Today I came across a news clipping from the Boston Transcript, which covered the fall of Charleston in February 1865. The paper reprinted a letter written by an officer in a Massachusetts regiment about a Charleston lawyer by the name of Nelson Mitchell. Turns out that the story is fairly well known. Luis F. Emilio also mentions Mitchell in his history of the 54th Massachusetts. I suspect the author of the letter served in the 54th or 55th since it is contained in the Norwood P. Hallowell Papers. One wonders where, if at all, Mitchell fits in with the Southern Heritage folks.
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.