By David Swets
The 54th Massachusetts was a regiment that consisted of black infantry men and white officers that has since become legendary.
Its name belied the soldiers’ origins. Due in large part by the efforts to recruit former slaves, a majority of the 54th came from Confederate or border states.
“The Union was trying to get more blacks from Florida to join them,” said Joel McEachin, a long-time senior historic preservation planner with the city of Jacksonville. This was an attempt to try bolster the Union ranks and demoralize the Confederates.
It was in that battle that the soldiers of the 54th showed both their mettle and heroism.
The Union forces were only able to retreat successfully thanks to the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th United States Colored Troops, which stood their ground and held off the advancing Confederate army so the rest of the troops could retreat.
It was during the aftermath of the battle that Confederate soldiers slaughtered black soldiers who had taken part in the action. There are no records of just how many black soldiers were killed but, according to documents from the Confederacy about the battle, the killings surely happened.
“Our men killed some of them (black soldiers) after they had fell into our hands wounded,” a Confederate soldier wrote in a letter to his family.
Reports of brutality by Confederate soldiers against wounded black soldiers were plentiful. Union officers were able to piece together what had happened when they received lists of wounded and prisoners from the Confederate side. What stood out to them was the lack of black soldiers in either of the lists.
It soon became clear that the Confederate soldiers were murdering the captured black Union soldiers. The Confederacy’s hatred for the blacks cost them a major victory. Though the battle was won by the Confederate armies, they failed to deal a huge blow to the Union by not pursuing the retreating army, but instead hunting blacks on the battlefield.
“The Confederate soldiers may have had orders to kill any black soldier they saw,” McEachin said. “Even the wounded.”
These orders gave the Union time to retreat to Jacksonville and set up defenses. The 54th made it to Jacksonville after suffering 86 casualties.
The regiment retreated to what became known as Fort Hatch, located in the 800 block of West Adams Street. It was part of the Union defenses built to protect Jacksonville.
Fort Hatch was one of nine gun batteries that were built along a wall that surrounded Jacksonville’s city limits. According to McEachin, the wall spanned the perimeter of Jacksonville and was quite impressive.
“The wall was built with 12-foot logs that were sharpened to a point,” he said. Along with the sharpened logs, there was a moat around the outside of the wall to make it harder for the Confederate soldiers to reach the defensive structure.
The soldiers were also instructed to dig pits where they could sit and shoot. The Union was doubling down on a Confederate attack that never came.
They remained in Jacksonville until April 17, 1864.
Following their Jacksonville stay, the regiment saw action at the Battle of Honey Hill at the end of November. Jan. 15, 1865 saw the 54th connecting with Gen. Sherman’s army during his famous march to sea.
The regiment is most known for its valiant, yet unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, a battle memorialized in the 1989 movie “Glory.”
The regiment was discharged in Boston on Sept. 1, 1865.
But leaving Jacksonville was not the end of some of the black soldiers’ association with the city.
After the war, some 2,000 soldiers from the Union forces, both white and black, returned to the city to help in the city’s recovery. This included rebuilding the wharfs and railroads, cleaning ditches and re-establishing telegraph service.
Some of the black war veterans settled in traditionally black communities such as LaVilla and Brooklyn, while others who returned to Jacksonville settled in Hansontown, now the site of Florida State College of Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus. The land had been purchased by Daniel Dustin Hanson, a surgeon in the 34th United States Colored Troops, specifically for the re-settlement of freed slaves and black veterans.
Much of what happened to the 54th following the Union’s defeat at Olustee might have remained a mystery had not a Jacksonville team of researchers stumbled across maps of Fort Hatch in 2013.
Cowford Archaeological Research Society members looked at the maps they had discovered of the fort from 1864 and determined its location to be beneath the parking lots of Lee & Cates Glass. After receiving permission from the company, they began digging.
What they found confirmed their suspicions — a Union soldier’s uniform button, glass bottles used for medicine and other ornate trinkets. However, what sealed the deal was the discovery of a bullet casing. The casing was for a bullet from a Spencer rifle – the exact ones used by the Union army.
The site now is commemorated with a plaque that states it pays tribute to “the fort and the men who served there.”
The 54th Massachusetts had a significant impact not only on the war but also on the integration of blacks into society. The presence of the soldiers in the Union Army and their bravery cracked opened the door for more equal treatment.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell once discussed how significant it was to have former slaves fight in a war that was about ending slavery.
The sacrifices and bravery shown by the men of the 54th and other black troops paved the way for all the others, such as Powell, who succeeded them.
“To my dying day,” Powell said in his speech, “I will not forget that I became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of the men of the 54th Regiment.”