Thinking About the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

James Monroe Trotter, 55th Massachusetts

Dear Barbara,

Yesterday I spent the day at the Massachusetts Historical Society examining materials related to the 55th Massachusetts as you suggested.  I’m glad I did.  As you noted in our conversation last week, no one has written a regimental history of the unit, which is surprising given the incredibly rich written record left by these men.  It didn’t take long for me to begin to get a sense of the profile of these men and it certainly didn’t take long for me to grow attached to their story.  I guess that is the question: What exactly is their story?

Well, whatever it is, their story is not a traditional narrative framed around bloody battles and popular campaigns.  The 55th Mass. saw very little heavy fighting apart from the battle of Honey Hill outside of Charleston in 1864.  At the center of their story is the pay crisis, which lasted for over a year.  One of the things I want to explore is just how close the men came to mutinying over the pay crisis.  Their published newspaper accounts and letters to public officials are very careful to distinguish between their disappointment over not being paid the promised monthly wage and the level of discontent in the unit.  The relationship between enlisted men and white officers needs to be examined as well.  The letters concerning unequal pay are quite eloquent in the way they frame the overall meaning of the war for these men.  This story is as much a battle for civil rights within the United States as it is about a war to preserve the Union and end slavery.

I also want to explore the regiment’s connection to the abolitionist community back in Boston.  A number of characters have already emerged, including Edward W. Kinsley.  He corresponded with a few of the men during the war, but I also find it very interesting that he was involved in real estate speculation in the Department that the 55th was assigned.  I need to explore this further.

The other thing I find interesting is the question of where this story ends.  The unit remained in South Carolina until the summer of 1865, where it assisted the Freedmens Bureau, but what about the history of these men following their mustering out of the army?

A number of the veterans, including James Monroe Trotter, continued to work for black civil rights in Boston and elsewhere.  To what extent can this story be framed as part of a regimental history?  What about the children of these men?  Trotter’s own son continued the work of his father and was at the center of the black community’s protest against the premier of “Birth of a Nation” in Boston.  Of course, there are a number of other questions that I need to explore, but that will have to wait for another post.

Today it’s back to the archives.  By the way my work station is right next to a beautiful painting of Charles Sumner by Darius Cobb.

 

35 comments… add one

  • James F. Epperson Oct 18, 2011

    What about “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” by Higginson? Isn’t that about the 55th? Of course it is well over 100 years old, being a memoir. Are there any modern regimentals on USCT units?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      It’s a wonderful book, but it focuses on the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, which was made up of former slaves. I find the social profile of the 55th to be quite interesting. These men were mainly free blacks from outside of Massachusetts, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. One of the things that needs to be explored is the recruitment of these men by individuals such as George L. Stearns.

      • James F. Epperson Oct 18, 2011

        My error—I thought Higginson was with the 55th—shoulda checked my copy :-(

        • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

          You asked about regimental studies. The one that stands out is Edward A. Miller’s The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry (University of South Carolina Press).

  • Barbara A. Gannon Oct 18, 2011

    Thanks for the shout out. The 55th was affected by an overall bias in Civil War regimental studies, hard-fighting units tend to get the “Glory.” (A sorta pun) I disagree with this for a number of reasons, first, we all know that just being in the Army was deadly because of the harshness of campaigning and disease. Also, Union veterans would not have agreed either. While they recognized hard fighting, they understood service was, in and of itself, deadly. The real gold mine will be the pensions files, you will be able to reconstruct the life of this unit in the post war world. The lives of their wives children etc. You can get all the pension file numbers for the regiment from an index at the archives. Andrew Slap, East Tenn. State has done this for another black regimental study.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Hi Barbara. Thanks for the comment. I may use this form for my posts on the 55th, especially if it leads to helpful responses from you such as the one above. I am familiar with Andy’s work, which is one of the reasons I think the story must be taken into the postwar years. Clearly, the men in the 55th felt as if their work was being overshadowed by the 54th even during the war itself. You do an excellent job of analyzing this expansive notion of what it means to have served and sacrificed in your book, which I highly recommend to all my readers.

  • JE Oct 18, 2011

    I really enjoyed Trudeau’s book on the 55th, but it wasn’t a ‘regimental history’ in the true sense of the term. I’d love to see another book on the 55th. My small, Ohio town sent quite a few men to the 54th and 55th…several didn’t make it home, and of those who did, several languish in unmarked graves.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Trudeau’s book is very helpful. His choice of letters gives you a nice overview of what was going on in the unit, but apart from a brief introduction, Trudeau offers no analysis of the letters. It’s a great place to start.

      • JE Oct 18, 2011

        Keep us posted as this project progresses, Kevin. I’d love to see their Ohio recruiter, O.S.B. Wall, get some recognition…he was quite the character! And I second Barbara’s comment on the pension files. I had the opportunity to look through several of the 55th files last year and was pleased with what I found.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

          That’s a new name to me so thanks. It would be nice to know who I am corresponding with given that you’ve worked with the unit’s records. :-)

  • Adam Arenson Oct 18, 2011

    Hi Kevin-

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I have been through some of their pension files too, for those African North Americans who had been in Canada. I see ties of motivation and action for some from the 1840s through service to activism later in the 19th century, so we should talk more if this will be your angle with the 55th.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the comment. I came across a couple of names in the 55th from Ohio that were clearly engaged in activism in the 1850s. It would be interesting to look at the Civil War experience as part of a broader continuum of activism for some of these men that continued into the postwar years.

  • Gretchen Adams Oct 18, 2011

    Wasn’t the 55th the regiment where the issue of commissioning Black recruits became a major issue–several were promised (or recruited to be) 2nd Lieutenants and actually served as non-coms? My (very) dim memory of this from some long-ago term paper was that one of the commanders of the regiment supported this (Fox?). To a degree at any rate.

    Sorry, my files on that are long gone in moves across country but it is an interesting regiment and I’m sure that there was another controversy beyond the pay issue.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Hi Gretchen,

      To counter-act the pay crisis, Col. Hartwell proposed the commissioning of men of African descent to the grade of 2nd Lieutenant. On May 24th, 1st Sergeant John Freeman Shorter was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant by Governor Andrew but the Department Commander, General John P. Hatch refused to accept his discharge as Sergeant and muster as Lieutenant because ‘men of African descent could not be commissioned in the United States Volunteers.’ If I remember correctly, they never received their commissions. I will have to follow up on that.

      • Gretchen Adams Oct 18, 2011

        I am sure they never were actually commissioned officers—what stuck in my mind was that someone actually made an effort in that direction. I believe there there are letters in existence discussing this. (Big help I am, eh?)

        • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

          I get the sense that you believe this to be a worthwhile project. If so, then you’ve helped quite a bit. It really is an interesting story.

          • Gretchen Adams Oct 18, 2011

            Oh, absolutely worth pursuing! Not only the questions you raised but what I also find intriguing is the issue of how those men felt in the shadow of the 54th’s commemoration. The monument in 1897, the focus on Shaw locally, etc. It is one of those stories that hasn’t been told but one that should be.

            Barbara Gannon raised the issue (in her wonderful book and) up-thread about veteran opinion. The 55th saw significant engagement in the field but they also have some under-studied and interesting non-combat experience. The engagement some members had with abolitionists in Mass, the dispersal of the regiment to other regions after the war, and the activities of the veterans and descendants all seem to me to hint at a really interesting story of how military service both grew out of civic engagement and led to it in many cases.

            I know some letters were published in a volume in the 1980s or 90s but I’ll look tomorrow in my old files for whatever citations I still have to sources. You probably will find them easily enough yourself but there could be one or two odd ones you don’t. Oh, you might also talk to Martin Blatt over at NPS in Boston—he co-edited a volume on the 54th with UMass Press a while back but I remember having a passing conversation with him about 5 years ago at OAH about Readville and the 55th. He’s not only an interesting guy but a very generous enthusiastic one.

            • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

              I am actually reading Blatt’s edited book right now. Donald Yacovone has a wonderful essay in it on the pay crisis which I used in class when showing Glory. If I decide to go forward with the project I will definitely contact Martin Blatt. Please forward any references that you think might be helpful. Are the letters that you refer to contained in N.A. Trudeau’s Voices of the 55th?

            • Ray O'Hara Oct 18, 2011

              Gretchen, being first has always had its advantages.
              the 54th was already fighting while the 55th was still training.
              I know some of the members of the 54th who died during their training were buried in the Dedham town cemetery on Village Ave maybe some of the 55th are there too as it also trained at Camp Meigs in Readville , then part of Dedham, but now in Boston. the 54th men were buried there because it was too far to send them home as has been noted many were recruited from out of State , with Ohio particularly well represented.

              • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

                Ray,

                Do you know if the Dedham Historical Society has anything on the 55th or Camp Meigs?

                • Ray O'Hara Oct 18, 2011

                  I don’t recall anything on the 55th but it did have pictures of Dedham Men taken during the war and some personal artifacts .belonging to them,It’s been a while since I’ve been in there. The MDC now defunct had a small pamphlet on Camp Meigs and there is a small plaque at the Meigs Playground in Readville.
                  the MDC {Metropolitan District Commission} was where I learned of the 54th members in the graveyard.

                  A search of the DHS web page has some of the photos and they are doing a 150th CW anniversary display which I haven’t yet viewed who knows, It is a small place though and tends to only feature Dedham , and the biggest display is a collection of Dedham Pottery, which these days is very valuable, it is only open 1pm-4pm
                  here is a link to the website http://dedhamhistorical.org/research/
                  it claims to have an extensive CW collection.

  • Vince Oct 18, 2011

    Sounds like a very exciting project, especially as you mention extending the history into the late 1860s. I know Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, put a good number of soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, and there have even been efforts over the past decade to draw some attention to their experience and some rediscovered burial grounds.

    One asset to such a project would be the PA Civil War Era Newspapers Digitization Project, in particular the full-text searchable digitized Columbia Spy (Columbia is a Lancaster County town along the Susquehanna River with a sizable black community in the 1860s). Within 30 seconds, I could pull up a June 12, 1863, article entitled “Colored Volunteers” that gives a roster of 23 enlistees from Columbia in the 55th Massachusetts:
    http://digitalnewspapers.libraries.psu.edu/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Search&Key=TCS/1863/06/12/2/Ar00217.xml&CollName=TCS_APA3&DOCID=42120&PageLabelPrint=2&skin=civilwar&AW=1312137418713&AppName=2&sPublication=TCS&sPublication=LCL&sScopeID=All&sSorting=Score%2cdesc&sQuery=55th%20%3CNEAR%3E%20Massachusetts&rEntityType=&sSearchInAll=false&ViewMode=GIF

    Also, the run of the Columbia Spy extends into the 1870s, so you might be able to link the 55th Mass veterans to some of the race-related political turmoil of the late 1860s. At the very least you could query their names to see what pops up. Although not specific to the 55th Mass, here’s one poem by an anonymous African-American written for the Columbia Spy (9/24/1870) expressing exasperation with the racial backlash to events of immediate post-war period:
    http://digitalnewspapers.libraries.psu.edu/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=civilwar&BaseHref=TCS/1870/09/24&PageLabelPrint=1&EntityId=Ar00120&ViewMode=GIF

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Vince,

      Thank you so much for sharing this with me. Great stuff!

      • Vince Oct 18, 2011

        You’re welcome. I don’t know if any other states have such a collection of digitized newspapers, but they’re pretty awesome.

        Also, this isn’t 55th Massachusetts related, but since I know you’re interested in race, violence, and memory, are you familiar with _John and Mary: A tale of south-eastern Pennsylvania_, an 1873 novel by Civil War vet Ellwood Griest? The first half of the book is set in 1830 in a largely Quaker part of rural Lancaster County, and the second half is set in Florida in the first year after the war and paints a rather bleak picture of Reconstruction’s potential due to the KKK and its associated violence. The book is on Google Books and I put some information about it here:
        http://www.lancasteratwar.com/2011/09/john-and-mary-tale-of-south-eastern.html

        • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

          I am not familiar with it so thanks again for passing it along. I will definitely check it out when I have a chance.

          • JE Oct 18, 2011

            Kevin,

            Ohio is digitizing their newspapers as well with the NDNP… http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/ondp/index.php?title=Main_Page . I can’t speak for the newspapers that are already available, but several papers listed as “coming soon” would absolutley reference 54th/55th recruiting activities.

            Likewise, jump on google books and search for Susan G. Hall’s “Appalachian Ohio and the Civil War.” The book is available as a preview but you’re able to access the pages that would be of most interest to you…pages 214-217. I question some of her research and there’s plenty she missed but she did a fair enough assessment of recruiting in eastern Ohio.

            • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

              Thanks, JE.

  • Chris Meekins Oct 18, 2011

    Hey Kevin,

    You know both the 54th and 55th were first thought of a seed regiments for Edward A Wild’s recruitment in NC. The plan was to use colored troops as garrisons along an arc from Norfolk to Newbern and recruit from those outposts (Elizabeth City, Plymouth, Washington, probably Edenton). Those plans quickly shifted to SC.

    Dr. Richard Reid’s book on the NC USCT might be of some use – I believe the 35th (1st NC) under Beecher stood shoulder to shoulder with the 55th – the two saving the bacon of the union forces.

    I spent a brief moment with some USCT material at the NARA DC. SO much untouched stuff it is almost to cry.

    Regards,
    Chris

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2011

      Hi Chris,

      I have Reid’s book and I am familiar with their time in NC. The subject is overwhelming, but incredibly exciting and certainly worth the time needed to do a competent job.

  • Matt McKeon Oct 18, 2011

    Higginson was colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, later designated the 33rd USCT. He attempted to get two of his sergeants commissions as officers, but both were turned down. In my recollection, one was Prince Rivers, whom Higginson wrote quite a bit about in “Black LIfe”, and who later played a role in Reconstruction South Carolina politics. I can’t recall the other sergeant.

  • Paul V. Grady Jun 4, 2012

    Dear Sir,
    I am the Great Great Grandson of Capt. Charles Edward Grant, Co. B. I have several letters from him to his family in Boston that surely have details regarding some of the men in the 55th. I live in Massachusetts and would love to be part of this event, as I am an enthusiastic family historian, and Charles being my favorite.

    • John F. King Mar 24, 2014

      Mr. Grady,
      I am a park service historian ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and had several ancestors in the Civil War. I stayed in the south after I got out of the army in 1970.
      I am currently working on an exhibit about African-American troops and will display a set of letters from an officer in the 19th USCT which was at Harpers Ferry, an inscribed sword from an officer in the 75th USCT and your ancestor’s portmanteau which has his name rank and regiment printed in it. I discovered this site a couple of months ago I think I tried to make contact with you then. If this reaches you let me know.
      Regards,
      John King.

  • Robert E. Bohrn Aug 29, 2012

    Hello, I enjoyed your piece on the 55Th….you might enjoy these videos, etc. that I have done on this same unit.
    Enjoy!
    Robert E. Bohrn

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7xKHTb-vho&feature=plcp
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWNgNEzz1JM&feature=plcp
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd6R2OCxoHo&feature=plcp
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4U72Y1gR6EU

    • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2012

      Thanks for the link, Robert.

  • John Hartwell Mar 23, 2014

    Many years ago (25 or so) I remember reading a strange little book entitled “Return to Honey Hill” (or something similar, about Honey Hill) about the 55th. I remember it particularly as including a peculiar apology for having to include so much “military talk”, and indeed its author showed a complete unfamiliarity with Civil War period military organization and matters. That was the main impression it left me with, and I wish I could be clear about just what it did have to say. Something to keep an eye out for, though.

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