African-American Troops in the Civil War, The 54th Massachusetts

Essay by Nick PainterCollege, UndergraduateA-, January 1997

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The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was organized in early 1863 by Robert Gould

Shaw, twenty-six year old member of a prominent Boston abolitionist family. Shaw had

earlier served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second Massachusetts

Infantry, and was appointed colonel of the Fifty-fourth in February 1863 by Massachusetts

governor John A. Andrew.

As one of the first black units organized in the northern states, the Fifty-fourth was

the object of great interest and curiosity, and its performance would be considered an

important indication of the possibilities surrounding the use of blacks in combat. The

regiment was composed primarily of free blacks from throughout the north, particularly

Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Amongst its recruits was Lewis N. Douglass, son of the

famous ex-slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

After a period of recruiting and training, the unit proceeded to the Department of

the South, arriving at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on June 3, 1863.

The regiment earned

its greatest fame on July 18, 1863, when it led the unsuccessful and controversial assault

on the Confederate positions at Battery Wagner. In this desperate attack, the Fifty-fourth

was placed in the vanguard and over 250 men of the regiment became casualties. Shaw,

the regiment's young colonel, died on the crest of the enemy parapet, shouting, 'Forward,


That heroic charge, coupled with Shaw's death, made the regiment a household

name throughout the north, and helped spur black recruiting. For the remainder of 1863

the unit participated in siege operations around Charleston, before boarding transports for

Florida early in February 1864. The regiment numbered 510 officers and men at the

opening of the Florida Campaign, and its new commander was Edward N. Hallowell, a

twenty-seven year old merchant from Medford, Massachusetts. Anxious to avenge the

Battery Wagner repulse, the Fifty-fourth was the best...