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THE FIFTY-FOURTH MASSACHUSETTS

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 Island. 

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. 

 

 

Revised: July 18, 2013.