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.
In March 1863 Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts created the 54th Massachusetts regiment. Governor Andrew was an abolitionist and eager to see the formation of the first African American regiment. Creating regiments comprised of only African Americans was a brand new and experimental idea. The success or failure of the 54th Massachusetts was a determining factor in the decision to recruit more African American regiments.
Only white officers could command black regiments as ordered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Handpicked white officers led the 54th Massachusetts regiment comprising only of black enlisted men.
54th Massachusetts Commander Robert Gould Shaw
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston Massachusetts on October 10th 1837, to wealthy and ardent abolitionist parents. In September 1862 Shaw was wounded at the battle of Antietam. While recovering from his wounds he was offered command of the African American Massachusetts regiment. After contemplating the idea for a while he accepted the role as commander of the 54th Massachusetts regiment in 1863.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
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.
Great fanfare greeted the 54th Massachusetts in the streets of Boston as the regiment paraded through the city with celebration and many well-wishers to see them off. With the completion of their training on May 28th 1863 the regiment left Boston on a ship heading for the coast of South Carolina. On their arrival in the south they learned that instead of joining the fight against the Confederacy, they had to do 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.
54th Massachusetts attack on Battery Wagner
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. Colonel Shaw and many of the officers of the 54th died in fierce fighting on top of the wall. Fighting for control of the fort took place for about an hour when the determined Confederate defenders finally forced the 54th Massachusetts to retreat. With a total attacking force of 600 men, 272 were either killed, wounded, or captured. They lost almost half of their men attacking Fort Wagner.
After the 54th Massachusetts withdrew from the fighting, supporting white regiments coming up behind them made their assault against the fort. These regiments also failed to take the fort suffering heavy casualties in the process. All attacks against Fort Wagner that day failed, leaving the fort in Confederate hands.
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. The heroic attack solidified their place in American history, 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.