Remembering the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

After debuting in December 1989 so as to be eligible for the then-upcoming Hollywood award season, on February 16, 1990, the film “Glory” opened in wide release—eventually grossing $27 million worldwide on a budget of $18 million. It was a minor hit at the box office, but it went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which went to Denzel Washington; while it also won a number of other awards including an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.

The historical war drama depicted the origins and early combat history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which was just the second African-American regiment formed during the American Civil War (after the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment). The film, which also starred Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman, has been seen as a reasonably accurate retelling of the unit—with a few notable errors.

In real life, nearly all of the men of the 54th could read and write, while one private was even reported to be a doctor. However, “Glory” could be seen as a good starting point for the history of this unit, and there is much still that the film missed.

Soldiers in the movie "Glory," a fictionalized account of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment
The 1989 film offered a fictionalized account of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, including its faithful attack on the Confederate-held Fort Wagner.

This was truly a unit that deserves the attention it has received, and likely much more.

Forward, 54th!

It was on the evening of July 18, 1863, that the force of some 1,100 men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment advanced in formation towards the enemy fortification outside of Charleston, South Carolina. This was notable as the unit hadn’t seen any real action until just two days before when it was engaged in a skirmish with Confederate troops on James Island.

The Battle of Grimball’s Landing as it became known, served as a diversion for the later attack on Battery Wagner, but it also provided the men of the 54th with combat experience. Though the war was in its third year, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment had been founded just months earlier—being officially raised on March 13, 1863.

From the beginning of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had argued that the Union was not actually fighting to end slavery, but rather to prevent the disintegration of the United States. Abolitionists saw it differently and argued that black men should be able to join the fight for their freedom. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863, however, following the Emancipation Proclamation that African-Americans were allowed to serve in uniform.

In February of that year, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, a strong supporter of the abolitionist movement, issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers. The Bay State didn’t have a large African-American population at the time, but volunteers came from New York, Indiana, Ohio, and even Canada. According to some accounts, fathers and sons enlisted together. Two of the most famous enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, two of the sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Robert Gould Shaw in uniform, first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment
A studio photo of Captain—later Colonel—Robert Gould Shaw, who was the first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. (Library of Congress)

Andrew chose Captain Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to lead the new unit. He was an ideal choice, as he was the son of prominent abolitionists. At the time, he was also recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Antietam. Shaw, who was promoted to major and then to colonel, along with other white officers trained the volunteers from March until late May 1863, before the unit received its colors and was ordered to head south. An estimated 20,000 people came out to see the unit march through Boston before it loaded aboard the transport ship De Molay, bound for South Carolina.

The recruiting efforts had also proven so great that a second black infantry regiment, the 55th Massachusetts was subsequently raised in June.

The formation of the unit was still a matter of some controversy as there were those in the U.S. government and the U.S. military who questioned whether black men were capable of fighting in a “white man’s war.” The Congress of the Confederate States of America took a more drastic view and announced that every captured black soldier would be sold into slavery, while every white officer in command of black troops would be executed.

From Hilton Head to Fort Wagner

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment landed at Hilton Head on June 3, where it soon was joined by the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, a unit of South Carolina freedmen led by Colonel James Montgomery. As depicted in the film “Glory,” the two units were ordered to raid the town of Darien, Georgia—and Montgomery did in fact order the men to loot and burn the town.

Colonel Shaw was furious by those actions, while his men were equally dismayed that they were not given a chance to actually fight. Instead, they were largely employed as laborers for the white troops. To add to the insult, the black soldiers were paid just $10 a week, $3 less than what white soldiers received. The troops and officers protested and refused their pay. It wasn’t until the end of the war that all Union soldiers—black and white alike—received the same weekly wages.

The greater issue was that the unit wanted to head into action. It was only after Colonel Shaw petitioned General George Strong that the 54th was allowed to see combat. After the baptism of fire at the Battle of Grimball’s Landing, where the unit stood firm against Confederate forces, it was ordered to stand alongside the first wave of Union forces that began the evening march toward Battery Wagner on July 18.

The Union high command had anticipated a quick victory as the Union artillery from shore batteries and from aboard Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren’s fleet pounded the Confederate positions. In total some 5,000 Union troops marched into the fight—yet few ever returned.

Assault on Fort Wagner

The men of the 54th advanced on Fort Wagner, with Shaw leading the way shouting to his men, “Forward, 54th!”

Illustration of battle of Fort Wagner
An 1890 dated print shows Union soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. It also shows Colonel Shaw being struck down. (Library of Congress)

It was a moment later that he was killed by a Confederate volley. Other units might have broken after seeing their commander cut down, but the 54th continued the advance and stood firm while waiting for the reinforcements that never came. The battle continued until the early hours of July 19, when the Union troops were forced to withdraw.

Of the 600 soldiers of the 54th who took part in that attack, 280 were killed, wounded, or captured. In total, Union losses exceeded 1,500 while the Confederates lost only 174 men.

Mural depicting attack on Fort Wagner
The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863, mural at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. (Library of Congress)

The Confederates buried Shaw in a mass grave with his men—what they saw as the ultimate insult. Shaw’s family felt otherwise, believing it was an honor that Shaw was buried in the field with the soldiers he led into battle that day.

After Fort Wagner

When news of the attack reached home, the unit earned the respect it deserved. Support for black soldiers shifted, and the U.S. Army saw a marked increase in enlistment. By 1865, almost 200,000 African-Americans went on to serve in the American Civil War.

Though the film “Glory” may have ended with the Battle of Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment remained active throughout the war. Most of its service was near Charleston Harbor, but it also took part in actions in Georgia and Florida in 1865, where it repulsed attacking Confederates guarding the Union retreat after the Battle of Olustee. It also fought at Honey Hill and Boykin’s Mill in the final months of the war.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment mustered out of service in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on August 20, 1865. Its members returned back to Boston a month later.

William Harvey Carney hold the 54th's colors
1864 dated photo of William Harvey Carney, who was among the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to fight at the Battle of Fort Wagner. In 1900 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in saving the regimental colors. (Public Domain)

Other African-American Units

As noted, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was actually the second free black unit to see service during the Civil War. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment had also been raised in early 1863, and it first engaged in combat at the First Battle of Cabin Creek, fought July 1-2, 1863 in Mayes County, Oklahoma—predating the action in South Carolina by some two weeks.

That early July engagement was overshadowed by the far more significant Battle of Gettysburg, which also began on July 1—becoming the largest battle of the American Civil War. The 1st Kansas also suffered significant losses during the conflict. Just a year after it was formed, at the Battle of Poison Spring in Ouachita County, Arkansas, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment lost nearly half its strength in what resulted in a Confederate victory. It was also the greatest loss of any Kansas regiment during the war.

Other state volunteers made up of mostly African-American soldiers included the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Cavalry, the 29th Connecticut (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the 30th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the 31st Infantry Regiment (Colored).

A lesser-known African-American unit was the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, which was formed in occupied New Orleans in September 1862—even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Its origins can be traced to a Confederate unit of the same name, which was made up of Creoles of color but was disbanded in April 1862 after the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law in January 1862 that allowed only free white males to serve in the militia.

As it was a militia unit, it is often overlooked for its role in the Civil War, but from September 1862 to May 1863, the Louisiana Native Guard (also known as the Corps d’Afrique) was primarily used as a labor detail that chopped wood, gathered supplies and dug earthworks. It then participated in the Siege of Fort Hudson, where it also suffered high casualties.

By April 1864, the Corps d’Afrique was dissolved, owing to poor treatment by white soldiers and difficult field conditions. Yet, some members of the unit joined the newly organized 73rd and 74th Regiments of the United States Colored Troops of the Union Army. Those USCT regiments were the precursors to the “Buffalo Soldiers” regiments that saw service in the American Old West, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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