54th Massachusetts Regiment

Photograph of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Photograph of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Library of Congress

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment is best known for its service leading the failed Union assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate earthwork fortification on Morris Island, on July 18, 1863. This was one of the first major actions in which African American soldiers fought for the Union in the American Civil War. The courage of the soldiers in the 54th convinced many politicians and Army officers of their value, prompting the further enlistment of black soldiers.

Recruiting the 54th Massachusetts

Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, eagerly organized the creation of the regiment following the Emancipation Proclamation. Recruiting offices were opened throughout the North as Massachusetts did not have a sufficiently large free black population to fill the regiment. Recruitment met with such success that enough men were raised to form not only the 54th Regiment but also a second black infantry regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.

Governor Andrew also sought out white officers with similar anti-slavery views to lead the regiment, including Captain Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Shaw, a Harvard graduate, had already seen combat and been wounded at the Battle of Antietam. Shaw and other officers trained the men of the 54th from March until late May 1863. On May 28, 1863 the 54th received its colors, marching through Boston, and loaded onto the transport Demolay for their voyage south. An estimated twenty thousand people came out to see their march, abolitionists promiment among them. As the 54th marched over the spot of the Boston Massacre of 1770 where Crispus Attucks had fallen, they broke into song, singing "John Brown's Body."

Mural of 54th Massachusetts Regiment assaulting Battery Wagner
"The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863," mural at the Recorder of Deeds building, Washington DC

Library of Congress

The Fight for Wagner

Initially tasked with manual labor details, the 54th did not see real action until a skirmish with Confederate troops on James Island on July 16, 1863. The Battle of Grimball's Landing served as a diversion for the later attack on Battery Wagner and also provided the men of the 54th with combat experience.

Five thousand US Army soldiers began marching in the darkness toward Battery Wagner on the evening of July 18, which stood eerily quiet in the distance. The Union high command anticipated a victory as Union artillery from shore batteries and aboard Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren's fleet had pounded the Confederate garrison in preparation for the assault. Defending Battery Wagner, Brigadier General William Taliaferro of Virginia commanded about 1,800 Confederates, representing units from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, all of whom were determined to repulse the expected Union attack. Leading the mass of blue-clad Union soldiers were the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Though many northern states were represented on the field, the 54th stood out as the first all African American regiment to see major combat during the war. Ready to demonstrate their bravery and military bearing, they pushed on until coming within one hundred yards of the Confederate line, at which point the order was given to charge. Almost immediately, Southern guns opened fire, tearing through the Union ranks with devastating effect. Temporarily halted by the intense fire, Shaw gathered his men and led them through the moat and up the slope.

Upon reaching the top, Confederate soldiers engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. At this climatic moment, Shaw was killed by a Confederate volley, moments after shouting to his men "Forward Fifty-Fourth!"; the men of the 54th, however, continued the fight even amid heavy casualties. The 54th suffered roughly 42% casualties in a horrific battle against a strongly defended position. Of 600 men, over 280 men were killed, wounded, captured, and/or missing and presumed dead. Behind them, units from New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and Pennsylvania pressed forward in an attempt to capitalize on the assault of the 54th. Severe fighting continued for several hours. Union troops were able to briefly penetrate into Wagner itself but not could exploit their breakthrough due to determined Confederate counterattacks and sweeping artillery fire. Finally in the early hours of July 19, Union troops withdrew, and the fierce battle came to an end.

Significance

Because of the valor shown by the men of the 54th, the US Army increased the number of black enlistments so that by 1865 almost two hundred thousand African Americans had served from 1863-1865, comprising roughly ten percent of the American soldiers who served in the US Army during the Civil War. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment not only fought the Confederates in the field. They also took up the call for equal pay and fought against discrimination from the US government.

Photograph of William Carney with Medal of Honor
Photograph of William Carney with Medal of Honor

Library of Congress

Sergeant William H. Carney

Sergeant William H. Carney, born enslaved in Virginia, settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts after escaping bondage via the Underground Railroad. While serving with the 54th, he was severely injured in the assault on Wagner and saved the national colors after the color bearer fell. "As quick as a thought," recounted Carney years later, "I threw away my gun, seized the colors, and made my way to the head of the column." Carney proclaimed to fellow survivors of the 54th: "Boys, I did but my duty; the dear old flag never touched the ground." On May 23, 1900 President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Carney the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor 37 years earlier, becoming the first African American to receive the honor.

The 54th Massachusetts After Battery Wagner

The 54th continued to serve on the southeast coast for the remainder of the war. Although most of its service took place in Charleston Harbor, the regiment also saw service in a significant campaign in Florida in 1864 where they repulsed attacking Confederates, guarding the Union retreat in the aftermath of the Union defeat at the Battle of Olustee in Florida. They also fought at Honey Hill and Boykin's Mill, South Carolina in the waning months of the war. The regiment mustered out of service in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on August 20, 1865.

Photograph of Augustus St. Gauden's Shaw Memorial
Photograph of Augustus St. Gauden's Shaw Memorial

Library of Congress

Remembering the 54th Massachusetts

Augustus Saint-Gauden’s high-relief bronze monument on Boston Common in downtown Boston immortalized Colonel Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts. The bas-relief was unveiled in 1897 and 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 soldiers he commanded, a revolutionary concept for the time period.

Last updated: July 5, 2020