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December 31, 1863: Epilogue

Today is the last day of a signally important year for the young United States (only 87 years old), a year which began with the issuing of an Emancipation Proclamation applying only to slaves in rebelling states, yet which ended with the first of several bills proposing amendments which would totally prohibit slavery throughout the country. The Senate passed the amendment in April 1864, 38 to 6, and the House passed it in January 1865, 119 to 56. The amendment was submitted to the states, and by December 6, 1865, it was ratified by the necessary 27 states; eventually, all 36 states ratified it.

The most compelling immediate consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation was the enlistment of colored people in the United States armies, in separate regiments officered by whites. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first such regiment raised among free negroes of the North. As such, it was highly visible throughout the country. The regiment’s great courage and steadfastness in all of its engagements, and especially the assault on Fort Wagner, had a significant impact on the perceptions and opinions of whites and blacks throughout the country.

The changes bought with so much blood of black and white Union soldiers were just the beginning of the long journey of this society. Racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces did not officially end until 1948. Despite the addition of the 14th Amendment (civil rights in the states; 1868) and the Fifteenth Amendment (voting rights; 1870), it took 100 years for the evils of explicit segregation to be confronted and substantially dismantled. In that time, it has come to be recognized that all people, regardless of color or gender, must enjoy the privileges of full citizenship. The election of a President of color, the selections of Secretaries of State who are of color or are female, the ascent of men of color, and women  — both white and colored, to high positions in U.S. corporate life, testify to the distance this country has travelled since 1863.  But one need only read or listen to the daily news to know that this journey is far from over, that it will remain a constant struggle to slowly grind down the evils of prejudice, generation by generation.

The 54th Massachusetts fought through the rest of the Civil War with distinction. The regiment was part of a poorly-led expedition to Florida in February of 1864 and participated in the disastrous battle of Olustee, distinguishing itself by steadfastly covering the retreat of the remaining Union forces. With ironic justice, the regiment was one of the principal occupying units in Charleston in 1865.

  • Robert Gould Shaw was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner. [BCF]
  • James Henry Gooding was shot in the thigh and captured at the Battle of Olustee. He later died imprisoned in the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. [OAF]
  • George E. Stephens fought with the regiment through the end of the war and mustered out in July of 1865. [VT]
  • Luis Fenollosa Emilio fought with the regiment through the end of the war, and mustered out in March of 1865. [BBR]

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December 27-29, 1863

Emilio’s last entry for 1863 describes the action on Christmas day ( [BBR] pp.YY):

Christmas day was cold and windy. The only noteworthy event in camp was the arrival of a mail. Besides fatigue parties a detail for grand guard of two hundred and fifty men went out under Captain Pope. Our rifles had sounded their fearful Christmas chimes by throwing shells into the city for three hours after one o’clock that morning. About 3 A. M. a fire broke out in Charleston which illumined the whole sky and destroyed twelve buildings before it was subdued, the falling walls injuring many firemen. Chatfield joined Gregg in the bombardment directed upon the fire. The enemy opened rapidly for a time and then gradually ceased, but our guns continued to fire with more or less vigor all day. On their part the Confederates prepared a Christmas surprise for the gunboat ” Marblehead ” lying in the Stono near Legareville. At 6 A. M. some pieces on John’s Island, brought there at night, opened on the gunboat, but were soon driven away with loss of men and guns.

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December 26, 1863

This is Gooding’s 43rd letter to the Mercury

Mercury, January 7, 1864 [OAF]
Morris Island, Dec. 26, 1863

Strategy and Common Sense

Messrs. Editors:

—Since my last there has been nothing extraordinary occurred in military affairs, and the indications are that nothing will occur between now and spring, unless brought on by the enemy. The whole face of nature now presents a drear and gloomy appearance, and the thousands who a month or two ago were full of hope and expectation have gradually come down to that frame of mind so well adapted to wait till something turns up. The fleet inside the bar has been steadily diminishing, so that there is nothing but the monitors and Ironsides left, together with three or four tugs, and provision/ schooners. The Philadelphia seems to have taken up winter quarters in the inlet, no doubt to save her from being rocked on the waves or the boisterous Atlantic. So, you see, Christmas has come and gone, but Charleston still holds her head high, as the leading city in the van of the rebellion. But then, Secretary Welles, in his annual report, considers it to be no great matter whether the Union army occupies the city or not, as it is not, he says, any strategic point of value or commercial importance to the Confederate guerrillas. All that is very fine, as a defence of the miserable operation of the naval arm during the recent operations against that stronghold; but it will not possibly make the nation see why having it in our possession is not better than to leave it in the hands of the insurgents. Strategy or not, almost every one knows that the rebels depend upon Charleston for a very large amount of ammunition, which is manufactured there on account of its central position and being connected by all the interior lines of railway with different parts of the Confederacy. But the worthy old gentleman does not think that it would be any object to somewhat curtail these facilities, and it has not struck him as an idea, that in sealing Charleston up as a commercial help to the rebels, the most effective way is to take it, so that the fleet employed to watch it could be employed elsewhere. But the worthy Secretary is looking to the establishment of something stunning in war ships, which, as a precautionary measure, is very well. But do, good Mr. Secretary, let us have the 4th of July in Charleston, and we will not regret not having spent a merry Christmas therein so much.

Santa Claus in a Novel Shape

Yesterday (Christmas) morning, we gave the rebels in Charleston a Merry (or dismal) Christmas greeting, by throwing a few shell in among them. The shell thrown evidently set fire to some part of the city, as there was a grand illumination visible in a few minutes after the shell were thrown. The wind being then from the northwest and the air very clear, the sound of the church bells could be distinctly heard at Fort Strong, but whether it was the regular ringing of Christmas bells by the Catholic and established churches, or merely the alarm bells on account of fire, is difficult to determine. From the hour (3 o’clock) it may have been both circumstances that occasioned the loud ringing of bells in the Palmetto City; one set of bells ringing to commemorate a glorious event, bringing joy and mirth to the rising generation, and reflection and thankfulness to those of mature age, — and the other, to warn the guilty conspirators of the avenging flame thrown in their midst, ready to leave them houseless, unless they make efforts to extinguish it.

Miscellaneous Items

Soon after, the rebel batteries on James and Sullivan’s Islands were opened, but with the same effect as heretofore — a waste of powder and shell; but about daylight we could hear very rapid and heavy firing* on James Island in the neighborhood where our gunboats are stationed in Stono river. I have not found out anything as yet in regard to it, but I suspect the rebels were retaliating on the gunboats for our firing on the city, and the gunboats of course must have given them as good as they sent. I don’t think it was anything more than for annoying each other in that quarter; at least I shall wait till I hear something more definite, as I may be sold a la Pocatiligo.  Christmas was rather a dull day with us, the 54th. But the 3d U.S.  had a stirring time — eating and drinking. Apple dumplings, equalling a young mortar shell in weight, with rye whiskey sauce, was the principal item on the bill of fare. So far as my observation went, apple dumplings formed the first and last course, but the boys enjoyed them notwithstanding the seeming lack of talent in the pastry cooks. The dinner to the boys shows a warm attachment between the shoulder straps and the rank and file, for the expense was borne by the officers.  The meeting referred to in my last, squelched by conservatives throwing cold water on the fire [fine?] spun plans of the radicals, adjourned sine die.

Hereafter Lieut. J. W. Grace ceases to be such — why? he will wear two bars on his shoulders, which it is hoped, will be replaced by two leaves — in time.


*This was the attack on the Marblehead, the account of which we have published. [Mercury Editor]

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December 25, 1863


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December 22, 1863

Notable today: Captain Luis Emilio, born in 1844, is 19 years old today. He has commanded Company E since May 23, and has intermittently commanded the entire regiment since the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18. He has been fighting in the Union army since 1861 (when he was 16 years old).


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December 20, 1863

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December 19, 1863

This is Gooding’s 42nd letter to the Mercury

Mercury, January 6, 1864 [OAF]
Morris Island, Dec. 19, 1863

Charleston Harbor Supposed To Be Clear Of Obstructions

Messrs. Editors:

—Since my last letter, we have been on tiptoe, expecting to see or hear the iron fleet making an effort to get into Charleston harbor; but still the Philadelphia haunts the waters of Lighthouse Inlet, and the “invulnerables” preserve a masterly inactivity. For forty-eight hours, commencing on the 11th, a heavy easterly gale prevailed on the coast, causing a higher tide in and around the harbor than has been known since this army has occupied the Island, and on Sunday afternoon could be seen huge rafts and buoys floating about in the harbor and in the roadstead opposite the Island. After some of these rafts and timbers had drifted ashore, it was apparent these formed the formidable obstructions in Charleston harbor; the timbers are, the most of them, six or seven feet in circumference and are covered with a coating of barnacles and shells, owing to being submerged so long. So far as the rafts indicate by their supposed position, the fleet could never have forced them sufficiently to pass without seriously damaging the motive power of the vessels, as it is very reasonably conjectured that the huge links of chain found attached to the rafts were cables to anchors or old guns, sunk to hold the raft in position directly across the channel, but short and heavy enough to keep the whole structure submerged, so that a hostile vessel could not be piloted clear of it. The rafts were apparently placed in sections, but each section was linked to the other by two bars of railway track, by means of car couplings bolted to the ends of each section. It may be that the naval authorities had a hand in loosening the grand network of obstructions in their nightly work upon them, fully expecting nature to assist them in the work, as it has done. But if they don’t take advantage of what nature has accomplished for them pretty soon, the wily rebels will place a more complicated trap in their way. But they may be justified in supposing that the harbor is not clear; or, they probably know such to be the fact, but no one here has seen the navy endeavoring to ascertain whether the harbor was clear or not; they may prepare to reconnoitre by next spring.

How The Weehawken Has Sunk

I have just found out how the Weehawken was sunk. It is gravely asserted that the Admiral, in his afternoon siesta, saw the ghost of Sumter coming towards the fleet and telegraphed the Weehawken to run out of the way, and her speed, under the circumstances of fright and a bottom clear of barnacles, was so great that she ran under.

Shooting Of A Deserter

Thursday Afternoon, Dec. 18. — A special order made it the duty of all the troops on this island to witness a melancholy and impressive scene. Kimball, of Co. G, 3d N.H. regiment, a conscript recently brought out from Boston, deserted from his regiment and had got as far as our picket lines on the left. It is asserted that when he was discovered, he was signalizing to the enemy across the river to come with a boat and take him across; and after being taken, he represented himself as a rebel deserter, and the object of his signalizing was to direct a brother deserter, who had agreed to desert with him from the enemy. He was brought in to the guard on Black Island, to be sent over to the post headquarters in the morning, as no one doubted his story.  He was disguised in citizen’s dress at the time, and would have been paroled as a rebel deserter had not one of the men in his own company, who had been put into the provost guard house for some misdemeanor, recognized him. The delinquent soldier, seeing a rebel deserter, of course took a good look at him, just perhaps to see what a rebel looked like, when he suddenly exclaimed, “Hallo, Kimball, what the deuce are you doing here?” This familiarity excited curiosity, and when the guard saw the supposed deserter motion the soldier to keep mum, it created suspicion. An officer was called in and informed that something was wrong, whereupon there was an investigation, and the foregoing facts evolved. Several men from the same regiment were called and proved him to be a member of the regiment, whereupon he was court martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to suffer death.

As before stated, on Thursday, at 4 p.m., the sentence of the Court was carried out to the bitter end.  The troops were formed in two columns of four ranks each, so the space occupied would be convenient for all the troops to witness the scene. Between the columns there was a space of eight paces for the funeral cortege to pass in review before the troops. An army hearse was driven through, containing the victim seated upon his coffin, preceded by a Martial Band playing a funeral march; the prisoner lounged upon his coffin, calm, and unmoved, except you might see a slight moisture of the eye; but his face was pale and careworn, like one who seemed to have hoped against fate, and now at the last was struggling to be resigned. He seemed to look each man in that vast assembly in the eye with a vague and melancholy appeal for sympathy, as the hearse drove down the line, which must have touched the hearts of many, although they knew he was guilty. After the cortege had arrived at the place of execution, he nimbly jumped from the hearse to the ground, and began to prepare himself for the final act in his drama of life. His head was shaved, and then the Chaplain offered a prayer; after that the Provost Marshall tied the fatal kerchief over his eyes, the officer of the guard put his men in position to fire, the Chaplain, Marshal and pall bearers shook hands with him, stepped aside suddenly; the officer shook his glove and the victim fell across his coffin; his feet trembled a moment and he was a corpse.

No sooner had the man fallen, a lifeless mass of earth, than a sea gull flitted over him, ready to pounce upon the first vestige of torn flesh that it might discover. This painful scene would have been totally devoid of incident, but for what the last mentioned occurrence gave to it. The appearance of the bird was so sudden, not one being in sight before, that it imparted to the scene a touch of the supernatural. It was only by repeated efforts that the guard was able to keep the voracious bird away. The lesson taught by the scene will no doubt be a lasting one to all who witnessed it.

Miscellaneous Items

The rebels opened pretty heavily on Tuesday last, but their fire did no extra damage. Last night about 11 o’clock, for the first time in a week, we opened on the city, which occasioned some savage firing on the part of the enemy, showing that firing on the city occasions more annoyance than they have admitted.  The members of the regiment represented by their noncommissioned officers are making efforts to celebrate the 1st of January in a becoming manner, the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. An informal meeting was held last evening by the uncommish, and, of course, there was some rubbing of ideas. The only little incident that occurred worthy of notice was the wish expressed by some of the radicals to couch the language of the petition to the Commanding General for leave to make a celebration in such a manner as to convey the idea that the petition emanated from the soldiers of the department irrespective of class. The question was very warmly contested till tattoo, and it was unanimously agreed that the meeting was very harmonious!


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December 16-18, 1863

Emilio describes the shooting of a deserter ( [BBR] p.143):

Late in the afternoon of December 17 the Fifty-fourth with all the troops was formed to see a deserter shot. The unfortunate man was Joseph Lane, a drafted soldier of the Third New Hampshire. On November 28 he started from Morris Island toward James. At last, despairing of crossing the water ways, he turned back to our lines, representing himself as a Rebel deserter. Taken to the post guard-house, he was recognized by some of his own company, whereupon he was tried and sentenced to death. General Stevenson commanded the division, by reason of General Terry’s illness. After forming, the column moved slowly up the beach followed by a wagon, in which, seated upon his coffin, rode Lane. When the troops halted, the wagon passed along the line to the lower beach. There the coffin was unloaded, the deserter knelt upon it, and at a signal, in full view of all the troops, the blindfolded man received the musket-shots of the firing party, falling forward on his face a quivering corpse.

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December 14, 1863

The first bill supporting a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery (ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment) was introduced in the House of Representatives today by James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio. The final text as adopted on December 6, 1865 is presented here:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


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December 13, 1863

Emilio reports on yet another incident in the pay controversy ( [BBR] pp.142-143):

To carry out the provisions of the Act for the relief of the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry, Maj. James Sturgis, accompanied by Mr. E. W. Kinsley, a public-spirited citizen, arrived at our camp December 12. They had previously visited the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, when Colonel Hartwell informed Major Sturgis that neither regiment would receive the relief. Upon meeting Colonel Hallowell the same information was given. At Major Sturgis’s request the officers and first sergeants were then assembled, when the matter was freely discussed. Both gentlemen explained fully the purpose of the Governor and the legislation securing it. Some of the officers and non-commissioned officers replied by a recital of the reasons for refusal hereinbefore set forth. Finally the noncommissioned officers on behalf of the men positively refused the State aid. At their conclusion cheers were given for Governor Andrew, to whom they were grateful for the proffered help. The result of his unsuccessful mission was reported in writing by Major Sturgis to the Governor under date of December 13. In his report he says, —

” I deem it proper to say here, that among the many regiments that I saw at Hilton Head, St. Helena Island, Beaufort, Folly, and Morris Island, white and colored, there are none, to my inexperienced eye, that equalled the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth, unless it was the Fortieth Massachusetts, while none surpassed them in any respect.”

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