To Colored Men. 54th Regiment!


J. E. Farwell and Co., To Colored Men. 54th Regiment! Massachusetts Volunteers, of African Descent, 1863, ink on paper, 43 1/4 × 29 5/8 in. (109.9 × 75.2 cm). Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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Although black men had volunteered to fight in the Union army at the onset of the Civil War, they were not legally permitted to enlist until after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863—although black soldiers had served in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812. In the early 1860s individual states were responsible for organizing regiments for federal service, and John A. Andrew of Massachusetts was the first governor to respond to Lincoln’s initiative, leading recruiting efforts for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Enlistment was slow until prominent black figures such as abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth helped spearhead efforts.

This advertisement for volunteers appeared in the Boston Journal on February 16, 1863. It promised a payment of $100 at the end of a soldier’s term of service, plus $13 dollars each month and state assistance to his family. Governor Andrew had been assured that his black troops would receive the same compensation as white soldiers of equal rank, but in July 1863 a federal order established the pay for black soldiers at the laborer’s rate of $10 a month. Governor Andrew and the Massachusetts legislature offered to make up for the discrepancy from state funds. As a point of honor, however, the regiment refused the arrangement and all pay from the federal government until parity was agreed upon. It was not until September 1864 that the men of the 54th received their full pay, including that owed since the time of enlistment.

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