Editor's note: This is the fifth in an occasional series of articles that looks back at 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, 150 years ago.
Dec. 25, 1863, broke cold and windy and the men of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry were in a sour mood on this their first Christmas in combat and away from family, friends and sweethearts.
Encamped on Morris Island, on the outskirts of Charleston, the men got some cold comfort watching the Union shelling of the besieged city.
"Our rifles had sounded their fearful Christmas chimes by throwing shells into the city for three hours after one o'clock that morning," recalled Capt. Luis F. Emilio. "About 3 a.m. a fire broke out in Charleston which illumined the whole sky and destroyed twelve buildings before it was subdued, the falling walls injuring many firemen."
Emilio, a white Salem, Mass., native, who had just turned 19 three days earlier, had been the acting commander of the regiment for some time following the famed attack on Fort Wagner that July. Among those killed during the storming of the fort on July 18 was Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment's first commander. Two Berkshire County men would also be killed in the failed attack, Henry Burghardt, of Lee, and Pittsfield native Eli Franklin. Burghardt was killed in action, while Franklin died from his battle wounds two days later.
In September, the 54th received its new commander, Edward Needles Hallowell, who had himself been wounded during the battle while serving as Shaw's second in command.
That same month, the Confederates abandoned Fort Wagner, helping to open the way for the siege of Charleston.
For months after the attack, the soldiers' spirits were high, knowing they had proved their valor, and in essence the fighting ability of all their black brothers, but by Christmas, after months of seeing no real action, they were feeling low.
"The whole face of nature now presents a drear and gloomy appearance, and the thousands who a month or two ago were full of hope and expectation have gradually come down to that frame of mind so well adapted to wait till something turns up," commented Cpl. James Henry Gooding, a black soldier from the 54th, in a December 1863 letter to the New Bedford (Conn.) Mercury.
The entire month, both the weather and the men's spirits, had been overcast and dreary. There was the shooting of a white deserter from a New Hampshire regiment that the men were required to watch. The same month there was an explosion that killed several soldiers.
While the Confederates kept up a steady attack against their enemy, it was unusual for a shell to make it into the Union fortifications, but on this occasion, a magazine was being repaired by engineers, making it vulnerable. The shell fell among munitions that went off, killing four and seriously wounding 11, according to Gooding.
Added to these events were the continued problems with the men's pay.
The enlisted men of the 54th and its sister regiment, the 55th, were in the midst of a fight to get the $13 a month they were due, but government paymasters, citing an 1862 law, would only pay them $7.
On the 12th, representatives of Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew, who had been the force behind the birth of the regiment, visited the men at camp to tell them of a bill recently passed by the Massachusetts Legislature that would have the state make up the difference in the federal pay. While the men appreciated the attempt at a resolution, they declined the offer, believing people would think it was about the money, and not the principal behind it.
One of the men leading the fight for equal pay was the Rev. Samuel Harrison, a Pittsfield minister who had recently been commissioned chaplain of the 54th. He joined the men in November and was with them that Christmas Day.
It was likely he preached to his soldierly flock that morning, as he did on other occasions. Christmas was a tepid affair compared with Thanksgiving, in which the men attended a rousing church service and enjoyed a festive meal followed by an afternoon filled with games, including sack races and money for the first man to make it to the top of a greased pole.
In contrast, the highlight of Christmas Day was the arrival of letters from home.
The men may have had mingled emotions of homesickness and a desire for action that day. The later would be satisfied just two months later at the Battle of Olustee in Baker County, Fla., in which the 54th performed valiantly as part of a rear guard action on Feb. 20, 1864, that protected the rest of the retreating Union forces.
It would be longer before the men's other desire would be satisfied.
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