Friday, February 14, 2020

The Glory Regiment

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

What do Denzel Washington, Mathew Broderick, and Elmira have in common? The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry! Formed in February 1863, the regiment was the second African-American regiment formed in the north and by far the most famous. They participated in operations around Charleston, South Carolina, including the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), and in the Battle of Olustee (February 20, 1864) in Florida. Twenty-four Chemung County residents, mostly from Elmira with two from Horseheads, served in the regiment. 

Lithograph of the storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Mass, 1890
 The men of the 54th were fighting a war on two fronts. At the time of their enlistment, they were promised pay equal to their white counterparts at $13 a month. Instead, once they were officially mustered into Federal service, they were paid $10 with $3 withheld for clothing, while white soldiers had nothing withheld for the cost of their uniforms. This was immediately protested, by the soldiers themselves, their white officers, and supporters back home. The state of Massachusetts promised to make up the difference, but the entire regiment, officers and enlisted both, instead refused to accept any pay but what they had been promised. Despite the hardship for their families back home, the regiment refused to back down, even marching into the Battle of Olustee to the cry of “For Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!” Eventually, Congress passed a law to ensure equal pay, including back pay, for all troops who had been free men prior to April 19, 1861. Following some creative oath-taking, the men of the 54th Massachusetts received their pay for the first time in eighteen months.

Twenty-four Chemung County men served in the regiment. The youngest, Miles Moore of Elmira, was 16. The two eldest, both 39, were also both blacksmiths: Wesley Armstrong of Horseheads and Andrew Miller of Elmira. Both men were wounded at the battle of Fort Wagner. Of the 600 members of the regiment at the start of the battle, 30 were killed outright, 24 died of wounds, 15 were captured, 149 were wounded, and 52 were missing in action and never accounted for. Of the Chemung County men, five were wounded and three of them later died as a result. George Moshroe was captured. Although the Confederacy had declared their intention to execute any Black man found in Union uniform, he survived and was exchanged two years later. Overall, all but three of the Chemung County men survived the war to return home.

One of the three dead was Private William R. Lee of Elmira. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he’d worked as a weaver at an Elmira textile mill and married a local girl, Sarah J. Dunham of Corning. They had four children, Estella, Elva, Mary, and William. He wrote home throughout the war, updating Sarah on his activities, and also those on the other local men. His last letter was sent from a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he’d been sent after being wounded at Fort Wagner. “We must put our trust in that kind Providence which is able to bring good out of all our woes and will bring us together again, if not in this world, I trust in the Heavenly land. I pray God, my dear wife that we will be permitted to be again reunited,” he wrote in his final letter shortly before being loaded on a hospital ship bound for home. He never made it, dying at sea, two days into the voyage. The letters have remained in the family for three generations and they were kind enough to give the historical society copies. 

Letter from William Lee, 1863

Another Elmira man, Stephen Swailes, faired considerably better. At the time the unit was set up, only white men could serve as officers, but, on March 11, 1864, Swails was commissioned as second lieutenant in the 54th Massachusetts by Governor John Andrew himself. However, the War Department would not initially give him the discharge needed to be commissioned in Federal service, so he didn’t receive his official promotion until April 28, 1865. Following the war, Swails chose to remain in South Carolina, working for the Freedman’s Bureau, rather than return home to his wife and children in Elmira. He helped provide assistance and education to the newly freed, and they rewarded him by electing him to the South Carolina State Senate in 1868. From then until his death in 1900, he was a prominent member of the African American community of Williamsburg, South Carolina and a major player in the Republican Party. 

Stephen Swailes, ca. 1860s
 In 1989, the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts were immortalized in the Academy Award-winning film Glory starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Andre Braugher. None of the Chemung County men were portrayed in the film, but it’s still worth a watch.  For Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!

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