IIn the 1860s, it was considered revolutionary to form an all-black regiment and send them into battle. The mere existence of such a regiment meant threats of servitude and execution for soldiers and officers. It’s also one of the things that made them heroes.
It’s not that black men had never fought in the country’s previous wars — they did. Almost every military conflict before the Civil War had black men fighting. However, by all historical accounts, there had never been an all-black infantry regiment in the country’s history until the Civil War. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first black regiment in the nation’s history, and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the second. Popularized by the 1989 film Glorythe 54th is perhaps the most famous.
The regiment was authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The unit began recruiting efforts the following month. Frederick Douglass vigorously supported the regiment; his both son, Charles and Lewis, were among the first to enlist. Recruitment efforts were extremely popular, with over 1,000 volunteers. The surplus of volunteers forced the formation of the 55th Massachusetts. On 25% volunteers came from slave states.
At the request of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, who was largely responsible for the formation of the 54th, Robert Gould Shaw was offered the post of colonel of the regiment and became its commander. The regiment went to train at Camp Meigs, just outside of Boston in Readville, Massachusetts. Shaw was a disciplinarian with his soldiers, and the 54th became one of the “best trained and trained regiments in the United States Army”. Shaw was exceptionally proud of his men and eager to prove all naysayers wrong. In one letter to his father, Shaw wrote, “Skeptics need only come here now to be converted.
During regimental training, the Confederate States of America announcement that any black Union soldier captured in battle would be sold into slavery. Additionally, it was announced that any white officer commanding black troops would be captured and summarily put to death. These intimidations efforts had minimal impact on troops and officers, and on May 28, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts assembled at Boston Common and ceremonially marched through the streets of Boston before shipping at Hilton Head.
Initially, the 54th was meant to be used strictly for manual labor and raiding. The regiment is forced to carry out a violent raid over the town of Darien, Georgia. This caused Shaw to protest and write to his well-to-do father, the Governor of Massachusetts, and Union General George Strong. This resulted in the guarantee that the 54th would see combat. On July 16, 1863, at the Battle of Landing of Grimball at James Island, South Carolina, the group saw its first action against Confederate troops in the campaign known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston. After this experience, Shaw volunteered the 54th to lead the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
Fort Wagner would be a loss for the 54th Regiment. It would also result in Shaw’s death. The courage and bravery of the 54th’s charge on Fort Wagner became one of the most heralded of the war moments. He was honored in literature through such avenues as poems, the monumentsand other works of art.
Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Infantry became a beacon of hope for racial equality in the country. Their courage and sacrifice have never been forgotten, resulting in one of the many moments in United States history that helped create positive change.