The Role of the 54th Massachusetts Regimen on Potter's Raid

Article excerpt

When South Carolina left the Union in December 1860, the disintegration of the United States had begun. As politicians cast their eyes toward the heavens in search of a dove of peace, the threat of war filled the air. They were keenly aware that time was running out for them to find a solution to save the country from impending calamity. More than 140 years ago, rhetoric collided with reality at Fort Sumter, and the nation found itself engaged in a fateful encounter. The Civil War, that revolutionary event of the 1860s would bring about phenomenal social, political, and economic changes in America.

By 1865, the war had entered its final phase with the outcome no longer in doubt. As General William T. Sherman marched through the Carolinas, he made good on his promise "to wreak vengeance" on the first state to secede from the Union. Although Sherman had moved into North Carolina, he was still burning "with an insatiable desire" to inflict punishment on the Palmetto State. Moreover, the Union general did not want the demoralized Confederate army opposing him in the Tar Heel State as the beneficiary of reinforcements and supplies from South Carolina.

Writing to General John G. Foster, commander of the Department of the South from Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 12, 1865, Sherman said: "The enemy still has much railroad stock and munitions on the track about Sumterville and Florence, . . . I want you to reach that road and destroy everything possible and exhaust the country of supplies."1 General Sherman also suggested Georgetown, South Carolina, as a point of departure from which to carry out his directive. During the last days of March 1865, transport vessels from Charleston and Savannah deposited an army there. Georgetown, situated on Winyah Bay near the Atlantic Ocean was a wealthy community with large plantations worked by slave labor. The 54h Massachusetts Volunteer regiment arrived at Georgetown from Savannah on March 31st.

The state of South Carolina was the scene of many military operations during the Civil War including several incursions of its interior by Federal soldiers. General Edward A. Potter led the largest of those inland expeditions. He assumed command of the Union force at Georgetown on April 1, 1865. Potter of New York City, served primarily as General Foster's chief of staff during the war.2 The Federal force that had assembled at Georgetown, known as the Provisional Division consisted of six infantry regiments divided into two brigades. Colonel Philip P. Brown commanded the First Brigade and Colonel Edward N. Hallowell the Second. The 54h Massachusetts supplied 700 officers and enlisted men to Potter's 2,700 man army.3 The regiment's participation in Potter's raid was the last campaign of significance for the most celebrated regiment of the 166 black units of the Civil War.

Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts was the driving force behind the creation of the 54th infantry. He believed that the participation of black soldiers in the war would serve "as a means of elevating the people of color hereafter."4 At the request of the governor, Robert Gould Shaw accepted the task of commanding the 54 th, the first back regiment raised in the northern states. Born in Boston in 1837, he was handsome, wealthy, charismatic, and well-educated. Colonel Shaw fully understood the challenge of transforming 1,000 civilians into soldiers. On March 5, 1863, General R. A. Pierce, commandant at Meigs, the training camp of the 54th at Readville on the outskirts of Boston, issued General Order No. 1. He enjoined his drill instructors to pay special attention "to the soldierly bearing of the men... as it is easier to form good habits in the beginning than to correct bad ones later."5

Four months after that order, the volunteers of the 54th would have an opportunity to test their training in South Carolina. According to Dudley Taylor Cornish, "it was that on James Island the men of the 54 1h had their first taste of battle, of honorable soldier's work. …