By Stephen Kaufman
Washington (RushPRnews) 01/15/09 â€” â€œWill the slave fight?â€ asked abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. â€œIf any man asks you, tell him â€˜no.â€™ â€¦ But if he asks you whether the Negro will fight, tell him â€˜YES!â€™â€
At that time, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made up of enlisted African-American soldiers and white officers, was just being formed. It would prove Phillips correct and inspire greater African-American participation in U.S. military forces.
Now, 146 years later, a company of Civil War re-enactors, including descendants of original unit members, will march in President Barack Obamaâ€™s January 20 inaugural parade, which Benny White, a lieutenant in the 54thâ€™s Company A, describes as â€œthe greatest honor that Iâ€™ve ever had.â€
White, 64, grew up in Boston. Despite his interest in the Civil War, he was not aware of the history-making 54th until the 1989 film Glory portrayed the unit and inspired him to join other New Englanders in forming Company A to participate in historical re-enactments. (See â€œSome American History Lovers Live It on the Weekends.â€)
The 600 members of the original 54th were not the first African Americans to fight in U.S. military battles, but they were the first unit to receive the same military training as whites. They won acclaim on behalf of all African-American soldiers for their valor and skill, especially after leading the July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, in which nearly half were killed or injured.
The soldiers fought despite being offered less pay than their white counterparts and with the knowledge that the Confederate government had decreed that black soldiers and the white officers commanding them would be killed even after surrendering.
HISTORICAL RECOGNITION CAME SLOWLY
â€œWhen I was younger I went by the [54th Massachusetts] monument in downtown Boston on school trips and â€¦ they never really said that thatâ€™s who they were,â€ White told America.gov.
He said his research showed that after the war ended in 1865, the unit was not allowed to participate in the final victory review in Washington, and its veterans, most of whom lived in a slum area near the Massachusetts state house on Bostonâ€™s Beacon Hill, initially were not recognized for their participation.
The 1989 film Glory brought wider recognition to the role of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
Construction began on the Boston monument in 1884, and four decades after fighting in the assault on Fort Wagner, Sergeant William Harvey Carney became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor.
In 1999, the African-American Civil War Memorial was completed in Washington to honor not only the 54th, but all of the 209,145 black soldiers who fought for the Union in the American Civil War.
Although the film Glory helped bring attention to the unit and the Civil War service of African Americans, White said he is skeptical about some elements of the film, such as the denial of uniforms and rifled muskets to the black soldiers and other incidents showing they were treated differently than their white counterparts.
In 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew â€œwas very strict about how he wanted them treated, and he wanted them treated exactly the same as the white soldiers,â€ White said. â€œSo they came into the [training] camp and the barracks like everybody else. They were given their uniforms and the weapons and they were drilled just the way the white soldiers were drilled.â€
However, they were paid less than white soldiers. White said the average monthly pay for a private was $13, with $3 taken away to pay for the uniform.
Massachusetts lawmakers â€œwanted to treat [the black soldiers] as if they were teamsters who would be driving and wouldnâ€™t actually see combat. So they took another $3 â€¦ [and] they were offered only $7 a month,â€ he said.
For 18 months, until the matter was resolved by the U.S. Congress, the soldiers and many of their white officers refused to accept any pay, as depicted in the film. White said that by the end of the war, three African Americans had been commissioned as officers in the unit.
NOT JUST ANOTHER PARADE
Recounting his visit to Fort Wagner, White said the area has changed quite a bit since 1863 because parts of the seaside battlefield and fort have washed away, but its significance remains.
â€œTo me itâ€™s really awe-inspiring to stand on that same spot where the soldiers had fought,â€ he said. â€œWe spent a couple of hours just walking over the sand dunes where the originals actually participated in the battle.â€
Looking ahead to the January 20 inauguration of the first African-American president, White said he is trying to convince himself that it will be â€œjust another paradeâ€ in an effort to maintain his composure while leading his unit.
â€œBut of course, obviously to me, itâ€™s a lot more than that,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve marched since I was probably about 15 years old in different things, and this is the greatest honor that Iâ€™ve ever had.â€