Forward, Fifty-Fourth, forward!
—Col. Robert Gould Shaw

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, men from all over the North volunteered to serve in the 54th Massachusetts. In doing so, they joined an army that saw African American men as inferior soldiers. Forced to fight in segregated units and paid less than White soldiers, the regiment boldly resisted injustice. Soldiers boycotted unequal pay for 18 months and lobbied to be assigned to the frontlines. Their heroic charge at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, though not a military victory, eroded northern opposition to Black soldiers and helped inspire over 180,000 Black men to join the United States Army.

This gallery explores the service and sacrifice of the men who volunteered to fight in the 54th Massachusetts.

Gallery 1: Enlisting and Training

Leaders and activists—both national and local—worked to recruit soldiers to the 54th Massachusetts. Many recruits came from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Others came as freedom seekers from the South, enlisting to end the institution of slavery they escaped. By doing so, they risked reenslavement or even execution if they were captured in battle. All of these recruits had to travel to Boston, and began their training just outside Boston at Camp Meigs in today's Hyde Park neighborhood.

Camp Meigs From Fairmount Hill

This painting by Bostonian Thomas Badger depicts Camp Meigs from nearby Fairmont Hill. At this camp, the 54th Massachusetts trained before heading south. They… Explore More >

This painting by Bostonian Thomas Badger depicts Camp Meigs from nearby Fairmont Hill. At this camp, the 54th Massachusetts trained before heading south. They quartered in wooden barracks, and trained in marching and musketry, learning the discipline and skills necessary for battle. Explore More >

Camp Meigs at Readville, Mass.

Before shipping out for South Carolina, the 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville, Hyde Park–today part of the City of Boston. The Camp had… Explore More >

Before shipping out for South Carolina, the 54th trained at Camp Meigs in Readville, Hyde Park–today part of the City of Boston. The Camp had been established to train soldiers from Massachusetts in 1862. This sketch depicts the camp when another local regiment, the 45th Massachusetts Regiment, occupied the camp in 1862. Explore More >

Camp Meigs

The 54th Regiment trained at Camp Meigs in Readville.  They quartered in wooden barracks, and trained in marching and musketry, learning the discipline and skills necessary… Explore More >

The 54th Regiment trained at Camp Meigs in Readville.  They quartered in wooden barracks, and trained in marching and musketry, learning the discipline and skills necessary for battle.  According to Surgeon-General William J. Dale of Massachusetts, “From the outset, the regiment showed great interest in drilling, and on guard duty it was always vigilant and active. The barracks, cook-houses, and kitchens far surpassed in cleanliness any I have ever witnessed, and were models of neatness and… Explore More >

54th Readville Poster

A recruitment poster for the 54th Regiment. This particular poster mentions that the Regiment is already at its training site in Readville, Massachusetts. Explore More >

A recruitment poster for the 54th Regiment. This particular poster mentions that the Regiment is already at its training site in Readville, Massachusetts. Explore More >

54th Recruitment Poster

A recruiting poster for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Black regiment raised by Massachusetts during the Civil War.  Soon after Abraham Lincoln… Explore More >

A recruiting poster for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Black regiment raised by Massachusetts during the Civil War.  Soon after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts (who had long been in favor of enlisting Black soldiers) to begin recruiting men for the regiment.  African American regiments already had been raised for the Union in South Carolina,… Explore More >

Civil War recruitment poster

John A. Andrew, governor of Massachusetts between 1861 and 1866, was responsible for recruiting volunteers and militiamen to satisfy the Massachusetts quota for the… Explore More >

John A. Andrew, governor of Massachusetts between 1861 and 1866, was responsible for recruiting volunteers and militiamen to satisfy the Massachusetts quota for the Civil War. A staunch abolitionist, Gov. Andrew became an important figure behind the creation of some of the United States Army’s first African American units, including the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, after the Emancipation Proclamation. This poster, dated 1862, is an example of a recruitment poster announcing that the store in… Explore More >

Gallery 2: The Battle for Fort Wagner

The famous trial by fire for the 54th Massachusetts came in July 1863, as they volunteered to lead the charge to storm the Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor. This doomed assault resulted in significant casualties, including the death of regiment leader Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. However, the actions of these men proved that Black soldiers were just as courageous in battle as White soldiers and paved the way for thousands more to enlist and serve their country. This gallery highlights the events and aftermath of the 54th's assault of Fort Wagner.

The Charge on Fort Wagner

In this hand-written speech delivered on receipt of his Medal of Honor in 1900, Sergeant William H. Carney recalled his account of the Battle of Fort Wagner as… Explore More >

In this hand-written speech delivered on receipt of his Medal of Honor in 1900, Sergeant William H. Carney recalled his account of the Battle of Fort Wagner as a member of the 54th Regiment. Explore More >

Storming Fort Wagner

This print shows US soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. In… Explore More >

This print shows US soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. In the decades following the July 18, 1863 battle, numerous prints that depicted the battle, including this one, became dispersed throughout the United States. Explore More >

The 54th Massachusetts regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Shaw in the attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, South Carolina, in 1863

This photograph depicts Carlos Lopez’s 1943 New Deal mural in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington D.C. It captures the 54th’s assault on Fort… Explore More >

This photograph depicts Carlos Lopez’s 1943 New Deal mural in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington D.C. It captures the 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner and the death of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at the center of the piece. Explore More >

Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C., after its capture

On September 7, 1863, United States forces, including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, returned to Morris Island after the successful capture of Fort Wagner and Fort… Explore More >

On September 7, 1863, United States forces, including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, returned to Morris Island after the successful capture of Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg. At this same site several months earlier, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment fought in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. This battle catapulted this regiment to fame, proving the vital contributions of Black soldiers to the United States Army.  The soldiers spent some time here before the regiment continued south towards… Explore More >

Gun on Morris Island

Invented by Captain Robert Parker Parrot, the Parrot rifle was a muzzle-loading cannon used extensively by the Union in the Civil War. Named after Colonel Brayton,… Explore More >

Invented by Captain Robert Parker Parrot, the Parrot rifle was a muzzle-loading cannon used extensively by the Union in the Civil War. Named after Colonel Brayton, the Parrot rifle pictured here is a 300-pound gun used on Morris Island.1 This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  1. Douglas Egerton, Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Philadelphia, PA: Basic… Explore More >

Dress Parade in Fort Wagner, Morris Island

A regiment of Black soldiers stand for a dress parade outside of Fort Wagner. Here is where the 54th Massachusetts proved themselves in the Second Battle… Explore More >

A regiment of Black soldiers stand for a dress parade outside of Fort Wagner. Here is where the 54th Massachusetts proved themselves in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 10, 1863. While an unsuccessful attack and the Union suffered tremendous losses, this battle and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment’s role in it, inspired thousands of African Americans to enlist.  This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at… Explore More >

Interior Fort Wagner, Morris Island

Located on Morris Island, Fort Wagner (or Battery Wagner) guarded the front entrance of Charleston Harbor. In an attempt to gain control of Morris Island,… Explore More >

Located on Morris Island, Fort Wagner (or Battery Wagner) guarded the front entrance of Charleston Harbor. In an attempt to gain control of Morris Island, US General Gillmore ordered an assault on the heavily fortified Fort Wagner. Armed with fourteen cannons, this sand and earthen fortification provided protection against assaults on the city of Charleston.1 This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  1. Douglas… Explore More >

Gallery 3: The 54th in South Carolina

Between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, the Union scored an early victory in the war with the Battle of Port Royal. That area of Port Royal, Beaufort, and Hilton Head, remained a Union controlled outpost for the rest of the war and served as a base of operations for the siege of Charleston and raids into the heart of the Confederacy. It was in this area that the 54th spent a significant portion of their service.

School Teacher Residence, Beaufort, S.C.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment camped in Beaufort for four days in the beginning of June 1863. Captain Luis Emilio described the town in his work… Explore More >

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment camped in Beaufort for four days in the beginning of June 1863. Captain Luis Emilio described the town in his work A Brave Black Regiment: “There were some fine old houses and gardens skirting the shell road running along the low bluffs, with churches, public buildings, and a spacious green.”1   This photograph of a “School Teacher Residence” is included in Captain Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now… Explore More >

Bay Street, Beaufort, S.C.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina on June 4, 1863. On June 6, this regiment marched through the streets of Beaufort. This… Explore More >

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina on June 4, 1863. On June 6, this regiment marched through the streets of Beaufort. This may have been one of the streets they marched down or frequented during their time here. Captain Luis Emilio described how, “sandy streets” were “shaded with fine oaks.”1   The regiment only stayed in Beaufort for four days, camping at Thompson’s Plantation. While stationed here, the soldiers worked on fortifications before… Explore More >

Siege Guns, Beaufort, S.C.

Several regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, camped in Beaufort on Port Royal Island, South Carolina. Here, these regiments, which included cavalry and artillery… Explore More >

Several regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, camped in Beaufort on Port Royal Island, South Carolina. Here, these regiments, which included cavalry and artillery units, fortified the island facing Confederate territory.  This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society. … Explore More >

Camp, 1st N.Y. Engineer near Beaufort

The 1st New York Engineers served alongside the 54th Massachusetts Regiment throughout the Civil War. In the spring of 1863, this regiment served at Hilton… Explore More >

The 1st New York Engineers served alongside the 54th Massachusetts Regiment throughout the Civil War. In the spring of 1863, this regiment served at Hilton Head, near Beaufort, and Folly Island, South Carolina, preparing for fortifications on nearby Morris Island. During the Siege of Fort Wagner,  the 1st New York Engineers built trenches and fortifications.  This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society. … Explore More >

Street in Jacksonville, Florida

As part of a US campaign into Florida, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment arrived in Jacksonville, Florida on February 6, 1864. Captain Luis Emilio described the… Explore More >

As part of a US campaign into Florida, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment arrived in Jacksonville, Florida on February 6, 1864. Captain Luis Emilio described the city as “looking much like a devastated Northern city, with its ruined gas-works, burned saw-mills, and warehouses.”1 This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  1. Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of The Fifty-Fourth Regiment… Explore More >

Navy Machine Shop, Navy Point, S.C.

In the fall of 1861, the United States Navy, commanded by Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, won the Battle of Port Royal.1 This victory ultimately… Explore More >

In the fall of 1861, the United States Navy, commanded by Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, won the Battle of Port Royal.1 This victory ultimately led to Beaufort, Hilton Head, and the surrounding areas to come under the control of the United States. According to the June 27, 1863 edition of the Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Admiral Du Pont called for the creation of a “Naval Machine Shop in Station Creek, Near Hilton Head.” Here,… Explore More >

S. A. Cooley outfit, Port Royal

This photograph depicts Sam A. Cooley and his outfit in Port Royal, South Carolina. Cooley served as photographer for the Department of the South for… Explore More >

This photograph depicts Sam A. Cooley and his outfit in Port Royal, South Carolina. Cooley served as photographer for the Department of the South for the United States Army, headquartered in Hilton Head, Port Royal. Cooley and his outfit took photographs of buildings, camps, and forts during the Civil War in South Carolina, such as Port Royal and Beaufort, as well as those in Florida.   This photographer likely crossed paths with the 54th Massachusetts during the regiment’s… Explore More >

Arsenal, Beaufort, S.C.

Dating back to 1798, the Beaufort Arsenal originally housed the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery. During the Civil War, the United States Army took over the Arsenal when… Explore More >

Dating back to 1798, the Beaufort Arsenal originally housed the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery. During the Civil War, the United States Army took over the Arsenal when it established nearby Hilton Head as the Headquarters of the Department of the South for the United States Army. US soldiers occupied the Arsenal throughout the War.  This photograph is included in Captain Luis Emilio’s collection of photographs related to the regiment, now at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The 54th Massachusetts… Explore More >

Browse and search the full collection of Service of the 54th: