Robert Gould Shaw organized the
Fifty-fourth Massachusetts in March 1863 at Camp Meigs, Readville, Massachusetts, he was a
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,
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 were Lewis N. Douglass and Charles Douglass, sons 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. Soon after the 54th saw its first action at James
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
Fifty-fourth!" 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 H. Hallowell, a twenty-seven year
old merchant from Medford, Massachusetts. Anxious to avenge the Battery Wagner
repulse, the Fifty-fourth was the best black regiment available to General Seymour, the
Union commander. More than a century after the war the Fifty-fourth remains the most
famous Black regiment of the war, due largely to the popularity of the movie
"Glory," which recounts the story of the regiment prior to and including the
attack on Fort Wagner.