(HOST) This Memorial Day, commentator Cyndy Bittinger is remembering a group of enlisted men from Vermont who fought in the Civil War – who also happened to be African Americans.
(BITTINGER) The sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens highlighted African American participation in the Civil War with his Boston Commons Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty Fourth Regiment, dedicated on Memorial Day in 1897. More than seventy men from Vermont served in the 54th.
Since Vermont’s Constitution banned slavery and the state was on the route of the underground railroad for slaves from the South, Blacks knew they were free here. Why would they leave their safety to fight in the Civil War?
Black orator Frederick Douglas recruited many with his speeches featured words such as this, "a war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly upon colored men to suppress it." Of the 700 African Americans living in Vermont at the time, 152 answered the call. Since the federal government recruited and trained Blacks, if a Black Vermonter wanted to serve, he would join up with the Massachusetts 54th and 55th.
Historian Elise Guyette studied the lives of Black Vermonters from Hinesburgh who served with the 54th. One, Loudon Langley, wrote from the battlefront to the Anglo-African Paper of New York City and the Burlington Free Press. In February of 1864, at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, the 54th showed their mettle. As Langley wrote, they were ordered to retreat, losing 97 men to wounds or death. He reported that the "rebs rent the air with cheer upon cheer" obviously relishing the defeat of African Americans on the Union side. Yet their courage in battle was seen by all. If captured by Confederates, a Black man’s fate would be much worse than that of a white Union soldier. He might be killed outright, enslaved, or tried as a war criminal. Only after President Lincoln threatened to shoot a rebel prisoner for every African American prisoner executed, was the official Southern policy changed. Yet Andersonville prison existed where death by disease, exposure, or malnutrition could be your fate. 15 men from the 54th landed there.
One private from the Black regiment sent this marching song to the Boston Transcript in 1863,
"So rally boys, rally, let us never mind the past,
We had a hard road to travel but our day is coming fast,
For God is for the right and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer."
In the last year of the Civil War, more African American soldiers enlisted with 15 Black regiments in the Army of the James and 23 in the Army of the Potomac. Black troops fought in almost every campaign. Both the 54th and the 55th Massachusetts regiments included Vermonters who marched in victory in 1865, through the ruins of Charleston, South Carolina to be cheered along by newly freed slaves. To quote one soldier, "Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side… the glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory forever."