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...