HISTORY OF 55th MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEER INFANTRY

by Katherine Dhalle

Copyright 1995. LWF Publications. Posted from Lest We Forget, Volume 3 - Number 2, April, 1995.

So much has been written recently about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The movie “Glory” brought their story to the silver-screen and enhanced our historical and cultural awareness of the role black soldiers played in the Civil War. Yet few people know that there was a sister regiment to the 54th - - the 55th Massachusetts. Even fewer know that the 55th trained at the same camp as the 54th and like her sister regiment, went without pay for nearly 18 months. Ironically, on July 18, 1863, just hours before the 54th Massachusetts launched its historic, ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner in far-away South Carolina, the 55th was presented its regimental colors by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew. Both regiments would experience the same bigotry at the hands of the government and their fellow soldiers, and both regiments would eventually be brigaded together and would fight and die, side by side at Honey Hill, South Carolina on November 30, 1864.

In January of 1863, after the incorporation of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor Andrew asked for and received permission from the War Department to recruit a Negro regiment for the Union Army. Recruiting efforts began in earnest when George Stearns, a friend of the Governor’s formed a string of recruiting stations across the northern states. To complete his endeavor, he enlisted the help of John Mercer Langston. Langston was so successful in his assignment that when more men that necessary showed up for enlistment, the 55th Massachusetts was formed. Everywhere Langston went, he found “colored men enthusiastic for the Union, and ready and anxious to prove their loyalty by their deeds.”1 From Ohio alone, a total of 222 men enlisted in the 55th - - “a number almost twice as large as Pennsylvania and far greater than any other northern state.”2

Recruits for the 55th began arriving at Camp Meigs in Readville and they immediately moved into the barracks recently vacated by the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Norwood Penrose Hallowell and Alfred Stedman Hartwell were designated Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel respectively, both having been promoted from the already-formed 54th. Charles B. Fox of the 2nd Massachusetts was promoted to Major.

On May 28th, Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts left Boston and marched into history. That same day, “the recruits of the 55th were transferred to the barracks thus vacated, and the routine of drill and discipline began” and continued until July 21st when orders were received for the 55th Massachusetts to embark for Newbern, North Carolina.3

The regiment had originally been ordered to proceed to New York, but the recent Draft Riots in that city curtailed any such plans. “Owing to the excited state of the public mind, and a heavy shower, which commenced before the column reached the wharf, the comtemplated review by the Governor on the Common was omitted. The regiment marched through Boston with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets and five rounds of ball cartridges per man.”

Shortly after their arrival in North Carolina, news came of the severe repulse of General Gilmore’s forces at Fort Wagner and the 55th was ordered to report to Folly Island, next to Morris Island. For over six months the regiment was at work in the trenches on Morris Island, and on picket duty and fatigue duty. It was this duty that in September of 1863, led to the Confederate evacuation of Forts Wagner and Gregg as well as the construction of the “Swamp Angel” battery. On this battery was erected a 200 pounder Parrott gun which was used to shell the City of Charleston.

On September 24th, Colonel Hallowell left for the North on a 30 day furlough to receive treatment for an old wound in his arm that he had received at the Battle of Antietam. He would not return to the regiment and was obliged to resign his commission. Alfred Hartwell and Charles Fox were soon mustered in as Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel with Sigourney Wales as Major.

About this time, rumors regarding the pay of the regiment’s enlisted men began circulating the camp. When first organized, the 54th and 55th had been assured by both the War Department and Governor Andrew that they would “receive the same pay, rations, and clothing,” as white troops.5 However, the men were offered the sum of only $10.00 per month, less $3.00 for clothing allowance. “The enlisted men refused almost unanimously to receive this offer, preferring to await a decision of the War Department, or the action of Congress, to give them their just dues.”6

Governor Andrew pressed the issue of a supplemental pay act and this law passed the Massachusetts Legislature on November 16th. On December 11, 1863, Major Sturges, paymaster for the state and Mr. Edward W. Kinsley, a Boston merchant arrived at the camp on Folly Island to offer the men the difference between the $10.00 a month, and the promised $13.00...but the men respectfully declined it. “They felt that their manhood was at stake. They were regarded as good enough to be killed and wounded, and to work in the trenches side by side with white soldiers, so they said they would wait until they got their dues.”7

In February of 1864, the regiment was ordered to Jacksonville, Florida to join an expedition under General Truman Seymour. On February 19th, six companies of the 55th were marched out approximately 13 miles in the support of Seymour’s forces (the 54th among them), who on the 29th, would fight and lose the Battle of Olustee. At no time was the 55th engaged and on the 22nd, the entire regiment would return to Jacksonville and later be moved to Palatka, Florida.

From that camp on April 7th, Colonel Hartwell wrote to his old friend Edward Kinsley: “I can hardly write, talk, eat or sleep, I am so anxious and indignant that pay is not forthcoming, or official assurance of pay, for my men. Can anything be done to hasten this thing? No man staying home can imagine how great and terrible is the wrong done these men, and the distress they suffer. I do all I can to make things right, and there is a great deal to almost discourage us. The wives of the men, they say, often reduced to degradation that drives the husbands almost crazy. Leave nothing undone; my dear sir, to get us the greenbacks very soon.”8 Upon the regiment’s return to Folly Island, Colonel Hartwell attempted to gain approval to go North in an attempt to pursue the pay issue. He left for Hilton Head on April 25th but would return to camp on the 28th having failed in his endeavor.

Because of the refusal of the Government to settle the pay issue, morale within the unit was faltering. Several mutinous disturbances among the enlisted men occurred that discouraged Hartwell even further. To counter-act these problems, he proposed the commissioning of men of African descent to the grade of 2nd Lieutenant. On May 24th, 1st Sergeant John Freeman Shorter was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant by Governor Andrew but the Department Commander, General John P. Hatch refuse to accept his discharge as Sergeant and muster as Lieutenant because ‘men of African descent could not be commissioned in the United States Volunteers.’9

On June 5th Hartwell once again traveled to Hilton Head to gain permission to go to Washington regarding the pay issue. Armed with a letter of introduction from the Post Commander, Hartwell met with with General Foster who chose to send Colonel Edward Needles Hallowell of the 54th Massachusetts in his place.

Further frustrated by the receipt of anonymous threatening letters from the enlisted men, Colonel Hartwell took it upon himself to pen the following letter on June 13th to the Secretary of War: “Sir: Application is respectfully made that this Regiment be mustered out of the service of the United States, for the reason that the men have not been paid according to the contract made by the Government.”10 Shortly after, Hartwell received a reply from Major J. F. Anderson, Aide-DE-Camp of General Foster: “General Foster is in receipt of your favor of the 13th inst., and directs me to inform you that...he considers the letter to the Secretary of War as ill-timed. The General Commanding is afraid that your letters show an inclination to make trouble, or at least appears that your course is not calculated to allay the existing difficulties.”11

On July 2nd, the 55th was brigaded with the 103rd New York and the 33rd U.S.C.T. and ordered to attack Fort Lamar, a large Rebel earthwork fortification on James Island, South Carolina. Although the Fort was not taken during this skirmish, (known as the Battle of River’s Causeway), two brass 12-pound Napoleon guns were captured by the 55th from a Confederate artillery group that had been stationed about a mile in front of Lamar. These guns were returned to Folly Island and permission was received from the Commanding General to have them placed in front of the 55th’s headquarters, where they remained for a long time as trophies.

August 22, 1864 finally brought the pay issue to a close. Word was officially received that all colored troops were to receive equal pay “from January 1, 1864, and providing for payment on the same basis, from date of enlistment, of all enlisted previous to that date who were free ‘on or before April 21, 1861,’ to which latter fact each man was required to make oath.”12 The task of administering the oath fell to Lt. Colonel Fox. He wrote of his experience: “Never may I have such another three hours experience. I felt that I must not fail and I knew that no two companies could be treated alike...I had to use all the little eloquence I was master of to try to turn them from selfish thoughts of themselves...to the thousands of their brethren in the living death of slavery, until the last man raised his hand, saying with tears and bred a freeman to submit to such a humiliation.”13 In the end, only a few men refused to take the oath, more out of stubbornness that principle and only two or three acknowledged having been slaves.

For the regiment, October 7th turned out to be a banner day, the day they were all finally paid off. The process took three days to complete and when it was finally completed the men had sent home to their families the amount of over $60,000. As well, “it is not known that in a single case any man present with the regiment failed to repay his debts.”14

On October 18th Colonel Hartwell left for the North on a 30 day furlough. During his absence, the regiment continued at Folly Island until November 23rd, when instructions were received from General Hatch to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. The expected expedition was to be the destruction of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad and then an advance on the village of Grahamville which would leave Savannah and Charleston vulnerable. When the regiment arrived at Hilton Head on November 28th, Colonel Hartwell was there to meet them. He had been appointed to command a brigade consisting of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts as well as the 102nd and 26th U.S.C.T.

The Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, took place on November 30, 1864. In Hartwell’s words: “We landed at Boyd’s Neck, and at daylight next morning started for the railroad. After Marching a few miles and encountering slight opposition from the enemy, we came upon them, heavily entrenched behind an earthwork, and a battery of field pieces.”15 Hartwell continues: “The leading brigade had been driven back, when I was ordered in with a portion of my brigade; and I was also knocked out. I was hit first in the hand just before making a charge, then my horse was killed under me, and I was hit afterwards several times while they were taking me to the rear.16 One of my aides, Captain Crane, was killed, and another, Lieutenant Hill was blown from his horse by a concussion of a shell and taken to the rear.” During the furious fight, the Color-bearer was shot and killed and it was Private Andrew Jackson Smith (later promoted to Color- Sergeant), who would retrieve and save both the State and Federal flags.

Despite the fact that the expedition and its goal was unattained, Savannah would be taken by Sherman in December. The coastal railroad would survive less than two months, Grahamville would burn, and Charleston would fall. To the men of the 55th, “this engagement gave the opportunity which the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts had at Fort Wagner, of proving that a black regiment, well disciplined and well officered, could behave as gallantly under fire as the best troops in the service.”17

While Colonel Hartwell was recuperating from his wounds, the 55th stayed encamped at Boyd’s Landing until January 11, 1865, when the men were ordered to board steamers and head for Fort Thunderbolt near Savannah. During his convalescence, Hartwell had been Breveted a Brigadier General for his bravery at Honey Hill. Now, on the 30th of January, the regiment was pleasantly surprised at his arrival at the camp.

February 10th would find Hartwell and the 55th involved in yet another attack on James Island. Known as the Battle of Grimball’s Causeway or the Last Fight for Charleston, each side would retreat after the brief skirmish with no sufficient gains made.

On February 18th, news was received that Confederate General Hardee had evacuated Charleston. The 55th was ordered to bring up the rear of the advancing Union troops on their way to occupy this seat of secession. Along the way, the regiment was ordered to forage for cattle and to supervise the large numbers of contrabands who joined in the march. “After a few days upon Sullivan’s Island, we were transferred to Charleston. We landed just before sunset and I [Hartwell] had the pleasure of marching through Charleston with a brigade at the head of which was the Negro regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.”18

In the latter part of February, and all of March and April, the regiment was involved in Expeditions into the interior of South Carolina to ascertain the number of enemy forces that might still be in the area. During this time, the 55th was ordered to rebuild several bridges over the Santee and Biggin Creeks. Two companies of the regiment participated in the rescue of four members of the 54th New York who had been captured by rebel cavalry at Moncks Corner, South Carolina. As well, the entire regiment would be placed on call as a reserve unit to back up General Potter’s movements within the interior and they would also return to James Island. Since the Confederates had recently evacuated the area, the 55th Massachusetts was responsible to visit, garrison, and dismantle all the rebel guns at the line of batteries on the island.

On May 1, 1865, Hartwell was placed in command of a brigade consisting of the 25th Ohio, 55th Massachusetts, 102nd U.S.C.T., and a section of Battery B of the 3rd New York Artillery. This brigade was ordered to Orangeburg, South Carolina, and would be a part of the Northern District, Department of the South. Their assignments consisted of provost duties, giving the oath of allegiance to civilians and paroled southern soldiers, and setting up a Commission on Labor to ensure that ex-masters and freedmen entered into equitable contracts for work and remuneration.

While all of this was going on, the contracts between the black soldiers and the government was still unsettled for those Sergeants who had been commissioned but not mustered as 2nd Lieutenants. But things were to change, for on the 22nd and 28th of June, Sergeants John F. Shorter, William Dupree and James M. Trotter were finally mustered into the regiments as 2nd Lieutenants. However, despite this bit of goodness, Trotter wrote: “There in much feeling in the Regiment among the officers against these promotions of colored men in Regiments with white officers; but all the best officers are in favor of it...Some talk of resigning on account of these promotions. I cannot say that they will do so...I do not know how it will all turn out, but Dupree and I will try to do our duty as officers let prejudice be as great as it may.”19

On the same day, Hartwell penned the following to Governor Andrew: “The colored Sergeants are mustered. The result is now uncertain...I propose to await the resignation of officers who have declaimed against this action of the government, and then if I find their influence not for the best and that the policy of having colored officers is not to be adopted by the government, I shall recommend them to resign for their own good and the good of the regiment.”20

Fortunately, General Hartwell never had to ask for the resignation of these black officers and the regiment was mustered out of service August 29, 1865. The war that had taken so many lives had also seen fit to form many survivors into the leaders of a new, reunited country. Despite frustrations, disappointments, obstacles, and restrictions, the men of the 55th bore their military office well. Instead of retreating in the face of adversity, whether it be the enemy, their fellow officers, or their own government, they continued in their quest to promote freedom and preserve the Union at all costs. For this they deserve our unending respect and admiration. As well, the brave men of the regiment, both black and white, who fought side by side, and lived through the inequities of a discriminatory government, deserve to be remembered as the heroes they are. Nothing less would be acceptable.

NOTES

1 Cheek, William & Aimee Lee, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, P. 395.
2 Ibid.
3 Fox, Charles B., Record of the Service of the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Freeport, New York, 1971, P. 1.
4 Ibid, P. 7.
5 Fox, Charles B., Record of the Service..., P. 17.
6 Ibid.
7 Hartwell, Alfred s., Personal Reminiscences of the Civil War, Paper Read Before Honolulu Social Club, 1903(?), P. 11.
8 Article from unidentified newspaper, date unknown, Kinsley Papers, The Special Collections Department, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University.
9 Fox, Charles B., Record of the Service..., P. 96.
10 Hartwell, A. S., Letter to Edwin B. Stanton, Secretary of War, dated June 13, 1864, Kinsley Papers, National Archives.
11 Record of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Part 2-35, Chapter XLVII, Correspondence, etc., - Union, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., P. 139.
12 Fox, Charles B., Record of the Service..., Pgs. 34-35.
13 Fox, Charles B., Extracts from Letters to His Wife, from July 23, 1863 to July 1, 1865, Volume II, P. 149, Fox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
14 Fox, Charles B., Record of the Service...., P. 37.
15 Hartwell, A. S., Personal Reminiscences...., P. 15.
16 Ibid.
17 Soule, Charles, Battle of Honey Hill, The Philadelphia Weekly Times, may 10, 1884, Wilder Collection, Dept. of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University.
18 Hartwell, A. S. Personal Reminiscences...., P. 16.
19 Trotter, James M., Letter to Edward W. Kinsley, July 1, 1865, Kinsley Papers, Duke University.
20 Hartwell, A. S., Letter to Governor John A. Andrew, July 1, 1865, Executive Dept. Letters, 55th Regiment, 1862-65, DOC. Massachusetts Letters, Volume 62, Massachusetts State Archives.

Katherine Dhalle, Civil War Historian, is a Sergeant with the New York State Department of Correctional Services. She majored in Human Services/Sociology and earned a Bachelor's Degree from SUNY Utica/Rome. Graduate School: Empire State College/SUNY Saratoga, Culture and Policy Program...Civil War History. Co-edited, "No Middle Ground," the Civil War letters of Thomas Ward Osborn of the 1st New York Light Artillery. Co-host of a Civil War Special Interest Group on America Online that meets in the Golden Gate chat room of the Genealogy Forum on Thursdays at 11:00 p.m. eastern standard time. Keyword: Roots


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