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“Give ’em Hell, 54th”

Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina, July 18, 1863

During the American Civil War, nearly 80,000 African American men volunteered to be soldiers in the U.S. Army. The African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and her sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts, proved themselves to be among the best of America’s war fighters.

On March 3, 1863, Congress authorized the Medal of Honor. During the Civil War, 25 African American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action, including Sergeant William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts, and Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment came to the attention of America, because of its actions on July 18, 1863, during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

On that day, the 54th Massachusetts was the spearhead of nine other Union regiments, leading the way in a frontal assault on Fort Wagner. The fight that day for Fort Wagner accounted for the highest number of casualties during a single battle in the history of the 54th Massachusetts.

A group of documents known as “Exhibit: 54th Mass Casualty List” is held in the National Archives and Records Administration, in Washington, D.C. These documents contain only a few fragments of the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Existing records show that the 54th Massachusetts numbered about 584 soldiers before the battle, and that about 315 men were left from the 54th after the battle. According to the National Archives, 29 soldiers were killed, 24 more later died of wounds, 149 were wounded, 52 were missing in action, never accounted for, and presumed dead, 15 were captured—these casualties account for about 46 percent of the men of the regiment.

Lewis and Charles Douglass, sons of abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, were soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts in the fight for Fort Wagner. Lewis Douglass was wounded, but survived the battle. Colonel Robert G. Shaw, commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts, was killed on the parapet of Fort Wagner. Captain Russel and Captain Simpkins were also killed.

After the battle, the Confederates buried the body of Colonel Shaw with the African American soldiers of his regiment in an unmarked mass grave as an insult to him.

In a letter to Lincoln Stone, surgeon of the 54th Massachusetts, Frank Shaw, father of Colonel Robert Shaw, wrote, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers . . . We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body guard he has!”

Sergeant William Harvey Carney, born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, was a soldier of the 54th Massachusetts. During the assault on Fort Wagner, the regiment’s color bearer was killed. Sergeant Carney caught the falling flag, and continued the march toward Fort Wagner, carrying the flag high, leading his regiment forward.

When the Union troops were forced to retreat under fire, Sergeant Carney struggled back across the battlefield. He was seriously wounded, but eventually returned to the Union lines. He transferred the regimental colors to another soldier of the 54th, saying, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground.”

For his gallantry in action at Fort Wagner that day, July 18, 1863, Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1900, 37 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner. Sergeant Carney’s Medal of Honor was one of the last to be presented to a military service member of the Civil War.

Sergeant Carney’s Medal of Honor citation states that he “[G]rasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.” Eleven months later, in June 1864, Sergeant Carney was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, because of disability from his wounds.

There is always far more to people than what you see on the outside. The proof of this is the excellent combat record of African American soldiers in the Armed Forces of the United States from the beginning of our country to this very day.