African-American Troops in the Civil War: The 54th Massachusetts


The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in early 1863 by Robert
Gould Shaw, twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family.
Shaw had earlier served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second
Massachusetts Infantry, and was appointed colonel of the Fifty-fourth in
February 1863 by Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew.
As one of the first black units organized in the northern states, the
Fifty-fourth was the object of great interest and curiosity, and its performance
would be considered an important indication of the possibilities surrounding the
use of blacks in combat. The regiment was composed primarily of free blacks from
throughout the north, particularly Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Amongst its
recruits was Lewis N. Douglass, son of the famous ex-slave and abolitionist,
Frederick Douglass.
After a period of recruiting and training, the unit proceeded to the
Department of the South, arriving at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on June 3,
1863. The regiment earned its greatest fame on July 18, 1863, when it led the
unsuccessful and controversial assault on the Confederate positions at Battery
Wagner. In this desperate attack, the Fifty-fourth was placed in the vanguard
and over 250 men of the regiment became casualties. Shaw, the regiment's young
colonel, died on the crest of the enemy parapet, shouting, "Forward, Fifty-
fourth!"
That heroic charge, coupled with Shaw's death, made the regiment a
household name throughout the north, and helped spur black recruiting. For the
remainder of 1863 the unit participated in siege operations around Charleston,
before boarding transports for Florida early in February 1864. The regiment
numbered 510 officers and men at the opening of the Florida Campaign, and its
new commander was Edward N. Hallowell, a twenty-seven year old merchant from
Medford, Massachusetts. Anxious to avenge the Battery Wagner repulse, the Fifty-
fourth was the best black regiment available to General Seymour, the Union
commander.
Along with the First North Carolina Colored Infantry, the Fifty-fourth
entered the fighting late in the day at Olustee, and helped save the Union army
from complete disaster. The Fifty-fourth marched into battle yelling, "Three
cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month." The latter referred to the
difference in pay between white and colored Union infantry, long a sore point
with colored troops. Congress had just passed a bill correcting this and giving
colored troops equal pay. However, word of the bill would not reach these troops
until after the battle of Olustee. The regiment lost eighty-six men in the
battle, the lowest number of the three black regiments present. After Olustee,
the Fifty-fourth was not sent to participate in the bloody Virginia campaigns
of 1864-1865. Instead it remained in the Department of the South, fighting in a
number of actions before Charleston and Savannah. More than a century after the
war the Fifty-fourth remains the most famous black regiment of the war, due
largely to the popularity of the movie "Glory", which recounts the story of the
regiment prior to and including the attack on Battery Wagner.
To better show how the 54th felt underfire, here is a letter home from
Orderly Sergeant W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry accounting
Plotter's Raid.
"Well, we arrived at Georgetown, S.C., on the 3Ist (March 1865), and
went into camp. On the 1st of April we started upon our errand through the State,
and had nothing to molest us for three days. We saw nothing of the Johnnies, and
on Friday the 8th of April, at Epp's Ferry, Cos. H and A were detached from the
regiment to go and destroy the said Ferry. Myself, one corporal and fifteen
privates were in the advance. On we went, neither hearing nor seeing any thing
in particular. After advancing about two miles, and wading through water and mud,
we spied a Johnny sitting upon his horse as a picket. He left his post and
secreted himself. Halting my men for further orders, I received instructions to
proceed forward with the utmost caution, and screen my men as much as possible
in the woods. The swamp through which we had to pass was waist-deep.
Onward we went, and after getting through the swamp, not over seventy-
five yards from Johnny, he saw that we were getting too close to him; and at
that time the Second-Lieutenant of Co. A came along, and I told him that Johnny
was getting ready to fire; and at that moment, Johnny's balls began to fall
thick and fast around us.
The Lieutenant got wounded in the right arm. I had two men wounded - one
in the right leg, the other