On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States,” it declared, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” For the first time, black soldiers could fight in the U.S. Army.
The US Army had never accepted black soldiers. The U.S. Navy was more progressive; African-Americans had been serving as shipboard firemen, stewards, coal heavers and even boat pilots since 1861.
After the civil war broke out, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass argued that the enlistment of black soldiers would help the North win the war and would be a huge step in the fight for equal rights. The Second Confiscation and the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, was the first step toward the enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army.
Some blacks took this as their cue to begin forming infantry units of their own. Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first official call for black soldiers. More than 1,00 men responded and they formed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Many of the soldiers were not even from Massachusetts.
In July of 1863, the 54th Massachusetts stormed Fort Wagner, in the Port of Charleston, South Carolina. It was the first time in the Civil War that black troops led an infantry attack. The 600 men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered: Almost half of the charging Union soldiers, including their leader Colonel Shaw, were killed.
Source: Massachusetts 54th Regiment
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