Photo credits: The Gilder Lehrman Collection
African Americans have served in every conflict in United States history, beginning with the American Revolution.
However, it was not until the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation’s passage that free African American men were officially sanctioned to join the US Army. On January 26, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts volunteer infantry was created by the War Department, becoming the first all-black regiment in US history.
The 54th Massachusetts was led by a white general named Robert Gould Shaw. The all-black regiment had to struggle to gain respect, recognition, and equal pay. The Gallant Charge of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Currier & Ives picture above depicts the regiment during their July 18, 1863 attack on Confederate forces in Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
Though the attack – in which over half the regiment died – was unsuccessful, the 54th Massachusetts’ efforts showed the courage and dedication of black soldiers. More than 186,000 African Americans—including 94,000 former slaves from Confederate states—would ultimately serve in the Union Army (Khomina, 2017).
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army’s heroic story of sacrifice was converted to the big screen box office. The Academy Award-winning movie called Glory (1989) was based on the lives of these brave African American soldiers.
The film stars legendary actors Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
References: Khomina, A. (2017, January 23) First All-Black Regiment Authorized: On This Day, 1863. Retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/news/first-all-black-regiment-authorized-day-1863#:~:text=On%20January%2026%2C%201863%2C%20the,%2C%20recognition%2C%20and%20equal%20pay.
*BlackThen.com writer/historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.