Records of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry

Jeremy Bernfeld
Source Report

Records of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry
Call number: Film 3091 Main Micro

What is it?
This collection compiles all records from the 54th Massachusetts, one of the most famous regiments of African-American soldiers. Immortalized in the film Glory!, the regiment embodies the changing times of the American Civil War. The papers are housed on seven reels of microform and must be viewed on a microform projector.
The collection of papers is broken down into two large sub-headings: the bound and unbound papers. The bound papers encompass the official documents that the military required commanding officers to keep, while the unbound papers are unofficial records that are often more private. Within the collection, you'll find the letters sent and received by members of the regiment; the orders given and received by its commanding officers; muster rolls and descriptive lists of the enlisted men; quarterly, monthly and annual returns of the regiment's stores; along with miscellaneous papers and personal matters.

When was it made? By whom? Why?
The records were originally bound together by the War Office, both as a record of Civil War events, but also to document the War Records of veterans. They were originally used as proof of service for payroll and pension benefits. The papers were put together and copied onto microform by the National Archives in order to preserve a record of one of the most important regiments of the war.

Who appears in it?
Obviously, anyone who wants intimate details about the 54th Massachusetts will be interested in these papers. Also, the regiment's commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a leading Boston abolitionist family, figures prominently in the papers. The commanding officer of the regiment after Shaw's death, Colonel Edward Hallowell, is featured, as is Sergeant Major Louis H. Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass.

How is it organized? How do you use it?
The papers are housed on seven rolls of microfilm. The bound papers appear first, followed by the unbound section. The bound section houses the papers maintained in accordance with army regulations that require specific records be kept.
The first roll has a two-page introduction to the collection that is invaluable when looking for materials, as well as a table of contents for the collection. There is also a hand-written list of prominent individuals, organized alphabetically, that can be researched in the collection. Each subsequent roll of microfilm has its own table of contents.

How do you get access to it?
The collection is located in the Microfilm section located at the back left corner of H-L Library. The microfilm is organized by call number and all seven rolls are housed together. Access to the microfilm collections at the library is allowed whenever the library is open.

What kinds of questions can it answer?
Anyone looking to research the history of the Massachusetts 54th, Colored Civil War infantry units, or specific individuals within the 54th, will find the collection invaluable. Of specific interest is the heated debate over the equal payment of black troops, found within the regiment's letters.

Breakdown of sections:
Letters sent- copies of letters sent June 11, 1863- August 1865.
    Hand-written letters and replies
    Mostly administration, some battle reports
    Equal pay of black troops
        Letters to Massachusetts Governor James Andrews and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
    Instead of writing an entire reply, often a commander would sign the original letter and send it back
Quartermaster records
Regimental and Company description books
    Roster of commissioned officers
    List of non-commissioned officers, promotions, and transfers
    Alphabetical list of enlisted men
Letters and telegrams
Orders relating to specific companies
Returns- required monthly stock-taking of troops
Muster rolls