Now or Never! 54th Massachusetts Infantry's War to End Slavery
About the Book
Now or Never! adds valuable first-hand accounts of two African American voices, George E. Stephens and James Henry Gooding, to the standard Civil War curriculum. Stephens and Gooding served as war correspondents and soldiers in the Union’s first all-Black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th. Though their original intent was to fight against the inhumanity of slavery, they found themselves also fighting for equal treatment and pay in their own army. Their war dispatches and letters show readers a critical moment in American history at ground level, through the eyes of the people whose rights and citizenship are at the center of the conflict. The story elapses in real-time, making clear the faith involved in a future that doesn’t yet exist — the courage and quintessentially American willingness to buck the status quo on matters of conscience and go all-in for change. The narrative is based on extensive primary sources and includes an author’s note, timeline, photographs, illustrations, bibliography, and source notes.
About the Author
Ray Anthony Shepard is a grandson of a slave, a former teacher, and retired editor- in-chief of a major education publishing company. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he received a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Now retired, he is dedicated to a new “personal chapter” for himself as an author, specializing in chronicling the little-known facts of the Black experience in the United States. Website: https://www.rayanthonyshepard.com/
“I write to provide readers of any age, especially secondary school students, with a fuller view of American slavery and a corrective history of the struggle and anguish of courageous individuals who sought to pursue full American citizenship.”
–Ray Anthony Shepard
Prepare to Teach the Text
Review the resources in the Before Reading, During Reading, and After Reading sections of this guide to help you decide how best to use Now or Never! in your classroom or library.
Primary sources used in the text retain accounts of wartime violence and prevailing attitudes and language about race to the extent that they are relevant and help readers understand characters’ experiences. This content can be sensitive and is best taught in a classroom environment that promotes dialogue, thoughtfulness and the search for understanding. Read the author’s note on page 9 and use the resource links below to help you decide the best approach for introducing the text to your class.
from Teaching Tolerance:
From Facing History and Ourselves:
Preview and Build Background
Explain: Tell students that they are about to read a work of narrative nonfiction – a story about the lives of real people. Explain that the author uses primary sources, and that all quotations in the book are words that real people wrote or said.
Share: Ask students to discuss what they already know about slavery and the Civil War. Have them share their personal feelings about the war, slavery, and racism in a journal or class discussion.
Preview: Read the author’s note with students and have them preview the table of contents, illustrations, captions, and timeline.
Predict: Ask students what they think the book will be about and how the text might be like or unlike other American history and Civil War texts they have read.
Journal: Students can record their reactions in a journal, as well as any questions they have about the narrative or the history. Have them refer back to their journal as they read, recording answers to their questions, additional questions that arise, and observations about what they learn.
Journal to Connect
History becomes real and relevant to students when they can connect past events to their own lives. As they read, have students keep notes in a journal about ways the characters and events in the narrative relate to their own lives today.
Key Terms & Vocabulary
Union (11), Confederate (11), politician (12), subordination (13), Quakers (14), vocational (14), surveying (15), navigation (15), Black Codes (16), colonization movement (18), prejudice (18), Caucasian (18), artillery (18), federal (18), restricted (18), militias (18), surrender (18), dispatches (20), lethal (20), abolitionist (21), mercy (21), rebels (22), retreated (25), casualties (25), embankment (25), shelling (25), officers (25), bayonet (25), enslaved (25), military (25), emancipation (25), expiration (28), radical (32), barrack (34), sworn-in (34), company (34), Union Blues (34), recruiter (37), regiment (37), depraved (38), resistance (38), discipline (40), drilled (40), infractions (41), desert (41), bayonet (42), sergeants (45), precision (45), formation (45), mob (45), fugitive (47), oppression (47), maneuvers (48), Manual of Arms (49), revolt (50), gunboats (53), forts (53), armada (54), plantations (54), looted (54), poorhouses (59), submit (62), indignity (62), sentinels (64), pickets (64), Enrollment Act (66), draft (66), conscription (66), artillery (71), rallied (73), color-bearer (73), flank (76), parapet (76), reinforcements (78), trenches (82), promotion (82), sap lines (82), compensation (84), insubordination (86), mutiny (86), cavalry (93), stockade (96), emaciated (97), muster out (101), unrequited (105), back pay (105), posthumous (118), commission (118)
Point out the features of informational text. Begin by having students explain the text features of something they know — a social media homepage, a baseball card. Elicit the idea that text features can be used to find and understand information.
Table of Contents and Index: Demonstrate the use of the table of contents and index. Encourage students to locate information using the index as they discuss the text.
Timeline: Have students examine the timeline on pages 123–127.
How does a timeline help you to find information quickly?
How does seeing historical events in chronological relation to one another help you to understand them better?
Images and Graphics: Point out that photos, illustrations, maps, and charts communicate information that text alone cannot.
Examine the notices and poster on pages 10, 47, and 60. What do they reveal about American culture and attitudes in the 1800s?
Examine one of the photographs on page 41, 97, or 99. How does it feel to see visual images of the war versus reading about it? How do the photographs and text work together to give readers an understanding of Black soldiers’ experience of the Civil War?
How does the map of Fort Wagner on page 71 help you to understand the battle described in Chapters 9 and 10?
Bibliography: Explain the bibliography on pages 136–139 lists all the sources used by the author. Discuss how students can access the sources in the bibliography for their own research by using library resources and online tools.
What categories does the author include in the bibliography?
How are the texts in the bibliography organized?
Source Notes: Point out that every quotation in Now or Never! is cited in the source notes on pages 128–135. Explain that authors must cite any material they use that is not their own in order to avoid plagiarism. Point out that the author uses endnotes. Explain that writers may also use other citation methods such as footnotes and in- text citations. Discuss the citation method students are expected to use in their own work.
How are quotations cited in the source notes?
How do the bibliography and source notes work together?
Practice using the source notes to identify the source of a quote from the text.
Gooding and Stephens are the soldier-correspondents who give readers the inside story of their groundbreaking regiment. Have students take notes or use a graphic organizer to keep track of their similarities and differences as distinct figures. Post the results where students can easily refer to them in class and at home.
Childhood and education:
Pre-war work and family life:
Newspaper scope and readership:
Opinions, positions, and topics expressed in writing:
The following questions can be used during reading to check students’ basic comprehension. Students should answer using concrete details from the text.
Chapter 1: What events led George E. Stephens to become a writer for the Anglo- African newspaper? What caused Stephens to vow to return to Charleston as a soldier? Why did he become a cook and servant in the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment in 1861?
Chapter 2: Why was the Union army ordered to return escaped slaves to Maryland slaveholders? What was the Emancipation Proclamation and why did President Lincoln issue it? What was Watch Night?
Chapter 3: What made New Bedford, Massachusetts a good place to live for Black men like Henry Gooding? What was the Massachusetts 54th Regiment? Why was the idea of Black army officers considered “too radical”? How did Gooding become a war correspondent for the New Bedford Mercury? Who was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw?
Chapter 4: Why did the Union Army need Black soldiers, and why did some Whites in the North still resist the idea? Describe Colonel Shaw’s treatment of the soldiers in the 54th Regiment. Why did Stephens become a sergeant while Gooding remained a private?
Chapter 5: Why did police accompany the 54th Regiment when they arrived in Boston? How did spectators react to the Black soldiers? Who was Frederick Douglass? Who was John Brown?
Chapter 6: What did the Union soldiers do in Darien, Georgia? Who was Colonel James Montgomery, and why did Stephens’s opinion of him change?
Chapter 7: Why were Black soldiers in the Union Army paid less than White Soldiers? What did the soldiers of the 54th Regiment do to protest the inequality?
Chapter 8: How did the 54th Regiment help the Connecticut soldiers during the battle on James Island? What caused the anti-draft protest in New York on July 13, 1863? Why did the protest turn into a race riot?
Chapter 9: Why was the 54th Regiment called in to help at Fort Wagner? Describe why Fort Wagner was a difficult target for the Union soldiers.
Chapter 10: Describe the battle at Fort Wagner. What led Colonel Shaw to fall? How was he buried? Why?
Chapter 11: How did Fort Wagner finally fall? Why did Gooding write a letter to President Lincoln, and why did he not want it read by the army or the War Department?
Chapter 12: Why did the Union think capturing Florida would improve President Lincoln’s chances of re-election? Why couldn’t the 54th Regiment withdraw during the battle at Olustee? What happened to Gooding?
Chapter 13: Describe the conditions at Andersonville prison. What led to Gooding’s death at Andersonville?
Chapter 14: Why did Lieutenant Newell shoot one of his own soldiers? Why was Private Wallace Baker executed? How did Attorney General Edward Bates’s ruling on the Militia Act of 1862 affect Black soldiers’ pay? Why did Stephens aspire to become a U.S. Army officer?
Chapter 15: What important news did the 54th Regiment receive on April 22, 1865? What did they learn about President Lincoln just two days later?
Chapter 16: Describe what happened when Stephens applied for a promotion to officer. What did the War Department admit three years after Stephens’s death in 1891?
Chapter 17: What did the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment mean for slavery in the United States? How did the decision to enlist Black soldiers help tip the scales toward victory for the Union?
Discussion & Critical Thinking
The following questions can be used to facilitate discussion of the book after reading.
What were the initial objections to the enlistment of Black soldiers in the Union army? How did the forces of war, politics, and economics come together to change the Union’s stance on allowing Black soldiers to serve?
Before he was allowed to enlist as a soldier, Stephens joined the army as a captain’s servant. He was not allowed to carry a gun, yet he carried something the author says is more potent than a rifle: “pen and paper powered by his sharp mind” (p. 20). Where do you see Stephens or Gooding using pen and paper most powerfully? Quote their words and explain how their writing was effective in changing a situation.
Stephens wrote for the Anglo-African newspaper and Gooding for the New Bedford Mercury. What was the difference between the two newspapers? Find passages where Stephens and Gooding approached the topics of the war, slavery, and treatment of Black soldiers differently in their writing. How do you think each writer’s awareness of his audience affected his writing?
Why were some African Americans so determined to fight for a country that had yet to recognize them as equals? What did Gooding and Stephens hope to gain for themselves and other African Americans by fighting for the Union? Find examples in the narrative of when their hopes were realized and when reality fell short of their expectations.
In Chapter 5, the 54th Regiment marches through Boston flanked by city police to protect against possible mob attack. In Chapter 7, a New York draft protest turns into a race riot. What do these two events have in common, and what do they teach about Northern racism at the time of the Civil War?
How did the 54th’s success at the Battle of James Island shift some White attitudes about Black soldiers in the military? What was the shift, and what evidence in the text supports this?
Discuss the reasons the government gave to justify denying the 54th Regiment equal pay. Why was refusing any pay at all an effective form of protest for the Black soldiers? How did the writing of Gooding and others play a role in finally achieving equal pay for the soldiers of the 54th?
Examine Colonel Shaw’s relationship with the Black soldiers in his charge. In what instances does he show respect and camaraderie, and when does he treat them particularly harshly? Why would he have felt he needed to train his regiment harder than he might have trained white soldiers? How did reactions to the manner of his death and burial reflect the varied feelings about race in America?
After the war, Stephens aspired to become an army officer. Around the same time, he stopped writing for the Anglo-American. How might his decision to cease writing be connected to his military aspirations? Why were other Black men promoted before him? Who supported his promotion, and what ultimately blocked his success?
Extended Discussion, Research, and Writing
Have students work on extension activities with partners or small groups, and then come together as a class or online to share and discuss their findings.
What other groups, past or present, do you know of who have fought for equal pay, for the right to serve in the military, or for equal rights and opportunities of other kinds? How is that group’s fight similar to and different from the experience of the 54th Regiment? Cite relevant evidence from valid news and reference sources to support your conclusion.
How did the 54th Regiment help pave the way for future civil rights advancements in the United States? Make a timeline of civil rights milestones from 1860 to the present, and use it to discuss how the progress throughout American history and where it stands today.
Examine how a current event is covered differently by two or more news sources with different intended audiences. Compare this finding to how Stephens and Gooding reported the war differently in the Anglo-African and the New Bedford Mercury. Discuss possible reasons for the differences.
How is learning about history through first-hand accounts different from reading about the same events in secondary sources? Compare Now or Never! to another text you have read about the Civil War. Which gives you a better understanding of the history? Which better helps you to understand the impact of historical events on individual lives? Cite details from both sources in your comparison.
Identify a person, event, or topic from the book that you would like to know more about. Use at least three sources to research your topic, including at least one primary source. Use the bibliography in Now or Never! as a starting point. Include text features such as a timeline, diagrams, photographs, and illustrations. Include a bibliography and source notes.