Crowds packed the streets of Boston to watch the newly minted soldiers march toward the Statehouse for inspection. The throng roared as the regiment passed by, many of them cheering "more enthusiastically than ever they had done before," according to one Boston Journal reporter.
This first all-black troop was heading off to war. Since the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, blacks had been enlisting in the military. But this day formalized their inclusion, however segregated it was. The military would not be desegregated until 1948.
When they assembled in front of Gov. John A. Andrew, the soldiers' "lines were by no means perfect," but "they marched in good time, and wheeled with a readiness which showed that they had a clear idea of what was required, and only needed a little more practice to equal the best regiments that have left the State." After all, recruitment for their unit had only begun in February. A band led the way, "but they did not perform, being still under practice."
One hundred fifty years ago today, the War Department ordered the establishment of the United States Colored Troops, which would grow to include nearly 200,000 black men by the end of the Civil War; 40,000 of them would die. But death wasn't the only peril. There was also the threat of being captured and enslaved by the Confederacy. As The New York Times reported at the time, the Confederacy "proclaimed their determination not to regard such citizens, or their white officers, as prisoners of war, but to subject them to the bloody penalties prescribed in Southern statute-books for persons inciting insurrection among slaves."
This is the copy of the order, issued May 22, 1863. The presentation of the 54th Regiment occurred just a week later (the regiment would become the subject of the 1989 movie Glory).
By October, the Union would allow slave owners to "trade in" their persons for enlistment in the military and $300. This is the document that liberated Edmund Delaney from slavery but conscripted him into the Army.