54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

Union soldiers storm Confederate lines.
The Storming of Fort Wagner, lithograph by Kurz and Allison, 1890. Image courtesy: Library of Congress

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the first federally recognized African American regiments that fought in the Civil War. An enlistment station for Company C was located in downtown New Bedford, adjacent to the U.S. Custom House.

More than 60 New Bedford men enlisted in Company C or other companies of the 54th Regiment. A brick walkway with their names was dedicated at the former recruitment site in 2016.
 
Black and white image of Charles Douglass.
Charles Douglass.
Charles Douglass
Charles Douglass, son of the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry before being honorably discharged. More information.
 
Sepia photo of Lewis Douglass in Union Army colors.
Lewis Douglass.
Lewis Douglass
Lewis Douglass, son of the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, served in the 54th Massachusetts. He participated in the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, where he was wounded. More information.
 
Capt. James Grace sits on a chair in Union colors.
Captain James W. Grace.
Captain James W. Grace
A New Bedford merchant prior to the Civil War, James Grace was instrumental in the formation of the 54th Massachusetts. He started as 2nd Lieutenant of Company C, enrolling soldiers at the Tobey & Coggeshall building in New Bedford. He was later promoted to captain after the July 19, 1863 Battle of Fort Wagner. After Fort Wagner, he served as Acting Engineer Officer and Ordinance Officer in South Carolina.

Although born on December 30, 1833, his decease date is unknown.

 
Black and white photo of Capt. Robert Gould Shaw in Union Army colors.
Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
Robert Gould Shaw, son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family, was personally chosen by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to lead the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The unit was one of the first African American units in the United States during the Civil War.

At the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, Colonel Shaw was among the first of the regiment to be killed. He was buried with his men on the battlefield.
 
Bluish photo of Samuel Harrison.
Samuel Harrison.
Samuel Harrison
Reverend Samuel Harrison was appointed to serve as the first chaplain for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts on September 8, 1863.

He also advocated for equal pay for the African American soldiers in the 54th and 55th regiments. He petitioned to Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and United States President Abraham Lincoln. He achieved his goal in June 1864. Troops received retroactive pay back to January 1864.
 
Plumbing and tinsmith business, Tobey & Coggeshall
Tobey & Coggeshall building.
Tobey & Coggeshall
A successful New Bedford storefront, the Tobey & Coggeshall building doubled as the recruiting office for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. More information.
 
Black and white image of William Carney, dressed in Union colors, holding the American flag.
William H. Carney, Jr.
William H. Carney
William Carney was the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor for his role in the Battle of Fort Wagner. More information.
 
Black and white photo of William Jackson.
William Jackson.
William Jackson
Reverend William Jackson was both founder and minister of the Salem Baptist Church in New Bedford. Before the onset of the Civil War, Jackson was also a known agent for the Underground Railroad.

Jackson was appointed chaplain of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on March 10, 1863. He then became the first African American commissioned as an officer in the United States army when he was made chaplain of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry on July 14, 1863. In 1864, he resigned his commission and returned to his ministry in New Bedford.

 
Sepia image of William Powell standing while leaning on a chair.
William Powell. Photo courtesy: National Archives
William Powell
William P. Powell, Jr. was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1834 to an African American father and Wampanoag mother. He later became the first African American physician to receive a contract as a surgeon with the Union Army.

Powell — who trained at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in London, England — was assigned to Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. He served in D.C. from May 1863 through November 1864.

Powell died in England in 1915.
 
Black and white image of Isaiah King wearing a hat.
Isaiah King.
Isaiah King
Isaiah King was a member of Company D of the 5th Massachusetts Calvary. King enlisted in New Bedford at the age of 16 in 1864, and participated in the Siege of Petersburg that year. His unit was among the first Union regiments to enter Richmond, Virginia on April 3, 1865. After the war, King served as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic Post 146 in New Bedford.

He died on February 13, 1933.

Last updated: August 16, 2018

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