ paper as it was called later on, and publication day was always a day for extra rejoicing as each weekly paper was felt to be another arrow sent on its way to do the work of puncturing the veil that shrouded a whole race in gloom. Mother felt it her duty to have her table well supplied with extra provisions that day, a custom that we, childlike, fully’ appreciated. Our home was two miles from the center of the city, where our office was situated, and many times did we trudge through snow knee deep, as street cars were unknown.
During one of the summer vacations the question arose in father’s mind as to how his sons should be employed, for them to run wild through the streets was out of the question. There was much hostile feeling against the colored boys and as he would be from home most of the time, he felt anxious about them. Mother came to the rescue with the suggestion that they be taken into the office and taught the case. They were little fellows and the thought had not occurred to father. He acted upon the suggestion and at the ages of eleven and nine they were perched upon blocks and given their first lesson in printer’s ink, besides being employed to carry papers and mailing them.
Father was mother’s honored guest. He was from home so often that his home comings were events that she thought worthy of extra notice, and caused renewed activity. Every thing was done that could be to add to his comfort. She also found time to care for four other boys at different times. As they became mem bers of our home circle, the care of their clothing was as carefully seen to as her own children’s and they delighted in calling her Mother.
In her early life she was a member of the Methodist Church, as was father, but in our home there was no family alter. Our custom was to read a chapter in the Bible around the table, each reading a verse in turn until the chapter was completed. She was a person who strived to live a Christian life instead of talking it.
She was a woman strong in her likes and dislikes, and had a large discernment as to the character of those who came around her. Her gift in that direction being very fortunate in the protection of father’s interest especially in the early days of his public life, when there was great apprehension for his safety. She was a woman firm in her opposition to alcoholic drinks, a strict disci plinarian-her no meant no and yes, yes, but more frequently the no’s had it, especially when I was the petitioner. So far as I was concerned, I found my father more yielding than my mother, altho’ both were rigid as to the matter of obedience.
There was a certain amount of grim humor about mother and perhaps such exhibitions as they occurred were a little startling to those who were unacquainted with her. The reserve in which she held herself made whatever she might attempt of a jocose na ture somewhat acrid. She could not be known all at once, she had to be studied. She abhorred shames. In the early 70’s she came to Washington and found a large number of people from whom the shackles had recently fallen. She fully realized their condi tion and considered the gaieties that were then indulged in as frivolous in the extreme.
On one occasion several young women called upon her and commenting on her spacious parlors and the approaching holiday season, thought it a favorable opportunity to suggest the keeping of an open house. Mother replied : ”I have been keeping open house for several weeks. I have it closed now and I expect to keep it closed.” The young women thinking mother’s understanding was at fault, endeavored to explain. They were assured, how ever, that they were fully understood. Father, who was present, laughingly pointed to the New Bay Window, which had been com pleted only a few days previous to their call.
Perhaps no other home received under its roof a more varied class of people than did our home. From the highest dignitaries to the lowliest person, bond or free, white or black, were welcomed, and mother was equally gracious to all. There were a few who presumed on the hospitality of the home and officiously insinuated themselves and their advice in a manner that was particularly disagreeable to her. This unwelcome attention on the part of the visitor would be grievously repelled, in a manner more forceful than the said party would deem her capable of, and from such a person an erroneous impression of her temper and qualifications would be given, and criticisms sharp and unjust would be made; so that altho she had her triumphs, they were trials, and only those who knew her intimately could fully understand and appreciate the enduring patience of the wife and mother.
During her wedded life of forty-four years, whether in adversity or prosperity, she was the same faithful ally, guarding as best she could every interest connected with my father, his life work and the home. Unfortunately an opportunity for a knowledge of books had been denied her, the lack of which she greatly deplored. Her increasing family and household duties prevented any great advancement, altho’ she was able to read a little. By contact with people of culture and education, and they were her real friends, her improvement was marked. She took a lively interest in every phase of the Anti-Slavery movement, an interest that father took full pains to foster and to keep her intelligently informed. I was instructed to read to her. She was a good listener, making comments on passing events, which were well worth consideration, altho’ the manner of the presentation of them might provoke a smile. Her value was fully appreciated by my father, and in one of his letters to Thomas Auld, (his former master,) he says, “Instead of finding my companion a burden she is truly a helpmeet.”
In 1882, this remarkable woman, for in many ways she was re markable, was stricken with paralysis and for four weeks was a great sufferer. Altho’ perfectly helpless, she insisted from her sick bed to direct her home affairs. The orders were given with precision and they were obeyed with alacrity. Her fortitude and patience up to within ten days of her death were very great. She helped us to bear her burden. Many letters of condolence from those who had met her and upon whom pleasant impressions had been made, were received. Hon. J. M. Dalzell of Ohio, wrote thus:
“You know I never met your good wife but once and then her
welcome was so warm and sincere and unaffected, her manner al together so motherly, and her goodby so full of genuine kindness and hospitality, as to impress me tenderly and fill my eyes with tears as I now recall it.”
Prof. Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote: “The kind treatment given to us and our little one so many years ago won for her a place in our hearts from which no lapse of time could move her. To us she was ever kind and good and our mourning because of her death, is heartfelt.”
There is much room for reflection in the review in the life of such a woman as Anna Murray Douglass. Unlettered tho’ she was, there was a strength of character and of purpose that won for her the respect of the noblest and best. She was a woman who strove to inculcate in the minds of her children the highest principles of morality and virtue both by precept and example. She was not well versed in the polite etiquette of the drawing room, the rules for the same being found in the many treatises devoted to that branch of literature. She was possessed of a much broader culture, and with discernment born of intelligent observation, and wise discrimination she welcomed all with the hearty manner of a noble soul.
I have thus striven to give you a glimpse of my mother. In so doing I am conscious of having made frequent mention of my father. It is difficult to say any thing of mother without the men tion of father, her life was so enveloped in his. Together they rest side by side, and most befittingly, within sight of the dear old home of hallowed memories and from which the panting fugitive, the weary traveler, the lonely emigrant of every clime, received food and shelter.
~ Rosetta Douglass Spague, from Journal of Negro History
Recruitment poster for the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first regiment to enlist Black men as soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War. Source: http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=49&pid=15
The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. Prior to 1863, no concerted effort was made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862 provided the impetus for the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the raising of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts was the first to respond with the formation of the Fifty-fourth Regiment.
The formation of the regiment was a matter of controversy and public attention from its inception. Questions were raised as to the black man’s ability to fight in the “white man’s war.” Although Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew believed that black men were capable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was simply too controversial; Andrew needed all the support he could get. The commissioned officers, then, were white and the enlisted men black. Any black officers up to the rank of lieutenant were non-commissioned and reached their positions by moving up through the ranks. On 28 May 1863, upon the presentation of the unit’s colors by the governor and a parade through the streets of Boston, spectators lined the streets with the hopes of viewing this experimental unit. The regiment then departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.
All but one of the portraits below (the lithograph of Robert Gould Shaw) were collected by Capt. Luis F. Emilio, commander of Company E of the regiment. The photographic portraits date from circa 1860 to 1880 and include tintypes, one ambrotype, and albumen photographs depicting both African-American members of the regiment, as well as white officers. The entire collection of 108 photographs is described in a collection guide with links to digitized images,54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment photographs (Photo. Coll. 72). Forty-three additional images of the volunteers can be found in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment carte de visite album (Photo. Coll. 103).
By the middle of February 1863, recruiting for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment was underway. Newspaper advertisements and recruiting posters (see below) encouraged black men to enlist. Twenty-five men responded promptly, and by the end of the first week of enlistments seventy-two recruits were present at Camp Meigs in Readville (now West Roxbury), Massachusetts. However, more soldiers were needed and recruiters turned their attention to states throughout the North and South and into Canada to locate enough eligible black men to fill the regiment. By 14 May 1863, the regiment was comprised of 1000 enlisted men, and a full complement of white officers. In May 1863, Captain John W. M. Appleton donated the Enlistment roll of Company A of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The remaining recruits became the nucleus of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
On 16 July 1863, serving as a diversion for the intended attack on Morris Island, South Carolina, the Fifty-fourth Regiment saw its first action on James Island, losing forty-five men. On 18 July, after several days with little sleep, food or water, the regiment was instructed to lead the attack against Fort Wagner on Morris Island (see an 1863 watercolor of Morris Island from Fort Wagner by Henry Webber). In the disastrous assault led by Colonel Shaw, the 54th suffered very heavy losses, most notably the loss of their commander, and nearly half of the men present were killed, wounded, or missing. Despite this, the unit showed exceptional bravery and honor, never retreating as they waited for the reinforcements which would never arrive.
While the Fifty-fourth Regiment suffered heavy losses at Fort Wagner, there is no evidence that the unit was chosen because they were thought of simply as cannon fodder. When the news of the attack reached home, the unit which had been the target of so much attention, publicity, and skepticism finally earned the respect it deserved. Despite the defeat at Fort Wagner, the use of black soldiers in the 54th was viewed as a success and opened the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.