Alexander H. Johnson enlisted at the age of 16 as a drummer boy in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. He has been noted as being the first Black musician to enlist during the Civil War, and referred to as being “the original drummer boy.” Johnson led the column of troops on the memorial honoring Robert Gould Shaw.
Johnson told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood.” Born Alexander Howard in New Bedford, he was separated from his parents before his fifth birthday. Orphaned and alone, his plight came to the attention of William Henry Johnson, an influential local Black man, who adopted him and raised him as his own child.
The skirmish, along the South Carolina coast near Charleston, occurred on July 16, 1863. Johnson noted, “We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back. After the battle, we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.” Two days later the 54th stormed Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island. Johnson recounted, “Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark when we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there. Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first boat, as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for orders to charge. The order to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.”
The fighting raged for almost an hour before the regiment was forced to withdraw. The 54th suffered 272 killed, wounded and missing out of the 600 who participated in the charge. “It was a hard fight,” Johnson observed. “We lost our good colonel.”
The 54th forever distinguished itself that day. It proved to all Americans that Black men could fight on par with, and possessed moral courage equal to, the bravest white soldier. Johnson remained in the 54th until the end of the war. He returned in 1865 to Massachusetts with the drum he carried at Fort Wagner. Years later, Johnson married and settled in Worcester, Mass, and organized “Johnson’s Drum Corps.” He led the band as drum major and referred to himself as “The Major.” Johnson died in 1930, he was 83.