While Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, Charleston, South Carolina was in many ways its heart. As the place where the Civil War began, in the eyes of the Union Charleston was the birthplace of secession. “Besides its symbolic value,” historian Stephen Wise explains, “Charleston was also a vital seaport, munitions center, and military stronghold, one the South was determined to hold and the North determined to capture.” When the city fell in February of 1865—as was the case in Richmond a few months later—the first regiment to march into the city was from Massachusetts.
The 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was one of the Commonwealth’s black regiments, formed by Governor John Andrew in May of 1863 when there was an overflow of recruits for the Mass 54th. While some of the men in the regiment were from Massachusetts, there were also many from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. They faced the same racism from the public and the military that the 54th battled, and fought alongside the 54th for pay equity.
The Mass 55th spent most of their service in South Carolina. They were first sent to Folly and Morris Islands in Charleston Harbor, taking picket duty and digging trenches, often under enemy fire. In February of 1864, they were part of an invasion of Florida, under General Truman Seymour, and took part in the Battle of Olustee, but soon returned to South Carolina. They saw significant action in battles on James Island in May and July of 1864 and played a significant role in the Battle of Honey Hill in November.
The Union Army began closing in on Charleston in February of 1865. On February 10, the Mass 55th found themselves fighting on James Island again, in a skirmish sometimes called the “Last fight for Charleston.” General William Tecumseh Sherman took Columbia, South Carolina on February 18, which left Charleston open for capture. Confederate General J. W. Hardee ordered the city evacuated, and set fire to buildings storing cotton and military supplies and any boats in shipyards. On February 19, the Mass 55th began marching toward Charleston. They first entered the town of Mt. Pleasant. The regimental record described the response of the black residents: “Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget,—the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery. As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid.”
On February 21, the Mass 55th marched into Charleston itself, a scene captured by a Harper’s Weekly illustrator and published in the magazine the following month. Marching with the Massachusetts regiment were other black troops, including the 3rd and 4th South Carolina regiments, many of whom had been slaves in Charleston. The men were told they must keep in their ranks, but they could “shout and sing as they chose,” according to the regimental record which describes the scene in detail. “The streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers… The glory and triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described.”
Some units of black soldiers remained in the city to put out the fires and serve as the provost guard to keep order. A few weeks after the Union soldiers occupied Charleston, in a ceremony in front of the Citadel, the military academy, a contingent of black women from the city presented the black regiments with flags and flowers. In response, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, “Can you conceive a bitterer drop that God’s chemistry could mix for a son of the Palmetto State than that a Massachusetts flag and a colored regiment should take possession of Charleston?” The 55th Mass remained in South Carolina until the end of the war, fighting on February 25 at Briggen Creek and on March 1 at Saint Stephens. They stayed in the area until the fall, and on September 25, they were finally mustered out of service in a parade on Boston Common.
Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period, Volume 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Fox, Charles Barnard. Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Cambridge, MA: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1868.
Hyslop, Stephen. Eyewitness to The Civil War: The Complete History from Secession to Reconstruction. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Books, 2006.
McRae, Bennie Jr. Lest We Forget. http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC3871-BCAD-1517-698B543B15C0CFA2
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press. 1953.
Wise, Stephen. Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston, 1863. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1994.