WASHINGTON— Freedom. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
An important word, although it did not exist for everyone in our country just 150 years ago.
In Jan. 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln, freeing African American slaves in the south and eventually allowing free blacks to fight for the north during the remainder of the Civil War. On Jan. 26 of that same year, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first African American regiment organized during the Civil War. Look how far our nation has come.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, now a volunteer honor guard for the Army National Guard, still serves proudly today, performing ceremonies across the commonwealth, including funeral honors for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
47 members of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Volunteer Honor Guard) marched in the Presidential Inauguration Parade in honor of Barack Obama on Jan. 21 here, celebrating not only the inauguration, but also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the activation of the regiment.
“I think for our young Soldiers, it’s an eye-opener to history,” said Col. Sterling MacLeod, commander of the 54th. “History that they might not have been fully aware of, but now that they’re serving members of a regiment like this, I think they can appreciate more a whole nation’s struggle with race relations and equal rights.”
This was the regiment’s second time marching in the inaugural parade, their first appearance being in 2009.
“More than twice the amount of groups applied this year as compared to four years ago,” said Capt. Mark Bennett, the officer in charge of the inaugural mission and the commander of Company C for the 54th.
2,807 groups applied to march in the parade, and approximately 50 were chosen. There are various military organizations that are guaranteed placement in every inaugural parade, but the 54th was one of only four additional Army units selected and the only unit from the National Guard, said Bennett.
“We have a very diverse organization,” said Bennett. “We have individuals from every walk of life who are members of our unit. Part of our big story that we have is that we bring such a diverse group out to showcase how far we’ve come in 150 years, just as a nation, and that’s something that we’re really proud of.”
The parade route is approximately 1.5 miles long, beginning near the capitol building, heading down Pennsylvania Ave. and then ending in front of the White House.
“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Pfc. Marykate Nerney, a finance worker from the West Newton Armory and a member of the 54th since November 2011.
For parade events such as this, the regiment marches in a specific order. The regimental commander and his general staff are at the front of the formation, followed by the color guard and the line companies.
MacLeod has been commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment since November 2008 and participated in the regiment’s previous inaugural mission.
“Colonel MacLeod is probably the most passionate person you’ll ever meet when it comes to this,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Flynn, the command sergeant major for the 54th.
This trip to Washington for the inaugural parade was the final mission for Col. MacLeod as commander of the regiment, as he prepares for retirement later this year.
After more than four years in command, with energy and dedication to the organization, Col. MacLeod relinquished command to Lt. Col. George Harrington on Jan. 26.
“It’s an outstanding time for young Soldiers to join the unit and learn about it,” said MacLeod. “One of my tasks always has been to try to educate the Soldiers on the significance of this unit.”
In November 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick rededicated and reorganized the 54th, connecting the unit with its long history while promoting military honors for the future.
“The timing couldn’t have been better for the 54th Massachusetts to return,” said MacLeod. “That year was President Obama’s first year as president, the first African American president. Governor Deval Patrick had been Massachusetts’ first African American governor, and General Carter had become the Adjutant General of the Massachusetts National Guard, so it was pretty significant in terms of race relations.”
The original 54th regiment was established on Jan. 26, 1863, as one of the first units in the Civil War allowing former, male slaves to be Soldiers for the north, due to the efforts of Gov. John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts during that time.
The most famous battle fought by members of the 54th was the ill-fated charge on Ft. Wagner in July 1863, where the regiment lost nearly half of its Soldiers.
“The important thing about the battle itself was there was a perception prior to then that African American Soldiers would not fight with the same bravery and gallantry as their white counterparts,” said Bennett, “Their historic charge on Ft. Wagner dispelled that rumor once and for all.”
The unit continued to see action throughout the remainder of the civil war and was disbanded in 1865. Since then, there have been a few volunteer reenactment companies throughout the country.
With the re-designation in 2008, the 54th was tasked with two missions: to promote the rich history and legacy of the original Civil War unit and to provide dignified military funeral honors to all deserving veterans around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and ceremonial unit support as directed, said Bennett.
These missions are accomplished through two line companies. Company A, which has existed for approximately 20 years, is comprised of African-American civilian re-enactors who help educate the public on the history of the 54th.
Company C consists of more than 150 guardsmen throughout the state who volunteer for honor guard services.
“We oversee the funeral honors operations as well as any ceremonies that the Governor or the Adjutant General request,” said Flynn.
The Massachusetts National Guard previously had a ceremonial unit, which performed military honors throughout the commonwealth from 1983 until it was reorganized as Company C for the 54th.
“Bringing this unit back online, as far as a militia unit in the Massachusetts National Guard, was critical in bringing unity of effort of our funeral honors program,” said MacLeod. “Prior to this, we were Soldiers who came together to do funeral honors under the banner of Massachusetts National Guard. But when we brought this unit back, we put it under the banner of the 54th, an actual regiment.”
Through wearing the distinctive unit insignia and the honor guard tab, the Soldiers of the 54th have come together as a cohesive unit, said MacLeod.
This year, both companies brought more people to march in the parade than in 2009.
Company A increased their number of re-enactors from 18 to 23, and Company C doubled their size from 23 honor guard members to 47, said Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy Lok, a platoon sergeant for Company C and the non-commissioned officer in charge for the 54th since 2008.
For the honor guard, only four members had also marched in the previous inaugural parade, said Lok.
“It was exciting to see new Soldiers come and experience this,” said MacLeod.
On the day before the parade, the honor guard members spent a few hours in the morning practicing marching in formation, followed by touring some historical sites in Washington.
The first visit was to see and learn about the 3rd U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard.” This regiment is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, having served since 1784. The Old Guard has subsequently operated as the official Army Honor Guard and escort to the President since World War II.
It was a rewarding experience to see The Old Guard, providing inspiration and motivation to the 54th honor guard Soldiers, said Pfc. Carlos Cespedes, a current of the 54th since 2010.
Part of The Old Guard, the Caisson Platoon is located at Ft. Myer, Virginia, and primarily assists with military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The caissons were built in 1918, and were originally used for transporting cannons, ammunition chests, spare wheels, and tools. Today, those items have been removed and replaced with a flat deck on which to rest the caskets. During a funeral service, six horses are used to pull the caissons.
Members of the 54th had the opportunity to meet with a Caisson Platoon Soldier who gave them a tour of the stables and explained their role as an honor guard unit.
Following the visit to the Caisson, they walked through Arlington National Cemetery and went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry at all times. After a changing of the guard ceremony, a sentinel from the tomb gave a briefing to the members of the 54th, explaining the responsibilities and requirements of the tomb guards.
Some of the 54th Soldiers had never visited Arlington before; others had, but not since they had joined the military.
“It was totally different coming back to see the tomb after being in an honor guard program,” said Pfc. Meghan Purdy, a member of the 54th since May 2012 and a medic at the Lexington armory.
The final site that they visited was the African American Civil War Museum, connecting the current unit with the history and struggles of slavery in the U.S. and the origins of the 54th regiment.
“The experience we had, the Soldiers and myself, was priceless,” said Flynn, “The memories we’re going to have are forever.”
While representing the U.S. Army and the Massachustts National Guard, the unit’s understanding and appreciation for the heritage of the 54th was strengthened during the weekend of the Presidential Inaugural Parade, as well as their commitment and passion for serving as a military honor guard.“We’re fortunate now that we have a way that we can perform this mission on an enduring basis to ensure that all of our veterans get the honors that they deserve,” said Bennett. “It’s something that I take very seriously, and I know that the people that are in this organization feel the same way. It’s definitely the right thing to do. We need to make sure that this mission endures.”