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The 54th Massachusetts regiment, featured in Glory, was not the first
black unit to fight.
By: Kenneth J. Cooper

TriStar Pictures - © 1989

Though it has the movie Glory and an exquisite memorial on Boston Common, the Massachusetts 54th regiment
does not have Civil War history on its side.

Glory, the 1989 movie starring Denzel Washington, and The Civil War, the Ken Burns series first aired on public television in 1990, portray the Massachusetts 54th as the
Army’s first black unit. It was not. Both films cast it as the first in
combat. It was not. Read more at:


I wish I was informed about black soldiers in the Civil War when I was in grade school during the 1950s and 1960s.

I had no idea. I was preconditioned to think that it was an impossibility.

This is all the more tragic because I have a 2nd great grandfather who fought in the Civil War!
That is why Family History is so important! It can stop some of these revisionists in their tracks!

Do you have Ancestors who were soldiers in the Civil War?
Please share with us their stories!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

Views: 246

Replies to This Discussion

Hi, My great grandfather George Powell was in the civil war in Kentucky in the infantry. 123 and 125 troop. Mustered out of two troops and was moved to another and at Camp Nelson, KY. Even have a hint that he went to TX after the war. I didn't have any oral history that he served in a troop. One day I will order his records. But the interesting part is that doing my research I had his Freeman Bank records for years. Fantastic information if you are lucky- It listed his mother, birth location and etc. Well I filed it away. As I sat at the desk searching the net the drawer kept coming open. LOL did it tick me off always hitting my leg. Told my husband the dang thing is off balance or something. Well one day I just said what the heck are you trying to show me. So pulled the file out that was open some and sure enough what did I find - that same Freeman Record reread it and it listed his troop and company number. So I'm a believer that the ancestors do try to guide you. O'yea the drawer dosn't open anymore at least not yet. I'm waiting for that hint again!

The Ancestors are amazing!
Hello George,

You asked ....... Do you have Ancestors who were soldiers in the Civil War?
Please share with us their stories!

First, I'm all for the truth and the facts of those truth's, but in this instance I wonder about a possible "hidden agenda" in this type of expose. The article appears to take shots at the 54th Mass. Should it be discredited and filed as lies for not technically being the FIRST? Then, after debunking and challengeing the creditbility of the 54th Mass iit then provides disclaimer's as to why it could be considered the first AA USCT unit to see action. This reminds me of the effort to rectify (revise) the claim of the Tuskegee Airmen of never losing a US Bomber to enemy fire during WW II. Embellisment is wrong and the 'facts' of a statement should be verified, but these situations appear to me as 'throwing the baby out with the bath water".

Yes, I have a CW veteran in my direct ancestral lines, Peter Allen, 3rd great-grandfather, Co "K" of the 32 USCT Reg't. To serve he was required to leave Ohio and go to Camp William Penn in PA due to the fact that Ohio was not accepting "colored' men in their units at that time, at least known men of color. He was wounded at James Island, SC and died in 1877 as a result of the long term effects of his injuries suffered in battle, never having had the opportunity to file for a pension. His wife died in 1874, so there also was no widow's pension and his children were of the age of majority.

A roster of the 54th Mass show these brave men of color from my home area in Ohio that went to Massachuetts to volunteer for USCT service include: Joseph Artist, Isaac Barnett, John Bass, Thomas Beverly, James & John Coleman, William Fowlis, Charles Gamrell (Gammon), Charles Goff, Christopher Hunt, Joseph Lowery, Henry T. Peal, Robert Pritchett, Albert Smith, Hezekiah Stewart. Jeremiah Thompson & George Wilson. ........ Gammon, Pritchet, Thompson & Wilson are collateral family members.

Charles Gamrell (Gammon) was killed in the battle at James Island, SC, 16 Jul 1863. As an aside, Charles' father, George Gammon, is a documented conductor working the Ohio UGRR. Their brick home built in 1851 is being restored and is to be used as an Interpetive Center for the Study of the UGRR in Springfield and Clark County, Ohio.

"Glory" and "The Tuskegee Airmen" are the only two major Hollywood films that come to mind as having to withstand the heat of 'revisionism" and this degree of truth and honesty.

Two very good books on the 54th Mass are:
1) A Brave Black Regiment: A History of the 54th Mass 1863-1865 - Luis F. Emilio
2) Swamp Angels:A Biographical Study of the 54th Mass Reg't - Robert Ewell Greene

Okay, I;m getting off of my soapbox.... thanks for the opportunity to share my humble opinion.

~Art Thomas
Hello Art,

Do you know anything about these two men?

Listed Among the Missing from the 54th Regiment Massachusetts After the Assault on Fort Wagner July 18, 1863:

Private Sheldon Thomas
Private George K. Thomas


I have two Great-Great Grandfathers who fought in the Civil War out of Pennsylvania. When Uriah and Henry's unit marched down the street in Lancaster Pa, they were spit upon by whites. They served about a year, and did not receive land, and very little money. I also have a Great Great Uncle who fought with the 54th Massachusetts. His name was Samuel Walter Pinn, and he was commissioned a Corporal by Colonial Shaw. He was in the same Unit as Frederick Douglass sons, Louis and Charles. My mother told me about my Great-Great Grandfather's when I was a child. I went to school in Pennsylvania and non of the books I saw depicted Blacks in the Civil War. Colonial Shaw's family were prominent people in Massachusetts, and there was more documentation about the 54th, then the other units.

With so much knowledge available to us in ever increasingly convenient ways it’s getting much harder to hide or revise the truth for those who truly seek it. The caveat, of course, is always going to be in how that information is received and interpreted.

In that regard I stand in need of some help in understanding Mr. Cooper’s rather glib article reminding us that the 54th Massachusetts was not “the Army’s first black unit,” nor “the first in combat.” Mr. Cooper seems to place the blame for the public’s general misperception of that fact squarely on the movie "Glory" and the PBS series, "The Civil War", but is that truly where the blame belongs and who exactly is Mr. Cooper’s audience?

It may be convenient to blame “Hollywood hype” but I think the problem may lie more with the general public’s misperception than any deliberate revision of history Mr. Cooper accuses the film or documentary creators of making in their portrayals of the 54th Massachusetts.

Yes, let’s “get it right” but I think it should also be stated that the filmmakers (Glory) and documentary writers (The Civil War) probably had two very different sets of goals in mind in the creation of their respective projects.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ken Burns and PBS take a little umbrage with Mr. Cooper’s assertions.

A rather quick search of my copy of The Civil War (the companion volume to the PBS television series based on the documentary film script by Geoffrey Ward, Ric Burns and Kenneth Burns, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990) reveals no declaration or “portrayal” that the 54th Massachusetts was the “Army’s first black unit.” Likewise, I could find nothing on the PBS website or in their online Lesson Plan guide, “Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts” which states that the 54th was “the Army’s first black unit,” or the first to engage in combat.

Mr. Cooper cites Comcast’s online media guide’s description of the movie Glory as evidence of the movie’s culpability in promoting this historical inaccuracy. I would think he would have been better off placing the blame on Comcast’s writer for the media guide than disparaging the movie itself.

Can anyone cite a specific line from the movie that states the 54th was “the first black unit” raised?

For an interesting take on the process of the making of the movie by one of the historical consultants for the film see

If the PBS series The Civil War or the film Glory introduces or promotes a deeper interest in the subject of Colored Troops serving in the American Civil War isn’t that a good thing?

It’s our national disgrace that generation after generation of school children are deprived of so much of our history as it pertains to Americans of Color and their contributions to our country, and in this case, the knowledge of the reality and accomplishments of African American soldiers in the Civil War and the pride that should foster.

I for one credit ‘Glory’ and the PBS documentary series with helping to bring the subject of U.S. Civil War Colored Troops to a modern generation of Americans who were completely ignorant of the fact that African Americans enlisted and fought for the preservation of the Union and the abolishment of slavery. Myself included!

Far too many can relate to George’s own experience that such knowledge changes everything.

Who can forget Chris Rock’s emotional statement in African American Lives 2, “If I had known this [growing up] it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing…” in reference to the discovery that his second Great Grandfather served in the Civil War and the South Carolina Legislature.

Knowledge is power and empowering.

I think Mr. Cooper’s article would have been better served by shining a light on that important fact rather than blaming Hollywood for being Hollywood. That’s the deeper story within the story. Like Art, the article left me questioning Mr. Cooper's agenda.

Thank you Art and Alane for further questioning the legacy of the 54th as chronicled by Mr. Cooper.
We must be vigilant with the interpretations and inferences to our history.

It's folks like Quan, Anita and the rest of us who need to tell the stories of our Civil War freedom fighters.

People, let's keep this conversation going!

"Guided by the Ancestors"
No known CW veteran in my husband’s family, but Elmore’s third Great-Grandfather, Adam Roundtree, was impressed into service for the confederacy while he was enslaved at Silver Bluff Plantation in South Carolina, along with other family members.

One month after the 54th Massachusetts stormed Fort Wagner the slave owner, James Henry Hammond, wrote in his journal:

“Such an explosion of guns never before heard here [Beech Island, SC] which ceased about 4 o’clock from the storm there in Charleston…the sounds were awful even here. Gill Fitzsimons left carrying to work on the Charleston batteries five of my negroes viz. Henry Fuller & Johnny from Cowden, Adam Hornsby, Adam Robert & Sancho from Silver Bluff.” (1)

The “explosion of guns” that reverberated across the state from Charleston Harbor to Redcliffe in Beech Island, SC was the bombardment of Fort Sumter and Charleston defenses by Federal batteries erected on Morris Island. The Union forces opened fire on August 17th, 1863 the same day Hammond recorded the impressment of five of his slaves.

My research of the Silver Bluff Slave Community identifies the impressed men as: Henry FULLER (the husband of Coober SHUBRICK); Johnny SHUBRICK (husband of Mary BOWMAN and brother-in-law of Henry FULLER); Adam HORNSBY (husband of Judy GLAZE); Sancho SEABROOK (aka William McFORD) and Elmore’s third Great Grandfather, Adam ROUNDTREE (husband of Mary) both of whom were identified by the surname ROBERT during slavery. (2)

Once in Charleston, the men would have been put to work digging trenches and fortifying the batteries that were under repeated attack. The bombardment continued until August 23rd. Despite what was described as a “severe pounding” Fort Sumter’s garrison held out and siege operations continued against Fort Wagner on Morris Island until December 17th, 1863. (3)

No documentation has yet been found that offers evidence of when Adam Rountree, Henry Fuller, Johnny Shubrick, Adam Hornsby and Sancho McFord were able to return to their families at Silver Bluff after being impressed into service. All five men were listed on Hammond’s final estate inventory and were found in subsequent census records, which is proof that they all survived and returned to the community. (4)

I have often wondered if Roundtree, Fuller, Shubrick, Hornsby and McFord were among those who were put to work repairing the batteries which were damaged by the battle for Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Did they hear whispers as they worked of the eyewitness accounts of the gallant Black Regiment called the 54th Massachusetts and the bravery they showed in combat? I like to believe they did.

“Glory Hallelujah!”


1. Hammond Plantation Journal, 17 August 1863, Records of Antebellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, Series I; Part A: “The Papers of James Henry Hammond”, Selections from the South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC.

2. For the names of the slaves impressed into service in August 1863 see Hammond Plantation Journal, 17 August 1863. Full name identities of slaves not listed with a surname and their familial relationships from the research of the Silver Bluff Slave Community and Their Descendants, by Alane Roundtree, 1998-2010.

3. For Operations Against Charleston, 1863 Campaign, Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, Morris Island, Charleston, SC, 17th of August to 31st of Dec 1863, online American Civil War, Pg 14, downloaded March 2003. See also, “In the Trenches Before Wagner,” Harper’s Weekly, 29 August 1863 for an illustration of impressed slaves working near the batteries of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, Charleston Harbor, SC.

4. See Inventory of the Estate of James Henry Hammond, Box 89, Package 3569, 1864, Edgefield County Courthouse, Edgefield, SC. “List of Negroes Owned by James Henry Hammond at the Time of His Death.” Also US Census Records for Silverton and Hammond Townships, in Barnwell, Edgefield and Aiken Counties, SC.



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