Chapter 1: recruiting.

At the close of the year 1862, the military situation was discouraging to the supporters of the Federal Government. We had been repulsed at Fredericksburg and at Vicksburg, and at tremendous cost had fought the battle of Stone River. Some sixty-five thousand troops would be discharged during the ensuing summer and fall. Volunteering was at a standstill. On the other hand, the Confederates, having filled their ranks, were never better fitted for conflict. Politically, the opposition had grown formidable, while the so-called ‘peace-faction’ was strong, and active for mediation.

In consequence of the situation, the arming of negroes, first determined upon in October, 1862, was fully adopted as a military measure; and President Lincoln, on Jan. 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In September, 1862, General Butler began organizing the Louisiana Native Guards from free negroes. General Saxton, in the Department of the South, formed the First South Carolina from contrabands in October of the same year. Col. James Williams, in the summer of 1862, [2] recruited the First Kansas Colored. After these regiments next came, in order of organization, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, which was the first raised in the Northern States east of the Mississippi River. Thenceforward the recruiting of colored troops, North and South, was rapidly pushed. As a result of the measure, 167 organizations of all arms, embracing 186,097 enlisted men of African descent, were mustered into the United States service.

John A. Andrew, the war Governor of Massachusetts, very early advocated the enlistment of colored men to aid in suppressing the Rebellion. The General Government having at last adopted this policy, he visited Washington in January, 1863, and as the result of a conference with Secretary Stanton, received the following order, under which the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was organized:—

War Department, Washington City, Jan. 20, 1863.
Ordered: That Governor Andrew of Massachusetts is authorized, until further orders, to raise such number of volunteers, companies of artillery for duty in the forts of Massachusetts and elsewhere, and such corps of infantry for the volunteer military service as he may find convenient, such volunteers to be enlisted for three years, or until sooner discharged, and may include persons of African descent, organized into special corps. He will make the usual needful requisitions on the appropriate staff bureaus and officers, for the proper transportation, organization, supplies, subsistence, arms and equipments of such volunteers.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

With this document the Governor at once returned to Boston, anxious to begin recruiting under it before the [3] Government could reconsider the matter. One of his first steps was to transmit the following letter, outlining his plans:—

Dear sir,—As you may have seen by the newspapers, I am about to raise a colored regiment in Massachusetts. This I cannot but regard as perhaps the most important corps to be organized during the whole war, in view of what must be the composition of our new levies; and therefore I am very anxious to organize it judiciously, in order that it may be a model for all future colored regiments. I am desirous to have for its officers —particularly for its field-officers—young men of military experience, of firm antislavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of colored men for military service. Such officers must necessarily be gentlemen of the highest tone and honor; and I shall look for them in those circles of educated antislavery society which, next to the colored race itself, have the greatest interest in this experiment.

Reviewing the young men of the character I have described, now in the Massachusetts service, it occurs to me to offer the colonelcy to your son, Captain Shaw, of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, and the lieutenant-colonelcy to Captain Hallowell of the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, the son of Mr. Morris L. Hallowell of Philadelphia. With my deep conviction of the importance of this undertaking, in view of the fact that it will be the first colored regiment to be raised in the free States, and that its success or its failure will go far to elevate or depress the estimation in which the character of the colored Americans will be held throughout the world, the command of such a regiment seems to me to be a high object of ambition for any officer. How much your son may have reflected upon such a subject I do not know, nor have I any information of his disposition for such a task except what I [4] have derived from his general character and reputation; nor should I wish him to undertake it unless he could enter upon it with a full sense of its importance, with an earnest determination for its success, and with the assent and sympathy and support of the opinions of his immediate family.

I therefore enclose you the letter in which I make him the offer of this commission; and I will be obliged to you if you will forward it to him, accompanying it with any expression to him of your own views, and if you will also write to me upon the subject. My mind is drawn towards Captain Shaw by many considerations. I am sure he would attract the support, sympathy, and active co-operation of many among his immediate family relatives. The more ardent, faithful, and true Republicans and friends of liberty would recognize in him a scion from a tree whose fruit and leaves have always contributed to the strength and healing of our generation. So it is with Captain Hallowell. His father is a Quaker gentleman of Philadelphia, two of whose sons are officers in our army, and another is a merchant in Boston. Their house in Philadelphia is a hospital and home for Massachusetts officers; and the family are full of good works; and he was the adviser and confidant of our soldiery when sick or on duty in that city. I need not add that young Captain Hallowell is a gallant and fine fellow, true as steel to the cause of humanity, as well as to the flag of the country.

I wish to engage the field-officers, and then get their aid in selecting those of the line. I have offers from Oliver T. Beard of Brooklyn, N. Y., late Lieutenant-Colonel of the Fortyeighth New York Volunteers, who says he can already furnish six hundred men; and from others wishing to furnish men from New York and from Connecticut; but I do not wish to start the regiment under a stranger to Massachusetts. If in any way, by suggestion or otherwise, you can aid the purpose which is the burden of this letter, I shall receive your coopera-tion with the heartiest gratitude. [5]

I do not wish the office to go begging; and if the offer is refused, I would prefer it being kept reasonably private. Hoping to hear from you immediately on receiving this letter, I am, with high regard,

Your obedient servant and friend,

Francis G. Shaw himself took the formal proffer to his son, then in Virginia. After due deliberation, Captain Shaw, on February 6, telegraphed his acceptance.

Robert Gould Shaw was the grandson of Robert G. Shaw of Boston. His father, prominently identified with the Abolitionists, died in 1882, mourned as one of the best and noblest of men. His mother, Sarah Blake Sturgis, imparted to her only son the rare and high traits of mind and heart she possessed.

He was born Oct. 10, 1837, in Boston, was carefully educated at home and abroad in his earlier years, and admitted to Harvard College in August, 1856, but discontinued his course there in his third year. After a short business career, on April 19, 1861, he marched with his regiment, the Seventh New York National Guard, to the relief of Washington. He applied for and received a commission as second lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Infantry; and after serving with his company and on the staff of Gen. George H. Gordon, he was promoted to a captaincy. Colonel Shaw was of medium height, with light hair and fair complexion, of pleasing aspect and composed in his manners. His bearing was graceful, as became a soldier and gentleman. His family connections were of the highest social standing, character, and influence. He married Miss Haggerty, of New York City, on May 2, 1863. [6]

Captain Shaw arrived in Boston on February 15, and at once assumed the duties of his position. Captain Hallowell was already there, daily engaged in the executive business of the new organization; and about the middle of February, his brother, Edward N. Hallowell, who had served as a lieutenant in the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, also reported for duty, and was made major of the Fifty-fourth before its departure for the field.

Line-officers were commissioned from persons nominated by commanders of regiments in the field, by tried friends of the movement, the field-officers, and those Governor Andrew personally desired to appoint. This freedom of selection,—unhampered by claims arising from recruits furnished or preferences of the enlisted men, so powerful in officering white regiments,—secured for this organization a corps of officers who brought exceptional character, experience, and ardor to their allotted work. Of the twentynine who took the field, fourteen were veteran soldiers from three-years regiments, nine from nine-months regiments, and one from the militia; six had previously been commissioned. They included representatives of wellknown families; several were Harvard men; and some, descendants of officers of the Revolution and the War of 1812. Their average age was about twenty-three years.

At the time a strong prejudice existed against arming the blacks and those who dared to command them. The sentiment of the country and of the army was opposed to the measure. It was asserted that they would not fight, that their employment would prolong the war, and that white troops would refuse to serve with them. Besides the moral courage required to accept commissions in the Fifty-fourth at the time it was organizing, physical courage [7] was also necessary, for the Confederate Congress, on May 1, 1863, passed an act, a portion of which read as follows:—

Section IV: That every white person being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command negroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize, or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprise, attack, or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, be put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the Court.

The motives which influenced many of those appointed are forcibly set forth in the following extracts from a letter of William H. Simpkins, then of the Forty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, who was killed in action when a captain in the Fifty-fourth:—

‘I have to tell you of a pretty important step that I have just taken. I have given my name to be forwarded to Massachusetts for a commission in the Fifty-fourth Negro Regiment, Colonel Shaw. This is no hasty conclusion, no blind leap of an enthusiast, but the result of much hard thinking. It will not be at first, and probably not for a long time, an agreeable position, for many reasons too evident to state. . . . Then this is nothing but an experiment after all; but it is an experiment that I think it high time we should try,—an experiment which, the sooner we prove fortunate the sooner we can count upon an immense number of hardy troops that can stand the effect of a Southern climate without injury; an experiment which the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of a false hope.’


From first to last the original officers exercised a controlling influence in the regiment. To them—field, staff, and line—was largely due whatever fame was gained by the Fifty-fourth as the result of efficient leadership in camp or on the battlefield.

In his Memoirs of Governor Andrew the Hon. Peleg W. Chandler writes:—

When the first colored regiment was formed, he [Governor Andrew] remarked to a friend that in regard to other regiments, he accepted men as officers who were sometimes rough and uncultivated, “but these men,” he said, “shall be commanded by officers who are eminently gentlemen.”

So much for the selection of officers. When it came to filling the ranks, strenuous efforts were required outside the State, as the colored population could not furnish the number required even for one regiment.

Pending the effort in the wider field available under the plan proposed, steps were taken to begin recruiting within the State. John W. M. Appleton, of Boston, a gentleman of great energy and sanguine temperament, was the first person selected for a commission in the Fifty-fourth, which bore date of February 7. He reported to the Governor, and received orders to begin recruiting. An office was taken in Cambridge Street, corner of North Russell, upstairs, in a building now torn down. On February 16, the following call was published in the columns of the Boston Journal:—

To Colored men.

Wanted. Good men for the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers of African descent, Col. Robert G. Shaw. [9] $100 bounty at expiration of term of service. Pay $13 per month, and State aid for families. All necessary information can be obtained at the office, corner Cambridge and North Russell Streets.

Lieut. J. W. M. Appleton, Recruiting Officer.

In five days twenty-five men were secured; and Lieutenant Appleton's work was vigorously prosecuted, with measurable success. It was not always an agreeable task, for the rougher element was troublesome and insulting. About fifty or sixty men were recruited at this office, which was closed about the last of March. Lieutenant Appleton then reported to the camp established and took command of Company A, made up of his recruits and others afterward obtained.

Early in February quite a number of colored men were recruited in Philadelphia, by Lieut. E. N. Hallowell, James M. Walton, who was subsequently commissioned in the Fifty-fourth, and Robert R. Corson, the Massachusetts State Agent. Recruiting there was attended with much annoyance. The gathering-place had to be kept secret, and the men sent to Massachusetts in small parties to avoid molestation or excitement. Mr. Corson was obliged to purchase railroad tickets himself, and get the recruits one at a time on the cars or under cover of darkness. The men sent and brought from Philadelphia went to form the major part of Company B.

New Bedford was also chosen as a fertile field. James W. Grace, a young business man of that place, was selected as recruiting officer, and commissioned February 10. He opened headquarters on Williams Street, near the postoffice, and put out the United States flag across the street. [10] Colored ministers of the city were informed of his plans; and Lieutenant Grace visited their churches to interest the people in his work. He arranged for William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and other noted men to address meetings. Cornelius Howland, C. B. H. Fessenden, and James B. Congdon materially assisted and were good friends of the movement. While recruiting, Lieutenant Grace was often insulted by such remarks as, ‘There goes the captain of the Negro Company! He thinks the negroes will fight! They will turn and run at the first sight of the enemy!’ His little son was scoffed at in school because his father was raising a negro company to fight the white men. Previous to departure, the New Bedford recruits and their friends gathered for a farewell meeting. William Berry presided; prayer was offered by Rev. Mr. Grimes; and remarks were made by Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, Lieutenant Grace, C. B. H. Fessenden, Ezra Wilson, Rev. Mr. Kelly, Wesley Furlong, and Dr. Bayne. A collation at A. Taylor and Company's followed. Temporarily the recruits took the name of ‘Morgan Guards,’ in recognition of kindnesses from S. Griffiths Morgan. At camp the New Bedford men,—some seventy-five in number,—with others from that place and elsewhere, became Company C, the representative Massachusetts company.

Only one other commissioned officer is known to the writer as having performed effective recruiting service. This is Watson W. Bridge, who had been first sergeant, Company D, Thirty-seventh Massachusetts Infantry. His headquarters were at Springfield, and he worked in Western Massachusettts and Connecticut. When ordered to camp, about April 1, he had recruited some seventy men. [11]

Much the larger number of recruits were obtained through the organization and by the means which will now be described. About February 15, Governor Andrew appointed a committee to superintend the raising of recruits for the colored regiment, consisting of George L. Stearns, Amos A. Lawrence, John M. Forbes, William I. Bowditch, Le Baron Russell, and Richard P. Hallowell, of Boston; Mayor Howland and James B. Congdon, of New Bedford; Willard P. Phillips, of Salem; and Francis G. Shaw, of New York. Subsequently the membership was increased to one hundred, and it became known as the ‘Black Committee.’ It was mainly instrumental in procuring the men of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry, the Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry, besides 3,967 other colored men credited to the State. All the gentlemen named were persons of prominence. Most of them had been for years in the van of those advanced thinkers and workers who had striven to help and free the slave wherever found.

The first work of this committee was to collect money; and in a very short time five thousand dollars was received, Gerrit Smith, of New York, sending his check for five hundred dollars. Altogether nearly one hundred thousand dollars was collected, which passed through the hands of Richard P. Hallowell, the treasurer, who was a brother of the Hallowells commissioned in the Fifty-fourth. A call for recruits was published in a hundred journals from east to west. Friends whose views were known were communicated with, and their aid solicited; but the response was not for a time encouraging

With the need came the man. Excepting Governor Andrew, the highest praise for recruiting the Fifty-fourth [12] belongs to George L. Stearns, who had been closely identified with the struggle in Kansas and John Brown's projects. He was appointed agent for the committee, and about February 23 went west on his mission. Mr. Stearns stopped at Rochester, N. Y., to ask the aid of Fred Douglass, receiving hearty co-operation, and enrolling a son of Douglass as his first recruit. His headquarters were made at Buffalo, and a line of recruiting posts from Boston to St. Louis established.

Soon such success was met with in the work that after filling the Fifty-fourth the number of recruits was sufficient to warrant forming a sister regiment. Many newspapers gave publicity to the efforts of Governor Andrew and the committee. Among the persons who aided the project by speeches or as agents were George E. Stephens, Daniel Calley, A. M. Green, Charles L. Remond, William Wells Brown, Martin R. Delany, Stephen Myers, O. S. B. Wall, Rev. William Jackson, John S. Rock, Rev. J. B. Smith, Rev. H. Garnett, George T. Downing, and Rev. J. W. Loqueer.

Recruiting stations were established, and meetings held at Nantucket, Fall River, Newport, Providence, Pittsfield, New York City, Philadelphia, Elmira, and other places throughout the country. In response the most respectable, intelligent, and courageous of the colored population everywhere gave up their avocations, headed the enlistment rolls, and persuaded others to join them.

Most memorable of all the meetings held in aid of recruiting the Fifty-fourth was that at the Joy Street Church, Boston, on the evening of February 16, which was enthusiastic and largely attended. Robert Johnson, Jr., presided; J. R. Sterling was the Vice-President, and Francis [13] Fletcher Secretary. In opening, Mr. Johnson stated the object of the gathering. He thought that another year would show the importance of having the black man in arms, and pleaded with his hearers, by the love they bore their country, not to deter by word or deed any person from entering the service. Judge Russell said in his remarks, ‘You want to be line-officers yourselves.’ He thought they had a right to be, and said,—

‘If you want commissions, go, earn, and get them. [Cheers.] Never let it be said that when the country called, this reason kept back a single man, but go cheerfully.’

Edward L. Pierce was the next speaker; and he reminded them of the many equalities they had in common with the whites. He called on them to stand by those who for half a century had maintained that they would prove brave and noble and patriotic when the opportunity came. Amid great applause Wendell Phillips was introduced. The last time he had met such an audience was when he was driven from Tremont Temple by a mob. Since then the feeling toward them had much changed. Some of the men who had pursued and hunted him and them even to that very spot had given up their lives on the battlefields of Virginia. He said:—

‘Now they offer you a musket and say, “Come and help us.” The question is, will you of Massachusetts take hold? I hear there is some reluctance because you are not to have officers of your own color. This may be wrong, for I think you have as much right to the first commission in a brigade as a white man. No regiment should be without a mixture of the races. But if you cannot have a whole loaf, will you not take a slice?’


He recited reasons why it would be better to have white officers, stating among other things that they would be more likely to have justice done them and the prejudice more surely overcome than if commanded by men of their own race. He continued:—

‘Your success hangs on the general success. If the Union lives, it will live with equal races. If divided, and you have done your duty, then you will stand upon the same platform with the white race. [Cheers.] Then make use of the offers Government has made you; for if you are not willing to fight your way up to office, you are not worthy of it. Put yourselves under the stars and stripes, and fight yourselves to the marquee of a general, and you shall come out with a sword. [Cheers.]’

Addresses were then made by Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, Robert C. Morris, and others. It was a great meeting for the colored people, and did much to aid recruiting.

Stirring appeals and addresses were written by J. M. Langston, Elizur Wright, and others. One published by Frederick Douglass in his own paper, at Rochester, N. Y., was the most eloquent and inspiring. The following is extracted:—

We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the State of Massachusetts. She was first in the War of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools. She was first to answer with her blood the alarm-cry of the nation when its capital was menaced by the Rebels. You know her patriotic Governor, and you know Charles Sumner. I need add no more. Massachusetts now welcomes you as her soldiers. . . .


In consequence of the cold weather there was some suffering in the regimental camp. When this became known, a meeting was held at a private residence on March 10, and a committee of six ladies and four gentlemen was appointed to procure comforts, necessities, and a flag. Colonel Shaw was present, and gave an account of progress. To provide a fund, a levee was held at Chickering Hall on the evening of March 20, when speeches were made by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Rev. Dr. Neale, Rev. Father Taylor, Judge Russell, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell. Later, through the efforts of Colonel Shaw and Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, a special fund of five hundred dollars was contributed to purchase musical instruments and to instruct and equip a band.

Besides subscriptions, certain sums of money were received from towns and cities of the State, for volunteers in the Fifty-fourth credited to their quota. The members of the committee contributed liberally to the funds required, and the following is a partial list of those who aided the organization in various ways:—

George Putnam,

Charles G. Loring,

J. Huntington Wolcott,

Samuel G. Ward,

James M. Barnard,

William F. Weld,

J. Wiley Edmands,

William Endicott, Jr.,

Francis L. Lee,

Oakes Ames,

James L. Little,

Marshall S. Scudder,

George Higginson,

Thomas Russell,

Edward S. Philbrick,

Oliver Ellsworth,

Robert W. Hooper,

John H. Stevenson,

John H. Silsbee,

Manuel Fenollosa,

G. Mitchell,

John W. Brooks,

Samuel Cabot, Jr.,

John Lowell, [16]

James T. Fields,

Henry Lee, Jr.,

George S. Hale,

William Dwight,

Richard P. Waters,

Avery Plummer, Jr.,

Alexander H. Rice,

John J. May,

John Gardner,

Mrs. Chas. W. Sumner,

Albert G. Browne,

Ralph Waldo Emerson,

William B. Rogers,

Charles Buffum,

John S. Emery,

Gerritt Smith,

Albert G. Browne, Jr.,

Mrs. S. R. Urbino,

Edward W. Kinsley,

Uriah and John Ritchie,

Pond & Duncklee,

John H. and Mary E. Cabot,

Mary P. Payson,

Manuel Emilio,

Henry W. Holland,

Miss Halliburton,

Frederick Tudor,

Samuel Johnson,

Mary E. Stearns,

Mrs. William J. Loring,

Mrs. Governor Andrew,

Mrs. Robert C. Waterston,

Wright & Potter,

James B. Dow,

William Cumston,

John A. Higginson,

Peter Smith,

Theodore Otis,

Avery Plummer,

James Savage,

Samuel May,

Mrs. Samuel May,

Josiah Quincy,

William Claflin,

Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis,

George Bemis,

Edward Atkinson,

Professor Agassiz,

John G. Palfrey, besides several societies and fraternities.

Most of the papers connected with the labors of the committee were destroyed in the great Boston fire, so that it is difficult now to set forth properly in greater detail the work accomplished.

In the proclamation of outlawry issued by Jefferson Davis, Dec. 23, 1862, against Major-General Butler, was the following clause:— [17]

‘Third. That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.’

The act passed by the Confederate Congress previously referred to, contained a section which extended the same penalty to negroes or mulattoes captured, or who gave aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederacy. Those who enlisted in the Fifty-fourth did so under these acts of outlawry bearing the penalties provided. Aware of these facts, confident in the protection the Government would and should afford, but desirous of having official assurances, George T. Downing wrote regarding the status of the Fifty-fourth men, and received the following reply:—

Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Department, Boston, March 23, 1863.
George T. Downing, Esq., New York.
Dear sir,—In reply to your inquiries made as to the position of colored men who may be enlisted into the volunteer service of the United States, I would say that their position in respect to pay, equipments, bounty, or any aid or protection when so mustered is that of any and all other volunteers.

I desire further to state to you that when I was in Washington on one occasion, in an interview with Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War, he stated in the most emphatic manner that he would never consent that free colored men should be accepted into the service to serve as soldiers in the South, until he should be assured that the Government of the United States was prepared to guarantee and defend to the last dollar and the last man, to these men, all the rights, privileges, and immunities that are given by the laws of civilized warfare to other soldiers. Their present acceptance and muster — in as soldiers [18] pledges the honor of the nation in the same degree and to the same rights with all. They will be soldiers of the Union, nothing less and nothing different. I believe they will earn for themselves an honorable fame, vindicating their race and redressing their future from the aspersions of the past.

I am, yours truly,

Having recited the measures and means whereby the Fifty-fourth was organized, the history proper of the regiment will now be entered upon.

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