Today crowds line Boston’s Beacon Street in celebration of the deployment of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew presents the unit’s colors, after which the regiment parades down the street and to the waiting steamer De Molay for transport to Port Royal, South Carolina.
Port Royal and environs, under Union control, harbor tens of thousands of soldiers as well as tens of thousands of freedpersons. There, Union forces are overseeing the “Port Royal Experiment,” a concentrated effort to educate freedpersons and prepare them for freedom in the South once the war finally concludes.
The 54th Massachusetts is a well-known African-American regiment, and their arrival in Port Royal is highly anticipated. Only six days ago, the United States War Department had established the Bureau of Colored Troops, charged with recruiting and assembling black regiments, of which the 54th is held up as a model.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, “the idealist scion of an abolitionist family,” commands the regiment. White, abolitionist officers and physically fit African soldiers characterize the regiment.
Many of the soldiers are Baptists, reflective of the popularity of the Baptist faith among free blacks and slaves both North and South. Accompanying the 54th is prominent African Baptist minister Rev. William Jackson, formerly pastor of Salem Baptist Church (Massachusetts) who is now serving as regimental chaplain.
Soldiers and officers alike are ready to do battle against the slaveholding Confederacy, and their wishes will soon be granted. But for now, they cast their eyes southward as they leave the safety of Boston behind.
Sources: “African-American Regiment Departs for Combat” (link); “Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment,” National Park Service (link); “54th Regiment,” Massachusetts Historical Society (link); see also Captain Luis F. Emilio and Gregory J.W. Urwin, A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865, De Capo Press, 1995 (link); poster image (link)