New York Army National Guard Color Guard, 125th New York Volunteer Infantry (Civil War reenactors), Albany --area Civil War historian Mark Bodnar, The Son's of Union Veterans, the Capital District Civil War Roundtable, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin and Albany Rural Cemetery President Willard Bruce.
LATHAM, NY (10/05/2009)-- The New York Army National Guard will team up with local Civil War re-enactors, Albany Rural Cemetery, and local Civil War historian Mark Bodnar to honor a local man who was a veteran of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit featured in the 1989 movie Glory in a special ceremony on Wednesday morning at Albany Rural Cemetery.
An Army National Guard Color Guard will join a firing party from the 125th New York Volunteer Infantry, a reenactors group, to dedicate a new marker at the grave of First Sgt. William A. Francis, an Albany resident who died in 1897, and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands
11 a.m., Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Albany Rural Cemetery, 48 Cemetery Avenue, Menands
There will be opportunities to interview Mr. Bodnar about the significance of the event and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, as well as members of the 125th NYS Volunteer Infantry and the New York Army National Guard who are participating in the event. Visual opportunities will include the dedication ceremony, a firing party provided by the 125th NYSVI and the NYARNG Color Guard.:
1st Sgt. William A. Francis:
1st Sgt. William A. Francis was a 30-year old waiter living in Albany when Massachusetts Governor John Andrew began raising an African American Regiment in 1863, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. According to Bodnar, Francis and 11 other African-Americans from the Capital Region journeyed to Boston to enroll in the 54th.
After enlisting as a private, Francis fought throughout the rest of the war, including the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. He finished the war as the top non-commissioned officer in the 54th Infantry's Company E and then returned to his home at 166 Third Street in the city of Albany.
During a recent effort to document every Civil War soldier buried in Albany Rural, 12 graves were readily identifiable as containing "colored" soldiers. During this research, the headstone for SGT William A. Francis was not located, and was found only recently, face down and broken, covered with a thin layer of sod. A new stone was authorized by the Veterans Administration to replace the old, broken headstone.
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry:
When the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, who had been working to create an African-American regiment since 1862, went forward with his plan to raise a regiment of "colored" soldiers to fill part of his state's quota of men for the Union army. He secured the support of abolitionists and African American leaders and began the process of recruiting black men.
Massachusetts did not have enough healthy black males of military age to fill one full regiment, so it became necessary to recruit men elsewhere. To assist in this effort, abolitionists, preachers and Black leaders across the North, publicized the need for Negro men to enlist. Within a short time, recruits began to arrive: men showed up from 20 different states, including all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and from as far away as Louisville, Kentucky. Black men even arrived from Canada to volunteer to fight for freedom. The men who journeyed to Boston to enlist combined to form the first all-Black regiment of soldiers in the U.S. Army, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Appropriately, Frederick Douglass' son, Lewis, was a Sergeant Major in the 54th.
Recruiting efforts were so successful that more Black men arrived than were needed. Even a rigorous medical inspection left a great surplus of men, so two additional regiments were raised: the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Today, not much is remembered about the 55th Infantry or the 5th Cavalry, but the 54th Massachusetts Infantry lives on today in imperishable memory. This is due in large part to the chance participation of the 54th in a great assault on the evening of July 18th, 1863 on Fort Wagner, which guarded the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
Although the assault was unsuccessful, the heroism of the Soldiers of the 54th put a lie to the idea that Black Americans were not good Soldiers. The creation of the 54th, and the assault on Fort Wagner, are highlighted in the 1989 movie "Glory" which stars Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Matthew Broderick. The 54th is remembered in the Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston which memorializes the unit's commander Robert Gould Shaw, who was the son of a famous abolitionist and died in the assault on Fort Wagner. Shaw also served briefly in New York's famous 7th Regiment in the early days of the Civil War.
Today the Masschusetts National Guard continues the history of the regiment with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment (Selected Honor Guard). The new 54th renders appropriate military honors at state functions and funeral services for veterans who have served in the military forces of the United States. The 54th has performed approximately 300 military funeral honors missions this year.