Legacy lost – Valley men of the 54th Massachusetts at Wagner

Posted on July 17, 2013 by


Tomorrow marks the day made famous by the movie Glory. It might be that we are only truly aware of it, on a larger scale, because of the movie (update: Craig’s got an excellent piece on the fight… and a word to the wise, just in case the movie made you think otherwise… the 54th wasn’t the only regiment involved.)


Should it be considered the “high-tide” of the story of the United States Colored Troops in the American Civil War?


In actuality, it was only the beginning of what the men of the USCT (and African-Americans in combat units outside the USCT classification, such as the case with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry) could do, and would do. The Second Battle of Fort Wagner does merit our attention, at a minimum, for that very benchmark in history.

Even so, I think we have a very blurry image of who the men were… perhaps muddied because of the movie.

As it often dominates my attention in my work as a historian, that is what I am most interested in knowing. Who they were as people… as individuals… and where they were from.

At the risk of repeating what I’ve said in previous blog posts, there were men of the Shenandoah Valley in the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts. They did not earn any medals; they did not receive praise in the after action reports… but they were there. They remain little more than names on the roster… and each man, whether killed or wounded… or not… requires time to be found. I’ve spent time looking for them and others in the U.S.C.T., who claimed counties of the Shenandoah Valley as their place of birth.

Regretfully, we can’t tell the previous status of all of these men from the Valley. Some may have been freed before the war… some, perhaps, during… and others either escaped slaves, refugees, or… contraband.

What, however, inspired these men to fight?  Freedom of self… freedom of loved ones… or simply the very basic idea of moving forward toward the concept of a “freedom for all”?

Yet, despite these noble and praise-worthy reasons, they are not represented here, in the Shenandoah Valley… in our histories, on our monuments, or in historical markers. We can see the names of different men in gray from the Valley at many a different place… but these other men are absent… just as if they did not exist.

There is much talk of the Stonewall Brigade, the Laurel Brigade, and a number of Virginia regiments that hailed from the Valley. The courage and the tenacity of those men is worthy of remembrance. They fought for something they believed… and yet, did not the Valley men who served in the regiments of the U.S.C.T.? What might be more significant, would be to grasp that whole sense of purpose in those blue-uniformed men of the Valley; when reasons behind why they may have served clash with the goals of some of those who served in gray. Perhaps this is why their story remains absent… because it can bring up a subject with which we would prefer not to taint the stories of our own people. It would not surprise me… considering how well I know the eclipsed memory of white Southern Unionists here. 

These men of the Valley, who were moved by the concept… the dream of freedom. Do they not deserve to be remembered… memorialized? Are they not also a part of our Valley? Are they not also a part of our history? Could some of them… just as much as those in gray… have been fighting for… home? This place, and family that lived here? After all, there were men of the U.S.C.T. who returned to the Shenandoah Valley to live… here.

When will their story be embraced as a part of the greater story of this place?

What better time than tomorrow, on the Sesquicentennial of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, to begin thinking about all of this?