Saturday, May 25, 2013

May 1863: Warren County & the 54th Mass. Colored Troops

In April 1861, free black men in the North and the South volunteered to fight for their states.  Militia companies of African Americans volunteered to fight on both sides, but in the North, all were turned down by politicians and bureaucrats who felt it was a "White Man's War."  Several black militia companies volunteered their services to Virginia to defend their state from a Northern invasion.  The Commonwealth of Virginia thanked the volunteers for their patriotism but declined to accept them into the army.  The confederate Congress approved the War Department's plan to allow blacks to work in the war plants and to enlist in noncombatant roles in the army: cooks, teamsters, hospital stewards, ambulance drivers, engineering battalions, etc.  In 1862, free black cooks assigned to the army were authorized a pay of $15 per month.  In June 1861, the Tennessee Legislature passed a law allowing "all male free persons of color between the ages of 15 and 50"   to enlist in the military.  In April 1861, two "Native Guards" regiments of free African Americans, commanded by black officers, were created by 1,400 volunteers in New Orleans.  The "Native Guards" were incorporated in the Louisiana State Militia.  After New Orleans was captured by Federal troops, the "Native Guards" regiments were mustered into  the Federal Army by General Benjamin Butler as the Corps D'Afrique.  In 1862, Kansas began to enlist African Americans in their "Indian Brigades."  In South Carolina, Union General David Hunter armed runaway slaves and formed the First South Carolina Volunteers Regiment.

In December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, effective on January 1, 1863, which freed slaves in the rebellious states.  However, there were still no official Union regiments of black troops in the Federal Army.  The Federal Government had no provision for raising black troops so it looked to the state militias.  Some states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not want to raise black regiments.  On January 26, 1863, Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton accepted the offer of  Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew to raise three black regiments: the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments (Colored) and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment (Colored).

Governor Andrew realized the 54th Regiment, being the first black regiment raised in the North, would be the model after which other states could follow. Andrew and Frederick Douglass agreed the 54th Regiment should consist of only educated, freeborn blacks - no runaway slaves. The regiment was commanded by white officers and black non-commissioned officers.  Captain Robert Gould Shaw, of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was commissioned as the Colonel commanding the 54th.  Captain Norwood Hallowell, of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the 54th.  Louis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, was appointed Regimental Sergeant Major of the 54th. 
Lacking a sufficient number of qualified volunteers in Massachusetts, it was decided recruiters would be sent to other Union states.  with the aid of Douglass   and Mayor George L. Stearns, of Bedford, $5,000 was raised to start the regiment.  Douglass led a group of recruiters throughout the Northern states, including New Jersey. An enlistment bounty of $100 was paid to each recruit. 
Three Warren County men accepted the call to arms: James Furman, of Washington, enlisted in Company E of the 54th.  Isaiah [or Isaac] Cass, of Hackettstown, joined Company C of the 54th.   John Richardson, of Blairstown, enlisted in Company B of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.  By May 14, 1863, there were 1,000 recruits in the 54th Regiment.  the regiments trained for 100 days at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass.
Copyright 1999-2013: Jay C. Richards      

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