Editor's note: It was 150 years ago this year when Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew authorized the creation of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment recruited in the North to fight for the Union in the Civil War, which included 72 Berkshire County soldiers. This is the second in an occasional series of articles that looks back on different aspects of the 54th.
The men stood at attention before the dignitaries, including Gov. John Andrew, who stood inside the square formed by more than 1,000 soldiers and their officers.
As their new flags snapped in the light breeze, set off by the cloudless blue sky above, the men of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers -- which included 72 black soldiers from Berkshire County -- would soon be ready to march into action.
It was May 18, 1863, in Readville, just outside Boston, and the presentation of flags to the regiment was underway. A large crowd of more than a 1,000 civilians also were on hand for the event, which began with a parade before the colors were presented and speeches given.
"When the train [from Boston] stopped, there was a motley mass of people emerging from the cars, among which were the ladies of Boston, who were the makers of the colors, and the donors," recalled James Henry Gooding, a corporal in the 54th, in a letter to a Connecticut newspaper.
The on-rush of visitors didn't worry the soldiers. The men had already been living in a fishbowl of sorts during their months of training as curious crowds came to watch them drill. There were also frequent visits from government and military officials there to see how the men were getting on.
As they stood at attention, the governor, directing his speech to the 54th's commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, told him that although the presentation of colors was "no new scene," in this instance it was "a novel and peculiar one -- there is an importance attached to this occasion which never existed with any similar event."
Gov. Andrew must have felt a particular joy in saying these words. He had been the driving force behind the birth of the 54th.
"Today we recognize the right of every man in this commonwealth to be a man and a citizen," he continued. "We see before us a band of noble men as ever came together for a great and glorious cause. They go not for themselves alone, but they go to vindicate a foul aspersion that they were not men. We see a great and glorious future spread out before us, when the principles of right and justice shall govern our beloved country."
Shaw, in response, said he would endeavor to "faithfully perform all that is possible for the honor and glory of the 54th regiment volunteers."
He said he considered it "an honor to lead men, although many of them not citizens of Massachusetts, who exhibit such unmistakable evidences of patriotism."
Four flags were then presented to Shaw and his men. First was the American flag, a gift from the women of Boston.
"Wherever its folds shall be unfurled, it will mark the path of glory," the governor said. "Let its stars be the inspiration of yourself, your officers, and your men."
Next came the flag of Massachusetts, which was presented to the regiment on behalf of the black women of the city.
Andrew told the men that the state flag had never been "surrendered to any foe" and that the 54th now had a "sacred charge. You will never part with that flag so long as a splinter of the staff or a thread of its web remains within your grasp."
The third and fourth flags were "emblematic banners," gifts from a patriotic committee in Boston and the family and friends of a Massachusetts soldier killed in action a year-and-a-half earlier. The first had an image of the Goddess of Liberty with the words "Liberty, Loyalty, and Unity" emblazoned on a field of white silk. The second displayed a cross with the words "In Hoc Signo Vinces," a Latin phrase meaning "In the sign you will conquer."
As the men stood there that day in their new uniforms, their weapons polished to a high sheen, ready to head south to prove their mettle, it's possible that dark thoughts managed to creep in concerning the recent newspaper reports about the Confederate Congress' resolutions, passed that month, on captured black soldiers and their white officers.
The resolutions stated that any commissioned officer leading black troops who was taken prisoner would be put to death "or be otherwise punished at the discretion" of a military tribunal, while captured black soldiers would be "delivered to state authorities to be dealt with according to the laws of such state," or in other words, they too would be put to death.
Not only were these men putting their lives on the line in battle, but could be facing death if captured by the enemy.
That day, orders were sent from Gen. David Hunter to Gov. Andrews to have the 54th ready to head to South Carolina.
According to Gooding, the soldiers learned of their orders three days later, and on May 28, set out by train to Boston where they were thronged by enthusiastic crowds as they marched through the streets before being greeted by the governor and others at the Statehouse. The parade eventually ended at the Battery Wharf where they boarded the Steamer "De Molay"
They arrived in Hilton Head, S.C., on June 3, and then went on to nearby Beaufort the next day to a "reception almost as enthusiastic here as our departure from Boston was," according to Gooding. He said that the 54th's reputation as "a first-class regiment, both in drill, discipline and physical condition" preceded them, and the local citizens and the 54th's fellow Union soldiers lined the streets to get a look at "the first black regiment from the North."
A week later, the 54th would get their first taste of action as part of a raid on the town of Darien, Ga.
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Walk through history today
A one-mile walk through history in central Pittsfield today will commemorate the 150th anniversary of both the Emancipation Proclamation, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry -- one of the first black military units in the Civil War whose members were predominantly drawn from Western Massachusetts, and to honor the Rev. Samuel Harrison, the regiment's chaplain from Pittsfield. It's part of the Lift Ev'ry Voice festival.
n Where: Meet at the Harrison house at 82 Third St. (Parking in the Brien Center parking lot on Fourth Street; free rides back to the parking lot.)
n When: Meet at 12:45 p.m., walk at 1.
n About: Stops at local sites of importance in African-American history; guided by historian Frances Jones-Sneed.
n After: Public program, reception at 2:30 p.m. at Second Congregational Church, featuring Will Singleton, president of the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP, an excerpt from a sermon by Harrison, and music by area choirs.