Why We Fight: A Voice from the 55th Massachusetts

The question is often and rightly asked; “Why did they fight?” What prompted our forebears to don the blue or the gray, to lay their lives on the line, and take up arms against their fellow countrymen?

Over four million men (and who knows how many women) served in either the Union or Confederate armies during the conflict, and for every one of them, their reasons for fighting were unique. Patriotism and love of country prompted some, revenge and hatred prompted others; some enlisted because war seemed a grand adventure, some enlisted purely for the money; others enlisted to be with their family and friends who had chosen to fight, others enlisted to get away from home. Some enlisted to fight to preserve the Union as it was, others enlisted to fight for the Union as it may be, and others fought for independence from a Union in which they thought they no longer had a place. Some were drafted and compelled to serve against their will. A love of liberty and democratic ideas prompted many; the concept of protecting one’s home and kin prompted others. Some fought for equality, some for land, power, or fame. Some enlisted for ideals, political reasons, or sheer bloodlust; others saw an opportunity to set other men free; some fought for equality and others for the old order of things; they fought for freedom, justice, opportunity, and some fought to have a chance at being considered men in the eyes of their countrymen. There are countless reasons as to why these men and women fought, and for every soldier, there is a story to be told as to why...

Unidentified orderly sergeant wearing a black mourning band on his right sleeve. (Library of Congress)

    Today’s blog post provides a glimpse of insight into some of those motivations through a letter from a black soldier serving in the 55th Massachusetts, Ohio-born freeman John Abbott. Prior to the war, Abbott had worked as a teamster in Bloomington, Illinois and chose to enlist in Co. F of the 55th Massachusetts on May 30, 1863. He served with the regiment through the conclusion of its service in 1865, seeing much service in South Carolina and Florida. 

From his camp on Folly Island, Abbott could see Fort Sumter where the war began in 1861 and beyond that, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, considered by many Northerners as the birthplace of secession. Before him also lay the ruins of Fort Wagner where that previous summer, his comrades in the 54th Massachusetts had started to prove to the nation that black men would fight and fight nobly. "Our motto is that every man is born free and equal, and that equality we are fighting for," Abbott stated bluntly. "If that which we came for is to be denied us, we can’t tell what we are fighting for."

Folly Island, South Carolina

November 10, 1863

Most worthy and esteemed friends,

          You will please excuse this humble effort to let you know something about what we are doing away down here in Dixie. In the first place, we are all very well and doing well, but the main thing is yet pending and that is what we came here for. So far as we have had opportunity, we have been true to the man and those in command of us say that they don’t want better soldiers. We have done all the work there was to do here in regard to taking Charleston including the taking of Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg. The gallant 55th has the praise of being the best regiment that has ever been in this department, yet they don’t feel disposed to give us what is the most essential to us as a people and a race, and that is, equality with the white man.

          In the capacity that I am in, I have more time and opportunity to see and compare things together and I can see more distinctions shown than anyone else would imagine having the honor of being brigade wagon master. A great portion of this mean partiality comes under my particular notice; but if I continue in this strain you will all think that I am dissatisfied, I would not like you to think that because I am very well satisfied with the exception of what I have told you.

Special orders No. 14 from the Headquarters of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers dated September 29, 1863 appointed John Abbott as brigade wagon master, stating that "he will be obeyed and respected accordingly."

          All the boys from Bloomington join me in love to you all, especially Martin Thompson. He says he would very much like to be there, but if he can be instrumental in accomplishing that which he enlisted for, he is very well contented and expected to conduct himself so as to be a credit to his regiment, his race, and his native place, even if we do not get what we expect. We all think the administration intended to fool us before we left, consequently we will go to work again if we are allowed and win a name and likewise fame in another department.

          Our motto is that every man is born free and equal, and that equality we are fighting for and we expect to fight for with the help of the Almighty until we get it. We have worked night and day for months to try to accomplish this great end, and they give us credit for all we have done, and why won’t they give us this that we most desire? I am afraid that they think if we excel them as soldiers, that we might possibly excel them in other things; therefore, we might contend in various things. In the first place, we left our home and friends with the expectation that we were going to do something for the elevation of our race, and therefore we kept ourselves in good cheer, hoping that we might have an opportunity to free some of the bondsmen and if that which we came for is to be denied us, we can’t well tell what we are fighting for.

But if they fulfill their contract, we will fight on and take Charleston soon, and if we are men in this capacity, why not let us be men in any other? I am told that this is the most noble way and man can show his manhood. I am even now under the immediate sound of cannon which are hurling death and destruction at the enemy, and it makes my heart leap with joy when I think that I helped plant those same cannon and stand ready to sustain them if they should be overpowered by the enemy. I feel safe to say that there is not one man that is not eager for the fray, because we feel that we are right and must win. Every man feels confident of victory and doesn’t hesitate one moment to take his place in the ranks of the gallant 55th.

There is another thing I must call your attention to and that is the very miraculous good fortune of this regiment. We have worked together with other regiments and the enemy’s shells have fallen and burst right in our midst and have killed men standing besides our men, but never hurt any of us. I have seen shells burst where we were working, and it seemed through the will of God that it always picked out men that did not belong to our regiment. Therefore, I think that we are blessed with the favor of the Almighty and are still serving his favored few that are fighting for a good and holy cause. And if He favors us, why should not these few men that try and do everything they can to keep us from having what credit is due us? But I think that the day will come and that not far distant when we will be equalized, and in the meantime, we want you to pray earnestly for us because sometimes we don’t even have time to pray. We hope that you will all write to us, at least as many as can, so that we may have something to revive us when we think of home.

Yours truly,

John Abbott


~ Abbott’s letter was published on page 4 of the December 2, 1863 issue of the Daily Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois.

The war was fought in part for her future...and ours.


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