The 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry

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African Americans and the War Name: _________________________________________ Period: _________

The 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry

Early in the war, abolitionists had urged Congress to recruit African Americans for the army. But at first, most Northerners regarded the conflict as “a white man’s war.” Congress finally opened the door to black recruits in 1862. About 186,000 African Americans, many of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union army. Another 30,000 African Americans joined the Union navy.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to organize black regiments. The most famous was the 54th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Two of the 54th Regiment’s 1000 soldiers were sons of Frederick Douglass. The men of the 54th Regiment were paid less than Caucasian soldiers. When the African American soldiers learned this, they protested the unequal treatment by refusing to accept any pay at all. In a letter to Lincoln, Corporal James Henry Gooding asked, “Are we Soldiers, or are Laborers?...We have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” At Lincoln’s urging, Congress finally granted African American soldiers equal pay.
After three months of training, the 54th Regiment was sent to South Carolina to take part in an attack on Fort Wagner outside of Charleston. As they prepared for battle, the men of the 54th faced the usual worries of untested troops. But they also faced the added fear that if captured, they might be sold into slavery. The assault on Fort Wagner was an impossible mission. To reach the fort, troops had to cross 200 yards of open, sandy beach. Rifle and cannon fire poured down on them. After losing nearly half of their men, the survivors of the 54th Regiment retreated. But their bravery won them widespread respect. After that no one wondered if African Americans could fight.
During the war, 166 African American regiments fought in nearly 500 battles. African American soldiers often received little training, poor equipment, and less pay than white soldiers. They also risked death or enslavement if captured. Still, African Americans fought with great courage to save the Union and won many Congressional Medals of Honor.

Caucasian Soldiers

African American

Directions: Fill in the Venn diagram below to compare the experiences of African American soldiers and Caucasian soldiers in the Union army. Give at least two important similarities and four key differences.

Directions: Based on what you learned by reading and discussing with your partner, answer the following questions as best as you can. Be sure to answer each part of the question using complete sentences and citing evidence from the text at least once to support your answers.

*CASS 8.10.5 Views and lives of leaders and soldiers on both sides of war, including black soldiers

*CC 6-8WHST Produce clear and coherent writing

A: Demonstrates thoughtful analysis by making notes, asking questions, and identifying key information; all

questions are answered and responses cite ideas and opinions from the text; complete sentences.

B: Most questions are answered but responses may or may not connect ideas and opinions to the text.

C: Little attempt is made to answer the questions. Answers are incomplete or inaccurate.

NP: Did not attempt to answer any questions or did not turn in.
“What upon earth is the matter with the American people?...The national edifice is on fire. Every man who can carry a bucket of water…is wanted….[Yet government leaders] refuse to receive the very class of men which has a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels than all others… Such is the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly that rules the hour.” - Frederick Douglass
1. Who is he referring to when he says “the very class of men?” Why would they have a “deeper interest is the defeat and humiliation of the rebels than all others?”
“You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you. [When victory is won] there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue and clenched teeth, and steady eye and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on this great consummation.”

  • Abraham Lincoln

2. According to Abraham Lincoln, to who does this victory matter more? Why?

3. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was a Caucasian officer, why didn’t an African American officer lead the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry?

4. Referring back to the quote by Frederick Douglass and the reading, explain how “prejudice” affected the Civil War?
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