The 54th Massachusetts regiment was the most famous African American fighting unit formed during the war. On January 1st 1863 Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. The proclamation allowed free black men to enlist in the Union army.
The 54th Massachusetts was created in March 1863 by the governor of Massachusetts John A. Andrew. Governor Andrew was an abolitionist and eager to form the first African American regiment. Creating regiments comprised of only African Americans was a brand new and experimental idea. If the 54th Massachusetts performed well then more African American regiments would be formed.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that the black regiments be commanded only by white officers. Therefore the 54th regiment was comprised of black enlisted men, led by handpicked white officers.
If you would like to read more about the 54th Massachusetts, the book A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 is a good choice to learn more about this famous unit.
54th Massachusetts Commander Robert Gould Shaw
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was born in Boston Massachusetts on October 10th 1837, to wealthy and ardent abolitionist parents. Shaw was wounded during the battle of Antietam in September 1862 and was later offered command of the African American Massachusetts regiment in 1863. After contemplating the idea for a while he accepted the role as commander of the 54 Massachusetts regiment in 1863.
Training and Recruitment
The 54th Massachusetts was well trained and well drilled for battle. The regiment was a very exciting and popular idea among free black men in the north. The unit received many more volunteers than it needed therefore the commanders had the luxury to only select the highest quality recruits into the regiment. In all roughly 1,000 men were selected for the 54th Massachusetts regiment in 1863.
The fanfare was not lost in the streets of Boston, as the regiment was paraded through the city with great celebration and many well-wishers to see them off. After their training was complete on May 28th 1863 the regiment left Boston on a ship heading for the coast of South Carolina. After their arrival in the south they were not immediately sent into combat. Instead they were given mundane manual labor jobs such as clearing brush, digging ditches, and chopping wood.
These things were not what the men signed up for. Colonel Shaw petitioned his superior officers to allow he and his men a combat assignment which was eventually granted. The regiment would see its first battle of the American Civil War on July 16th 1863 in South Carolina defending James Island from a Confederate attack, suffering some 45 casualties during the fighting. Two days later on July 18th 1863 the regiment fought in the battle that would forever immortalize them.
54th Massachusetts assault on Fort Wagner – July 18th 1863
They were chosen to lead the attack on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. It was this battle that books and movies have been made telling the story of the first black regiment in the Union army.
600 men attacked Fort Wagner in the early evening of July 18th 1863. After a preliminary bombardment by Union navy warships and artillery batteries located on Morris Island. The 54th Massachusetts launched a full frontal assault on the fort which was heavily defended by well entrenched Confederate troops.
54th Massachusetts Advanced Toward the Fort
They started out walking quickly toward the fort, however as the Confederates opened fire and the shooting became more intense as they got closer to the fort the pace of the advance increased until it turned into a run. They ran toward the south side of the fort as quickly as they could, taking heavy losses from well aimed Confederate artillery and musketry fire.
Despite their loses just reaching the fort they still managed to climb the wall and meet the defenders in hand to hand combat. The fighting was fierce on top of the wall, it was here that Colonel Shaw and many of the officers were killed. The fighting lasted about an hour before the 54th Massachusetts was forced to retreat. Out of the total attacking force of 600 men 272 were either killed, wounded, or captured. They lost almost half of their men attacking Fort Wagner.
After Fort Wagner
The unit never suffered higher casualties during the entire rest of the war than they did on that July night in 1863. Their heroic attack solidified their place in American history and it confirmed to the Union government and citizens that enlisting African American soldiers was a good idea and more regiments were soon formed.
After the battle of Fort Wagner the 54th Massachusetts regiment continued on with a new commander Colonel Edward Hallowel. The regiment participated in some minor fighting during the battle of Olustee on February 20th 1864 when they protected the Union retreat during the battle. After the battle of Olustee they participated in a few more skirmishes up until the end of the war in 1865.