Two years into the Civil War, free men of color were still denied the right to fight for the end of slavery. Weeks after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the governor of Massachusetts was authorized to raise the first northern black regiment, referred to at the time as "the Massachusetts 54th colored infantry."
Almost 100 men from Massachusetts' small black population joined the regiment while the rest of the 1000 men were recruited from nearby states. They came from all walks of life--they were shopkeepers, farmers, musicians, blacksmiths, doctors, and lawyers. Intelligent and educated, they left their lives behind to join the battle against slavery.
The regiment fought bravely for nearly two years before the company marched to take Charleston. In the fall of 1865, a victorious 54th Infantry returned to Boston, one portion of the 178,975 black men who fought in the war.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE follows the adventures of the 54th as well as those of individual members, including Lewis and Charles Douglass, sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Luis Emilio, who chronicled the regiment's movements; and James Gooding, whose letters were published as a column in his hometown newspaper.