In 1861, the United States plunged into Civil War, and though across the free states, thousands of black men offered their services as soldiers in the Union Army to help bring an end to slavery, their services were refused. But when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, it included a declaration allowing all free men — including blacks, former slaves or otherwise — to serve in the army. By that spring the "Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers of African descent" was born.
The recruits came from over 22 states, Canada, and even Bermuda and the West Indies. Many of them were educated and only two could not read or write. Ironically, the 54th Regiment played a key role in the Union Army's attack on Charleston, South Carolina, the heart of the Confederacy and long the destination for slave ships arriving from Africa. In February 1865, the men of the 54th, joined by the 21st U.S. Colored Troop, entered Charleston as conquering heroes. Many of them had themselves been slaves in South Carolina and sold on the auction block in Charleston.
By the end of the Civil War, over 186,000 black men had served in the Union army, another 30,000 in the navy. More than 38,000 died in uniform. Clinton Cox's complete history includes photographs and profiles of a number of the soldiers, along with excerpts from their letters and journal entries. The soldiers of the 54th Regiment possessed a unique and immutable spirit and were determined to live, fight — and die, if necessary — as free men.