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Chapter 2: Readville camp.

Lieutenant E. N. Hallowell, on Feb. 21, 1863, was ordered to Readville, Mass., where, at Camp Meigs, by direction of Brig.-Gen. R. A. Peirce, commandant of camps, he took possession with twentyseven men of the buildings assigned to the new regiment. Readville is on the Boston and Providence Railroad, a few miles from Boston. The ground was flat, and well adapted for drilling, but in wet weather was muddy, and in the winter season bleak and cheerless. The barracks were great barn-like structures of wood with sleeping-bunks on either side. The field, staff, and company officers were quartered in smaller buildings. In other barracks near by was the larger part of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, under Col. Charles R. Lowell, Jr., a brother-in-law of Colonel Shaw.

During the first week seventy-two recruits were received in camp, and others soon began to arrive with a steady and increasing flow; singly, in squads, and even in detachments from the several agencies established throughout the country.

Surgeon-General Dale, of Massachusetts, reported on the Fifty-fourth recruits as follows:—

‘The first recruits were sent to Camp Meigs, Readville, in February, 1863; their medical examination was most rigid and thorough, nearly one third of the number offering being peremptorily [20] rejected. As a consequence, a more robust, strong, and healthy set of men were never mustered into the service of the United States.’

Companies A and B were filled by March 15; Company D was then formed; Company C came to camp from New Bedford on March 10. These four companies were mustered into the United States service on March 30. Lieutenant Partridge on March 28 was assigned to begin Company E; Lieutenant Bridge, reporting from recruiting service, was placed in command of Company F, just forming; Lieutenant Smith, on April 10, was chosen to organize Company G. As recruits came in during April at the rate of one hundred per week, these three companies were ready for muster on April 23. Companies H, I, and K were mustered May 13, completing the regiment.

With some twenty-one officers and four hundred men in camp, on April 1, the regiment was fairly under way. The material of which it was to be composed could fairly be judged from what was at hand. There were ample grounds for encouragement even to the most sceptical. It is pleasant to record that the soldier appointed to the command was early assured of the fact that he had not dared to lead in a hopeless task, for on March 25, Colonel Shaw wrote:—

‘If the success of the Fifty-fourth gives you so much pleasure, I shall have no difficulty in giving you good words of it whenever I write. Everything goes on prosperously. The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than most of the Irish I have had under my command. There is not the least doubt that we shall leave the State with as good a regiment as any that has marched.’


A considerable number of the men had prepared themselves in some measure for bearing arms, others had been officers' servants or camp followers; and as has been noted in all times and in all races of men, some were natural soldiers. Passive obedience—a race trait— characterized them. During their whole service their esprit du corps was admirable.

Only a small proportion had been slaves. There were a large number of comparatively light-complexioned men. In stature they reached the average of white volunteers. Compared with the material of contraband regiments, they were lighter, taller, of more regular features. There were men enough found amply qualified to more than supply all requirements for warrant officers and clerks. As a rule, those first selected held their positions throughout service. The co-operation of the non-commissioned officers helped greatly to secure the good reputation enjoyed by the Fifty-fourth; and their blood was freely shed, in undue proportion, on every battlefield. Surgeon-General Dale, in the report previously quoted from, speaks further of the Fifty-fourth as follows:—

From the outset, the regiment showed great interest in drilling, and on guard duty it was always vigilant and active. The barracks, cook-houses, and kitchens far surpassed in cleanliness any I have ever witnessed, and were models of neatness and good order. The cooks, however, had many of them been in similar employment in other places, and had therefore brought some skill to the present responsibility.

In camp, these soldiers presented a buoyant cheerfulness and hilarity, which impressed me with the idea that the monotony of their ordinary duties would not dampen their feeling of contentment, if they were well cared for. On parade, their [22] appearance was marked with great neatness of personal appearance as concerned dress and the good condition in which their arms and accoutrements were kept. Their habits being imitative, it was natural that they should be punctilious in matters of military etiquette, and such observances as the welldisciplined soldier, in his subordinate position, pays to his superior. And fortunately for them, they had the teachings of those who were not only thoroughly imbued with the importance of their trusts, but were gentlemen as well as soldiers.

It was remarked that there was less drunkenness in this regiment than in any that had ever left Massachusetts; but this may have been owing to the fact that the bounty was not paid them until a day or two previous to their departure. Nevertheless, it is my dispassionate and honest conviction that no regiments were ever more amenable to good discipline, or were more decorous and proper in their behavior than the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Volunteers.

Owing to heavy and frequent rains in March and the early days of April, the mud was often very deep between the barracks and officers' quarters, requiring much labor to clean paths. During cold weather the quarters were kept warm by wood fires. In stormy weather squad and company drills went on in vacant barracks. Later in the season the companies under commissioned officers were taken several times each week to bathe in a pond near by to insure personal cleanliness.

Fast Day, April 2, was largely given up to rest and recreation, with religious services in the afternoon. The first dress parade took place the next day, when four companies were in line. Every day, but especially on Sundays, large numbers of visitors were present. Many ladies graced the camp with their presence. People came from [23] distant places to witness the novel sight of colored soldiers in quarters and on the drill ground. For the purpose of securing familiarity with drill and tactics, and to obtain uniformity in the unwritten customs of the service, an officers' school was begun April 20, at headquarters, and held frequent sessions thereafter, until the regiment departed for field service. There were a few deaths and a moderate amount of sickness while at Readville, mainly from pneumonia and bronchitis, as the men were first exposed in the trying months of February and March.

Now and then the monotony of camp life was broken by some noteworthy event. On April 21, a visit was received from the ‘Ladies' Committee.’ Mrs. Governor Andrew, Mrs. W. B. Rogers, Mrs. E. D. Cheney, Mrs. C. M. Severance, Miss Abby W. May, Judge Russell, Rev. Mr. Grimes, Charles W. Slack, and J. H. Stevenson were of the party. Another event was the review by Governor Andrew and Secretary Chase in the afternoon of April 30, the President's Fast Day. The line was formed with eight hundred and fifty men; and the distinguished visitors were received with due honors. Dr. Howe, Robert Dale Owen, Mr. Garrison, and other gentlemen were also present.

On April 30, the regiment drew nine hundred and fifty Enfield rifled muskets and a suitable number of noncommissioned officers' swords. Lieutenant Jewett, appointed ordnance officer, issued the arms on the following day. May 2, the regiment was drilled for the first time in the School of the Battalion. General Peirce, accompanied by Surgeon-General Dale and the Governor's Council, reviewed the Fifty-fourth on May 4. Brig.-Gen. [24] Edward A. Wild, who was authorized to recruit a brigade of colored troops, visited the camp informally on the 11th. That portion of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry at Readville left for the field on May 12. At noon the Fifty-fourth formed in great haste to escort the cavalry, and marched to their camp, only to learn that the Second had already departed.

By May 11, more recruits had arrived than were required, and the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts was begun with the surplus on the succeeding day. They occupied the old cavalry camp. Of the following officers transferred to it from the Fifty-fourth, N. P. Hallowell became colonel; Alfred S. Hartwell, colonel and brevet brigadier-general; William Nutt, colonel; and Joseph Tilden, captain, during service with the Fifty-fifth. Several non-commissioned officers and privates were also transferred to the new regiment to assist in its organization. Details for guard duty at the new camp were for a time furnished from the Fifty-fourth. Rolls were made out on May 14 for the bounty of fifty dollars for each enlisted man, voted by the State.

Friends had procured flags, and it was determined to make the occasion of their presentation, on May 18, a memorable one. The day was fine and cloudless. Very early, friends of the command began to arrive in private carriages, and by the extra trains run to Readville. Many prominent persons were present, including Surgeon-General Dale, Hon. Thomas Russell, Professor Agassiz, Prof. William B. Rogers, Hon. Josiah Quincy, George S. Hale, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Samuel May, Rev. Dr. Neale, Frederick Douglass, and many others. The parade was thronged with white and [25] colored people of both sexes, to the number of over a thousand.

Line was formed at eleven o'clock, and the regiment was broken into square by Colonel Shaw. Governor Andrew, with his military staff in full uniform, took position inside the square. Brilliant in color and of the finest texture, fluttering in the fresh breeze blowing, the flags destined for the regiment were ready for presentation. They were four in number,—a national flag, a State color, an emblematic banner of white silk with the figure of the Goddess of Liberty, and the motto, ‘Liberty, Loyalty, and Unity,’ and another with a cross upon a blue field, and the motto, In Hoc Signo Vinces.

By invitation, the Rev. Mr. Grimes offered an appropriate prayer. Governor Andrew then stepped forward; and the flow of eloquent words delivered with the earnestness which characterized him, heightened by the occasion, will never be forgotten by those that heard his voice. Standing in plain attire, and facing Colonel Shaw, he spoke as follows:—

Colonel Shaw: As the official representative of the Commonwealth, and by favor of various ladies and gentlemen, citizens of the Commonwealth, and friends of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, I have the honor and the satisfaction of being permitted to join you this morning for the purpose of presenting to your regiment the national flag, the State colors of Massachusetts, and the emblematic banners which the cordial, generous, and patriotic friendship of its patrons has seen fit to present to you. Two years of experience in all the trials and vicissitudes of war, attended with the repeated exhibition of Massachusetts regiments marching from home to the scenes of strife, have left little to be said or suggested which could give the interest of novelty to an occasion [26] like this. But, Mr. Commander, one circumstance pertaining to the composition of the Fifty-fourth Regiment, exceptional in its character, when compared with anything we have seen before, gives to this hour an interest and importance, solemn and yet grand, because the occasion marks an era in the history of the war, of the Commonwealth, of the country, and of humanity. I need not dwell upon the fact that the enlisted men constituting the rank and file of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment are drawn from a race not hitherto connected with the fortunes of the war; and yet I cannot forbear to allude to the circumstance for a brief moment, since it is uppermost in your thoughts, and since this regiment, which for many months has been the desire of my own heart, is present now before this vast assembly of friendly citizens of Massachusetts, prepared to vindicate by its future,—as it has already begun to do by its brief history of camp life here,—to vindicate in its own person, and in the presence, I trust, of all who belong to it, the character, the manly character, the zeal, the manly zeal, of the colored citizens of Massachusetts, and of those other States which have cast their lot with ours.

I owe to you, Mr. Commander, and to the officers who, associated with you, have assisted in the formation of this noble corps, composed of men selected from among their fellows for fine qualities of manhood,—I owe to you, sir, and to those of your associates who united with me in the original organization of this body, the heartiest and most emphatic expression of my cordial thanks. I shall follow you, Mr. Commander, your officers, and your men, with a friendly and personal solicitude, to say nothing of official care, which can hardly be said of any other corps which has marched from Massachusetts. My own personal honor, if I have any, is identified with yours. I stand or fall, as a man and a magistrate, with the rise or fall in the history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. I pledge not only in behalf of myself, but of all those whom I have the honor to represent to-day, the utmost generosity, the utmost [27] kindness, the utmost devotion of hearty love, not only for the cause, but for you that represent it. We will follow your fortunes in the camp and in the field with the anxious eyes of brethren, and the proud hearts of citizens.

To those men of Massachusetts and of surrounding States who have now made themselves citizens of Massachusetts, I have no word to utter fit to express the emotions of my heart. These men, sir, have now, in the Providence of God, given to them an opportunity which, while it is personal to themselves, is still an opportunity for a whole race of men. With arms possessed of might to strike a blow, they have found breathed into their hearts an inspiration of devoted patriotism and regard for their brethren of their own color, which has inspired them with a purpose to nerve that arm, that it may strike a blow which, while it shall help to raise aloft their country's flag— their country's flag, now, as well as ours—by striking down the foes which oppose it, strikes also the last shackle which binds the limbs of the bondmen in the Rebel States.

I know not, Mr. Commander, when, in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you. And may the infinite mercy of Almighty God attend you every hour of every day through all the experiences and vicissitudes of that dangerous life in which you have embarked; may the God of our fathers cover your heads in the day of battle; may He shield you with the arms of everlasting power; may He hold you always—most of all, first of all, and last of all—up to the highest and holiest conception of duty, so that if, on the field of stricken fight, your souls shall be delivered from the thraldom of the flesh, your spirits shall go home to God, bearing aloft the exulting thought of duty well performed, of glory and reward won, even at the hands of the angels who shall watch over you from above!

Mr. Commander, you, sir, and most of your officers, have been carefully selected from among the most intelligent and [28] experienced officers who have already performed illustrious service upon the field during the two years of our national conflict. I need not say, sir, with how much confidence and with how much pride we contemplate the leadership which this regiment will receive at your hands. In yourself, sir, your staff and line officers, we are enabled to declare a confidence which knows no hesitation and no doubt. Whatever fortune may betide you, we know from the past that all will be done for the honor of the cause, for the protection of the flag, for the defence of the right, for the glory of your country, and for the safety and the honor of these men whom we commit to you, that shall lie either in the human heart, or brain, or arm.

And now, Mr. Commander, it is my most agreeable duty and high honor to hand to you, as the representative of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, the American flag, ‘the star-spangled banner’ of the Republic. Wherever its folds shall be unfurled, it will mark the path of glory. Let its stars be the inspiration of yourself, your officers, and your men. As the gift of the young ladies of the city of Boston to their brethren in arms, they will cherish it as the lover cherishes the recollection and fondness of his mistress; and the white stripes of its field will be red with their blood before it shall be surrendered to the foe.

I have also the honor, Mr. Commander, to present to you the State colors of Massachusetts,—the State colors of the old Bay State, borne already by fifty-three regiments of Massachusetts soldiers, white men thus far, now to be borne by the Fifty-fourth Regiment of soldiers, not less of Massachusetts than the others. Whatever may be said, Mr. Commander, of any other flag which has ever kissed the sunlight or been borne on any field, I have the pride and honor to be able to declare before you, your regiment, and these witnesses, that from the beginning till now, the State colors of Massachusetts have never been surrendered to any foe. The Fifty-fourth now holds in possession this sacred charge, in [29] the performance of their duties as citizen soldiers. You will never part with that flag so long as a splinter of the staff or a thread of its web remains within your grasp. The State colors are presented to the Fifty-fourth by the Relief Society, composed of colored ladies of Boston.

And now let me commit to you this splendid emblematic banner. It is prepared for your acceptance by a large and patriotic committee, representing many others besides themselves,—ladies and gentlemen of Boston, to whose hearty sympathy and powerful co-operation and aid much of the success which has hitherto attended the organization of this regiment is due. The Goddess of Liberty erect in beautiful guise and form; Liberty, Loyalty, and Unity,—are the emblems it bears. The Goddess of Liberty shall be the lady-love, whose fair presence shall inspire your hearts; Liberty, Loyalty, Unity, the watchwords in the fight.

And now, Mr. Commander, the sacred, holy Cross, representing passion, the highest heroism, I scarcely dare trust myself to present to you. It is the emblem of Christianity. I have parted with the emblems of the State, of the nation,— heroic, patriotic emblems they are, dear, inexpressibly dear to all our hearts; but now In hoc signo vinces,—the Cross which represents the passion of our Lord, I now dare to pass into your soldier hands; for we are fighting now a battle, not merely for country, not merely for humanity, not only for civilization, but for the religion of our Lord itself. When this cause shall ultimately fail, if ever failure at the last shall be possible, it will only fail when the last patriot, the last philanthropist, and the last Christian shall have tasted death, and left no descendants behind them upon the soil of Massachusetts.

This flag, Mr. Commander, has connected with its history the most touching and sacred memories. It comes to your regiment from the mother, sister, friends, family relatives, of one of the dearest and noblest boys of Massachusetts. I [30] need not utter the name of Lieutenant Putnam in order to excite in every heart the tenderest emotions of fond regard, or the strongest feeling of patriotic fire. May you, sir, and these, follow not only on the field of battle, but in all the walks and ways of life, in camp and hereafter, when, on returning peace, you shall resume the more quiet and peaceful duties of citizens,—may you but follow the splendid example, the sweet devotion, mingled with manly, heroic character, of which the life and death of Lieutenant Putnam was one example! How many more there are we know not,—the record is not yet complete; but oh, how many there are of these Massachusetts sons, who, like him, have tasted death for this immortal cause! Inspired by such examples, fired by — the heat and light of love and faith which illumined and warmed these heroic and noble hearts, may you, sir, and these march on to glory, to victory, and to every honor! This flag I present to you, Mr. Commander, and your regiment. In hoc signo vinces.

At the conclusion of the Governor's remarks, when the applause had subsided, Colonel Shaw responded as follows:—

your Excellency: We accept these flags with feelings of deep gratitude. They will remind us not only of the cause we are fighting for, and of our country, but of the friends we have left behind us, who have thus far taken so much interest in this regiment, and whom we know will follow us in our career. Though the greater number of men in this regiment are not Massachusetts men, I know there is not one who will not be proud to fight and serve under our flag. May we have an opportunity to show that you have not made a mistake in intrusting the honor of the State to a colored regiment,—the first State that has sent one to the war.

I am very glad to have this opportunity to thank the officers and men of the regiment for their untiring fidelity and [31] devotion to their work from the very beginning. They have shown that sense of the importance of the undertaking without which we should hardly have attained our end.

After the command was reviewed by the Governor, the battalion was dismissed, and officers and men devoted themselves to the entertainment of their guests.

Gen. David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, desired the Fifty-fourth sent to South Carolina. His wishes were gratified; for on May 18 the Secretary of War telegraphed Governor Andrew to have the Fifty-fourth report to General Hunter at once. With a field of service under a commander who had shown such faith in colored soldiers, the regiment prepared to depart upon the arrival of a steamer ordered from New York.

May 28, at 6.30 A. M., the regiment formed line for the last time at Readville, and marching to the railroad station, embarked on cars, arriving at Boston about nine o'clock. As the companies filed into the street from the station, the command was received with cheers from a large gathering. One hundred policemen, under the chief, Colonel Kurtz, were present, to clear the streets. Unknown to the general public, reserves of police were held in readiness, under cover, to repress any riotous proceedings.

Preceded by Gilmore's band, the line of march was taken up through Pleasant, Boylston, Essex, Chauncy, Summer, High, Federal, Franklin, Washington, School, and Tremont streets, Pemberton Square, Somerset and Beacon streets to the State House. All along the route the sidewalks, windows, and balconies were thronged with spectators, and the appearance of the regiment caused [32] repeated cheers and waving of flags and handkerchiefs. The national colors were displayed everywhere. Passing the house of Wendell Phillips, on Essex Street, William Lloyd Garrison was seen standing on the balcony, his hand resting on the head of a bust of John Brown. Only hearty greetings were encountered; not an insulting word was heard, or an unkind remark made. At a point on Essex Street, Colonel Shaw was presented with a bouquet by a lady.

Halting at the State House, Governor Andrew, his staff, and many distinguished gentlemen were received with due honor, and thence escorted along Beacon Street to the Common, which was entered by the Charles Street gateway. This historic parade-ground was crowded with spectators.

After a short rest, Governor Andrew, with Major-Generals Sutton and Andrews, and their respective staffs, Senator Wilson, the Executive Council, the Mayor of Boston, officers of other regiments, and other distinguished persons, took position at the reviewing stand. When all was ready, Colonel Shaw led his regiment in column over the intervening ground, and past the reviewing stand.

Again a rest; until, about noon, the regiment moved from the Common by the West Street gate, marched through Tremont, Court, State, and Commercial streets, and arrived at Battery Wharf. Entering State Street, the band played the stirring music of John Brown's hymn, while passing over ground moistened by the blood of Crispus Attucks, and over which Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims had been carried back to bondage. It is a curious fact that Sims himself witnessed the march of [33] the Fifty-fourth. All along this street the reception accorded was most hearty; and from the steps of the Exchange, crowded with business men, the appearance of the regimental colors was the signal for repeated and rousing cheers.

Of this march the papers of the day were full of items and accounts. One journal said:—

‘No regiment has collected so many thousands as the Fifty-fourth. Vast crowds lined the streets where the regiment was to pass, and the Common was crowded with an immense number of people such as only the Fourth of July or some rare event causes to assemble. . . . No white regiment from Massachusetts has surpassed the Fifty-fourth in excellence of drill, while in general discipline, dignity, and military bearing the regiment is acknowledged by every candid mind to be all that can be desired.’

Upon arriving at Battery Wharf, the lines were maintained by the police. Many friends were allowed to remain with the officers for parting words until the vessel sailed.

It was about one o'clock in the afternoon when the regiment embarked on the steamer De Molay, and four o'clock before the lines were cast off and the vessel slowly moved from the wharf, where friendly and loving hands waved adieus, to which those on board responded. A few friends, including Adjutant-General Schouler and Frederick Douglass, remained until the steamer was well away, when they too said their farewells, and returned to the city on a tugboat.

Soon the city, the islands, and the shores faded from view, as the ‘De Molay’ steamed rapidly out of harbor. The Fifty-fourth was en route for rebellious soil. [34]

The following roster of officers of the Fifty-fourth comprises all those who departed for the field with the regiment on May 28, and their respective rank and assignment at the time.—

Colonel,—Robert G. Shaw.

Major,—Edward N. Hallowell.

Surgeon,—Lincoln R. Stone.

Assistant-Surgeon,—Charles B. Bridgham.

Adjutant,—Garth W. James.

Quartermaster,—John Ritchie.

Company A.

Capt., John W. M. Appleton.

1st Lieut., Wm. Homans.

Company B.

Capt., Samuel Willard [Mann].

1st Lieut., James M. Walton.

2d Lieut., Thomas L. Appleton.

Company C.

1st Lieut., James W. Grace.

2d Lieut., Benjamin F. Dexter.

Company D.

Capt., Edward L. Jones.

1st Lieut., R. H. L. Jewett.

Company E.

Capt., Luis F. Emilio.

2d Lieut., David Reid.

Company F.

Capt., Watson W. Bridge.

2d Lieut., Alexander Johnston.

Company G.

1st Lieut., Orin E. Smith.

2d Lieut., James A. Pratt.

Company H.

Capt., Cabot J. Russel.

2d Lieut., Willard Howard.

Company I.

Capt., George Pope.

1st Lieut., Francis L. Higginson.

2d Lieut., Charles E. Tucker.

Company K.

Capt., William H. Simpkins.

2d Lieut., Henry W. Littlefield.

Lewis H. Douglass, a son of Frederick Douglass, was the original sergeant-major. Arthur B. Lee, of Company A, was made commissary-sergeant; and Theodore J. Becker, hospital steward.

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