FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 02/08/2012

Salem’s Forgotten Soldiers of Freedom

Volume 5    Issue 2                                 February 7, 2012                          

Faith + Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By David Goss

This past year marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s beginning. Events, lectures and conferences have been held or planned, battle reenactments staged, and articles published.

And though much has been made of the heroic efforts and tensions that marked the era, one group of individuals could not be remembered enough. They didn’t always hold a rifle, but I believe they were soldiers nonetheless, fighting for what remains the most coveted human quality the world has known: freedom.

At the time of the Civil War’s outbreak, Salem—the city where I work—was a seaport of about 22,000 people. Its rich past included a leading role in the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the infamous Witch Trials of 1692, the development of the West Indies and Far Eastern Trades, and the native home of author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Salem’s glory, though, started to fade when the war began. The town’s economy gave way to industry, and the population likewise changed, with a minority of free African Americans, and newly arrived Irish immigrants—refugees of the Great Irish Potato Famine and workers in Salem’s mills and factories.

But long before President Lincoln’s election in 1860, Salem’s African American community had already distinguished itself in the struggle for abolition and civil rights, and to a large extent continued to play a role in mobilizing free blacks in the war effort.

The most distinguished of all black abolitionists from Salem were drawn from the same family, the Remonds. In 1841, John and Nancy Remond, a free black couple and successful caterers, attempted to enroll their daughter Sarah Parker at Salem High School.

Although both she and her sister passed the entrance examination, they were excluded for racial reasons. The incident motivated their father to take on the Salem School Committee and after a well-publicized confrontation, succeeded in desegregating the Salem Public Schools. As a result, both young Sarah and her older brother, Charles Lennox were inspired to become two of the nation’s most outspoken black abolitionists.

Second only in stature to the renowned orator Frederick Douglass—whom they joined on the speaking circuit of the 1850s—the Remond’s helped fan the flames of the abolition movement. They spoke at anti-slavery rallies across New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and throughout Great Britain, traveling and supporting themselves with funds supplied by publishers and abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

In the days just before the war started, both Charles and Sarah moved in international circles. Charles served as a delegate to the World’s Anti-slavery Convention in London and made quite a stir when he refused to take his seat once he discovered women delegates were segregated to the gallery of the meeting hall. Sarah spoke throughout England in 1858, drawing huge crowds and attention in the London press.

She remained in England throughout the Civil War, and became the single most visible and vocal pro-American public figure in Europe at the time, stressing the difference between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South. Eventually, she made her home in Europe, joined the London Emancipation Society, and practiced medicine in Italy after the war. She never returned to Salem.

Charles remained in Massachusetts and helped create an all black infantry regiment, the 54th Massachusetts. He toured the northeast with Douglass, recruiting African Americans for military service. After the 54th was filled with recruits, he helped raise another thousand soldiers for the 55th Massachusetts. At the age of 63 in 1873, he died in Boston, one of the nation’s most revered advocates for black freedom and suffrage.

Though the Remond family contributed much to the cause of justice, Salem knew other heroes as well. From the Salem Light Infantry (also known as the Salem Zouave) who were among the first to respond to President Lincoln’s call for more troops, to the church youth organizations who prepared regular packages of hand-made articles for soldiers, Salem’s people were quick to serve. Perhaps best known was the Salem-born son of Spanish immigrants, Luis Fenellossa Emilio, who enlisted in Salem in 1861 shortly before his 17th birthday, and soon rose to become a first lieutenant in the newly recruited 54th Massachusetts of African American troops.

Emilio led his company in their baptism of fire at James Island on July 13, 1863, and two days later led them in the famous night assault on Battery Wagner from which he emerged as the highest-ranking surviving officer in the 54th Massachusetts. For the next two years, he continued to lead his soldiers. And after the war, he authored a book, A Brave Black Regiment: The Story of the 54th Massachusetts, which served in part as the inspiration for the feature film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

As we honor African American history this February and continue to remember the Civil War’s anniversary, Salem’s many soldiers for freedom are heroes whose struggles, I believe, inspire ours.

David Goss is associate professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and the director of Gordon’s Institute for Public History in Salem, MA. He and his family live in Beverly, MA.


David Goss