55th Massachusetts Regiment

list of companies in the 55th and roll of where soldiers' state or country of birth
Regimental Return of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, 1863.

GO1, Series 567X, v. 62, p. 76. Massachusetts Archives.

While often overshadowed by its companion regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, the 55th Massachusetts Regiment also consisted of African American soldiers from across the United States and beyond. Serving during the U.S. Civil War, this regiment notably fought in battles on Morris Island and Honey Hill in South Carolina. The valor of the soldiers in these battles, along with those of the 54th Massachusetts, helped to convince political and military leaders to enlist large numbers of African American soldiers into the United States Army during the war.

bearder man in uniform standing holding his cap and sword.
Col. Norwood Hallowell served as the regiment's first leader.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Forming the 55th

Abolitionist and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew called for an African American regiment shortly after President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. By May 1863, so many people had volunteered for the 54th Massachusetts that Governor Andrew designated the creation of a companion regiment, the 55th Massachusetts Regiment.[1]

Much like the 54th, the 55th included soldiers from diverse backgrounds and places. Though a Massachusetts regiment, the 55th only had 22 enlistees from the state. Other freeborn enlistees had traveled from other states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some came from as far away as Valparaiso, Chile.[2]

The regiment also included soldiers who had been formerly enslaved, some of whom had escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad. The 55th regiment included more documented freedom seekers in its ranks than the 54th regiment. Historian Douglas Egerton supports this claim, estimating that roughly 25% of the soldiers of the 55th had previously been enslaved.[3] The Springfield Republican reported that “fresh fugitive slaves” comprised “a large proportion” of the recruits.[4] A significant number of recruits had fled North from the border regions of Virginia when the war began. Furthermore, six soldiers listed their birthplace as Georgia, including Theodore Clarke, who escaped north from Savannah.[5]

Governor Andrew named Colonel Norwood P. Hallowell, an abolitionist Quaker from Philadelphia, to lead the regiment. Hallowell defied his church’s pacifist teachings and accepted command. Leuitenant George Garrison, the son of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, served as another leader of the regiment. James Monroe Trotter, father of the famed Boston Black publisher William Monroe Trotter, enlisted as a private and rose the ranks to Second Lieutenant.[6]

Colonel Hallowell organized and trained the regiment in Readville, Massachusetts, south of Boston, beginning in May 1863. The 55th Massachusetts paraded through Boston to receive its colors on July 20, 1863, two days after the 54th Regiment’s assault on Fort Wagner.[7]

Service of the 55th

After departing Boston and enduring days of brutal storms at sea, the 55th encamped along the North Carolina coast. Here they received news of the 54th’s failed assault on Fort Wagner. Dismayed, the soldiers in the 55th became convinced they would share the same fate. Lt. George Garrison wrote his mother, "if the fort is not taken before we get there, we shall have our turn at and with little better success.”[8]

The 55th Massachusetts’ first combat occurred on the same ground where many of the 54th fell at Fort Wagner. Constantly under Confederate fire, the 55th and other regiments dug trenches close to the fort, attempting to force its surrender without a direct attack. Following a 58-day siege of trench warfare, Confederate troops finally abandoned Ft. Wagner on September 7, 1863. The soldiers of the 55th entered the fort as it fell to U.S. forces. During this period, the soldiers of the 55th also helped put in place the “Swamp Angel,” a 16,500 lb. artillery piece, on Morris Island, across the harbor from the city of Charleston. Soldiers used this artillery to bombard the city.[9]

Over the next twelve months, the 55th moved between South Carolina and Florida. Remaining around Charleston for the rest of the year, the 55th transferred to Northern Florida in early 1864 to join the attempt to capture the area for U.S. forces.[10] Although the regiment did not fight in the Battle of Olustee, they remained stationed in nearby Jacksonville.[11] The 55th regiment stayed in the area for several months, with companies serving picket or fatigue duties as well as going on various expeditions in the surrounding area. In April 1864, the regiment boarded ships and returned north to partake in skirmishes in the surrounding islands of Charleston.[12]

Plan of the Battle of Honey hill, with earth works and positions outlined
The Battle at Honey Hill occurred on November 30, 1864. This sketch shows the 55th Massachusetts in exposed positions next to the main road.

Library of Congress

The 55th regiment played a significant role in the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina. Late in 1864, the regiment joined General Sherman’s forces as they marched through Georgia and the Carolinas. Sherman planned to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, forcing Charleston to surrender. To prevent this, Confederate forces built a series of earthworks protecting the railroad from capture.[13] The fight at Honey Hill took place on November 30, 1864. As the 55th approached the earthworks along the railroad, Confederate soldiers struck down many soldiers with volleys of grapeshot, canister, and bullets. Second Lieutenant James Trotter recalled the events of the battle:

The battery in which the 55th charged was situated on a hill on the only road through the wilderness. Between ourselves and this battery, on either side of the road, was an impassable marsh…it was like rushing into the very mouth of death going up this road facing 7 pieces of death dealing cannon….all of us knew this.[14]

Reporting on the 55th regiment’s actions, the Liberator wrote that “the fire became very hot, but still the regiment did not waiver.”[15] However, the Confederate wave of artillery forced the 55th and other regiments to give up the field. The Battle of Honey Hill ended in defeat for U.S. forces.

The 55th earned great respect for their valiant resolve during the battle in the face of heavy casualties. The Liberator hailed the 55th soldiers as heroes despite the military defeat, recognizing, “The heavy loss of the 55th shows how nobly they contested the ground.”[16]

As the war concluded, the 55th regiment became one of the first regiments to enter the captured city Charleston, South Carolina, on February 21, 1865. Here they met crowds of cheering recently freed African Americans. The regiment’s Lt. Charles Fox wrote:

The Black citizens turned out en masse pouring in the streets to cheer. One soldier rode at the head of the column, carrying a large banner emblazoned with the word Liberty.”[17]

The 55th continued to serve occupation duty in South Carolina until September 1865.

marching regiment of the 55th amongst a cheering crowd on a street
"Marching on!" -- The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown's March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865.

In Harper's weekly, v. 9, 1865 March 18, p. 165. From Library of Congress.

Returning to Boston later that month, the 55th regiment mustered out on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor. Once landed on Commercial Wharf in Boston, the 55th marched in procession through downtown Boston as crowds of supporters lined the streets. The Liberator remarked, “the admirable marching of the regiment could not fail to be noticed by the greatest novice in military matters. The firm, solid tread of the sections gave an impression of overwhelming power.”[18] Upon reaching Boston Common, the regiment performed a series of drills before the soldiers and officers went their separate ways.

Similar to the 54th regiment, the service and valor of the 55th regiment helped convince a skeptical public and reluctant military and political leaders to support further recruitment of Black soldiers. As recorded by the Liberator,

The regiment maintained the honor of both of the State and National flags intrusted to its charge. Wherever these veterans met the rebels they convinced them that they encountered foemen worthy of their steel, and enforced the practical lesson that colored men can fight when urged by the same incentives as the white man.[19]

By war’s end, more than 180,000 African Americans took up arms on behalf of the United States.


[1] Douglas Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016) 89-90.

[2] Donald Caurdoron and Joseph Crooks were from Valparaiso, Chile. See Egerton, Thunder at the Gates, 182-183.

[3] Egerton, 182.

[4] “Miscellaneous,” The Springfield Republican, June 1, 1863.

[5] Egerton, 182.

[6] Egerton, 185; Charles B. Fox, Record of the service of the Fifty-fifth regiment of Massachusetts volunteer infantry, (Cambridge, MA: Press of J. Wilson and Son, 1868), 108.

[7] Egerton, 188.

[8] Egerton, 188.

[9] Egerton 193-198.

[10] P.C. Headley, Massachusetts in the rebellion. A record of the historical position of the commonwealth, and the services of the leading statesmen, the military, the colleges, and the people, in the civil war of 1861-65 (Boston: Walker, Fuller and co., 1866) 456.

[11] Headly, Massachusetts in the rebellion, 457.

[12] Noah Andre Trudeau, Voices of the 55th: letters from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside, 1996) 18-24.

[13] Leone M. Hudson, “A Confederate Victory at Grahamville,” South Carolina Historical Journal 94, 1 (January 1993): 19-33. Accessed September 2022,

[14] James M. Trotter to E.W. Kinsley, Dec. 18, 1864, in Trudeau, Voices of the 55th, 163-166.

[15] “The Battle of Honey Hill,” The Liberator, December 16, 1864.

[16] “The 55th Massachusetts Regiment,” The Liberator, September 25, 1865.

[17] Egerton, 270.

[18] “Reception of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Regiment,” The Liberator, September 29, 1865.

[19] “The 55th Massachusetts Regiment,” The Liberator, September 25, 1865.

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: January 5, 2024