Frederick Douglass once wrote of the Civil War, "The side which first summons the Negro to its aid will conquer." During the first years of the war, ex-slaves constructed Union fortifications, worked as teamsters, cooks, carpenters, and general laborers but were barred from combat. With the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation, however, African Americans could officially participate in combat for the first time. Black troops had fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but were not formally organized into military units. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, depicted here, was the first such unit of African Americans in U.S. history to be recruited from a Northern state.
The 1863 attack on South Carolina's Fort Wagner was lead by the Massachusetts 54th, which lost two-thirds of its officers and half its troops in the assault. Although the Union was not able to take and hold the fort, the battle garnered international attention for the regiment, whose members were praised for their courage.
The 54th also refused payment rather than accepting the unequal wages offered them--$7 per month plus a $3 clothing allowance, rather than the $13 per month plus $3.50 for clothes paid to white soldiers. When Massachusetts passed an act to make up the difference, the 54th continued their opposition on principle, believing that the money should come from the federal government. The acclaim garnered for the 54th Regiment and African American troops generally by the storming of Fort Wagner probably contributed to the passing of an 1864 federal law that finally provided for equal pay for all soldiers.
Measures 16" x 20"