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.
In May of the previous year, Union commanders assembled the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (African Descent), on which the National Parks Service confers the distinction of being "the first such Union Army regiment." It didn't stay together long in its initial form. One reason was that runaway or "contraband" slaves recoiled at being gang-pressed into service.
The 1st South Carolina disbanded in early August 1862, according to the Parks Service. The Civil War Gazette, a webzine, says the unit was reconstituted a couple weeks later. In November 1862, it engaged in military actions, in Georgia and Florida, eight months before the Massachusetts 54th did. Most of the troops were Gullahs from the Sea Islands.
When the 1st South Carolina received official recognition, and in what form, is in dispute. Its military engagements came before those by Massachusetts 54th and 1st Louisiana, but a month after the 1st Kansas Colored went into battle. Glory makes a vague, disparaging reference to what could be the 1st South Carolina in an early scene, and later depicts a similar "contraband" unit joining the Massachusetts 54th on a military mission in a Georgia town.
The Kansas regiment was organized in August 1862, by order of the state's governor. Many of the troops were escaped slaves from Missouri or Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Without federal recognition, which did not come until the next year, they skirmished with Confederate guerrillas in October 1862 at Island Mound in western Missouri. As battles go, the engagement was not glorious — no major military objective was at stake. But once it was over, at least eight members of the 1st Kansas had been killed in action.
In trying to decide when black military participation in the Civil War began, taking casualties would seem to count for more than having official recognition or not. Oct. 29, 1862 was the day black men started fighting in organized units for their own freedom. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, a 1998 book by Noah Andre Trudeau, opens with an account of the fighting at Island Mound.
Trudeau quotes an abolitionist paper in Leavenworth, Kan., as writing of the skirmish: "It is useless to talk any more of negro courage. The men fight like tigers, each and every one of them, and the main difficulty was to hold them well in hand."
Angela Walton-Raji, a genealogist who specializes in tracing black families from Indian Territory, has complained for years about the lack of public recognition of the 1st Kansas, which was later renamed the 79th U.S. Colored Troops. "Because history is not properly taught, most people learn history from Hollywood movies, and thus the 54th is all that people know when it comes to black soldiers in the Civil War," Walton-Raji said. "Sadly, the first black men to engage in battle are overlooked completely."
Glory and The Civil War may have just reinforced historical biases. Though the Louisiana, South Carolina and Kansas regiments were all functioning months earlier, the Massachusetts 54th was accorded a larger place in history because of the star power of advocates like Frederick Douglass, the prominent news coverage in the eastern press and the military significance of Fort Wagner, which protected Charleston, S.C.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.