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The 54th Massachusetts

African American soldiers in the American Civil War, 1863-1865

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation opened the way for free men of color and newly liberated slaves to enlist and fight in the United States Army.

During the American Civil War, 79,283 African American men volunteered to be soldiers in the U.S. Army. They were enlisted into 130 infantry regiments, 6 cavalry regiments, and 17 artillery regiments. The best known among these are the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and her sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts. During the war, 93,796 African American men also served in the Confederate States Army.

The 54th Massachusetts is one of the most respected regiments of the Civil War. The story of the regiment is depicted in the 1989 Academy Award winning film Glory, starring Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy, Andre Braugher, and Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert G. Shaw, commanding officer of the 54th.

The 54th and 55th Massachusetts began recruiting in Boston in February 1863, one month after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The free black community in Boston was instrumental in recruiting soldiers for the regiments. Prominent abolitionists were active in recruitment, including Frederick Douglass, whose two sons were among the first to enlist. Robert Gould Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists, was appointed Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts.

At first, African American soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts. For example, soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts were promised pay and allowances of $13 per month, equal to white soldiers in other Union regiments. Instead, they received $7 per month ($10 with $3 withheld for clothing). White soldiers did not pay for clothing at all.

Colonel Shaw and others immediately protested this unequal treatment. The state of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference in pay, but soldiers of the 54th refused unequal pay, as a matter of honor. During the Battle of Olustee, the regiment was ordered to protect the retreat of other Union forces. Moving forward, the soldiers of the 54th shouted, “Massachusetts and Seven Dollars a Month!” On June 16, 1864, Congress finally authorized equal pay for African American soldiers in the U.S. Army. Toward the end of the war, soldiers of the 54th eventually received equal pay, and their back pay.

During the Civil War, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts fought battles near Charleston, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida.

The regiment’s first fight was the Battle of Grimball’s Landing on James Island, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina on July 16, 1863. First Sergeant Robert John Simmons of the 54th Massachusetts described a “desperate battle” in which about 250 pickets of the regiment were attacked by about 900 Confederates. The 54th stopped the Confederate advance, suffering 45 men killed and wounded, and then “had to fire and retreat toward our own encampment.”

After the battle, Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, the division commander, in his after action report, complimented the “steadiness and soldierly conduct” of 54th Massachusetts.

The regiment’s second fight was two days later, on July 18, 1863, during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. This fort was a Confederate beachhead fortification on Morris Island, South Carolina, that covered the southern approach to Charleston Harbor. Fort Wagner stood between the Atlantic on the east and an impassable swamp on the west. The fort was a large, formidable structure with 14 canons that provided substantial protection against naval shelling.

Fort Wagner was among the toughest of Confederate beachhead defenses, with walls that rose 30 feet above the beach. The fort’s land face was protected by a water filled trench, 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep, surrounded by sharpened palmetto stakes and buried land mines. The fort itself was protected by supporting defenses throughout Morris Island.

At Fort Wagner, on July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts was ordered to lead other Union regiments as the spearhead of a frontal assault against Fort Wagner. That day, the 54th suffered 20 killed, 125 wounded, and 102 missing and presumed dead—40 percent of the men of the regiment. Colonel Robert G. Shaw, commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts, was killed on the parapet of Fort Wagner.

After the battle, the Confederates buried the body of Colonel Shaw in an unmarked mass grave with the African American soldiers of his regiment as an insult to him. A Union officer asked the Confederates at Fort Wagner for the return of Colonel Shaw’s body. He was informed by the Confederate commander, “We buried him with his niggers.”

Colonel Shaw’s father said he was proud that his son was buried with his men. Colonel Shaw’s parents said it was an honor for their son, Robert, a fierce fighter for equality, to be buried with the soldiers of his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.

Sergeant William Carney, a soldier of the 54th, is the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor. Sergeant Carney was awarded the medal for his actions to recover and protect the regimental flag of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner.

As a tribute of respect and honor to African American soldiers at the end of the Civil War, Union soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and the 33rd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment were mustered out of service at Fort Wagner, site of the combat heroism of the 54th Massachusetts.

On February 20, 1864, the 54th Massachusetts was fighting a rear guard action in the Battle of Olustee in Baker County, Florida. Suddenly, the regiment was ordered to counter march around the Confederates to rescue a train carrying wounded Union soldiers who were in danger of being captured.

When the 54th Massachusetts arrived at the broken down train, the soldiers attached ropes to the disabled locomotive and passenger cars full of wounded soldiers. The soldiers physically pulled the entire train three miles, until they reached a place where horses had been gathered to help pull the train. It took 42 hours for the men and horses to pull the train 10 miles to safety in Jacksonville, Florida.

On November 30, 1864, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts fought side by side, with other regiments, against heavily entrenched Confederates in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. During this fight, the two regiments came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position.

When the color bearer of the 55th Massachusetts was killed, Corporal Andrew J. Smith picked up the regimental flag and carried it through the remainder of the fight. It was for this action that Corporal Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously in 2001.

In April 1865, U.S. Army African American regiments fought battles near Dingle’s Mill and Boykin’s Mill in South Carolina, which were two of the last battles of the Civil War.

A monument on the Boston Common honoring the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was finished by famous American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in 1898. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew called the monument “. . . so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory.” It is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

On November 21, 2008, the Massachusetts National Guard ceremonial unit that renders military honors at funerals and state functions was activated as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.