A Brave Black Regiment

Gallops Island in Boston Harbor is a small island with a big story. Although many Union troops "mustered in" at Readville, the majority of Boston area regiments "mustered out" at Gallops upon their return. It was at these barracks that the 54th Massachusetts Infantry camped in September of 1865, having fought heroically in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

When the 54th Massachusetts returned to Boston at Commercial Wharf they paraded through the streets to cheers and music and were publicly lauded on the Common.
A lithograph of the 54th Massachusetts' assault on Fort Wagner
The mortal wounding of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw during the 54th Massachusetts' Assault on Fort Wagner
Library of Congress

Earlier, in 1862, the Union army found itself at a critical juncture, and the results of the fighting from that year had taken its toll. Soldiers were being killed, wounded, and being removed from firing lines due to illness in astounding numbers. Yet the North had won a resounding victory at the Battle of Antietam and with it a chance to change the course of the war. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that completely transformed the war. No longer was it a war to unite the country, it was now a fight to set other men free. This proclamation announced the liberation of slaves in rebellious states and also the acceptance of black men into the Union army and navy. The men of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts infantry regiments were among the first to answer the call. Many of these recruits were not actually from Massachusetts, some coming from as far away as Ohio. Among the ranks were Frederick Douglass' two sons, Charles and Lewis, who traveled from Washington D.C. to join up.

The 54th Massachusetts left Boston in May of 1863 and in late August 1865 returned from duty and disembarked on Gallops Island where they encamped until September 2 (59 enlisted men remained behind in South Carolina in the hospital). When the regiment landed in the city at Commercial Wharf they paraded through the streets to cheers and music and were publicly lauded on the Common, served a festive meal, and disbanded. On August 29, 1865, the 55th Massachusetts left Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and a portion of the regiment debarked at Gallops Island on September 13. The remaining companies arrived ten days later, and on September 25 the entire regiment was paraded on the Common and likewise disbanded.

A monument to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and its commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, now stands on Boston Common to honor the men of the regiment. The monument was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and depicts Shaw on horseback with his marching soldiers.