The History and Legacy of the Gallant 54th Massachusetts Regiment

By Austin Croup & Scott Sholl

You don’t need to be a Civil War historian to admire the gallantry of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. One of the first all-volunteer black regiments formed during the Civil War, it was the unit whose heroic exploits were depicted in the Oscar-winning movie “Glory,” which featured a stellar cast that included Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman.

Prior to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in December of 1862, black men were not even allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces. This changed after the Proclamation was signed into law. It included a decree that read, “…such persons [black men] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed services of the United States.”

Although it was technically legal at this point for black men to join the Union Army, it is doubtful that the U.S. government would have agreed to the formation of a black regiment without an urgent reason for doing so. However, it just so happens that there was such a reason: dropping recruitment numbers among white volunteers.

Moreover, recruitment wasn’t helped by the Civil War’s growing unpopularity. That was evident in July of 1863, when New York City was shaken by four days of violent protests against the military draft that Congress had passed the previous year.

As noted by Wikipedia, “The riots remain the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history, aside from the Civil War itself…. Lincoln diverted several regiments of militia and volunteer troops from following up after the Battle of Gettysburg to control the city….

“Initially intended to express anger at the draft, the protests turned into a race riot, with white rioters, predominantly Irish immigrants, attacking blacks throughout the city. The official death toll was listed at either 119 or 120 individuals.”

Not only was recruiting a problem, but so was Union morale following several embarrassing defeats at the hands of the Confederate Army. As a result, men were simply not lining up to join the army as they had at the war’s outset.

Even before New York’s draft riots, the Union’s dire situation at this point in the war prompted Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew to issue the first call for black soldiers in February of 1863.

Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The government was promising them equal pay to their white counterparts (which admittedly became an issue that was not resolved until later on), as well as guaranteed citizenship at the end of the war as a reward for their service.

At first, the military didn’t pay much attention to what it considered to be an experiment that would likely fail. At the time, even in the northern states, black men were not considered to be the equals of white men.

By this clearly flawed logic, how could black soldiers fight as hard as white ones, or perform complex military maneuvers like white soldiers? On top of that, Massachusetts just didn’t have a very large black population; no volunteers were really expected to show up to answer Governor Andrew’s call.

Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

However, in defiance of all expectations, more than a thousand black men arrived to join the regiment and fight for their freedom. Fathers, sons, and brothers all enlisted together in droves. Roughly a fourth of these men came from slave states or the Caribbean. Two of the enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of the  abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

With the volunteers in place, all they needed was a commander. But who would assume the responsibility? To lead the 54th Massachusetts into battle, a young Bostonian named Robert Gould Shaw was selected.

Shaw had been born into an immensely wealthy family on October 10, 1837. His mother, Sarah Blake Sturgis, was the daughter of a distinguished merchant. Through investment in the growing commerce of the country—foreign trade, railroads, manufacturing, and real estate—Shaw family’s fortune had multiplied many times over.

Shaw’s educational years were spent in private schools in New York, Switzerland, and Germany. In 1861, he enlisted in the U.S. army as a private and later was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry.

Following the Battles of Cedar Creek and Antietam, during which he was injured twice, Shaw was eventually promoted to the rank of colonel. Governor Andrew managed to recruit Shaw for the task of commanding the 54th in March of 1863.


Portrait of Robert Gould Shaw. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When Shaw’s father asked him to lead the regiment, Shaw at first refused. Shaw’s parents were avid abolitionists, a point that may have been a large factor in his selection. While he did take issue with the institution of slavery and the southern slave system, Shaw did not share his parents’ fervent anti-slavery views. Despite this, Shaw eventually changed his mind and accepted the command. It is rumored that he took the position in part to please his mother.

With its men ready and its commander at the front, the 54th Massachusetts marched out of Boston in parade formation ready for service. It would proceed to lead one of the most distinguished careers of any Union Army regiment during the war.

Its most famous (and costly) engagement came early on, that being their ill-fated assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. The fort was a well-defended sea battery, with its only approach being a narrow strip of beach that was surrounded by Confederate booby traps and deep holes filled with water.

The previous assault on the fort had cost the Union 330 soldiers, and since then the Confederates had been able to prepare for the next attack. Despite this, the orders were still given to Shaw to lead his men in an assault on Fort Wagner following its bombardment by Union naval vessels.

Mural of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment charging Fort Wagner. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Map of the attack by the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While the naval bombardment was spectacular and terrifying in both noise and appearance, it did little to weaken the fort, which was designed to absorb artillery barrages. The Confederates needed only to hunker down and wait for the shells to stop falling, which is exactly what they did.

As ordered, Shaw and the men of the 54th marched on Fort Wagner in an attempt to overtake it, but its defenses proved too strong for even the most determined Union soldiers. They got only as far as mounting the fort’s ramparts before being cut down by a hail of cannon and musket fire.

Shaw himself was one of the 281 casualties that the 54th suffered that day, dying instantly after being shot through the heart by a Confederate musket, falling backward over the ramparts.

Shaw and the other dead men of the 54th were buried in a mass grave following the battle under the orders of Confederate General Johnson Hagood, an act intended as to be an insult. Upon hearing of this, Shaw’s father was quoted stating that there was no place he would rather his son lie than beside his brave men.

While the battle was a definitive Union loss, the regiment’s heroic charge, coupled with Shaw’s death, made the 54th Massachusetts regiment a household name and helped to jump start black recruitment.

Following the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts would go on to participate in numerous other engagements, most notably the Battle of Olustee in North Florida, as well as the Battles of Honey Hill and Boykin’s Mill before Charleston and Savannah.

54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Olustee. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

The 54th was not mustered out of the Army until August of 1865. Regarding the 54th and all other black regiments, President Lincoln is quoted as saying the following:

“There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & eternity for doing so.”

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is considered today to be one of the best examples of bravery and honor ever to have stepped onto the field of battle. In fact, it was even reactivated on November 21, 2008 to serve as the Massachusetts National Guard ceremonial unit to render military honors at funerals and state functions.

The new unit is known as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Due to the absolute loyalty and steadfast courage in the face of near-certain death, the 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment, experiment or not, is destined to live on as one of the finest units the U.S. military has ever produced.

Portrait of officers in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the attack on Fort Wagner. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial in Boston. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Featured Image: The painting, The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground, which depicts the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the attack on Fort Wagner. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.