Wednesday, July 18, 2012

July 18th 1863 - Remembering The 54th Massachusetts




Last week, Fold 3 sent an email to subscribers with the subject line: Content Update - New Title Added.   

That new content was described as “…a multitude of documents chronicling the history and activities of the 54th Massachusetts from 1863 to 1865. They include letters, endorsements, order books, morning reports, returns, muster rolls, and miscellaneous records.”

Exactly what was the “54th Massachusetts”?

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was also known as the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, a regiment of black soldiers and non-commissioned officers that was raised in 1863.  One of the first regiments of black soldiers raised after the Emancipation Proclamation and the first recruited in the North, the 54th Massachusetts is pretty well-known, especially to those who saw the 1989 movie “Glory”, with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick in lead roles.

Many of the enlistees were from Massachusetts and other northeastern states; recruitment was greatly helped by the efforts of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose two sons - Charles and Lewis Douglass  - enlisted.  Still, there was great opposition in the north to the very idea of an all-black regiment; newspapers expressed the sentiments of many people that black men were ill-equipped to fight. 

Others, like Massachusetts Governor John Andrew – an ardent abolitionist - set out to prove them wrong.  His goal was to make the 54th Massachusetts a model fighting regiment, well-trained, well-ordered and well-equipped.

Responding to the order of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who decreed that only white commissioned officers could lead the regiment, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew hand-picked many of the senior officers himself, recruiting them from well-connected “Boston Brahmin” abolitionist families. 

My own particular interest has been in the officer in command, who died in battle  at a place called Battery (and sometimes Fort) Wagner on the coast of South Carolina in Charleston Harbor - shot through the heart, they said  -  sometime after dusk 149 years ago today.

That officer in command of the Massachusetts 54th was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, son of Francis George Shaw (1809 – 1882) and his wife, the former Sarah Blake Sturgis (1815 – 1902).  Sarah Sturgis’s father, Nathaniel Russell Sturgis (1779 – 1856) was the first cousin of William Sturgis, about whom I’ve written several times before. William Sturgis is the grandkids’ 5th great grandfather, so Col. Robert Gould Shaw is part of their huge extended family of tens of thousands of cousins, living and dead, known and unknown.  Some of those cousins fought for the Union in the Civil War; still others fought for the Confederacy.  Families are complex like that.



[The photo at left shows one of the plaster models of Col. Shaw’s head that Augustus Saint Gaudens used for the Shaw Memorial. The model is on display at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, where I took this and the other photos on the page.]


Many members of the large Sturgis clan participated in what was known as "the China trade", hauling furs from the Pacific Northwest to China and silks and porcelains home to Boston; they did well and married well. William Sturgis and Russell Sturgis were grandsons of Thomas Sturgis and Sarah Paine, whose many descendants include folks as diverse as the actress Kyra Sedgewick (a descendant of Robert Gould Shaw’s sister Susannah), Edward William Sturgis Balfour, 9th Laird of Balbirnie (a William Sturgis descendant),  and Her Highness Sylvia Brett Brooke, wife of Charles Vyner deWindt Brooke (26 September 1874–9 May 1963), who was the last Rajah of Sarawak; she descended from another of William and Russell Sturgis’s first cousins – Lucretia Sturgis -  daughter of their uncle Samuel and the wife of Joshua Bates, a New Englander who moved to London and ran Baring’s Bank.

So, naturally, I wanted to peruse this new Fold 3 title, especially the “General Orders” records issued when the newly-formed regiment was still training at Fort Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts.  [Readville was a Boston suburb at the time; today it is part of the city’s Hyde park neighborhood.]

Records like these help us tell stories. 

Every record has its own unique story; it’s often just a matter of ferreting it out.  Of course, records can often raise even more questions than they answer and then lead researchers to new information and new understanding. But most of all, records can help us understand things that are only partly known by adding some precious detail. 

Here are just a few examples from the 54th’s “Special Orders”.  As you read them, remember that Gov. Andrew expected that the 54th would be a “model” regiment, both in performance and appearance.  This would be a uphill battle since Congress would not pay “colored” soldiers as much as white men; $3.00 a month was deducted (out of their $10 a month pay) for clothing used, and Congress also refused to give them the same $42 annual clothing allowance that white soldiers received.

“Special Orders No. 2”,  dated Camp Meigs, March 23, 1863, laid out some of what what Colonel Shaw expected from his men.  It was obvious that discipline and the ability to follow orders were paramount.  The Orders began, “On the entrance of a commissioned officer into the companies quarters the senior non-commissioned officer present will command ‘Attention’.  Each man will take his place in front of his own bunk and salute.”  

Late-night snacks were also off-limits; the Orders stressed that “No enlisted man excepting the cooks, the 1st sergeant and the non-commissioned officer in charge of the kitchen will be allowed to enter the cook house.”

Attention to detail and neatness were important as well:  “The Knapsacks will be kept habitualy [sic] packed and on the foot of the bunk.  The woolen blanket will be carefully folded and laid at the head. The india-rubber blanket spread over the bunk.

Later on, it’s obvious that Shaw wanted to insure that his men would make a good impression on the Readville locals. “Commanders of companies will be careful to allow no man to leave camp who is not neatly dressed in his uniform and in fine weather with his boots blacked.”

Special Orders No. 2 was signed:



Less than four months after issuing the orders above, Robert Gould Shaw  - all of 25 years old - was dead, buried without ceremony in a common mass grave with the soldiers who fell with him on July 18th, stripped of everything but his underwear.  In time, even the soldiers’ mass grave would disappear, washed out to sea by erosion and a series of coastal hurricanes.

Today, visitors to Boston Common will find the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and his men that was designed years later by Augustus Saint Gaudens; my photo below was taken last year at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, where this full-size version of the Boston monument can be found.  The cropped image at the top of the post shows the detail.



July 18, 1863 was a day of carnage and a day of stories.  Most of the stories that recount that day focus on Col. Shaw or the 23 year old former slave named William H. Carney, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service that day. He was the first black soldier to receive that honor.

But there were other stories, not as well remembered.  One of those stories is about the very young man from a privileged background whose name and title  - G. W. James  Acting Adjutant - appears right below Shaw’s on the “Special Orders” above. 

I’ll tell you more about his story tomorrow.

Meanwhile, tonight, take a moment to remember the fallen men of the 54th Massachusetts .  

Tonight is their night, by rights.



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