Revising the Civil War Record

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, featured in the film Glory, was not the first black unit to fight.

TriStar Pictures, © 1989

Though it has the movie Glory and an exquisite memorial on Boston Common, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment does not have Civil War history on its side.

Glory, the 1989 movie starring Denzel Washington, and The Civil War, the Ken Burns series first aired on public television in 1990, portray the Massachusetts 54th as the Army's first black unit. It was not. Both films cast it as the first in combat. It was not.

Black regiments from three other states -- Louisiana, South Carolina and Kansas -- have stronger claims to being the first organized. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, military historians seem to agree, engaged the enemy on the battlefield before any other black unit.

The Massachusetts 54th can only be called "the first" -- accurately -- if the claim is at least double-qualified as the earliest black unit from the North (eliminating Louisiana and South Carolina) that was officially recognized (leaping ahead of Kansas). Sometimes a third qualifier is added -- "free," distinguishing the troops mustered in Boston from the runaway slaves in the ranks of the South Carolina and Kansas units.

How did this important landmark in the nation's history -- not just black history -- get misplaced by such a wide mark? Blame it on the Hollywood hype and the PBS equivalent, at least in contemporary times. Although its futile charge into the blasting canons of Fort Wagner, S.C., does make for a better story than the earlier black units, the 54th Regiment didn't have to be misrepresented as the first to capture its heroism.

Comcast's on-screen guide describes Glory as a "stirring tribute to the Army's first black regiment, mustered up during the Civil War under the command of an inexperienced New Englander." PBS summarizes the relevant action in Episode 5 of The Civil War: "Lincoln authorizes the first black troops. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, under Robert Gould Shaw, attacks Fort Wagner, South Carolina. The battle is a Confederate victory, but it proves that blacks can fight as well as whites."

With the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln authorized the recruitment of black troops. About 179,000 would go on to fight in the Union Army, and another 19,000 in the Navy. Almost 40,000 died.

But some states and Union commanders were way ahead of the Great Emancipator.

The National Parks Service, which maintains any number of Civil War monuments and battlefields, puts it this way: "It may be interesting to mention that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, celebrated for its valiant charge at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, was not the first African-American unit to fight in the Union Army. While the 54th was organized in 1863, other units of African-American soldiers were formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana as early as 1862."

The 1st Louisiana Native Guards, a state militia, already existed when the Civil War started in April 1861, but Confederates in New Orleans quickly disbanded the black regiment. When New Orleans fell into Northern hands, Union commanders managed to reconstitute the unit, which on Sept. 27, 1862, received official recognition from the Union Army. The Massachusetts 54th was not mustered until three months later in January 1863. The 1st Louisiana was the first officially recognized black regiment to engage in battle in May 1863. The Massachusetts 54th's charge at Fort Wagner did not come until July.