Last updated: August 15, 2023
Following the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called for the raising of Black regiments. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew quickly answered Lincoln's call and began forming the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first Black regiments to serve in the U.S. Civil War. Black men from across the city, state, country, and even other nations, traveled to Boston to join this historic regiment. Through their heroic, yet tragic, assault on Battery Wagner, South Carolina in July 1863, the 54th helped inspire the enlistment of more than 180,000 Black soldiers…a boost in morale and manpower that Lincoln recognized as essential to the victory of the United States and the destruction of slavery throughout the country.
Recruiting the 54th Massachusetts
Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, eagerly organized the creation of the regiment once securing the permission to do so. Recruiting offices opened throughout the United States and even in Canada as Massachusetts did not have a sufficiently large free Black population to fill the regiment. Local leaders such as Lewis Hayden as well as national spokesmen including Frederick Douglass helped recruit soldiers for the regiment. Recruitment met with such success that enough men enlisted to form not only the 54th Regiment but also a second Black infantry regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.
Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to lead the 54th. The son of prominent abolitionists, Shaw had already seen combat and been wounded at the Battle of Antietam. Shaw and other officers trained the men of the 54th at Camp Meigs in Readville, just outside of Boston, until late May 1863. On May 28, 1863, the 54th departed for the war front, marching through Boston, and loaded onto the transport DeMolay for their voyage south. Thousands turned out to watch their farewell parade. According to the Boston Evening Transcript, "no single regiment has attracted larger crowds into the streets than the 54th."1 With the band playing "John Brown's Body," the 54th marched down State Street to the waterfront "passing over ground moistened by the blood of Crispus Attucks, and over which Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims had been carried back to bondage."2
The 54th Arrives in South Carolina
In early June of 1863, the 54th Massachusetts arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina. Captured in the Fall of 1861, the Sea Islands around Beaufort had become not only a military hub for the Department of the South, but the site of an growing experiement at post-slavery, known as the Port Royal Experiment. The regiment paraded through the streets of Beaufort, where onlookers included soldiers in the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, two all-Black regiments organized in the Sea Islands the previous year. Officers freely mingled with teachers, including Charlotte Forten at the Penn School, who noted in her journal that the officers of the 54th attended the July 4, 1863 celebration at Brick Baptist Church.
A few weeks after their arrival, the regiment moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where they encamped "at a spot called Fredericka."3 From here, the regiment participated in the raid on Darien, Georgia, before moving back to Beaufort, where they encamped on St. Helena Island. By early July, they were beginning preparations to participate in an offensive to capture Charleston.
The Fight for Wagner
Initially tasked with manual labor details and the ransacking of Darien, Georgia, of which Shaw did not approve, the 54th did not see real action until a skirmish with Confederate troops on James Island on July 16, 1863. This fight provided the 54th with combat experience and earned them the praise of their fellow soldiers from the Tenth Connecticut whom they helped save from Confederate attack and capture. One journalist wrote, "probably a thousand homes from Windham to Fairfield (CT) have in letters been told the story how the dark-skinned heroes fought the good fight and covered with their own brave hearts the retreat of brothers, sons, and fathers of Connecticut."4
Though weary and weakened from battle and march, Shaw and the 54th readily accepted the opportunity to lead the assault on Battery Wagner, the strategic stronghold guarding Charleston Harbor, on July 18. Knowing this battle would prove vital to shaping public opinion about the use of Black soldiers, Shaw told his men "'how the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work."5 Though they fought gallantly, Shaw and many of the 54th lost their lives in the ensuing battle. "The splendid 54th is cut to pieces," wrote Lewis Douglass, son of the famous abolitionist and a soldier in the 54th. "The grape and canister shell and Minnie swept us down like chaff," he continued, "but still our men went on and on."6 Harriet Tubman, witnessing the battle from a distance, remembered:
And then we saw the lightening, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling,; and when we came to get in the crops, it was the dead that we reaped.7
The 54th suffered roughly 42% casualties in this horrific battle against a strongly defended enemy, with more than 270 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, and/or missing and presumed dead of the 650 men of the 54th that participated in the battle.8
Significance of the Battle
Though clearly a miliary defeat, the 54th Regiment's heroic assault on Battery Wagner proved both a powerful political and symbolic victory. Through their actions, the 54th helped convince a skeptical public and military that Black men could and would fight bravely. Frederick Douglass wrote, after the 54th "had distinguished itself with so much credit in the hour of trial, the desire to send more such troops to the front became pretty general." In the weeks after the assault on Wagner, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to President Lincoln, "I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support." He said that the use of Black soldiers would be the "heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy" and that by "arming the negro we have added a powerful ally...They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion [that] they strengthen us."9 The heroic efforts of the 54th Regiment inspired the nation to begin mass recruitment and mobilization of Black soldiers. The 54th paved the way for more than 180,000 Black men joining the United States forces, which ultimately helped turn the tide of the war.
Sergeant William H. Carney
Sergeant William H. Carney, born enslaved in Virginia, settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts after escaping bondage via the Underground Railroad. Though severely injured in the assault on Wagner, he saved the national colors after the color bearer fell. "I suddenly saw the old flag fall," recounted Carney, "I threw my gun away and grasped the staff of the fallen colors, and ran for the head of the column...the fire of the rebels was something terrible and men fell around me on every hand..." Wounded in several places, Carney crawled his way to safety and proclaimed to fellow soldiers of the 54th: "The old flag never touched the ground."10 In 1900, Carney received the Medal of Honor for his valor 37 years earlier, becoming the first African American to earn the honor.11
James Henry Gooding
Born enslaved in North Carolina, Corporal James Henry Gooding was emancipated as a young child and moved to New York City. Here he gained an education at the New York Colored Orphans Asylum. As an adult, Gooding moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he worked on whaling ships in the late 1850s. During the Civil War, Gooding wrote a series of letters to the editors of the New Bedford Mercurcy about the regiment's operations in the South. His letters are some of the best first-hand accounts of life in the 54th Massachusetts from the perspective of an enlisted soldier, and much of what we know about daily life in the regiment comes from his letters.12
The 54th Massachusetts After Battery Wagner
In the aftermath of Fort Wagner, the wounded of the regiment were sent back to Beaufort, where they were treated in two of the antebellum mansions the US Army had converted into hospitals. Approximately 25 soldiers of the 54th had been taken prisoner at Fort Wagner, and their legal status in the hands of the Confederacy became the impetus for the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system.
The 54th continued to serve on the southeast coast for the remainder of the war. Although most of its service took place in the Charleston area, the regiment also saw service in a significant campaign in Florida in 1864 where they heroically guarded the retreat following the defeat at the Battle of Olustee. They also fought at Honey Hill and Boykin's Mill, South Carolina in the waning months of the war. The 54th regiment returned to Massachusetts in late August, 1865, and received a hero's welcome as they made their return parade through Boston on September 2.13
Remembering the 54th Massachusetts
Augustus Saint-Gauden's high-relief bronze monument on Boston Common in downtown Boston commemorates the service and sacrifice of Colonel Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts. Dedicated in 1897, the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Memorial is now part of Boston African American National Historic Site.
Commissioned by a group of private citizens, Saint-Gaudens first envisioned a lone equestrian statue of Colonel Shaw. Shaw's family encouraged Saint-Gaudens to take a different approach, and the resulting work commemorated not only the regiment's famed colonel but also the Black soldiers he commanded, a revolutionary concept for the time period.
To learn more about the history of the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Memorial and its use over time, please visit The Ongoing March: Commemoration and Activism at the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial.
1. "Reception and Departure of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment," Boston Evening Transcript, May 28, 1863, 2.
2. Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of The Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1995), 34.
3. The New South (Beaufort, SC). June 20, 1863, 2.
4. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment, 66.
5. Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America ( New York: Basic Books, 2016), 128.
6. Letter from Lewis Douglass to Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, July 20, 1863. Transcribed in Freedom’s Journey: African American Voices of the Civil War, ed. Donald Yacovone (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2004), 108-9.
7. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates, 133.
8. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates, 139.
9. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates, 145-147.
10. "Bravest Colored Soldier," Boston Herald, January 10, 1898, 6.
11. New Bedford Evening Standard, May 4, 1864, 2: "A medal of honor has been awarded to Sergt. William H. Carney, of this city, company C, 54th Mass. Regiment, for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Morris Island campaign." According to Carney's descendant, Carl Cruz, "the first medal he was given was the Gilmore Medal of Meritorious Award which was basically given right on site...He was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The tragic end of the story was that he got it late and did not have a formal ceremony. He received the medal in 1900. It was awarded to him in 1863. He did not receive it because there was an oversight in the papers. There was a gentleman by the name of Christian Fleetwood who also fought in the 54th and was putting together the 1900 Exhibition in Paris that was going to show Blacks. He asked Carney for his medal and some other documents. They later found out that he did not get the medal. So Mr. Fleetwood petitioned the War Department along with Luis Fenollosa Emilio, who wrote A Brave Black Regiment: A History of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. So along with sending in those documents, the medal was sent to him with the acknowledgment." (It Wasn't In Her Lifetime But It Was Handed Down: Four Black Oral Histories of Massachusetts). According to the The Colored American June 2, 1900, "In connection with the Negro exhibit at the Paris Exposition, Mr. Thomas J. Calloway conceived the idea of making a collection of photographs of colored men who had received medals of honor from the Congress of the United States...It was during this search that the gentleman in charge found to his great surprise that no medal from Congress had been issued to Sergt. Carney, and after corresponding with the gallant sergeant, took up the case personally, searched for and found the necessary evidence to establish the claim, put it in proper form, and submitted to the Secretary of War for action. It is needless to say that the action was favorable, and now at all subsequent encampments, re-unions and other official functions, the bronze star with its broad striped ribbon will be conspicuous on the broad chest of the brave hero Sergt. William H. Carney." Military records show that Carney finally received the Medal of Honor in 1900, "Medal of Honor awarded May 9, 1900, for most distinguished gallantry in action at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, July 18, 1863" (Fold3 https://www.fold3.com/image/260466997 pg 17).
12. These letters can be found in: James H. Gooding, On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters From the Front, ed. by Virginia M. Adams (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991).
13. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment, 329-333.
Blatt, Martin, and Brown, Thomas, and Yacovone, Donald., eds. Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment. Saint Martin's Press: Toronto: Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1965.
Duncan, Russell. Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Egerton, Douglas R. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America. Basic Books: New York, 2016.
Emilio, Louis. A Brave Black Regiment. A History of the Fifty-fourth regiment of Massachusetts volunteer infantry. Boston: Boston Book Company, 1891.
Gooding, James H. On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters From the Front. Edited by Virginia M. Adams. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Kantrowitz, Stephen. More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.
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