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July 18, 2004

July 18, 1863

"The Fifty-fourth did well and nobly. . . .They moved up as gallantly as any troops could, and with their enthusiasm they deserved a better fate."

--Edward L. Pierce, correspondent for the New York Tribune,
to Governor John A. Andrew, July 22, 1863

With the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January, 1863, President Lincoln opened the doors of the Army and Navy to black men, a key first step on the long road to formal acceptance of blacks as full and equal people. This post isn't to argue how far we've come or have to go - it's to honor the soldiers, black and white, who made a downpayment on that day in 1863.

There were doubts expressed that blacks could fight as well as whites. After the assault on Battery Wagner, those questions were laid to rest, along with 116 soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

Another milestone was passed that day - Sergeant William Carney became the first black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

You'll note I've said soldiers here, and mindful of the discussion of labels in posts below, I do have to make a distinction here. Blacks were allowed to be enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers, but the commissioned officers of the 54th were white. There's a long row to hoe before the services *truly* allowed blacks to take positions as commissioned officers and to fully command white troops, too. It would take a while to get to General Colin Powell.

Robert Gould Shaw, scion of Bostonian privilege, commanded the 54th Massachusetts from the time the regiment was raised, to the storming of the parapets of Battery Wagner.

He died at the head of his men. The odd thing is, the Confederates dumped his body into the mass grave with the rest of his soldiers, thinking they were insulting Colonel Shaw.

Where else would an officer *want* to be buried, if not with the men he led?