American Ancestors New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845 N.E. Historic Genealogical Society Seal View Your Shopping Cart Join NEHGS
  • Profiles in Courage: New England African Americans in the Civil War

    Kenyatta D. Berry

    Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."  - Frederick Douglass

    The United States Colored Troops

    The first official authorization to employ African Americans in federal service was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. This act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to receive into the military service persons of African descent and gave permission to use them for any purpose “he may judge best for public welfare.”   However, the President did not authorize the use of African Americans into combat until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. “And I further declare and make known , that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places, to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”1 According to the act soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50.  Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864 when Congress granted equal pay for all soldiers.2

    In late January 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African American soldiers. This was the first black regiment to be organized in the North.  On May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to coordinate and organize regiments from all parts of the country.  Created under the War Department General Order No. 143, the bureau was responsible for handling “all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops.”3

    Massachusetts Regiments

    The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was organized and mustered in Readville, Massachusetts on May 13, 1863.  The famous Captain Robert Gould Shaw was commissioned to Colonel of the 54th and Captain Norwood P. Hallowell was commissioned lieutenant colonel.  The regiment’s first action took place on July 16th on James Island, South Carolina where they stopped a confederate assault and lost 42 men in the process.  On July 18, 1863 the regiment spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina.  At this battle, Colonel Shaw was killed and another 156 men were wounded or captured.4 The 54th was widely acclaimed for it valor and was immortalized in the 1989 film Glory starring Denzel Washington.

    The Massachusetts Historical Society has manuscript collections related to the 54th including regimental records, the Lee family papers and the Robert Gould Shaw letters.  There are several books on the 54th regiment including:

    • Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment:  History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894)
    • Martin H. Blatt, Thomas J. Brown and Donald Yacavone, editors, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Pres, 2001)

    The 55th Massachusetts Infantry was mustered in June 22, 1863. Five companies were mustered in May 31, two more on June 15, and the remaining tree June 22nd. Lieutenant Colonel Norwood P. Hallowell of the 54th was commissioned colonel and Capt. A. S. Hartwell of the same regiment, lieutenant colonel.  The 55th was variously engaged on the islands of Charleston until July 2, when it was heavily engaged at James Island, losing 11 killed and 18 wounded.  On November 30th, the 55th was engaged with then enemy at Honey Hill, losing Captain Crane, Lieut. Boynton and 31 men killed and Colonel Hartwell and 108 officers and men wounded, several mortally, the heaviest loss of the regiment in any one action. It retired to Boyd’s Neck where it remained until January 11, 1865.5 There are several books on the 55th Massachusetts regiment including:

    • Burt Green Wilder, The Fifty-Fifth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Colored, June 1863-September 1865 (Brookline, MA:  The Riverdale Press, 1919)
    • Charles B. Fox, Fox Records of the Service of the Fifty-Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Cambridge, MA: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1868)
    • Noah A. Trudeau, Voices of the 55th (Dayton, Ohio:  Morningside House, Inc. 1996)

    The 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry was organized at Camp Meigs, Readville. The 1st Battalion under Major Weld moved to Washington, D. C., May 5-8, 1864. At Camp Stoneman, Giesboro Point, Md., May 8-12. Dismounted and moved to Camp Casey, near Fort Albany, May 12. The 2nd Battalion under Major Adams moved to Washington May 6-8, and to Camp Casey May 9. 3rd Battalion under Major Bowditch moved to Washington May 8-10, and to Camp Casey May 11.6

    On June 15th, as part of Holman’s Brigade it participated in the advance toward Petersburg, being engaged with the enemy at Baylor’s Farm, where it lost three men killed and 19 officers and men wounded, among the latter being Colonel Russell, Major Adams and Captain H.E.W. Clark. On June 30th, the regiment moved to Point Lookout, Maryland to guard Confederate prisoners where it remained for the balance of the year 18647   The regiment was ordered to Texas and duty at Clarksville till October and mustered out October 31, 1865. During service, the Regiment lost 7 enlisted men killed and 116 enlisted men by disease. 8

    Approximately 6, 956 African American volunteered from New England states as follows:

    Connecticut – 1,789
    Maine - 104
    Massachusetts – 2,986
    New Hampshire - 125
    Rhode Island – 1,837
    Vermont – 120 


    The Maddox Brothers

    Stephen Maddox and Elizabeth Curtis were married in Pembroke, Massachusetts on December 1, 1814.10   Stephen and Elizabeth were the parents of eight children, two who served in the Civil War.  There eldest son, Stephen H. Maddox was born about 1842 probably in Boston, Massachusetts.  He lived with his parents in Boston and was enumerated with them in the 1860 U.S. Census, then moved to Chelsea in 1861.   On May 30, 1863 Stephen enlisted as a private in Company A of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, described as a laborer residing in Chelsea.  He was promoted to corporal at some point during his service, he died of pneumonia at Folly Island, South Carolina on January 31, 1864.  His mother later filed for an application for a mother’s pension which was granted.11

    Isaac Maddox was born on November 26, 1845 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.12   He married Johanna Davis who was born in Annapolis on February 24, 1858, the daughter of John Davis and Mary G. Brice.13   Ten months after the death of his older brother Stephen, Isaac enlisted, on October 12, 1864, as a replacement recruit in Company C of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers. Isaac resided in New Bedford starting in 1881 until his death in 1912.  His obituary in the New Bedford Evening Standard indicated that he was a lay preacher in the A.M.E. Zion Church and the he had been a member of the G.A.R. Post 146.14  

    Profiles of other New England Civil War Ancestors will be posted later this month.

    1Budge Weidman, “Teaching with Documents: The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War – Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops”, National Archives and Records Administration,

    2Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, “History of African Americans in the Civil War”, National Park Service,


    454th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Wikipedia,

    5Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998) pg. 468-69

    6Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored), National Park Service,

    7Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998) pg. 471

    8Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored), National Park Service,
    9Beth Anne Bower, Researching African American Participants in the Civil War, Part One: New England Regiments, New England Historic Genealogical Society,

    10Dorman, Franklin A., Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998) pg. 339

    11ibid, pg. 341

    12Vital Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850 (Boston: NEHGS, 1914), 1:456

    13Dorman, Franklin A., Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998) pg. 343

    14ibid., pg. 344
New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA

© 2010 - 2014 New England Historic Genealogical Society